Saturday, November 16, 2019

Trump's Impeachment Would Rightly Overturn His Election in 2016

Donald Trump's defenders are saying that the call for his impeachment is a plot by Democrats and Never Trumper Republicans to overturn the results of the presidential election in 2016.  On Friday, Attorney General William Barr said that House Democrats were trying to subvert the will of the voters.  Well, yes, of course, but that's the whole point of giving the Congress the constitutional power to impeach the President!

At the Constitutional Convention, James Madison thought impeachment "indispensable . . . for defending the Community against the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief Magistrate.  The limitation of the period of service was not a sufficient security.  He might lose his capacity after his appointment.  He might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression.  He might betray his trust to foreign powers" (Farrand's Records, 2:65-66).  George Mason said this power to impeach the president was "rendered indispensable by the fallibility of those who choose, as well as the corruptibility of the man chosen" (ibid., 1:86).  Those proposing impeachment today are arguing that Trump's presidency shows both the fallibility of those who voted for Trump in 2016 and the corruptibility of Trump himself.  The debate is over whether this is correct.  I have written about this in a previous post here.

We should remember the only case in American history when a President was forced out of office by the threat of impeachment--Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974.  In two other cases--Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton--the President was impeached by the House, but the Senate refused to convict and remove the President.  In 1972, Nixon was reelected to a second term with the largest landslide victory in American history: running against George McGovern, Nixon won 60% of the votes and 49 of the states, with McGovern winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, so that the Electoral College margin was 520 to 17!  Nixon was compelled to resign, on August 9, 1974, when he saw that his impeachment and removal from office would be inevitable if he did not resign.

Those leading the impeachment inquiry in the Congress knew that they were overturning the presidential election of 1972.  As Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Peter Rodino was one of the leaders of the impeachment process.  In a conversation with reporter Theodore White, Rodino observed:
"To me, 'high crimes and misdemeanors' were never precise.  The way I read them, they aren't meant to spell out anything but a President's performance in office.  I see it as the kind of conduct that brings the whole office into scandal and disrepute, the kind of abuse of power that subverts the system we live in, that brings about in and of itself a loss of confidence in the system . . . I guess, all in all, it's behavior which in its totality is not good for the Presidency, nor any part of the system.  I got to agree this is an effort to overturn the election . . . but if this country can't stand a crisis, something has happened I don't understand" (Theodore White, Breach of Faith: The Fall of Richard Nixon [New York: Dell, 1976], 285).
So as with the impeachment of Nixon, we are again in a debate over whether the behavior of the President shows an abuse of power that so threatens the constitutional order that we should make "an effort to overturn the election" of the President.

That debate turns on the question of whether Trump has committed "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors," the standards for impeachment specified in the Constitution (Article 2, Section 4).  Inevitably, the debate becomes confused by the mistaken assumption of many people that this constitutional language requires that the President must have committed an indictable crime that is very serious ("high").  This is mistaken because impeachment was understood by the Founders as directed not only against crimes such as treason and bribery, but also against "high crimes and misdemeanors" that were understood broadly as including maladministration and abuses of power that were not necessarily illegal acts.

So, for example, the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee are correct in their insistence that President Trump has the constitutional power to dismiss Ambassadors at his pleasure, and therefore his dismissal of Marie Yovanovitch from her ambassadorship in the Ukraine was a legal act.  Indeed, she herself repeatedly agreed with this in the hearing yesterday.  But how the President uses that power can be impeachable if he abuses the power in some way that violates constitutional norms or subverts the national interest.  If Ambassador Yovanovitch was serving the nation's foreign policy interests in the Ukraine, and if Trump's dismissal of her was only to serve his personal and political interests--in having the President of the Ukraine announce investigations of the Bidens without any evidence of wrongdoing--that could be an impeachable offense.

Similarly, Trump  announced yesterday that he is pardoning some military personnel who have been convicted of war crimes.  The President clearly has a broad pardoning power in the Constitution, so these pardons are legal.  But the Congress could decide that these pardons are an impeachable abuse of the pardoning power if they violate the nation's foreign policy interest in upholding the laws of war.  In the same way, if Trump were to pardon Roger Stone and others involved in his collusion with Russia in the 2016 election, that could be judged to be an impeachable abuse of his pardoning power.

This is all supported by the history of impeachment in Great Britain and America, which is now well laid out in Frank Bowman's new book--High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

As I have indicated in my previous posts on impeachment, one could trace the origins of impeachment all the way back to our prehistoric foraging ancestors, or even to our earlier primate ancestors, because once animals have any kind of hierarchy of leadership, they face the problem of how to remove powerful individuals who become oppressive.  We see what Christopher Boehm has described as a tense balance between our natural dispositions to dominance, deference, and resistance to dominance.  Some individuals are naturally inclined to dominate over others, and many are naturally inclined to submit to these dominant individuals.  But we are also naturally inclined to resist dominant individuals who become oppressive.  The constitutional order of a regime has to structure political life to accommodate these three dispositions, which includes some way to overthrow those at the top who misbehave.

Impeachment in the strict sense is a British invention that was created by Parliament in 1376 to resist monarchic absolutism by removing and punishing royal ministers who were executing royal policies that Parliament found to be abusive. Rather than go into open rebellion against the monarch's policies, Parliament could use impeachment of the monarch's ministers based on the legal fiction that the monarch was not wrong, but that he had been misled by his ministers.  The first impeachments occurred during the reign of Edward III.

The British Parliament developed the term "high crimes and misdemeanors" to denote the scope of impeachable offenses.  It also developed the procedure of impeachment in which the lower house of a bicameral legislature launched the impeachment process with charges and then prosecuted the case before the upper house that decided whether the charged individuals should be convicted.

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were familiar with this British history of impeachment.  They were also familiar with the use of impeachment in the American colonies before 1776 and in the new American states between 1776 and 1787.  Then, after the adoption of the Constitution in 1789, the interpretation of the constitutional power of impeachment could be developed through a kind of common law procedure of setting legal and political precedents as customary norms that evolved over time.

We could see this as a case of gene-culture coevolution in which the genetic evolution of human nature--the natural disposition to resist oppressive dominance--interacts with the cultural evolution of the institution of impeachment and the history of individuals (such as the American constitutional framers) who exercise practical judgment in formulating the rules of impeachment.  Impeachment thus emerges from a complex interplay of natural history, cultural history, and biographical history.  (I have written about gene-culture coevolution here.)  The Trump impeachment process will contribute to this evolutionary history.

As Bowman indicates (pp. 46-49), impeachable conduct in Great Britain fell into six categories.

(1) Non-Political Impeachments: Armed Rebellion and Ordinary Criminality.  It was an ancient custom that hereditary peers of the realm could be tried only by other peers in the House of Lords.  Consequently, a peer accused either of armed rebellion or an ordinary felony could be tried by impeachment in the House of Lords.

(2) Corruption.  Corruption was the most common charge in British impeachments, and it was mostly identified as the misuse of office for private gain.

(3)  Incompetence, Neglect of Duty, or Maladministration in Office.  This was a common theme in British impeachments.  It often came up in connection with military leaders who had suffered military disasters.

(4) Abuse of Power.  Impeachment for some abuse of official power can fall under one of the preceding two categories, because the abuse of power might be seen as corruption or maladministration.

(5) Betrayal of the Nation's Foreign Policy.  A common theme in British impeachments was charging ministers with promoting policies that subverted the nation's foreign policy interests.

(6) Subversion of the Constitution and Laws of the Realm.  Parliament often acted against ministers and officials who sought to enlarge or misuse the executive powers of government against the interests of Parliament or against the legal order of statutes and court decisions, which thus violated the British constitutional order.

The Americans adopted all but the first category in their understanding of impeachment.  But they made one major change from the British practice: while the British monarch was exempt from impeachment, the Americans decided that the chief executive--the President--should be impeachable; and so while the American President had some monarchic powers (for example, the power of Commander in Chief and the pardoning power), he would not be an elected monarch so long as he was open to impeachment.

