The Hidden Pattern of Human Group Leadership

In Chapter 1 of my new book, Humanity: An Unauthorized Biography, I argued that there is a hidden pattern of human group leadership that we have inherited from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Specifically, I suggested that inward-looking leaders and outward-looking shaman formed such a close partnership that it “became embedded in our physiology.” In other words, evolution has encoded this relationship into our DNA.

That is a bold claim, so I had better provide some evidence for it.

I’ve expanded the Chapter 1 preview with new material to provide more scientific support for this claim. Here it is:

Is there then a “gene for” shamanism, or for leadership? The situation is almost assuredly not that simple. It appears that minor variations in the levels of certain neurotransmitters and hormones account for the expression of these ancient roles. Personal choice also sometimes applies, as does familial expectation. Some, to paraphrase an old saw, are born, some are made, and some have leadership or shamanism thrust upon them.

We know, for example, that leaders typically have lower than average levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and higher levels of testosterone. This is true for both men and women. These levels vary naturally depending on many factors, including genetics, environment, age, and levels of physical activity. They can also be intentionally changed through our actions. Adopting so-called “power” postures can reduce stress and increase feelings of confidence. A mere two minutes of standing with your feet widespread, your arms raised above your shoulders, and your chin lifted can decrease levels of cortisol, and raise levels of testosterone.

The opposite is also true. Sitting with an inward, closed posture, such as crossing your arms and legs, can raise cortisol levels and decrease testosterone. These are postures of concentration, and are commonly associated both with depression, and with deep insights. Those studying difficult topics, such as mathematics, or solving computer programming problems will typically unconsciously adopt such postures. They are postures of shamanism.

There is more. Leaders are most often gregarious extraverts, whereby shamans are most often introverted. These are not simply labels for personality traits. They relate to brain structure, and have been shown to have a genetic basis. Extraverts have a much lower threshold of emotional arousal, as mediated by the neurotransmitter dopamine. They get a bigger rush from the brain’s reward system than do introverts, especially when a gamble pays off. This extraverted behavior correlates well to the presence of a particular allele on the dopamine D2 receptor gene according to a 2005 study. The authors of that study noted, “These results demonstrate a link between stable differences in personality, genetics, and brain functioning.”

So leadership and shamanistic traits are unquestionably functions of the physical body. There are multiple genes that impact leadership and shamanistic behaviors as well as environmental, and behavioral factors. It takes more than a gene or two to make a leader, or a shaman, but the potential is encoded within us.

The references for those statements are:

  1. The use of ‘power poses’ to lower the stress hormone cortisol and raise testosterone have been studied by social psychologist Amy Cuddy and her colleagues at the Harvard Business School. Cuddy’s TED talk on the subject has been viewed more than 24 million times, and ranks as the second most popular talk published by that organization. An earlier version of her ideas were presented in a video published on the Harvard Business School blog.
  2. The study that demonstrated genetic differences between how introverts and extraverts process stimuli is Michael X. Cohen, Jennifer Young, Jong-Min Baek, Christopher Kessler, and Charan Ranganath. “Individual differences in extraversion and dopamine genetics predict neural reward responses” in Cognitive Brain Research, vol 25, no 3, December 2005, pp. 851-861. The authors specifically say, “Here, we show that individual differences in extraversion and the presence of the A1 allele on the dopamine D2 receptor gene predict activation magnitudes in the brain’s reward system during a gambling task.”
  3. Similarly, the study at Richard A. Depue and Yu Fu. “On the nature of extraversion: variation in conditioned contextual activation of dopamine-facilitated affective, cognitive, and motor processes” in Front. Hum. Neurosci., 13 June 2013 reported on varying responses to drug rewards by extraverts and introverts. The authors note that, “The findings suggest that extraversion is associated with variation in the acquisition of contexts that predict reward.” That is how an introverted shaman defines leadership traits!

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