The Divinity of Politics


George W. Bush says he prays before making his most important decisions. He sprinkles his speeches with religious references and often thanks God for blessing our country. Perhaps, then, this is a good time to reflect on what science tells us about why political leaders throughout history have linked themselves to the divine. It has to do with the evolution of morality.

For the first 90,000 years of our existence as a species, humans lived in small bands of tens to hundreds of individuals. In the last 10,000 years, these bands evolved into tribes of thousands; tribes developed into chiefdoms of tens of thousands; chiefdoms coalesced into states of hundreds of thousands; and states conjoined into empires of millions. How and why did this happen?

By 10,000 years ago, our species had spread to nearly every region of the globe and people everywhere lived where they could hunt and gather. This system tended to contain populations, but agriculture allowed them to explode. With those increased populations came new social technologies for governance and conflict resolution: politics and religion.


The moral emotions -- guilt, pride, shame, altruism -- evolved genetically in those tiny bands of 100 to 200 people as a form of social control and group cohesion. One means of accomplishing this was through reciprocal altruism -- “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine.”

But as Lincoln noted, men are not angels. People defect from informal agreements and social contracts. In the long run, reciprocal altruism works only when you know who will cooperate and who will defect. This information is gathered in various ways, including through stories about other people -- more commonly known as gossip.

Most gossip is about relatives, close friends, those in our immediate sphere of influence and members of the community or society who have high social status. It is here we find our favorite subjects of gossip: sex, generosity, cheating, aggression, social status and standings, births and deaths, political and religious commitments, and the various nuances of human relations, particularly friendships and alliances.

When bands and tribes gave way to chiefdoms and states, religion developed as a principal social institution to accentuate amity and attenuate enmity. It did so by encouraging altruism and selflessness, discouraging excessive greed and selfishness and revealing the level of commitment to the group through social events and religious rituals. If I see you every week participating in our religion’s activities and following the prescribed rituals, that indicates you can be trusted.

As organizations with codified moral rules and the power to enforce the rules and punish their transgressors, religion and government responded to a need. Church and state have always been tightly interlocked. The “divine right of kings” was not the invention of European monarchs. Every chiefdom and state society known to archaeologists justified political power through divine sanction, in which the chief, pharaoh, king, queen, monarch, emperor, sovereign, prime minister or president claimed a relationship to God or the gods, who allegedly anointed him or her to act on behalf of the divinity. Bush is part of a long tradition.

Consider the biblical command to “Love thy neighbor.” In the Paleolithic social environment in which our moral sentiments evolved, one’s neighbors were family, extended family and community members who were well known to all. To help others was to help oneself. In chiefdoms, states and empires, the decree meant only one’s immediate in-group. Other groups were not included. This explains the seemingly paradoxical nature of Old Testament morality, where on one page high moral principles of peace, justice and respect for people and property are promulgated, and on the next page raping, killing and pillaging people who are not one’s “neighbors” are endorsed. Deuteronomy 5:17 admonishes, “Thou shalt not kill,” yet in Deuteronomy 20:10-18, the Israelites are commanded to lay siege to an enemy city, steal the cattle, enslave those men who surrender and kill those who do not.

The cultural expression of this in-group morality is a universal human trait common throughout history, from the earliest bands and tribes to modern nations and empires. The long-term solution is to view all people as members of our in-group: the species Homo sapiens. We have a long way to go to get there. Reform begins with recognition of the cause, which science gives us. Resolution comes through social action, which democracy gives us. We can change. As Katharine Hepburn explained to Humphrey Bogart in the 1951 film “The African Queen”: “Nature, Mr. Alnutt, is what we were put in this world to rise above.”

Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine, is a columnist for Scientific American and the author of the just-released book, “The Science of Good and Evil” (Henry Holt/Times Books).