The Genetic Origins of Democracy: Our Shared Inheritance

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When asked what he thought about the worldwide consequences of the French Revolution, Zhou En Lai – a prominent Chinese Communist leader – was famously heard to explain in 1972 that it may be just a bit too early to say![i]

Point taken.

But what about historical progress? Is democracy and its attendant social structures merely a product of a western culture that claims the Greeks as ancestors? Many within the Chinese government sure seem to think so.

However, is this merely an authoritarian government jockeying for legitimacy, trying to head off its own democratic revolution? Or, is this in fact a genuine critique of a new form of cultural imperialism? My friend and I hope yours, Gwynne Dyer, would argue for the former.

(If you are not already acquainted with Mr Dyer, I would recommend a quick peruse through his Wikipedia page as well as his own home page – linked above. They can do him far more justice than I in a sentence or two.)

As Mr Dyer notes in his conversation with podcaster Dan Carlin, something remarkable has happened over the past few decades throughout the world. If we can for the moment exempt much if not all of the Middle East from our discussion, we can see that throughout much of the world, by all measures, people are living in a far more democratic context than they used to be. Indeed, in large swaths of Africa, post-colonial strongmen have increasingly been replaced by far more democratic, albeit colossally imperfect governments. Indeed, the same can be said for much of Asia and Eastern Europe. (Dyer even insists that we should not give up entirely on Russia. I’m personally sceptical though!)

Mr Dyer, in opposition to much of the cultural relativity of post-modern thinking and post-colonial studies that insists we shy away from certainties and shared human values, sees democratisation as a human, not western trend.

He offers, as he puts it, a ‘grand historical theory’ on this trend.

Human beings have an evolutionary inheritance that is egalitarian. For most of human history, approximately several million years and up until about five or ten thousand years ago, most people lived in little societies. These societies were for all intents and purposes egalitarian. With groups of only 100 or so people (and considerably less if one discounts the children), there was very little hierarchy and decisions were generally made through discussion and by consensus. And that’s the way we lived for at least several million years.[ii]

And then, some 10,000 years ago we invented agriculture, and that was the end of that.

This new mode of living allowed societies to accumulate surpluses of food, to become more specialised and so become more differentiated, and thusly stratified. Soon most of us were living in far larger, far more complex societies, and well, suddenly the old ways of making decisions were no longer possible. No longer did we know everyone, and no longer could all sit around the camp fire and make govern ourselves by consensus. There were simply too many of us to make this possible.

Functionally, these societies needed hierarchy, needed stratification, and above all, needed to be governed by the few. And so humanity dipped into a 10,000 year night of dictatorship, tyranny and oppression, and to quote the author of this theory, “Boy, is it not pretty.”

That’s the history, but not the prehistory of humanity.

And what we often overlook is that what we consider ‘history’ is a mere blink in evolutionary terms.

However, in the 18th, 19th, 20th centuries, we begin to see something (re)emerge in Western Europe. We begin to see real democratic revolutions  going back even to the English Civil Wars where they actually killed the king!!

What’s changed? Why did the dark night begin to give way to those first muted rays of dawn?

Well, Mr Dyer argues that it’s not that Anglo-Saxon culture is either leading the way or special in any particular way, but rather that their technology let them have the first go at re-engaging our egalitarian heritage. These societies were still big, but they were acquiring technologies that allowed them to begin to have wider societal discussions about their collective futures, their shared values and their goals. The conversations that used to take place around the campfire, that had gone silent for millennia began to take place again but this time in newspapers and books.

As inheritors of this legacy of democracy, we in the West often look back to the Greeks and their ideals of democracy for the origins of our own democratic impulses. The modernist might see a direct historical line down through the ages, from there to here, from our Greek ancestors (?) to our own selves. This line might even be described as the inevitable process of historical progress, of the essentiality of our own culture’s supremacy, of the universality of the Western project and the inevitability of our current cultural, social, and indeed, economic dominance. A post-modernist might equally be inclined to take the opposite view and while still holding a direct line, counter that democracy as a value, an ideal is not something inevitable or essential to humans generally, but rather the result of a particular cultural legacy.

And yet, as Josiah Ober explains in his conversation (and if you are interested in the entire discussion you’ll have to do a little digging in the archives here – May 1, 2007) with yet another friend of ours here at Beams and Struts, Robert Harrison, “if you look at the explosion of democracy in Athens and a few other city states, it is correlated with the emergence of alphabetic writing fairly shortly before in the Greek world.”

No doubt this history soon turns dark and so the Greek city-states, like most of the rest of the societies in the agricultural world, revert to much more authoritarian systems of government. But this brief flirtation of a much more complex and hierarchical society with the old egalitarian impulse, rather than being the product of a ‘special culture’ should be understood in much more embracive human terms.

But how to account for this revolutionary albeit brief experiment with democracy? I would argue that rather than looking at the particular characteristics of the culture or people, it might be more useful  to  see it rather as the consequences of the ability of the population (all men to be fair...but what are we looking for here? Perfection?!) to once again see themselves as a united group of people, able now through the use of the written word, to have conversation across the cities and regions that were much too big to allow for the inhabitants to gather round the fire.

Ober continues:

If you look at the origins of democracy in Athens, one thing that emerges very strongly is that the emergence of democracy is the emergence of a demos, of a group of citizens the understands themselves to be a united community onto the stage of history, visible as an actual actor in history, as a vocal and present actor in history…The very moment of the beginning of democracy at the end of the Sixth Century is an Arendtian moment, it’s revolutionary, it’s remarkable, I think it’s one of the great ruptures in all of human history.

Similarly, as mentioned above, if we look at the ruptures that took place across Europe over the past few centuries, it’s correlated with or follows upon the development of printing presses.

