Imperialism: Historical and Biological Perspectives

Imperialism: Historical and Biological Perspectives

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Imperialism: Historical and Biological Perspectives

Imperialism evokes images of past grandeur, expansive landholdings and wealth that do not seem to be conducive to modern-day existence. Yet as a general paradigm of behavior, imperialism may be more ubiquitous and inherent than first glance would suggest. By drawing analogy between the actions of historically imperialistic nations and bee colonies, a universal “imperialism” emerges, spanning history and nature. In the Roman Empire and current US “empire” (as some consider it), imperialism is manifested as binary hierarchies and symbols of power. Bee colonies, likewise, exhibit such extensions of imperialism. Thus, we can construct a paradigm for imperialism that functions in many times and places. One thing to note is that the Roman Empire fell, and people are pessimistic about the US’s current situation and global involvement; bees, on the other hand, have sustained their imperialistic behavior for millions of years. The pervasive behavioral similarities between bees and man suggest an underlying genetic cause, but past and imminent troubles with human imperialism suggests that imperialism may also transmitted as a meme, a cultural entity, subject to natural selection.

“The simplest definition of imperialism is the domination and exploitation of weaker states by stronger ones.” This “ancient and easily observable phenomenon.” is easily recognizable in the Roman Empire and current US foreign relations but harder to pick out in a colony of bees because very human constructs of states are applied. Imperialism is simply a concept I will use to discuss the behavior of bee colonies, though the universality of this behavior lies in nature. In other words, binary hierarchies (a distinctly two-tiered caste system) and symbols of organization and power can be identified in bee colonies, qualifying bees as imperialistic according to this construct.

The Roman Empire is an archetype of the human execution of imperialistic tendencies. At its peak, known as the Principate (27BC-235AD), the Empire spanned Europe, Asia and Africa.

The main drive of such expansion was not so moral or cultural, as “the approach of the Roman government was essentially pragmatic…The frontier peoples were to be tamed, neutralized, and exploited. The exposure of conquered barbarians to a superior way of life was part of this policy…not an end in itself.” In other words, holding land and exploitation were the priorities of Roman government in pure “parasitic” and imperialistic fashion.

Additionally, binary hierarchy reveals itself in empires. In the Roman Empire, this binary system existed on numerous levels, including the humiliores and honestiores of the native Romans, the slaves and masters on farmland, and ruler and foreign subjects.

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As “[the conquests] also created the availability of a labor force—namely, slaves,” the presence of the Empire solidified the binary system. This conceptual division was manifested in society by superficial things. “The magnitude of his [the aristocrat’s] fortune was a tangible sign of his preeminence…The ancient public vocation of nobility was beginning to be shaded by overtones and ambitions that modified its conduct and attitudes.” Clothing was another symbol of the complex but somewhat artificial and constructed organization of the Empire: “Rank was asserted in the clothes that people wore. For senator and their sons, Augustus reserved the toga with the broad purple stripe. Equestrians were marked out by the hold rings on their fingers and narrow purple stripes on their togas.” Seating in public forums was also done according to rank, another visual manifestation of this imposed hierarchy that shows the power of the Empire.

The significance of these symbols lies in their visual omnipresence to all those within the Empire. “Putting everyone in his proper place was a visual affirmation of the dominance of the imperial social structure.” Visualization of the hierarchy was a reminder of Rome’s power. This brings to light the underlying point that imperialism entails an extension of a society’s constructs. Binary division between upper and lower class intensified as time progressed in the Roman Empire, and by the second century AD solidified “a contrast which evoked a famous criticism of the cities of the empire as ‘hives of drones.’” Like the robes, land served as a symbol of Roman imperialism. “Inequalities, deriving from uneven property distribution that was confirmed or even accentuated by imperial policies, were underpinned by Roman law.” These material things were “the confirmation of the subservient position of the mass of the population, the humiliores as opposed to the honestiores.” The presence of analogous symbols and the binary hierarchy in human and bee empires suggests that imperialism is residual genetic code that natural selection has yet to act on.
Parallels between the Roman Empire and the modern US are striking and inescapable. “Both Romans and modern imperial powers…had extended their own law and their civilization.” Consistently, imperialism is accompanied by the artificial and imposed constructs of the binary hierarchy and material symbols. The window of US imperialism most relevant to the bee analogy begins with President Regan’s term in the 1970s. The US exhibited a drive toward imperialism with almost no practical purpose:

