The evolutionary origin of social conservatism and the control over female reproduction

When Texas passed a rigorous anti-abortion law this year, it caused an outcry among American liberals. My social media feed quickly showed memes that pointed out the hypocrisy of it all:

Many conservatives don’t get (of course it is bad to kill life) why we liberals protest against such laws and the simple answer is because they are against universal human rights. Anti-abortion and anti-contraception stances really amount to controlling women’s reproductive choices and that is what conservatives have been trying to do since… well, since when? Since the beginning of agriculture, as I will argue, there is no gender nor power inequality in forager groups like there is in agricultural and pastoral tribes. Power, hierarchical status and wealth are well-known factors in evolutionary psychology that lead to more offspring. They just didn’t exist before agriculture.

Avi Tuschman’s book Our Political Nature: The Evolutionary Origins of What Divides Us (2013) is one of the most comprehensive endeavours to unite evolutionary psychology and political science.

Tuschman characterizes social conservatism as having the following traits:

  • A tendency towards authoritarian power
  • Strong conformism and dislike of diversity
  • Ethnocentrism (in-groupism)
  • Religiosity
  • Certain attitudes towards sexuality (e.g. homosexuality, pro-life)

These five traits are all interconnected. Pro-life is religion plus sexuality. Another example: conservatives all over Western Europe fear that Muslim immigrants (religion, diversity) will outbreed the national population (ethnocentrism, sexuality) and therefore look to strong leaders (authoritarian power) to protect them. Conservatives generally are reluctant to let their children marry people from a different ethnicity or religion, which is often really only a proxy for ethnicity. This has been the case since recorded history: people married within their group, their caste, their social class (endogamy) and often got severely punished (authoritarian control) by breaking the rules. And the power has been unfavourably skewed against women, who have always had less freedom and fewer options than men in determining their own reproduction. Throughout history, monogamy has been enforced more strictly on women than men.

Why do conservatives fear giving women more control over their own reproduction? Because women will have fewer children given the choice, as their “costs” in reproduction are higher than men’s in terms of evolutionary psychology.

Extremely high fertility is not simply a matter of birth-control technology not existing, but rather a consequence of gender inequality. After all, abortifacient plants, abstinence, lactational contraception, and infanticide had existed from the days of more egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies, which had lower birth rates. Gender inequality, then, is why Afghanistan-where one cannot easily see the faces of women in public-has one of the highest fertility rates in the world. (Our Political Nature )

This is indeed what happens, the most liberal countries tend to have the lowest fertility rates, whereas the most conservative countries have the highest. The same effect is true within countries.

Fertility rates by religious affiliation in the US clearly show this effect. Mormons are very conservative vs liberal atheists and agnostics. The statistic doesn’t even include the most conservative groups, the Amish: 7.7. The Hutterites reached record fertility rates of beyond 10. This is not only true for the US.

The same correlation between conservatism and high fertility is true for Israeli Jews, with the most conservative groups (Haredi) having much higher fertility rates than the most liberal (Secular) Jews. For conservatives, religion has the purpose of controlling reproduction, making sure to have high authority over conformity to sexual rules and endogamous marriages.

Social and economic conservatism had their origin in food production when forager egalitarian instinct was given up in favour of hierarchy and in-groupism that ensured that not only genes but also status, wealth and power were inherited and patriarchal societies were born. Social conservatives have all the evolutionary traits of early farmers: hard-working, obedience to fathers and authority, love of tradition and routine, love of close family, love of property, territory and country, using “sameness” to identify the in-group and a high tolerance for inequality.

Liberals on the other hand are characterized by a low tolerance for inequality and a high degree of egalitarianism. They are more permissive in child-rearing, liberal women are more often career-type mothers, and liberals more often than not side with the underdogs to restore an egalitarian balance. In brief, liberals are more like hunter-gatherers, who practice alloparenting, gender-egalitarianism, have fewer children (about every 4 years vs 2 years) and are even pro-choice in the form of infanticide which has a solid evolutionary logic:

If a baby among the !Kung hunter-gatherers of southern Africa receives a younger sibling at the age of four, then the older child has a 90 percent chance of surviving childhood. However, if a !Kung mother has an additional child when she already has a two-year-old baby, then the likelihood that the two-year-old will die during childhood is over 70 percent.

I have argued that our psychological temperaments are based on evolutionary subsistence and assortative mating:

Throughout history, forager types have been fighting for a more egalitarian world that really benefitted all people. It is sad to see that there is a strong conservative trend to reverse these liberal social achievements as they undoubtedly have made many lives better. Even many conservatives would be shocked by the undoing of most of them. Just imagine waking up in conservative Afghanistan one day and you find out your life so far has been a dream. Which part would be the nightmare — the dream or real life?

For a more detailed account check out my book Foragers, Farmers and Pastoralists : How three tribes have been shaping civilization since the Neolithic

Originally published at on September 26, 2021.