Biography 26.4 (2003) 748-750
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Political leadership is a mysterious and puzzling subject. Since ancient times, magicians, prophets, poets, playwrights, novelists, and scholars have failed to solve the mysteries and puzzles involved. Why do some people seek ultimate power and cling to it despite the enormous risks involved? Why does a scent of power lead to obsession with it? Why do leaders ignore signals about their coming assassination, execution, or deposition? Why have mainly men been rulers, and why are so many of them warmongers? These questions, lying at the core of human culture and history, have never been fully answered; even in the great writings by Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Marx, Tolstoy, or Freud, the nature of political leadership remains a secret.
The effort made in this book to unravel the secret is therefore quite ambitious. Arnold M. Ludwig, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of Kentucky, proposes an evolutionary theory according to which ruling is part of the natural order of things. Just as a person needs a head, every society needs a ruler. Humans have always been reluctant to subject their behavior to biological factors, but Ludwig insists that as mammals who belong to the order of primates, humans share the characteristics of other higher primates. Just as gorillas adhere to an alpha male whose idiosyncrasies account for differing group behaviors, humans also adhere to a single dominant male figure as part of the genetic blueprint that governs their lives. Just as the alpha male among chimpanzees has greater access to females than any subordinate male, political leaders also keep fertilizing attractive women as a way to produce a richer genetic mix of offspring. And just as male gorillas, chimps, and baboons seem to swell in size and become more confident after they achieve the alpha status, rulers, once in power, also begin to show a personal expansiveness and grandiosity. [End Page 748]
This theory is applied to a variety of political phenomena. It explains why only 1.4 percent of twentieth century rulers were women, but also accounts for these women rulers by emphasizing the status of many of them as widows or daughters of martyred or revered males. It explains the corruption and graft associated with political leadership by reference to the evolutionary need to provide dominant primates with food and shelter. It explains why so many candidates engage in the struggle for social dominance, even when the odds are low, by their need to court danger as a way to prove their manhood and establish their dominance over others. It also explains the tendency of many leaders to censor their biographies, as they fear that others may discover their ordinariness.
One of the more interesting chapters in the book applies the theory to the question of war. Why do rulers wage war despite its apparent dysfunctional results? According to the primate model of ruling, war boils down to one leader of a nation wanting to impose his will on another leader and his followers as a way to eliminate obstacles or threats to his social dominance. This explanation bears some hope for humanity, because once a leader establishes his supremacy, he becomes obliged to maintain peace and order. "I am forced to wonder," Ludwig writes, "whether Nature, in a streak of perversity, allowed humans to wage war as an instrument of political policy not for population control, as some Malthusian theorists have speculated, but to reduce friction between nations so that, once dominance was settled, a greater measure of social stability could be achieved" (364).
To confirm the theory, over twelve hundred full-length biographies, treatises, theses, and political accounts about many of the 1,941 rulers identified in 199 countries are subjected to analysis—mainly statistical analysis. Ludwig constructs a typology of rulers, differentiating between monarchs, authoritarians, tyrants, visionaries, transitionals (rulers of emerging democracies), and democrats, and uses biographical data to compare these types in terms of...