How Did We Get So Ideological?

Although Ideology Thwarts Us, It Evolved to Facilitate Cooperative Work

Reading time: 9 minutes

Since we don’t usually focus attention on the mind’s activity on a moment-to-moment basis, the mind’s tendency to judge can easily be overlooked. Individuals trained to observe the mind are frequently amazed to discover a stream of ceaseless judgments emanating from it. One observer describes feeling disturbed when he discovered that his mind did little else but produce judgments:

I found myself sitting in a dining room … where I could watch everyone come in and take food…out of the not-quite-the corner of my eye I saw everything that was going on. I was quite amazed to see how my mind had a judgment about every single person who came in. I did not like either how people walked…or how much food they took, or how they were eating, or what they were wearing. It became quite disconcerting to watch that overflow of judgments in my mind.1

Like many who observe their mind in a disciplined and systematic manner, the observer found that he could not stop his mind from spontaneously creating judgments. He first tried to condemn the judgments as “bad”. Then he condemned himself as “bad” for having them. Over time it became clear to him “that judging the judging was not helping at all.” His efforts to stop the mind from judging did nothing to alter its propensity to judge, but only changed the focus of such judgements: The mind itself, rather than the persons and events that occupied it, became the target.

The mind’s proclivity for judgment is not suggestive of individual idiosyncrasy but is rather reflective of an obsession with righteousness that is representative of the normal human condition.2

Judgment as Feature of Evolutionary Design 

How would a proclivity for judgment have promoted the survival of those individuals and groups that possessed it?


In the challenging environment of the savannah, our ancestral primates began shifting towards a more effective form of social interaction. Individuals began to cooperate extensively with each other. When they went out scavenging, hunting, or gathering, they would do so in teams. When they found a good cache of food, they would bring it back to the band and share it with them. While this form of social cooperation wasn’t always in the best short- term interest of each individual, it would be invaluable to the group as a whole, with the result that those groups that cooperated more tended to be the ones that survived, leaving more descendants.3

The Biological Origins of Culture

Pre-verbal hominids (the last ancestors modern humans share with apes) developed a form of cooperation facilitated by what cognitive neuroscientists call “Mimetic Culture”, a complex network of multiple forms of nonverbal communication between individuals that incorporates such activities as eye contact, dancing, rhythmic chanting, body language, gesturing, facial expressions, and varying tones of voice. Different kinds of alarm calls most likely developed to express different needs and situations: a predator alarm call, a request for help, the availability of food, communication between mother and infant, and perhaps complex vocalizations to express the more subtle emotions these hominids were beginning to experience. These early hominids could feel engaged with their community like never before. Mimetic culture is all-encompassing and “underlies all modern cultures and forms the most basic medium of human communication.” 4

Insofar as the human central nervous system grew in size and intelligence as a result of social complexity, neuroscientists characterize it as intrinsically “social”.  The extent to which our brain evolved to sustain sociality is reflected in the distinctive capacities of Homo Sapiens relative to other primates:  While primates are obsessed with competing against each other, humans are the most cooperative species (among primates) by far. 5

Shared Intentionality  

While Mimetic culture laid the groundwork for cooperation in small groups, the binding together of large groups – and large work projects – would require – and would in turn facilitate – the development of the social brain (particularly the Prefrontal Cortex) and its capacity for human language.

The cognitive skills that enabled Homo Sapiens to develop language and culture evolved due to selection pressures that favored cooperation. A uniquely human capacity called “shared intentionality” enabled early hominids to work collaboratively on complex tasks and transform their mimetic culture into cognitive communities that shared values and practices.6

Shared Intentionality (also called Collective Intentionality) is the power of minds to be jointly directed at objects, matters of fact, states of affairs, goals, or values. Collective intentionality comes in a variety of modes, including shared intention, joint attention, shared belief, collective acceptance, and collective emotion. Collective intentional attitudes permeate our everyday lives, for instance when two or more agents look after or raise a child, grieve the loss of a loved one, campaign for a political party, or cheer for a sports team (Shared Intentionality) play(s)  crucial roles in the constitution of the social world. In joint attention, the world is experienced as perceptually available for a plurality of agents. This establishes a basic sense of common ground on which other agents may be encountered as potential cooperators. Shared intention enables the participants to act together intentionally, in a coordinated and cooperative fashion, and to achieve collective goals.7

The capacity for threat assessment exemplifies shared intentionality. Individuals and groups must be able to effectively “size up” objects according to whether the encountered object  is likely to threaten or enhance individual and group survival.

