Posted: September 1, 2003
hy are the highest positions of political leadership almost always filled by men rather than women? Oddly enough, political scientists rarely acknowledge—much less explain—this universal pattern of male political dominance. In his biological writings, Aristotle compared human beings with other political animals, and he concluded that the males are by nature "more hegemonic"—more inclined to rule or dominate—than the females. Charles Darwin confirmed this and explained the natural inclination of males to dominance as a product of evolutionary history in which natural selection worked through male competition both between and within tribal groups of males. Most recently, Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson has included male political dominance as part of his sociobiological account of human nature.
Proponents of sexual equality have challenged this Aristotelian and Darwinian explanation of male dominance. Some feminists have claimed that there have been many matriarchal societies in which women ruled over men, or egalitarian societies in which women and men ruled as equals. Some Marxist feminists have adopted Friedrich Engels's claim that in the earlier hunter-gatherer societies, women were equal or superior to men in status and power. Engels was influenced by Lewis Henry Morgan's anthropological account of the high status of women in Iroquois communities in North America.
It has become clear, however, that there is little evidence for truly matriarchal societies. Even Morgan indicated that although Iroquois women helped to select the male leaders, women were not permitted to hold leadership positions in the hierarchy. Describing the "absence of equality of the sexes," Morgan observed that "the Indian regarded woman as the inferior, the dependent, and the servant of man." In recent decades, even the most radical feminist scholars have generally given up on the search for matriarchy in human history.
When sociologist Steven Goldberg published his book The Inevitability of Patriarchy in 1973, he was denounced for his claim that the desire for dominance is naturally stronger in men than in women, as a consequence of biological differences, and that this explains why male dominance is universal. But when he published a revised version of his argument in 1993 in his book Why Men Rule: A Theory of Male Dominance, he provoked less controversy because scholarly opinion had begun to shift in his favor. Goldberg's most persuasive evidence came from his surveying the cases of purported matriarchies and showing that they were not matriarchies at all. Goldberg concluded that there had never been a society in which the proportion of women in the highest positions of leadership surpassed about seven percent. We can easily think of examples of politically dominant women in recent history—women such as Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain, Indira Gandhi of India, or Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan. But the dominance of these women as individuals only highlights the fact that the political hierachies of England, India, and Pakistan are generally dominated by men.
Of course, it is still possible that the universality of male dominance in politics throughout history shows the persistence of cultural traditions of patriarchy that are only now beginning to weaken. After all, some feminists would insist, it is only quite recently that women have had the opportunity to rise to the highest positions of power. If so, then one would expect that the 20th century would show some trend towards female dominance or at least some weakening of male dominance in politics.
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And yet Arnold Ludwig's book shows that the political history of the 20th century confirms the claim of Aristotle and Darwin that male dominance of politics is rooted in human biological nature. Ludwig argues that the male desire to be the supreme political ruler expresses the same biological propensities that support the dominance of alpha males among monkeys and apes. He supports his argument with a meticulous analysis of the 1,941 chief executive rulers of the independent countries in the 20th century. He illustrates his points with lively anecdotes from the lives of the 377 rulers for whom he had extensive biographical information.
Of the 1,941 chief executive rulers in the 20th century, only 27 were women. And of those 27, almost half came to power through their connection to their politically powerful fathers or husbands. For example, Benazir Bhutto rose to power in Pakistan after the assassination of her father; and Corazon Aquino rose to power in the Philippines after the assassination of her husband. The odds against a woman rising to the dominant position in a political regime in the 20th century were about a hundred to one.
But showing this fact of male dominance in politics is easier than explaining it. Like Aristotle, Darwin, and Goldberg, Ludwig explains it as manifesting biological differences between men and women. Men are by nature more inclined to seek dominance than are women. To sustain his claim that this arises from the evolutionary history of natural selection favoring a strong dominance drive among males, Ludwig quotes from recent studies of monkeys and apes showing the importance of dominance hierarchies in which males compete for the alpha position. He emphasizes the remarkable similarities between human politics as an arena for male rivalry for high status and the "chimpanzee politics" of male competition for dominance as described by Frans de Waal and other primatologists.
And yet Ludwig's reasoning here is too superficial. He quotes occasionally from the primatological reports, casually notes the similarities to human politics, and then moves on without providing the rigorous analysis that would be required to make his case fully persuasive. For example, he acknowledges in a footnote that bonobos seem to be "more female-dominated" than other great ape species, but he says nothing more about this.
Bonobos resemble chimpanzees so much that even experienced observers of primates have had a hard time telling the difference. And until recently, bonobos were regarded as a subspecies of chimpanzees. But now there is general agreement that bonobos are a distinct species. Not only are they distinct in their anatomy, but also in their behavior. Chimpanzees have dominance hierarchies for both males and females, but the dominant male tends to be dominant over all. By contrast, bonobo females seem to dominate over males. Apparently, the females form strong coalitional ties with one another—reinforced by sexual bonding—that allows them to keep the males subordinate. The females also use their power to tame male violence. Chimpanzee males in the wild have been observed launching lethal raids against those outside their own group in a pattern of behavior that resembles human warfare. Bonobos have not shown such behavior. Some feminists now look to the bonobos as a model of lesbian matriarchy that promotes peace based on a policy of "make love not war."
