In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Election, all 17 members of the Inane Clown Posse (H/T Ed Brayton at Dispatches From the Culture Wars,) were asked if they believed in evolution. Only “Low Energy” Jeb Bush would say yes, and even he equivocated, claiming that it shouldn’t be “part of the curriculum.” In fact a majority of Republicans refuse to accept Charles Dartwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. And considering the quality of their counterarguments it is likely that most Republicans don’t understand evolution either. Which is too bad, because an understanding of natural selection would really help members of the GOP understand why their party’s standard bearer is now an incurious dictatorial buffoon who is personally responsible for the longest government shutdown in history.
Evolution is about environment as much as it is genetics
Even those who accept evolution have a fairly pedestrian understanding of Darwin’s theory. Most can dig up “the survival of the fittest” as the centerpiece of “On the Origin of Species.” This part is at least intuitive— we can easily imagine the bigger faster fish eats the smaller slower fish and passes it’s superior genes on to their progeny— but “fittest” is a deceiving adjective, evoking anthropomorphic images of strength and toughness. It is certainly the way proponents of eugenics use Darwin to justify their toxic views on how to build a better human.
A better way to think of evolution is that an organism will be more likely to survive to pass its traits on to its progeny if those traits are more suitable to its environment than other traits. In other words evolution isn’t a PvP game, it’s a PvE (player versus environment) game. When the environment changes, the traits that improve survival change; like how frustrating it can be to transition from an open free fire zone to a crowded urban environment and all you have in your pack are sniper rifles. Critters that aren’t as well adapted to changes in the environment die off. And the critters that do survive may eventually end up looking radically different.
Environments are systems, sometimes fragile systems
We don’t need to limit this model to animals. All systems respond to changes in the environment. This is easy to see in things like sports: soccer, rugby and football all developed from a fairly simple village game called “football” that was essentially a glorified and sometimes literal version of “kill the man.” As Europeans spread to the New World, the game was adapted to the various available environments. Sometime in the 19th century, as men’s clubs on both sides of the Atlantic grappled with how to make the game safer to avoid being shut down by the government, various rules where applied in different locations.
First the number of players was controlled, soccer and football both settling at 11, rugby at 15. Soccer eliminated direct possession of the ball and forbid use of hands and player to player contact was heavily regulated. Rugby allowed it’s players to run with the ball, and for a long time the US and English versions of Rugby football were almost identical until Walter Camp introduced the concept of downs and the line of scrimmage, turning gridiron football into a series of set piece plays rather than the nonstop back and forth scrummage rugby. The forward pass would further distinguish the two games.
These rule changes served to take what was once one game and turn it into three very different games, played by very different players. Soccer became a free flowing sport that favored agility, quickness and endurance. Rugby favored bigger and stronger participants, with less specialization than either of it’s brothers. Football became the most radically changed game. The stops between plays allowed for more substitutions. Eventually the rosters were expanded and players specialized in offense or defense. Linemen on both sides of the ball grew larger, players on the flanks became faster. The forward pass eventually became the focal point, making the quarterback the most important player.
A time traveler from the Victorian era wouldn’t recognize any of these games as “football.” And without knowing the environmental factors that led to the evolution off the three games his confusion would be understandable. What would be less understandable would be if our time traveler insisted that nothing had actually changed. That football was actually just as it had always been, or could easily be returned to it’s previous ideal state. That would require willful ignorance of both history and the evidence in front of our eyes. Guess which political party favors those traits?
From Ike to Trump in only three generations
There are lots of reasons why our political parties act the way they do. They both are contesting for control of a superpower state. They are both working to run the worlds largest economy. They are both products of of our bloody history of slavery and genocide counterpoised with democracy and progress. Yet one of those parties operates in a largely predictable fashion and one operates in such a way that confuses even it’s own members. Why is that? What changed in the environment that led to a GOP that appears completely incapable, or even unwilling to participate in democratic governance?
My proposition is that the Republican Party are in today’s predicament because they have created an environment in their party that doesn’t select for the skills necessary for democratic governance. Changes in the conservative media environment, how elections are funded, and how their electorate is educated have led the party inexorably down a path from Eisenhower to Nixon to Reagan to Trump. And a refusal to admit that those changes have occurred, an almost pathological lack of institutional memory, has left the party incapable of admitting that it even has a problem.
What those factors are, and why the Democrats are different, we will explore in Part 2.
Featured Image by Randy Molton