In any community every person is affected by the politics of their relationship with other people, close and distant. Politics involves the flow of power between them and that occurs in two ways: 1) equally, in reciprocal cooperation, as in “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine”; and 2) unequally, where one party dominates, as in “do as I say, or else.”
Humans lived for the vast extent of their time on the planet in egalitarian communities. Those primal politics, though widely ignored today, have enormous modern significance for they imprinted what I hope to show is a more or less universal innate political disposition: our primal heart is egalitarian! That, in turn, affects the politics of modern societies in ways few have recognized.
Our nomadic ancestors lived 24/7 outdoors in the wilds for their entire lives, and that lifestyle endured for millions of years. As anyone who has ever spent time in the wilderness knows, only tough people could live their permanently, without stores, hospitals, police forces, communication devices and the other features of civilization. To survive in the ancestral habitat they needed to be very strong physically and emotionally. Only such personal fortitude could empower their long treks across the savannah sometimes alone, and overcome their fear of dangerous predators such as lions or hyenas prowling about. Only tough folks could run down large game animals and spear them to death. Only emotionally resilient people could endure the horrendous nomadic infant mortality rate, where on average every third child dies before age five. Wimps did not last long in the human evolutionary world.
Because personal power was a survival essential, affective evolution ensured that our ancestors’ genes acquired a preference for such strength. A natural part of that emotional trait is an aversion to being pushed around by anybody else. Just as a nomad does not cower in the face of a lion or deadly snake, they don’t wimp out in the face of human aggression. They resist it. So the toughness required to be a nomad influenced their political orientation: nomads don’t like dominators.
In the ancestral community where everyone loves autonomy and hates dominance, autocratic power can’t happen. Any individual disposed to dominance is going to encounter powerful push back, not only from the individual they hope to bully, but the whole community. That joint attack occurs because hunter gatherers know that any attempt to dominate others results in strife which impairs everyone’s survival. It threatens the nomadic economy which is based on sharing resources and a very high level of cooperation. Dominators and their power struggles undermine social harmony, ultimately leading to the collapse of the community, which imperils everyone, including the aggressor. So primal dominators faced social exclusion and even execution.
Other primates, such as chimpanzees, can survive constant struggles for dominance by alpha males because that species cooperates minimally. Their jungle culture is more like “everyone for themselves” rather than the “we’re in this together” which was critical for human survival on the primal plains.
Because the only viable political structure in primal community was equality and autonomy, people who liked to cooperate tended to spread their genes. The odd outlier born with dominator genes would not pass them very far. They might occasionally reappear through gene mutation, but would not spread. Over the long period of primal existence, virtually everyone got the cooperator genes. Including us.
Every community, both primal and modern, needs leaders. A primal tribe often requires that a skilled individual take command of a situation, such as in a hunt, or to scout for water, or to heal the sick or wounded. Similarly, today trained individuals such as police officers, emergency room doctors, or corporate executives must exercise control to produce outcomes that benefit everyone. Even though these individuals have power over others, it is limited to the ambit of their special skill, and because it is not self-centered but rather benefits the community at large, their followers consent to such leadership. So this flow of power is still egalitarian. Autocratic power, in contrast, is imposed without consent and often without limitation. Bullies use force or the threat of it, to get people to follow them.
People who contribute to the community earn popular respect, often called prestige, and in a nomadic culture, it has survival value. If food gets scarce or if a respected person is injured, they will get special treatment to ensure that the community continues to enjoy their special skills. Because of the survival value of that prestige, people who liked to contribute to the community would be more likely to earn prestige and thus enjoy a survival advantage. In contrast, the genes of freeloaders — people who disliked contributing their fair share to the community — would suffer. Such cheaters would not be supported when times got really tough, and so over time would mostly disappear from the human genome. This extinction of anti-social traits was especially prevalent in the evolutionary era because communities were small and freeloaders were easily identified.
Our species also evolved to like not only social contribution and the prestige it brought, but also to like other people with that status. Such an attraction offered survival advantages. A nomad drawn to people who have community respect will likely observe them exercise their prestigious skills, and that helps their “fan” learn some of the craft. That in turn elevates the fan’s status and survival chances. Such an innate attraction also helps wisdom get dispersed and that benefits the whole community. Anthropologists have a great term for the nomadic political orientation: fiercely egalitarian. Their community had no big-shots, just an array of especially skilled leaders. Women were as empowered as men. And children were raised highly permissively, without adult domination.
Because our genes are products of the primal nomadic lifestyle, and too little time has elapsed since the primal period to change our basic emotions, we are by nature fiercely egalitarian too. Hence we like to be strong and assertive but do not want to bully others or be bullied by them. By nature we are egalitarian cooperators. We also seek the respect of others. Much of our lives is spent cultivating some form of prestige, although, sadly, modernity has twisted much of this drive into the pursuit of status symbols, which offers limited community benefit. We moderns are also drawn to people with prestige, just as our ancestors were. Today that innate emotion it is powerfully evident in celebrity culture, where millions of people become fans of the stars in sports, music, literature, movies and countless other domains.
Given that autocratic power has been dominant ever since the dawn of civilization, the idea that everyone evolved a political preference for egalitarianism might surprise you. Within a few thousand years of leaving the primal habitat, the agricultural revolution and its farms and towns produced dominators of every kind — warlords, priests, generals, emperors, kings, and dictators — who were able to take control and impose their will on the non-consenting masses below. Such domination would persist for the entire history of civilization, only to be weakened in the last few hundred years and largely in the West, as democratic systems partially replaced the structures of autocratic power.
But if we naturally prefer equality and power based on consent, how did tyranny get a foothold for so long? I start to answer that in the next post.