The biology of politics

Colin Tudge seeks to explain why the nice majority of people allow themselves to be ruled by a nasty minority

Most people are nice most of the time – meaning unselfish, cooperative, compassionate: feeling that other people – and other species – matter, and willing to put themselves out on others’ behalf. All of us are capable of nastiness but by far the majority would prefer to be nice, if they are not taken advantage of thereby. Most of us, too, are happy to be part of the gang. Few truly choose to be solitary, and few truly relish being out in front. Few of us except perhaps in moments or euphoria truly want to be leaders and even fewer are truly endowed with leadership qualities.

But human beings, like all successful species, are heterogeneous, not to say polymorphic. Some stand out among us. Sometimes this is to the good – for the world would be a sadder and certainly a duller place without the genius of Beethoven, or Einstein, or Prince Siddhattha Gotama. Some good people of genius are also outstanding leaders: Mahatma Gandhi, Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela come to mind. All sought to lead their societies and indeed all humanity into better times. It is surely true, too, more generally, that the most universally successful long-term survival tactic is not to be ultra-competitive but to be cooperative; and cooperativeness is best reinforced by compassion – a sense that other people matter too. As Jesus put the matter, “the meek shall inherit the Earth”.

Alas, though, in the short term, until such time as society slumps into depression or explodes in chaos and war, it can pay those of selfish mien who seek to come out on top to be ultra-competitive, and as ruthless as may be necessary. Vicious, in short. Nasty. A few very rare individuals combine viciousness with some at least of the qualities of leadership – enough to induce others to follow them. Alas, too, the short term dominates the long term, for in practice the long term is merely a succession of short terms joined end to end.

Vicious thugs are both rare and damaging, and people who are both rare and damaging are commonly classed as psychopaths. But vicious thugs who also have enough chutzpah to inspire others are all too likely to dominate whatever society they live in – and so the world is always liable to be dominated by psychopaths. The present line-up includes Assad in Syria; Bolsonaro in Brazil; Modi in India; Viktor Orban in Hungary; several in Africa; and for the time being at least – who knows how long? – the unspeakable General Min Hlaing in Burma. But the global brand leaders in organized psychopathy are Putin in Russia and Xi Jinping in China. Donald Trump desperately wanted to join this all-powerful cabal and buddied up to both of them. But they rejected him. America has too much history – or perhaps too little. Also, of course, Trump wasn’t and isn’t bright enough. The super-elite are indeed vicious thugs but they are also clever. The world as a whole is all very public school, at its worst. No out-and-out thickos are allowed in the prefects’ room, or not at least in the inner circle.

All this is very primitive, in the proper sense of the word: reflecting our biological origins. For in the end human beings are primates – the third chimpanzee, as Jared Diamond put the matter; and as chimpanzees we are super-social creatures who quickly languish and die when isolated. But we are also tribal – which is good and advantageous insofar as it prompts us to cooperate with our neighbours, and bad and generally very damaging insofar as it prompts us to treat outsiders as the enemy. We are cursed too as chimps are with an in-built urge to follow whoever we perceive to be a strong leader – primarily to protect ourselves against the apparent or sometimes real threat of attack by rival tribes. The irony is, of course, that it’s the leaders who make the wars. Ordinary people just get to fight them. People on opposite sides who personally may have much in common – a shared love of football or home and hearth or wildlife or whatever – try to kill each other, in essence to protect the interests of their ostensible leaders with whom they have nothing in common at all, except that they live in the same country, though without ever meeting.

All this of course is just story-telling, an exercise in speculative biology. Yet it is enough, I suggest, at least in outline, to explain the past and present fate of the world: why we allow ourselves to be led by people who play by different rules from most of us — people who in large part hold us in contempt, except insofar as we are useful; why indeed the nice majority allow themselves to be ruled by a minority of psychopaths who are often extremely nasty.

This account, as it stands, provides no solutions. But diagnosis comes before cure, and I think it is helpful to spell out the nature of the problem.

These ideas are expanded in Colin’s latest book, The Great Re-Think, published by Pari