Science communication and conservative values

image CC via flickr/jeffreypriebe

Roger Scruton‘s recent article in Prospect Magazine provides an interesting illustration of what Dan Kahn and Chris Mooney have been discussing on their respective blogs. (Kahn blogs regularly now at the Cultural Cognition Project and Mooney writes at the Desmog Blog.)

The topic of their discussion: Is it possible to take the polemics out of science communication, and if so, how?

Scruton’s article, Nature, Nurture and Liberal Values, reviews three recent books on neuroscience and discusses the moral and philosophical implications of these new inflections of the nature/nurture debate, from a highly intelligent conservative perspective:

“The real question raised by evolutionary biology and neuroscience is not whether those sciences can be refuted, but whether we can accept what they have to say, while still holding on to the beliefs that morality demands of us.”

This, it seems to me, is exactly the kind of question Kahn and Mooney are discussing. Scruton’s statement, though, begs the question that conservatism reviles: whose morality? This is where Cultural Theory comes in, suggesting as it does that there is more than one worldview, more than one morality, and that therefore, more than one kind of reconciliation is required between science and morality, between descriptive and normative claims. However, the promise of Cultural Theory is that this is not an endless pluralism, or a morally bankrupt relativism, but rather a constrained pluralism. Yes, there are competing cultural worldviews. No, they are not endlessly differentiated. We can map them.

Scruton’s latest book, Green Philosophy, provides a kind of conservative re-imagining of the environmentalist terrain that he seems to think has been left almost entirely to the egalitarian left for the last thirty years and more. It’s a philosophical restatement of that old question, why should the devil have all the best music? Why should so-called ‘environmentalists’ keep the environmental high ground to themselves? One way of looking at this might be to hypothesise that conservatives might be more receptive to ‘environmentalist’ subject matter if they think it will make the world a more conservative place. This will probably not take the polemics out of discussions about climate change policy – quite possibly the reverse – but it might just help to end the rather strange situation in which some political groups and leaders simply deny/resist/ignore climate change and other environmentalist causes célèbres and try to make them disappear.

Scruton spoke about his book at the RSA recently (audio available), with Matthew Taylor chairing.

Leadership Mismatch – what Napoleon can tell us about the evolution of leaders

Elba seen from Tuscany

The Emperor Napoleon was a consummate manipulator of other people’s expectations regarding leadership roles, and here’s how you can be too…

In an RSA lecture Matthew Taylor engages Mark van Vugt, author of Selected, over the salience of Cultural Theory to van Vugt’s evolutionary theory of leadership. [about 30:00 in]

Professor van Vugt’s idea is that evolution has primed humans for particular types of leadership which are not now particularly helpful. There is a kind of mismatch between the leadership relevant to Stone Age peoples and the radically altered demands of today.

He and his collaborators identify two key types of leadership justification:

  • The first is the ‘servant’ leadership approach , which claims that leaders benefit the group at a cost to themselves.
  • The second is the ‘selfish’ leadership approach, which says the opposite – that leaders benefit themselves at a cost to the group.

Source: Gillet, J., et al. 2010

According to social psychology there are two dominant understandings of the evolution of leadership. The first sees leadership as a kind of by-product of the struggle for social dominance. The struggle for dominance takes place because the winners secure better access to ‘reproductively relevant resources’ (I think this means mates). The dominant individuals by definition ‘occupy the top positions in the hierarchy’ and therefore ‘can exercise power over lower-ranked individuals’.

The second approach sees leadership not as a by-product of dominance battles but as a key aspect of group coordination: Leaders are useful to their followers ‘because they can reap the benefits of being in a highly coordinated and cohesive group.’

If these are the only two versions of leadership allowable, we have a big problem. The ‘selfish’ dominance model fits very well with the Individualism worldview of Cultural theory. In this worldview the purpose of leadership is to advance the individual. While not everyone actually is a leader, everyone theoretically could be. The individualist exhortation is to find the niche within which it is possible to fulfil one’s leadership potential. A hundred business speakers’ careers have thrived on this approach (a recent example of this trope in full swing is to be found in Seth Godin’s Lynchpin and Tribes books – strap line: we need you to lead us).

The ‘servant’ coordination model fits very well with the Egalitarian worldview of Cultural Theory. In this worldview the purpose of leadership begins and ends with the benefit of the group as a whole. Ideal leadership is somewhat communal (for example the group of presbyters who lead a Presbyterian church, replacing the individual bishop with a leadership group. The presbyters hire and fire the minister, not the other way around). Ideal decisionmaking is consensual, in which all make the leadership decisions (for example in a Quaker business meeting).

A working hypothesis based on Cultural Theory would be that these (dominance vs. coordination or selfish vs. servant) are only two of the possible four worldviews or cultural biases available. They are the two which fit along the Group axis. Strong Group is associated with servant leaders, which weak group is associated with selfish leaders. However, in Cultural Theory there is another axis, the Grid axis, which considers the relative significance of regulation, rules, expected social roles. A strong Grid approach to leadership makes leadership strongly deterministic. Weak Grid leadership takes little account of (or actively disparages) organised institutions of leadership. Weak Grid leadership produces two varieties just described – Selfish (Individualist) and Servant (Egalitarian). The two strong Grid leadership patterns are Hierarchical leadership and Fatalist leadership.

