Elements for a Dialogue about Biology, History, Freedom and Democracy

By Come Carpentier de Gourdon, Convener, Editorial Board, World Affairs Journal, April 2014

Contemporary understanding of democracy and undefined – and therefore unlimited – "equal rights" for all flies in the face of biological imperatives and implies a permanent battle against nature unlikely to be ever won, unless human nature is modified by technological means in order to turn homo sapiens sapiens into a being closer to a social insect, losing much of his or her humanity in the process.


The ongoing electoral process in India, the largest and probably the longest in the world leads one to ponder the nature, meaning and origins of many social and political institutions.

One can feel both the interest and the anger generated in many people here by the democratic system in force which rests on a protracted crossfire of accusations, allegations and insults between the contending parties and personalities, that in the end leaves the public, except for the most diehard supporters of one faction, with the feeling that “all candidates are corrupt and that no one tells the truth”.

Another grievance common to all important elections worldwide is the high and ever rising costs of these contests in which promotion and salesmanship decide the outcome to the detriment of real facts. The ability to saturate the airwaves and public space is what almost inevitably makes a successful candidate. People naturally are not objective in their assessments. They are upset by the vast amounts of money spent by the party they oppose but are quite willing to forgive the contenders they support for spending as much or more and using the same means and tactics they deplore on the other side.

Is there then an alternative to ever more dramatically stage-managed and “commercial” elections which are resented by those whose candidates have lost but also by those who are disappointed by the winners they voted for and who did not keep their promises, as is most often the case?

A rapid survey of the behavior of certain animal societies provides interesting analogies to the functioning of human political institutions. Animal species, almost as much as the mankind experiment with many different social systems, according to their environment and resulting survival imperatives. They are known to settle for the most efficient and, from their standpoint, optimal way of life, whether they find safety in vast numbers like many herbivores or live in small families or alone, as carnivorous big cats. Among insects and also among birds or mammals like beavers on a smaller scale we find real “urban” occupationally diversified and caste-based societies. Although in a majority of species males give the impression, rightly or wrongly of being dominant if only because polygamy is more frequent than polyandry for obvious biological reasons, certain mammalians such as the hyenas evince the supremacy of the females which are bigger and more aggressive but which have also acquired distinctive, if “fake’ male traits. In many other branches of the animal kingdom females that have more power often mimic males in physique and behavior while males correspondingly assume female features. Etiologists who claim that gender is socially constructed are at best partly right because nature can evolve under behavioural constraints which lead to hormonal changes but those transformations are painful and carry an evolutionary price.

Every type of group organization can thus be found in the animal kingdom but the mammals that are physically and behaviourally the closest to us, monkeys and primates generally live in clans of a few dozen individuals at most and adopt a hierarchy that is rather similar to that of “primitive” human associations. Dominant males and/or females exercise an authority that is not only acquired and kept by force but rather through the collective recognition of their experience and seniority which could often be regarded as wisdom in anthropic terms. However there are always some young males who are not well integrated within the group and forced to live on its fringe because there are no females available for them as they tend to cluster around the dominant males. It happens in many of those groups that those young males, headed by the most aggressive and resolute among them are able to overthrow the rule of the dominant elder male or couple and replace him (or it). The former hierarchs often leave the group and retreat in isolation until they die which generally happens soon after. The group readily accepts the new rulers who have gained legitimacy by their successful putsch or, as the ancient Chinese would have said, through the will of heaven. That power transition enables the group to regenerate itself and to produce new vigorous offspring when the victorious young males mate with the females that are now available to them. A balance is thus maintained between continuity and change. It is a law of nature that those individuals who have gained power try to retain it as long as possible and lose it only when they can no longer prevail over contenders. The same law applies pari passu to innumerable animal species.

There are some other rules held in common among most types of social animals: an outside enemy or threat mobilizes and brings forth group solidarity. There is a great capacity in individual members to sacrifice themselves for their leaders, held above the common law because of their critical symbolic value for order and cohesion within the group,  whereas weaker and “fringe” elements are easily abandoned to predators or natural forces as being the “lion’s share”. There is also a widespread though not universal tendency, especially in males to protect their offspring while killing or at least rejecting the progeny of other males so as to ensure the supremacy of their own descendents. Most of those rules of the natural game are found to exist in human populations at all stages of evolution (think only of child sacrifices and  of how easily subordinate individuals in a conflict accept death for the sake of their community and its head). War is a human development of intra-species fights which relies on and musters many of those instincts and tendencies while striving to rationalize them but only to a point. It is very difficult to prevent it because it is hard wired in human group psychology just as fear and violence are innate biological reflexes.