Trump's impeachable offenses could fall under any of the five categories adopted by the Americans.  He could be charged with corruption if he has used his office for private gain, and here the "Emoluments Clause" could come into play.

He could be charged with maladministration or incompetence manifest in the impulsiveness of his decision-making and the chaos he has introduced into the executive offices of government.  When William Taylor and Marie Yovanovitch complained of the "irregular channels" of policy making by Rudy Guiliani and his associates, they pointed to one kind of maladministration under Trump.

He could be charged with abuse of power, as in the dismissal of Yovanovitch.

He could be charged with betrayal of the nation's foreign policy by favoring the interests of Russia, by subverting American foreign policy objectives in the Ukraine, and by disrupting America's economic, political, and military alliances and agreements in ways that undermine American foreign policy.

But probably the clearest impeachable offense for Trump would be the last category--subversion of the constitutional order.  In 1678, the earl of Danby was impeached by Parliament with the charge that he had "endeavored to subvert the ancient and well established form of government in this kingdom, and instead thereof to introduce an arbitrary and tyrannical way of government."  Similarly, Trump could be charged with assaulting the norms of American constitutional government by pursuing his own self-aggrandizement by establishing government by his own will.

Some of these charges are likely to be persuasive enough with the House Democrats to lead to Trump's impeachment by the House.  But it seems highly unlikely that the Senate will vote to convict him and thus remove him from office.  The reason is that the Constitution's requirement of a 2/3 supermajority in the Senate for an impeachment conviction looks like an impossibly high bar.  67 Senators voting for conviction would require all of the Senate Democrats and 20 of the Senate Republicans.  It's hard to imagine that many Republican Senators turning against Trump.

The constitutional framers put the conviction threshold at this high level because they feared that any lower level would make it too easy to impeach the President and thus completely subordinate the President to the Congress.  In Federalist 65, Alexander Hamilton wrote that impeachable offenses

"are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done to the society itself.  The prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly to the accused.  In many cases it will connect itself to pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of the parties than by the real demonstration of innocence or guilt."

Requiring a 2/3 Senate supermajority to convict the President protects against party factions in the Congress using the impeachment power to make the President utterly subservient to Congress, and thus violating the principle of separation of powers.  But the constitutional framers did not consider the possibility that this high threshold would also allow party factions passionately loyal to a presidential demagogue to protect a dangerous president from being impeached, because they would need only 34 Senators out of a hundred to vote against impeachment.  That's what Mitch McConnell plans to do.

In 1973, Senator Barry Goldwater went to the White House to tell Richard Nixon that the Republicans in Congress would join the Democrats in impeaching Nixon if he did not resign.  Nothing like that is likely to happen today, because the tribalism of American politics today--the fanatical us-against-them psychology of party competition between Republicans and Democrats--make it almost impossible for most people in the Congress to put the interests of the Congress and the nation ahead of party partisan interests.  As I have said in previous posts here and here, Justin Amash is one of the few American politicians today who recognize the need to overcome the tribalism of the two-party system in order to recover the constitutional powers of the Congress in checking the unconstitutional supremacy of the presidency.

If the Congressional Republicans do succeed in protecting Trump from impeachment, that will set up the possibility that the elections of 2020 could lead to a devastating defeat for Trump's Republican Party, which could then force a realignment of the party system that might support a restoration of the constitutional balance between Congress and the President.  The 2018 mid-term elections and some of the recent elections (in Virginia, Kentucky, and Louisiana) show that Trump Republicans are losing all across the country.  Louisiana is supposed to be Trump country, and yet despite the fact that Trump made three trips to Louisiana to endorse Eddie Rispone for Governor, Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, was reelected.  (I have written about the signs of political realignment and the declining appeal of populist nationalism in the 2018 elections here.)

There is another important point at issue here.  Many of Trump's Republican supporters have said that his moral depravity--his lack of any moral or intellectual virtues--does not matter as long as he promotes some good policy ends (such as attacking the administrative state and appointing conservative judges).  But almost every day now we see evidence for why moral character matters in politics.  And we see that in the impeachment hearings.

Yesterday, for example, the White House was following a careful strategy for dealing with the impeachment hearings: Trump would pretend to be so busy in the White House--working dutifully on the policies that benefit the people!--that he would not have time to watch the impeachment hearings, which would show that the Democrats' impeachment activity is an absurd waste of time.

But then Trump could not control himself.  He started watching the hearings on TV, and, without consulting with anyone, he sent out a Tweet attacking Marie Youanovitch, even while she was still testifying.  Adam Schiff then read Trump's Tweet in the hearing, Youanovitch said she found this very intimidating, and Schiff identified this as witness intimidation.  Suddenly, the White House's carefully planned strategy was blown up by Trump's impulsiveness.

The conclusion I draw from all of this is that the best witness for impeachment is Trump himself.  Let Trump be Trump!

I have written about Trump's immoral character here.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Testosterone and Intersexuality in Female Athletics: Caster Semenya and the Desire for Sexual Identity

              Caster Semenya of South Africa Winning the 800 Meters Race for Women at the Rio Olympics 2016

Here is a full video of the race.

In 2016, at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, 8 women ran in the 800 meters women's final.  Of those 8, 3 of them were chromosomal (XY) males with disorders of sex development (DSD) who identify themselves as women.  Those 3 intersex women have levels of testosterone far higher than normal for women.  These 3 were the winners of the race: Caster Semenya (Gold), Francine Niyonsaba (Silver), and Margaret Nyaira Wambui (Bronze).  One of the women who lost that race--Lynsey Sharp--expressed her frustration with having to compete against intersex individuals with the unfair advantages that come from male testosterone levels.

Cases like this have created a controversy over whether it is fair for intersex individuals to compete in women's athletic events because they identify themselves as women.  Should we replace biological sex differences with gender identity, so that anyone who identifies as a woman is a woman, even when she has a male body in some respects?  Or should we say that segregating biological males and biological females really does matter, particularly in certain arenas of life like athletic competition, where males have a performance advantage over females?

Both men and women produce testosterone (T).  But men have higher levels of T as produced by the testes, with lower levels produced in the adrenal glands.  Women also produce T in their adrenal glands, and in their ovaries.  In general, men have 10 to 30 times more T than women.  Most women have T levels in the range of 0.5 to 1.5 nanomoles per liter (nmol/L), while most men have T in the range of 10 to 35 nmol/L.  This gap appears first in puberty, when the testes produce more T in men that the adrenal glands and ovaries produce in women.

These higher levels of T during male pubertal growth create physical traits for men that give elite male athletes a performance advantage on average over elite female athletes (Handelsman et al. 2018).  Compared with women, men on average have greater lean body mass (more skeletal muscle and less fat), larger hearts, higher cardiac outputs, larger hemoglobin mass, a greater ability to take in oxygen, greater glycogen utilization, and higher anaerobic capacity.  This gives an advantage to male athletes over female athletes in competitive running, throwing, jumping, swimming, and lifting weights.

Female athletes with T levels at or near the male range are either doping, or they are trans (male to female) or intersex women--that is, 46 XY males with some disorder of sex development (DSD).  Among elite female athletes, the most common DSD is 5-alpha reductase deficiency (5-ARD) (Coleman 2017; Fenichel et al. 2013).  5-ARD is caused by a genetic mutation that creates a deficiency in the enzyme 5-alpha reductase, which is necessary for the conversion of testosterone to dihydrotestosterone (DHT).  A low level of DHT in a developing XY fetus disrupts the formation of the external sex organs before birth.  At birth, children with 5-ARD have sexually ambiguous sex organs, and they are often raised as girls, although they are biologically male, with testes producing testosterone.  At puberty, their male typical testosterone levels will produce the normal development of secondary male sex characteristics.