If this is true, that it’s technology – whether a system of writing or the means to spread this system – and not having Greeks as ancestors that’s the real driver of democracy, then it’s rather more a matter of historical randomness than cultural superiority or the like that democracy appears to arise from a specific and particular cultural formation that is Western Europe. If the printing press had first appeared in China, then, Mr Dyer argues, that’s where you would have had ‘the first dawn of democracy.’

As it is, we have seen democratic movements of some kind or another rise up all around the world for centuries – even in China! It would seem that as soon as the discussion becomes technically possible, we begin to see that old egalitarianism re-emerge and to push at the edges of authoritarianism.

A similar breakout can be said to be occurring at the moment as well with the explosion of participatory forms of democracy across the globe. As Mr Dyer pointed out, a remarkable thing is now taking place. Post-colonial African strongmen are virtually a thing of the past as are many of the military governments that once ruled south-east Asia.

Around the world, a new technological revolution is now occurring and should be understood not as something new or culturally specific, but rather part of a human historical – not cultural – continuum.

Mr Ober explains:

I think the alphabet, the printing press, the use of electronic media today may really be similarly gigantic moments in terms of how human beings can share what’s in their heads, and I think that each of these other two great leaps forward in terms of communication technology had big impacts on the new forms of politics, there’s reason to imagine this one will too.

Indeed, if (pre)history can teach us anything it is that the urge towards a more equal and just society is something that may be built into our very DNA. We have existed as a cooperative, egalitarian species for far longer than we have lived under the thumb of hierarchy and tyranny. To argue, as the Chinese government and rabid relativists are too often tempted to do, that the values of our different cultures trump the shared values of our humanity is not only to ignore millions of years of genetic history, but it is to privilege Nurture to the exclusion of Nature entirely. And, as we all know, that is just plain silly.

Democracy is not, as it is so often mistaken to be, a Western political system of government. It is an inherited dream, a human value, a genetic impulse that should not nay, cannot – be suppressed in the name of ‘cultural values’.

[i] Quoted in Simon Schama's Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989). Although this quote is well-known, finding a reliable citation proved a difficult task. It will suffice, I think, to take as accurate Mr Schama’s citation.

[ii] Stokes Brown, Cynthia. Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. New York: The New Press, 2007; Fagan, Brian. People of the Earth: An Introduction to World Prehistory. Harper Collins, 1992.

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  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Thursday, 13 January 2011 03:44 posted by Chris Dierkes

    intriguing piece Andrew. Thanks for introducing Dyer's work to our site.

    I have a question in regards to democracy. My understanding of democracy is that it's a procedural practice for assigning various responsibilities or government. i.e. A government (cabinet, political party/coalition) may come and go but the state apparatus continues.

    That may not be your definition of democracy. I'm wondering about what Fareed Zakaria called (correctly imo) Illiberal Democracies. Illiberal democracies are states that have democratic procedures (votes, elections, parties, etc.) but are not liberal states---liberal here defined in the classical liberal sense of guaranteed rights, rule of law, and the like.

    So I'm not in the school that liberal democracy is some Western only inheritance--I agree with you there. But I wonder if democracy is being used too broadly here and is not differentiating between different kinds of democracy.


  • Comment Link Juma Wood Friday, 14 January 2011 04:04 posted by Juma Wood


    Nice piece. I'd like to push back a little with a question: can you envision a society of any sort where an elite did not emerge?

    I like the idea of the struggle of democracy being a struggle to reassert a certain lineage, deeply wired.

    But I'm not sure an egalitarian society is either possible or desirable. I don't claim you're championing this, but that is a possible reading here.

    Answer the question and if I've assumed too much about your suggestion, we will travel down a different road. If I've read you correctly, we'll go down this one.

  • Comment Link Gail Hochachka Friday, 14 January 2011 21:16 posted by Gail Hochachka

    Andrew, I found this intriguing at a first, quick read (looking forward to a longer read with more time). Intriguing in a couple ways... It made me realize I may be over-cautious with ideas that could be interpreted as retro-Romantic (going back to a supposed "Eden" of our past), and yet there is something that feels quite sweet and true about your ideas on this. I have to say that I've only twice in my life experienced indigenous societies that have been able to preserve this, to some extent (an isolated community on the Islands of Siberut in Indonesia and the Q'eros peoples of the high Andes in Peru that were only fairly recently contacted by the modern world). The very little I experienced in those communities gave me enough food for thought for a lifetime; if that truly is our shared pre-history, yes it was beautiful.

    Though, bringing this into my practice in international development, some evident questions arise for me in regards to it. I guess at the end of the day, I actually don't know if the deep structure of egalitarianism was something shared in prehistory or something that developed in Western style politics, but I do know that today, we need more of the mature, sophisticated ways of going about governance. And I am willing to say that--though not 'belonging' to Europe--it became a stable, substantial, and effective way of organizing society first in Europe and in Western styles of politics. From what I can see, and I believe this will continue, the deep structure of egalitarianism 'surfaces' in myriad and diverse ways across the planet. The only claim perhaps that Europe and the West has is that it lead the way of stabilizing this societally.

    Some other thoughts in regards to your piece...

    I read somewhere in the integral studies cannon that the industrial societies were the first ever to abolish human slavery, and surely it was the first to cease sacrifice (often human sacrifice). For example, something about slavery that I never learned in Canadian schools and universities, I learned when I went to West Africa: African chiefs were actually making money selling their own people as slaves to the Europeans, and that the chiefs themselves were horrified when the British abolished slavery. So on that front, I do see that it was the Western political system of government that lead the way on that front, ironic as it might be.

    My heart sort of trembled reading the part about the African strongmen.... I wish I could agree with you that post-colonial African strongmen are virtually a thing of the past. But it seems that the power-grabbing that results in corruption, extremely poor governance, and keeps countries stuck in poverty persists. In Nigeria where we work, for example, though it is officially a 'democracy', since it is a young democracy and fragile for economic reasons, the way the country actually operates is more like an authoritarian state (and is actually listed as an authoritarian state in the Democracy Index).