A good example of the adaptation of many human populations to the law of reproductive competition is provided by the prevalence of female monogamy, meant to protect the children by giving the male the highest possible assurance that they are his and hence the incentive to protect and support them, whether he is also monogamous or has several wives. An alternative strategy is used by lionesses which often make sure that they have offspring from the various males of their pride so as to make them adopt all cubs born in it as their own, thereby protecting the next generation from paternal infanticide. In the rare polyandric human populations that exist the children are raised by the extended family and regard the husbands of their mother as their fathers.

One must be aware however that not all groups of the same species behave in exactly the same way. There are more aggressive and more peaceful macaque clans for example, depending perhaps upon where they live and how abundant food is but also depending upon specific group traditions and the personalities of their leaders. Chimpanzees are aggressive and kill each other for pleasure in certain situations while their very close relatives the Bonobos are far more gentle and extensively use sexual symbolism and performance as a way to reduce violence and soothe frustrations within the community. We are thereby shown that social behavior is not dictated by fate only because it can be modified suitably through discipline and incentives.

In a nutshell one can say that animal societies organize themselves in a hierarchy based on both mental and physical attributes and that, as in a ship’s crew, an army or any other purposive human association, democracy, if conceived as the will of the majority of equal individuals to select one of them for a given period of time does not strictly exist. What we see instead as a widespread pattern, is an aristocratic hierarchy periodically upset and renewed through coups or revolutions.

The application of arithmetic or statistical democracy for governance thus manifests as a constant struggle against the natural tendencies and requirements and it should hardly come as a surprise that it is a very fragile system which has no intrinsic strength unless it is constantly propped up by various artificial (legal, ideological  and military) institutions. Every now and then the natural imperative, similar to Robert Ardrey’s territorial imperative, takes over and forces a ‘non-democratic’ transfer of power which often leads to the abandonment of the democratic system itself. In such cases societies usually and for an indefinite  period accept the change of regime or system as imposed by fate, until the next such revolution.

Human beings have sought to increase the longevity of their hierarchies through the hereditary system which, due to their relatively low birthrates, partly monogamous  practices and lifelong unions, rests on the strong bonds that connect parents to their offspring. We still see in the 21th century, even after a few centuries of democratic ideological acculturation that republican states often resort to filial succession for selecting their real or nominal rulers. One only has to think of the Roosevelt, Kennedy and Bush dynasties in the USA, the Nehru-Gandhi family in India or the present president of South Korea who is the daughter of a former dictator of the country among several other examples. On the other hand in nations ruled by Communist Parties the latter pick heads of state within their top layers but there also the natural law we described applies, as struggles for power, overt or covert take place between the existing supremos and upcoming challengers until one of the latter prevails.

As we know the law of natural selection applies to humans, despite the attempts of democratic systems and medical care to defeat it, as it does to spermatozoa racing to penetrate and fertilize the female egg.

However, human beings, unlike most other animal species which coexist in ecological interdependence, have the peculiarity of organizing themselves into a parallel “anthropic” ecosystem, either symbiotic or parasitic to the original cosmic one in which they occupy all the occupational niches which in the larger “pre-human” and “exohuman” ecosphere are filled by many different types of creatures.

The organization of human space into territories takes place around a hierarchical pyramid. At the top the great “carnivores” (feudal lords in the past, top politicians and business leaders now) control a region or nation and regulate by their behavior the population of subordinates (herbivorous, omnivorous, insectivorous) that live in it (food producers, artisans, industrial workers, traders, artists, servants and soldiers among others). Apart from social, biologically specialized insects such as bees and ants, there are not many examples of such an occupational division of labour within one single species which is now being systematized on a planetary scale. As a result of this apparent autonomy coupled with its intensely exploitation of natural resources, mankind in its contemporary technocratic form of organisation is rapidly consuming and destroying its ecological support system while reorganizing it for its exclusive use. The domesticated environment which is replacing the “wild” one everywhere is fast being supplemented by a virtual cybernetic one created by man.

Can we feel optimistic about the current ideology of equality and equivalence between all individuals and the sexes which professes that men and women should share power equally and that competition should be purely peaceful and the winner elected by an absolute majority of the total population, even on the scale of countries that have hundreds of millions or billions of citizens?  

On the face of it, this contemporary understanding of democracy and undefined – and therefore unlimited – "equal rights" for all flies in the face of biological imperatives and implies a permanent battle against nature unlikely to be ever won, unless human nature is modified by technological means in order to turn homo sapiens sapiens into a being closer to a social insect, losing much of his or her humanity in the process.

