Aristotle, it seems, got it right. Politics may have played a key role in human evolution as the classic primate pattern of male dominance hierarchies shifted to a pattern of consensual leadership for common goals and collective action.
Aristotle – the ancient Greek polymath and acknowledged founding father of political science – characterized humankind as a distinctively “political animal” (zoon politikon), and political theorists ever since have used his evocative term as a touchstone. But what does it mean? And, equally important, how did this trait – if indeed it is distinctive – originate and develop as the human species evolved over several million years from a small arboreal primate into a remarkably intelligent, tool-using, socially organized, loquacious biped?
Modern-day political scientists are not, as rule, accustomed to taking such a long view of their subject matter. Properly defined, however, our politics represents a variation, and an elaboration, on an ancient theme in the natural world, one that has played a major role in the evolution of cooperative behaviors and complex social systems in many different species, ranging from army ants to killer whales. Humans are far from being the only political animals – a perspective that is at once humbling and ennobling. Yet our politics is also unique in some important ways.
We begin with the problem of how to define politics. Unfortunately, there has never been a consensus on how this important social phenomenon should be characterized, much less explained, and many conflicting definitions have been proposed over the years. Nevertheless, the definition proposed by Aristotle in his seminal book, the Politics, has enduring merit, I believe. Aristotle held that politics is concerned with managing the interests and affairs of the community as a whole – the “polis” in his term. As his mentor, Plato, first pointed out, every organized human society is, in effect, a collective survival enterprise. It exists to provide for the basic survival and reproductive needs of its citizens, and it is this common purpose – or “public interest” — that is the primary responsibility of the political order.
A new chapter in the age-old debate about the nature of politics opened with the emergence of the science of ethology – the study of animal behavior — during the latter part of the twentieth century. Although the systematic study of animal behavior dates back to Darwin’s day – as evidenced in his own landmark book on The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, as well as the pioneering work of the so-called comparative psychologists during the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries — only in the 1960s did the extensive research findings in ethology become widely known. Among other things, this led to an ethologically-oriented debate among social scientists over the nature of politics and its role in human societies. The discussion was initiated by the anthropologists Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox in their provocative 1971 popularization, The Imperial Animal. What Tiger and Fox did, and with a certain relish, was to equate politics in human societies with dominance competition in the natural world. Thus, politics is “a world of winners and losers.” The political system, they claimed, is synonymous with a social “dominance hierarchy.”
A more nuanced claim that human politics is related to dominance behaviors in other animal species was developed in a succession of works by the primatologist Frans de Waal, beginning with his Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes in 1982. Drawing on his own extensive research in captive chimpanzees, along with the many long-term field studies of these animals, de Waal offered us a deeper, richer perspective on the issue. The struggle for power and influence is ubiquitous, de Waal acknowledged. And, yes, dominant animals may gain advantages in terms of such things as nesting sites and breeding privileges. But there is much more to dominance behaviors than this. The competition for status very often involves coalitions and alliances; it’s often a group process rather than an individualistic, Hobbesian “war”.
Furthermore, there is much evidence that social constraints on dominance behaviors are common, both in chimpanzees and in other social animals. Coalitions sometimes form to thwart the actions of a dominant animal. Indeed, in bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees), it seems that a loose female hierarchy forms the organizational backbone of the group; the females often band together to constrain an aggressive male. Chimpanzees, bonobos, baboons, and a variety of other socially-organized species may even at times display more “democratic” decision making processes. Similar constraints on dominant individuals are also the norm in human hunter-gatherer societies. Anthropologist Christopher Boehm, who has studied this social pattern extensively, characterizes it as a “reverse dominance hierarchy” and refers to it as an “egalitarian syndrome.”
