The Evolution of Politics: A Biological Approach

Handbook of Biology and Politics, ed. Steven A. Peterson and Albert Somit, pp. 55-84. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2017

The Challenge of Defining Politics

We must begin with the problem of how to define politics. Unfortunately, there has never been a consensus even on how this important social phenomenon should be characterized, much less how to explain it, and many conflicting definitions have been advanced over the years. Indeed, the cumulative index for the eight-volume Handbook of Political Science (Greenstein and Polsby, 1975), the most comprehensive synthesis of political science ever attempted, does not even include an index reference for a definition of politics.1 However, it is possible to identify two distinct “schools” among the plethora of alternatives that can be found in the political science literature.

What is referred to (sometimes pejoratively) as the “idealist” (or “holist”) model of politics is, in essence, grounded in the assumption that politics plays an important functional role for social groups, communities, and the larger society. This model can be traced back to the writings of Plato and Aristotle, the “founding fathers” of political science.   In his classic dialogue, the Republic (380 B.C.), Plato proposed that the polis (or polity) is fundamentally an economic association; it is very different in character from an amorphous aggregation of individuals who happen to share a common language, territory or culture and who may, or may not, engage in arms-length exchanges. A polity is characterized by a mutually-beneficial specialization of roles and a division of labor (or, more precisely, a “combination of labor”) and, equally important, interdependence with respect to the satisfaction of our various needs and wants. As Plato observed, “A city — or a state — is a response to human needs. No human being is self-sufficient, and all of us have many wants…Since each person has many wants, many partners and purveyors will be required to furnish them….Owing to this interchange of services, a multitude of persons will gather and dwell together in what we have come to call the city or the state….” (Book II, 369; also 370b,c, 371c).

In other words, an organized polity, or state, produces vitally important economic synergies. From a biological perspective, a polity is quintessentially a “collective survival enterprise” – a functionally interdependent “superorganism”. (For more on the concept of superorganisms, see Corning 2005; also D.S. Wilson and Sober 1989; Hölldobler and Wilson 2009.) We will return to this key concept later on.

Plato’s most illustrious student, Aristotle, supplemented his mentor’s views in some important ways in the Politics (ca. 350 B.C.). First, Aristotle emphasized that physical security — both external and internal — is also a fundamental function of the state and one of its principle raisons d’Ltre (a point Plato also made in a later work, the Laws). The collective survival enterprise is not, therefore, exclusively an economic association. Aristotle also stressed that human nature is not an autonomous agency. It entails a set of innate aptitudes that are uniquely fitted for society and that can only be developed in a network of social relationships. Thus, social life involves more than being simply a marketplace for economic transactions or a vehicle for collective defense. It also involves a life in common; we are all potentially enriched by it. Indeed, a hermit is not only economically deprived, he/she is not fully human and, equally important, has no evolutionary future. (We will also return to this important point.)

Accordingly, the state should strive to achieve social justice, not as an end in itself but as a means for preserving and even improving society as a stable, “self-sufficing” community. The objective of the state should be to achieve a “balance” among its various interests and factions, and the ultimate measure of its success in doing so is the willing consent of the citizenry; the political order is accepted as “legitimate”. Another way of putting it is that politics is ultimately concerned with the overarching interests, problems and needs of the collective survival enterprise – the “public interest.”

This paradigm has had many modern adherents, needless to say. Political theorist Sheldon Wolin (1960, pp. 2-3, 10-11) spoke of activities related to or affecting “the community as a whole.” Karl Deutch (1963, p. 124) called politics “the dependable coordination of human efforts and expectations for the attainment of the goals of the society.” David Easton’s (1965, p. 21) definition, though a bit ambiguous, is perhaps the most widely employed by contemporary political scientists of his persuasion. He described politics as the process through which “values are authoritatively allocated for a society.” But the modern apotheosis of the idealist stance may be Larry Arnhart’s normatively-laden definition in Dawinian Natural Right (1998, p. 1): “The ultimate aim of politics is to form the character of human beings to promote some conception of the best life.” This is so, Arnhart says, because “every political debate depends fundamentally on opinions about what is good and bad, just and unjust.” These moral opinions, Arnhart concludes, express “a universal human nature.”

