From an evolutionary psychology perspective, we humans are always caught in a dilemma. On the one hand we need to be part of a group because for nearly all our evolutionary history the survival time for a solo human could be measured in hours. So we’re hardwired to crave group membership, and naturally our group has to be the good guys while other groups (because, during nearly all our evolutionary history, other groups would be a threat to our territory and the resources thereon) are necessarily the bad guys.

On the other hand we’re also a co-operative species. We engage in trade, which requires a modicum of mutual fantasy-making in order that we agree on the supposed value of shells or coins or whatever. As our societies have grown after the agricultural revolution, and grown further in consequence of the industrial revolution, we’ve needed to co-operate more and more.

But always the dynamic tension between two opposing hardwired instincts remains. We are vulnerable to demagogues precisely because of this. And our tiny ape-brains simply aren’t (for the most part) sophisticated enough for us to recognize when we’re being manipulated, not least because it feels so very good to be part of our group. Hey, we’re the good guys, remember?

So the notion that individuals will be able, in the immortal words of the eponymous hero in The Life Of Brian, be able to “think for ourselves” is a kind of optimism for a future so distant that it may never arrive. Perhaps instead we should be considering how best to engineer our systems of governance to mitigate our evolved tendencies so that we’re less likely to be duped by whatever glib-talking blustering demagogue happens to come along.

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Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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