People Are Animals

As an aphorism, that isn’t news at all. 2300-plus years ago, Aristotle wrote in his Politics: “It is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal.” He thought we were even more political than bees.

But that apothegm became science after Darwin traced H sapiens’ descent from apes, and generations of Darwin’s scientific descendants—especially the last generation—followed up with field studies of hundreds of other social, or “political,” animals.

They showed that whenever animals get together, they play by the same rules. When groups form in vaguely delineated habitats, where the costs of emigrating are low, they tend to be quasi- (or “sort of”) social. Most animals help raise the young, and most animals reproduce. But when groups form in sharply delineated habitats, where the costs of emigrating are high—say, in the tree hollows where thousands of honeybees raise larvae produced by their queen—they’re often eu- (or “truly”) social. Some animals are breeders. Other animals work.

As long as they kept moving, most H sapiens probably had their own children. For roughly 100,000 years, they ran around the subSahara; then around 100,000 years ago, they ran out of Africa. It wasn’t until after around 10,000 years ago that they settled down in the Fertile Crescent, and their societies started to look like bees’.

Their hagiographers had medieval missionaries soak up chastity like honey; and some of the abbots who worked under Charlemagne were referred to as apēs. St Ambrose, who venerated virginity, was discovered in his Trier cradle with a swarm of bees in his mouth, and ended up as a honey-tongued bishop; St Bernard, who founded a monastery in Burgundy, and venerated the Virgin Mary, was remembered as Doctor Mellifluous. But most helpers in the middle ages held onto their genitals.

Workers in the first civilizations did not. There were apiaries in ancient Israel, the land of milk and honey, where David made his son Solomon a king in front of an assembly of eunuchs; and there were apiaries in Egypt, where pharaohs put bees on their cartouches, and may have collected civil servants who lacked generative powers. There were more beekeepers in Mantua, where Publius Vergilius Maro grew up. For the benefit of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, he remembered how honeybees fought and foraged for their monarch, made honey and nursed their larvae. In the end, unmarried soldiers, unmarried slaves, and the unmanned attendants of the sacred bedchamber effectively ran that empire. And the emperor bred.

The take-home message from all of which is simple. It’s good to be mobile. Societies, human or otherwise, are politically and reproductively more equal when emigration is an option. They’re less equal when that option is closed.