Evolution occurs over many generations, primarily affecting behavior through the predominance of genes that promote survival in physical environments. Unfortunately, humans, like other species, often learn negative ways of behaving that are not genetic and that do not necessarily promote the survival of the species.
Tyrannical domination of others within their own species is a very negative behavior found in some species. Domination of others is enabled in species where the dominator is larger than others or has weapons. Although the impulse to dominate may be always present, it can be activated by the presence of weapons. This negative behavior very much upset Jane Goodall when she found that chimps who discovered weapons – discarded gas cans – used them to attack other chimps.
Human tyrants often have access to weapons as well as to power that provides authority, as in the accepted sociological definition originating in Max Weber’s writings — an influence that is accepted by those influenced: whether charismatic, traditional, or legal.
Tragically, though, many tyrants throughout history have transmuted authority into raw power to dominate, oppress, or even kill others.
Power can also be used by indirection or misdirection: not deliberately to kill or hurt others but because the powerful do not act swiftly or intelligently enough to protect their own or other nations or societies. A tragic example is the COVID-19 crisis of 2020, when tyranny in the White House, supported by allies in the Congress, especially in the Senate, has caused an inept and misdirected response. COVID-19 could have led to many fewer deaths if tyranny had been less prevalent in Washington, D.C.
As Lord Acton famously remarked, “power corrupts.” In addition to guarding political power, the White House response in the 2020 pandemic was to also be jealous of the public impact of scientific experts. Although jealously may have some aspects of genetic inheritance, this jealous response was very greatly magnified in the extreme resistance to the advice of virologists and epidemiologists early in 2020, a resistance that led to tragic delays in timely responding to control the spread of the virus.
Tyranny is a Personality Trait Based on Opportunity to Dominate others
Dominant rulers don’t reflect a general species tendency to dominate or not dominate: political power is a result of temporary, time-limited adaptations to societal structures that can often result in tyrannical personalities attaining power. Tyrannical persons or groups can gain dominance in society from purely social, cultural, and psychological traits that have no genetic basis whatsoever.
Tyranny is not a useful evolutionary trait that leads to greater evolutionary adaptations and thus to the accumulation of survival traits among individuals or groups. Tyranny is not characteristic of the human species in general but is made possible only for those who can dominate, whether by greater physical size or due to greater access to weapons, money, or authority derived from social and cultural belief systems. A trenchant analysis of how such systems develop and vary over time is provided by Pitirim Sorokin’s tripartite characterization of societies as sensate, ideational, and idealistic. Tyrannical rulers appeal to sensate elements of culture to attract followers and to maintain power once the tyrants have achieved a position.
Ignoring Scientific Experts
Viruses can now disperse much more rapidly in the modern world due to air travel and because of many more population centers of great density. These changes have significant impacts on disease and especially on the spread of viruses. Demographic characteristics of the planet today present daunting challenges to virologists and to the political and social leaders who ought to be their allies.
To be successful in meeting modern challenges of the more efficient dispersal of viruses due to air travel and the increased number of densely populated cities, political leaders need to step back from their own egos — to deliberately relinquish some of their power to scientific experts. Although cooperation is a human trait — developed through genetic adaptations but also through centuries of lived experience — so too is competitiveness and self-centeredness.
In some political leaders, self-centeredness can magnify to a full-blown case of narcissism. Jennifer Senior, a New York Times columnist, writes of Trump’s failure to cooperate with medical and scientific professionals that his “… catastrophic performance has as much to do with psychology as ideology.”
A similar statement could be made about Woodrow Wilson, as suggested by Bullitt and Freud’s analysis of Wilson’s character.1
Although Wilson’s failures were perhaps more due to the exigencies of the Paris Peace Conference and to Wilson’s physical frailties than to his psychological makeup, Bullitt and Freud’s analysis provides further evidence that the character of leaders is often much more significant in decisions than the genetic inheritance of the species.
In the current COVID-19 crisis, mirroring the flu pandemic of 1918 – at the same time that Wilson was negotiating at the WWI peace conference in Paris with British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau – President Trump is failing worse than Wilson due not only to Trump’s egotism but also due to his reluctance to fully rely on experts. Is this because experts divert attention from Trump that he appears to desperately crave?