    In fact, in this regard here I tend towards Juma's comment above, "I'm not sure an egalitarian society is either possible or desirable." In some areas, a beneficent dictator might be exactly what is needed, not a democracy that would pull down the governance to a shard worldview (and dominant mode of discourse) that cannot support equality. In other words, the integral view on this would look first at the (AQAL) situation of the country and then align a style of governance in resonance with that. Seems counter-intuitive to me (you too?) that egalitarian ways of organizing might not be what we need in all contexts.

    Other questions arise for me when I try to bring these ideas effectively into development work. For example, what enabled pre-historic societies to live harmoniously and in egalitarian ways (accepting that they did), was likely the fact that they were very small and ethically-homogenous groups. But that is impossible to replicate or draw off of today. These days, it is so difficult to be competitive in the increasingly sophisticated world economy, some of the least-egalitarian and democractic nations (what Collier calls the 'bottom billion' countries) just can get in the economic world game enough to support better governance. As he says, "Divided by ethnic loyalties, they are too large to be nations. Yet with only tiny economies, they lack the scale to be effective states." So, are we comparing apples and oranges? How can we really make effective use of the fact that our pre-history was lived in tiny, homogeneous societies that were egalitarian in figuring out how ethically-diverse, large nations with weak economies can develop stronger, more egalitarian states?

    Not sure if I am being clear with my ideas here. But thanks for raising this, and allowing me to both rest in the sweetness of our prehistory and wonder about how it might apply to our integral work in international development. It's a 'doozy' this one... Thanks for engaging with it, and allowing us too as well.

  • Comment Link andrew Sunday, 16 January 2011 18:35 posted by andrew

    Thanks for the probing on this important topic. I think I will try and address each of these comments independently, and see where this takes us.

    Chris...I think that you may be using a too-technical definition of what democracy is. I think I, and indeed Mr Dyer, am using the term 'democracy' in a more general sense as the opposite of tyranny and dictatorship. In my mind, democracy is more than “a procedural practice for assigning various responsibilities or government,” but also encompasses the broader philosophical notions of popular rather than divine (or otherwise non-popular) sovereignty.

    Democracy is a means for the people to choose their leaders and to hold their leaders accountable for their policies and their conduct in office, and is based on the consent of the governed.

    I would have a hard time believing that there is something out there that can be called an illiberal democracy – as per Zakaria’s definition – and still be considered as an democratic. Can a government actually be based on the consent of those who are governed with no rule of law or freedom of speech? A procedural system that simply assigns governmental responsibilities in an ordered manner and that guarantees the smooth transition of power from one set of hands to another, is not in my mind a democracy. I wonder which governments Zakaria can point to as examples of this?

    I have no doubt that there can be a number of different forms of democracy, but what they would all need to be as democracies are systems that have institutionalized the notion that government is responsible to the people it governs, whatever that may look like. It certainly doesn’t need to be a Westminster-based parliamentary system to be a democracy, but it must hold as its foundational tenet that the people, not the leaders are the final authorities.

  • Comment Link Andrew Baxter Sunday, 16 January 2011 20:02 posted by Andrew Baxter


    Our time has come at last!

    So, let me see...can I envision a society in which an elite does not emerge?

    My answer would be a resounding no. I am not one who lives in a fantastical world in which everyone is equal in every way. Humans are a diverse species, and each one of us are probably good at some things and not so good at others; and some of us are better than most. Both physically and mentally, we are all different, and so in pretty much every aspect of human life, given the opportunity, elites will inevitably emerge.

    I think the better question in this line of thought then is, do we as a society privilege one group of elites - be they athletes, bankers, those who can lie to us the best - over, and at the expense of, others? And if we do, what is the justification for that privilege?

    On the other hand, you suggest that an egalitarian society may not be possible or even desirable. But why not?

    If egalitarianism means that everybody must be the same, then I would fully agree with you. But if an egalitarian society were to resemble more how Marx put it, from each according to their ability, to each according to their need, then I would have to disagree.

    I think it both possible and desirable.

    We were far closer to this ideal in Canada about thirty or forty years ago with the uneasy alliance between labour, capital, and government that was the Welfare State, but have since moved dramatically away from that model in favour of something far more polarised.

    What's changed?

    So perhaps I will throw the question back to you Juma. What do you mean by egalitarian, and why isn't such a society desirable?

  • Comment Link Andrew Baxter Sunday, 16 January 2011 21:20 posted by Andrew Baxter

    Democracy in name only is not democracy, but is in fact what we all fear, Cultural Imperialism. I suppose the trick is not to get the two confused. And this is what can happen when our terminology is loose. So, in that sense, I think Chris has identified a serious hole in the discussion about democracy: no one is ever really sure what it is exactly we’re on about!

    As to the issue that Gail raises about what this assertion of a genetic inheritance means in the context of international development, the trick as I see it is not to impose democratic systems or values, but to recognise that they are inherent in us, that they are not cultural products. But what this looks like as a practical plan for international development, I am in no real position to say.

    I guess what it looks like to me in a very abstract way is the focusing of development efforts towards encouraging and supporting the capacity for self-governance within individuals through education, within families and villages through more self-sufficiency and capacity, in cities through better infrastructure and governmental accountability. Attempting to both support and encourage the capacity of individuals and groups to engage in dialogue with each other as opposed to fist fights, helping foster the environment, the context within which there are incentives for different social groups to cooperate.

    Our own political and social histories are drenched in the blood of countless battles and wars, oppression and revolution, assassinations and civilised debate. So, I’m not sure that the West has anything to actually teach anybody as we have seen our own systems wax and wane through the decades and centuries. The only real lesson we can draw is that we should never take these systems for granted. For, while we may have a genetic predisposition towards egalitarianism – if we accept that – we also have a clear predilection for tyranny and oppression as a species.