Caster Semenya is probably an XY male born with 5-ARD, who has always identified herself as a female, although she has also the athletic performance advantages that come with her biologically male body.  Once this became clear, it was possible for some sports observers to predict that she would have a virtually 100% chance of winning the Gold Medal in the 800 meters race in Rio in 2016, because not even the best elite female athletes with female bodies could come close to overcoming her performance advantage with her male body.

In response to the complaints about the unfair advantage enjoyed by Semenya and other intersex athletes competing in women's athletic events, the International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) in 2018 issued new "Eligibility Regulations for the Female Classification."  The regulations applied to those individuals who were legally female and had some DSD causing them to have male chromosomes (XY), testes and not ovaries, circulating T in the male range, and bodies that can use circulating T.  These people would be permitted to compete as women in middle-distance track races (400 meters to one mile) only if they lowered the level of T in their blood down to below 5 nmol/L (the highest possible level for a healthy woman with ovaries) for a period of six months prior to competition.

Semenya filed a suit against these regulations as unfairly discriminatory.  Last May, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled (by a 2-1 vote of the judges) to uphold the IAAF regulations.  Some of the coverage of this case in The New York Times can be found here and here.

The arguments in favor of the IAAS's position have been well stated by people like Dorianne Lambelet Coleman, a law professor at Duke Law School who was a champion 800 meter runner in 1982 and 1983 (Coleman 2017, 2019).  The opposing arguments have been put forward by people like Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis (2019).

Coleman contends--rightly I think--that while sex segregation and discrimination should often be challenged as unfair, the separation of the sexes is justifiable when this serves some valuable institutional goals while minimizing any harmful effects.  That is true for the institution of sports because separating men and women into different competitive arenas promotes the valuable goals of sport in the modern world.  It showcases the best athletes, because in having men compete with men and women with women, the best female athletes have an equal opportunity to be recognized for their athletic achievements, which would not happen if they were competing with men, because biological sex differences--particularly in testosterone levels--give men a performance advantage over women.  This segregation of the sexes in sports promotes liberal reform by weakening the traditional subordination of women to men.  Beginning with the Olympics in ancient Greece, elite athletic competition was a purely male activity, and it was not until the beginning of the 20th century, that women were allowed to compete in women's only events.  To achieve these goals, there has to be some defined categories distinguishing men and women and some enforcement of rules for who can compete as women in the women's events.

Jordan-Young and Karkazis offer lots of objections to this position, but the most fundamental one is that Coleman's reasoning falsely assumes a sex dualism in which sex identity is clearly divided into the bipolar categories of male and female, which includes a "sex gap" in T--men have a high T level, while women have a low T level, and there is no overlap between the T blood levels of men and women.  If this were true, then one could say that a naturally high T woman like Semenya is not "really" a woman, and so she should not be allowed to compete in women's athletics, because her typically male T levels give her an unfair advantage over women with typically female T levels.

This is not true, they argue, because there is no clear sex gap in T levels between elite male and female athletes.  In one large-scale study of T in elite athletes--taking blood samples from 446 men and 234 women athletes in fifteen Olympic events in 2000--it was found that although the average T levels were very different between men and women, there was a substantial overlap in the T levels of the women and men athletes.  13.7 percent of the women had T above the typical female range, and 4.7 percent (12 individuals) had T levels within the typical male range.  The researchers concluded from this that "the IOC [International Olympic Committee] definition of a woman as one who has a 'normal' testosterone level is untenable" (Healy et al. 2014: 294).

And yet another large-scale study of T in elite athletes reached a contradictory conclusion.  Researchers measured the blood levels of T in 849 elite female athletes, and once they removed five doped athletes and five 46 XY DSD women from the group, they found that the median T values were close to the range typical for young women.  They concluded that "doping and some forms of DSD are likely to be the two most important confounding factors when hyperandrogenism in female athletes is considered" (Bermon et al. 2014).  This would explain the contradiction with the other study, because the 12 women in that study with T levels within the typical male range were probably either doping or DSD women.

Jordan-Young and Karkazis have objected that to exclude all women whose high natural T could be traced to variations in sex development--intersex people--as "confounding factors" is question-begging circular reasoning.  T levels look dimorphic only when you throw out women with intersex variations that have T levels overlapping the male range.  But if you include those women, you will see that T levels aren't dimorphic, because they are characterized by two curves for men and women that overlap.

This challenges the claim that I have often made about the natural desire for sexual identity--that human beings generally desire to identify themselves as male or female, which creates a universal bipolarity of male and female in all human societies.  Against this, Jordan-Young and Karkazis insist that there is no clear male/female dualism because the natural reality of sexual identity is too messy for that--some people are male, some are female, and some are in-between.  There are not just two sexes; but, as Anne Fausto-Sterling has argued, there are at least five.  I have written about this herehere, and here.

Jordan-Young, Karkazis, and Fausto-Sterling are correct in pointing out that sex characteristics are not always distributed bimodally into clear male and female categories.  But still, as Coleman has observed, as soon as one considers the incidence of this distribution and the reproductive function of male and female genitalia, sex clearly does appear bipolar.  Over 98% of all human beings have had a normal sex development into either a typical male or a typical female, so that for most of us, chromosomal sex, gonadal sex, hormonal sex, and phenotypic sex all support a sex identity as either male or female.  One can see this in any textbook chart of normal genital development.

And yet even as nature shows this bipolarity of male and female in normal genital development, it also shows genital variation, as in this illustration, which shows the typical male (figure 1), the typical female (figure 6), and the in-between types (figures 2-5).  As a statistical norm, sex is clearly binary, although it's binary with exceptions.  As Aristotle would say, the dualism of male and female is what nature creates "for the most part," but there will always be some exceptions to the rule.  This is generally true for all biological phenomena.

The science of sexuality confirms what we should know by common-sense experience that both the norm of sexual duality and the exceptions to that norm are real.  They are not just arbitrary social constructions.

We can respect Caster Semenya as an intersex individual with a partially male body and a female gender identity.  But we must also respect those many typically female athletes who want to compete with other females, so that they can display their athletic excellence.  This creates a conflict of interests.  The IAAF has tried to resolve this conflict by telling those intersex individuals like Semenya that they must either compete with men or reduce their testosterone levels to compete with women.  In doing this, they have weighed the possible harm to people like Semenya against the possible harm to typically female athletes.


Bermon, Stephane, et al. 2014. "Serum Androgen Levels in Elite Female Athletes." Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 99 (11): 4328-4335.

Coleman, Doriane Lambelet. 2017. "Sex in Sport." Law and Contemporary Problems 80: 63-126.

Coleman, Doriane Lambelet. 2019. "A Victory for Female Athletes Everywhere." Quillette, May 3.

Fenichel, Patrick, et al. 2013. "Molecular Diagnosis of 5 Alpha-Reductase Deficiency in 4 Elite Young Female Athletes Through Hormonal Screening for Hyperandrogenism." Journal of Clinical Endrocrinology and Metabolism 98 (6): E1055-E1059.

Handelsman, David J., et al. 2018. "Circulating Testosterone as the Hormonal Basis of Sex Differences in Athletic Performance." Endocrine Reviews 39: 803-829.

Healey, M. L., et al. 2014. "Endocrine Profiles in 693 Elite Athletes in the Postcompetition Setting."  Clinical Endocrinology 81: 294-305.

Jordan-Young, Rebecca M., and Katrina Karkazis. 2019. Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Saturday, November 02, 2019

The Evolution of Social Inequality in Bronze Age Europe

In this 4,000 year old burial site in southern Germany, the headdress of this woman indicates a local tradition of high status burial; but an isotopic analysis of her teeth shows that she grew up in a land hundreds of miles away.

This ornate pin from the grave of another woman indicates her high social status.

These are two illustrations of some of the evidence gathered from Bronze Age gravesites in the Lech River Valley in southern Germany, dating to between about 2800 and 1700BC.  In a remarkable paper recently published online by the journal Science, researchers have combined evidence from DNA, artifacts, chemical analysis of teeth, and radiocarbon dating from prehistoric burial sites in this area of Germany to reconstruct the social life of 104 Bronze Age individuals found in 13 farmstead cemeteries (Callaway 2019; Gibbons 2019; Mittnik et al. 2019).