The “Realist” Model

Of course, many theorists over the years have disputed the claims of the idealists. What has been called – sometimes with a condescending tone – the “realist” (or “materialist”) view of politics also traces its origins back the classical Greeks, including the Sophists, Skeptics, Cynics and Epicureans (their very names give the game away). These theorists advanced a radically individualistic definition of the good life, and of politics. For them, the claims for the community, and the very concept of a “public interest,” are a chimera; individual “self-interest” is posited as the foundation of social life. Social justice, according to the character Thrasymachus in Plato’s great dialogue, is nothing more than “the interest of the stronger.”

In this transactional model, politics is defined in terms of the power relationships between, and conflicts among, individuals and “interests”, along with how the various costs and benefits might be distributed among them. The many theorists who have been associated with the realist model over the past 2,000 years include the likes of Thomas Hobbes (1651), John Locke (1690), Jeremy Bentham (1789) and other so-called utilitarians (e.g., Mill 1863), and there have been many more variations on this theme in the present era. Perhaps the most famous modern “realist” definition of politics is the terse epigram coined by the early twentieth century political scientist Harold Lasswell (1936) in the title of his famous tract Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. The well-known political scientist Robert Dahl (1970, p. 6) spoke of “relationships” involving “power, rule or authority,” while Hans J. Morgenthau (1967, p. 9) characterized politics as a naked “struggle for power” (see also endnote 1). Government, therefore, has no higher purpose than what is expressed in the interactions (conflicts, agreements, exchanges) that arise from the political mêlée.

The Biological Model

A new chapter in this ancient debate opened with the emergence of the science of ethology – the study of animal behavior — in the 1960s. Although the systematic study of animal behavior dates back to Darwin’s day – as evidenced in his landmark book on The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1873), as well as the pioneering work of the so-called comparative psychologists during the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – many social scientists of the twentieth century rejected the claim that an evolutionary/biological paradigm is in any way relevant to understanding humankind. Human nature was widely viewed (in academia at least) as a tabula rasa — a blank slate psychologically. Our actions can be explained solely in terms of learned behaviors and cultural forces.2

However, the justification for this ideologically-rooted (and self-serving) attitude began to erode with the publication of various ethologically-grounded books by Nikolaas Tinbergen (1951), Konrad Lorenz (1966), Robert Ardrey (1966, 1976), Desmond Morris (1967), Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1975) and others. (The origins of ethology predated World War Two, but only in the 1960s and 1970s did its contributions become widely known – and debated;.see Corning 2005.) This was followed by the rise of the biopolitics movement, predominately but not exclusively in political science (see especially Somit, 1968, 1976; Corning, 1971, 1974, 1983; Tiger and Fox, 1971; Alexander, 1974, 1979; Masters, 1975, 1983, 1989; Willhoite, 1976, 1981;Wiegele, 1979; Schubert, 1981; White, 1981; also Somit et al., 1980; Losco and Somit, 1992; Somit and Peterson, 1991-2012), and somewhat later by the emergence of the discipline of sociobiology (E.O. Wilson, 1975), and by the more human-oriented sub-discipline of evolutionary psychology (see the overview in Buss, 2005).

An ethologically-oriented debate over the nature of politics and its role in human societies was initiated by anthropologists Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox in their provocative popularization, The Imperial Animal (1971). What Tiger and Fox did, and with a certain relish, was to equate politics in human societies with dominance competition in the natural world. Thus politics is “a world of winners and losers.” The political system, they claimed, is synonymous with a “dominance hierarchy.”

At first glance, it may seem that Tiger and Fox were promoting the realist model of politics as “a struggle for power.” Yet Tiger and Fox recognized that dominance competition in nature also has a purpose. It is related to competition for scarce resources – nest sites, food, and especially obtaining mates. Tiger and Fox concluded that “the political system is the breeding system.” Having thus flagrantly caricatured this ancient term, Tiger and Fox were then forced to concede that politics in human societies serves very different purposes. It is often associated with leadership, the division of labor and cooperative activities of various kinds. It has become dissociated for the most part from breeding functions (with some notable exceptions, like Genghis Khan). Unfortunately, Tiger and Fox did not bring this crucial distinction into focus. In the end, they left us mainly with a loose analogy.

A more coherent case for the proposition that human politics is related to dominance behaviors in other animal species was developed in a succession of works by the primatologist Frans de Waal, beginning with his Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes (1982). (See also de Waal, 1989; Harcourt and de Waal, 1992; de Waal, 1996, 2001, 2006; cf., Somit and Peterson 1997.) Drawing on his own extensive research in captive chimpanzees, along with the many long-term field studies of these animals, de Waal has offered us a deeper, richer perspective on the issue.

The struggle for power and influence is ubiquitous among these animals, de Waal acknowledged. From the motivational perspective of the animals, this may well be an end in itself. And, yes, the dominant animals may gain advantages in terms of such things as nesting sites and breeding privileges. But there is much more to dominance behaviors than this. The competition for status very often involves coalitions and alliances; it is often a group process rather than an individualistic, Hobbesian “war”.

In fact, there is much evidence that social constraints on dominance behaviors are common, both in these and other social animals. Coalitions sometimes form to thwart the actions of a dominant animal. And in bonobos (or pygmy chimpanzees), a loose female hierarchy seems to form the organizational backbone of the group; females often band together to constrain an aggressive male (de Waal 1997). (Also relevant is the evidence for similar behaviors in small-scale human hunter-gatherer societies, which anthropologist Christopher Boehm, 1993, 1997, 1999, has characterized as a “reverse dominance hierarchy.” Boehm also calls it an “egalitarian syndrome.” We will return to this well-documented phenomenon.)

Equally important, stable dominance hierarchies in chimpanzees and other social animals also have functional importance for the group – maintaining peace, arbitrating disputes, limiting destructive competition, mobilizing collective action, even defending the group against outside threats. The intense interdependence of social animals like chimpanzees and bonobos also leads to a degree of reciprocity and generosity, such as food sharing. More recent work in chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and other socially-organized species suggests that interpersonal social relationships and interactions can be very complex, and that cultural influences may also play an important part. In fact, there may even be a degree of “democratic” participation in various group decision-making processes (Conradt and Roper, 2003; see also Boehm, 1996). Nor does one size fit all. The dynamics may differ from one group to the next, or even within the same group over time. (See especially de Waal 1989, 1996, 1999, 2001, 2006; also Kummer, 1968, 1971; E.O. Wilson, 1975; Lopez, 1978; Strum, 1987; Dunbar, 1988; Wrangham, 1994; Boesch and Tomasello, 1998; Whiten et al., 1999; van Schaik et al., 2003; Tomasello, 2009.)

De Waal (1982, p. 213), invoking Aristotle, concluded that chimpanzees are also political animals: “We should consider it an honour to be classed [along with these primates] as political animals,” he says. (For the record, this is also consistent with Aristotle’s usage, as Arnhart 1998, points out. Aristotle applied the term to any socially-organized species that cooperates in jointly pursuing various aspects of the survival enterprise, from honeybees to wild dogs and killer whales. For obvious reasons, Aristotle placed humans at the pinnacle of this category.)

In sum, the biological paradigm suggests that both the holistic (idealist) model of politics and the egoistic (realist) model have some validity; they are not mutually exclusive. As de Waal (1996, pp. 9, 102) points out, we also need to ask “what’s in it for the subordinate?” His answer: “The advantages of group life can be manifold….increased chances to find food, defense against predators, and strength in numbers against competitors….Each member contributes to and benefits from the group, although not necessarily equally or at the same time…Each society is more than the sum of its parts.” In other words, cooperative social groups may produce mutually-beneficial synergies. (Again, we will return to this key point.)

Accordingly, in this more “balanced” version of the biological paradigm, dominance behaviors may take on the functional attributes of leadership, and a dominance hierarchy may also provide a framework for organizing various cooperative activities, including collective actions or a division (combination) of labor (see Corning, 1983, 1987, 1996a,b, 2003, 2005; cf., Masters, 1989; Somit and Peterson 1997; Grady and McGuire, 1999; also Axelrod 1984; Ostrom 1990; Rubin, 2002). Such organized “political systems” are characterized by overarching collective goals, decision-making, interpersonal communications, social control processes and “feedback”. In short, political systems are cybernetic systems.

