September 28 Pearson Blog: Life in Today’s Political Zoo: Are You In the Cage or Out of the Cage?

By Carol S. Pearson.

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What can we make of this? The politicians getting the most enthusiastic crowds today are Donald Trump, a billionaire running on the assertion that “I am the richest, most energetic, and toughest guy in the race,” and Bernie Sanders, an outspoken populist who has the chutzpah to call himself a democratic socialist. Meanwhile, the most rabid Tea Party members of Congress drive Speaker John Boehner to tears and to resign from Congress, no less, at the thought that they would force him to shut down the government—again!

Scientists postulate that humans descended from an ancestor of chimps and bonobos, suggesting that we may retain behaviors of each. But what happens if those traits—in their barely human forms (see last week’s post)—take the lead in politics.


Chimps are hierarchical, living within a patriarchal social system where they resolve conflict through threats and intimidation, backed up by violence when bluster does not work. Alpha males keep their place in this way. Males also have a clear pecking order, and all dominate females. The role of females is limited and prescribed, but they also have their own hierarchy. For chimps, sex is for reproduction, with mating taking a variety of forms: alpha males may exert rights to mate with his choice of the females; some may compete for favored females; and some court one female and impregnate only her.

Is Trump, essentially, running on the alpha male chimp ticket? Are the House Republicans? They seem to be willing to shut down government completely until they can remake it in a consistently chimp form: hawkish, with guns in every school and household, sex for reproduction primarily, and returning people to their traditional places in the chimp-like human hierarchy.

Bonobos are matriarchal, more democratic and communal in their social organization than chimps. Like humans, they have the capacity to be sexual at any time, and not just for reproduction. Not only are they quite relaxed about sexuality, they resolve conflict through caring touch—reassurance, hugs, patting, and sometimes sex (which can occur with anyone, male or female, except one’s mother). Bonobos also are friendly. They are less likely than chimps to see other groups of their same species as enemies; they get very nervous and excited upon encountering them, but then seek to bond through touch.

Might Sanders be a bonobo candidate, wanting to pursue peace through negotiation as much as possible and develop social programs that institute organized sharing to be sure that people have a roof over their heads and enough to eat? He advocates community policing, talking people down instead of shooting them, and letting people love who they love and have only as many children as they believe they can and will raise well.

Moderates of both parties are rightly worried about culture wars, which have so polarized the electorate that they threaten the health of our country. Chimps have a tendency to drive out bonobos, and over human history, more violent groups often have conquered and suppressed those that were more peaceful and cooperative. We do see some Democrats cooperating with Republicans, but to no avail. There has always been a tension in our country between the chimp-like tendency to emphasize competition with differential rewards and the bonobo inclination toward democracy, with its emphasis on everyone mattering. The growing inequality in our society may result from chimps running over the bonobos, with the result that capitalism is trumping democracy.

Moderates of both parties have sought a balance, and to be fair to Sanders and Boehner, each of them has, too. Hillary Clinton is running in the middle, emphasizing her bonobo caring qualities, with her tougher chimp side showing through.

To make this country work, we collectively need to find that balance between looking out for number one and caring for others (as all major religions enjoin us to do), which is partly the role of government. But no candidate can heal the divide. Each of us as citizens needs to find that balance for ourselves if we are to be responsible, fulfilled people, and then demand that our politicians do likewise.


Humans, of course, have evolved beyond chimps and bonobos. It is natural in times of major transition for people to be stressed, and when they are, to revert to more primitive behaviors. Both major political parties demonize the other by pointing to its more extreme sides. Republicans characterize attempts to lessen the income gap as class warfare that threatens capitalism; they oppose assistance to historically underrepresented groups, claiming it undermines personal responsibility; they worry that greater sexual tolerance undermines traditional morality and is causing a breakdown in society; and they fear that the nation is losing its alpha status by relying on negotiation and coalition-building in foreign affairs. Democrats vilify Republicans as uncaring and even ruthless, charge that they are undermining democracy through gerrymandering and limiting access to the vote, and decry their denial of climate change, their support of policies that create an unequal playing field, and their propensity to get us into needless wars.

Many citizens are turned off by this zoo-like situation. Recognizing the human archetypes that have evolved from primate instincts (described in my forthcoming book, Persephone Rising) can help us come together to find a workable consensus for solving the major problems of our times. Ideally, what emerges will be not so much a victory by one political party but instead a triumph of the human mind and heart. The great problems of our time require us to utilize all of our uniquely human abilities to think clearly based on trustworthy information and data, to empathize with the experiences of others here and around the world, to understand one another’s differing points of view, and to use our creativity to find a path through the morass. If we do this, we will escape the cages of our limiting ideologies and walk proudly, like the evolved humans we are capable of being.