In actual practice we see that the theoretical rules of democracy are not really applied even when official claims are made to that effect. Power is gained either through the influence of relatively small groups of influential persons acting behind the scenes or through the mobilization of vast contingents organized on militaristic lines and deployed to win the acceptance of a relative or absolute majority of the total population. Appearances of democracy are preserved for window dressing, even in countries that are living under military regimes as is the case in several regions of Asia and Africa.

We don’t seem so far to be able to overcome the paradigmatic laws of the animal condition. Society is naturally structured in a hierarchy in which one dominant male, and more rarely an elderly female rises to the top by force, charisma or as a result of a compromise between other dominant individuals who accept them as symbols of authority in order to avoid open conflict. Stability of the apex of the pyramid can be prolonged to the benefit of the existing ruler if he or she is able to get his offspring accepted by other dominant individuals as a successor. Otherwise old age and decline usually lead to overthrow and replacement. Natural selection prevails in one way or another although it can be tempered by anthropogenic structures which mimic biology (as technology does too) to limit the harshness of its effects on individuals and weaker sections of society.

A law, custom or tradition is such an anthropogenic structure meant not to cancel but to soften, rationalize or systematize natural processes, although many animal species or subgroups are manifestly able to adopt and abide laws of their own that are chosen by them and not merely imposed by nature, as has been shown among certain apes and primates as well as dolphins or birds for example. However choice has to remain within the range of natural or biological viability if it is to endure.

A law therefore has to be discovered and understood rather than merely decreed and that has been the character of organic laws, rules and customs in most traditional societies, such as the Chinese Tao or Yi, the Samskrit Rita and Dharma and also of what medieval legislators called the Jus Gentium or the Mos Maiorum (Cicero) i.e. the common law of mankind.

A “natural” law is an ongoing attempt to accommodate and regulate in the best possible way, in a given environment (space) and historical conditions (time), the human imperatives of and desires for nourishment, territory, security, reproduction and enjoyment. In order to be revered and observed such a law must be given the sanction of a higher authority which can be defined as divine or personified by saintly figures, great ancestors or founding fathers. Whether it is the Dharmashastra, the Decalogue, the Sunna or the Laws of Solon, Lycurgus or Numa Pompilius the basic law must have a transcendent origin and character and cannot be simply a collection of rulings and specifications if it is to command obedience and enjoy durability. Otherwise society ceases to be a civilisational community and becomes a mere assemblage of individuals connected only by frail bonds of (temporary) mutual convenience, a “Lockean” social contract or the gesellschaft defined by F Toonies.

In the Roman socio-legal context there was a hierarchy of relational modes between distinct human groupings. At the lowest or most general level was the Amiticia, intended to avoid conflict and hostile or dishonest actions between two or more of them; higher was societas which bound them within a compact that enjoined mutual help and support against outside threats; higher still foedus, the principle for foederatio, a treaty that bound the parties under a superior common authority, meant to achieve the highest state of coexistence or Pax. Foedus is also a cognate of fides: faith which implies a commitment (originally mutual)  and links spiritual belief to loyalty to one’s kin, friends and allies, connecting the religious realm - which guarantees oaths - with the political dimension. This scale of relationships is found in many other ancient civilizations and it demonstrates that common beliefs or values are required for peaceful coexistence and meaningful long-term association.

It is characteristic of all ancient societies that their communication systems such as writing and their legal conventions and rules were all based on religious “supernatural” beliefs. Throughout the world, the earliest texts are divine invocations, myths or commandments even though in some areas, as in Mesopotamia, some of the oldest surviving cuneiform inscriptions are associated with commercial record keeping and accounting. However contracts and agreements had to be sanctioned or “made good” by a divine religious or judicial authority. A pact or promise devoid of any transcendence and not based on a spiritual awareness of any kind does not commit the parties as is made evident in the rising tide of dishonesty and “faithlessness” recorded in today’s most materialistic and “despiritualised’ societies where personal gain has become the only criterion, rationale and aim.

When diverse cultures come in contact and are required for the common good to establish a cooperative modus vivendi, the logos which is also the Word or Law of each one of them must be reciprocally communicated and understood, so that Logos becomes dialogos as a basis for a genuine and fair foederatio or a true Pax which the purely economic liberal concept, based on the individual, without any real intermediary social and spiritual structures between that individual and the larger whole, cannot secure or maintain.