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How Conservative Are Evolutionary Anthropologists?

A Survey of Political Attitudes

Abstract

The application of evolutionary theory to human behavior has elicited a variety of critiques, some of which charge that this approach expresses or encourages conservative or reactionary political agendas. In a survey of graduate students in psychology, Tybur, Miller, and Gangestad (Human Nature, 18, 313–328, 2007) found that the political attitudes of those who use an evolutionary approach did not differ from those of other psychology grad students. Here, we present results from a directed online survey of a broad sample of graduate students in anthropology that assays political views. We found that evolutionary anthropology graduate students were very liberal in their political beliefs, overwhelmingly voted for a liberal U.S. presidential candidate in the 2008 election, and identified with liberal political parties; in this, they were almost indistinguishable from non-evolutionary anthropology students. Our results contradict the view that evolutionary anthropologists hold conservative or reactionary political views. We discuss some possible reasons for the persistence of this view in terms of the sociology of science.

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Notes

  1. In response to Joseph, Winterhalder (2002:14) wrote “In as much as there is no explicit discussion in Joseph’s essay of apologism, capitalism or the world-view of biology, it is difficult to read this statement except as a kind of code, one that calls up ideological disapproval based on undocumented allegations about the politics of a field and those who practice it. It accuses, but offers no content to which there can be a response.”

  2. We eliminated one item from the Tybur et al. (2007) study, “Religion is an important part of my life” (which was a “conservative” item categorized in the individual rights factor) because we felt that this item does not assess a person’s political views (i.e., liberals are often religious too). Further, Tybur and colleagues removed this item from one of their analyses since it is likely that evolutionary folks (independent of political attitudes) are comparatively less religious since evolutionary accounts of human origins are antagonistic with most religious accounts. We also made slight modifications to the wording of items 6, 7, and 13 for clarity.

  3. For this analysis we used one-sample t-test to compare item mean scores with the midpoint (0) of the scale. Since this midpoint represents moderate political beliefs, this analysis is rather generous to the EAPC hypothesis. That is, finding no statistically significant differences between the responses of EAs and the midpoint would tell us they are indistinguishable from moderates, rather than being truly conservative or right-wing.

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Acknowledgments

We thank William Irons for suggesting that we undertake this research. Wesley Allen-Arave, Bret Beheim, Lee Cronk, Edward Hagen, Raymond Hames, John R. Hibbing, Kim Hill, Jeremy Koster, Daniel Nettle, Benjamin Purzycki, Rob Quinlan, Joshua Tybur, and Bruce Winterhalder provided helpful comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript. Finally, we thank Alyssa Fitzpatrick Harlow, Samuel Kim, David Armo, and Alexandra Futran for their research assistance.

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Correspondence to Henry F. Lyle III.

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Lyle, H.F., Smith, E.A. How Conservative Are Evolutionary Anthropologists?. Hum Nat 23, 306–322 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-012-9150-z

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Keywords

  • Politics and science
  • Evolutionary anthropology
  • Political attitudes in anthropology