Why you should care
Because like-for-like dating could lead to an even more polarized country.
Rose McDermott is a professor of international relations at Brown University and a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her research spans various disciplines including political science, psychology, biology, and development and gender studies.
Marriage is the only truly universal political institution in the world. Seems like a bold statement, right? But think about it: There’s no culture, time or place where marriage of some form doesn’t exist. Sure, it serves different purposes for different people, but the public sanctioning of marriage, at least partly for reproductive purposes, exists everywhere.
Throughout history, it has been common for wealthy men to marry beautiful women in a trade that helped bring many women out of poverty. In the United States, marriage is bifurcated by race, with Black women marrying much later, if at all. Although interracial marriage is more common now, over 40 percent of those marriages are between whites and Hispanics.
Meanwhile, marriage generally has increasingly become a luxury good, divided more by class than by race: Wealthy Americans tend to get educated and meet their mates in college or through college-linked social networks. They marry, have children and pass along their wealth to those children. Poor Americans, on the other hand, have children but tend not to attend college, often never marry and rarely have money to pass along to their kids. So both education and wealth affect prospects for marriage and child-rearing.
We’re seeing more marriages where children are likely to result from what geneticists call assortative mating … this could mean an even more politically divided nation.
Now add polarized politics to the mix. An important part of political ideology is heritable — transferred genetically from parent to child, rather than something a child learns from socialization processes in the family or community. If ideology was not heritable, or if people mated randomly and independent of political ideology, then it would not change the political tendencies of children over time. But when people increasingly marry those with similar political views, these tendencies can polarize those traits in their children, similar to how parents who share recessive genes might be more likely to raise the risk for certain diseases in their children.
So liberals increasingly have children with liberals, conservatives with conservatives, and their children, on average, are becoming more politically extreme. In evolutionary simulations of these dynamics, we have shown how this can make the general population more politically polarized in just 40 years. Why does this matter? Because we’re seeing more marriages where children are likely to result from what geneticists call assortative mating, or like-for-like mating with a politically driven dimension. Over time, this could mean an even more politically divided nation.
For people who don’t go to college or meet spouses there, and even for many who do, online dating and mating sites have become ubiquitous spaces for coupling. But these sites allow users to discount entire groups of people through simple drop-down menus. Think about it — if you meet someone at a party or bar, you’re not going to have information like political leanings before making eye contact and striking up a conversation. In person, people can meet and bond with those they would’ve automatically excluded online.
Similarly, some pick their “ideal” partners online only to find that the time and effort spent emailing or texting was wasted because there was no chemistry when they met in person. These biological aspects of mating are not random, but often are rooted in factors like compatibility of an individual’s immune systems. As more couples meet online, subsequent mating may change many aspects of the population at a genetic level in ways that we don’t yet understand.
Short of banning online dating — laughable, I realize — we should be aware of what we are losing. By being able to choose our dating partners based partly on their political ideology, we are losing out on potentially great connections, and sex, with others who hold different views. The ramifications are unclear, but it may lead to an increasingly polarized body politic, with fewer chances for compromise. With more of us choosing political partisans as mates, the country becomes even more divided by ideology.
Our growing dependence on technology, and our apparent willingness to cede control over much of our lives to this technology, may be affecting processes of human evolution itself, just as the development of agriculture or the domestication of livestock did in the ancient past. We cannot possibly know where this will lead, but as more areas of life become divided by political preferences, I don’t think love should be one of them.