The Transcendent Differences of Politics

September 6, 2015

An article in The New York Times Magazine has a nice quote from a beltway insider about how politics works:

‘‘Diplomacy is about minimizing differences,’’ he told me. ‘‘ ‘Pol Pot and the Pope — surely there’s something they can agree on.’ A political campaign is exactly the opposite. It’s about taking a minor difference and blowing it up into something transcendent.’’

In my paper on mathiness, the human pattern of interaction that I set in opposition to politics was not diplomacy but science. Diplomacy is closer to politics in the sense that both activate the powerful moral modules that evolved to encourage cooperation within an in-group when confronted with a threat from an out-group. The power of these mental modules suggests that during the Pleistocene, one of the biggest threats to survival and replication that any human faced was other humans. (See Jon Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind for an elaboration of this interpretation of human psychology.)

Science is a very different mode of social interaction. From a biological perspective, it is so artificial and novel that it can be said to be a human invention rather than the manifestation of an innate capacity.

Science is the only process that, without relying the threat of an out-group or the in-group coercion that such a threat tends to prompt, has achieved a consensus that extends to groups of people that number in the hundreds of millions, perhaps now even to the low, single-digit billions.