After some hesitation the American government and military decided that, although the Cold War in Europe has indeed ended, they would not allow the virulent cold wars in East Asia and Latin American to come to an end. Instead of the Soviet Union, the ‘menace’ of China, Fidel Castro, drug lords, ‘instability,’ and more recently terrorism…and the ‘axis of evil’—Iran, Iraq and North Korea—would have to do as new enemies.

Even more so in the modern context there seems to be a lack of identifiable practicality in such imperialistic behaviors. The Roman Empire sought uncharted and unconquered territory, and mainly out of defense and “pragmatism.” The US adopted a similar policing tactic but did not need to do this to exert its power since the territories were already established countries. “The US no longer portrayed itself as a defensive power, seeking only to ensure its security and that of allied nations in the face of potential Soviet or Communist aggression. Without a superpower enemy, the first hints of the openly-and proudly-imperial role it would take on in the new century emerged, as the Pentagon, rather than declaring victory and demobilizing, began to test the waters.”

The physical and conceptual extent of US militarism highlights imperialism’s presence in modernity. In his book The Sorrows of Empire, Chalmers Johnson calls the contemporary US “an empire” as it “has a definite—even defining—physical geography, much of it acquired during World War II and the Cold War. It consists of permanent naval bases, military airfields, army garrisons, espionage listening posts, and strategic enclaves on every continent of the globe.” The US fits the paradigm of imperialism—in the modern context, landholdings and rural land shares that were symbols of power in the Roman Empire become military zones and bases around the globe.

The scale and scope has gotten larger, and the symbol of physical extent has changed with time, but the underlying principle of creating material things that everyone can see remains. “The bases are not needed to fight wars but are instead pure manifestations of militarism and imperialism.” In fact, in the second (current) Iraq war, the US used its Persian Gulf bases to shoot bombs at Iraq’s cities, not really for combat purposes but rather as a “military exercise.” This exercise, this physical manifestation of the underlying power differential is analogous to the way the bees build comb, discussed later. The bases and associated processes (firing bombers) represent the unspoken but visually and intellectually present hierarchy of one nation over another, the advanced, superpower US to a fundamentally different, Islamic-based country like Iraq. The binary hierarchy in the US empire exists not within the US social class system but between a moral, intellectual elite and a moral, intellectual inferior. The former is the US with its freedom-loving, democracy-spreading ideals, and the latter, any subject nation that is not a democracy.

Moreover, the presence of imperialistic symbols in the US empire is particularly obvious, including the towering skyscrapers and monuments that seem to be an inefficient use of human resources, and a multitude of military bases. On a more abstract level, capitalism is a symbol of US imperialism, an artificial construct that the US tries to impose on subjects. The US has become “…a new kind of military empire—a consumerist Sparta, a warrior culture that flaunts air-conditioned housing , movie theaters, supermarkets, golf courses….”

Putting imperialism in the broader context of evolution, “the social insects [i.e. bees] may be exemplars from which can be derived evolutionary ideas applicable to many other organisms.” This statement qualifies the parallel between bee colonies and human empires. Bee colonies mirror human imperialism particularly in the way new colonies are established. The eusocial bees, ones that demonstrate complex but effective coordinated processes and which have multiple generations living together, are the ones which best fit the analogy.

New colonies of highly eusocial bees are established by swarms, a swarm being a group of workers and queen that leave the parental colony…to establish another colony and nest elsewhere. Once the new colony is established, its size increases through rearing of large numbers of workers. At the same time, quantities of food, both pollen and honey, are stored so that the growth becomes relatively independent.

The colony of bees will divide when the living population of workers exceeds the dying population because of a need for more physical space, reflecting again an affinity for physical expansion and strongholds.

