Machiavellian Intelligence: The Macro-Evolutionary Influence

Melissa Frick

History has been shaped, and is still being shaped today, by micro and macro-evolutionary forces. A build-up of seemingly minor events has had an effect on human history and modern society. These micro-evolutionary forces appear inconsequential in the present, but it is clear that the accumulation of all these forces has the same effect akin to the result of one snowflake initiating an avalanche. However, it is the macro-evolutionary forces that are often overlooked when compared to the micro-evolutionary ones because the macro is not defined by direct human influence. Instead, these forces have remained in the background of human evolution to guide humankind subtly in a common direction. It is my belief that if human society had a chance to hit the reset button and thereby start all over again, it would be these macro-evolutionary forces that would guide us to a history similar to ours.

What are these forces? Paul Ehrlich in his book Human Nature: Genes, Culture, and the Human Prospect says that cultural macro-evolution is "the shaping of cultural trajectories by environmental factors". He asserts that topographical and epidemiological factors have aided and limited the growth of human civilizations over the past centuries. In addition to those forces identified by Ehrlich, I believe that the human condition of Machiavellian intelligence is another cultural macro-evolutionary force. The innate urge to manipulate our surroundings has an equal effect on our advancements as does geography or disease.

Machiavellian intelligence is a component of human intelligence thought to be rooted in the Darwinian selection value of using cunning, cooperation, and deceit to manipulate others. Niccolo Machiavelli stated in The Prince that men should use a variety of tactics, whether they are outwardly “good” or “evil,” to gain power. His argument was that “the ends justify the means” and that a person has the right to justify his actions by the end result. As Machiavelli argued, to remain in power it is safer to be feared than to be loved; thus, Machiavelli shows that warfare certainly takes precedence over peace when one’s dominance is threatened. It is part of our nature to be selfish. Indulgent and egocentric, the human condition ignores the values of others when our survival is in question.

Humans, and especially the males of the race, are one of the few species on Earth who display deceit and violence so that they can maximize their gene potential. The only other species is our near cousin, the chimp. The political evolution of each of these species has evolved in particular ways that require manipulation of others. Frans de Waal, author of Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Others, brought to light the existence of such behavior in chimps when he closely followed the behaviors of three chimps. What he discovered was these three were all in competition with each other for one female. Yet they would form alliances with one of the other two to gain dominance over the unlucky ‘lesser’ chimp. It would seem counter-intuitive to form an alliance with the rival. However, in the face of Machiavellian intelligence, it was advantageous for two of those chimps because they had displayed dominance over at least one other and thus each improved his chances of having a mate. Later on in his observations, de Waal witnessed a brutal attack by the allied chimps upon the other that ultimately led to his death. Dominance interactions of these apes are parallel to the interactions between humans, signifying that Machiavellian selfishness is an evolutionary hangover and has been present throughout the history of humankind.      

Humans did not learn to be manipulative of one another at a particular point in history; instead, they have always been that way, even before the transition from apes to a society of hunting and gathering. If humans were not innately manipulative, they would have evolved to be completely reliant on physical strength; yet, that is not the micro-evolutionary path humans took. Physical dominance was not the only indication of leadership and power. Leadership also depended on coalitions and acquiescence by those who are being dominated. In the case of the chimps, it was not always the most physically fit chimp who was the alpha male; rather, it was the best deceiver of the group. In hunter-gatherer societies, this political rule of nature allowed non-dominant individuals to operate against the dominant by forming groups to oust the leader. Egalitarian politics illustrates this political instability in modern hunter-gatherer societies. Furthermore, this equalizing political form did not detract from the violence in such a group. Social sanctions against the domineering individuals, such as ridicule or murder, clearly show that violence has been a constant factor in the development of human societies, even those with egalitarian political formations.      

