Beyond the Chimpanzee

10/10/2016 16:56
Fuse via Getty Images

So the presidential election is now turning into a spectator sport for non-Americans, waiting for the next revelation to emerge from the Trump campaign, baffled by the tenaciousness of 'the Donald' as he continues to hang on and remain in the race. Last week, before his most recent salacious faux pas, I was contemplating that the situation between ourselves and our American cousins somewhat resembled the gender politics of dating, in that having been beguiled and left bereft by Naughty Nigel, England looks to her good friend on the other side of the Atlantic and wonders how she can warn her about getting into a similar tryst with Dastardly Donald, but doesn't want to interfere...

In the light of the weekend's news, however, it seems that the time may now have come for that 'do you know what you are getting into' chat between friends. Evolutionary psychology can offer some insights into this situation, and underpin some salutary warnings. In 1982, Dutch anthropologist Frans de Waal published his now world famous book Chimpanzee Politics, which followed the fortunes of a troop of chimpanzees at the Arnhem Zoo, most particularly the alpha males vying for the leadership of the pack. Many similarities have since been drawn between human and chimpanzee male dominance tactics, notably by US Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich in his 1994 suggestion that new congressmen read the book.

The difference between human beings and chimpanzees is of course, the far more highly developed human capacity for abstract thought, to see beyond an ape beating his chest to demonstrate that he is the largest and toughest in the pack. However, the primate ancestral brain still has some influence upon instinctive human behaviour, and in politics this is found in the slight advantage experienced by taller male candidates in elections, although even in chimp society, the alpha male advantage is by no means absolute. Indeed, following a furore in the media that suggested Trump was 'finished' his new friend Farage was quick to excuse Trump's most recent misogynous outrage via the proposal that it was just the normal, mundane ramblings of 'an alpha male', an excuse that Trump himself subsequently used in the most recent presidential debate.

All of this might initially seem quite amusing; this week's so-called 'water cooler debate'. However, we can find a similar, far more deeply troubling excusal in the letter from Stanford rapist Brock Turner's father in which he objects to his alpha male son's punishment as a 'steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action' with a comatose female. Such a perspective is rooted in the same objectification of women that Trump uses in his boast that because he is rich and famous he can 'do anything' to another human being to satisfy his own ends.

And of course, this boast goes far beyond sexual relationships; the alpha male uses a standard pattern of dishonesty to ensure his success through the ballot box: create a threat, then play on the fear aroused by intimating the need for a 'strong man' who will take care of everything, being careful to offer no specifics, only generalities. It was of course this technique that propelled Britain into the current Brexit debacle; and of course, the 'strong man' ideology that underpinned European Fascism in the mid-20th Century.

While this essentially primate cult has recently led Britain onto the rockiest road that it has encountered since it stood alone against the might of the Nazis in 1940, there is still time for our American friends to step back from their precipice. While events in Britain have propelled a female leader to power to clean up the mess that alpha males have left behind, the US may yet more wisely choose a female leader to prevent them toppling off the edge in the first instance. However, first of all, Hillary Clinton has to avoid becoming invisible as Trump attacks her equally alpha male husband, a (literally) tall order given the human instinct to focus on the male display during adversarial exchanges; a pitfall that she did not wholly manage to avoid in the most recent presidential debate.

Evolutionary psychology has been unfairly criticised as a deterministic discipline, but nothing could be further from the truth. Human beings have an evolved capacity for metacognition- that is to create a conscious awareness of our own thought processes, which protect us against our worst instincts. It is now time for a very public, transatlantic discussion of the damage that the cult of the alpha male leader can wreck on even the most liberal and sophisticated societies, and how this might be avoided in the future. Evolutionary psychology is the thinking tool that can most effectively shine a light into this very dark corner of the human soul.