Book chapter

Evolution and Political Decision Making (2020)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


The application of evolutionary theories or models to explain political decision making is
quickly maturing, fundamentally interdisciplinary, and irreducibly complex. This
hybridization has yielded significant benefits, including real progress toward understanding
the conditions under which cooperation is possible, and a clearer understanding of the
apparently "irrational" drivers of political violence.Decision making requires a nervous system that conditions motivation and behavior upon
adaptively relevant cues in the environment. Such systems do not exist because they maximize
utility, enlightenment, or scientific truth; they exist because on average they led to
outcomes that were reproductively beneficial in ancestral environments. The reproductive
challenges faced by our ancestors included not only ecological problems of predator
avoidance but also political problems such as inter-group threat and the distribution of
resources within groups. Therefore, evolutionary approaches to political decision making
require direct and deep engagement of the logic whereby natural selection builds
adaptations. This view of human psychology yields valuable insights on the domain
specificity of political decision making as well as the psychological consequences of
mismatch between modern and ancestral environments. In other words, there is accumulating
evidence that many of the complex adaptations of the human brain were designed to solve the
many problems of ancestral politics.This discussion begins by distinguishing evolutionary approaches from other frameworks used
to explain political decision making, such as rational choice, or realism in international
relations. Since evolutionary models of political decision making have now produced decades
of original theoretical and empirical contributions, we are in a useful position to take
stock of this research landscape. Doing so crystalizes the promises, perils, and scope of
evolutionary approaches to politics.