RAPID CITY, S.D. -- The too-close-to-call election between Bush and Gore may have been programmed into our genes over millions of years of evolution.
Sound like deterministic nonsense? Let's consider. Animal behaviorists know that every species is predisposed to certain kinds of social interaction. Chickens have their pecking order. Wolves pair up but run in packs. Elephant matriarchs lead the herd while adult males wander off to attend to their own concerns. Honeybees sacrifice their lives to the well-being of the hive and the reproductive efforts of one queen.
Where do human politics fit into this scheme?
Our evolutionary history is one of social primates that underwent a profound transition toward learning, culture, awareness and choice. Evolutionary behaviorists tend to focus on our primate heritage, observing chimpanzees and baboons to look for the origins of human social behavior. For example, Richard Byrne and Andrew Whiten ("Machiavellian Intelligence") conclude that the need to outmaneuver one another in the social hierarchy constituted the main selective force driving the evolution of human intelligence. But somehow, the superior intellect of an Al Gore doesn't necessarily lead to social or political dominance, as we have seen.
So what does? The assertion of dominance among beasts of lesser brain is a fairly straightforward physical contest. The clash of bighorn sheep can be heard for many miles on a crisp fall day. Among the more intelligent apes, however, dominance is not that simple. Although physical size and strength play a role, an air of assertiveness and apparent willingness to take on an adversary count for much in the primate struggle for dominance.
Even more decisive, perhaps, is the ability to put together strategic alliances: two or three individuals who share a common interest in toppling someone else's applecart join forces to see one of their own become top ape.
Starting to sound like politics, isn't it? But wait; there's more.
Anthropologist Margaret Power ("The Egalitarians") reviewed reams of data on wild chimpanzee social behavior, from studies conducted by noted researchers including Jane Goodall, Frans de Waal, and others. Power observed that what we loosely term "dominance" is really two distinct phenomena: dominance and charismatic leadership.
Dominance, she said, accrues to the chimpanzee bully who uses intimidation, harassment, and outright force to gain the upper hand. Charismatic leadership is exerted by chimps, male or female, who are able to project calmness and reassurance, using force only as needed to settle disputes. The personality traits of dominant chimps are diametrically opposed to those of charismatic leaders: insecurity, hostility and defensiveness vs. calmness, confidence and concern for others. Groups of chimpanzees foster either charismatic leadership or a dominance hierarchy depending on the level of stress they are experiencing.
It's embarrassing to recognize ourselves so clearly in the personalities of chimpanzees. Luckily, the evolution of humanness added several significant refinements onto the proto-politics of our primate ancestors.
First, it gave us the means and the mandate to move away from physical disputes into the realm of symbolic discussion and debate resolution. George W. Bush and Gore don't attempt to pound each other into the dust literally, only figuratively. Second, it gave us the means and mandate to maintain a social structure that fosters charismatic leadership, not a dominance hierarchy. Chimpanzees don't have a choice. We do.
So what does all this have to do with smirks, sighs, earth-tone suits and close votes? Very little ... and that's the problem. Neither Gore nor Bush clearly fits the mold of charismatic leader.
Despite obvious accoutrements of intimidating intellect, worthy accomplishments and creditable advisers, neither candidate projects the personal air of confidence, security, and dispute-resolving capabilities that our primate predispositions require us to expect. With unerring instinct, voters will zero in on the absence of these traits no matter how much they like a candidate's positions. By the same token, voters tend to like a naturally charismatic leader even when they have qualms about his capacities; recall President Ronald Reagan.
While I am sympathetic to characterizations of this election's waffling voters as less than well-informed and clear-thinking, it is safe to say that this type of voter is present at every election. The difference this time is that no candidate grabbed our collective attention at the gut level by appealing to our primate political sensibilities.
With any luck at all, however, the man elected will grow into the role rapidly once he finds himself awash in privilege and power.
Deborah S. Rogers is a biologist and writer who comments on American society from an evolutionary perspective.
© Copyright 2000 Star Tribune