Chapter Endnotes

  1. A more recent single-volume compendium, A New Handbook of Political Science (Goodin and Klingemann eds., 1996), represents an improvement over the original. The editors define politics as the “constrained use of social power,” which they acknowledge follows in the tradition of Weber, Lasswell, Dahl, Duverger and others (p. 7).       However, they also concede that the concept is “well known to be a fraught conceptual field.” Rather than getting “bogged down” in this controversy, they opt for the Weberian approach, which stresses the “non-violent” power of one person over another – whatever that may mean. (Falling in love may profoundly influence a person’s life, but is it politics?) On the other hand, the editors say, unconstrained power (or “force”) is “more the province of physics,” or maybe “military science” (ibid.). Among other shortcomings, this is hardly consistent with the widely-accepted claim that the state is defined by a monopoly over the “legitimate” use of force. In the most recent Oxford Handbook of Political Science (Goodin 2009, p. 5) reiterates the “constrained use of power” definition, but grants that power comes in many different forms and is constrained in many different ways. Indeed, as he concedes (following Lowi 1964), politics involves both “how” and “why” questions, but his formal definition does not address the “why” question – the purposes associated with the use of power. A better definition can be teased out of a comment somewhat further along in Goodin’s discussion: “Politics is a matter of pursuing your purpose, as best you can, in the context of purposeful agents doing the same.” So, Goodin concludes, politics is really a matter of “with whom, through whom, or around whom you must work to accomplish your goals” (ibid.). This definition, as we shall see, is highly compatible with the cybernetic model of politics (see below).
  2. As psychologist Steven Pinker       (2002, p. 1) points out in his best-selling tour-de-force on our modern-day misconceptions (and biases) about human nature, appropriately titled The Blank Slate: “Everyone has a theory of human nature….Our theory of human nature is the wellspring of much of our lives. We consult it when we want to persuade, or threaten, inform or deceive. It advises us on how to nurture our marriages, bring up our children, and control our own behavior…Rival theories of human nature are entwined in different ways of life and different political systems, and have been a source of much conflict over the course of history.” Pinker might also have pointed out that the great political theorists over the centuries have likewise anchored and undergirded their theories with various assumptions about human nature. (For more on this point, see Corning 2014a and Chapter 00 in this volume.)
  3. Norbert Wiener’s (1948) cybernetic paradigm represents one of the seminal ideas of the twentieth century. It has provided a general framework for analyzing communications and control processes in all “purposeful” systems, from genomes to empires. Especially notable are the many important applications in control engineering and robotics. Nevertheless, its full potential has yet to be realized. For instance, cybernetics is relatively little used as an analytical tool in the social sciences. One reason is that Wiener’s framework lacked a crucial element — a functional definition of information. The functional (content and meaning) role of information in cybernetic processes cannot be directly measured with Claude Shannon’s statistical information theory, which Wiener also adopted. Although so-called Shannon information has made many valuable contributions and has many important uses, it is blind to the functional properties of information. We have proposed a radically different approach to information theory, which we call “control information” (Corning and Kline 1998, Corning 2001, 2005, 2007a). Control information is not a thing or a mechanism but an attribute of the relationships between things. It is defined as: the capacity (know how) to control the acquisition, disposition and utilization of matter/energy in “purposive” (cybernetic) processes. If energy is defined as “the capacity to do work,” control information is the capacity to control the capacity to do work. Accordingly, we have proposed a formalization of this theory in terms of a common unit of measurement, namely the quantity of available energy that can be controlled by a given unit of information in a given context. In effect, control information can be measured in terms of its thermodynamic work potential. However, other metrics are also feasible, from money to allocations of labor (time and energy).