But while primatologists such as Frans de Waal and Amy Parish see the bonobos as a clear case of female dominance that might provide lessons for human beings seeking greater sexual equality, a few primatologists suggest that bonobos might not be so different from chimpanzees. The problem is that bonobos have not been as well studied as chimpanzees. In any case, the serious study of dominance hierarchies among primates has to take account of the bonobos.
Moreover, if Ludwig is right about males having a stronger propensity to dominance than females, then he should be able to show the underlying neurophysiological mechanisms that support this difference. But he offers little more than some casual references to higher levels of testosterone among males. As Lionel Tiger and others have shown, there are important differences between males and females not only in levels of testosterone but also in levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin that are associated with male dominance behavior. This is complicated, however, because we would need to explain not only male-female differences but also temperamental differences among males such that some males are far more aggressive in their pursuit of dominance than others. If we could do this, we could explain the biological basis for what Thomas Jefferson and other political thinkers have called the "natural aristocracy"—that is, the natural tendency in all societies for a few individuals to display a driving ambition for power, fame, and glory.
One of the fundamental problems for political life is devising ways to channel that natural desire for dominance so that we can secure energetic leadership but without tyrannical exploitation. Ludwig generally depicts the pursuit of political power as a Machiavellian world in which tyrants prevail through the exercise of force and fraud. And yet he also shows that democratic leaders in established democracies act with more restraint than leaders in other kinds of regimes. Democratic leaders are less corrupt than tyrannical leaders. And by comparison with democratic leaders, tyrants are much more likely to suffer bad outcomes from their rule such as being assassinated or being deposed by a coup. As Ludwig says, tyrants face "a whopping 85 percent chance of leaving office in disgrace or in a casket." (It is with good reason that Machiavelli devoted the longest chapters in The Prince and the Discourses on Livy to conspiracies and assassination plots.)
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Ludwig does not reflect on what the apparent success of democratic institutions might tell us about the political nature of human beings. Consequently, he misses a chance to show how a Darwinian theory of politics could support democratic principles. Beginning with William Jennings Bryan, American critics of Darwinism have feared that Darwinism subverts American democratic principles by supporting the idea that the rule of the stronger is an ineluctable law of nature. Although Ludwig's talk about the natural drive for dominance as shared by human beings and other primates might seem to confirm that fear, Ludwig also shows a natural resistance to exploitation that can check the power of the dominant few.
Among rhesus monkeys, the alpha males show a despotic style of dominance. The dominant individual asserts in every way his priority over subordinates. For example, the dominant individual never shares food with subordinates; and he never tolerates resistance from his subordinates. But among chimpanzees, the alpha males show a more egalitarian style of dominance. The dominant individual often acts to help and protect subordinates, and he will share his food. Subordinate individuals can form coalitions with one another to resist the unacceptable behavior of a dominant individual. Moreover, dominant chimpanzees often break up fights within the group in an apparently impartial way. Frans de Waal sees this egalitarian style of chimpanzee dominance as a move towards a society where leadership is based on the principle ofprimus inter pares, "first among equals."
Christopher Boehm has elaborated this idea in his book Hierarchy in the Forest. Combining evidence from primatology and anthropology, Boehm argues for a complex view of human political psychology rooted in a political nature that we share with other primates. Like other primates, human beings show a tripartite political nature: some individuals are naturally inclined to dominance, others are naturally inclined to submission, and yet the subordinates are naturally inclined to resent their exploitation by dominants. The political history of primates shows us no clear case of a primate society without any hierarchy at all. Even human foraging groups, commonly regarded by anthropologists as radically egalitarian, show some hierarchical structure, even if informal and episodic, because any human society requires central coordination from dominant leaders, even if only occasionally. But what makes foraging societies look so egalitarian is that those individuals who act as leaders are restrained by the resentful suspicions of their subordinates. Those leaders who become too arrogant or bullying are cut down to size by ridicule, gossip, ostracism, or—in the most extreme cases—assassination. Boehm can see precursors of this in chimpanzees. Some chimpanzees become dominants. Most are subordinates. But even the subordinates can occasionally express their resentment of dominants. Human foraging groups develop that resentment of dominance into an egalitarian ethos in which hierarchy is tolerated only within the limits enforced by subordinates fearful of being exploited.
With the emergence of human chiefdoms and states, the egalitarian ethos of foraging societies almost disappeared. But modern constitutional democracies like the United States revive the egalitarian ethos through the institutional structure of a centralized republican democracy. The ambitious few can satisfy their natural desire for dominance by filling the offices of government. But while the people will submit to this dominance hierarchy, they rely on the institutions of a constitutional, electoral democracy to express their resentment of exploitation by dominants. The dominants must see themselves as only the "first among equals."
Developing a Darwinian political science along these lines would show that Darwinism does not subvert American democratic principles. On the contrary, a Darwinian account of our human nature as political animals could illuminate the American constitutional regime as designed to satisfy both the manly desire to rule and popular desire to be free from tyrannical rule.