Of Large Apes and Big Men - On Big Apes and Presidents

Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide - Hector A. Garcia 2019

Of Large Apes and Big Men
On Big Apes and Presidents

In The Republic, Plato asks, “Imagine…a ship in which there is a captain who is taller and stronger than the crew, but he is a little deaf and has a similar infirmity in sight, and his knowledge of navigation is not much better.”12 In keeping with the ancient Greeks’ savvy grasp of political psychology, Plato argues that the crew will be biased by the large, physical stature of the man with little to recommend him even as a sailor, and that this bias will hamper their ability to rationally select a competent captain. Size, as the ancient Greeks appear to have understood, can be an emotionally appealing criterion for leadership ability, even when seemingly irrelevant.

The truth is that size matters in a violent world where survival is won by raw physicality. Across social animals, powerful, larger, aggressive males play a critical role in the group's survival—dispatching predators, providing protection against outsiders, securing and defending territory, and winning contested resources. Perhaps not surprising then, primatological research finds that larger size is related to higher social rank in nonhuman primates, including baboons, gorillas, and chimpanzees.13 The same is true for humans.

Because lethal intergroup violence was terrifyingly common among our ancestors, today we tend to prefer larger leaders, even though our presidents will never physically represent us in a fight. The empirical evidence on this preference is robust. For instance, subjects in the research lab show preference for taller leaders,14 reflecting real-world political choices: between 1789 and 2008 the taller of the US presidential candidates won the race the majority of the time, and all pairs of major-party US presidential candidates have been taller than the average US male citizen.15 Greater height also predicts higher status in labor markets, whether someone holds a blue- or white-collar job.16 On a more primal level, height among men is associated with greater physical strength,17 fighting ability,18 or even reproductive success.19 The latter makes sense when we consider that sexual dimorphism among animals originates as a result of mate competition; the bigger, stronger male usually wins fights over females and passes on his genes coding for size and strength.

But could our choice of political leaders be reduced to something as primitive as how we size them up in a fight? Male leaders across the political spectrum seem to think so, often going out of their way to demonstrate their fighting prowess. For example, Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau has arranged to be filmed working out in a boxing gym,20 as has Russian president Vladimir Putin. Putin has also been filmed lifting weights or riding shirtless on horseback—slightly more sublimated displays of his fighting toughness.

But in the 2016 race for US president, displays of fighting prowess became unusually raw and literal. During a Democratic debate, candidate Jim Webb boasted with an eerie smile about having killed an enemy soldier in Vietnam.21 Republican candidate Ben Carson bragged that in his youth he tried to stab someone, that he attacked a schoolmate with a combination lock, and that “I would go after people with rocks, bricks, baseball bats, and hammers” (claims none of his contemporaries seem to recall).22 When an audience member raised protest at a campaign rally in Nevada, Trump yelled, “I'd like to punch him in the face, I tell ya!” to roaring applause.23 The history or desire for violence was not hidden from view, but intentionally trumpeted and to a primate crowd who alighted.

But again, Trump's actual fighting prowess has little relevance for his competence as US president. In fact, playing out a thought experiment in which our world leaders actually fight, war correspondent and author Sebastian Junger has suggested that Trump's life of comfort and privilege would equate to him getting flattened in a real brawl against other heads of state, such as Putin.24 Putin studied judo and sambo from the age of twelve and trained among the brutal ranks of the KGB, whereas Trump dodged the draft because of heel spurs. However, in our current world, appearances are everything.

Accordingly, Trump also highlighted his relative size and strength by derogating his rivals—plainly when he continually called former Florida governor Jeb Bush “weak,” when he repeatedly referred to Florida senator Marco Rubio as “Little Marco,” and when he called Texas senator Ted Cruz a “pussy” at a rally.25 Further, when Trump announced his run for president on The O'Reilly Factor, he boasted, “There's nobody bigger or better at the military than I am.”26 Trump's choice of words could not have been more evolutionarily apropos. Nor could those of his running mate, Mike Pence.

Researchers have linked the sexually dimorphic male trait of broad shoulders to fighting ability, and in particular to the effective use of deadly handheld weapons, a specialty of male humans.27 Perhaps not surprisingly, then, the standard of dress among politicians, the business suit, enhances shoulder width, and female politicians often wear business suits with exaggerated shoulder pads. In evolutionary terms, women's shoulder pads give the illusion of a male adaptation designed for fighting to an audience evolutionarily programmed to find it meaningful. (Interestingly, the fashion of shoulder pads in women's professional attire hit their most exaggerated breadth during the 1980s when women began entering the world of politics and business in large numbers.)

Fittingly, while on campaign for Trump, Pence referred to Trump as “broad shouldered” on at least seventeen different occasions. On CNN, he said plainly, “Look, Donald Trump's got broad shoulders.” At other venues he emphasized the importance of Trump's shoulder width in interactions with other nations. On ABC's This Week, for example, he claimed, “He's going to be out there advancing America's interests first with that broad-shouldered leadership,” and on NBC News’ Meet the Press that Trump is “a strong leader with a clear vision, with broad shoulders who's going to advance America's interest.” On Fox News he directly tied Trump's shoulder width to our national safety: “Donald Trump is going to provide the kind of broad-shouldered American leadership on the world stage that I think will make the world a more stable place.”28

To many (Jane Goodall included),29 Trump's behavior on the campaign trail effused a certain male chimpanzee aroma as he vied to make more noise than his political rivals. But his tactics resonated. During the campaign, T-shirts, buttons, and other campaign paraphernalia surfaced, reading, “Trump: Finally a Candidate with Balls.” Interestingly, while testicles (or penis size) would also seem irrelevant to political elections, balls produce testosterone, the hormone that generates sexual and aggressive drives, and muscularity, which is used for mate competition. Testosterone also produces masculine facial features, such as wide jaws, square faces, and pronounced eyebrows.30 More masculine facial features are associated with dominance,31 and research finds that dominant faces have an impact on human rank status. In one study, subjects were shown photos of West Point cadets and instructed to rate their faces on perceived dominance. Cadets rated with higher facial dominance attained higher military rank later in their careers.32 Likewise, facial dominance has also predicted success in elections across the world.33

What is perhaps even more telling is the fact that this preference for big men appears to be context-dependent. Research finds that people prefer taller leaders with more masculine facial features in times of war, and more feminized faces in times of peace.34 Similarly, in lab studies, people choose more masculine faces during competition with an outside group, and feminine faces in contexts where in-group cooperation is needed.35 In general, women are seen as more competent at resolving conflicts than men and are preferred in times of in-group tension.36 Still, our impulse to turn to big, powerful males for protection is nearly ubiquitous, found not only in the ranks of government but also in the halls of religion.