Sunday, February 25, 2007

Chimpanzee Political Science

In Darwinian Conservatism (pp. 79-84), I write about the "Darwinian politics of chimpanzees and human beings," particularly as it helps us to understand dominance hierarchies among primates and the need for a "balance of power" to avoid despotic dominance.

Most people--and certainly most political scientists--would ridicule the idea that we can understand anything important about human politics from comparing the behavior of human beings and chimps. Most political scientists assume that human beings are so radically unique in their political behavior that comparisons with other primates is fruitless, if not downright silly. But I believe there are important commonalities across the primate species in their propensities to dominance and deference, so that we learn something about the biological roots of politics by seeing human status hierarchies as manifesting patterns shared with other primates.

I would even go so far as to assert that if political science ever becomes a science, it will be a Darwinian science of political animals. Such a political science would be the scientific study of political life across all the species that show political behavior, and especially those primate species most closely related to human beings.

As I argue in Chapter 3 of Darwinian Natural Right, this conception of political science as the study of all political animals--nonhuman as well as human--began with Aristotle. According to Aristotle, some animals are solitary and others gregarious. Of the gregarious animals, some are political. Some of the political animals have leaders, but others do not. The distinguishing characteristic of the political animals is that they cooperate for some common work or function. Humans, bees, ants, wasps, and cranes are all political animals in this sense.

Aristotle believes human beings are more political, however, than these animals because of the uniquely human capacity for language. Other animals can share their perceptions of pleasure and pain. But human beings can use speech to share their conceptions of the advantageous, the just, and the good. Human beings are the most political animals, it seems, because through speech human beings cooperate for common ends in ways that are more complex, more flexible, and more extensive that is possible for other animals. Through speech human beings can deliberate about the "common advantage" as the criterion of justice (Rhetoric, 1362a15-63b5). A just political community can be judged to be one that sereves the common advantage of all its members, as contrasted with an unjust political community that serves only the private advantage of its ruling group (Nicomachean Ethics, 1160a13-14; Politics, 1279a17-19).

Darwinian biology and the study of primate social systems essentially confirm Aristotle's insights. Although Aristotle did not identify chimpanzees as political animals, he did recognize that the apes were closely related to human beings, because the apes "share in the nature of both man and the quadrupeds," and he supported this with extensive anatomical comparisons of monkeys, apes, and human beings in his biological works.

Despite the common assumption that dominance structures among nonhuman animals are determined purely by physical combat and the rule of the stronger over the weaker, chimpanzees show a primate tendency towards forming dominance structures cooperatively and peacefully rather than through violent competition. Although physical strength is important, the dominance of an alpha male depends on forming coalitions with other adult males and winning the support of the females and the children. (This is made clear in the writings of Frans de Waal and Jane Goodall.)

The tendency to form face-to-face groups organized around a structure of dominance and deference is evident across the primate species, including human beings. A good survey of the evidence for this is Allan Mazur's book Biosociology of Dominance and Deference (2005). But even as he shows the commonality of human beings and other primates in their dominance hierarchies, Mazur also shows the uniqueness of human beings in their capacity for language.

When human beings acquired the capacity for language about 200,000 years ago--perhaps because of the evolution of a few genes supporting neural mechanisms for speech--they then had a capacity for complex cultural learning far surpassing the other primates. Then, with the end of the last Ice Age about 10,000 years ago, the warmer climate provided the conditions for the development of agriculture--with domestication of plants and animals. This allowed for a settled urban existence rather than the unsettled, hunting-gathering way of life of the earliest human ancestors. Human beings could then live in large civizations with millions of people, and they could use language to elaborate cultural rules of formal organization and socioeconomic stratification. Such formal and socioeconomic hierarchies are not found among nonhuman primates.

But even in such civilizations, human beings still show the same face-to-face dominance hierarchies that they share with other primates. The functioning of large organizations depends upon the behavior of small groups within the organization that structure themselves through face-to-face interaction.

Although the formal, bureaucratic structure of government transcends anything found among nonhuman primates, political rivalry as the competition for control of the government shows the same pattern of dominance contests that human beings share with other primates. Sometimes that rivalry for dominance is violent--as in wars, revolutions, and assasinations. But in a stable political community, most of the political rivalry for power can be channelled peacefully through institutional procedures such as elections and debate.

The comparative study of chimpanzee and human politics should show us that in every community there will be a few people with a strong dominance drive that can become despotic if their ambition is not checked by the ambition of others. That's why I defend balanced and limited government as a fundamental principle of "Darwinian conservatism."

The fundamental insight of conservative constitutionalism is that because power-seeking is rooted in human nature, the power of one person or group can only be controlled by the power of another. Conservatives reject the principle of sovereignty--the idea that in any social order there must be some one supreme power. Instead, conservatives defend the principle of countervailance--the idea that social order can arise from a network of independent entities that check and balance one another. To secure liberty, it is not enough that the people be sovereign, because any power that is sovereign will be abused. That's the lesson of the French Revolution, which brought about the popular election of Napoleon as Imperial Emperor. Liberty requires a system of limited government based on countervailing powers.

This principle of balance is manifested in chimpanzee groups in which the alpha male is checked by the power of others. But human beings can use language to elaborate this principle of balance as a constitutional regime that allows the ambitious few to fill the highest offices while protecting the multitude of people from being exploited by those ruling few. And thus, as Aristotle suggested, human beings can devise constituional arrangements for promoting the common good of all rather than just the private interests of the few.

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