The Evolutionary Roots of Democracy

Throwing stones, obtaining allies, and playing politics—the political ape

Posted Aug 11, 2014

Politicsif you want a word that is charged in all kinds of ways, this is a good candidate. People get fired up about all kinds of politics—large-scale politics (Can you believe that the UN is not stepping in?), mid-scale politics (Is the state really going to cap local school budgets—is that even legal?!), small-scale politics (There is no way I’m going to vote for that guy for the PTA board!), to very-small-scale politics (Sally obviously didn’t get the manager position over Ted because Ted is the owner’s nephew!). Politics!

In recent years, some great work from good old evolutionary psychology has shed some extraordinary light onto the nature of politics. While there are many great examples, one of the most interesting and exciting developments in this area relates to the work of Paul Bingham and Joanne Souza (2009), who make a great case for humans as the democratic ape. And as you’ll see, their general idea has tremendous implications for understanding who we are.

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? 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—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. 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.

The ability to emit coercive threat from a distance coupled with the proclivity to form significant social alliances may well have given rise to the nature of politics in human groups. In such a scenario, the social playing field can be leveled, and both egalitarianism and democracy can emerge. Our natural tendency, then, may well be democracy. Can the evolutionary approach help us understand the roots of human politics? I think so.

This blog entry is part of a series of blogs titled Evolutionary Psychology and the Human Condition.

References and Further Reading

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

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.