The human instinct that has consciously or unconsciously guided all human decisions for hundreds of thousands of years is the leadership instinct, the instinct to be a leader of our tribe or community. All apes in the group are born with hard-wired instincts to become leaders of their groups. All men and women in hunter-gatherer tribes were born with biological instincts to mature into the leaders of their clans or tribes, to become tribal elders. Until about 5,000 years ago, human life was literally obsessed with climbing into social / tribal leadership roles. These could be leadership for warfare, tool-making, perimeter defense, exploration, shamanic rituals, handing down stories and mythology, etc. Being a leader of your tribe meant that you received honor and respect, but it also meant the survival and growth of the tribe. The growth of the tribe was intrinsically connected to the leadership of the tribe. In daily life, you would participate in leadership decisions that would directly affect the success or failure of your tribe. Leadership was extremely real on a daily basis.
Cows eat grass, lions hunt gazelle, and humans build empires. Humans are the empire-building animals. It is the cow’s instinct to eat grass and the lion’s instinct to hunt gazelle, and it is the human’s instinct to build empires through leadership. When I say empire I do not mean just military or economic but cultural empires, empires of cultural values. Yet for 7,000 years of post-tribal man, from village to city to nation to world, humans seem incapable of building secure sustainable empathetic compassionate empires. If humans are the empire-building animal, then why are all historic and modern empires so insecure, tyrannical, abusive, short-sighted, and ultimately fragile? If humans are the empire-building animals, why do we keep building insecure exploitative empires that constantly fail?
Robin Dunbar has done research into the ideal size of a clan or tribe, arriving at 150 members. She argues that the human brain is optimized for truly knowing and empathizing with 150 people. Most ancient clans or tribes operated between 100 and 250 people, until around 5,000 years ago, when tribes grew into the thousands due to agrarian economies or military defense.
When the tribes grew from 150 to thousands, when each person in the community no longer truly knew everyone else in the community, leadership opportunities for all began to collapse, social mobility began to collapse, communal empathy began to collapse. Some leaders, through ‘owning’ the agrarian land or through the creation of weapons, figured out how to dominate and tyrannize the rest of the population, and suddenly the population could not simply just leave and join another tribe. The community lost its empathy and started creating sub-classes of people, servants, slaves, etc. When tribe size exceeds 150, suddenly not everyone has the opportunity to become a leader, suddenly a few people can tyrannize the rest through ownership or force. When tribe size grows above 150, social empathy for all stops mattering as much, outliers become criminals, the tribal elders are now just the elderly, initiation rituals from child to adult start collapsing.
When tribes grew above 150, we see the decline of mature leadership. All you have to do is read a book or watch a documentary about native american tribal life to see a glimpse of what mature leadership looks like. Mature leadership utilizes social, emotional, economic, and military intelligence for the honor of the leader and the benefit of the tribe. Larger tribes meant less personal social connectivity between members, more social stratification of the haves and the have-nots, the collapse of empathy and ritual, the rise of the owner class vs. the worker class. This leads to immature leadership, where whoever can acquire and hold the most power becomes leader. Immature leadership seeks the benefit of the individual, often at the cost of the community. In a tribe of 150, there is enough intimacy, social mobility, authentic empathy, and kinship where if someone tried to amass too much tyrannical power, it would be quickly made known and diffused by the rest of the tribe. Tyranny thrives in social stratification and a lack of intimacy.
What does all of this have to do with the purpose of life and the purpose of humanity? Humanity is largely forgotten what mature leadership looks like, and therefore we’ve generally ignored, devalued, or suppressed our own inner leadership instinct. We’ve forgotten the glory and the heroism of leadership. Yet the instinct has never left us. Like the instinct for food or safety or sex, the instinct to become a leader motivates everything we do, we have just learned to turn away from it. Sometimes in history we see the instinct rise up into a stage of glory such as wars, class struggles, cultural revolutions, colonizing some new frontier. Yet day to day, hour by hour, we are completely out of touch with our deep inner leadership instinct. We do not see ourselves as noble or heroic as a native american tribal member. When we turn away from the leadership instinct, we lose the heroism of humanity, something every ancient tribe and civilization seemed to have been very in touch with.