    I have no real leg to stand on with regards to the political situation in Africa. I am relying on Mr Dyer’s assessment of the situation there and I trust his general thrust. While there is no doubt far, far too much corruption and violence in many African states, I think one would be hard pressed to argue with the notion that the political situation has improved over what it was a few decades ago. South Africa is no longer governed by White Supremacists, Zimbabwe seems finally poised to throw off the last vestiges of its post-colonial dictatorship, and Tunisia has just this weekend staged a partial revolution! Your point Gail, though, is well understood.

    And I think your point about the difficulty facing many of the large, ethnically-diverse countries that have emerged in the past fifty or so years .In many cases, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, colonial history is largely responsible for the political make-up of these so-called ‘countries’. Many were indeed designed to be fragile and fractious so as the colonial overlords would be better be able to pacify them by playing different groups off of each other. This most certainly plays a role in their current weaknesses.

    European countries, for all intents and purposes became fairly homogeneous through centuries of large-scale – and small-scale – warfare and genocides. Though I am in no way advocating for this developmental model to be emulated in Africa or elsewhere, it may offer some study in what conditions are necessary for this democratic impulse to not only reassert itself, but begin to actually take hold.

    To offer another Ober quote on Greek democracy:
    “If you look at the origin’s of democracy in Athens, one thing that emerges very strongly is that the emergence of democracy is the emergence of a demos, of a group of citizens the understands themselves to be a united community onto the stage of history, visible as an actual actor in history, as a vocal and present actor in history…”

    There does seem to be a need for a nation, if it is to develop politically, to be united in some way. But more than that, to have a conscious sense of being united, a collective tied together in a common way. This unity is most likely impossible in a political union in which tribal loyalties are still prominent if not foundational and the system is set up to foster not dilute these tensions.

  • Comment Link OV Monday, 17 January 2011 23:51 posted by OV

    I am about 3/4 of the way through Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine" which is about the rise of neo-liberal free market economics as set forth by Milton Friedman and his "Chicago School."

    A main issue concerns exactly what "democracy" is. Everybody knows that it is "good" which is why everybody and their dog is attempting to co-opt it with a pragmatic definition that suits their own best interest. The Chicago School, for example defines it as unconstrained capitalism, and the general public opinion is probably closer to "Developmentalism" which was gaining ground in Argentina and Chili in the late 40's, early 50's, before "The West" helped install dictatorships in these countries.

    The sweep of democracy that Dyer talks about sounds more like systematized trauma inducement followed by rape and pillage when reading the details that Klein provides. Political power was traded for economic power and the same elite ruled except more ruthlessly, and with increases in the percentage of the population in poverty and destitution.

    Klein describes the free market ideology as "corporatism" which is the corporations acting in conclusion with state mechanisms for a looting of the commons. Sounds to me like what Mussolini would call fascism.

    I would be very interested in hearing a debate between Klein and Dyer on this subject and wonder if anybody knows of a link on the web where this could be found. Barring that, has anybody here read the Shock Doctrine?

  • Comment Link Andrew Baxter Tuesday, 18 January 2011 02:09 posted by Andrew Baxter

    Well, I'm not entirely sure that Dyer ever speaks of a "sweep of democracy" in the 20th century, but there is no doubt that much of what has passed for Democracy in this past century was certainly not that.

    I doubt also that Dyer and Klein would disagree on the details of the brutality of the Western 'mission' to spread their influence over much of the world.

    But again, the point is not to get caught up in this debate about the imposition of one form of government by a colonial power on another, because, as I stated above, that is most certainly what you say it is.

    The deeper point as I see it is to have a discussion about whether or not equality, justice, inclusion, and empathy - all those things that underpin true democratic governance - are in fact Human rather than Cultural capacities.

    I personally believe they are the former.

  • Comment Link OV Tuesday, 18 January 2011 06:23 posted by OV

    Human vs culture is a bit of a chicken and egg, don't you think? I personally think that it these types of situations one needs to bring in the divine, more precisely the relationship between us and the divine, and the Heisenberg factor of the observer affecting the observed as mutually co-creating both us and the divine. It is this historical process that has developed our concept of what is fair, just etc. (unless you choose nihilistic and then the only intelligent choice is to be an evil bastard).

    The week before last I listened to a ten hour seminar by Phyllis Tickle on the "Great Emergence". To her the bottom line issue in the major transformation points that occur about every five hundred years is "where lies the authority" and three subquestions: what is a human being; how can we share space with others with different views of God; and nature of atonement. (this seminar was given to Anglican clerics) She also mentioned Heisenberg observance, and quite a bit of other interesting things.

    Bruce Sanguin wrote a few things of relevance in today's blog post, particularly in the last few paragraphs.

    To get back to the human vs cultural question I think the deeper point is whether the total integrated system is functional or dysfunctional. Is it in a state where it can thrive, or in the collective version of the survival trance associated with the typical dysfunctional family. For the past month I've been procrastinating an essay on Isaiah and Deuteronomic reform, lots of reading little writing. I see this as a turning point for the creation of a survival trance which the West has been in ever since. The positive perspective that I take to this is that methods have been developed to transform dysfunctional organizations into thriving enterprises and that the next logical step is to apply this to a culture at large. A big task I know, but what's the alternative? Nihilism?

    Anyway, if I was going to get into a discussion on this these are some of the things that I would look at, and from these there would be many more issues that would emerge in dialogue.

  • Comment Link OV Tuesday, 18 January 2011 06:25 posted by OV

    Editor ate the anchor link to Bruce's blog post.


  • Comment Link Stirner Tuesday, 18 January 2011 07:08 posted by Stirner

    Sorry for Mr. Dyer's theory, but printing WAS invented in China. In fact, it was invented centuries before Gutenberg.