But most significant, stable dominance hierarchies in chimpanzees and other social animals have functional importance for the group – maintaining peace, arbitrating disputes, limiting destructive competition, mobilizing collective action, and even defending the group against outside threats. The interdependence of social animals like chimpanzees and bonobos also leads to a degree of reciprocity and generosity, such as food sharing. More recent research among chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and other socially-organized species suggests that the personal relationships and interactions among these animals can be very complex, and that cultural influences may also play an important part. Nor does one size fit all. The dynamics may differ from one group to another, or even within the same group over time.
As de Waal observes, we also need to ask “what’s in it for the subordinate?” His answer: “The advantages of group life can be manifold…increased chances to find food, defense against predators, and strength in numbers against competitors…Each member contributes to and benefits from the group, although not necessarily equally or at the same time…Each society is more than the sum of its parts.” In other words, cooperative social groups arise and persist because they produce mutually-beneficial synergies. I will return to this point.
Accordingly, we can now appreciate that dominance behaviors may take on the functional attributes of leadership, and this may provide a framework for organizing various cooperative behaviors, including collective action or a division of labor. Such “political systems” are characterized by overarching collective goals, decision-making, coordinated efforts, interpersonal communications, and “feedback”. In short, they are cybernetic control systems.
De Waal, invoking Aristotle, concluded that chimpanzees are also political animals. “We should consider it an honour to be classed [with these primates] as political animals,” he says. For the record, this is also consistent with Aristotle’s usage, as political scientist Larry Arnhart has pointed out. Aristotle applied the term to any socially-organized species that cooperates in the pursuit of various aspects of the survival enterprise, from honeybees to wild dogs or a pride of lions. For obvious reasons, Aristotle placed humans at the pinnacle of this category. We excel at cooperative behaviors.
The Synergism Hypothesis
The term “cooperation” seems to have become a buzzword in evolutionary biology these days. New books and journal articles on the subject have proliferated. Indeed, the well-known biologist Richard Michod claims that “cooperation is now seen as the primary creative force behind ever greater levels of complexity and organization in all of biology.” Martin Nowak, another leading biologist, calls cooperation “the master architect of evolution.” However, it’s not cooperation per se that is the creative force, or the architect. Rather, it’s the unique combined effects produced by cooperation – the synergies — that are the key; it is synergy of various kinds that has been the underlying cause of cooperation and complexity in the natural world, and cybernetic/political control processes have been indispensable enablers.
What I refer to as the Synergism Hypothesis is, in its essence, an economic (or perhaps bioeconomic) theory of cooperation and complexity in evolution. Simply stated, cooperative interactions of various kinds, however they occur, can produce otherwise unattainable combined effects — synergies – with functional advantages that may, in turn, become causes of natural selection — or a proximate analogue often characterized as “cultural selection.” The focus of the Synergism Hypothesis is on the favorable selection of functional “wholes” of different kinds. In effect, the parts (and their genes) that are responsible for producing functional synergies may become interdependent units of evolutionary change. I refer to it “Holistic Darwinism”
Biologists John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry, in their landmark 1995 book The Major Transitions in Evolution, independently came to the same conclusion about the causal role of synergy in evolution. They applied their formulation of this theory specifically to the problem of explaining the emergence of new “levels” of biological organization and complexity over time. As explained by Maynard Smith and Szathmáry “Cooperation will not evolve unless it pays. Two cooperating individuals must do better than they would if each acted on its own…Behavioural examples are easy to think of, but the principle is relevant at all levels.”
How Did Zoon Politikon Evolve?
