Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

All Politics is Loco (Part 1)

Why our ancestors would be dismayed by modern politics.

Modern American politics lends itself to viewing through the prism of hunter-gatherer social dynamics vs. post-agricultural dynamics. Before agriculture, our ancestors lived in egalitarian band-level societies in which resources were generally shared equally among all members of the band.

Because food was found in the surrounding environment, no one could control another’s access to life’s necessities in hunter-gatherer society. Anthropologist, Marvin Harris explains that in this context, “Egalitarianism is . . . firmly rooted in the openness of resources, the simplicity of the tools of production, the lack of non-transportable property, and the labile structure of the band.”

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When you can’t block people’s access to food and shelter, and you can’t stop them from leaving, you really can't control them. The ubiquitous political egalitarianism of foraging people is rooted in this simple reality. Having no coercive power, leaders are simply those who are followed—individuals who have earned the respect of their companions. Such “leaders” do not—cannot—demand anyone’s obedience. This insight is not breaking news. In his Lectures on Jurisprudence, which was published posthumously in 1896, Adam Smith wrote, “In a nation of hunters there is properly no government at all. . . . [They] have agreed among themselves to keep together for their mutual safety, but they have no authority one over another.” 

Even if many of his followers prefer to ignore the subtleties of his arguments, Richard Dawkins himself appreciates them fully, writing, “Much of animal nature is indeed altruistic, cooperative and even attended by benevolent subjective emotions. . . . Altruism at the level of the individual organism can be a means by which the underlying genes maximize their self-interest.” Despite famously inventing the concept of the “selfish gene,” Dawkins sees group cooperation as a way to advance an individual’s agenda (thereby advancing each individual’s genetic interests). Why, then, are so many of his admirers unwilling to entertain the notion that cooperation among human beings and other animals may be every bit as natural and effective as short-sighted selfishness?

Research with nonhuman primates offers intriguing evidence of the “soft power of peace.” Frans de Waal and Denise Johanowicz devised an experiment to see what would happen when two different macaque species were placed together for five months. Rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) are aggressive and violent, while stump-tails (Macaca arctoides) are known for their more chilled-out approach to life. The stump-tails, for example, make up after conflict by gripping each other’s hips, whereas reconciliations are rarely witnessed among rhesus monkeys.

Once the two species were placed together, however, the scientists saw that the more peaceful, conciliatory behavior of the stump-tails dominated the more aggressive rhesus attitudes. Gradually, the rhesus monkeys relaxed. As de Waal recounts, “Juveniles of the two species played together, groomed together, and slept in large, mixed huddles. Most importantly, the rhesus monkeys developed peacemaking skills on a par with those of their more tolerant group mates.” Even when the experiment concluded, and the two species were once again housed only with their own kind, the rhesus monkeys were still three times more likely to reconcile after conflict and groom their rivals.

One wonders if a caucus of some of these peaceful stump-tails could have similar influence in Congress, promoting cooperative, peaceful behavior among the belligerent primates baring their fangs over earmarks, education, and defense spending.

(This is the first of a multi-part series on politics. Adapted from Sex at Dawn.)

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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