With the development of the Social Brain and Language, entire systems of belief regarding  practices that are harmful or beneficial to the community could be communicated and shared.

The Metaphoric Threshold and Group Belief Systems

The capacity for shared systems of belief entailed a level of cognitive development that homo sapiens reached about 40,000 years ago. This period delivers the first evidence of human behavior that had symbolic significance. Human development reached the “Metaphoric Threshold” at this time: humans evolved the ability to use language to convey metaphor. Metaphor enabled groups of humans to conceptualize and communicate regarding abstract ideas.8

Human groups have probably been communicating judgments about what is “good” and “bad” – and about how society should be organized to promote survival and address threats – since this “metaphoric threshold” was reached.

The extent to which values (the standard by which practices are deemed “good” or “bad”) are shared will exercise a determining influence relative to whether the group will survive.

Groups that contain individuals who share judgements about what promotes (or detracts from) survival are more likely to survive.   Groups, by definition, share judgements pertaining to ideas and behaviors. Ideas, practices and behaviors that the group deems acceptable are called norms.

Groups that share judgments about how the group should best organize itself can persist as a group. No group (larger than direct kin) can endure in the absence of shared norms.

Morality and Group Cohesion

A mind is considered “righteous” when it is strongly attached to ideas  that pertain to the requirements of moral law.9 Morality pertains to whether a person or practice is considered good or bad, virtuous or vicious, good and evil, or right or wrong.  Morality consists of a system of beliefs concerned with conduct or duty: it  prescribes standards by which the actions of an individual are judged by the group.  


Righteous minds evolved because they made it possible for human beings to produce large cooperative groups (such as tribes and nations). In the absence of a shared moral code, connections among individuals would not exist in the absence of “the glue of kinship.” 10 A group can be sustained only if it shares a moral system. In essence, a shared moral system must be present in order for large groups of individuals to survive as a group. Conversely, large social groups necessitated the evolution of shared moral systems.

Although the content of moral systems – i.e., behaviors deemed “good” or “bad” – i.e., varies enormously from culture to culture (due to variation in the specific ecology within which each culture is situated), every human culture that has been present for the past 40,000 years has probably been equipped with a moral system.

Each moral system assigns a positive or negative value to specifically identified behaviors. While the relationship between values and cooperative work was most thoroughly elucidated by Max Weber in his exploration of  Protestantism and Industrial Capitalism11, any cooperative work (such as agriculture) carried out on large scale is contingent upon a system of judgments about ideas, practices and behavior shared by groups larger than those formed by direct kin.  

The origins of the mind’s proclivity to render judgment – and its relationship to selection pressures and the evolution of the social brain – contributes to an explanation for why the stream of judgments produced by the mind is  imbued with a “moral” quality. To render a  “Judgement” is to pronounce an opinion upon whether a person or practice conforms to a value or ideal.   When we speak of a group’s values, we refer to a culture’s standard for judging what is good and bad. Shared values evolved in the context of survival pressures referable to the specific ecology within which the group was situated.

Morality as Mental Function: Cooperation Makes Work Possible

Social scientists can approach Morality as a mental module that is virtually synonymous with cooperation.  Those who attempt to clarify and develop the Moral Foundations Theory (initially proposed by Jonathan Haidt) refer to this approach as Morality-as-Cooperation.