The patterns in the graves suggested that these individuals lived in a stratified society with complex households composed of three groups of people.  In the first group, there were closely related individuals with all the grave goods of wealth and status--men buried with elaborate weapons (daggers, axes, chisels, and arrow heads), women buried with elaborate bodily adornments (copper headdresses, bronze leg rings, and copper pins).  These seemed to be the members of a core family with wealth and status inherited within the family over generations.  Strangely, there were no burials of adult daughters, suggesting that daughters had migrated out of the group after reaching maturity.

In the second group, there were unrelated women who had migrated from distant locations and were buried with the grave goods indicating high status and wealth.  This appeared to be evidence for a system of female exogamy and patrilocal residence: adolescent females would leave their natal group and migrate to a distant group to find a mate, while adolescent males would remain with their patrilineal kin group.  Wealthy, high-status families were exchanging their daughters over long distances.

In the third group, there were local, low-status individuals who were buried near the graves of the core family.  Presumably, these were either servants, farm hands, or slaves who were considered members of the household.

Amazingly, this Bronze Age household structure of unequal ranking could show the deep history of the household system manifested much later in the oikos of ancient Greece and the familia of ancient Rome, in which a kin-related family lived with their slaves.

This shows the same pattern in the evolutionary origins of inequality that has come up in previous posts (here, here, and here).  Among nomadic foragers, some individuals could exercise informal leadership, but anyone who tried to exercise dominance over others would be checked by stubborn resistance.  Among sedentary, "complex" foragers, however, some inequality could emerge, including slavery, as was true for some of the indigenous people of the New World, such as the hunting-fishing-gathering cultures of the Northwest Coast of North America (Donald 1997; Santos-Granero 2009).  Once people settled into farming communities--as in Bronze Age Europe--there was even more stratified inequality with slavery.  

The key point here is that while status striving is inherent in our evolved human nature, and there will always be some individuals who want dominance over others, unequal ranking cannot be great as long as there are few valuable resources that can be distributing unequally.


Callaway, Ewen. 2019. "Bronze Age DNA Hints at Roots of Social Inequality." Nature 574: 304-305.

Donald, Leland. 1997. Aboriginal Slavery on the Northwest Coast of North America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gibbons, Ann. 2019. "Bronze Age Inequality and Family Life Revealed in Powerful Study." Science 366: 168.

Mittnik, Alissa, et al. 2019. "Kinship-Based Social Inequality in Bronze Age Europe." Science 10.1126/science.aax6219.

Santos-Granero, Fernando. 2009. Vital Enemies: Slavery, Predation, and the Amerindian Political Economy of Life. Austin: University of Texas Press.  

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Desire for Status Ranking (2)

Status striving is a universal human desire (Anderson, Hildreth, and Howland 2015; Barkow 1989; Brown 1991).  In every human society, human beings seek high rank.  They want people to look up to them and defer to them.  And they try hard to avoid disrepute, dishonor, and disgrace.

There's an obvious objection to this claim--that for most of human history, human beings lived in nomadic foraging bands that were so egalitarian that they did not recognize any status distinctions.  But as I have indicated previously (here), even the most egalitarian hunter-gatherers show respect for those individuals with superior skills or knowledge, who can become informal leaders; and although foragers punish people for trying to become dominant over others, the need for such punishment shows that status-striving individuals do exist, and they must be monitored.  In his often cited article on foraging bands as "egalitarian societies," anthropologist James Woodburn observed that "people are well aware of the possibility that individuals or groups within their own egalitarian societies may try to acquire more wealth, to assert more power, or to claim more status than other people, and are vigilant to prevent or limit this" (1982, 432).  Foragers recognize some people as leaders, but only as long as they don't act like bosses.

Status hierarchies form quickly.  In one study of 59 three-person groups of individuals who had previously been unknown to one another, who were given 45 minutes to carry out a task, a clear ranking of the three people into high, medium, and low status emerged within 1 minute for half of the groups and within 13 minutes for the other half.  The high status individuals were identified as those who initiated action more frequently, who were the center of the discussions, and who were evaluated by the others as contributing the best ideas and guidance to the group in executing its task (Fisek and Ofshe 1970).

Psychologists studying infants (11-16 months old) in infant daycare centers have seen dominance structures with high, mid, and low rank subgroups.  The dominant individuals were the center of attention who were imitated by the others (Russon and Waite 1991). Studies of schoolchildren have shown that beginning in the first grade the children can generally agree on which children are the "toughest" and the "smartest," and they show somewhat lower levels of agreement on which children are the "nicest" and have the "most friends" (Omark and Edelman 1975).

In his first political campaign statement, announcing his run for the state legislature, Lincoln said that his "peculiar ambition" was "that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem."  He would feel pride in being esteemed by his fellow citizens and shame if he were to lose that esteem.

For most human beings, the emotions of pride and shame motivate them to become valuable to their fellow group members.  These emotions can be seen as evolved traits of the human mind favored by natural selection because they solve a major adaptive problem faced by our ancient hominid ancestors. Our foraging ancestors lived in a harsh world with high rates of starvation, disease, injury, and attacks from predatory animals and other humans.  In such a dangerous world, our ancestors needed the help of others in their group to secure their survival and reproduction.  To persuade others to help them, individuals had to make themselves valued and respected by others in their group.  Pride could have evolved to guide individuals towards behavior that would win valuation and respect from others.  Shame could have evolved to deter individuals from behavior that would provoke scorn and disrespect from others.

This evolutionary theory of pride and shame as universal traits of our evolved human nature generates some testable predictions.  Shame should track the threat of social devaluation, so that individuals feel more shame for traits or actions that are more negatively evaluated by others.  Pride should track the reward of social praise, so that individuals feel more pride for traits or actions that are more positively evaluated by others.  Furthermore, this experience of shame and pride should be expressed universally across different cultures.

Some recent cross-cultural research by Daniel Sznycer and his colleagues has confirmed these predictions (Sznycer 2019; Sznycer et al. 2016, 2017, 2018).  For their study of shame, hundreds of people in the United States, India, and Israel were recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk--a crowdsourcing internet marketplace--to fill out a survey questionnaire.  The researchers created 29 scenarios in which someone's actions, traits, or situation might elicit social disapproval.  They divided the participants into two groups--the "audience" group and the "shame" group.  Those in the audience group were asked to react to 29 scenarios involving a third-party individual.  Here are four examples.  "He stole goods from a shop owned by his neighbor."  "He is not generous with others."  "He is not very smart."  "He hosts his extended family for a holiday meal, but he burns the food."  The participants were asked to "indicate how you would view someone of your same sex and age if they were in those situations."  They indicated their reactions on a scale ranging from 1 (I wouldn't view them negatively at all) to; 7 (I'd view them very negatively).  Thus, they provided a measure of how much they would disapprove of someone in such a scenario.

In the shame group, participants were asked to indicate how much shame they would feel if they the individual in the 29 scenarios.  For example, "you stole goods from a shop owned by your neighbor," or "you are not generous with others."  They ranked their shame on a scale from 1 (no shame at all) to 7 (a lot of shame).

The prediction was that the intensity of shame elicited by a scenario would track the intensity of social disapproval elicited by that scenario.  This prediction was confirmed both within each of the three cultures and across those cultures.  Scenarios that aroused great disapproval by society induced great shame in individuals when they thought of themselves as displaying those scenarios.  And the pattern of disapproval and shame was generally the same in the United States as in India and Israel.

There were some cultural differences, however.  Some scenarios elicited more disapproval in India than in the United States--for example, marrying someone without consulting your parents, and addressing your father by his first name.  And some scenarios elicited more disapproval in the United States than in India--for example, yelling at your maid, and telling your sibling that their daughter should whiten her skin.