Public approval is desired by all political leaders, but Donald Trump appears to have an insatiable craving for public attention. In times of public health crisis, political leaders need to suppress dysfunctional personality traits and instead rely on and uphold public health experts.
In the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, this has been done by many governors, but not by the White House.
Read the entire Evolutionary Sociology series:
- Introduction: Nothing In Sociology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution by Russell Schutt, Rengin Firat, and David Sloan Wilson
- Social Science Contributions to the Study of Zoonotic Spillover: Normal Accidents and Treadmill Theory by Michael Ryan Lengefeld
- Is Video Chat a Sufficient Proxy for Face-to-Face Interaction? Biosociological Reflections on Life during the COVID-19 Pandemic by Will Kalkhoff, Richard T. Serpe, and Josh Pollock
- Natural and Sociocultural Selection: Analyzing the Failure to Respond to the C-19 Pandemic by Jonathan H. Turner
- Bringing Neuroscience and Sociology into Dialogue on Emotions to Better Understand Human Behavior by Seth Abrutyn
- Speculations About Why Sociological Social Psychology Largely Elides Evolutionary Logic by Steven Hitlin
- The Coronavirus Pandemic, Evolutionary Sociology, and Long-Term Economic Growth in the United States by Michael Hammond
- Institutionalization of Animal Welfare and the Evolution of Coronavirus(es) by Erin M. Evans
- The Coronavirus in Evolutionary Perspective by Alexandra Maryanski
- Gene-Culture and Potential Culture-Gene Coevolution: The Future of COVID-19 by Marion Blute
- For God’s Sake! What’s All This Fuss About a Virus? by Andrew Atkinson
- How Covid-19 Reminds Us We Are More Alike Than Different by Rosemary L. Hopcroft
- From the Middle: Sites of Culture, Cooperation, and Trust in Risk Society by Lukas Szrot
- Evolution Does Not Explain Tyranny: COVID-19 Could Have Led To Many Fewer Deaths If Tyranny Had Been Less Prevalent in Washington, D.C. by Richard Devine
- The Epidemic and the Epistemic: An Exercise in Evolutionary Sociology by Doug Marshall
References: Freud, Sigmund and William C. Bullitt. 1967. Thomas Woodrow Wilson: Twenty-eighth President of the United States: A Psychological Study. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
I agree with everything you have written here – except the title, ‘Evolution does not explain Tyranny’.
As I observe and understand things, tyranny belongs to a family of alpha-male hierarchical behaviours that have clear origins in our primate ancestry.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors learnt to suppress domination, enabling them to live cooperatively for 300,000 years or so. They knew that if they allowed self-importance to get out of control, it could lead to bad things. In the well-known story, when the anthropologist Richard Lee was living among the Ju’hoansi bushmen in the Kalahari in the 1960s he decided to offer a feast with the gift of a large black cow. When his intentions became known, however, the bushmen went out of their way to insult his meat, saying it was a useless scrawny carcass without the fat they loved. When he enquired why, this was the reply:
“When a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle.”
Tyranny results from alpha-male dominating behaviour that lacks cultural controls, either because the ruler has been able to impose his will with dominating violence, or because the people have become too submissive to revolt (or both). In The Power Paradox: How We Gain and Lose Influence, the University of California Berkeley social psychologist Dacher Keltner shows that power brings a dopamine high. It feels so good that it corrupts our other senses, and our concern for reputation.
Evolution does not always bring positive outcomes for particular individuals or even societies. With my tongue in cheek, after a few beers, I might even argue that if more Trumpadorers ignore the virus, more might die, reducing the genes that support the tendency to believe in stupid bullshit – if there is such a gene.
The next morning, in more sober frame of mind, I would relate the emotional need for a strong authoritarian leader to confusion and despair caused by excessive kleptocracy, inequality and personal debt, causing people to despair, and to be desperate for someone who will lead them out of the swap of debt and despair. If a charlatan makes a persuasive offer they will take it, just as charlatans have succeeded throughout history – until they are exposed and jailed.
Thanks for stimulating these thoughts!
Guy Dauncey, Ladysmith, Canada
Where’s the edit button! I meant the swamp of debt and despair, not the swap! 🙂