  • Comment Link Andrew Baxter Tuesday, 18 January 2011 17:16 posted by Andrew Baxter

    Good point about printing arising outside of Western Europe Stirner, (and one that was raised in the editing process, but ultimately something I chose to ignore for the sake of simplicity) and I think that it does beg some questions. But does this fact completely undermine the deeper argument being made here?

    What besides this makes you suspicious, or even willing to dismiss outright Mr Dyer and the larger theory of our shared human predisposition towards democracy?

  • Comment Link OV Wednesday, 19 January 2011 05:55 posted by OV


    Maybe this will leave an impression that is a little more positive and in keeping with what I think is the point that you wished to make. It is by David Korten and covers the same themes as your article, and there isn't any points in it that I object to.

    I looked around on wiki and Dyers website for further clarifications of the points on hard wired for clarification but couldn't find them. I am familiar with Dyer however, reading his column every week in the Georgia Straight. I can't ever remember being outraged by what he has to say, but then I've felt compelled to quote him or forward his material. I've often felt that he failed to even mention the crux issues of the subject. No main stream gatekeeper needs worry about Dyer, with perhaps the exception of Conrad Black and Canwest, but then only because Dyer gives the Palestinians a neutral portrayal.

    I'm not sure what it was about this article that set me off. Perhaps the hard-wired for democracy at the same time that I'm reading about the consequences of Friedmaninism. Hard-wired for egalitarianism which is an ideology rather than an emotion. The whole subtext of the progress of technology and the digirati to the rescue theme. Sorry for not drinking that kool-aid.

  • Comment Link Stirner Thursday, 20 January 2011 06:38 posted by Stirner

    I will stipulate that pre-agricultural humans could have very well been highly egalitarian.

    However, for thousands of years before agriculture, they were egalitarian within the context of these 100 person tribal units. In most cases, the other 99 people in the tribe were relatively close kin relations - effectively forming an extended family unit.

    While inter-tribal conduct may have been organized along egalitarian lines. Intra-tribal conduct in many cases degenerates to constant conflict. We may have genes for egalitarianism and democracy, but we ALSO have a genetic legacy that makes us willing to fear and kill "the other" that is not our kin.

    In the human vs. cultural debate on Democracy, I am firmly on the cultural side of the debate. The massive material prosperity brought about by modern innovation and technology has creates a massive cultural surplus that makes it possible to implement Democracy on a wide scale without triggering our base kin-protection instincts.

    I would argue that as material prosperity spreads globally, democracy becomes more "affordable" and the egalitarian impulses can begin to express themselves.

    The main issue is having a cultural infrastructure that supports material prosperity for people. If you have that, perhaps Democracy can thrive. The West has succeeded in doing that. To the extent that other cultures are willing to adopt practices that help to nurture that material prosperity, both prosperity and democracy may be able to flourish in their cultures.

  • Comment Link OV Sunday, 23 January 2011 04:49 posted by OV

    Well, if there isn't going to be any response I'm going to stop checking in. The few on this site I know I can talk to at coffee hour.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Sunday, 23 January 2011 21:18 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    I think OV's point/frustration is well taken. Now only seven or so months into this venture, we're still trying to find the balance between producing new material (which for us includes editing in a peer-reviewed process, which takes time) and really beginning to dig into discussions at length on each particular piece. Oh, and trying to live lives with families, kids, jobs and the rest of it, all the while putting energy into Beams, our collective labor of love.

    There are several juicy threads still open on this article- i) what is democracy?; ii) what is egalitarianism, and is it desirable; iii) what's the (historical and current) link between communication advances and popular/democratic emergence within human collectives; iv) If we lived in small egalitarian bands for close to a million years of evolutionary history (which scholarship attests to, check Andrew's footnotes) then how much of this history do we retain. From a integral-spiral-evolutionary perspective, we should've included this inheritance deeply within us; v) what do we now do however, a la Stirner's excellent, excellent point that we were also very tribal for most of that time too, apparently warring almost incessantly with other tribes around us (which scholarship also attests to, including Dyer's book 'War'). This is both a challenge and an opportunity; vi) Does a democracy always need the material prosperity that Stirner claims it does.

    So, I personally think we'd do well as a group, both the Beams team and the folks we're discussing with, to take some time and follow all these threads through before moving on to more (and also important) topics.

    Thanks OV, point taken. I got more to say about the work you've brought up, including Naomi Klein and David Korten, but I'll have to jump on that tomorrow. peace.

  • Comment Link Andrew Baxter Tuesday, 25 January 2011 00:21 posted by Andrew Baxter

    There is no question that humans have a propensity towards violence, destruction, and oppression. And I'm sure Trevor would have something more to say on that topic.

    We are, after all, an incredibly aggressive species and can partly explain our success on the planet Earth.

    And clearly Stirner, a degree of material comfort is required for a democratic culture to not only form but sustain itself. But, I'm not entirely sure that this level is in fact all that high. Also, to Stirner, I am not entirely sure that you are in fact coming out on the cultural end of the debate. I think you have simply replaced levels of material prosperity with level of technological development. Neither of which are cultural per se.

    And OV, I certainly share your concerns about the power of new technology to free us or what-have-you, as well as your dislike of Kool-Aid...just too much sugar for me!

    But I don't think the argument is so much that some form of technology - such as Facebook or Twitter or the printing press for that matter - is going to save us from tyrants. I mean we only need to see that this same communications technology that has enabled us to regain some aspects of our genetic predisposition towards egalitarian social relations, gave us absolute dictatorships and tyranny up until, well, today.

    Rather, what I think is of major importance with the theory is that it provides space for a discussion around whether the ideas of justice and equality and the rule of law and popular sovereignty are in fact cultural artifacts. Or are they, and here's where I come down on the issue, inherent human drives, human values that no matter what culture someone comes from or lives in, are always present.

