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Did Obama's Opinion on Gay Marriage Actually "Evolve"?

I don't think President Obama suddenly had some kind of epiphany before "his interview": with ABC News yesterday, in which he affirmed his support for gay...

I don’t think President Obama suddenly had some kind of epiphany before his interview with ABC News yesterday, in which he affirmed his support for gay marriage. I obviously can’t know for sure, but I’m in the camp that thinks he’s been pro-gay marriage for some time, and was forced into tipping his hand by Roarin’ Joe Biden. Still, what’s interesting to me is how Obama has long said he’s “evolving” on this issue. To say his views were “evolving” was an obvious evasion, but it’s his use of that specific word that always seemed to be a calculated wink at the left; he wasn’t waiting for divine intervention to strike him with a lightning bolt of gay marriage clarity. He was “evolving” methodically, like that Darwin guy all the liberals like! It was like his thinly-coded plea to stick with him while we waited for the survival of the fittest cultural mores.


So while this is a bit of a departure from our normal discussions concerning politicians’ haircuts, cute animals, and sham marriages, I have to ask: Did Obama’s views actually, you know, evolve?

Let’s take a step back with a little reminder of how Darwinian evolution works. Given any environment, there are some traits that are more successful than others. (For example, you wouldn’t do well to live on an island with nothing but peanuts if you’re allergic.) Organisms that are more successful in an environment than others are more likely to live longer and healthier, which means they can have more kids. And if organism A is able to have 20 kids a year, and organism B is able to have only 1, pretty soon the population is going to look a lot more like organism A. That’s how adaptations work; it’s not an organism actively trying to grow adaptations, but rather over time the pressures of an environment select for those that are more successful.

Really, it’s all based on sex and probability. When animals mate, their genes mix and produce a child that’s a little like both of them. Some mixes of genes — which add up to entire creatures — are always going to be more successful than others. With that difference — some animals being more successful than others for a given environment — probability of continuing to survive and reproduce immediately comes into play. But unless an animal is effectively sterile, even lesser-successful animals hang around. Because it’s all based on small differences in the probability of having lots of kids, evolution is slow.

There it is.

In that sense, could Obama’s thoughts really have evolved? Well, not really. Functional changes in evolution take a really long time. (One hyped study recently said it would take 24 million generations for a mouse to evolve to be elephant-sized.) This gets into a weird bit of philosophy: Can views have generations? Does one thought get directly reproduced by another? It’s really hard to tell conclusively. But the proliferation, development, and eventual disappearance of memes suggests that there are likely evolutionary influences at play in our language. As a person that often gets lost in spiraling trains of thought, I understand that views are connected and change over time. So maybe there is a hint of evolution going on here.

Let’s look at this from another standpoint. People often think of adaptations arising to fit an environment, as if that environment is some puzzle to be solved. Oh, the trees are tall? Giraffes decided to grow long necks! But no environment is static, and as they change they exert different pressures on organisms to adapt in different ways. Sometimes, an environmental change can turn an unsuccessful species into the cock of the rock. Imagine being a guy coming from a family cursed with tons of body hair. Before the Ice Age, that would suck because you’d be overheating all the time. But when things cooled, suddenly you’re a boss!

This way of thinking about evolution — with the changing environment really driving adaptation and mixing up who’s got an advantage — seems more fitting for politics, doesn’t it? The Tea Party’s rise in 2010 is a great example. A ton of establishment Republican types in Congress, who for many years had successfully balanced between playing towards their base while being (at least marginally) centrist enough to get some deals done, were suddenly up-ended by a bunch of rip-roarin’, government-hating newcomers riding the Tea Party express. Now, as Congress has been stunningly deadlocked for the last year-plus (even by its own low standards) the political environment is changing again.

Are we now faced with another huge policy shift? Well, not quite. It’s a huge boon for gay and lesbian couples to have the vocal support of the world’s most powerful person, but as more than a few people have noted, Obama’s vocal support won’t necessarily translate to policy changes, thanks to Obama’s caveat that, while he supports gay marriage, he thinks it should be an issue left for states to decide.

But let’s say Obama was pro-gay marriage all along, or at least was on the fence about it. The political environment of the U.S. has long kept that from being an evolutionarily stable strategy, but that environment has also long been changing. Now, after Biden dropped his famous comments, there was a sudden, rapid shift: With pressure ramping up from donors and supporters crying for Obama to state his support for gay marriage, taking a stand for gay marriage was now more probably successful than continuing to avoid the subject. So he evolved.

Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @drderekmead.

Evolution Explains is a periodical investigation into the human-animal (humanimal?) condition through the powerful scientific lenses of ecology and evolution. Previously on Evolution Explains: North Korea Has a Biological Need to Bluff.