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.