Origins of Political Order cover

The state of human nature

How did our ancestors live before there were societies? So, what is our natural way of living? It is a question worth asking when we are to return to Eden. Asking the question implies that our way of living is unnatural in some way and causes mental and physical illnesses. Our ancestors lived in groups where everyone knew each other. That is quite different from how we live today. Our closest kin, the chimpanzees, live in groups too.

We help our family and friends. And we cooperate with strangers. It is natural human behaviour. Chimpanzees do it too. Chimpanzees work together with reliable congeners and avoid unreliable individuals. They have social rules, may cheat and feel guilty. Like human males, chimpanzee males can be violent and kill each other. Like human leaders, chimpanzee leaders acquire status by building coalitions and gaining support.

What sets us apart from the chimpanzees is language. With language, we can transfer information, for instance, who is reliable and who is not, so we can work in larger and more flexible groups on more complex tasks than chimpanzees. And we can share imaginations, for instance, corporations, money, laws, and nation-states. That allows us to work in large groups with people we do not know, so there is no limit to the group size.


The ability to create mental models and to connect causality to invisible abstractions is the basis for religion. Religion allows people to cooperate on a larger scale than would otherwise have been possible. If the size of a group increases then its ability to act collectively diminishes. In large groups, it is difficult to distinguish between the contributions of individual members so cheating and opportunistic behaviour are common. Religion can help to solve this issue by promising rewards in the afterlife for those who cooperate and punishments for those who do not.

Religion is a mental model of reality where causality is attributed to forces that cannot be observed by the senses. It can lead to theories like the harvest is failing because the gods are angry so it is a good idea to sacrifice a goat to please them. In this way, rituals emerge, for instance sacrificing a goat in the planting season. Rituals have another role too. They bond a community so rituals can outlive the beliefs that created them and lose their meaning. Humans endow rituals with intrinsic value and they can become a goal in itself. For instance, many atheists still celebrate Christmas.

Norms and values

Humans invent rules and follow them. Rules differ per culture but the ability to follow rules is part of human nature. Following rules is not an entirely rational process. It comes with emotions like anger, shame and pride. The ability to use rules greatly reduces the negotiations needed for social interaction and permits more efficient collective action. That is why evolution has programmed us in this way.

Rules limit our individual freedom of choice. Institutions are rules too. Institutions are stable, valued, recurring patterns of behaviour. Humans can become attached to rules and institutions, for instance, a constitution or a religion. Societies are inherently conservative with regard to norms and values. This can make societies stable but it can turn into a problem once rules have outlived their usefulness and become an obstacle to change.

The struggle for recognition

One person can recognise someone else’s status, including the value of his or her beliefs and customs. Humans organise themselves in social hierarchies so the struggle for recognition differs from the struggle for material goods. Material goods are absolute, so in an economic transaction win-win is possible. Recognition is relative so the recognition of one person comes at the expense of others.

It is part of human biology. Chimpanzees compete for the status of the alpha female and alpha male. Humans not only desire recognition for themselves but also for their beliefs and groups. A lot of human struggle is about the recognition of groups, for example, women, minorities and homosexuals. There may be an economic aspect to it like equal pay for women, but it is primarily about recognition. This is called identity politics.

Recognition can’t be enforced. Leadership comes from the recognition that a specific person has exceptional courage, wisdom or is impartial in conflicts and a desire from a community to have a leader and submit itself to him or her. Once a society develops, recognition is often transferred to political institutions. In both cases, the political order is based on legitimacy and the fact that people adhere to rules.

Social change and political development

These features are the basis of the evolution of more complex forms of organisation. The natural form of human organisation is a small group of family and friends. Our inclination to favour family and friends can be overcome by rules and incentives, for instance, the requirement to hire a qualified person or the business profit that comes from doing so. Higher forms of organisation like institutions aren’t natural, and if they fail, humans revert to lower forms of organisation in small groups like gangs.

The ability to theorise enabled humans to create large societies. Most notably, ideas about ancestors, gods and other invisible forces created new rules and strong incentives to adhere to them. Our inclination to attach intrinsic value to mental models and theories promotes social stability. It also makes societies conservative with regard to ideas and rules. Rules and institutions often emerged to meet a specific challenge and become a burden once they have outlived their usefulness. Social change is often not a process of small incremental steps but of long periods of standstill alternated with sudden dramatic and often catastrophic changes.

That explains why violence has been important for political development. The fear of a violent death motivates people to do things they wouldn’t do out of mere self-interest. Stakeholders in a society tend to hold off the necessary changes so that violence or the threat of violence is sometimes required to end the stalemate. The human desire for recognition means that politics is seldom about mere self-interest. People make judgements about the meaning and the value of people and political institutions.

Political institutions are the underlying rules by which societies organise themselves. These come in three basic categories: the state, the rule of law and accountability. The state is a hierarchical, centralised organisation that exercises a monopoly on legitimate force over a defined territory. The rule of law is a set of rules of behaviour reflecting a broad consensus in society that is binding to everyone, including the elites. It includes human rights., law and order, property rights, and contract enforcement. Accountability means that the government is responsive to the interests of society.

The diversity in political development has mostly been the consequence of differences in living conditions. Groups split up and then developed their own ideas and norms to cope with their specific environment. Groups also had contact with each other. This was another incentive for change. Still, societies that were far apart, found similar solutions for their political orders. Nearly every society had been organised along with kinship at first. As societies became larger and more complex, most developed states with impersonal forms of governance like rule-based centralised bureaucracies.

Featured image: cover of The Origins of Political Order

From: The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution of Francis Fukuyama.

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