Morality consists of a collection of biological and cultural solutions to the problems of cooperation recurrent in human social life. For 50 million years humans and their ancestors have lived in social groups. During this time, they faced a range of different problems of cooperation, and they evolved and invented a range of different solutions to them. Together, these biological and cultural mechanisms motivate cooperative behavior and  provide the criteria by which we evaluate (i.e., “judge”) the behavior of others. This collection of cooperative traits—instincts, intuitions, and institutions—constitute human morality.12

Ideology and Reality Contact

Ideologies evolved in the context of the development of the social brain and language.

Ideology is an expression of Morality: it entails assessment regarding the goodness or badness of an idea, practice or behavior relative to whether the idea, practice or behavior will promote or diminish the prospects of survival and prosperity of one’s group. Ideological ideas generally pertain to how society should be organized and how work should get done.

One inherently problematic aspect of ideology (discussed in future posts) is implied by its definition: we use the term  “ideological” to refer to something that relates to “an idea or ideas, especially of a visionary kind” (OED).  Ideology, by definition, consists of ideas, not facts. Because ideology concerns itself with the way things should be and employs specific values to assess the way things are relative to such values, the ideological mind is always at risk for impaired contact with reality.

Next Article on Ideology:

The Source of Ideological Diversity


1. Goldstein, Joseph. Insight Meditation. Shambala Publications. Boston 1994. Pages 64-66.

The power of judgements over the mind could be diminished not by trying to stop the mind from producing them –a futile endeavor– but by playfully accepting their inevitability. (Goldstein, Page 64). Recognizing the futility of his effort to stop his mind from judging, Goldstein eventually trained himself to disidentify from the judgments.

2. Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Vintage. New York. 2012.

3. Lent, Jeremy. The Patterning Instinct. Prometheus. 2017 Page 41.

See Also:

C. Owen Lovejoy, “Reexamining Human Origins in Light of Ardipithecus ramidus,” Science 326, no. 2 (2009):74e1-74e8.

Christopher Boehm. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press, 1999. Pages 149-70.

Whitten, Andrew and Erdal, David, “The Human Socio-Cognitive Niche and Its Evolutionary Origins”. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B; Biological Sciences 367, no. 1599 (2012): 2119-29.

4. Merlin Donald. Origins of the Modern Mind: Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1991. Pages 199-200.

5. Lent, Jeremy. The Patterning Instinct. 2017.

6. Lent, Jeremy. The Patterning Instinct. 2017.

7. Definition of Collective Intentionality taken from  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:,collective%20acceptance%2C%20and%20collective%2

8.  Lakoff, G., and Johnson, M. Metaphors We Live By.  Chicago: University of Chicago.

9. Definitions are taken from the Oxford English Dictionary.

10. Tooby, J., Cosmides, L., Barkow, J.  The Adapted Mind. Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Oxford. 1992.

11. Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism. (Originally Published in 1905). Penguin. 2002.

12. Curry, Oliver Scott. “What’s Wrong with Moral Foundations Theory, and How to get Moral Psychology Right”. Behavioral Scientist, March 26, 2019.

2 thoughts

  1. This is excellent, too. (I read this one out of order). I like how you build off the case of judgments and into evolution, work, and more – all setting a foundation for the challenges of ideology. Well done.
    I particularly like this conclusion:
    “Ideology, by definition, consists of ideas, not facts. Because ideology concerns itself with the way things should be and employs specific values to assess the way things are relative to such values, the ideological mind is always at risk for impaired contact with reality.”
    Well said – it reminds me of the passion people have with respect to an ideology. Generally, people are never indifferent! There’s a lot of synergy here with theories of affect and affect evolution.

    1. Thanks, Daven. Yes, I think one of the necessary conditions that characterizes ideological blindness is lack of awareness that
      one is “in the grip of” an ideology. The ideologue very often is unaware that that his or her thinking is conditioned by the ideology, and, as such, is subject to selective attention and a whole range of biases.

      But this problem points towards a remedy, I think, or at least an intervention that would contribute to a remedy: education about ideology itself, and how ideology necessarily blinds adherents to important aspects of reality (and the fact that the ideologues who oppose them are not necessarily villainous).

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