The Political Animal

Human History as Natural History

Dirty Politics

The End of the Sex Scandal

This year, the shoe didn't drop. 9 days from now, on Tuesday, 34 seats in the senate, 435 seats in the house, and 36 governorships will be up for grabs -- and not much mud has been slung.

There was a story in Politico a month ago, about tea partier Carl Paladino and his extramarital daughter: "Has anybody asked Andrew Cuomo about his paramours?" Paladino wanted to know. But that thread, like the New York governor's race, pretty much petered out. And there was another story in The Daily Beast with the tag: "Salacious headlines have lost their sting."  Plenty of otherwise bright and capable adulterers and prostitute clients have been rehabilitated, the European reporter wrote -- as the husbands of cabinet members, for instance, or CNN talk show hosts.

See All Stories In

Sex…Power…Scandal: Are We Surprised?

From Arnold Schwarzenegger's lovechild to an alleged rape by France's would-be president, high-profile missteps show how those with power forget that their privilege is not universal.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

We weren't always so civilized. Once upon a time, back when Western Civilization began, Rome's republicans said horrible things about each other. They called each other common sluts who raped girls in the provinces. or committed incest with their sisters at home.  Later on, under the emperors -- who burned books -- the opposition said less. But occasionally, their actions spoke louder than words.

When, a little over two thousand years ago, on the Ides of March, Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times by members of the Roman senate, at least one of the daggers went into his groin. Publius Servilius Casca struck first, giving Caesar a wound on his shoulder; and eventually, Marcus Brutus  -- whose mother, Servilia, was one of Caesar's many lovers -- got him in the groin.  Caesar is supposed to have asked, "You too, my son?" 

84 years later, a Roman emperor, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, better known as Caligula, was done in in the same way.  He was notorious for having his senators to dinner, then escorting their wives into his bedrooms.  And he'd made fun of a praetorian guardsman, by the name of Cassius Charaea: he'd called him "Priapus" (or god of the phallus), and "Venus" (or eunuch); and he'd wiggled his middle finger, and asked him to kiss it. So one day after lunch, Charaea snuck up from behind and stabbed the emperor in the back. Then his soldiers took over. They thrust their swords through the imperial privates, and Caligula was dispatched.

Mud, and daggers, were slung at a variety of Roman emperors -- most of them notorious for their affairs with other men's wives. The last Flavian emperor, Domitian, was "stabbed in the groin" by his slaves; Commodus, the last Antonine, was strangled in his bath; the Severan emperor, Caracalla, was run through with a dagger while emptying his bladder; friends of another Severan, Elagabalus, were attacked by his soldiers, "some by tearing out the vital organs and others by piercing the anus," then the emperor was stripped naked, stuck in a sewer, and thrown into the river.

Other animals don't talk much, but they make the same point.  Some mammals, and some primates, manage to get the message across that somebody else is having too much sex. Copulations are disrupted.  And genitals are attacked.

One day in August of 1992, the British biologist, Tim Clutton-Brock, made his way to the Kalahari. For the better part of the next 2 decades, he and a small army of assistants studied the social life of Suricatta suricatta -- the now famous meerkats of Meerkat Manor. Meerkats live in notoriously cooperative societies: they guard, carry, babysit and feed each other's pups. But they aren't always nice. When subordinate females give birth, dominant females will often kill their young. And when subordinate males are attacked, dominant males tend to leave them with bite wounds -- to the head, and between the legs.

The Dutch biologist, Frans de Waal, made his reputation in 1982 with a book about common chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes, in the Arnhem Zoo -- and with its postscript. Over a period of many months, a couple of subordinates, Nikkie and Luit, challenged Yeroen, the dominant animal in the group. There were tantrums and reconciliations, there were coalitions and threats. Then, one night after Chimpanzee Politics had gone to press, Luit was left with deep gashes on his head, flanks, hands and feet -- several toes and fingernails were lost.  There were a number of small, canine incisions in his scrotum.  And his testicles had dropped out.

REFERENCES:

Clutton-Brock, Tim.  2008.  Meerkat Manor.  New York: Simon & Schuster.

De Waal, Frans.  1982.  Chimpanzee Politics.  New York: Harper & Row.

Betzig, Laura. 2005. Politics as sex: The Old Testament case. Evolutionary Psychology, 3: 326-46. 

Betzig, Laura. 2010. The end of the republic. In P. Kappeler and J. Silk, eds. Mind the Gap: Primate Behavior and Human Universals, pp. 153-68. Berlin: Springer Verlag.PDF file

PHOTO CREDIT:

http://www.pbase.com/spepple

 

 

Laura Betzig, Ph.D., is a Darwinian historian at work on her fourth book, The Badge of Lost Innocence: A History of the West.

more...

Subscribe to The Political Animal

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?