Conservatives, Liberals, Disgust, and Social Progress

Why are some people innately ‘conservative’, and others innately ‘liberal’? — I put these terms in quotes because I’m not sure they apply in these terms to any cultures outside the American political system, though I suppose they must in one fashion or another in all cultures. Is it all about upbringing and cultural background? Has there always been this tension between conservatives and liberals? –In which, I have to think, liberals win out over time, otherwise we’d all still be living in caves. Ahem.

Social progress seems to be a pattern of two steps forward (the liberals) and one step back (the conservatives). Note this week’s elections — one step backward. (It’s not so bad — the Republicans are nowhere near as anti-gay as they were two or four years ago, because they know social standards are shifting, and they must abandon — well, except for the theocratic Neanderthals like Rick Santorum — their obsession with demonizing gays, or they wouldn’t have won their recent elections. This shift in Republican social policy is an example of … evolution.)

That Republicans are still anti-*science* is still a great concern, as expressed by New York Times’ columnist Frank Bruni: Republicans, Meet Science.

As always, science is exploring the issue about conservatives and liberals and providing insight. A recent study published in Current Biology, summarized here by the Los Angeles Times, headlines this as “Liberal or conservative? Brain’s ‘disgust’ reaction holds the answer”

Think your political beliefs arise from logic and reason? Think again. A team of scientists who studied the brains of liberal, moderate and conservative people found that they could tell who leaned left and who leaned right based on how their brains responded to disgusting pictures.

This is a useful insight. It’s not just about conservatives’ resistance to any kind of change. It’s about more visceral reactions to fundamental biological situations. (I’m thinking, of course, of the many right-wing demagogues who are weirded out by the idea of gay relationships. They can’t get over thinking obsessively about the details of how they must work. One can’t help but suspect that they have sublimated, deeply repressed, ulterior motivations.)

Ironically, as I’ve stated before, this conservative visceral reaction is precisely the reaction of animals whose instincts have been honed by evolution to maximize their reproductive fitness — an evolutionary strategy that (here is the irony) conservatives simply dismiss as not happening, because they don’t ‘believe’ in evolution, no matter how much evidence you show them.

(Of course this begs the question about why homosexuals exist among human beings — and hundreds of other animal species — a question I’ve addressed before. And it’s because evolution, natural selection, and sexual attraction among humans, is much more complex than simple animalistic reproductive strategies would suggest. If it were so simple, all males would be equally attracted to all females…..)

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