Ignore my rhetoric, I'm only here for the sex

Matt Ridley

This article originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph, 26 November 1996

According to conventional wisdom, there are two reasons why people hold the political views they do: either they have been convinced by the evidence, or they are expressing self-interest. But there is a third possibility, one that applies especially to people in their early twenties, when they are at their most ideological: that they are showing off to the opposite sex.

Later this week the think-tank Demos publishes its latest quarterly journal, a special issue devoted to what evolutionary theory has to tell us about the economic and social behaviour of human beings. It contains an unsettling article by Geoffrey Miller of University College London in which he argues that some political ideology, and indeed most art and culture, exist only because of sexual exhibitionism inherited from our ancestors.

Dr Miller recalls his days at student demonstrations in New York against apartheid (he's a child of the tame 1980s, but we won't hold that against him).

'I was puzzled by the spontaneity, ardour and near-unanimity of the student demands,' he says, adding: 'Everyone I knew was dating someone they'd met at the sit-in. In many cases, the ideological commitment was paper-thin, and the protest ended just in time to study for semester exams. Yet the sexual relationships facilitated by the protest sometimes lasted for years.'

He goes on to describe an idea he first argued elsewhere, that the brain grew so big so rapidly (during the past two million years) not chiefly because it was useful in a practical sense, but because our ancestors began picking their mates on the  basis of their mental creativity. The brain was, and is, an organ designed primarily for courtship and seduction, like the peacock's tale or the nightingale's song. Many of its other capabilities are fortunate side-effects.

This is part of a respectable and well-supported theory called sexual selection, which argues that members of one sex can breed new features into member of the opposite sex in just the same way that pigeon fanciers breed new features into their pigeons: by persistent selection, generation after generation. Charles Darwin thought this might explain peacocks' tails (it does) and might have been even more important than natural selection in species such as human beings.

We are all descended from people who had babies. Even though millions of human beings have died childless or celibate, none of them was ever the ancestor of anybody alive today. So the one thing that distinguished our ancestors from their contemporaries was that they were better at winning mates and rearing families.

That meant being good at survival, but it also meant being good at persuasion. Using the newly invented telepathy called language, our ancestors began to test whether potential mates were creative enough by looking inside their brains. An arms race between the sexes ensued, one becoming more discriminatory, the other more creative (or probably both becoming both at the same time).

Dr Miller reckons it is no coincidence that the upsurge of political ideology in our early twenties coincides with the main period of human courtship. By taking up a political cause you can show off your ideology (caring, empathetic, concerned), your virtuosity (energetic, inspiring) and your ambition (crafty, hungry): whichever, it's a good way to draw the attention of the opposite sex.

He argues that the fact that politics seems to matter more to young men than it does to young women also fits the theory, since men are generally the sexual sellers in a buyer's market. The rights and wrongs of the issues in question hardly matter; indeed, what counts is to keep shifting the focus from one issue to another to show originality: from Vietnam to the environment; apartheid to veal calves.

It is a disturbing thought that (to quote Dr Miller): 'People respond to policy ideas first as big-brained, idea-infested, hypersexual primates, and only secondly as concerned citizens in a modern polity.' But it will not, he adds, surprise political pollsters, spin doctors and speech writers, who have long been accustomed to the notion that people care more for how politicians 'look' and 'feel' than for what they say.

Ronald Reagan was, of course, the master of the non-verbal cue and was personally more popular than his policies. Margaret Thatcher, whose non-verbal cues were less effective, had to rely on winning the argument instead, and always lagged behind her policies in popularity.

Roger Masters of Dartmouth College showed Americans brief television clips of unknown politicians from France, Germany and America and asked them how they felt about them. With the sound turned down, the Americans disliked the two foreigners intensely. With the sound turned up, they realised they were foreign and liked them much more. The unfamiliar body language of the foreigners had been subliminally unattractive. This is intriguing because it contradicts the common assumption that xenophobia stems from cultural differences, not psychological effects.

Dr Miller also did some experiments, revealing that students believe political views are indeed proxies for personality among their peers. They think conservatives are ambitious and self-motivated (which many women like in men); and they think liberals are empathetic and caring (which many men like in women). Hence the gap between the sexes in political views, more male students than female being conservative. Will John Major's teeth or Tony Blair's hair win the election?