Aggression & the Invention of Power
As human beings, we’re confronted with a puzzle: are we doomed to hierarchy, domination, and class oppression, or is it possible to disrupt and escape these social patterns? Supposing we can reorganize ourselves on a consensual basis, in more horizontal, less oppressive ways, how are we to get there from here, and how much of what we regard as technological civilization will have to be left behind? As we’ve discussed before, what we seem to have lost is an important aspect of our social technology, an awareness of the dangers and inhumanities inherent in political power.
Pierre Clastres frequently pointed out that we have misunderstood the approach of primitive peoples to power, believing their approach to derive unwittingly from some innocence or naivety that we’ve since outgrown and to which we can’t hope to return. Yet our progenitors seem to have “had a very early premonition that power’s transcendence conceals a mortal risk for the group, that the principle of an authority which is external and the creator of its own legality is a challenge to culture itself.” This is an important and socially advanced insight, one we seem to be lacking today, when the nightmare of our ancestors is reality and the community, as Clastres puts it, “has ceased to exorcise the thing that will be its ruin: power and respect for power.” To those ancestors, we are fools, for we have defined what it means to be human and to live like a human in terms provided by the tiny fraction of our story defined by slavery, mismatch diseases and malnutrition, violence, and hierarchical class domination. Why we are today willing to tolerate such domination when for so long we were not—that’s the puzzle. For as anthropologist Richard Wrangham notes, “we are unique among all primates in not having an alpha male in any group.”
The uniquely human capacity for language made it possible for coalitions of physically weaker males to supplant the alpha males in their own groups. It had always been relatively easy to coordinate attacks on outsiders, but to successfully execute an attack on a member of his own group, one needed language and strategic planning. Language meant that even very small coalitions could mobilize and overturn existing power structures with relative ease, dramatically decreasing the social and political importance of one individual’s physical strength. In theory, then, we today should have no problem throwing off our rulers and their exploitative capitalism. How do we, borrowing from Nineteen Eighty-Four, “become conscious of [our] own strength,” shaking off the ruling classes like a horse shaking off flies. We owe it to ourselves as free, reasoning human beings to do this, yet it seems to be extraordinarily difficult, even impossible. Why?
Something like us was a risky evolutionary gamble. Our brains are extremely costly, consuming about one-fifth of the body’s energy budget, even as the brain accounts for one-fiftieth of the body’s weight. The animals most like us, other great apes such as chimpanzees and bonobos, reproduce rather slowly and have relatively low fertility rates. Until very recent times, for many thousands of generations, populations of the various human species remained quite flat, and we are the only one of those species that survives (although small genetic parts of our Neanderthal and Denisovan kin survive in many millions of us). Indeed, of the four remaining genera, we are the only variety of great ape that is not endangered. And as David Christian underscores in Maps of Time, our getting to this point was never a sure thing:
As late as 100,000 years ago, well after our species had appeared, human populations may have fallen to as few as 10,000 adults, which means that our species was as close to extinction as mountain gorillas are today [the book was published in 2005].
The vulnerability of human infants is an anomaly in nature. Newborn humans enter the world in an extraordinary state of weakness, fragility, and helplessness, unable to do almost anything for themselves. Attempting to unravel some of the yet unresolved mysteries of humans’ qualitatively unique cognitive abilities, researchers Steven T. Piantadosi and Celeste Kidd predicted that “the helplessness of a primate’s newborns should strongly predict their intelligence.” Their findings confirmed their hypothesis, showing a clear connection between infant helplessness and the relative intelligence of the species. Piantadosi and Kidd suggest that this connection led to a positive feedback loop through which infants were born earlier to accommodate their large brains, with the resultant helplessness requiring more intelligent parents—and so on in a runaway evolutionary process leading to humans’ strange and unique cognitive powers. Human babies and children likewise grow and develop at a much slower rate than do other animals, which allows both the retention of juvenile traits into adulthood and the development of our large cerebella. Coming into the world at this early point, when our minds are still so unformed, malleable, and absorptive, allows humans to take up the cultural complexity that defines us as a species.
The rewards of this risky process are many, as we see when we consider our growing understanding of the universe and the powers that understanding has given us. Yet we remain remarkably like our ape kin in certain important ways. Wrangham’s work has shed new light on an important distinction in the way we reckon human beings’ uses of violence, that between proactive aggression and reactive aggression. Observing that our patterns of aggression seem to be shaped by adaptive strategies and natural selection, Wrangham suggests that it is a mistake to “treat aggression as a single behavioral category.” In fact, Wrangham argues, we are both unusually aggressive and unusually peaceful, depending on the kind of aggression at issue; he posits two main categories of aggression, proactive and reactive, the former “involv[ing] a purposeful planned attack with an external or internal reward as a goal.” This kind of violence is instrumental, calculated to bring about a particular social goal. The latter involves something like fear- and anger-based aggression, the impulsive, reactive violence of someone responding to a perceived threat instinctually. To Wrangham, our reduced reactive aggression points to a process of self-domestication, whereby selecting pressures favorited cooperation and conformity amongst our ancestors. It is clear that this idea of human domestication occurred to Darwin, though he, too, made the mistake of assuming that you must have someone directing the domestication process from the top down.
