Comments about “Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics”

This evening I spent a few hours pursuing Rick Shenkman’s popular new book, Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics.

While the book’s aims are noteworthy, the book falls short of much of the excitement it is currently generating – excitement for sure in response to Donald Trump and Ted Cruz and rooted in sincere concern. 

Political Animals argues that our responses to Political events are driven by instincts as if we still lived with the everyday realities encountered by our distant relatives way, way, way back in time. 20,000 something years ago and these are (just now??) “undermining our democracy” (we live in a democracy?). Shenkman explores answers to four questions:

  • Why aren’t voters more curious and knowledgeable?

  • Why do we find reading politicians so difficult?

  • Why aren’t we more realistic?

  • Why does our empathy for people in trouble often seem in such short supply?

These questions are, no doubt, ones we all ask on a regular basis. My personal disappointment stems mainly from the lack of originality given in possible answers to these questions. The book does weave together history, evolution, psychology, biology, and many other typically “separate” academic fields but reaches no new conclusions except for the exact framing. 

Readers should also note that this book focuses on well-known “big time” events and politicians and more or less homogenizes everyone. Studies describing the innate physiological differences between “liberal” and “conservative” brains have no real place in this book. Everyone is a “savage” when it comes to politics. (While I don’t disagree with that per se, the book does not really discuss how our presumably “savage” nature in other areas of life operate.) Race, sex, class, and education, for example, are not factored in – naturally, then, neither are identity politics. Geography is also missing from this narrative of politics.

I was also a bit surprised by some of the reasoning. For example, Shenkman says we can’t have relationships of more than 150 individuals because our brain would have to be bigger than what our body could support. Brain size does not correlate to capacity, according to all of the science I have ever read. And the human brain is said to have unlimited storage. 

Additionally, in one place he says we are different from apes because we have and use language. “Language” looks different in different situations but all forms of live use it.

And, the opening scenario relies on the false assumption that correlation equals causation. In sum, he says if voters are happy they will vote for the party in office, if not, they will vote for the other party. He goes into some extended details but never actually proves causation in voter shifts, never explores other factors, never looks at who voted, and never looks at various demographic variables. Throughout the book, he underestimates readers’ capacities and preexisting knowledge and relies on overstatements. 

The book’s thesis leaves no real room for actual solutions – he does say we need to all be more honest and pay attention to warning signs – but those are things we are supposedly incapable of. I do appreciate how Political Animals catalogs the why and how concerning humans and their very, very imperfect, illogical natures. I’ve written before about humans being babies on the evolutionary ladder. I also appreciate that he insists on being interdisciplinary – too often historical studies are far too limited in scope and methodology. I’m reminded of George J. Sanchez’s words in Becoming Mexican American about the most important studies developing from work that disregards typical academic boundaries.  

For specialized and non-specialized readers, I would for sure recommend The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. It’s takes a more human, positive approach to essentially the same basic questions and uses captivating examples in the process.

Andrew Joseph Pegoda