What this shows is that there will be both universal patterns in what is regarded as shameful and some cultural variation corresponding to the local social ecology.  This is dramatically illustrated in the debate over slavery in the United States before and during the Civil War.  Some Southerners did not regard slave-owning as shameful, but as Lincoln pointed out, slave-trading was scorned as a dishonorable activity--gentlemen would refuse to shake hands with slave dealers.  To justify slavery, some of the proslavery advocates were forced to make the implausible argument that slavery was a "positive good" for both the master and the slave, and so Harriett Beecher Stowe's depiction of the cruelty of slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin was simply false.

If slavery was good for the slaves, then one might have expected that they would be willing to fight in the Civil War as Confederate soldiers.  The Confederate Congress repeatedly rejected black enlistment until March 13, 1865, when in desperation to find soldiers they passed a law authorizing black men to enlist, but with the stipulation that there would be no emancipation of slaves who fought in the Confederate army.  Active fighting ended less than 3 weeks later, and there is no record of any black units in the Confederate Army.  Four days after this law was enacted, Lincoln spoke about this before a regiment of Union soldiers from Indiana:
"The great question with them was, whether the negro, being put into the army, would fight for them.  I do not know, and therefore cannot decide. (Laughter.) They ought to know better than we.  I have in my lifetime heard many arguments why the negroes ought to be slaves; but if they fight for those who would keep them in slavery it will be a better argument than any I have yet heard. (Laughter and applause.) He who will fight for that ought to be a slave. (Applause.) . . . While I have often said that all men ought to be free, yet I would allow those colored persons to be slaves who want to be; and next to them those white persons who argue in favor of making other people slaves. (Applause.)  I am in favor of giving an opportunity to such white men to try it on for themselves. (Applause.) . . . " (CW, 8:361-62)
It is laughable and shameful to suggest that slaves would fight for their own enslavement, and that white men defend slavery as a positive good for others but not for themselves.

After Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, black men were recruited into the Union Army.  By the end of the war, there were 179,000 black soldiers (10% of the Union Army) and 19,000 in the Navy.  16 black soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor.  Frederick Douglass actively recruited black men with the argument that such honorable service in war would prove that they had earned their citizenship.

Lincoln took pride in launching this campaign for emancipation.  Indeed, as he told Joshua Speed, in proclaiming the Emancipation Proclamation, he thought he had finally achieved what he had long yearned for--to do something great for his fellow men, so that he would be remembered forever.

This emotion of pride can be explained as part of our evolved human nature.  Using the same method that they employed in their study of shame, Sznycer and his colleagues have surveyed thousands of people in 16 nations and 10 small-scale societies scattered around the world, presenting them with scenarios and asking them either how praiseworthy the circumstances of those scenarios might be or how proud they would be as the individual in those scenarios (Sznycer et al. 2017, 2018).  So, for example, some participants were asked to rate the praiseworthiness of three scenarios: "He keeps his promises."  "He is smart."  "He is a productive worker, and can keep his children healthy and well fed."  Others were asked to rate how proud of themselves they would be in three scenarios: "You keep your promises." "You are smart."  "You are a productive worker, and can keep your children healthy and well fed."  They found that the intensity of the pride that individuals anticipate for a potential action or trait tracks the magnitude of the approval or respect they would expect to receive from the people in their society.

This confirms the prediction of evolutionary psychology that pride has evolved by natural selection as an adaptive solution to the problem of how individuals secure the help of others in their group, because pride motivates people to do what wins the esteem of others, and thus makes it likely that others will act for the good of those they esteem.

For Lincoln, that meant that his proud pursuit of a praiseworthy deed like the Emancipation Proclamation was rewarded with the prestige of being the Great Emancipator.


Anderson, C., J. A. D. Hildreth, and L. Howland. 2015. "Is the Desire for Status a Fundamental Human Motive? A Review of the Empirical Literature." Psychological Bulletin 141: 574-601.

Barkow, Jerome. 1989.  Darwin, Sex, and Status: Biological Approaches to Mind and Culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Brown, Donald E. 1991. Human Universals. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Fisek, M. H., and R. Ofshe. 1970. "The Process of Status Evolution." Sociometry 33: 327-46.

Omark, Donald R., and Murray S. Edelman. 1975. "A Comparison of Status Hierarchies in Young Children: An Ethological Approach." Social Science Information 14 (5): 87-107.

Russon, A. E., and B. E. Waite. 1991. "Patterns of Dominance and Initiation in an Infant Peer Group." Ethology and Sociobiology 12: 55-73.

Sznycer, Daniel. 2019. "Forms and Functions of the Self-Conscious Emotions." Trends in Cognitive Sciences 23: 143-57.

Sznycer, Daniel, et al. 2016. "Shame Closely Tracks the Threat of Devaluation by Others, Even Across Cultures." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113 (10): 2625-2630.

Sznycer, Daniel, et al. 2017. "Cross-Cultural Regularities in the Cognitive Architecture of Pride." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114 (8): 1874-1879.

Sznycer, Daniel, et al. 2018. "Invariances in the Architecture of Pride Across Small-Scale Societies." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115 (33): 8322-8327.

Woodburn, James. 1982. "Egalitarian Societies." Man 27: 431-451.

Friday, October 25, 2019

The Natural Desires for Social Status and Political Power: Lincoln's Ambition

Abraham Lincoln's political ambition can be explained by evolutionary psychology as manifesting the universal human desires for social status and political rule that are part of our evolved human nature.  Human beings generally desire social recognition through comparative ranking.  For most human beings, their self-esteem depends on being esteemed by others whose judgments they respect.  For some human beings, this striving for status--for feeling important in one's group--becomes a striving for the prestige and dominance that comes from achieving supreme political rule.  Lincoln was that kind of human being.

There are at least twelve reasons for believing that striving for status is a natural desire that can be explained by evolutionary psychology.  (1) Since high status animals generally have better access to mating opportunities and valuable resources, natural selection and sexual selection favor the evolution of status striving.  (2) Status or dominance hierarchies appear among many non-human animals as shaped by their evolutionary history.  (3) Status ranking arises universally in all human societies and quickly among strangers who must form a group.  (4) Status ranking emerges spontaneously among infants and children.  (5) The concern for status elicits deep emotions of pride and shame.  (6) Status is associated with biochemical neurophysiology.  (7) There are both verbal and nonverbal indicators of dominance.  (8) The evolutionary theory of status as service for prestige has great explanatory power.  (9) Status striving persists throughout human history even as it varies in response to varying socioecological circumstances.  (10) The sexes differ in their status striving in ways that can be explained by evolutionary science.  (11) Although social status and political power seem different, the striving for political rule can be understood as a special form of striving for status.  (12) Lockean liberal social order, like that promoted by Lincoln, allows for status striving without tyrannical dominance by securing a balance between the one, the few, and the many in an egalitarian hierarchy with equality of opportunity and a circulation of elites.

I will write a series of posts on these twelve points.

As a general rule, male animals of high rank have more opportunities for sexual mating, and therefore higher reproductive success, than lower ranking males, although there are exceptions to this rule (Ellis 1995).  For example, in the captive colony of chimpanzees in the Arnhem Zoo observed by Frans de Waal, he saw that the alpha chimp sometimes had over 50 per cent of the copulations, and in one case over 75 per cent.  But he also saw that when Yeroen helped Nikkie become the alpha, Yeroen had the highest rate of copulations during Nikkie's first year of alpha status (de Waal 1982: 169; 1998: 164).

Anne Pusey and her colleagues determined the paternity for 34 offspring over a 22-year period for the chimpanzees in the Gombe preserve in Tanzania, and they concluded that male reproductive success did generally come from dominance rank creating priority of sexual access.  But they also saw that lower-ranking males sired more offspring than predicted.  They write: "our study confirms that male rank generally correlates with reproductive success.  However, younger males had the highest success per male, and low-ranking males successfully produced offspring more often than was predicted by the priority of access model.  Low-ranking fathers sired offspring with younger, less desirable females and appeared to use the consortship strategy more often than higher-ranking fathers" (Wroblewski et al. 2009: 880).  Among chimpanzees and other primates, females will secretly mate with subordinate males out of view of the dominant males (Manson 1992).