For Wrangham, this distinction is key to understanding human behavior and its eruptions of violence, because while we are not particularly prone to reactive violence, we are extraordinarily violent in the proactive, instrumental sense. Indeed, all primates are unique their readiness to inflict violence on other members of their own species, being about six times more likely to kill other members of their own kind than other mammals. It is remarkable that with increased intelligence and social complexity comes an increase in violence against other members of one’s own species. Wrangham’s work has helped us come to a fuller picture of proactive aggression, a phenomenon that “merits increased attention” and that can help us understand ourselves and our history in subtler ways.
In our evolutionary past, psychopathy was favored, as it would have made such proactive aggression easier to enact. While polite people must now pretend not to notice such ugly truths, we clearly live with the legacy of this evolutionary preference for psychopaths in leadership. In a recent article in Fortune, business scholar Simon Croom discusses the “unrecognized psychopathy” that characterizes senior management in today’s top organizations. Croom’s research suggests that psychopathy—a suite of traits that includes “egocentricity, predatoriness, recklessness, a lack of empathy, and a propensity for manipulation and exploitation”—could be twelve times more likely amongst senior managers.
A dichotomy such as the one that separates proactive and reactive aggression can also help us see the inadequacy of our current categories and models. People interested in politics go about behaving as if the left and right actually exist, as if they’re aspects of reality—like electrons or neurons or clouds or cells. But, of course, they don’t exist; they certainly don’t exist in the way Wrangham’s categories do. Our current political categories are mere accidents, unscholarly nonsense invented by human beings, predicting nothing, telling us nothing useful or important. The only worthwhile measure of any model of reality is its predictive power, its ability to tell us something about what should happen from a set of known conditions. As Yuval Noah Harari explained in his hit Sapiens:
The real test of “knowledge” is not whether it is true, but whether it empowers us. Scientists usually assume that no theory is 100 per cent correct. Consequently, truth is a poor test for knowledge. The real test is utility. A theory that enables us to do new things constitutes knowledge.
It’s not real knowledge if we can’t use it to predict things; the left-right style of political discourse may be good fun as a diversion, just as a game or a fictional story may be, but to make genuine strides in political philosophy will necessarily require us to abandon this model for something much more serious and rigorous. To begin thinking more clearly about social and economic systems will require that we speak and write more clearly about them, using actual criteria to describe and compare those systems, not vague, indexical terms like left and right. As we’ve discussed previously, our study of politics, economics and other complex, computationally irreducible systems remains in a frustrating, if not embarrassing, pre-paradigmatic state. Rather than looking to see what’s there, we’re looking to ensure our security as tribe members, to see whom we should attack, and to see whom we should risk personal reputational loss to defend. Ideas are a very small part of this calculus, if indeed they are factored in at all in any meaningful sense. Thinking, speaking and writing more clearly about social and economic ideas will mean a new language of politics, a starting over without impossibly confused terminology that no longer applies to contemporary institutions and questions. We can begin to make out some of the binaries we can use to make better sense of existing models: decentralized or centralized, horizontal or hierarchical, consensual or compulsory, close or distant, local or global, small or large, libertarian or authoritarian, mutualistic or parasitic. We need models that at least attempt to cognize the complexity of human social arrangements and practices. Here, the work of James C. Scott is characteristically instructive. In Two Cheers for Anarchism, Scott considers the merits of “large-scale modernist schemes of imperative coordination,” observing that such schemes
run into trouble, sometimes catastrophic trouble,  when they encounter a recalcitrant nature, the complexity of which they only poorly comprehend, or when they encounter a recalcitrant human nature, the complexity of which they also poorly comprehend.
Among the central theses of Scott’s work is that to regard such large-scale, top-down schemes as in any way “scientific” or on the side of science is dangerously simplistic. A properly scientific mindset appreciates complexity and underscores the importance of the local and discrete, “the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place.” In and of itself, this recognition does not and cannot have a left-right character; from a standing start, it would make as much sense to think of Hayek’s insight as having a north-south character, or a hot-cold character. These are simply not useful ways to map the insight onto reality, lacking an intuitive connection to the ideas we care about when we’re talking about society, politics, and economics. If we’re ever to understand and model human social relations under civilization, then we will have to become much more comfortable with the language of class, hierarchy, domination, and oppression—the characteristic features of civilized human social order. Seeing these cancers in institutions we’ve been trained to honor will be the end of our political childhood and the beginning of seeing things as they are.