Making the Social Leap Bonus: An Evolutionary Metaphor for Leadership Today

Recently, our senior science editor spoke with evolutionary psychologist William von Hippel on the evolutionary origins of our psychology. In their conversation “Making the Social Leap: A Conversation on How Our Psychology Evolved,” they discussed the ways concepts like self-control, happiness, and over-confidence are quite different from their original evolutionary purpose. 

Not all of their conversation could fit into one article, so we’ve decided to add a bonus portion to their Q&A. In it, von Hippel puts forth an evolutionary metaphor for two very different types of leadership—that of an elephant or that of a baboon (along the way revealing that male elephants don’t lose their virginity until 40. Look out, Steve Carell). The two also touch on the question, Where does evolution end and culture begins?
—Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief

Dave Nussbaum: You’ve got a chapter on what you would call leadership, evolutionarily speaking, where you talk about leaders of groups as behaving either like elephants or like baboons. Can you say a bit more about that and what it could tell us about political leadership in our time?

William von Hippel: If we think back to this evolutionary story and being forced out of the rain forest—that move to the rain forest and the need for collective actions suppressed our individuality. We’re no longer quite so individualistic, as chimpanzees are. We also have a strong collective orientation, but it didn’t eliminate that individualism that we also have. So inside all of us, we’ve got this tension between wanting to be part of a group and be cooperative and wanting to look out for our self above others, be egotistical or individualistic.

The question we asked is, How does that tension manifest itself in leadership? Because leadership is a really interesting case where, if you’re at the top of the group, you may get benefits that the other members don’t have—or you may not, depending on how the group is organized. But if you do, your individualistic nature might be more likely to come out as you think of the self-serving reasons you want to be in charge.

We contrast the case of elephants versus baboons. Elephants have a super interesting social structure. The male elephants are literally the biggest animal out there on land. They had no predators until the invention of modern weapons, which is kind of evolutionarily irrelevant. They live off on their own or in these groups that split apart and come back together. Because nothing can attack them, they’re not afraid of anything. Female elephants though, are a little bit smaller. They’re at risk of predation by lions, and also the young are very much at risk. The stable groups of elephants are composed of adult females, and then all the sub-adults, juveniles and small ones. The leader of elephant groups is always the matriarch. She’s one of the oldest females in the group, and she has two basic jobs. She decides where the group goes in order to get food that day and, if water is scarce, in order to find water. Part of her capacity to do that is based on the fact that she’s lived for such a long time. She knows where water tends to be during different types of drought. (Elephants actually do have an amazing memory. It’s not just a Disney tale.) She can remember back years ago, where they found water under those circumstances. She’ll also call the other elephants around to protect the young.

Her leadership is totally in service to the group. And to the degree that she does a good job, everybody benefits to the exact same degree, herself included. The group is well fed, it’s well watered, and the young survive. That’s what I would consider the classic case of moral leadership. Everything she does, she does for the group equally across the board. That’s not because elephants are more moral than other animals, it’s just that’s their ecology. There’s no way for them to monopolize anything.

Her leadership is totally in service to the group. And to the degree that she does a good job, everybody benefits to the exact same degree, herself included…That’s what I would consider the classic case of moral leadership.

Part of the issue is that a male elephant, who’s bigger, could exert his dominance over the group, but he’s got no incentive to do so. They need to eat constantly to maintain their bulk. When she becomes fertile, she announces her fertility with this low tone that carries for miles. So every elephant in any distance at all, miles away will come, and they all have to battle it out to see who gets to be her mate. It takes a long time to grow big enough to win that fight. And so male elephants don’t lose their virginity till they’re about 40. It’s an interesting life cycle.

In contrast, baboons—they’re the other end of the spectrum. The males change groups, when they’re adolescents, in order to avoid inbreeding. They basically have to fight their way to the top. They use these huge incisors that they have, they fight all the time. They establish a dominance hierarchy by who’s the toughest. The alpha-male baboon doesn’t do anything for anybody else in the group. It tries to monopolize the fertile females. It tries to monopolize the best food, the shady spots, etc. In my mind, that’s the prototype of unethical leadership or immoral leadership. You’re not helping the group at all, you’re just looking out for yourself. We can see that, of course, inside all of us. Every human being has a tendency to be both a little bit baboony, because we’ve got that old psychology still in us, and a little bit elephanty, because that’s been overlaid on top of that.

