Modern Leadership: The Impact of Palaeolithic Instincts on 21st Century Leader Selection

There’s a Stone Age-like preference for leaders who strut tall, talk big, look bold; Biden is being judged not for his policies but for his fumbling at the debate

Orangutans and chimpanzees offer an insight into the public reaction to the recent debate between US presidential candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

No, we are not suggesting any particular resemblance of either candidate to these primates, who still have not come down from the trees, unlike the primates we are more familiar with.

Rather, the point is that some quirks of human character make rational political choice rather difficult.

Primitive responses

Orangutans and chimpanzees seek out medicinal plants to eat or create poultices, with which to cover nasty wounds, it has come to light.

This further validates sociobiologist EO Wilson’s thesis that many habits or character traits of earlier times carry over into later stages of evolution, without being replaced with more contemporary responses, better attuned to the realities of the times.

Humans have refined, not discarded, an ancient primate ability to identify favourable bits of Nature’s abundance and change them to better serve their own purposes.

This thesis underlies Wilson’s propositions that modern humans live with Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and God-like technology, hampering humanity’s ability to make uniformly wise use of the technology at its disposal.

Choice of leaders

A Palaeolithic emotion still at work among humans is the preference for leaders who strut tall, talk big, and look bold. Those who profess far more sense, have the track record to back up what they profess, but have an appearance that has more in common with the lamb than with the tiger, stand no chance.

Even to an observer in distant India, it is clear that Trump is unfit for office in an increasingly multicultural country that confronts complex challenges – ranging from global warming and paradigm shifts in technology to irresistible pressures to reorganise the global order that has, in the past, worked for itself and its allies, but denies new rising powers their rightful place in the sun.

Few of these challenges are amenable to being tackled purely by the enormous lethal capacity in its arsenal.

Trump revealed his authoritarian tendencies when he refused to accept his defeat in 2020, and mobilised his supporters to raid the Capitol and thwart Congressional certification of the election result. The January 6 riot remains a blot on American history and Trump bears full responsibility for it.

Regress to isolationalism

In an increasingly inter-dependent world, Trump wants to regress to isolationism. He is in total denial on climate change and global warming. He calls self-confessed white supremacists fine people, whom he can call upon to stand by for physical intervention.

He is a habitual liar. He uses whipping up hatred towards immigrants as the way to rally support among residents.

He believes the burden of import tariffs is borne by the exporter, rather than by the importers. He believes that politicians, rather than women themselves, should have the primary say on their bodies and life choices.

He calls African countries ‘shitty places’, believes Israel should have a free hand to do whatever it takes to finish off the Hamas.

Felon, philanderer

He is a convicted felon, by implication, since the felony in question relates to falsifying documents in relation to buying the silence of a porn star who claims he had sex with her while his wife was expecting their child.

A philanderer, but still a champion of Christian values and the darling of evangelical Christians.

He subscribes to the magical thinking that cutting taxes induces, in all circumstances, fiscal discipline.

Biden’s big virtue

Joe Biden’s primary virtue is that he is not Trump. Beyond that, he has funded America’s technological capability to combat climate change, by means of the ‘green component’ of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Thanks to the IRA, serious money now funds research in viable ways to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

He appreciates the contribution immigrants make to America’s economic vitality. He bats for improving race relations in the US.

He understands the importance of allies and alliances in a shifting global order. He wants a cease-fire in Gaza and sees a Palestinian state as a necessary condition for an Israel at peace with itself and its neighbours.

He supports women’s right to retain the right to choose what she wants to happen to her body, rather than hand over that choice to the state or the church.

Tax policy

He wants to give less well-off families income tax credits for childcare, and defend and expand Barack Obama’s initiative to make health insurance available to all, rather than curtail it as the Republicans plan to.

He wants to place additional taxes on the well-off, who can afford it.

Biden’s policy package is far more sensible than Trump’s. His performance as president testifies to his ability to deliver on such policy.

Less than coherent

Yet, when it came to the presidential debate, Biden fumbled. He was less than coherent.

When Trump kept reverting to his immigrant-bashing theme, and declared immigrants are taking away the jobs of Black and Hispanic Americans, Biden failed to counter this false charge by pointing to the record lows of unemployment and steady rise in incomes experienced by all sections of Americans, and particularly by Black Americans. He failed to even articulate his policy on abortions effectively.

Trump is now seen by large swathes of Americans as the better candidate for President. Never mind that he denies science, suggested drinking infectants to fight Covid and refused to champion vaccinations, leading to avoidable deaths by the hundreds of thousands, and his populist attacks on democracy.

Palaeolithic reflexes

When it comes to identifying a leader, people still instinctively hark back to their Palaeolithic reflexes, and go by the size of the man’s chest and the vigour of his statements, even if these are mostly falsehoods, rather than by a rational assessment of what is good for themselves.

Is there a solution to this collective foible? Consistent democratic engagement and dialogue alone offer a way out, anywhere in the world.

TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

The article was first published in The Federal as ‘Rise of Trump: Palaeolithic instincts in choosing 21st Century leaders‘ on July 1, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

Read more at IMPRI:

Beyond Accidents: The Call for Institutional Reform in Infrastructure

Policy change likely post elections

Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Mansi Garg, a researcher at IMPRI.

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  • IMPRI

    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

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  • TK Arun

    TK Arun is a Senior Journalist and Columnist based in Delhi.

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