    No doubt, when imposed from outside, these ideas can appear very foreign, and it is also clear that these values will express themselves in different shapes and forms...but I have a hard time believing that there are many people out there would find endemic corruption a more favourable that a society based on the rule of law.

    Hard to argue that enjoying being ripped off by your ruleris something inherent to a particular group of people out there?!

  • Comment Link OV Tuesday, 25 January 2011 06:27 posted by OV

    "There is no question that humans have a propensity towards violence, destruction, and oppression."

    This is a strong and loaded statement, and as such is very questionable. I think it needs to be put into context, considering why and under what conditions this may apply, rather than stating it as an absolute a priori assumption.

    This is related to a public lecture I went to last Wednesday, at the Vancouver Library, given by Peter Prontzos on the subject of justice and peace. His premise was that almost all of the injustices in the world are the structural result of artificially created scarcity, and that the propensity of humans in a healthy system is for compassion and cooperation. He claimed that even Adam Smith saw an "age of empathy" at work provided we are not pathological. When asked why our systems were like this Peter replied that 3 to 4 percent of people are psychopaths and naturally gravitate to leading roles in corporations, and the rest of us can be made pathological by placing us under the stress of surviving with inadequate means.

    A few points I wrote down:

    - 110 million people have died from wars in the 20th century; 50 million people per year die from economic structural violence.

    - $1.6 trillion is spent each year on military, and it would cost 1/5 of this to eradicate global poverty (which would make war unnecessary).

    - not about changing human nature but about changing environment and behavior.

    Each and every paragraph could/should be similarly addressed, but so as not to risk hi-jacking the topic I'll stop here and let others speak.

  • Comment Link Andrew Baxter Tuesday, 25 January 2011 16:54 posted by Andrew Baxter

    Really? My opening statement needs to be qualified? Put in context? I'm pretty sure that the truth of that sentence is self-evident.

    You're points are quite true as well OV,and I think they actually go a long way towards solidifying my original premise for the piece, but they do nothing to take away from the fact that humans are both cooperative by nature and particularly brutal to each other as well as to other living things.

    And while I certainly share your concern with sociopaths running us down, I hardly have a lot of sympathy for the perspective that at the root of all human problems are the 3-4% of the population that is just crazy! If you can't see the craziness in you, in me, in Nelson Mandela, then I am afraid any solutions you may propose are doomed to failure.

    But I think that you do touch on something that we are perhaps a little too leery of thrusting out there into the world, and that is context.

    Context plays a huge role in how we act as humans, in how we develop, and in what shape our society takes. It's certainly not the be all and end all as we are creatures endowed with free will and we are in the end all responsible for the choices we make, but context no doubt plays a crucial role!

  • Comment Link OV Tuesday, 25 January 2011 18:17 posted by OV

    When the Hobbesian mythos gets trotted out as self evident I feel compelled to call the person on it. The Korten link I provided earlier will provide more explanation for what I mean by this.

    There is a big difference between being just crazy and being pathological. The latter do well in our society and the former don't as a general rule. Joel Bakan and Robert Hare are two local authorities that have much to say about this.

    Ah yes, free will and responsibility. If only we would exercise it sometimes then maybe the multi-billion dollar public relations industry would realize that they are wasting their time and money. And maybe we could start spending resources on general well being rather than pathologization through mass media and the subsequent wars that follow.


  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Tuesday, 25 January 2011 20:24 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    I also personally think Andrew's statement is self-evident, but I would add a couple of points of nuance to it, much in line with what Stirner brought up.

    I think what we need to avoid here is either/or thinking; either humans are fundamentally violent and brutish (Hobbes), or we're really actually co-operative and caring but structural/power dynamics are creating the conditions that lead to us to be violent and brutal (more or less a long standing Anarchist view, also Rousseau).

    But neither is wholly right I believe, because they're both partially right at the same time. As Andrew via Dyer pointed out, a huge part of our evolutionary history has included the egalitarian tribal/kinship situation. After close to a million years this has become a "kosmic habit" (to use an integral concept); this is now included as a core (if at the moment somewhat generally latent in the West, due no doubt to the many things OV mentions), part of our "inheritance" as Andrew coins it.

    But, as Stirner pointed out, and Gwynne Dyer himself shows in a chapter of his book 'War'(ch.3 The Roots of War), most tribes were involved in almost constant warring conflict with other tribes. So the violent warring side of our nature is also very old and very deep. In fact, I would take it back even further into nature (as Dyer does too, talking about chimpanzee warfare, as well as that of other mammals), and say that we've also inherited a certain aggression and violence from our bestial heritage (which also undoubtedly played an important part in our survival as a species). As the Marquis de Sade put it, contra Rousseau, "Nature averse to crime? I tell you that nature lives and breathes by it, hungers at all her pores for bloodshed, yearns with all her heart for the furtherance of cruelty". I think this is a sober and honest view.

    However, if we attempt to move from either/or thinking to both/and, then what's the 'and' in this situation above? From my perspective it's that this whole situation (a double inheritance) is also in process, is moving in constant evolutionary time. Further to that, there's been some strong works of late that argue that there's a trajectory in human evolutionary development towards more empathy and to larger in-groups included in that empathy. Two notable texts on this subject being 'The Empathic Civilization' by Jeremy Rifkin, and Robert Wright's 'Non Zero' and 'The Moral Animal'.

    As Nietzsche put it, "man is a rope tied between beast and overman".

    Here's a great video (imo) where the political theorist Michael Hardt talks about exactly this subject, and he presents a third way to the either/or of the Hobbes/Rousseau debate that's similar to mine (that we as humans need to consciously grow and develop into our fully democratic future, up out of our bestial inheritance).