If the synergies from various forms of social cooperation have been the economic drivers behind the evolution of humankind during the past five to six million years, it is clear that cybernetic/political processes have been a necessary complement. How this transformation occurred remains obscure to us, because we still know relatively little about our remote pre-history as a species; the ratio of speculation to concrete evidence has always been very high. However, the “black box” was recently opened for us in a well-reasoned scientific paper co-authored by evolutionary economist Herbert Gintis and anthropologists Carel van Schaik and Christopher Boehm. These theorists proposed that the emergence of big game hunting and confrontational scavenging among Homo erectus – along with fire, cooking, and “lethal weapons” – perhaps 2.5 million years ago, created a context in which close social cooperation and consensual leadership would have been favored. They conclude: “The successful political structure that ultimately replaced the ancestral social dominance hierarchy was an egalitarian political system in which the group controlled its leaders. Group success depended on the ability of leaders to persuade and motivate and of followers to submit to a consensual decision process. The heightened social value of nonauthoritarian leadership entailed enhanced biological fitness…”
The Australopithecine Scenario
I hold a somewhat different view of the matter. I believe strict adherence to Aristotle’s functional definition of politics (and the cybernetic model) points to the emergence of leadership at a much earlier date – namely, among the australopithecines of 3-5 million years ago. There is much that we still do not know about these ancestral hominins – and probably never will – but it is possible to use the available evidence to construct what could at least be considered a plausible scenario.
The key question is, how did a diminutive ape with constrained mobility on the ground and no natural (anatomical) defensive weapons, but with a relatively large brain (on average about the same size as in modern chimpanzees), manipulative hands, and an omnivorous digestive system solve the formidable problem of shifting from an arboreal to a terrestrial habitat, broadening its resource base, and, over time, greatly expanding its range? The crucial behavioral invention among our remote hominin ancestors — the pacemaker for the path that our forebears have taken ever since — was the adoption of a group-based, cooperative (synergistic) survival strategy.
The game-changing innovation was social organization and mutualistic cooperation. In a patchy but relatively abundant woodland environment that was also replete with large and dangerous predators (several times as many predator species as exist today, including large pack hunters like Palyhaena), as well as competitor species and sometimes hostile groups of conspecifics, group foraging and collective defense/offense was the most cost-effective strategy – indeed, the only viable strategy. A terrestrial food quest necessitated cooperation; there was “safety in numbers.” In other words, there were immediate economic payoffs (synergies) for collective action that did not have to await the workings of natural selection.
Equally important, it is likely that lethal weapons also played an indispensable part in the successful transition to a terrestrial life-style among the australopithecines. One can hardly exaggerate the value to a diminutive, relatively slow-moving biped of being able to use a short stick (similar to the modern Billy club) or a large femur, or even a well-aimed rock, as a defensive weapon. Anyone wielding a weighted object can engage an opponent at much less personal risk (beyond arms’ length) and can strike a much more damaging blow. Even crude weapons, if skillfully used, would have changed the balance of power for these highly vulnerable hominins. Indeed, the same hand-held wooden implements could have doubled as digging sticks for food-getting and as weapons. A group of australopithecines traveling together in dangerous or unfamiliar country with weapons carried at the ready would have been far more likely to hold their own in any life-and-death situation.
We may never know for certain about this and many other details relating to human evolution, but group living/group foraging and a cooperative division of labor allowing for increased access to a more dangerous but abundant environment seems likely to have been an early development in the hominin line. It would have involved the most limited, incremental behavioral changes with the most cost-effective payoffs for the participants, and it was highly synergistic.
A Reverse Dominance Hierarchy?
Was there a “reverse dominance hierarchy” (in Boehm’s term) and consensual decision-making among australopithecines? Variation is the rule in the natural world, and this certainly applies to social behavior as well. If a dominant individual in an australopithecine foraging group were also a competent and effective leader, it is likely that there would have been very little “pushback” from other group members. Most likely they would have followed willingly. On the other hand, an incompetent and bullying individual may have been actively resisted and perhaps even ostracized or murdered by the group. Similar variations are the rule in social animals and in modern humankind, ranging from hunter gatherer societies to complex nation states. A democratically-elected leader may act in a very authoritarian manner in times of great peril. Conversely, even absolute hereditary monarchs historically have very often been constrained by their followers and sometimes forcibly removed from power. We can observe a similar range of variation in contemporary world politics, from elected autocrats to hamstrung democrats.
