Along the Tracks

Thursday, October 31, 2002

Punctuated equilibrium

Slate’s Mickey Kaus has fully fleshed out the 50/50 Forever analysis - an intriguing suggestion, but one that, in my opinion, doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Mickey’s a big fan of cheap Darwinian analysis, so, as a firm subscriber to evolutionary theory, I’ll try using it to correct and improve his theory.

Natural evolutionary history is riddled with “bottlenecks,” places where the selective situation changed and only those organisms specifically attuned to the new reality survived. These organisms were almost the very definition of “lucky”: Adaptations for completely different circumstances, sometimes even maladaptations in the prior environment, suddenly are the selected favorite. Example: A world rich in plant material supporting monstrous herbivores with large populations and huge predators to feed on them is hit by an asteroid; the plants all die from the resulting earth-enveloping dark cloud, killing all the herbivores, in turn starving all the predators. Suddenly small, omnivorous appetites (seeds, worms, fungi, scavenging) are highly selected - enter the weasely little mammal, small shorebird and cold-blooded reptile bottleneck.

American political evolution also has seen its bottlenecks. The looming specter of much-higher taxes for universal health care created a selection pressure against Democrats in 1994, resulting in a realignment toward the political right. Mouthy conservative Newt Gingrich was suddenly the second most powerful figure in politics.

But such bottlenecks (and non-selective events), though explicable in hindsight, can be hard to predict. While 9-11 was clearly momentous, it apparently has not selected against most politicians. Some reasons are obvious: The Republican Bush administration had only eight months of control prior to the event, which was clearly in the planning stages during the previous Democratic Clinton administration. Congress was split evenly by the 2000 election, so blame was not easy to place there, either. Republicans and Democrats can point to post-9-11 efforts against terrorism, pulling the issue off the table as a present selective pressure.

Nevertheless, 9-11 did change the landscape, making certain “adaptations” - commitment to military spending, a stated willingness to use force against terrorists, foreign policy gravitas - more valuable than ever. This selection pressure favoring “anti-terror” adaptations provides the potential for a bottleneck which could fundamentally shift political dominance. For example, an Iraqi quagmire could create a bottleneck favoring the “terrorism first, Iraq later” adaptation. Another 9-11-like event could select for the “unilateralist war around the world” or the “zero immigration” adaptations.

After such bottlenecks, the population in question coalesces around the new selective center, and returns to a certain balance. This model of how natural evolution works, called “punctuated equilibrium,” was first posited by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge in 1972. To me, it seems quite applicable to politics through cheap Darwinian analysis as well.

Kaus’ observations are keen; American politics is a bell curve with a single (though somewhat gray and fuzzy) line separating party loyalties - call that the selective mean. This same bell curve can be seen when looking at the adaptations of most populations of organisms; the vast majority of a population falls within the median 50 percentiles, with the outliers diminishing in number the farther they are from the mean in the measured adaptation: A few cheetahs may hit 75 miles per hour over only very short distances, a few others may be able to run only 45 miles an hour for quite a long ways, but most run about 60 miles an hour over medium distances.

This is where the bottlenecks come in. Once in a while, a major shift in selective pressures favor the outliers, cutting deeply into the previous bell curve and creating a new one based on the preferred adaptation. A grass fire on the Serengeti wipes out all the fast antelope, suddenly making a predator’s stamina, rather than its speed, the crucial adaptation. Fast and medium-speed cheetahs get exhausted before catching up with the wary zebras; the stronger, slower cheetahs manage to run down their prey, have offspring and expand their population.

In the political world, “events” which change the environment to favor outliers may be sudden, but more usually take time to build public sentiment - a factor not easily correlated to the natural world. The election cycles by which we measure these changes in selective pressure force a staccato reading of the “evolutionary record” - and this is a key difference between the natural and political world. A huge event which falls far enough away from an election cycle may allow politicians to “adapt” before any selection takes place (for example, Congressmen can vote for the Patriot Act and Iraq Resolution before they have to face the voters). I believe this to be the most important reason why 9-11 did not cause a fundamental shift in the party power dynamic.

So, to wrap this up, I would suggest Kaus’ cheap Darwinian gradualist analysis is pretty on-the-nose: In times of stability, selective pressure demands moves toward the center by both parties, resulting in a 50-50 standoff. But, applying Gould and Eldredge’s “punctuated equilibrium” hypothesis of Darwinian evolution to the political world, it would seem much more likely that, sooner or later, events will overtake the political environment, causing rather sudden shifts in selective pressures at elections to outlying positions, followed by realignments toward the new consenses and, eventually, a return to 50-50 equilibrium.

Of course, Kaus could reply that my above Darwinian analysis no longer counts as “cheap.” He’d probably be right. :-)

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