Colm Keena: Why we cannot resist identity politics and succumb to populism

Our hunter-gather ancestry predisposes us to binary thinking and simple explanations of complex problems

The propensity for identity politics to inject rancour and distrust into public life is a topic that has been widely discussed on both sides of the Atlantic, though rarely from the perspective of the evolution of human nature.

However, it is useful to look at it from such a perspective because it can help explain why the passions aroused can so quickly become dangerous, up to and including not just the demonisation of others, but even the murder of those perceived as the enemy.

The key elements of what it means to be human, and how we relate to one another, evolved over an extended period when we lived in hunter-gatherer groups. Survival was dependent on the group’s ability to co-operate in the gathering and sharing of food and provision of security. We flourished if we worked well together, but only if.

In such circumstances it is easy to see why, as intelligent, social animals, we developed capabilities such as a sense of fairness, an ability to look out for ourselves and our children while working collectively and a sense of enlightened altruism. It is also easy to see why, as a species, we learned to despise the cheat, the individual who sought to secure an undue share from the collective pot, and the chancer.


Some of the most attractive traits that we received from our evolutionary past are often closely associated with identity politics. The sense of fairness that was targeted by Martin Luther King in the US and the early civil rights protesters in Northern Ireland, can be easily understood as arising from our hunter-gather past. Likewise, the appeal to decency and a sense of common humanity that characterised the 2015 campaign for the right of gay people to get married. These attractive sentiments are important evolutionary tools that have allowed us to flourish as social animals.

Often competition for resources involved our fighting with neighbouring groups over food and territory

But there is also a dark side to the nature that the circumstances of our evolution have bequeathed to us. For most of human history, life was hard and calories scarce. The psychological and ethical outlooks that we evolved were designed to increase the chances of survival for the membership of the group. The same did not apply to the membership of other groups. Rather, the opposite was the case.

Often competition for resources involved our fighting with neighbouring groups over food and territory. The fact that we are intelligent social animals has facilitated our ability to wage war on others. There is even something in us that at times leads us to desire the genocidal killing of those we perceive as other. This has happened too often in history for it not to be accepted as a disturbing human trait.

In his book The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, in which Jared Diamond considered the influence of our animal heritage on the way we live, the scientist and public intellectual wrote about such human traits as our sexuality, our capacity for language, and our consumption of dangerous drugs, but also our capacity for genocide. Among the points he makes is that while genocide is often motivated by the desire for land or power, in other instances it is driven by ideology or psychology.

It is easy to see how the psychology of my group versus the other group has buttressed the greatest calamities in history. The Soviet Union, nominally a regime committed to making the world a fairer place, was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of its citizens, people who were targeted because of their class identity or their national affiliations. Nazi Germany slaughtered millions for reasons of nationality, race, and religion. Adherents of different religions have always displayed a marked capacity for hating and murdering each other. European colonisers in Australia, Tasmania and the Americas wiped out, or all but wiped out, entire populations. In Rwanda, over a short number of months in 1994, half a million or more people were killed in an eruption of ethnic slaughter. These victims of mass slaughter were selected because of their identity.

The point is not to argue that the more excitable members of the left in the US are ever likely to plan the extermination of Donald Trump’s supporters, or that Republican Ron DeSantis of Florida is an existential threat to the woke generation. It is rather to point out that the emotions that are inflamed by the us vs them way of seeing the world are powerful ones that have an enormously dark history. The lesson to be learned, surely, is to tread with great care.

It is because we are hard-wired to conserve calories that we find it so difficult to maintain an exercise regime

The link between evolution and the propensity of identity politics to lure people into thinking in terms of dualities or binaries is also worth considering. In his book Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved To Do Is Healthy And Rewarding, Daniel Lieberman, a professor at the Dept of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, explained that it is because we are hard-wired to conserve calories that we find it so difficult to maintain an exercise regime, even though we know it is good for us. (For most of our evolutionary history, we had to remain active if we wanted to eat, so, unfortunately, evolution didn’t have to install a compulsion towards exercise.)

Brain activity uses a lot of calories and a habit of thinking in either/or terms, rather than exploring complexity, can be a way of conserving calories. By its nature identity politics encourages binary thinking. The suggestion that the difficulties experienced by group A are due to the actions/malevolence of group B, can be a way of avoiding complication and nuance. It can foster the habit of responding to a range of complex problems with the same simple intellectual response. X is to blame. This type of response can be a siren song, a reached-for way of shutting down challenging thoughts. It is the calorie equivalent of staying on the sofa when you know you should really go for a run. We find it hugely alluring, even though we know that the habit of zero-sum analysis, and relentless us and them rhetoric, is bad for us. All of us.

  • Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent.