The Evolutionary Roots of Autocracy

We humans have two equally close primate cousins: chimpanzees and bonobos. Both of these great apes share 98.7% of their DNA with human beings. The two species look similar to the untrained eye but are very different in terms of lifestyles. Along with other primates, both can tell us much about our own values and those of our politicians. I think they’re especially instructive in helping us understand the evolutionary roots of autocracy, which seems to be proliferating both within and outside the United States.

Chimp and Bonobo Politics

Despite the fact they are often mistaken for one another, the chimp and the bonobo species have very different characters and politics. Ethologist Frans de Waal writes, “We are blessed with two close primate relatives to study, and they are as different as night and day. One is a gruff looking, ambitious character with anger management issues, the other is an egalitarian proponent of a free spirited lifestyle.”

Male-dominated and Forceful

Chimp societies tend to be male-dominated and hierarchical. They deal with politics largely through force and aggression.

But that doesn’t mean that one lone, strong and assertive chimp can lead by shear force. He needs allies to overcome potential threats from enemy groups who wish to overthrow him. As de Waal writes,  “Staying on top is a balancing act between between forcefully asserting dominance, keeping supporters happy and avoiding mass revolt.  If this sounds familiar, it’s because human politics works exactly the same.”

de Waal goes on to explain, “Power is the prime mover of the male chimpanzee. It’s a constant obsession, offering great benefits if obtained and intense bitterness if lost.”

Female-dominated and More Peaceful

Bonobo politics are starkly different. They are based less on aggression and more on relationships in which sexual behaviors play a key role in conflict resolution, bonding, and social interaction.

Compared to chimps, bonobos have a more egalitarian social structure, though one in which females take leadership roles. Bonobo relationships tend to be cooperative and empathic. Force and aggression do occur but they are much less common than among chimps.

Some of the sex among bonobos would be labeled as “homosexual” among humans but the term has less relevance among bonobos because sex is the common coinage among all relationships. Same-sex activities are especially common among females.

“Perhaps the bonobos most typical sexual pattern, undocumented in any other primate, is genito-genital rubbing (or GG rubbing) between adult females,” reports Scientific American. “One female facing another clings with arms and legs to a partner that, standing on both hands and feet, lifts her off the ground. The two females then rub their genital swellings laterally together, emitting grins and squeals that probably reflect orgasmic experiences.”

Sexual behavior has become a mechanism for overcoming aggression: “[T]he art of sexual reconciliation may well have reached its evolutionary peak in the bonobo. For these animals, sexual behavior is indistinguishable from social behavior. Given its peacemaking and appeasement functions, it is not surprising that sex among bonobos occurs in so many different partner combinations…”

Embracing Chimp Politics

Today we humans have a growing slate of politicians who are autocratic and power-focused. Their advocates would call them “strong leaders” and their critics would call some of them autocrats, tyrants or sometimes even (depending on their brand of autocracy) fascists. They are eager to use the sanctioned force of government to achieve their ends, rewarding allies and punishing political enemies.

When their authority is challenged, their first impulse is to strike out rather than try to find common ground. They much prefer political battle to forging peace, even when waging that battle clearly goes against democratic values.

What they want above all is power and control, including the power to ban speech with which they disagree. Sometimes they use violent rhetoric that’s designed to be divisive and threatening. Other times, they just use violence itself.

They especially embrace the art of scapegoating. Referring to primates, de Waal writes, “What makes scapegoating so effective is that it’s a double-edged sword. First, it releases tension among the dominants. Attacking an innocent harmless bystander is obviously less risky than attacking each other. Second, it rallies the higher-ups around a common cause. While threatening the scapegoat, they bond with each other, sometimes mounting and embracing, indicate they stand united…. Humanity’s most horrific scapegoating was the Holocaust…”

In the case of many of today’s leaders, they target politically much weaker and far smaller outgroups. In the U.S., this often include members of the LGBTQ+, ethnic minorities, and immigrants. That is, they picks on groups who are already discriminated against and then intensify that discrimination to create a sense of grievance and solidarity among the majority of their supporters. It’s a dynamic that has played out throughout human history again and again.

We All Share Primate Values

When I argue that such leaders share specific primate values and behaviors, this is not to imply that the rest of humanity does not. Human beings are in the scientific family classification Hominidae, which include chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutangs. We all share commonalities with our Hominidae cousins. But the behaviors of such leaders tend to bear the closest resemblance to those of our chimpanzee cousins.

My guess is that the ability to be aggressive continues to be important to human survival, but that trait must be tempered as never before. After all, the growing power of our weapons means aggression can have species-ending consequences. Therefore, we increasingly need to temper those traits with more relationship-oriented values and behaviors.

Such autocrats might make for good chimpanzee alphas in a world of small communities wielding sticks, stones and fangs. In a complex, global world with proliferating nuclear stockpiles, powerful biotechnologies, and technology-enabled police states, they are exactly the wrong types of leaders.

We don’t all need to adopt the sexualized behaviors of bonobos (not that there’s anything wrong with that among consenting adults), but their example does point us to social models of more give-and-take, more relationship-building, and more empathy with one other.

We have a choice. All primate behaviors are part of our genetic repertoire. The question is which ones we need to leverage if we’re going to survive the 21st century.

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Mark R. Vickers

I am a writer, analyst, futurist and researcher. I've spent most of my working life as an editor and manager for research organizations focusing on social, business, technology, HR and management trends. But, perhaps more to the point for this blog, I'm curious about the universe and the myriad, often mysterious relationships therein.

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