Our political nature — chimps and bonobos

Our Political Nature (2013) by Avi Tuschman is hands down one of the best books on the evolution of political “instincts” I have read. Tuschman cites a lot of evidence that our political leanings (left or right) are inborn and can be seen in children as young as three years old.

For instance, at the ages of three and four, the conservative” preschoolers had been described as “uncomfortable with uncertainty,” as “rigidifying when experiencing duress,” and as “relatively over-controlled.” The girls were “quiet, neat, compliant, fearful and tearful, [and hoped] for help from the adults around.” Likewise, the Blocks pinpointed another set of childhood traits that were associated with people who became liberals in their mid-twenties. The “liberal” children were more “autonomous, expressive, energetic, and relatively under-controlled.” Liberal girls had higher levels of “self-assertiveness, talkativeness, curiosity, [and] openness in expressing negative feelings.”

Avi Tuschman goes back to chimps and bonobos to explain the left-right divide. Ever since Frans de Waal’s fantastic book Chimpanzee Politics (1982) it has been clear that human politics is not that different from chimp politics with all its alliances and tactics.

However, chimps aren’t our only closest relatives. The social and political life of bonobos is the polar opposite of chimpanzees-even though both species are equally related to humans. Gaping inequalities characterize chimpanzee societies, while bonobos practice extreme social and sexual egalitarianism.

[…] chimpanzees and bonobos have evolved astoundingly different political behavior, although the two species are separated by less than a million years. Chimps live in hierarchical, xenophobic, bellicose, heterosexual, and male-dominant patriarchies. Bonobos, in contrast, are more egalitarian, xenophilic, relatively peaceful, fully bisexual, and even arguably female-dominant. No wonder humans have politicized them!

It isn’t hard to recognize some liberal traits in bonobos and some conservative traits in chimps. In fact, we could even call bonobos the ultra left-wingers and chimps the ultra right-wingers among the hominid family. Where does that leave homo sapiens? We seem somewhat split between these two extremes. Can these extremes be explained as normal variation within a single ancestral environment? I would argue that like for chimps and bonobos different selective pressures must have occurred. And looking at human history it isn’t hard to find these different environments: hunting-gathering and farming-herding, respectively.

Anthropologists, in fact, have characterized hunter-gatherer societies in general as highly egalitarian-both politically and in terms of gender relations. 20 If a domineering male alienates some of the subordinate males in a small band, the latter have many options. They can tease the would-be dominant male, refuse to comply with his orders, murder him, or simply leave the group.

Among agro-pastoral peoples, gender inequality reached the highest point in human history. This culmination of gender inequality is glaringly obvious at the highest level of governing elites. Rulers of the Babylonian, Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, Roman, Aztec, and Incan empires had harems of up to several hundred women.[…] Gender inequality is also much higher among herders than among farmers.

I argue that some people have inherited more hunter-gatherer genes and some people more farmer-herder genes. The left-right spectrum isn’t the most reliable indicator, though, as women often tend to be more prosocial (left-leaning) and men more right-leaning. What’s more, people tend to shift sides depending on external circumstances. However, I do believe that these two tribes are visible in Jung’s distinction between sensors (farmer-herders) and intuitives (hunter-gatherers). These two groups were largely kept apart throughout the past millennia through assortative mating. The hominin political spectrum thus looks like this:

For more on the three tribes, check out my book Foragers, Farmers and Pastoralists : How three tribes have been shaping civilization since the Neolithic

Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on June 22, 2021.