  4. Hamilton’s truncated but hugely influential formulation was seconded by E.O. Wilson in his discipline-defining volume Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (1975), where he identified altruism as “the central theoretical problem of sociobiology” (p. 3). The implication, which guided much of the early theory and research in sociobiology, was that cooperative behaviors are a theoretical “problem” that can be overcome only under exceptional circumstances. Since the differential selection of altruistic groups was considered to be highly improbable – in the wake of George Williams’s (1966) widely-accepted critique of “group selection” theory – this left mainly Hamilton’s model of “inclusive fitness” to account for social behavior in the natural world. The basic idea, which actually traces back to Darwin’s concept of “family selection,” is that altruism (sociality) might be a viable option if an individual’s genetic self-sacrifices were offset by gains to close kin that shared many or most of their genes in common. Early on, the only other theoretical “window” for social behavior was biologist Robert Trivers’s (1971) concept of “reciprocal altruism” – which, on close scrutiny, was not really about altruism but rather referred to mutually advantageous reciprocity with a delayed repayment schedule. (For a more in-depth analysis of this issue, see Corning, 1983, 1997, 2003.)
  5. One other mode of cooperation in the natural world should also be highlighted, namely “reciprocity”, especially the well-studied variant of this behavior called “indirect reciprocity.” Indirect reciprocity involves a class of cooperative actions that do not seem to have any relationship at all to reproductive fitness. For instance, helping behaviors among unrelated individuals – say meerkat “baby sitters” or the “helpers at the nest” in various bird species – appear to be an evolutionary puzzle. What do the helpers gain from this? Some years ago, biologist Richard Alexander (1987) developed the concept of indirect reciprocity as a possible explanation.       Alexander’s argument was that, in a stable, ongoing network of cooperators, a donor might ultimately receive a fair return “indirectly” for some helping behavior if it later became the recipient of some other member’s generosity. It amounted to a formalization of the old expression “what goes around comes around.” Much more thought and analysis has been devoted to this phenomenon in recent years, and the consensus seems to be that indirect reciprocity may well be a factor in sustaining socially-organized species, independently of kinship (see especially Boyd and Richerson, 1989; Mumme et al.,1989; Mesterton-Gibbons and Dugatkin, 1992; Nowak and Sigmund, 1998a,b; Gintis, 2000a,b; Clutton-Brock, 2002; Clutton-Brock et al., 2001). Significantly, this phenomenon seems to occur under the conditions that, most likely, also characterized the evolution of the human species (see below). Also important is the work on “strong reciprocity” as a cooperation-enhancing mechanism. See Gintis (2000a,b), Fehr and Gächter (2000a,b, 2002), Sethi and       Somanathan (2001), Fehr et al., (2002) and others. As the term implies, strong reciprocity is cooperation that is egoistic, not altruistic, and is therefore dependent on an equitable distribution of the benefits, as well as aggressive punishment to prevent cheating or defection. (See also Boyd and Richerson 1992; Clutton-Brock and Parker 1995.)       Closely related to this is the expanding body of work on “fairness” as a facilitator of cooperation in humankind (see especially Corning, 2002c, 2005, 2011; also see Rabin (1993), Fehr and Gächter (2000a,b, 2002), Fehr and Schmidt (1999), Henrich and Boyd (2001), Henrich et al., (2001); M.E. Price et al., (2002). Also important is the work by Robert Boyd, Peter Richerson (2002), Axelrod (1986), and others on the role of group-serving norms in securing cooperation.
  6. As an aside, it might be pointed out that Richard Dawkins himself acknowledged the role of group selection in one of the less-frequently quoted passages of The Selfish Gene (1976). The genes are not really free and independent agents, he explained.       “They collaborate and interact in inextricably complex ways…Building a leg is a multi-gene, cooperative enterprise” (p.39). To underscore the point, Dawkins also employed a metaphor from rowing. “One oarsman on his own cannot win the Oxford and Cambridge boat race.       He needs eight colleagues…Rowing the boat is a cooperative venture” (p.40). Furthermore: “One of the qualities of a good oarsman is teamwork, the ability to fit in and cooperate with the rest of the crew” (p.41). In other words, a group selection game creates a “public interest.”
  7. In order for a corporate goods relationship to be favorably selected and be “sustainable” (or evolutionarily stable), the following conditions apply: (i.) there must be an overall “profit” (the benefits must outweigh the costs); ( ii.) the benefits to each participant (direct, indirect, or both) net of the costs must be positive; and (iii.) the relationship is supported/sustained by one or more of the following:
    1. There is a functional interdependence, such that the relationship is self-enforcing (as in the “rowing model”);
    2. There is no better alternative (i.e., a more favorable benefit-cost ratio) available to any participant by “defecting” to some other relationship (a Nash equilibrium);
