Posted by: Alan D. Price, PhD | December 5, 2009

Evolution of Democracy, Part V

In Part IV of this essay, I reviewed Shultziner’s conceptualization of self-esteem, as manifested in the pursuit of recognition, and specifically as it relates to the development of democratic governance.  One point that I did not consider concerns the question as to whether self-esteem is a concept that only pertains to Western societies.  Shultziner has this to say about the issue.

Pursuit of self-esteem can take on different avenues pending on cultural influence. Western societies define self-esteem more on individualistic traits than Eastern societies. This difference has led some to propose that eastern societies, like the Japanese society, do not pursue self-esteem and that self-esteem is strictly a Western cultural construct [citation in original]. However, as Sedikides, Gaertner and Toguchi [citation in original] have shown in a comparative research between Japanese and American cultures, “People in all cultures strive to maintain and achieve positive self-regard.  Humans use different tactics to do so, but their goal remains the same. In a similar vein, both individualistic and collectivistic cultures permit self-enhancement, but they do so through different norms.” Indeed, it was found that also hunter-gatherers hunt to ‘show off’ and gain prestige and recognition in various ways [citations in original].

It appears, judging from the research review by Shultziner and summarized in the preceding installment of this essay, that the pursuit of recognition is a a universal, human trait that appears to serve a fundamental self-enhancing motive.  The question then arises as to what extent there may be evidence that this trait is wired-in or given at birth.  I shall now consider Shultziner’s review of genetic research on self esteem and the pursuit of recognition.

The Pursuit of Recognition and Genetic Research

Shultziner reviews research comparing identical and fraternal twins on measures of self esteem.  He reports on one set of studies that compared the influence of shared and non-shared environments on levels of self-esteem in identical (MZ) and fraternal (DZ) twins.  He writes:

[T]he findings show that “MZ twins manifested greater similarity (correlations between 0.46 and 0.67) than did DZ twins…” and “approximately 50% of the variance […] was attributable to genetic factors” [citation in original]. Moreover, the overall pattern of the studies reported [by Neiss, et al (citation in original)] suggests “that shared environmental effects on self-esteem are minimal” while non-shared environmental influences account for most variance. These findings mean, for example, that non-identical twins will have different levels of self-esteem although they are influenced by the same environment, because their different genetic makeup mediates (through different interpretations and perceptions) their level of self-esteem [Emphasis added].

In additional studies, [Neiss, et al , in press] explored the relations between the level of self-esteem (i.e. high or low), stability of self-esteem (namely, the degree of fluctuations in one’s self-esteem level) and genetic factors. One research examined 183 adolescent twin siblings’ level and stability of self-esteem with regard to both environmental and genetic factors. Once again, shared environments were not significant in explaining self-esteem, however genetic and non-shared environmental factor were significant. These studies show that environments have important influence over one’s self-esteem properties. However, these studies reveal that the environment is not the sole factor. The inherited genetic factor explains considerable variance of one’s level and stability of self-esteem. Under the same environmental conditions genetic differences produce different levels of self-esteem. This, for instance, means that properties of self-esteem–i.e. level, stability and the degree one needs to pursue positive self-esteem–are influenced by genetic composition and are not a matter of environmental influence alone [Emphasis added].  The implications of [the research of Neiss, et al, 2002]…are quite clear. Almost all theorists of self-esteem agree that in actual fact people do pursue positive self-esteem in various ways, to different degrees and in healthy and unhealthy ways. Given this fact, and combined with the recent findings that flesh out the genetic factor that influences properties of self-esteem, it is, I believe, safe to conclude that the pursuit of recognition itself is inherent to our biology [Emphasis added]. If properties of self-esteem are partly determined by our genes, then it is quite clear that the pursuit of recognition itself is also genetically determined given the fact that the phenomenon is so widespread among the population [citations in original]. 

Shultziner concludes that our genes determine not simply “the level and stability of self-esteem” but they also determine “the motivation to gain positive self-esteem, namely to pursue and to gain recognition.”  Thus the pursuit of recognition  “is part and parcel of our biological makeup as well” [Emphasis added].

Two Historical Avenues to Modern Democracy

So, how did the presumed wired-in tendencies for egalitarian social structure and the pursuit of recognition interact to produce the movement in the direction of the democratic forms of governance that exist today?

