Rowland Scherman; restored by Adam Cuerden; Wikimedia Commons
Source: Rowland Scherman; restored by Adam Cuerden; Wikimedia Commons

When you read the work of the great evolutionists Paul Bingham and Joanne Souza, you quickly see that political activism is actually a foundational feature of being human — one that goes deep into our ancestral past.

The Politically Active Ape

In an exemplary analysis of human origins, Bingham and Souza (2009) make a strong case for human uniqueness as ultimately being the result of our ability to accurately throw rocks. This provocative thesis, summarized in detail below, takes data from an impressive set of academic areas into account. Their work integrates data from such fields as physical anthropology, evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, political science, and history — leading to some very provocative implications on the human condition.

Bingham and Souza make a strong case for humans as the democratic ape. To best understand our political nature, Bingham and Souza argue, we need to think of humans as being able to project significant threat to others in a real and coordinated fashion. They call this the principle of coercive threat, and they argue that our ability to pose coercive threat to other humans is unlike anything that’s ever existed in any other species. In short, they argue that humans evolved to be accurate and deadly in their throwing ability. We can throw rocks with much more deliberation, speed, and accuracy than can any other animal. By far.

Sound simple? Or maybe irrelevant? Or even silly? Perhaps. But think about this. Imagine an ancestral group of hominids with a powerful but unfair and selfish leader who happens to also be bigger and stronger than any of the others in the group (which is how he got this leadership position in the first place). Attacking him physically would be risky; he can punch harder than you can—remember, he is big and strong. But throwing a rock—well that can smart a bit— and it doesn’t have the same potential costs as close-up physical confrontation. In fact, thrown just right, a rock can kill someone. But the cost to the thrower is, again, small in terms of time and energy.

When humans first evolved the ability to accurately throw projectiles in this way, they gained the ability to hold coercive threat over others in an evolutionarily unprecedented manner. Humans could threaten conspecifics (i.e., other humans) from a distance.

Now couple this with another aspect of humans that is clearly part of our evolutionary story—the forming of social alliances. Humans are clearly social beings and we often form alliances with others beyond kin lines (in other words, we form strong alliances and friendships with non-relatives). So now imagine a group of three or four males who are smaller than the leader but who form a group, with a vision, of creating a clan (or society) that affords them and their families more in the way of power and resources. This small group can be powerful. With shared vision and the ability to accurately throw from a distance, a small group can, in fact, be more powerful than a single large leader.

We often talk about there being strength in numbers. This is a foundational feature of what it means to be human, in fact. Teenagers look to their number of Instagram followers to assess their localized status. Candidates for elected office carefully examine data from polls to help them strategize. People often form coalitions in their efforts to effect political change at all levels. In Homo Sapiens, there truly is strength in numbers. And Bingham and Souza’s research tells us why that is.

Modern Political Activism through an Evolutionary Lens

So humans evolved so as to embrace that fact that there truly is power in numbers. Humans evolved the capacity to form coalitions and to work together to influence change that benefits the broader group. This facet of human evolutionary history cannot be overemphasized. If you live in a democracy and you don’t like the government, you have choices. Forming coalitions and working in a coordinated fashion to influence political situations is an ancient human story that runs deep into our evolutionary history. And this fact goes quite nicely with the First Amendment of the Constitution which affords US citizens the rights to free speech, freedom of the press, peaceable assembly, and criticism of government.

Thus, exercising one’s first amendment rights is essentially the modern equivalent of coordinating with a group of others and throwing stones at a powerful leader who is exploiting his position to the detriment of the people.

And a great thing about the modern political landscape is that people in the US, and beyond, have become highly active in the political process. Not since the 1960s has there been a time in history where so many people care so much - and are taking action. Some of the ways that people can participate in government to effect change include the following:

  • Vote at every opportunity. If you live in a democracy, then voting is the primary way that you can effect change.
  • Write letters to the editor. Local newspapers are more than glad to publish letters from constituents that are targeted to elected officials (e.g., An Open Letter to Congressman Smith) and elected officials have staff who read and organize these materials.
  • Get involved in a grassroots group. Whatever your political leanings are, there are likely local groups comprised of people who share your beliefs and vision. And they are always looking for increases in membership and volunteers. And if there is no such group, then go ahead and form one!
  • Go to the streets, protest, and make your voice heard. Peaceable assembly is a basic right in a democracy and it is a great way to get your voice heard and to make a statement. Getting the press involved is always beneficial with these kinds of initiatives.
  • Write letters to your elected officials at the town, county, state, and federal levels. Never forget that in a democracy, the primary function of elected officials is to represent the people.
  • Grab a clipboard and run for office. This point, based on Barack Obama’s famous final speech as president, speaks to an ultimate way that citizens in a democracy can effect change.

A core feature of the evolutionary history of humans pertains to our ability to form coalitions to effect political change. If you live in a democracy, then you need to be aware of exactly how to do this in modern times. Understanding the evolutionary roots of political activism can help us to better take political action when warranted.

Bottom Line

Concerned about the future of this world? Wondering how you can make a difference? Make like our ancestral rock-throwing ancestors. Make some friends, form a coalition, and use the tools of the modern political process to take steps to get this nation on a track that you think works better. If you live in a democracy such as the USA, then I suggest that sitting around and complaining may not be the most productive use of your time. This is America — and there are all kinds of ways for you to get involved in government. Interested in the future of this world? Want to leave this world better because of your having been in it? Get off the couch, get out there, and be the change that you want to see. Political activism is in our blood.

Am I putting my money where my mouth is? You bet. Within the last year, I helped create a large-scale grassroots political organization in our region (Move Forward New York) and have decided to run for office (Ulster County Legislator, District 12 - Plattekill, NY). At the end of the day, I may not make a dent on this world — but at least no one's going to be able to say that I didn't try.

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Note: Some of the content of this post is adopted from a manuscript in preparation for a book I am co-authoring with Nicole Wedberg - this book should be on the shelves within the next year.

Geher, G., & Wedberg, N. A. (in contract). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

References

Bingham, P. M., & Souza, J. (2009). Death from a distance and the birth of a humane universe. Lexington, KY: BookSurge Publishing.

Geher, G., & Wedberg, N. A. (in contract). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

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