    3. The benefits may be reduced or denied to any defector;
    4. There is some other punishment/sanction for defecting (e.g., ostracism, denial of other benefits in a multi-faceted cooperative relationship, etc.).
  8. Another benign example of political devolution – theoretically significant because it exemplifies the many temporary systems that are created to meet a defined, short-term goal and then later dissolved – can be found in, of all places, the United States of America. Although the image of “Big Government” and the election campaign rhetoric about the federal government as a “bloated bureaucracy” has been a recurring theme in American politics over the past few decades, the reality is quite different if one contrasts the size and scope of the government, and the level and intensity of cybernetic control over the population in 1944 (at the height of World War Two) and in 1994, fifty years later. The conversion of the United States from a depression-plagued peacetime economy with a very small military (350,000 in 1939) to a huge war machine (the “Arsenal of Democracy”), with 11.4 million uniformed military personnel and 3.3 million civilian employees during the war, is very well documented. And this does not count the many millions of Americans who became involved in war production work (17 million new jobs were created during the war, a 34 percent increase in the labor force), as well as the 10 million organized civilian volunteers of various kinds. In short, the war produced a radical economic, political and military transformation, a national mobilization (cybernation) at every level of society, and the degree of regimentation and control exerted over the population and the economy were totally unprecedented in the U.S., before or since.   Fifty years after the war ended, the statistics tell the story. Federal employment in 1994, including the military, amounted to 1.53 percent of the total U.S. population, versus 10.7 percent during the war. In fact, the absolute number of civilian and military personnel combined in 1994 represented less than one-third the number in 1944. Despite the contrary perceptions of most Americans, federal employment as a share of the total population was only one-half a percentage point higher than in 1939. Likewise, total federal government outlays as a percentage of GDP amounted to 21.1%, or less than one-half the 1944 percentage (46.8%) and roughly equivalent to the percentage in 1939 after subtracting transfer payments for Social Security, welfare and the like, plus interest on the national debt. (For more details on this example, see Corning, 2002a, 2005.)
  9. It should be noted that Francis Fukuyama, in his magnum opus on The Origins of Political Order (2011), also has much to say about the dynamics of political development and what he calls (after Samuel Huntington) “political decay”. Among other things, he argues that extraneous factors, such cultural and institutional rigidities and the power of entrenched political actors, can also lead to the downfall of a given political order. I would argue, however, that if the underlying functional raison d’être – the synergies – still exist, some alternative regime will very likely arise to fill the necessary cybernetic role. Indeed, Fukuyama concedes that there is no single, all-purpose formula for achieving a successful political order. 
  10. In fact, this thesis has an ancient pedigree. The idea that behavior has played an important causal role in evolution can be traced back to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century naturalist Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (1809)., Even Darwin himself acknowledged the idea. The role of behavior was also the focus of what came to be known as Organic Selection theory in comparative psychology early in the twentieth century, although this theme was eventually eclipsed by the gene-centered approach to evolution associated with Neo-Darwinism. The idea was revived by paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson (1953) with what he dubbed the “Baldwin Effect” (after one of the Organic Selection theory leaders), as well as biologist Conrad Hal Waddington (1952, 1957) with an experimental paradigm that he called “genetic assimilation,” and especially by Ernst Mayr (1960, 2001), who stressed the role of behavioral innovations as important “pacemakers” of evolutionary change. Nowadays, even as we are reading genomes and using this information to illuminate biological causation and decipher evolutionary patterns, the role of behavioral processes is more fully appreciated, with multilevel selection theory providing a more ecumenical, multi-causal model of evolutionary change. This has been accompanied by a flood of research on how behavioral influences contribute to the ongoing evolutionary process – from research on “phenotypic plasticity” (West-Eberhard 1989, 2003) to “niche construction theory” (Laland et al., 2001, 2010; Odling-Smee et al., 2003), and “gene-culture co-evolution theory” (Feldman and Laland 1996; Boyd and Richerson 2005, 2009; Richerson and Boyd 2005). The idea that behavioral innovations also played a key role in the evolution specifically of humankind has also had many advocates over the years (see Corning 1983, 2014b; Bateson 1988, 2004; Plotkin 1988; Kingdon 1993; among others). This theme is more fully developed in Corning (2003, 2014).
