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The origins of power dynamics, or why chimps can't play baseball
Our ability to throw objects hard, fast, and with accuracy is unique in the animal kingdom. That helps explain the emergence of modern human power dynamics.
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To understand human power dynamics, you must first understand why chimpanzees can’t play baseball. Once you do, it suddenly makes sense why we organize our societies as we do — and also why “strongman” leadership irrationally persists in our species.
Between four and thirteen million years ago, our primate ancestors diverged from chimpanzees on the evolutionary tree. They remained brawnier, while we became brainier. Chimpanzees, who have twice as much “fast-twitch” muscle fiber as we do, are about 1.35 to 1.5 times stronger than us. With stronger arms, and muscle fine-tuned for speedy contractions, chimps should be able to throw a baseball much faster than the most skilled human.
But it would be unwise to bring in a chimpanzee as a relief pitcher. With robust training, they can only throw an object about 20 miles per hour, and it usually flies off in random directions. Meanwhile, we play a sport that involves exceptional humans throwing a ball over 100 miles per hour with astonishing accuracy.
We’re the only species capable of this feat. Why can’t chimpanzees do the same?
The answer lies with the evolution of our shoulders, which are unique. As Neil Thomas Roach of Harvard University explains, humans have three key adaptations that give us the ability to throw objects with accuracy and speed: an expanded waist, lower shoulders, and something called “low humeral torsion,” a fancy way of saying we can twist our upper arm bone quickly. (In fact, when a human throws hard, the rapid movement of the upper arm is the fastest movement the human body can produce; at its peak it moves up to 9,000 degrees per second).
Some other species use projectiles to their advantage, but most are liquid. Spitting spiders live up to their name, trapping and poisoning their prey from afar. Pistol shrimp fire their claws with such force that the ensuing underwater bubble can kill small fish. The terrifying cone snail — which can kill humans with its toxic venom — shoots a modified tooth like a harpoon at unsuspecting prey, paralyzing them instantly.
But mammals, by and large, don’t use ranged weapons. Except us. Two million years ago, our Homo erectus ancestors exhibited those three evolved changes that provided us the ability to kill from a distance, most likely just by throwing a rock. In the evolutionary sweepstakes, this was like winning the lottery. Imagine how impossible it would have been to kill a gazelle if you had to do so with your bare hands. Even if you had the strength, it would just run away.
Ranged weapons and the evolution of Homo sapiens
Throwing soon gave way to more sophisticated ranged weapons. The “Clacton Spear” (pictured below) which is the oldest worked wooden implement ever discovered, dates back 400,000 years, well before modern humans existed. Over time, those weapons became more sophisticated. Research in the last five years has provided evidence that hunters in the distant past — tens of thousands of years ago — were using primitive tools such as spearthrowers and early bows and arrows to hunt.
These gave us a crucial advantage. 45,000 years ago, humans coexisted with Neanderthals. Just 5,000 years later, they were gone, while we thrived. Some scientists have hypothesized that our ranged weapons technology meant that we outcompeted them for food, eventually leading to their extinction.
But it wasn’t just that we outcompeted other species; ranged weapons and the ability to accurately throw projectiles changed us and how we live, too.
Was the world flat?
Consider this: why is there never a chimpanzee Napoleon?
Dominance in chimps is usually taken by force. Chimpanzee politics are complex, but the bigger, stronger chimps tend to lead, while weaker chimps tend to follow. There are exceptions, and leadership isn’t just about size and strength, but it matters. This is true across much of the mammal kingdom, with some exceptions (for example, ring-tail lemurs, hyenas, and bonobos have female dominance that is untethered from physical size). For chimpanzees, if you come at the king, you best not miss.
Humans, with their modified super shoulders, became capable of severing the link between physical size and social dominance. The smallest prehistoric human, with a bit of practice and the right rock, could kill the fiercest, biggest warrior from far away, lurking hidden in jungle.
For decades, the academic consensus was that these dynamics helped ensure that prehistoric humans lived in small, “flat” societies known as bands, in which they used something called a “reverse dominance hierarchy” to enforce rigid egalitarianism. There’s evidence for this hypothesis both among modern hunter-gatherers (who live in much flatter societies than we do) and from archaeological findings that seem to suggest less inequality. As I wrote in Corruptible:
If the three-hundred-thousand-year history of our species, Homo sapiens, were condensed into a single year, we would mostly live in non-hierarchical, flat societies from New Year’s Day until approximately Christmas. In the final six days of the year, hierarchy would become the norm, as complex civilizations took root across the planet.
