My wife and I have a cat named Lizzie. She follows us around the house, jumps on our laps, and, in general, takes every opportunity to gain our attention and affection. On the other hand, should I run into Lizzie in a narrow hallway, she’ll look frantic and dash off, apparently terrified that I’m turning werewolf and about to eat her.
One minute, she’s demanding love and attention, the next, she’s running for her life. Is she crazy? I don’t think so. I think that our cat, like most living creatures, was shaped by both her genetic make-up—she was born to a feral mother—and the loving human environment that she later found herself in.
From a Darwinian perspective, both of Lizzie’s behaviors are good survival strategies. Bonding with your caretakers will ensure a secure place to sleep and will keep you fed. Being wary of large animals (me) will save your life. These are two different survival strategies, and both have merit, depending on circumstances.
People also employ two basic survival strategies. Both have merit. You could call them the conservative and the liberal strategies, and they are based on different viewpoints.*
Conservative viewpoint — The world is a challenging place where we must defend ourselves, our families, and our groups against outside aggressors. Any change to the status quo may be dangerous. We should look to strong leaders, traditional wisdom, and our religion to guide and protect us.
Liberal viewpoint — The world is a challenging place where we benefit by being open to new ideas that will help us adapt to changing conditions. It’s important to pool the energy and ideas of many people who reason and work together to make better lives for everyone.
Both conservatives and liberals want personal freedom, health, happiness, security, and prosperity for themselves, their family, and friends. But liberals and conservatives have different strategies for reaching these goals.
As an example, most parents, whether liberal or conservative, want to instill in their children the values of responsibility, hard work, and helping others. But they tend to go about it differently. Conservative parents are more likely to focus on religious faith, obedience to authority, and patriotism while liberal parents are more likely to focus on encouraging curiosity, independent thinking, and cultural tolerance.
But why are some people liberal and some conservative? Are they just born that way or do life experiences make the difference? It turns out that both genetics and environment have a role to play. A 2014 study of 12,000 pairs of twins found that about 40% of the variation in political leanings can be accounted for by genetics and 60% by environment.
This implies that a child born with a genetic predisposition to be conservative and who is brought up in a conservative household and a conservative community is very likely to become a conservative adult. Conversely, a genetically liberal child born and raised in a liberal environment is likely to become a liberal adult.
Of course, it’s not necessarily a black and white issue. Most people, like our cat Lizzie, incorporate both liberal and conservative attitudes. Which is a good thing considering that life offers a colorful rainbow of challenges, possibilities, and choices.
How liberal or conservative are you? Here’s a quick 12 question test to see just how conservative or liberal you are.