  11. Gintis and his colleagues (2015) propose that the political shift from dominance to leadership occurred with the emergence of “power” scavenging and group hunting behaviors among Homo erectus. Here is the full abstract for the Gintis et al. paper: “We provide the most up-to-date evidence available in various behavioral fields in support of the hypothesis that the emergence of bipedalism and cooperative breeding in the hominin line—together with environmental developments that made a diet of meat from large animals adaptive as well as cultural innovation in the form of fire and cooking—created a niche for hominins in which there was a high return for coordinated, cooperative scavenging and hunting of large mammals. This was accompanied by an increasing use of wooden spears and lithic points as lethal hunting weapons that transformed human sociopolitical life. The combination of social interdependence and the availability of such weapons in early hominin society undermined the standard social dominance hierarchy of multimale/multifemale primate groups. The successful sociopolitical structure that ultimately replaced the ancestral social dominance hierarchy was an egalitarian political system in which lethal weapons made possible group control of leaders, and group success depended on the ability of leaders to persuade and of followers to contribute to a consensual decision process. The heightened social value of nonauthoritarian leadership entailed enhanced biological fitness for such leadership traits as linguistic facility, ability to form and influence coalitions, and, indeed, hypercognition in general.”
  12. Many students of human violence view organized warfare — the apex of our undeniably violent propensities — as a categorically distinct and historically recent phenomenon. Political scientist Claudio Cioffi-Revilla (1996, p.1), for instance, argues that “lethal conflict among organized, armed, and opposed social groups” originated in the Neolithic. And historian John Keegan (1993, p.121), while acknowledging the evidence of “raiding” and “routing” behaviors among hunter-gatherers, views these patterns as being “below the military horizon” — meaning that they were/are not pre-planned and organized “campaigns” and therefore not true warfare. He equates the emergence of warfare with the rise of a specialized military class. Many anthropologists over the years have also uncritically accepted and even promoted this interpretation, as Lawrence Keeley documents in War Before Civilization (1996). However, I believe such a categorical distinction is not justified. It arbitrarily decouples warfare from the long pre-history of collective violence in humankind; it ignores our continuity with the rest of the natural world; and, most important, it contravenes the fact that modern warfare shares a unifying causal principle — a deep homology — with all of the other, multifarious forms of collective violence in nature. Indeed, it is hardly a novel idea that human violence is somehow a part of the natural world. There is, in fact, a vast scholarly literature on this theme — philosophical, political/historical and, increasingly, scientific — tracing back at least to the likes of Aristotle, Nicolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer, as well as to social Darwinists like Ludwig Gumplowicz (1883), Walter Bagehot (1884), William Graham Sumner (1911) and others. In more recent times, Sir Arthur Keith (1949), Raymond Dart (1959), Konrad Lorenz (1966), Robert Bigelow (1969), Keith Otterbein (1970, 1994), Robert Ardrey (1966, 1976), Richard Alexander (1979, 1990), Paul Shaw & Yuwa Wong (1989), Johan van der Dennen (1995), Lawrence Keeley (1996), Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson (1996), Azar Gat (2006), and many others have advanced similar arguments.   (My own earlier work on this subject can be found in Corning 1973, 1975, also Corning et al., 1977.) See especially the reviews by van der Dennen (1990, 1991, 1995, 1999). Van der Dennen reminds us of how often the early writings, and insights, on human violence have been overlooked by modern theorists.
  13. Strong reciprocity theory refers to an extensively tested game theory model – using an experimental paradigm known as the “ultimatum game” – which suggests that cooperation in humankind, including even altruistic behaviors, can be elicited in cooperative situations if there is a combination of strict reciprocity and punishments for defectors. The theorists working in this area conclude that strong reciprocity is one of the core aspects of human morality and that it has played a vital role in our evolution as a species. (See the overview in Bowles and Gintis 2009.)

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