Shultziner writes:

Human beings were democratizing their regimes even before they knew what democracy or procedural definitions of democracy were. Throughout the centuries human beings were revolting and replacing regimes because they were dissatisfied with the way their regimes and rulers treated them, and with the demeaning condition of their existence. The failure of leadership to provide apt conditions of existence and to recognize and respect the populace led to legitimacy erosion, to widespread unrest, and to the overthrow of regimes. This does not mean, however, that every unrest or dissatisfaction necessarily led to democracy. In many instances in the 20thcentury and before, widespread unrest led to other nondemocratic regimes. The arrival at democratic regimes, thus, can be roughly divided into two avenues. The first type of transition is through trial and error, and the second pertains to the intentional aim of setting up a democracy [Emphasis added].

Shultziner explains the difference.

The process of trial and error is best illustrated in the unfortunate historical periods of humankind. Since the Neolithic era, human beings tried various regimes: empires, kingdoms, feudalism, communism, Nazism and fascism, military regimes, etc. Human beings created the most horrendous and despotic forms of government and social organization this planet has ever seen. None of these forms of government and social structures stood the test of history, because, as Fukuyama (1992) argued [citation in original], they all contained an inherent contradiction that led to their downfall. These regimes were based on brute force, paternalism or distinct social hierarchies, all of which entailed social practices and structure that denied recognition from significant segments of the population. The factor of the pursuit of recognition has been selecting these forms of social (or anti-social) structures as inapt to human nature.

The process of trial and error eliminates nondemocratic forms because of the gradual rejection of what dissatisfies human beings [citation in original].  Those who experienced tyranny fought for the essential things they did not have from their previous regimes, basic freedoms and recognition [citation in original].  As Isaiah Berlin so vividly put it, “What I may seek to avoid is simply being ignored, or patronised, or despised, or being taken too much for granted–in short […] having my uniqueness insufficiently recognised…” [citation in original].  Primarily in this way, through trial and error, democracy gradually attained its 20th century character. Social structures and policies that satisfy recognition last; those that do not, gradually disappear [Emphasis added].

Democracies also develop, according to Shultziner, as a result of conscious intention.

Democracy can come about in conscious and intended ways as well. Human beings are fast learners and, combined with the advanced communications and the accumulation of knowledge in the 20th century, people do not start a process of trial and error anew each time [citation in original].  Those who protested against the communist regimes in east Europe, for example, could witness and were influenced by an attractive alternative on the west side of the Berlin wall. The grass in the neighbor’s garden is indeed objectively greener for some people. This is an important environmental factor with a twofold dimension [sic? — three dimensions are later described]. First, it becomes a direct measure for people to evaluate their own regimes. Nondemocratic regimes have a limited capacity to prevent their citizens from knowing about the benefits of living in a proper functioning democratic state. People who do not enjoy basic freedoms and rights may be stimulated to demand these benefits after comparing their regimes with a proper democratic regime.

Secondly, the measure can easily, but not necessarily, become a standard by which institutions could be shaped or modified. Strike examples are the influence of the American Revolution on the French Revolution, the Philippines where democratic institutions were profoundly shaped by American standards, Japan after World War II where democracy was first imposed but then accepted by the people, and Eastern European countries in the late 1980’s. In other words, existing democracies can become measures and standards for citizens of other countries. This is a powerful environmental incentive for the fast expansion of democracies and freedoms.

Thirdly, in the realm of ideology, no serious ideological alternative to democracy exists any more. Real criticisms of democracy are mostly restricted to ancient political philosophy. Current criticisms of democracy are actually calls for a different type of balance between equality and freedom or modifications inside liberal democracy; they are not truly posed as alternatives to democracy [citation in original].  In fact, no real alternatives to democracy are even part of the international parlance. Regimes (even nondemocratic ones) speak and justify their rule in the language of democracy [citation in original]. In other words, democracy has gained ideological and moral supremacy and has become the only viable option for an intentional regime change or reform [Emphasis added].

In the final installment of this essay, I shall summarize the work of Shultziner discussed previously and the conclusions which he and I draw.



  1. […] Part V of this essay, I shall discuss Shultziner’s review of evidence from genetic research and […]

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