Sunday, June 22, 2008

Reverse Dominance Hierarchies

Pundits love to complain about how stupid George Bush is, but he’s not an idiot. They are correct, however, in that most pundits probably do know more history, languages, and science than our president. I'm sure there are at least 100k normal people who have an IQ a standard deviation higher than Bush. Why are our leaders are so ‘slightly above average’? Because humans generally prefer reverse dominance hierarchies for their collectives.

Dominance hierarchies -- based on the relationship of domination and submission -- are characteristic of all non-human hominid societies (an extreme example being the tiny-testicled, alpha-male gorilla lording it over his band of mates) and are found in many other species of animal -- as in the proverbial pecking order among chickens, dogs, horses, seals, etc.

Likewise, dominance hierarchies are a defining characteristic -- in fact, an overwhelming feature -- of every known civilization before modern times. It is a curious fact, therefore, that dominance hierarchies are rare in the ethnographic literature describing hunting-and-gathering societies -- and thus, presumably, also rare in hunting-and-gathering societies as they existed during much of our common evolutionary past.

To account for this fact, an anthropologist at UCLA named Christopher Boehm proposed a couple of years ago the idea of a reverse dominance hierarchy. The gist of his idea is that a love of dominance was so bred into the human species (males above all) during their long, shared hominid past, that they developed an innate distaste of being dominated by others. Thus armed with a motive, and using the cooperative skills which language and their big brains conferred upon them, all the lesser males in a group who were in danger of being dominated by an alpha male, would form a ‘reverse dominance hierarchy’ to put the would-be tyrant in his place. In this way, dominance behavior, while not eliminated entirely, could be moderated and dispersed.

As the anthropologist Harold Schneider puts it: ‘all men seek to rule, but if they cannot, they seek to be equal’. Upstarts are put in their place in a variety of ways. For example, !Kung bushmen will mock the gift of someone, because they see gift giving as an attempt to signal superior status. In effect, they ridicule this act because they see it as a pretext (clever bushmen!). In more complex societies, groups of men actually kill the upstart for a crime conveniently determined. Thus, egalitarianism is an implication of this aversion to strong rulers.

So much political punditry is a farce because all these policy wonks parse the words of politicians as if they were The Oracle at Delphi. Any real depth in these remarks is like reading one's anxieties into inkblots. If you read the text of any politician, the main feature is its blandness, the smarmy, recycled clichés that allow listeners to believe it means whatever they want it to. The president of the US, like the president of your senior class, or the general secretary of the UN, is someone chosen for his malleability and his simultaneous ability to appear non-malleable, as if we want him to be smart sounding but not smart. It's tolerable once you realize its comical.

At the margin there are differences, sometimes greater than others, but one must admit that the main attribute of such ‘leaders’ is being ingratiating and non-threatening to the greatest number of people. Humans do not wish to have ‘rulers’ with high intelligence or education, because these people would be less controllable. After Tim Russert, a prominent weekly tv interviewer died, one pundit suggested getting someone really smart to replace him, like Paul Krugman, or Christopher Hitchens. Immediately it was obvious this was a bad idea, because these people have strong, educated opinions, and even I would find their elevation annoying because on the many issues where they and I disagree, they would too skillfully frame the debate disadvantageously to my side. Having a somewhat thoughtful, but not too thoughtful, person ‘leading’ the debate is a necessary compromise.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Russert wasn't stupid. In fact, it's much more difficult to be civil and challenging then it is to be a jerk and challenging.
Although it is a lot of fun to watch Dr. House.