Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

The biological difference between riots and revolution

By Hendrik Gommer - posted Monday, 22 August 2011

Humans are social animals who have sustained the species by living in social groups. However, living in social groups requires more of an investment than just genetic material. For the individual there is a short-term cost that is generally compensated in some long-term gain. If there were no long-term gain, what would be the point of cooperation? Reciprocity becomes the key to social motivations to form and sustain social contracts. Moral systems ensure compensation and in direct and indirect ways ensure that society thrives. This is the view expressed by evolutionary theorist, Richard Alexander.

This framework underpins modern society. According to Dawn Oliver, Emeritus Professor of Constitutional Law, in most liberal democracies "public bodies are expected by the population to act in the public interest". Media, legislators, administrators, judges, should not only act in the public interest but should act to punish the institutions of the state when they act in ways that are contrary to public interests. As checks and balances, they are necessary to respond to anti-social behaviour of people and other public bodies that act outside of public interests.

As I have argued in A Biological Theory of Law (2011) this principle is not limited to liberal democracies. Stability prevails only in states where the interests of the individuals, groups and leaders are synergised. Individuals will only invest in their social group, their nation and their state, as long as they feel there is some kind of reciprocity. That means that an oligarchy would suffice if there were enough checks to keep the interests of the oligarchs in balance with the interests of the people. People will also prefer a powerful sovereign that forces the rivals to cooperate, if it ensured security, safety and stability. Arguably, this is how Colonel Gaddafi came to power in Libya in 1969.


Dictators however are not usually willing to allow individual or state checks on their power. In the long-term, they submit to the urges that all members of a society have, they try to cheat and take more benefits from the group than they earn. Those that do suppress their individual will for the benefit of the group will react. This requires the dictator to engage in suppression to maintain a stable state. The more dictators, oligarchs or governments try to take a free ride at the expense of civilians, the more force they need to keep society stable. State organs that are supposed to be in place to check the power of rouge leaders or corrupt state organs have two options: to join the suppression or to be silent.

In the last decade, a new checking device has evolved. People can talk freely through the Internet. They can exchange information independent from governments. For liberal democracies that already had more institutionalised checks and balances, the Internet has provided another level of checks. But in countries where governments cheated to enrich themselves, it is another story. The Internet provides an opportunity for people to discover that governments and free riding leaders, who do not rule in their interest or the interests of the larger group, are being no longer tolerated. This is one explanation for what is happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and other Middle East countries. The leaders in those countries underestimated the powerful checking possibilities of the Internet.

Is it likely that similar actions will emerge in the Western world? Are the London riots to be compared to the Middle East uprisings? I do not think so. However, the biological mechanism is the same. Individuals are disenfranchised and feel society does not offer them much. They are unemployed, cannot buy the luxury goods fellow-citizens can, and they may feel that they would be better off without their government. Maybe they are right. Maybe they would get more resources to survive and reproduce if anarchy prevailed. They may feel that they have nothing to loose.

The majority of the population do however benefit from the stability and order that is maintained by the British government, and anarchy it is not in their interests. In a democracy the majority prosper, and it will join its leaders in demanding and sustaining stability, especially when it comes to maintaining law and order. Acts of suppression, in either the short or long-term will not address the conditions that may lead to anarchy. Only when issues that leader to disenfranchisement, such as unemployment, are addressed can all civilians again take part in society and get the benefits from their cooperation, including stability.

The formation of a state is not a conscious choice of rational minds. It is foremost a new stage in a biological development of stable systems. Our genes need a stable system to prosper. First they create stable cells that surround them. These cells merge to organisms. Organisms might form groups, humans certainly do. And these groups will form states. This process takes place in the benefit of the underlying genes. Our rationality can discover this biological process and can make arrangements in order to create stable structures. This will make us feel happy. Thus, the state is formed by an interaction of emotion, abstract thinking, and biological predispositions.

Humans who are inclined to cooperate will strive for an environment where their reproduction will be optimal. Behaving in relation to the laws formulated by the state is nothing more and nothing less than the behavior that optimizes the distribution of its genes. If there is no balance between the biological needs of individuals and the benefits of the leaders, one can predict this state will fall sooner or later, unless it takes measures to redress this 'unfair' situation. As checks evolve and cannot always be controlled, it is probably the best option to give people enough benefits in turn for their group participations. This will keep the state stable. As I argue in my book, this is a biological law that is the foundation of all constitutional law and governments should take biological laws very seriously.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

5 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

As an assistant professor at the University of Tilburg, Hendrik Gommer lectures on the philosophy, sociology and biology of constitutional and general law and methodology. He currently conducts research on biological basic notions in law. He received his doctorate in law, and also has degrees in biology and science of religion.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Article Tools
Comment 5 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy