Wednesday, November 24, 2021

The Primate Model of Chief Executive Rulers as Alpha Males

In most political communities around the world and throughout history, one person has held the highest political position--the office of the ruling chief executive.  There is always someone who is the big man, the chief, the monarch, the dictator, the emperor, the prime minister, or the president--the number one man (and it's usually a man).  Much of politics is all about the competition for that alpha male position.

Why is that?  Why do some people strive to be at the top, even when that striving exposes them to hardships and dangers, even death?  Why do many people defer to dominant rulers, while others resist being dominated?

The best way to answer these questions, I believe, is to say that human beings have biological drives to dominance, deference, and resistance to dominance that they share with other primates (monkeys and apes). One of the best theories supporting this view is Arnold Ludwig's primate model of political rule, which he set forth in his book King of the Mountain: The Nature of Political Leadership (University of Kentucky Press, 2002).  A slightly revised version of his model is a fundamental element of what I have called biopolitical science.  (Some years ago, I wrote "Why Males Rule," a review of Ludwig's book for the Fall 2003 issue of The Claremont Review of Books.)

Ludwig presented his theory as an empirical science based on the study of three kinds of data.  His first--and most rigorously collected and analyzed--database was the list of all the political leaders of all independent nations who held chief executive power for any length of time in the twentieth century (from January 1, 1900 to December 31, 2000), which was 1,941 individuals from 199 countries.  From this list, he then identified those who had separate encyclopedia entries in either the Encyclopedia Britannica or the Encyclopedia Americana.  He then did a bibliographic search to identify those on this shorter list for whom there was adequate data available about their personal lives and professional careers, who were selected as a sample for in-depth study and analysis.  This special sample contained 377 rulers.

He then prepared information forms to record all appropriate biographical data about all 377 rulers.  Based on these forms, he prepared data forms consisting of 182 items to be filled out for each individual, with definitions and criteria for recording all these variables.  With this, he could then do statistical comparisons among ruler types and other categorial variables to determine relative frequencies or percentages of certain characteristics or events for these rulers.

For example, Ludwig saw that 36 percent of the rulers in his sample had come to power with the help of mentors or colleagues.  He could then determine the likelihood of their betraying or remaining loyal to those who had helped them.  He found that 58 percent remained loyal, while 42 percent betrayed their friends.  He also saw that 100 percent of the tyrants and 86 percent of the monarchs were betrayers, while only 25 percent of the democratic rulers were betrayers.  It also seemed that betrayal was advantageous because while the loyalists spent an average of eight years in office, the betrayers spent an average of fourteen years in office.  He concluded that this confirmed Machiavelli's advice in The Prince that it is foolish for a new ruler to "keep faith" with those who helped him come to power: "because they are bad, and will not keep faith with you, you too are not bound to observe it with them" (94-95).

Ludwig's second kind of data consisted of anecdotal biographical data to illustrate the generalizations from his statistical data.  So, for example, after giving the statistics for betrayal and loyalty, he gives six instances of betrayal by dictators and three instances by democratic rulers.  The first case comes from Pakistan:  "As prime minister of Pakistan, Bhutto appointed General Zia, a little-known military officer at the time, as chief of the army staff in 1976 because he felt he was completely trustworthy.  About one year later Zia overthrew his benefactor and hung him on the charge of murdering a political opponent" (95).  Ludwig relates these biographical anecdotes in vivid and often amusing ways that engage the reader.

This is similar to Machiavelli's writing in The Prince because he often states a general principle or maxim for prudent princes that is followed by dramatically colorful stories that illustrate the point.

Finally, Ludwig's third kind of data came from the reports of primatologists (like George Schaller, Jane Goodall, Frans de Waal, and Robert Sapolsky) that show how the striving for alpha male status among monkeys and apes resembles the political life of human beings.  For example, as evidence that political betrayal and shifting allegiances in the competition for political dominance is common in other primates, Ludwig quoted from Sapolsky's account (in A Primate's Memoir) of the political competition in the savanna baboon troop in Kenya that he had studied for over twenty years.

When Sapolsky was 21 years old, he first joined the troop of sixty baboons in 1978.  Solomon had been the alpha male for three years, but this became his last year because he was unseated by Uriah.  Then, in 1980, Saul deposed Uriah after one day of fighting.  

Saul proved to be an extraordinarily successful ruler.  Whenever he was challenged, even if it was a trivial provocation, he responded with a ferociously vicious attack.  Consequently, everyone learned to never challenge him about anything.  But he never started fights.  He never engaged in aggression pointlessly.  "Saul was what most males aspired to, if only they had a stitch of smarts or discipline or energy" (A Primate's Memoir, 103).  He was the model of a baboon Machiavellian prince.

There was a group of young males in their prime who were frustrated by their lacking the ability to individually challenge Saul.  Finally, they decided to form a cooperative coalition.  Joshua and Menasseh made coalitional appeasement gestures to each other that established their partnership.  They jointly challenged Saul, but he defeated them.  The next day, Joshua and Menasseh formed a coalition with Levi; but Saul forced them to run away after only a few seconds of fighting.  The day after that, four of them--Joshua, Menasseh, Levi, and Nebuchadnezzar--fought jointly with Saul, but they failed.

Then, the next day, these four had formed an even bigger coalition with two others--Daniel and Benjamin--so now it was six against one.  In their fight, Menasseh got in a lucky hit on Saul's haunches.  Saul fell, and all the others jumped on him.  His body was punctured with many canine bites.  He survived.  But he went to the bottom of the hierarchy.

What happened to the victorious coalition of six?  Sapolsky reports:

"The wonderfully cooperative junta that had overthrown Saul lasted all of a morning before it disintegrated into factionalism and both metaphorical and literal backbiting.  All hell broke loose for months afterward.  Joshua, Menasseh, Levi, Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel, and Benjamin were clearly the upper-ranking cohort now.  For example, in a social interaction, any one of them dominated a subadult like David, Daniel's old buddy.  But they didn't have a clue where they stood with respect to each other.  Ranks flip-flopped daily. . . . Chaos reigned.  Everyone was scheming, spending hours forming coalitional partnerships that would collapse within minutes of their first test.  Nearly 40 percent of the time, when it did collapse, the erstwhile partner would wind up on the other side.  The number of fights went through the roof, as did the rate of injuries" (Sapolsky, 169; Ludwig, 124).

Ludwig quotes this to show that political alliances are as easily broken up by betrayal among baboons as among human beings.

There is one weakness, however, in Ludwig's comparisons of human beings and other higher primates as showing the Machiavellian drive for alpha-male dominance:  this does not seem to be true for one ape species--the bonobos--who seem to show female dominance and a more peaceful life than is the case for the other great apes and monkeys.  Ludwig refers to this "apparent exception of the bonobos," but without explaining it (Ludwig, 8-9, 355, 376, 410).


One way to summarize the primate model of politics is to list the similarities in the struggle for alpha-male dominance among human beings and other primates.  Here's Ludwig's list (355):


Males Dominant

No Special Experience or Skills Needed

Danger of Physical Harm

Vie with Competitors for Power

Form Alliances to Topple Leader

Repetitive Attempts to Depose Leader

Physical Prowess and Courage

Cunning and Deviousness Useful


Greater Access to Females

Breeding Advantage

Material Rewards

Deference by Subordinates


Keeping Peace among Subjects

Risking Harm During Challenges

Repeat Mistakes of Past Leaders

Resist Giving Up Power

Posturings and Displays

Change in Demeanor and Manner

Fending Off Challengers

As I have indicated previously, I agree with Christopher Boehm in seeing a Lockean political rhetoric among chimpanzees that turns on three themes--dominance, deference, and counter-dominance.  Ludwig is not as clear as he should be about the theme of counter-dominance.  To make that clear, I would add a fourth part to his primate model:


The Alpha Male Is Overthrown by the Ambitious Few Who Want to Dominate

The Alpha Male Is Overthrown Because the Normally Deferential Many Resist His Oppressive Dominance


Ludwig distinguishes six different ways of ruling as an alpha male--four kinds of dictators and two kinds of democrats (41):


Supreme Monarchs

Consecrated by Church or Authority by Kinship to Esteemed Figure

Absolute Rule or Strong Constitutional Powers

Rule for Life

Endowed with Special Powers Such as Healing Touch, Infallibility

For Example: Ibn Saud, King of Saudi Arabia (1932-1953)


Authority to Rule Based on Military Backing

Decrees and Edicts, Implemented by Force

Commonly Display Cruelty, Greed, Corruption

No Ideological Basis for Governing

For Example: Francois Duvalier ("Papa Doc"), President of Haiti (1957-1971)


Totalitarian Rule

Promotion of a Particular Political Ideology

Social Engineering

No Fixed Term in Office

For Example: Benito Mussolini, Prime Minister of Italy (1922-1943), Duce of the Italian Social Republic (1943-1945)


Dictatorship Established to Preserve Social Stability

Emphasis on Law, Order, and Tradition

Bureaucratic Rule Common with Emphasis on Regulations

No Fixed Term in Office

For Example: Janos Kadar, First Secretary of Hungary's Communist Party (1956-1988)


Transitional Democrats in Emerging Democracies

Rule Country After Liberation or Independence

Introduction of Constitutional Democracy with Fixed Terms in Office

Usually Show Autocratic Tendencies

Many Have Special Status as "Father of Nation"

For Example:  Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe (1987-2017)

Democratic Leaders of Established Democracies

Elected to a Limited Term in Office

Executive Powers Defined by Constitution

Balance of Power with Judicial and Legislative Bodies

Greater Emphasis on Negotiation and Compromise

For Example: Franklin Roosevelt, President of the United States (1933-1945)

We do not see these six kinds of alpha-male rulers among non-human primates.  But we do see the dichotomy between dictators and democrats.  For example, Frans de Waal has observed that while rhesus monkeys show a "despotic dominance style" in which subordinates cannot challenge dominants, chimpanzees show an "egalitarian dominance style" in which subordinates can restrain dominants.  Dominant individuals are expected to mediate conflicts within the group and to lead the group in conflicts with other groups.  Among chimpanzees, dominant individuals can be challenged or even deposed if they do not properly carry out their conflict-mediation role.


Holding high political office is a dangerous profession.  Being a chief executive ruler of a country is one of the most lethal activities known to human beings.  Ludwig's data shows that 12 percent of all twentieth-century rulers died a violent death--either by assassination (7 percent), execution (4 percent), or suicide (1 percent).  Within the sample of 377 rulers, the death rate was 18 percent.

Even if they are not actually killed, rulers have to worry about assassination attempts.  In the twentieth century, if the ruler was a tyrant, there was a 77 percent chance that someone would try to kill him.  For a monarch, it was a 61 percent chance.  For a visionary, a 56 percent chance.  For an authoritarian, a 46 percent chance.  Leaders in an emerging democracy had a 51 percent risk of being attacked.  Leaders in established democracies had a 19 percent chance of being exposed to attempted assassinations.

American presidents have faced many assassination attempts.  Four presidents have been killed in office--Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John Kennedy.  Others have been shot and came close to death--Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.

Prior to the twentieth century, the danger of violent death for rulers was even greater.  In the first systematic and quantitative study of regicide in Europe, Manuel Eisner has collected data on the frequency of violent death and regicide among 1,513 monarchs in Europe between AD 600 and 1800 ("Killing Kings: Patterns of Regicide in Europe, AD 600-1800," British Journal of Criminology 51 [2011]: 556-577).  He has distinguished four categories of violent death: accident, battle death, murder, and legal execution.  He found that in the seventh century, the frequency of regicide was 2,500 murders per 100,000 years in office.  There was a long decline in regicide.  So that by the eighteenth century, the frequency of regicide was about 200 per 100,000 years in office.  By comparison, the homicide rate in Western Europe today is around 0.6-1.5 per 100,000 person-years.  Clearly, then, European kingship before the Industrial Revolution was one of the most dangerous occupations in the world, comparable to that of soldiers in combat.

Eisner found that for most of this history, regicide was carried out within the noble elite in the competition for political rule.  But, then, by the seventeenth century, regicide became increasingly a matter of legal execution--such as the execution of Charles I in 1651 and the execution of Louis XVI in 1793.  In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, James II was deposed without being executed.

Even if they do not die a violent death, rulers face a high chance of bad outcomes.  In the twentieth century, tyrants faced the greatest risks: assassination (15 percent), thrown out of office by election (10 percent), deposed by coup (50 percent), or overthrown in a lost war (10 percent).  As Ludwig said, "that is a whopping 85 percent chance of leaving office in disgrace or in a casket" (120).

Simian alpha males face a similar likelihood of bad outcomes, including assassination.

In my next post, I will apply this primate model of political rule to the history of the Stuart monarchy in seventeenth century England.

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