What the data seem to suggest is that what brings out the baboons in us is inequality. Whenever there’s a lot of inequality in our world, one way to get more than others is to be in charge of the group and then to take advantage of that position of authority to gain more. And so our inner baboon tends to come out more when we’ve got inequality, which of course baboons have in their ecology and elephants don’t have.

So the proposal we make is that you can see baboon leaders easily in our society by looking at those leaders who are the most dominant, where they’re trying to exert their authority by force rather than by consensus. And you can see the leaders who are more elephantlike by virtue of doing the opposite, by trying to lead through good ideas and taking people where they need to go.

You also talk about the move from when we were hunter–gatherers to when we became more agrarian farmers, and how the fact that you could accumulate things lead to inequality. On a day-to-day level, when I have a conflict between an individualistic goal versus a collective goal, the baboon aspect is the thing that is underlying it all, and the more elephanty way of thinking about it is laid on top—is that the conflict?

Yeah that’s always the underlying conflict. The first agriculture is about 12,000 years ago (although there’s some preagricultural activity, but ignoring that for the moment). Our entire history up until 12,000 years ago, we were hunter–gatherers. And the hunter–gatherers who lived closest to the equator are what we call immediate return—they eat today what they killed today. They own very little, because they get up and move all the time. And they want to have very few implements. They share everything. If there’s a kill, everybody in the group gets to share it equally, because that’s a kind of an insurance policy—even the best hunters aren’t going to get something every day. They’re the classic communists—from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. That kind of egalitarian society means that their leaders tend to be elephants. You can’t exert your authority over fellow nomads, because they can just walk away, they’re not dependent on you.

But once we became agricultural, and when we moved away from the equator and we started having the capacity to store food, then we start to have some people who have more and some have less. That inequality brings out our inner baboon, and hierarchies start to get established. You see that in lots of hunter–gatherer societies, both in North America and South America, as they move away from the equator. And you see that in agricultural immediately. Once you get agricultural societies, they set up hierarchies and kingships and all sorts of ways of changing to allow our inner baboon to come out because now you can control wealth.

For all intents and purposes I’m not any more evolved, even though I think I might be, than my grandparents or great grandparents. And yet, if you look at the cultures around the world, there’s a great deal of diversity. Cultures deal with things in very different ways. And so clearly, although those different ways may be based on evolution, we didn’t evolve differently than in the north of the country than the south, for example. So how do you figure out where evolution ends and culture begins?

That’s a great question. Of course, one of our greatest evolutionary endowments is our capacity for cumulative culture—the fact that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel with every generation. Our cultures know things. What a genius knew only a few generations ago, now school children know. They learn about the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo, because of our capacity for cumulative culture. And that exists already all over the world. So that’s a really important part of our evolutionary endowment, but it also means that culture moves really, really fast. And evolution moves really, really slow.

Because culture moves in many different directions though, there’s two ways to look at the problem. One is, do we see universality and what humans do? So if humans all over the globe do X, you can be pretty confident that X is not a cultural thing, but rather is much more likely to be an evolved thing. But keeping in mind, of course, that when I say humans do, there’s huge variability in all humans, right. We might evolve the tendency toward X, but that doesn’t mean everybody manifests X, nor to the same degree. There’s massive individual differences, and our genes don’t determine our behavior.

Once we went down the cognitive line and decided that we were going to achieve our goals by being smarter and working together better, rather than being stronger and tougher, our genes had to give up control of our behavior.

Once we went down the cognitive line and decided that we were going to achieve our goals by being smarter and working together better, rather than being stronger and tougher, our genes had to give up control of our behavior. We have trillions of connections between our neurons, but we only have billions of base pairs on our DNA. And so our DNA can’t guide our brain to that degree. It has to be learning, it has to be goals, it has to be your own decisions.

So your genes don’t determine your behavior. But nonetheless, they do influence them, and then when we see everybody influenced the same way, we think we’re looking at evolution. When we see everybody influenced in different ways, we say that looks like a sign of culture. But with that said, culture works within evolution. People can make any culture they want. But if they create a culture like the Shakers did, where they say, well, we’ll never have sex, you know, that group isn’t going to last very long, right? Because evolution takes care of that problem.