Origins of Political Order cover

The state of human nature

Social animals

Humans are social animals who live and cooperate in groups. Social animals like humans cooperate on the basis of kin selection and reciprocal altruism. Kin selection means that sexually reproducing animals are more likely to help one another if they share more genes. Reciprocal altruism is an exchange of favours or resources between unrelated individuals. These behaviours aren’t learned but are natural to the species. Chimpanzees are our closest relatives and in many ways behave like we do.

Chimps live in groups of a few dozen individuals. They learn to cooperate with reliable congeners and to avoid those who aren’t reliable. In a chimpanzee band a leader may emerge if he or she proves to be impartial when resolving differences. Chimps have enough memory and communication skills to guess how others will behave. They have some social rules too. Chimpanzees can cheat and betray and probably experience feelings comparable to guilt when they break them.

Chimpanzees can be violent like humans. Chimpanzee males cooperate to go outside their own territory to attack and kill males from neighbouring groups. Humans in primitive tribes and gangs sometimes do the same. Chimpanzees do not have families but they have separate female and male hierarchies. Chimpanzee politics looks a lot like human politics. The alpha female or male earns her or his status from building coalitions and gaining support. Once a female or male has become dominant, she or he has some authority to set rules and settle conflicts.

Typically human

But chimpanzees can’t achieve the high level of social organisation like humans can because they don’t use language. Language enables humans to exchange information about who is reliable and who is not with the help of gossip. A chimpanzee has to experience first-hand whether or not a congener is reliable and it can’t share this experience with others. This limits the number of others a chimp can cooperate with. Language enables humans to cooperate on a larger scale.

Language also helps humans to make abstractions and to invent theories. Words can refer to concrete objects but also to abstract classes of objects like dogs and trees and even invisible forces like gravity and gods. This allows us to produce mental models like it is warm because the sun shines. People see correlating events and imagine causal relationships. The ability to theorise helps us in the struggle to survive. For instance, if someone dies after eating from a certain plant, it can be useful to see a causal relationship between those events.


The ability to create mental models and to connect causality to invisible abstractions is also the basis for religion. Religion made people cooperate on a larger scale than would otherwise have been possible. If the size of a group increases then its ability act collectively diminishes. In large groups it is difficult to distinguish between the contributions of individual members so cheating and other forms of 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 don’t.

Religion is a mental model of reality where causality is attributed to forces that can’t be observed by the senses. This 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 communities so ritualas can outlive the theory 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 are conformist normative creatures, which means that we invent rules and norms and tend to adhere to them. Norms differ per culture but the ability to conform to norms is part of human nature. Adhering to rules is not a rational process but it is based on emotions that control our social behaviour like anger, shame and pride. The ability to use rules greatly reduces the required negotiations needed of social interaction and permits more efficient collective action. That’s why evolution has programmed us in this way.

Rules limit our individual freedom of choice. Traffic rules, for instance, make us drive on the right side of the road. 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 the status of another, including the value of his or her gods, 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 recognising one person tends to be at the expense of others.

It is part of human biology. Chimpanzees compete for the status of 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 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 recognition that a specific person a 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 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.

Human nature itself can’t be changed for the most part. The diversity in political developments has largely been the consequence of differences in living conditions. Groups split up and then developed their own ideas and norms. Groups also had contact with each other. This was another important incentive for change. Still, societies that were far apart, found remarkably similar solutions for their political orders. Nearly every society had been organised along kinship at first. As rules became more complex, most societies developed states based on impersonal forms of governance like centralised bureaucracies.

Feature image: cover of The Origins of Political Order

What you can read here is derived from The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution of Francis Fukuyama.

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