Does Biology Explain Political Domination?

I claim that in every human group a small percentage of individuals are aggrandizers or those who have the drive to dominate others.  But domination was not possible until a material base allowed the production of a storable-stealable-surplus.  Only then did society begin to evolve complex structures that allowed a few to dominate the many.  Such domination was the result of social construction, not biology.  Presumably the biological drive was always there in primates, hominids and the humans of the Paleolithic but political domination did not come about until humans fell into an environment that provided them with a storable-stealable-surplus naturally (the rich salmon run rivers of the Northwest Coast, for example] or when they were able to domesticate plants and animals.  Therefore, we cannot say that social stratification is the result of primate aggressive tendencies (McKenna, James J.  1983.  Primate aggression and evolution: An overview of sociobiological and anthropological perspectives.  Bulletin of the American Academy of Psychiatry & the Law 11:2:105-130).  It is, rather, due to the fact that some especially aggressive and acquisitive individuals throughout history have constructed rule structures allowing them privileged access to the storable-stealable-surplus or material base that produces that surplus and have used that to manufacture a power base from which the élite few could dominate the many.  Both in the past and also today individuals with the drive and capacity to dominate have created, sought or inherited such power bases.  They were/are aggressive individuals whose cognitive/analytic skills permitted them to correctly assess when, to what degree and how aggression could be used to dominate others.  Present-day aggressiveness, acquisitiveness and institutions of domination cannot be blamed on our hominid ancestors.

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Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on July 27, 2011 at 5:01pm

John McCreary writes: “That a surplus is storable and stealable does not explain why people would want to steal it? Resource scarcity and kin ties that say "us" (the people I feel closest to) first is one possibility. The unholy pleasure of "It's mine and you can't have it" may be another.”


Certainly, “us” vs. “them” seems to be imbedded in human nature, perhaps an iteration of “known” vs. “unknown.”  Among the Sisala of Northern Ghana, the people about whom I have written, the village is considered a safe zone and the bush, including other villages, is seen as dangerous.  A variation of this can be seen in the fact that the lineage compound is another safer zone within the safe zone of the village and each night the lineage elder has a long piece of elephant grass placed across the single gateway to the compound, thought to keep out “witches.”  While the village folk form “us” the lineage folk form “US.” 


John McCreary asks why it is that the have-nots would want to steal the storable-stealable-surplus from the haves.  If a village has a storable-stealable-surplus of non-valuables one might raise such a question; but it seems self-explanatory that when there is a storable-stealable-surplus of valuables e.g., food or cattle, or a marketable commodity like candlefish oil of the Northwest Coast Amerindians, that the many historical instances of attacks and sackings of settlements is probable and understandable with too much academic pondering.  People were also taken as slaves once human labor was productive in a material world centered on food production not food gathering.  Presumably such great numbers of attacks by “them” on “us” did not occur in a non-storing world where food was freely available to all in nature’s larder.  What stimulated the rise of such raids and warfare?  It would seem that it was the presence of a storable-stealable-surplus of valuable goods and laborers who could produce them if captured.  People, as laborers, had become important once the storable-stealable-surplus was a common commodity. 


I will leave to the psychologists the answer to John’s insightful comment that such raids could be due to “The unholy pleasure of "It's mine and you can't have it" may be another” and presumably the have-nots saying, “Oh yes I can.”  To my mind, the materialist explanation is far stronger, sociologically.

Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on July 27, 2011 at 3:40pm
Thank you John.  I appreciate the fact that you read my post and your comments are both welcome and always insightful.  John McCreary writes: “That a surplus is storable and stealable does not explain why people would want to steal it? Resource scarcity and kin ties that say "us" (the people I feel closest to) first is one possibility. The unholy pleasure of "It's mine and you can't have it" may be another.”  He is correct.  There is more to it than a simple material explanation.  I do not claim that the storable-stealable-surplus is a single cause of the rise of political domination, but it is the stimulus that allowed natural aggrandizers to begin to build the social frameworks that provided them with privileged access to power, prestige and property.  While I agree with John that aggression is more deeply rooted in our biological past that primate or hominid aggression, I firmly believe that some people are more aggressive than others.  My hypothesis is that in any population of humans there will be a small percentage of individuals who we can label go-getters or aggrandizers.  In the Paleolithic non-storing societies these individuals likely were leaders who exemplified the values of cooperation and protection of the group.  They were likely the leading food-getters e.g., the woman who knew best how to find roots and berries or the man who was a keen hunter to whom others looked for leadership.  We have indications of such tendencies in studies of modern-day hunter-gatherers.  Let’s us the analogy of a ticking-time-bomb and assume that ten percent of non-storing peoples were aggrandizers but their aggressive natures were limited to generation-bound leadership and a quest for prestige.  Then either the group stumbled upon a habit that provided them with a storable-stealable-surplus as in the case of the Amerindians of the Northwest Coast or the Chumash of Southern California; or, they began to domesticate plants and animals, as in the case of the Natufians of the Levant.  Following our analogy of a ticking-time-bomb, the presence of a storable-stealable-surplus was the fuse that set of the explosion we sometimes refer to as the Agricultural Revolution or the Neolithic Revolution but which I prefer to call the Jural Revolution because the storable-stealable-surplus ignited the possibility for aggrandizers to begin to formulate ways and means of creating new rules of governance.  In the burning aftermath of the explosion we find smoldering bits of the beginnings of the State. 



Comment by John McCreery on July 27, 2011 at 5:12am

Eugene, who have you read recently who argues that present-day aggressiveness, acquisitiveness and institutions of combination can be blamed on our hominid ancestors? First, aggressiveness is far more deeply rooted than our relatively recent hominid ancestors—it's pretty much rock standard behavior in vertebrates given to territoriality and formation of pecking orders. Acquisitiveness is meaningless in the absence of the storable-stealable-surplus to which you have drawn our attention. Institutions are cultural, i.e., not reducible to biological factors alone. What makes the biology important is that it has to be part of a comprehensive account of where institutions come from. The same thing could be said for the mathematics of social networks, where the proposition that, other things being equal, networks of a certain scale and density will develop giant components dominated by hubs that occupy one end of power-law distributions of degree, betweenness, and other standard network measures, is nearly as rock solid as the law of gravity. Both these considerations are bad news for those who believe that human beings are fundamentally good and that all will be well if they only learn to play nice with each other. The same is, of course, true of the factor you identify, storable-stealable-surplus. It, too, has to be taken into account in any satisfactory account of human political evolution.

Is it a sufficient, one-factor explanation? Probably not. That a surplus is storable and stealable does not explain why people would want to steal it? Resource scarcity and kin ties that say "us" (the people I feel closest to) first is one possibility. The unholy pleasure of "It's mine and you can't have it" may be another. Social class and other institutions legitimate that sort of behavior. How are these institutions created? A storable-stealable-surplus creates the opportunity for institutions of dominance. It doesn't explain the motivations and means that sustain them.

Comment by Eugene L. Mendonsa on July 25, 2011 at 10:03pm

Furthermore, Alpha males are sometimes seen as biologically superior individuals who can pass on their aggressive and dominating genetics to their offspring, but there are two caveats to this hypothesis.  Firstly, primate females play a role in selecting mates and not all of them are alpha males.  Secondly, it appears that selection is for the alpha males’ social skills leading to successful alliances in troop defense, not to their strength and aggressiveness (Bernstein, Irwin S.  1976.  Dominance, aggression and reproduction in primate societies, Journal of Theoretical Biology 60:2:459-472).  Therefore, it is more likely that primate alpha males and those in hominid and human populations are both aggressive and have organizational skills that provide the group with a greater chance of survival.  Those very organizational skills, coupled with aggressive tendencies, however, are precisely the biological building blocks of aggrandizers in history who took advantage of a material base that provided them with an accumulative storable-stealable-surplus.  Their skills were acceptable to the group because they could help organize defenses against those who wanted to steal the surplus and also they had the organizational skills to increase production, though at a great price to the egalitarianism long cherished by non-storing peoples of the Paleolithic.  We see remnants of this desire for egalitarianism in many ethnographies of modern-day tribal societies (Sahlins, M.  1968.  Notes on the original affluent society.  In: R. Lee & I. Devore (Eds.).  Man the hunter.  Chicago:Aldine, 85-89).


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