One distinction made between chimps and humans is the difference of technological innovations. This gap began to grow when hunter-gatherer ways were abandoned as Homo sapiens adopted a more agricultural system and distanced themselves technologically from their close relatives, the chimps. While chimps have not moved past their simple manipulation of stones and sticks, humans have been progressing ever since. Paul Ehrlich would say that a lucky series of micro and macro-evolutionary forces was what gave the Homo sapiens a technological advantage over their close cousins. Humans followed a distinct progression of micro-evolutionary changes to become an agricultural civilization, according to Colin Chant of “Preindustrial Cities and Technology.” This progression only reinforced the Machiavellian strategy of human society. First off, humans learned to manipulate and domesticate the other species around them, such as dogs, sheep, and cows. Secondly, they started to exploit the boundless fields and forests around them. Thirdly, they began to extract stone from the earth to use for infrastructure. The advent of metallurgy and its following technological innovations was last step towards a functioning civilization. Even after creating a high functioning society, humans continued to manipulate the environment despite the imbalances they were causing within their own habitat. When threatened by famine or pressure to expand the habitat’s carrying capacity, humans reacted by taking advantage the environment itself.  Their agricultural practices stripped the soil of nutrients, cut down the natural vegetation, and even destroyed the natural life cycle of many animals by domesticating them. Early humans lacked the foresight to see the destruction they were causing through their technological innovations because they were blinded by their own selfishness.     

Not only did societies manipulate their environment, but also learned more efficient ways to manipulate the people within them. The cause of this was the settled lifestyle that led to more free time, which then predicated specialization. No longer did everyone hold the same role within his or her group: now a particular value was attached to whichever chore one specialized in and a class system arose. This establishment of social stratification encouraged even further manipulation of others in the society. Furthermore, this manipulation reflected a similar sentiment to the exploitation of the environment. Once humans learned to strip their peers of humanistic qualities and render them as objects in their environment, it was much easier to take advantage of them. Tragedies such as the Holocaust or any form of genocide are examples of the dehumanizing qualities that Machiavellian intelligence inspires. These acts of violence consistently appeared throughout history; thus, this genocidal nature of humans has been a macro-evolutionary force that has shaped the development of civilizations.   

At the same time as manipulation set neighbors against each other, Machiavellian intelligence brought grander civilizations into conflict and each civilization felt the urgency to react by protecting its selfish interests. Neither population would want to move out of the way nor give up their resources; thus, the battles ensued. Here is the basis for the evolution of warfare and its following technologies; these battles were the first to display the simultaneous manipulation of both people and environment. In a study of 132 cultures, G. C. Leavitt concluded that the frequency of war was positively correlated to the societies’ technological complexities, including agricultural technologies. Thus a paradox is created. Humans begin to create technologies to meet their own selfish needs. Better technology frees people for pursuits other than producing food because food production had become so efficient. The increase of crops leads to more population and now these people (whose jobs have been replaced with technology) can be used in pursuit of obtaining territory by violent appropriation. If successful in its conquest, the civilization is yet again forced to increase their technological prowess to provide for the population and the cycle resumes. The advent of technology and warfare are only symptoms to the unremitting quality of Machiavellian intelligence.    

However, this plague of warfare has not led to our destruction; not only is Machiavellian intelligence our curse, but our savior. We are quite adept at making up after fights as are chimps, who display similar aggressive reactions. For instance, a short time after a long-drawn battle, these monkeys have been observed to extend a hand in peace, of which is returned by a forgiving hug or kiss. The intrinsic selfishness recognizes that repeated attacks of aggression will only hurt oneself or their community. As by its definition, Machiavellian intelligence uses alliances as a coping mechanism to preserve valuable relationships to avoid the extinction of a species. Reconciliation is not an act of goodwill; instead, it is just another way that that our ego-centrism permeates as a constant in our culture.   

The violent history of humankind has led many to believe that humans are innately evil. However, I would argue that we are neither innately good nor evil, merely manipulative. Warfare, an indictor of society’s chicanery, is an interplay of two groups to be the best manipulator; not only of people but also of environment and technology. Even in societies that have been taught to avoid violence, when their resources and livelihood are threatened, the innate drive for self preservation will lead to violence. When humans reach the point where violence threatens their extinction, they have learned to seduce those people around them. A constant in human societies throughout history has been this manipulative disposition that Machiavelli explained. No civilization has shown that they are an exception to this proposition. Furthermore, the behavioral parallels between chimps and humans are proof of this behavior’s long-lasting presence; thus, it has been a guiding force throughout humanity’s evolution. This Machiavellian strategy, in combination with the luck of other micro and macro-evolutionary forces, has allowed man’s advancements in culture and technology to surpass those of the chimps’.


Works Cited:

Ehrlich, Paul R. "Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect." Island Press, 2000.

De Waal, Frans. “Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals.” Harvard University Press, 1996.

Chant, Colin, "Chapter 2: Greece" in " Pre-industrial Cities and Technology," Routledge Press, 1999, pp. 48-80.

Leavitt, G.C. 1977. The frequency of warfare: An evolutionary perspective. Sociological Inquiry 47: 49-58.


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