    Lastly OV, I'm curious if you've spent much time with the concept of Thanatos, or the death drive (which is also seen to be a dynamical cosmic force). Several thinkers have taken up this theme. I write about it at length in Part 3 of my essay on Modernity, if you're interested.

    What I learned from the various thinkers who've treated the subject of the death drive, is that to ignore (pretend or claim that it's not part of our nature) is to only open ourselves to violent eruptions of it. I'd be curious to hear your reflections on that concept. I take it very seriously because I've experienced that energy plenty in my life, and can verify its presence within my own life and system.

    Cheers gents, nice to work through an inquiry into these topics together.

  • Comment Link Andrew Baxter Wednesday, 26 January 2011 00:53 posted by Andrew Baxter

    I think Trevor, you make excellent points. But OV, I think you are not really looking at the totality of the argument in front of you. You seem to pick out points you disagree with, isolate them from the context in which they were presented, and critique them.

    Too easy!

    And you know what, that's fine, except I'm not sure how that advances (or dis-spells)any argument either you are arguing against or are in fact making for yourself.

    If you had read carefully and paid attention to the argument, you could not possibly accuse me of trotting out a Hobbesian mythos. Where exactly did I assert this? I was simply agreeing that we are indeed a vicious species, at times.

    But we are also the most compassionate of species!

  • Comment Link OV Wednesday, 26 January 2011 04:04 posted by OV

    Trevor, I thought that I also had added a couple of important nuances, namely 1)why are humans that way and 2)under what conditions this may apply.

    Andrew, when a statement such as "There is no question that humans have a propensity towards violence, destruction, and oppression." full stop, no nuances stated, then how am I not to interpret this as Hobbesian?

    Truth be told I haven't read Dyers book, but as I've said I've been reading his column for years. My impression is that through intensive academic training in a military curriculum he will have a world view where the military is a necessary and virtuous component. Which is fine as long as this is seen as one view among many legitimate other views. Trevor says that Dyer shows the early tribes in constant warfare; I've seen documentaries that studied tribes that had still not had contact with the rest of the world and their warfare was periodic and practically ritualistic ending in many cases after the first death on either side. As to the egalitarian nature of these early tribes I imagine that they were still dominated by a patriarch. Though I have read some archeological reports of an early city, Catal Huyuk, that did not show signs of war or violence. Another book, "Parable of the Tribes" by Schmookler seems to indicate that conquer flee or die was an early reality. I think if there was an egalitarian period it would have been before disparate groups had contact with each other, and that then it would be most probable.

    Trevor, I watched the Michael Hardt videos, and section 7 that you linked a few times. Interesting. What I got out of the first part was that the industrial revolution was a privatization of the material commons, and the metropolis revolution was a privatization of the conceptual commons. Then he talked of revolution being the replacement of one ruling elite with a different better ruling elite but not much difference in the long run. That the purpose of revolution was to create "real" democracy. There are two views of human nature, the first that humans have been trained to be subordinate and are not capable of self government, the second that if we remove the oppressive structures humans natural benevolent state will allow true democracy. That the goal of revolution should be the transformation of human nature.

    I get nervous when I hear about changing human nature. Brings up visions of eugenics and extropian true believers.

    Personally I think that human nature is just fine, provided that it is healthy rather than dysfunctional. Humans respond to the situation that they are in, and if they are responding "badly" it is an indication that they are in an unhealthy environment whether physical or cultural.

    The one point that I didn't hear mentioned in the video is the point that Korten made about the importance of changing the meta-narrative of what reality is, from one of an empire story to one of a cooperative story.

    The meta-narrative is the context in which everything else needs to be placed. The isolated facts, the rules, the structure then flow out of the meta-narrative.

    That is the totality of the argument from which I am coming. I thought I'd said that already, but apparently not.

    Trevor, I read your modernity essay and will reply elsewhere but give me a few days to think about it.

  • Comment Link Juma Wood Friday, 28 January 2011 05:06 posted by Juma Wood


    Apologies for the late response. There is now so much distance between these comments!

    It's important to split these hairs, because we are likely to find some common agreement, and perhaps some interesting differences.

    I agree there is no society that could emerge without an elite. I think this is deeply wired into the human condition, and we are still struggling in earnest to determine what type of elite this should be.

    I would also in part share your thoughts on an egalitarian society, meaning all human beings are intrinsically equal. I differ with your Marxist analysis though, finding it too utilitarian.

    Instead, bridging these topics, I believe there is a natural hierarchy that might emerge in an enlightened society. We are simply so far from this, it's hardly worth discussing, since the ideas crash into all sorts of bad behaviour in our collective history and the point is easily lost.

    But just to play with it a bit: what if the measure of a man is not his utility or even his unique individuality, but rather his depth of insight into the human condition? I don't speak of knowledge necessarily, but rather real depth and insight into the emergent truth of being itself.

    This of course is so tricky and subject to deception, it's hard to discuss in what is in truth a secular forum. In a world still so divorced from divine spaces, there is too much room for charlatans and charismatic ego-maniacs to intervene.

    But as a thought experiment: assuming that we are not all 'equal' in terms of depth (perhaps due to a slew of obvious forces: upbringing, culture, etc; and perhaps a slew of not so obvious ones: karma, past incarnations), doesn't it make sense that those with finer access to a subtle discourse with the creator/creation/creating should be deferred to for key decisions?

    In many ways, our democracy is built to do this: to elect representatives with more insight or wisdom than me to make decisions. That we elect people with skills in politics, economics and self-promotion is a reflection of our own shallow understanding of the world. This, in turn, it seems to me, leads us to a mistaken belief that we should all have an equal voice, that democracy is a platform for consensus, rather than leadership.