A dominance hierarchy is advantageous even for subordinates, because the loser in a fight risks injury and even death, and therefore it is better for a likely loser to defer to a higher ranking individual without a fight.  At the same time, a subordinate can look for circumstances in which a dominant individual is vulnerable to challenge.  Dominance hierarchies are not permanently fixed.

Moreover, the alpha position does not go just to the bigger and the stronger.  Particularly, among chimpanzees, rising to alpha dominance requires social intelligence in forming coalitions of supporters and in policing conflicts to secure peace.

That dominant males have increased sexual access to females is as true for humans as it is for non-human animals.  In polygynous societies that are highly stratified, the mating opportunities for those men at the top--kings, emperors, and despots--can be enormous.   Laura Betzig (1986; 1993) gathered evidence from the first six agrarian states in human history around the world--Mesopotamia, Egypt, imperial India, imperial China, Aztec Mexico, and Incan Peru.  She found a clear pattern in which the size of harems corresponded with the high rank of the men.  Kings and emperors could have hundreds or even thousands of wives.  Lesser princes could have less than a hundred.  Upper-class men could have a dozen or fewer.  Many lower class men might have only one or none.  The largest empire in human history was that of the Mongol rulers.  Genghis Khan established large territories for his sons who had large harems.  A few years ago, a study of blood samples from 16 populations from around the former Mongolian empire identified a chromosomal sign of ancestry from Mongol rulers that was shared by over 16 million men in that region (Zerjal et al. 2003).

Legally enforced monogamy in modern developed industrialized societies reduces the number of women a high status man can marry.  But it is still true in these societies that men with high status have greater sexual access to a larger number of women than do low-status men (Perusse 1993).  Although legally married to only one woman at a time, high-status men have more opportunities for extramarital sex and serial marriages.  Men with socially dominant personalities admit to having more affairs (Egan and Angus 2004).  They seek out women who are younger and thus more fertile (Grammer 1992).  High-status men also tend to marry women who are more physically attractive than do low-status men (Elder 1969; Taylor and Glenn 1976; Udry and Eckland 1984).  So as with other animals, there is a link between high male status and mating or reproductive success.  (Later, I will respond to the claim that the modern "demographic transition" has broken this link, in that high-status couples today show lower fertility rates.)

Status hierarchies show up throughout the animal world, which indicates convergent evolution towards status ranking as an evolutionary adaptation that solves problems faced by many animals.  I have written about this in previous posts--for example, in defending Jordan Peterson's account of lobster hierarchy (here) and surveying the political history of chimpanzees (here and here).

The crayfish (or crawdads as we called them in Texas when I was growing up) gives us a good model of how dominance hierarchies form and operate.  These freshwater crustaceans look like little lobsters (to whom they are related), and they are abundant in streams in North America, particularly in the southeastern United States.  (In his great book on the crayfish, Thomas Henry Huxley thought the study of these fascinating animals could be an introduction to zoology in general.)

                                                                   Fighting Crayfish

                                                 A Crayfish Meral Spread Threat Display

Crayfish fight over territory to determine who's the boss, the most intense fighting being over the burrows that provide them shelter from predators (such as fish and turtles) and from other crayfish that might cannibalize them (Barinaga 1996; Davis and Huber 2007; Edwards et al. 2003; Goessmann, Hemelrijk, and Huber 2000; Yeh, Fricke, and Edwards 1996).

Two crayfish will circle one another and size each other up.  They engage in ritualized threat displays.  Then they move towards one another.  The fight escalates until they use their claws to try to rip one another apart.  Finally, the loser retreats, slinking away to the periphery of the territory, while the winner struts around the center of the territory.  The next time they meet, there will be no fight, because the individual who lost the previous fight will withdraw in submission, and the individual that won the previous fight will assert his dominance over the subordinate.

There are at least four behavioral patterns here.  First, over a period of 10 minutes or so, recent winners will escalate their fights normally but will be less likely to retreat.  Second, over a longer period of hours to days, high-ranking individuals begin to escalate their fights more rapidly.  Third, those individuals who have experienced losses become increasingly likely to retreat.  Fourth, there is a bystander effect, in that those crayfish who have observed the fights will recognize the winners as dominant and the losers as subordinate, and the observers will be more likely to retreat from a fight with a dominant individual and more likely to threaten a subordinate individual.

This behavioral mechanism for establishing and maintaining a dominance hierarchy works in a similar way for many animal species:  the social experience of winning tends to make one individual dominant, and the social experience of losing tends to make another individual subordinate; and then the reputations of individuals for being dominant or subordinate spread through the group until everyone knows who ranks where in the hierarchy.  The hierarchy changes when changing circumstances allow some previously submissive individuals to challenge the previously dominant individuals (Hsu, Earley, and Wolf 2006).


Barinaga, Marcia. 1996. "Social Status Sculps Activity of Crayfish Neurons." Science 271: 290-91.

Betzig, Laura. 1986. Despotism and Differential Reproduction: A Darwinian View of History. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine.

Betzig, Laura. 1993. "Sex, Succession, and Stratification in the First Six Civilizations." In Lee Ellis, ed., Social Stratification and Socioeconomic Inequality, 37-74. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Davis, Karen M., and Robert Huber. 2007. "Activity Patterns, Behavioural Repertoires, and Agonistic Interactions of Crayfish: A Non-Manipulative Field Study."  Behaviour 144: 229-47.

de Waal, Frans. 1982. Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes. New York: Harper and Row.

de Waal, Frans. 1998. Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes. Revised edition. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Edwards, Donald H., Fadi Issa, and Jens Herberholz. 2003. "The Neural Basis of Dominance Hierarchy Formation in Crayfish." Microscopy Research and Technique 60: 369-76.

Egan, V., and S. Angus. 2004. "Is Social Dominance a Sex-Specific Strategy for Infidelity?" Personality and Individual Differences 36: 575-86.

Ellis, Lee. 1995. "Dominance and Reproductive Success among Nonhuman Animals: A Cross-Species Comparison." Ethology and Sociobiology 16: 257-333.

Goessmann, Christoph, Charlotte Hemelrijk, and Robert Huber. 2000. "The Formation and Maintenance of Crayfish Hierarchies: Behavioral and Self-Structuring Properties."  Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 48: 418-28.

Grammer, K. 1992. "Variations on a Theme: Age Dependent Mate Selection in Humans." Behavioral and Brain Sciences 15: 100-102.

Hsu, Y. Y., R. I. Earley, and L. L. Wolf. 2006. "Modulation of Aggressive Behaviour by Fighting Experience: Mechanisms and Contest Outcomes." Biological Reviews 81: 33-74.

Huxley, Thomas Henry. 1880. The Crayfish: An Introduction to the Study of Zoology. New York: D. Appleton.

Manson, J. H. 1992. "Measuring Female Mate Choice in Cayo Santiago Rhesus Macaques." Animal Behavior 44: 405-16.

Taylor, P. A., and N. D. Glenn. 1976. "The Utility of Education and Attractiveness for Females' Status Attainment through Marriage." American Sociological Review 41: 484-98.

Udry, J. R., and B. K. Eckland. 1984. "Benefits of Being Attractive: Differential Payoffs for Men and Women." Psychological Reports 54: 47-56.

Wroblewski, Emily E., Carson M. Murray, Brandon F. Keele, Joanne C. Schumacher-Stankey, Beatrice H. Hahn, and Anne Pusey. 2009. "Male Dominance Rank and Reproductive Success in Chimpanzees, Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii."  Animal Behaviour 77: 873-85.

Yeh, Shih-Rung, Russell A. Fricke, and Donald H. Edwards. 1996. "The Effect of Social Experience on Serotonergic Modulation of the Escape Circuit of Crayfish." Science 271: 366-69.