It should be stressed that the key to explaining the emergence of any political process, whether democratic or authoritarian, is the need for social decisions and actions – decisions that necessitate goal-oriented, collaborative social behaviors. In the case of the australopithecines, it seems likely that the relentless daily collective decisions related to foraging, finding water holes, opportunistic hunting and scavenging, dealing with threats, selecting nesting sites, and, not least, migrating to new locations, all involved political processes. A leadership role was vitally important. Personal physical attributes may also have been important factors, as evolutionary psychologist Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja highlighted in their popular book, Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership (see the overview by Max Beilby in TVOL). Nevertheless, leadership is preeminently a “role” with functional significance for any organized group.
In any case, it is likely that the most powerful constraint on dominance behaviors in australopithecines was the potential for collective resistance by the group – the power of superior numbers (a reverse dominance hierarchy). Needless to say, this psychological and social constraint has remained a major tool down to the present day as a means for “controlling the controllers,” as Plato famously characterized it. The broad spectrum of mass protests, political movements, organized factions, institutionalized political parties, etc., that are ubiquitous features of modern politics have a common ancestor, and an ancient pedigree. They are rooted ultimately in the pattern of intense social cooperation — the collective survival strategy — that our remote hominin predecessors first adopted. Zoon politikon has been an important part of our heritage for millions of years.
 Aristotle (350 B.C./1946) Politics (trans. E. Barker). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 See the extended discussion in Corning, P.A. (2017) The evolution of politics: A biological approach. Handbook of Biology and Politics, ed. Peterson, S.A. & Somit, A. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.
 Darwin, C. R. (1873/1965) The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. London: John Murray.
 Tiger, L. & Fox, R. (1971) The Imperial Animal. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. See also the review in Corning (2017).
 de Waal, F.B.M. (1982) Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes. New York: Harper & Row.
 For example, see Conradt, L. & Roper, T.J. (2003) Group decision-making in animals, Nature, 421:155-158. Also Corning (2017).
 Boehm, C. (1993) Egalitarian behavior and reverse dominance hierarchy, Current Anthropology, 34:227-254. Also Brown, D.E. (1991) Human Universals. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
 Boehm, C. (1999) Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
 Some of the many references are cited in Corning (2017).
 de Waal, F.B.M. (1996) Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 9, 102.
 de Waal (1982), p. 213.
 Michod, R.E. (1999) Darwinian Dynamics, Evolutionary Transitions in Fitness and Individuality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p. xi
 Nowak, M.A. (2011) Super Cooperators: Altruism, Evolution and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed (with R. Highfield). New York: Free Press, p. xviii.
 Corning, P. A. (1983) The Synergism Hypothesis: A Theory of Progressive Evolution. New York: McGraw-Hill. Also Corning, P. A. (2003) Nature’s Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind. New York: Cambridge University Press; Corning, P. A. (2018) Synergistic Selection: How Cooperation Has Shaped the Evolutionary Process, in review; Corning, P.A. & Szathmáry, E. (2015) ‘Synergistic selection’: a Darwinian frame for the evolution of complexity, Journal of Theoretical Biology, 371: 45-58.
 Maynard Smith, J.& Szathmáry, E. (1995) The Major Transitions in Evolution. Oxford: Freeman Press. Maynard Smith and Szathmáry graciously acknowledged the priority of The Synergism Hypothesis in a subsequent book of their own.
 Maynard Smith, J. & Szathmáry, E. (1999) The Origins of Life: From the Birth of Life to the Origin of Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 22-24.
 Gintis, H.,van Schaik, C. & Boehm, C. (2015) Zoon politikon: the evolutionary origins of human political systems, Current Anthropology, 56: 327-353.
 Van Vugt, M. & Ahuja, A. (2011) Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership. New York: HarperCollins.
 Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? as the poet Juvenal long ago expressed it. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quis_custodiet_ipsos_custodes%3F (last modified 31 August 2105).