Thursday, July 7, 2011


In my world, whether Dominique Straus-Kahn raped the hotel housekeeper or had consensual sex with her, he's still political damaged goods—what kind of trust do you place in a potential leader who has unprotected sex with a total stranger on a moment's notice?

Well, if you're a gorilla, you respect him (perhaps grudgingly) as the silverback leader of the tribe. And there's some part of us that recognizes silverbacks among us, and accepts them into leadership positions. Perhaps this is why so many male politicians get tripped up by exercising their sexual desires—they were chosen for their silverback qualities, and now here we are punishing them for them.

But why should these two be necessarily connected? Straus-Kahn didn't make his way to the top of the IMF and France's Socialist Party on the size of his "harem." Even among those who accept that powerful men have mistresses, it is expected that they will be discreet about it.

I find myself thinking about the side-effects of domestication. When you breed wolves into dogs, one of the side effects of becoming part of the human household is a sort of perpetual puppyhood. In fact, you can correlate certain kinds of breed-related gentleness with the degree of puppy-like physical charateristics: floppy ears, shorter snout, rounder body. (A couple starter sources on this: Temple Grandin's Animals Make Us Human, and the excellent Nature documentary "The Secret Life of the Dog")

Is male sexual aggressiveness tied to wider social leadership qualities? Does promoting faithfulness and lack of sexual aggression give us milquetoasts? It makes a certain amount of sense—the leader of a gang or a tribe proves his kingship by having his pick of the women.

But this is far from the only model of human social organization with deep roots. The model of a chieftan who rules by loyalty and punishment is matched by that of the council circle—an egalitarian model where getting too far above oneself is a recipe for a group smackdown.

What I observe is that these models move back and forth. The silverback king model makes more sense when there is immediate threat, and the group needs to move quickly and responsively. Think of a platoon in battle or a group of escapees from slavery or prison—adrenaline pumps, and you do what the leader tells you, or you are dead.

By contrast, the egalitarian model makes sense when life is stable, and threats to life are longer-term—harvest, hunt, and child-rearing. Instead of adrenaline-fueled survival instincts, we take time to consider and plan, and good planning means listening and considering advice, something that doesn't happen as effectively when we are worried about Darth Vader enforcing his will upon us...

The kingship model also makes sense when the population becomes to large to manage by consensus. In a mass society, you can mitigate this by choosing a council to govern the larger group, either by election or tradition. But when selection to this council becomes competitive, it is the silverbacks who will tend to put the energy into getting onto the council, and suddenly you don't have a group of a co-operators, but a bunch of people trying to be top gun.

When the language of egalitarianism becomes embedded in a competitive political system, you thus end up with strange cognitive dissonances: Anthony Weiner on one hand brilliantly calling out outrageous anti-democratic abuses by his opponents, while on the other hand playing out an aggressive primate mating ritual on line; Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin's strange combination of driven personal ambition and endorsement of traditional stay-at-home motherhood; calls for bipartisanship alongside constant (and often personal) political attacks.

Now, it isn't fair to say that religious conservatives are somehow promoting aggressive promiscuity. Because clearly the orthodoxy says you should keep your pants on if you want to go to heaven. And good behavior is enforced by shame—the tearful admission of sin has become almost routine in scandals involving politicians. But the purist sense of human behavior—the sense that we ought to be above primate wrestling in the mud—which much of modern conservatism is grounded upon, might be a big part of the problem. Especially when that purism becomes embodied in political and social structures that are driven by the energy of those primate combats.

And that I think gets to the root of the silverback problem: We depend on silverback models of leadership to keep us together and to give us drive, but we also want to feel a sense of rational or spiritual community in which we are all treated as equals. And these two models simply do not play well together.