Zerjal, T., et al. 2003. "The Genetic Legacy of the Mongols." American Journal of Human Genetics 72: 717-21.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Evolutionary Science of Abraham Lincoln's Ambition and Depression

Some years ago, I wrote a paper on "Biopolitical Science," which defended a theoretical analysis of the political behavior of political animals through three levels of deep history--the universal history of the species, the cultural history of the group, and the individual history of political actors within the group.  To illustrate this, I tried to show how such a science could deepen our understanding of one of the crucial turns in American political history--Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863.  We would need an evolutionary historical narrative moving through the natural history of slavery, the cultural history of slavery in America, and the biographical history of Lincoln as the political leader who won his glory in becoming the Great Emancipator.  (I have written some posts on this here and here.)

At the level of biographical history, I spoke about Lincoln's practical judgement or prudence in deciding whether, when, and how to issue his order of emancipation.  But a full biopolitical account of Lincoln's judgment would require an evolutionary explanation of his individual personality rooted in the emerging biological science of animal political personalities (the topic of some posts herehere, and here.)

Two of the most prominent features of Lincoln's personality were ambition and depression.  The testimonial evidence for these traits--both from those who knew him and from Lincoln himself--is collected in Michael Burlingame's The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln.

William Herndon--Lincoln's law partner and the author of one of the best biographies of Lincoln--described Lincoln as "inordinately ambitious," "a man totally swallowed up in his ambitions," and even "the most ambitious man in the world."  He observed Lincoln's "general greed for office" and his "burning and his consuming ambition."  He declared: "any man who thinks Lincoln calmly sat down and gathered his robes about him, waiting for the people to call him, has a very erroneous knowledge of Lincoln.  He was always calculating, and always planning ahead.  His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest" (Herndon's Life of Lincoln, 114, 172, 304, 340, 422-23, 486).

Lincoln grew up in an impoverished family in isolated rural areas of Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois.  His father was illiterate.  But the people who knew the young Abe could see that he was determined to rise, to make something of himself, to achieve something great with his life.  To prepare himself for that, he had to educate himself, and people noticed that he was remarkably studious in his reading and writing.  Working for Josiah Crawford in 1825, when he was 16, Abe told him: "I'll study and get ready, and then the chance will come."  At age 20, he wrote into a friend's copybook: "Good boys who to their books apply / Will make great men by and by."  Another friend recalled that "Abe was just awful hungry to be somebody."

Ward Hill Lamon was a lawyer who travelled with Lincoln on the legal circuit in central Illinois, going from one courthouse to another.  Lamon said that Lincoln repeatedly told him that from a young age, he had foreseen that he would be President someday.  Years later, during the Civil War, Lincoln told Lamon: "You know better than any man living that from my boyhood up my ambition was to be President."

In his first race for public office, a seat in the Illinois legislature, the 23-year-old Lincoln was candid about his ambition in his public announcement of his candidacy to the voters of Sangamon County:
"Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition.  Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.  How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition is yet to be developed.  I am young and unknown to many of you.  I was born and have ever remained in the most humble walks of life.  My case is thrown exclusively upon the independent voters of this county, and if elected they will have conferred a favor upon me, for which I shall be unremitting in my labors to compensate.  But if the good people in their wisdom shall see fit to keep me in the background, I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined" (Collected Works, 1:8-9).
He lost this election in 1832, but two years later, he won this state legislative seat; and he held this seat for four terms.  In the legislature, he was best known for advancing an extensive plan for internal improvements--building railroads, roads, bridges, and canals to foster economic growth.  But then when a major recession hit the state in 1837, the state's debt became unsustainable, and the expense of the infrastructure projects seemed excessive.  Lincoln struggled to defend his unpopular projects.  The work on the half-finished railroads, canals, bridges, and roads was halted, and Lincoln was blamed for the failure.

At the same time as these political setbacks, Lincoln faced a crisis in his personal life when he broke off his engagement to Mary Todd on New Year's Day 1841, because he had begun to doubt his love for this often tempestuous and irritable young woman.  At this point, at age 32, he was plunged into one of his deepest bouts of melancholic misery.

He withdrew into his room in Springfield and stopped attending sessions of the Legislature.  He considered committing suicide, and his friends removed all sharp instruments from his room.  He spoke with his best friend--Joshua Speed--who later reported the conversation to Herndon:
"In the deepest of his depression, he said one day he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived; and that to connect his name with the events transpiring in his day and generation, and so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow-men, was what he desired to live for" (Herndon's Life, 172, 422-23; Wilson and Davis, Herndon's Informants, 196-97).
22 years later, shortly after Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he reminded Speed of this earlier conversation about his ambition for doing something great so that he would be remembered forever, and he told Speed: "I believe that in this measure, my fondest hopes will be realized."

And yet, as long as the outcome of the Civil War was in doubt, Lincoln could not be sure that his grand ambition would be fulfilled, and he was still often thrown into episodes of depression.  His friends used the word "melancholy" for his predisposition to depression.  Herndon said "his melancholy dript from him as he walked."  Henry Whitney, speaking of his travels with Lincoln on the legal circuit in the 1850s, said that "no element of Mr. Lincoln's character was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy."  Whenever he was informed of some especially bloody battle in the war, when tens of thousands were killed, he would walk around the White House groaning in agony, wringing his hands, and telling people he was ready to hang himself.  He was particularly prone to despair when he learned of Union defeats.  After Joseph Hooker's defeat at Chancellorsville, he cried out to his Secretary of War Stanton: "My God! Stanton, our cause is lost! We are ruined--we are ruined; and such a fearful loss of life!  My God! this is more than I can endure! . . . Defeated again, and so many of our noble countrymen killed! What will the people say?"

Some of the people who saw this life-long propensity to depression thought it might be an inherited temperament passed through his family.  Others thought it must have shown the damage from great losses early in his life--particularly, the many deaths of those he loved.  His infant brother died when he was 2 years old.  His mother died when he was 9 years old.  His sister died when he was 18.  At age 26, his beloved friend Ann Rutledge died.  At age 40, his son Eddie died.  At age 53, his son Willie died.

Burlingame makes a good argument for the thought that the most important cause of Lincoln's depression was his mother's death, in that all the later deaths and disappointments--including the casualties in the Civil War--that threw him into deep despair reawakened memories of losing his mother at age 9.  Lincoln's gloomy fascination with poetry about the deaths of all those we love provides some evidence for this.  For example, he greatly admired and often quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes's "The Last Leaf," which was concerned with the death of loved ones.  Here's his favorite stanza:

The mossy marbles rest
On lips that he has pressed
  In their bloom;
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
  On the tomb.

Lincoln said: "For pure pathos, in my judgment, there is nothing finer than those six lines in the English language!"  Friends said that when he recited these lines, tears would come to his eyes.

Beginning with Herndon's Life of Lincoln, historians have employed "psychobiography" in trying to explain Lincoln's psychic propensities to ambition and depression.  Now, the theoretical and empirical research in evolutionary psychology can deepen this understanding of Lincoln's personality as part of a biopolitical science of leadership.

To be continued . . .


Arnhart, Larry. 2012. "Biopolitical Science." In Evolution and Morality, eds. James E. Fleming and Sanford Levinson, 221-265. New York: New York University Press.

Burlingame, Michael. 1997. The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Herndon, William, and Jesse Weik. 1983 (orig. 1892). Herndon's Life of Lincoln, ed. Paul M. Angle. New York: Da Capo Press.

Lincoln, Abraham. 1953. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 8 vols., ed. Roy Basler. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Wilson, Douglas L., and Rodney O. Davis, eds. 1998. Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln.  Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Saturday, October 05, 2019

The Biopolitical Science of the Imperfect Honey Bee

Aristotle thought the political animals could be identified as those animals who cooperate for some common work or function (koinon ergon). This suggests that the best political order serves the common good of all its members.  And yet the evolutionary science of animal politics indicates that such perfect harmony in a political order is impossible, because the individual diversity of animals must always create conflicts of interest both within and between their social groups, and therefore there can never be a perfect animal society in which every member works for the common interest of all the members of the society.  This must be true even for those social insects, such as honey bees, that might appear to be perfectly cooperative.

