Politicians: An evolutionary dead-end?…

Take a look at this picture of the five leading candidates for the Clacton By-election. Notice anything strange about it? Probably not. After all, politicians are mostly white, male and over 50. Beards, baldness and grey hair is a norm. Such trivial matters have no place in debate and no role in policy making or party strategy. Or do they?

Calls for greater diversity are met with the rebuff of meritocracy, that strange notion debunking the idea that deliberately varying the gene pool of candidates to represent a wider demographic selection is paying lip service to political correctness.

But it’s not.

Worse still, the slow pace of change in political parties’ demographic mix is trumpeted by the dominant white males of parliament as proof of change, that representative democracy reflects social modernity and so on.

It’s nonsense.

In purely practical terms, diversity isn’t an ethical or moral argument, it’s basic matter of survival. Put simply, these men and the political culture they represent are an evolutionary cul-de-sac.

To explain, let’s consider two other species, one extinct, one facing a potential extinction crisis.

The Sabre Toothed Cat (often called the Sabre Toothed Tiger) was a masterpiece of evolutionary dead-endism. Not because of any inherent weakness as individuals, but as a species. This creature sums up the problem of the main parties fielding a crop of middle aged men. The Sabre Tooth was an apex predator like the white male politician. It was supremely adapted to its place at the top of the food chain. Which ironically made it vulnerable to extinction.

Food chains exist within ecosystems, they represent the physical processes of planet Earth whereby energy from the sun is captured and stored in chemical processes and distributed into the wider environment. Plants capture the light, store it, get eaten by herbivores who in turn are eaten by carnivores. They all eat, defecate and die, returning that energy to the ecosystem and so on. The energy of light is transmitted throughout the whole environment and life is sustained.

This is a bit like the relationship between politics (light) and its own ecosystem (society).

Now in the case of the Sabre Tooth, it occupied a slot right at the end of the food chain. It ate mammoths and large herd animals. It preyed on them as an ambush predator leaping out in a burst of energy, reliant on a quick kill in order to sustain itself. Which is a bit like the behaviour of politicians around elections.

That worked fine for about 32 million years until the ice age, when in mere hundreds of years, the Sabre Tooth vanished. It disappeared because its prey ate vegetation that grew in abundance until the Ice Age. But as the ecosystem froze the flora changed and the mammoths thinned out in number, replaced in number by more adaptable herbivores like antelopes.

Sabre Tooth couldn’t catch antelopes, they were too fast. In much the same way politicians can’t get teenagers to vote.

So the Sabre Tooth suddenly found itself trying to ambush smaller prey that could evade it. Faster, smaller predators like lions and wolves, on the other hand, were adapted to chase down the new herbivores and so they thrived whilst the mighty Sabre Tooth faded away. So it goes with evolution.

And so it goes with politics. The apathy of low voter turnout means the supremely adapted older white male can’t catch votes like they used to. We see faster, more agile successors in the form of movements and pressure groups quite literally stealing their lunch.

The political ecosystem is changing, and the newcomers, from Occupy to Anonymous, former comedians, 38 Degrees and the growing rise of extremism seem to be better adapted to the new environment than the old apex greybeard.

Let’s consider the mechanics of this process by citing another example of self-destructive evolutionary mechanics, namely the mating habits of the Elephant Seal.

Bull Elephant seals do battle to win herds of females. The bigger the bull, the higher its chance to win a breeding contest and in doing so, secure its place in the gene pool by having more pups than the thinner, weaker males. This process is creating a lack of genetic diversity in the adult Elephant Seal population, it’s a recursive problem. In short, the bigger the father the bigger the children, who then father even bigger children and so on. This means the overall trend in Elephant Seals (especially males) is to get larger.

That’s good news for the individual seal who wants to pass on his genetic material to the next generation, but it’s even better news for the sharks who eat them. You see, big, strong, powerful male seals are also less agile in the water… making them more vulnerable to predation.

So evolution has a self-correcting mechanism. The big bulls influence the gene pool but they also get eaten more regularly, meaning the smaller males eventually have a better chance of mating. By virtue of the fact they survive long enough to actually get onto the beach and mate.

Bigger seals mean bigger shark meals. But the smaller seals who don’t get eaten reproduce less frequently until the big male population dies down. The sum total of this process is a tendency for the large seal population to boom and slump, and the small seal population to ebb and flow relative to it. But the sharks, meanwhile, keep breeding and feeding regardless. The pressure they apply to the seal population keeps growing but the seal population doesn’t grow to match it.

The sharks are winning, the seals are facing a long term battle for survival. Consider that analogy when looking at the G20 summit leaders all scratching their heads over how to tackle thorny issues like tax avoiding multinational corporations, bankers, terrorism, drug trafficking, and so on.

Elephant Seals can’t do much about it, but if they could, they’d probably try to regulate their breeding to favour a more consistently diverse population so that the species secures a long term future. Political parties, on the other hand, can regulate their reproductive cycles. But they don’t. They, in their candidate selections favour a certain kind of genetic winner at the expense of the species itself. Like the Elephant Seal.

Which brings us back to Clacton. The audience for the panel debate was diverse. Ethnically, it was mostly white but not exclusively. Age and gender varied. Which shows us the problem for politicians: the electorate is diverse, which means it is more adapted to survive the changing political environment than the five middle aged white men trying to win their attention.

When you consider the massive voter turnout in the Scottish Referendum compared to any general election or by-election, this mismatch of biodiversity starts to make sense as a factor in politics.

In Scotland, we saw a diverse mix on both sides of the argument, more women, more ethnic diversity, more political diversity. That made the campaign resonate more with the diversity of the electorate. Unlike a by-election or a general vote it was a single issue, but the nature of the issue was broad, touching on everything from national identity to economics.

It showed us that far from being dead by apathy, politics is alive and kicking in the UK.

When you take a step back, the big picture of UK politics and voter apathy starts to come into focus. There is a public appetite for politics. There’s a diverse, complex debate out there in the pub and across the dinner table. The ecosystem is thriving. The reason why people can’t be bothered to vote is because the apex predators of the political food chain aren’t adapted to the changing environment and locked into a reproductive cycle that is putting the whole species at risk.

Meanwhile, the forces preying on them, from commercial tax dodgers to extremists, protest movements and the disaffected, are better adapted and increasing in number whilst the old apex predator white male, despite his efforts to diversify, remains in decline.

The response?

Politics in the UK is dominated by elites. Private schools, lawyers, PR people, party activists, professional policywonks and so on. We hear words like comprehensive school, black, asian, young, women getting trumpeted by parties after every election, as though it’s an achievement. It’s not. It’s basic common sense. Not just politically, or socially, but biologically. It’s the equivalent of hearing people declaring the fact they’ve married outside their own immediate family is worthy of praise, as though incest and inbreeding is somehow a viable alternative.

Politics will never die, but politicians are an endangered species. If they were less concerned about winning votes, and more concerned with winning at biodiversity, then maybe they could avoid the inevitable: finding themselves stuffed and on display in a wooden cabinet at the Natural History Museum.

Image credit: BBC News Essex