This article is part of Carl Coon’s “A Short History of Evolution” series. Click here to see all the articles in this series.
When a society grows it becomes more complicated; the attitudes and institutions that hold the group together become more complicated as well. It’s a never-ending treadmill and just seems to keep on getting worse. Every time an old problem is solved, new ones pop up.
The problem is especially acute when the number of hierarchies increases. To wage war effectively, you need a line of command, from generals to privates. Managing an empire also can require many levels, each with its own problems and challenges.
Hierarchies, like buildings, have to be built from the ground up. If you try to construct higher levels before the intermediate ones are firmly in place you are in trouble, as some of America’s recent efforts at nation-building abroad have discovered.
It’s like adding new floors to a multistory building that needs structural integrity and other new arrangements between floors, as well as within each floor. Add one floor and you need stairs, plus you may need to look to your foundations. Add a couple more floors and you’ll have to look to your foundations and materials, plus you may want an intercom, fire escapes and an elevator. And so on.
We work at resolving all these problems as they arise because of the considerable benefits that accrue to the individuals who succeed in coming together in larger groups. We look ahead and wonder why we bother. We look back and we know.
Who’s in Charge?
Every organized group of people needs someone with the authority to make decisions for the group as a whole. Leadership at the village level evolved during the Neolithic and beyond into ever more elaborate systems of top-down governance. The task of holding increasingly large and complex societies together while they digested the spoils of war and the fruits of technological advance was not an easy one, and got more demanding with the passage of time.
Rulers formed their own “in-group” (the aristocracy) and commoners had separate ones for their own communities. Mediating between the two levels were separate groups of specialists like priests and tax collectors. My, how these in-between groups have proliferated since those early beginnings!
The problem of what to do when a leader dies became acute when Neolithic villages began to coalesce into larger units. It’s not so difficult when everyone knows everyone else, but when a society grows and develops segments some institutional mechanism that is generally recognized has to be in place. Otherwise, when a leader dies, nobody knows which of the leaders of the various smaller units should take over.
It was only natural (kin-based altruism) that at first the need for such a mechanism was met by the principle of primogeniture. The eldest child of the ruler took over when the old leader died. This was sufficiently clear-cut so that all who accepted the principle knew who the next ruler would be. Almost everyone did accept it, for a long time, ushering in what you could call the dynastic era in human history.
Since this was also the era when war played a central role in the evolutionary process, kings and emperors were almost always male, with the line of succession through male offspring only.
Kingdoms and Empires
The dynastic system’s greatest success was in making possible a new kind of society within which several subtribes could cooperate symbiotically. This required an enlarged sense of group identity, something that would provide for altruistic behavior toward other members of the group, even if they belonged to other subtribes within the system and even if they were relative strangers. If it was to hang together, the larger group needed ways to enlarge and fortify the ancient “us versus them” sense that people had inherited from a simpler, more natural era. Dialects, appearance, ethical codes, and religion all blossomed in response to this need.
Early on, dynastic societies began the march toward what we call civilization. They managed a pretty long run, but within the last several centuries they have bumped against a ceiling beyond which they could achieve little further progress. Part of it was energy– you can only do so much if you depend on animals and slaves and wind to power your lives. But most of that ceiling was the enormously complicated nature of the societies that had evolved under hereditary leaders. Further evolution required basic political as well as technical changes.
Dynastic systems have always suffered from flaws associated with primogeniture. Systems based on a hereditary monarch who actually exercises power himself usually run out of steam after a couple of generations. The crown prince ascends to the throne and it soon turns out that he lacks the unusual qualities of character and intellect that enabled his father to get the enterprise going in the first place. If the system the father established is a solid one, and the son is reasonably competent, the dynasty may rock along for a while and even flourish. But when the grandson, who was pampered from childhood, takes over, he may well botch things up, perhaps irretrievably. Or he may become a figurehead with other, tougher individuals managing the show behind the scenes.
One example of how the dynastic way of life runs its course is the way the princely states fared in the Indian subcontinent. A scant three hundred years ago most of the maharajas and rajas in the princely states had absolute authority within their own territories. The British Raj infiltrated the system through a combination of bribery, trickery, and military force, and pretty soon almost all of these titular monarchs were figureheads, with a British agent at their elbows calling the shots. What little authority they retained was lost when an independent Indian government bought them out, putting them on a stipend.
The French and Russian revolutions are examples of a more abrupt kind of transition. But whether the old regimes went out with a bang or a whimper, they were doomed not so much by the incompetence of their royal leaders (though that helped) as by the evolution of the societies they managed to levels of complexity that required a new form of governance.
One trigger that paved the way for a new political environment was the development of fossil fuels as a major source of power.
 Coon, Carl. One Planet, One People: Beyond ‘Us versus Them.'” (Prometheus, 2004). See especially Chapter 10 for a more detailed analysis.
 It’s an interesting commentary on the inherent strength of the village-sized community that during the heyday of the dynastic era on the Indian subcontinent, the crowned heads and their families bonded with each other, across the bounds of the various political units, both socially and for marriages. This was also true to some extent in Europe.