Natural deselection

Suzanne Moore

This article originally appeared in the London Independent, 4 December 1996

Why does anyone want to be a politician? To get sex. Why do we bother to advertise our political preferences? To get sex. Why do we bother with politics in the first place? To get sex. This, and I kid you not, is the gist of a serious article in very serious Demos Quarterly whose theme for this issue is Matters of Life and Death: The world view from evolutionary psychology|. This world view is a very peculiar one indeed but one that we must now apparently pay attention to as Darwin has taken over, from Marx as the man to be seen out on the town with.

While many of the new evolutionary theorists stress that human beings may be brimming with selfish genes but are still capable of altruistic behaviour, parts of this new Demos publication read like a spoof. Genetic determinism rules OK so that all our behaviour is interpreted as little more than complex way of increasing our sexual selection. Geoffrey F Miller takes this to its logical conclusion, arguing that all politicos are simply in business 'to increase their sexual capital'. Let me just say two words here: Robin Cook.

Just as a peacock displays its tails and the bowerbird builds an elaborate nest, we involve ourselves in complicated rituals in order to ensure the widest variety of possible mating partners. MiIler explains that 'the individual benefits of expressing political ideology are usually not political, but social and sexual. Understanding this means that one can now look at the boorishness of the House of Commons in a new light. All the showing off, the guffawing, the ridiculous one-upmanship is in fact a complicated courtship ritual designed to excite the female senses. Presumably, as with all courtship rituals, one can recognise them by certain biological criteria. 'They are expensive to produce and hard to maintain, they have survival costs but reproductive benefits, they are loud, bright, rhythmic, complex and creative to stimulate the senses, they occur more often after reproductive maturity, more often during the breeding season ...'

As so many women are turned off by politics in the first place, one might ask Miller if the display of political ideology is the best way to increase sexual selection. Being a rock star may increase the availability of mating partners, but being a local councillor is hardly the same as being Liam Gallagher, is it?

Of course it is true that some people become involved in political activities in order to meet others, but Miller seems to see all political ideology as little more than an advertisement for one's sexual potential. Men use political conservatism to their social and economic dominance, women use political liberalism to advertise their nurturing abilities. Why do so many women vote Conservative then? Don't ask an evolutionary psychologist because through a bizarre process of sexual selection they are born with an astonishing ability to ignore history, culture or even the evidence before their eyes. In another article in this publication Randy Nesse (sic) and George Williams ask in all seriousness 'Would it not be better for the vagina to open on the abdomen above the pubic synthesis rather than below it? There is no functional reason for the vagina to go through the pelvis, merely an historical one.'

There may also be many 'mere historical' reasons to explain an individual's political preferences, but why bother when we can ramble on about gene distribution?

Of course, we have heard a lot lately about the supposed sexiness of certain politicians, and as long as the David Mellors of the world exist we must grudgingly accept that power is an aphrodisiac. But is that all there is? According to Miller, 'People respond to policy ideas first as big-brained, idea-infested hypersexual primates and only secondly as concerned citizens in a modem polity': Tony Blair then should up his hypersexual primate stakes and worry more about his hair than the EMU.

Much of this guff is disturbingly reactionary. Why are there fewer female politicians than male ones? Er ... patriarchy, ideology, history, culture, psychology perhaps? No. Men have stronger, reproductive interests, they invest less in each gamete, so they need to attract a wider gene pool and a political career is a good way of doing it. This may explain Steven Norris's escapades but not Stephen Milligan's - but then these natural selection theorists are prone to statements like Robert Wright's 'From a Darwinian standpoint, a loose woman just isn't the genetically optimal woman to fall in love with. 'As you doubtless realise, men often approach women with the line 'Phwoar! Genetically optimal or what!'

Still, the most depressing thing about the Demos descent into biology is that there are many other ways of theorising the relationships between the individual and society. Organisations like Antidote have been set up to proffer a psychological understanding of the political process. Attempts to bridge the gap between the personal psyche and the political domain, however flawed, were made by Freud himself. From Reich's work on the mass psychology of Fascism to Andrew Samuals' book The Political Psyche, there has been an undercurrent of largely psychoanalyticaly inspired writing which seeks to explain the unconscious motivations at work in the political process. Apart from the eccentric exceptions such as Leo Abse most politicos like to think they are rational creatures and it is good to be reminded from time to time that they are not. Yet even those who resist a psychological understanding now find that the current buzz words such as community, trust, stakeholding, belonging, exchange are words about basic kinds of human interaction and, yes, relationships. A book called The Politics of Attachment; Towards a secure society edited by Sebastian Kraemer and Jane Roberts explores the work of John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott in relation to the contemporary political scene. To put it simply; politics is as much about desire and need as the most basic human relationship. The tension between social, and individual, the conflict between collective vision and individual liberty requires both a social and psychological understanding.

Not all post-Darwinian theorising has to prop up 'the uses and abuses of social and political power' but much of it is still riven with ideas about the survival of the fittest and the essential and unchanging nature of the untamed animal within us all. Biological determinism - it's the biology, stupid - is one of the least productive ways imaginable of understanding politics. I wonder if it is all a belated attempt by Demos, an organisation that is itself a dubious product of natural selection and one committed to rampantly propagating its theoretical genes, to make politics seem sexier than it actually is. God knows it needs to be, but this insane attempt to turn into the new rock'n'roll is bound to end in disappointment. If politics has increased the sexual capital of the average politician what must they have been like to start with, one wonders despairingly? And if we are seriously to believe sexual selection has brought about the current specimens in the House (Michael Fabricant, Edward Leigh?) one must pray for sexual deselection immediately.