We could say that on the Grid axis we are measuring over-determined leadership vs. under-determined leadership.

In over-determined leadership there is a pre-established understanding and expectation of what the leadership roles will look like. In the struggle for dominance would-be leaders are not creating the social hierarchy from scratch, instead they are following well worn upward steps. The over-determined leadership contest asks, for instance ‘who will be the next king?’ The role of monarch already exists, it is well-defined and the would-be leaders vie with one another to fill the pre-existing role. Thus the nature of leadership itself is almost entirely unproblematic. A strong grid organisation will have an ideology that assumes the leadership roles are fixed eternally. This is certainly true of the monarchy, where it is mythologised that successive rulers all descend from one another (yet a brief overview of any monarchy will quickly show this to be a fabrication). But it is also true of a modern bureaucracy in which the name plate on the office door or car parking space shows the job title eternally unchanged but the individual title holder ephemeral (again, an examination of actual workplaces shows this to be a fiction – in many workplaces the individuals outlast the management reorganisations that create and destroy their job titles and whole departments regularly and almost ceaselessly).

The under-determined leadership contest, in contrast, actively worries about the nature of leadership itself. Roles, expectations, precedents are all much more fluid and subject to reinterpretation. Instead of slotting into a given role, weak Grid leaders bring with them their own leadership style. A clear example is Napoleon Bonaparte, who went from being a Corsican nationalist lieutenant Colonel to being a French republican captain then General then First Consul in a Republic (he wrote his own constitution) to Emperor in a self-created empire (he crowned himself and subsequently made kings of his brothers, brother-in-law and son). His political formation was in weak Grid Corsica: “As the nation [Corsica] was perishing I was born” (McLynn 1998: 37).

Napoleon was a consummate manipulator of other people’s expectations regarding leadership roles. On his return to France having escaped from the Isle of Elba (see photo at top) he faced unarmed and alone the French 5th Regiment that had orders to re-arrest him. “Here I am.” he told them, “Kill your Emperor if you wish.” Instead they shouted “Vive l’Empereur!” and marched with him to Paris to depose Louis XVIII (McLynn 1998: 605).

Mismatch hypothesis: ‘our modern environments look very different from our ancestral environments’ Example: why do we tend to vote for taller political candidates when height has nothing to do with their job as politicians.

The assumption being made here is that we are genetically predisposed to be impressed by tall people because our Stone Age ancestors were. But this is a cognitive trap, since it no longer matters how tall the leader is.

A counter-suggeston is that only certain cultural biases are interested in the height of the leader.  Individualist leadership is definitely interested, but only to the extent that height can be used as a proxy for individual prowess. Hierarchical leadership is impressed largely because height (like gender, race, age etc) is one more easy item to rank. Egalitarian leadership is quite unimpressed by height (in Australia, this tendency is known as the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ and any potential leader who stands out above the crowd will be ruthlessly cut down to size). Fatalist leadership knows full well that one’s height is the luck of the draw.

Interestingly, despite his many and various leadership achievements, tall is one thing Napoleon wasn’t.

My suggestion: it’s the environment that creates the leadership much as the terrain creates the apparent complexity of the ant’s path across the beach (Simon 1969: 24-25; cf. Agre 1997: 56)


Avolio, B., Walumbwa, F. O., Weber, T. J. (2009). Leadership: Current theories, research and future directions. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 421-449.

Gillet, J., et al. Selfish or servant leadership? Evolutionary predictions on leadership personalities in coordination games. Personality and Individual Differences (2010), doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.06.003

Frank McLynn 1998 Napoleon . London: Pimlico.

Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja 2010 Selected: Why some people lead, why others follow, and why it matters. London: Profile.

Image Credit: CC, adapted from Gabriele Delhey/Wikimedia

How I learnt to stop worrying and love grid-group cultural theory

old-divinity-school-cambridgeFourcultures received a nice email from Huw asking how I learned about cultural theory. It was  while enrolled on a religious studies course that I first came across the work  of anthropologist Mary Douglas, who had developed a four part typology of cultures in her book Natural Symbols. Admittedly at the time it didn’t seem very clear how to apply this, since education is mostly wasted on the young. Intriguing as it was, I didn’t take it any further. But it must have been bubbling away under the surface because years later, while studying the phenomenon of peak oil, it suddenly struck home that the arguments for and against peak oil seemed to match very well the contours of cultural bias, or social solidarities,  that Douglas had sketched. On further investigation it became clear that the theory had been strongly developed since the 1980s and now has much to say about today’s social, political and religious debates. That’s what this website is about.

A definitive survey of Mary Douglas’s work was written by Richard Fardon: Mary Douglas: An Intellectual Biography (London: Routledge, 1999).

For those wanting to find out more about grid-group cultural theory and the four cultures it describes you could check out Michael Thompson’s book, Organising and Disorganising, which Huw says is great.

Michael Thompson gave a lecture at the RSA, and an interview which you can download.

[updated 4/2/2016]