Quantcast
Connect with us

A psychology expert explains why human evolution can help us understand impeachment

Published

on

- Commentary

Whatever you think about the potential – likely? – impeachment of Donald Trump (and I’m all for it), this development converges intriguingly with The Goodness Paradox, a fascinating 2018 book by anthropologist Richard Wrangham. In it, Wrangham makes the paradoxical suggestion that socially orchestrated murder – something very much like the modern death penalty – may have acted in our prehistoric past to make us less violent than we would otherwise be, at least within our own groups. Let me explain.

ADVERTISEMENT

Impeachment and removal from office is hardly murder, and, although right-wing trolls will doubtless interpret this essay as me recommending the murder of Donald Trump, that is most assuredly NOT what I am saying. I am interested, however, in the parallels between eliminating a dangerous group member “with extreme prejudice” in our evolutionary past – as Wrangham hypothesizes – and removing a dangerous group leader via a recognized and legitimated political process; i.e., impeachment.

Compared to many other species, human beings are, by and large, notably nonviolent and unaggressive. Thus, non-relatives and even total strangers typically crowd together on city streets, in a bus, train, airplane, movie theater or lecture hall, with almost no violence or aggression. And yet, people have historically been quite fierce, at least on occasion, toward members of a different group.

Wrangham proposes that our early ancestors, not unlike many nomadic, non-technological societies today,  were prone to enforcing rules of civil conduct within their group. Unable to call 911 or to employ an independent judiciary and police, they would likely have relied on internal mechanisms for keeping within-group tranquility. In current traditional societies, a trouble-making jerk who consistently disrupts their community will typically face efforts to enforce the accepted social rules, by personal warnings, ridicule, or, if necessary, ostracism. But if these gentler attempts are unavailing and especially if the problem individual is dangerously violent and thus a threat to the group’s well-being, capital punishment will frequently be agreed upon. There are few data as to how often this form of extra-juridical justice is meted out in contemporary traditional societies and even less evidence speaking to its frequency and impact in human evolution. Nonetheless, the intriguing possibility exists that as a result of such lethal events, Homo sapiens may have actually become less violent, for two reasons. Number one: by removing those especially predisposed to dangerously lethal behavior, the human genome came to harbor fewer of their predisposing genes, making the rest of us less prone to mayhem.

Number two: through most of our evolutionary history, the average group size was almost certainly small, so individuals knew each other and were also acutely aware of what befell those who conspicuously got out of line. Once such enforcement – lethally administered if need be – became established as cultural tradition, biological selection as well as social pressures and enlightened self-interest would have favored conformity to expected norms. In sum, the idea is that threats to society may have led to informal but effective policing of serious misbehavior, either by lethally eliminating perpetrators or by law-abiding group members suppressing whatever inner demons might remain within themselves. Perhaps we therefore owe our comparatively benevolent dispositions to a long history of group-enforced capital punishment.

This hypothesis could be interpreted as an endorsement of the death penalty in modern life, but it needn’t be. It is likely that our binocular eyesight and the three-dimensional, stereoscopic vision it affords is attributable to our history as forest-dwelling primates, but that doesn’t mean we should start climbing trees and leaping from branch to branch. And the fact that our ancestors may well have scavenged the majority of their animal protein doesn’t suggest that we should all begin consuming road kill. Executing malefactors might, might, have made us what we are today, for better and worse. But that doesn’t mean that we should keep doing it.

ADVERTISEMENT

On the other hand, what we should do – and what the US Constitution explicitly sets out rules for doing – is to remove (nonviolently, to be sure!) trouble-making leaders whose behavior is deleterious to the group. By doing so we probably will not usher in a new millennium, and maybe not even restore the harm to American democracy, society, ideals, the environment, and so forth that a certain trouble-making leader has already done, nor are we likely to engage in the kind of self-domestication that in our evolutionary past might have made us less murderously violent … but it certainly won’t do any harm.

David P. Barash is professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Washington; among his recent books is Through a Glass Brightly: using science to see our species as it really is (2018, Oxford University Press). 

This article was originally published at History News Network

ADVERTISEMENT


Report typos and corrections to: [email protected].
READ COMMENTS - JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Continue Reading

Commentary

A telling moment from the impeachment hearing suggests Trump has an insurance policy on Mike Pence

Published

on

Why don't Republicans just give up and cut Donald Trump loose? That question has been on the minds of most political observers since the beginning of Trump's presidency, and it's only grown more intense in the wake of scandal after scandal after scandal, in which the lying, cheating, grifting, thieving sleazebag who bigoted his way into the White House continues to make fools of everyone who supports and defends him.

This article was originally published at Salon

Continue Reading

Commentary

How can honest people possibly be bored by impeachment hearings?

Published

on

Some of you know I used to teach a course at Yale on the history of presidential campaign reporting. My students read classics like The Making of the President (the 1960 election), Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (1972), What It Takes (1988), and McCain’s Promise (2000, based on David Foster Wallace’s long essay “Up, Simba”).

This article was originally published at The Editorial Board

For background, I read other books, like Game Change (2008), Double Down (2012) and even 08 (a graphic novel rendering of Michael Crowley’s trail diary). When reading the books as a canon, one thing I noticed—actually, I could hardly avoid noticing—is that campaign coverage increasingly became writing about campaign coverage itself.

Continue Reading
 

Commentary

House impeachment inquiry may help restore the political and social norms that Trump flouts

Published

on

President Donald Trump regularly uses blatant violations of long-established social and political norms to signal his “authenticity” to supporters.

Asking foreign countries to investigate and deliver dirt on his political opponents, which prompted an impeachment inquiry in the U.S. House of Representatives, is the most recent example in a long string of norm-shattering behaviors. Other examples of flouting the standards of his presidential office include defending white nationalists, attacking prisoners of war, abusing the use of emergency powers, personally criticizing federal judges and much more.

Continue Reading
 
 
Help Raw Story Uncover Injustice. Join Raw Story Investigates for $1 and go ad-free.
close-image