As examples of political animals, Aristotle identified bees, ants, wasps, cranes, and humans.  Today, bees, ants, and wasps are classified as belonging to the Hymenoptera order of insects, which includes over 150,000 living species.  Of these, the honey bees are the best studied insects, because for thousands of years beekeepers have managed them for the production of honey.  Aristotle wrote extensively about honey bees (in The History of Animals and The Generation of Animals), and clearly much of his knowledge came from beekeepers.

Today, we know that most of the bee species are solitary or only weakly social.  The 380 bee species showing well-structured colonies are only 1.3% of all bee species.  The 11 living species of honey bees are only 3% of all eusocial bee species.  The honey bee species found generally in Europe and North America is Apis mellifera.

                                                    Queen Bees Fighting to the Death

Beginning in ancient Greece and Rome, political thinkers have pointed to honey bee colonies as models of political justice in which members do different jobs in a complex division of labor under the monarchic rule of the queen bee for the common good of all (see Morley 2007 and Van Overmeire 2011).  Actually, though, most political philosophers--including Plato and Aristotle--thought the ruler was a king bee, and it wasn't until the 16th and 17th centuries that it became clear that the ruler was really a female bee, which confirmed Xenophon, the one ancient philosopher who suggested that the ruler of the bees was a queen.  In 1609, an English beekeeper Charles Butler published The Feminine Monarchy, Or A Treatise Concerning Bees, which surveyed the scientific knowledge of bees beginning with Aristotle and presented bee society as displaying the best form of government: "For the Bees abhorre as well Polyarchie, as Anarchie, God having shewed in them unto men, an expresse patterne of A Perfect Monarchic, The Most Natural And Absolute Forme of Government" (1.7).  Since this was only six years after the death of Queen Elizabeth, Butler's readers could see this as a tribute to her rule.

This looking to the bees as showing the natural pattern for the best form of government began with Plato.  In his Statesman, the Eleatic Stranger lamented that "no king is produced in our cities who is, like the ruler of the bees in their hives, by natural birth pre-eminently fitted from the beginning in body and mind" (301d-e).  In The Republic, Socrates claimed that in his most just city, philosophers would be reared from birth to rule for the common good just like the king bees in hives (520b).

Aristotle agreed with Plato in recognizing that some bees were political animals by nature, although he also saw that some species of bees were solitary animals (HA, 487b32-488a14, 623b5-15). But Aristotle disagreed with Plato's assumption that the political life of bees was perfectly harmonious.  Aristotle thought there were often several leaders in a bee colony, that they would fight with one another, and that the worker bees would kill the most disruptive leaders (553b14-20, 625a15-18, 626a29-32).  He also thought that bees had to fight against robber bees who would steal their honey (625a15-b7).  And despite the reputation of bees as industrious workers, he observed that some bees were remarkably lazy, which was one of the many traits showing individual variability in their personalities (626a1-b20, 627a12-22).  Indeed, he thought that all animals showed individual differences in their character traits (487a10-14, 629b6-8).  As indicated in some previous posts here and here, the recent biological studies of animal personalities support Aristotle's point here.

Against Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes argued, in both De Cive (5.5) and the Leviathan (ch. 17) that, unlike human beings, the truly political animals like bees and ants lived in harmonious societies without conflict, where there was no conflict between the private good and the common good, because the natural instincts of the social insects inclined them as individuals to do what was good for all members of the society.  Consequently, the social insects do not need the coercive power of the Leviathan to enforce social order, as is the case for human beings.  Hobbes was mistaken about this, because the social insects show many possible lines of conflict--between colonies, between queens, between workers, and between queens and workers.  I have written about this here.

Those biologists who speak of bees and other social insects as "superorganisms" stress the apparent harmony and perfect cooperation in an insect colony in a way that seems to support Hobbes's understanding (Holldobler and Wilson 2008; Moritz and Southwick 1991).  But in their recent book--The Dark Side of the Hive: The Evolution of the Imperfect Honey Bee--Robin Moritz and Robin Crewe show that the imperfection of a bee colony becomes clear as soon as one looks at its individual members.  They write:
"As with any complex social system, honey bee societies are prone to error, robbery, cheating, and social parasitism.  The honey bee colony is thus far from being a harmonious, cooperative whole.  It is full of individual mistakes, obvious maladaptations, and evolutionary dead ends.  Conflict, cheating, worker inefficiency, and curious reproduction strategies all occur.  The perfection that is perceived to exist in their social organization is a function of a particular experimental focus on the colony as a whole rather than exploring the idiosyncrasies of its individual members" (vii).
Bees are individuals with variable temperaments as shaped by their genetic endowment and their life experience.  So, for example, most workers respond to the queen's pheromonal signals by suppressing their ovaries, so that only the queen lays eggs, but some workers activate their ovaries and lay eggs even in the presence of the queen.  To counter this rebellion, some workers police the colony by destroying the eggs laid by workers.

Despite their reputation for industrious devotion to whatever task they undertake in the colony, many bees are remarkably lazy.  If one observes individual bees throughout their lives, many will be seen loafing most of the time.

There is also great individual variation in intelligence. One illustration of this is in their famous "waggle dance," which was observed by Aristotle (624b5-8), although he could not understand the signals.  Karl von Frisch explained this dance as a communication by foraging bees of the direction and distance of good foraging sites.  But he observed that some bees were not as accurate and precise in their dance communication as others.  There was a lot of sloppy dance language showing that there were a lot of stupid individuals (von Frisch 1967: 149, 212).

The primary reason why honey bee societies appear to be harmoniously cooperative is that most of the individual bees give up reproduction in order to raise the offspring of the queen, and thus the workers appear to sacrifice their individual fitness to serve the fitness of the queen.  William Hamilton thought he could explain this self-sacrificing altruism as a product of the close relatedness of the females in a haplodiploid system of sex determination.  In this system, males develop from unfertilized eggs and are haploid (having only one set of chromosomes), while females develop from fertilized eggs and are diploid (having two sets of chromosomes).  Consequently, if the queen mates with one male, her daughters will be more closely related to one another (sharing 3/4 of their genes on average) than to their own offspring (sharing 1/2 of their genes on average); and therefore these super-sisters enhance their inclusive fitness by foregoing their personal reproduction and rearing their sisters.

The problem with this explanation, however, is that honey bee queens are polyandrous in their mating, which reduces intracolonial relatedness.  A virgin queen flies out of her hive to attract a swarm of males, and as many as one hundred of them will fertilize her eggs.  As a result, the colony of offspring that she produces will have many subfamilies, and so her daughters are more likely to meet half-sisters (with a relatedness of 1/4) than super-sisters (with a relatedness of 3/4).  And since the workers are unable to discriminate between half-sisters and super-sisters, they are unable to favor the reproduction of their own subfamilies.

This and other problems with Hamilton's theory has provoked a debate over whether kin-selection is or is not necessary for explaining social cooperation.  Edward O. Wilson has changed his mind about this--switching from supporting Hamilton's theory to doubting it.  I have written about this here.

The "imperfect honey bee" illustrates an often overlooked fact about evolution--that far from providing optimal solutions to problems, it only provides feasible solutions that are good enough for somewhat stable systems but not perfect.  That's the theme of a new book by David Milo--Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society.


Butler, Charles. 1609. The Feminine Monarchie. Oxford: Joseph Barnes.

Milo, David. Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Morley, Neville. 2007. "Civil War and Succession Crisis in Roman Beekeeping." Historia 56: 462-70.

Moritz, Robin, and Robin Crewe. 2018. The Dark Side of the Hive: The Evolution of the Imperfect Honey Bee. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Van Overmeire, S. 2011. "The Perfect King Bee: Visions of Kingship in Classical Antiquity." Akroterion 56: 31-46.

von Frisch, Karl. 1967. The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.