    I would not at this point come close to promoting a stratified society of each according to their depth. Not even close with this band of seven billion misfits prancing about. In the current state, I'd be more inclined to organize by skill and utility, and even more inclined to privilege the freedom of choice we currently enjoy, warts and all. If the people get the government they deserve, we are probably right where we should be.

    But to your larger point, I don't think I'm so far off from believing that this democratic impulse is wired into us. I just suspect its essential quality to be different than the language and contexts in which we usually discuss such matters.

  • Comment Link Juma Wood Friday, 28 January 2011 05:09 posted by Juma Wood

    Even the above comment I would categorize as an interim step towards an even deeper and more compelling collective effort that supports your thesis but will have to wait for another conversation to flesh out.

  • Comment Link Jim Baxter Sunday, 06 February 2011 22:00 posted by Jim Baxter

    I am a bit late in responding. A completely different slant on this comes from two sources: Julian Jaynes on the development of self consciousness in humans and another book "Thank God for Evolution". Sel-consciousness allows humans to develop awareness of empathy for others and awareness perhaps of good and evil (the Garden of Eden mythology) while at the same time retaining our DNA which tells us to survive - Nature is quite vicious. Our DNA is not yet ready for pure altruism. Our system of democracy always begs the questio "Why do we elect people who want to be elected? They just want power over."

  • Comment Link Andrew Baxter Wednesday, 09 February 2011 18:26 posted by Andrew Baxter

    Firstly Juma, I would like a slightly more nuanced understanding of democracy. I think where we get turned around a lot is this distinction - or lack thereof - between the mechanisms of democracy, such as elections, and the deeply embedded human drive towards empathy mentioned above by my dad!

    Democracy as I am using it is not a system for electing leaders. But rather, is a human value...much justice or fairness. These are not cultural, social, or economic values dependent on material or spiritual conditions within a society to be real...although these conditions can certainly affect how these values are articulated, or not.

    Democracy as an impulse is a platform for consensus, for group decision-making, for conversation and mutual respect. It is the polar opposite of authoritarianism in that as an ideal it recognises the inherent worth and value of each human being in the larger whole while still honouring that whole. It is also a platform for leadership, but leadership from a place mutual respect and not coercion.

  • Comment Link Scott Payne Wednesday, 09 February 2011 20:56 posted by Scott Payne

    Andrew, your comments re: democracy remind me of American professor and authour Michael Hardt's commentary in the movie Examined Life:

    Hardt's comment that, "Revolution requires a transformation of human nature so that people are capable of democracy," has always been particularly gripping for me. And I sense some of that same attitude in your response to Juma.

    We have a tendency towards seeing political ontology (the things that exist and participate in our discussions about politics) as inert and static. But this notion of democracy as a living concept -- as something that evolves and that we both evolve into and participate in co-evolving -- really offers to shake that tendency up. It also offers a continued horizon of possibilities such that we needn't see ourselves as inevitably locked into the same perennial political battles.

    This sort of evolution and dynamism always strikes me as relatively self-evident when I look at our political affairs. But it is equally striking how much we ignore that dynamism in our political discussions.

    What I might wonder aloud is how we avoid the pitfall of strong relativism in our efforts to imbue democracy with a living dynamism. How do we avoid reducing our notions of democracy to a simple expression of preference?

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Saturday, 12 February 2011 00:04 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Andrew, this article continues to be born out by ongoing events. Listen to this:

    "In 2010 there were at least a dozen presidential democratic elections in African nations, places like Guinea that hadn't had an election since 1958. In 2011 there are scheduled to be nearly two dozen presidential elections in various nations -- including Egypt, which is currently in the midst of what could most certainly be called a people's revolution.

    Though the methods being employed by protesters can be alarming at times in their ferocity, the demand for freedom itself is not altogether surprising. Just as there were signs, over a half century ago, foreshadowing the collapse of colonialism on the continent, there have been signs recently pointing toward the end of an era of dictatorship. What is, however, most fascinating about this inevitable death is the pivotal as well as provocative role that digital technology is playing to bring it about".

    "Every year since 2000 the Internet population in most African countries has doubled. Over the past decade, the spread of telecommunications and ICT in Africa went from below an average of 3 percent teledensity to a whopping almost 50 percent.

    "Knowledge is power, and information is liberation," Kofi Annan, former United Nations secretary-general, has been quoted as saying. Mobile phones and the Internet are liberating Africa in a way that even independence from colonialism could not. Digital technology is redefining our political landscape and will continue to do so in ways that we have yet to even imagine".,0

    That's from the vice president of Ghana. The communications angle in this article- from Greece to the Enlightenment to the current world moment- has been under discussed in the comments here. But it's being born out in real time.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Friday, 08 July 2011 17:53 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    A new article in the NY Times gives further credence to the thesis in this article.

    "Darwinian-minded analysts argue that Homo sapiens have an innate distaste for hierarchical extremes, the legacy of our long nomadic prehistory as tightly knit bands living by veldt-ready team-building rules: the belief in fairness and reciprocity, a capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a willingness to work cooperatively in ways that even our smartest primate kin cannot match".

    "The advent of agriculture and settled life may have thrown a few feudal monkeys and monarchs into the mix, but evolutionary theorists say our basic egalitarian leanings remain".

    "David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary theorist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, sees the onset of humanity’s cooperative, fair-and-square spirit as one of the major transitions in the history of life on earth, moments when individual organisms or selection units band together and stake their future fitness on each other".

    This 'heritage' continues to be an important topic of discussion, especially as we embark on a two month long inquiry into community here at Beams. As I'll write in my essay on community, ideologies of extreme individualism and free-market fundamentalism (and the barrage of media that support it) have substantially erased/debilitated our inherent tendency toward co-operation, collaboration, solidarity, and unity. It's a fog we'll have to struggle to come out of. But the fact that these various sciences continue to understand the depth of our inherited collective intelligence, is to me a heartening movement (back? re-integration?) to a new future.

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