What Chimps Can Teach Us About Politics

Our goofy, hairy, poo-flinging biological cousins, the chimpanzees, look (and act) pretty different from we humans on the outside.

But we may have seen the statistic before that chimps (and bonobos) share 98% of our DNA. Considering this may give us pause to marvel at how much of our core biology is the same despite seemingly huge differences on the surface. If we did not have the curiosity to really dig down into what made up a chimp and a human, how biologically similar would we have imagined ourselves to be with these cousins of ours? What guess would we have made about the amount of overlap in our DNA?

This can be an analogy for us in politics.

When we’re thinking about the political positions of other people in our country, our initial reaction--before digging under the surface and learning more--may be similar: that those we’re talking to are vastly different, that we share very little in the way of values (values being the "DNA" of our belief systems). We may even imagine them flinging poo.

But what would happen if we had the curiosity of a scientist when looking at the similarities and differences between us and our fellow citizens? What if, instead of shutting down after a glance at the long hair, knuckle-dragging, and termite-eating of our political opposition, we decided to really sequence the political DNA of both us and them? What if we understood that our core values followed a very close evolutionary trajectory, and that our perception of surface differences might not accurately reflect the real picture?

As an exercise, below is a short list of goals and values we feel are generally held in the USA. Go through this list with some friends, and find out how many people--especially those who disagree politically--agree on each one. Don’t worry about how to get there, and don’t worry about the political implications--that is, don’t worry that agreeing will allow the opposition to say “gotcha!” We’re among friends, so just check what feels right.

  • A country where all citizens are safe in their daily lives and can live without fear of personal violence

  • A country secure from foreign threat

  • The freedom for everyone to express your personal beliefs without fear of oppression

  • Economic opportunity and the ability to work to earn a living for all

  • A safety net for individuals and families to get back on their feet when hard times hit

  • The ability for all people to live free of unnecessary interference, and make their own choices

  • Justice for all who are wronged

  • A healthy planet and environment

  • A world better-off than we found it

What if we started at these core values--these core “functions,” as it were--and then started to explore what evolutionary journey might have caused the surface differences between ourselves and people who appear politically different on the surface? How might your conversation--and your empathy--change?


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.