In more modern hunter-gatherer societies such as the !Kung of southern Africa, egalitarianism is enforced through a series of social norms that are aimed at ensuring that nobody gets too big for their britches. You might imagine that the most successful hunters in the group would emerge as de facto leaders, but the system is designed to prevent that. When a particularly successful hunter returns with a juicy kill, they face ridicule:
They undergo a ceremonial humiliation, a ritual known by anthropologists as “insulting the meat.” Even if the hunter’s fresh kill could feed the village for a week, the complaints are the same: “You mean to say you have dragged us all the way out here to make us cart home your pile of bones? Oh, if I had known it was this thin, I wouldn’t have come.” This strange custom has a purpose: to cut the hunter down to size.
And just in case that isn’t that enough to curb the hunter’s ego, they don’t even get the credit for the kill. Instead, the community randomly allocates arrowheads among members, rotating them regularly. When a kill is made, credit is given to the current owner of that arrowhead, not the hunter who used it. That way, credit is equally shared, and nobody can claim dominance over anyone else on the basis of their hunting abilities.
In recent years, new research in anthropology has challenged this neat consensus, which is overly romanticized as a bygone age of egalitarian utopia. Manvir Singh has convincingly critiqued this simplified history and David Graeber and David Wengrow added more evidence against the sweeping egalitarian hypothesis in The Dawn of Everything.
Whether “flat” societies were the norm or not, human power structures changed as a result of ranged weapons. If there was internal dominance and hierarchy in a given prehistoric society, the pathway to the top had likely diverged substantially from our chimpanzee cousins.
Survival of the smartest
Moreover, recent research in human evolutionary biology has suggested that the brain sizes of our ancestors expanded rapidly as a result of environmental pressures in East Africa, as our ancestors needed to navigate a complex, rapidly changing landscape where lakes filled and emptied in an evolutionary blink.
These changes may also be associated with hunting using ranged weapons, which rewarded strategic thinking, intellect, and careful planning rather than brute force and physical size. When faced with a challenging environment, then, perhaps survival of the smartest started to reshape our species. (As with any attempt to gaze into the distant past with flawed, incomplete evidence, these hypotheses are fragile and uncertain).
Nonetheless, modern humans have benefited from these two key evolved adaptations from the distant past. Our intellectual prowess allows us to make smarter decisions, contemplating alternative courses of action, rather than blindly following. Our ability to kill or injure at a distance has freed us from the dominance of the strongest male.
And yet, strong men — or “strongmen” — continue to rule over many of our societies, governing with authoritarian dominance. Why is that? Didn’t we jettison the cruder social structures of the chimpanzees when we developed the ability to throw a rock, and later a baseball?
An evolutionary mismatch
One proposed answer to that question comes from evolutionary psychology, a field that hopes to reconstruct the minds of our ancestors even without the ability to closely examine their brains. Again, there is considerable uncertainty here, as inference is often made from an incomplete selection of physical remains—mostly through skulls—along with deductive logic and, these days, genetic analysis. But their answers are persuasive.
Throughout the history of our species, the average human generation has lasted 26.9 years. That gives us about 11,500 generations of Homo sapiens. But there have only been 19 generations since Christopher Columbus discovered America. Therefore, the time between 1492 and today represents less than 0.2% of the history of our species. And yet, evolution was working constantly across the other 99.8% of our history to shape our brains—and our minds.
Our brains evolved for a world that is quite different from the modern one. That has created, according to evolutionary psychology, a “mismatch,” between what was once adaptive — to help us survive — and what is now adaptive in modern life.
In the distant past, whether societies were egalitarian or not, it’s highly likely that physically large men would emerge as leaders during times of crisis, such as an incursion by a rival band of humans. And, as Mark van Vugt has argued, this created a leadership template in our minds that connects moments of crises with awarding power to physically large men. (This obviously became more consequential when human hierarchy got more rigid and regimented, as we moved from smaller groups to mega-empires of millions of people).
Sure enough, modern psychology studies have shown that participants become substantially more likely to select a physically imposing man as a leader when they are primed to believe that the selection is taking place during a moment of crisis, such as a war, famine, or other emergency.
It’s absurd, because there’s no advantage—and often huge disadvantages—to modern strongman rule. But the explanation may just be that it’s an incredibly stupid holdover from our distant evolutionary past, when systems like the rotating arrowheads no longer did the trick, and that old link between physical strength and power reared its ugly head during moments of crisis.
I doubt that Vladimir Putin has read the scholarly literature on evolutionary mismatches, but this does help explain why he seems to manufacture crises whenever he’s particularly vulnerable internally and why he often poses shirtless.
When trying to understand ourselves, then, it’s often useful to think about those species that are most like ourselves, and where—and why—we diverge from them. Some of this intellectual sleuthing is on shaky ground, but what is clear is that one of the main ways that we became unique was with our ability, unlike the chimpanzee, to play baseball, and the complex social power dynamics that emerged because we could kill each other, at a distance, with a rapid rotation of our unique upper arm.
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