The clear existence of a binary hierarchy within eusocial bee colonies strengthens the imperialism analogy. “The differences between the castes in the highly eusocial bees are much greater [than in other breeds]. The colonies almost always consist of a single queen and a larger number of workers with extremely clear-cut division of labor between the two castes.” However, these bees are not biologically different, and the initial assignment of jobs is arbitrary. This supports the notion that the binary hierarchy is an artifact of an inherent drive toward power, explaining binary hierarchy’s consistent association with imperialistic behavior. It is the construct that societies use to affirm their supremacy, to create a division that gives way to an empire.

The analogy continues with the function of nests in bee colonies, which can be likened to military bases: “the primary functions of nest constructs are for protection, brood rearing and food storage.” Additionally, the use of symbols to represent the extent of organization and empire exists among the bees. The building of nonfunctional structures entails complex coordination of worker bees, as dictated by a smaller elite. In building various structures, “it seemed that the higher the point [on the honeycomb], the more likely that a bee finding it climbed to its summit and deposited a load of building material there. The result was that the high points grew to become pillars.” Both the comb-building process and final product are symbolic of the empire’s extent and organization. While comb serves a functional purpose, its construction is illogical and highly ritualistic: “A group of only 50 workers with a fertilized queen could construct comb; 75 was the minimum population that built with a virgin queen. If the queen was freshly dead, the group needed was about 200 workers; otherwise comb was not built. Without a queen [there was] no comb building…Even with 5000 there was no building for 14 days.” This calculated and systematic process is thought to be regulated by pheromones, bringing to light the biological basis of construction, in its organized method and final product, as a symbol of power.

Construction as an imperialistic act helps to bridge the gap between history and biology and is just one of the similarities in behavior across human society and bee society that suggests underlying genetic phenomena. All three aforementioned societies build things, often superfluous symbols of power, in ways that highlight binary hierarchies. Illogical behavior has managed to make its way through evolution, nearly untouched by natural selection. This supports the claim that sociality is inherited. In fact, there is concrete and genetic evidence that eusociality has been transmitted through different species and thousands of years. A study done by Bryan Danforth of Cornell University entitled “Evolution of sociality in a primitively eusocial lineage of bees”

traces three exons and two introns (parts of genes) through various classes of bees; he concludes these are part of a cluster of genes responsible for eucosial behavior. He found that “eusociality is extraordinarily labile in halictid bees (archetypes of eusociality) and that social diversity in halictid bees is attributable to numerous ( 6) independent origins of eusociality.” Phylogenetic relationships were established “by using a large nucleotide data set of more than 1,600 aligned nucleotide sites spanning three exons and two introns of the nuclear, protein-encoding gene elongation factor-1 .” In less scientific terminology, the repeated appearance of these exons and introns in the gene encoding for a certain protein unites all the eusocial strains.

Within the Halictus breed, social behavior was mapped to the nucleotide sequences as another visual reference of the evolutionary durability of eusocial behavior and its associated complex organizational processes, rituals and structures.

Thus, the case for genetic transmission of imperialistic tendencies is there. Natural selection has perpetuated eusocaility. However, human beings have had destructive experiences with imperialism. The Roman Empire fell in a tragic way, and many people see impending doom in the US’s current militarism: “with the advent of the George W. Bush administration and particularly after the assaults of September 11, 2001,…pretenses [of globalization] gave way to assertions of the second coming of the Roman Empire.” Natural selection, after the fall of Rome and the lack of success of other empires (there have been very few in history, and the US is not even a self-declared empire), should select against the factors in human beings that drive imperialism—i.e, genes that promote the need for binary hierarchies and power. These genes have not been explored in the human genome as of yet due to the expanse and complication of the genome. Beyond that, something to note is that human beings have culture and higher levels of consciousness. Among human beings there exists a mode of transmission other than genes, and that is via memes. Memes are analogous to genes but are more abstract ideas—discrete cultural entities or behaviors. They can be selected for or against by nature, by evolutionary processes. Imperialism, thus, may be a meme that is successfully and inevitably perpetuated. “Thought can be understood as the ability to control the production, reproduction, and association of memes in the minds of humans. What follows is the possibility of evolution at the memetic level. The emergence of human thought marks the appearance of a new mechanism of evolution: conscious human effort instead of natural selection.” Therefore, what drives human imperialism may be that residual genetic affinity for binary hierarchy and symbols of power plus the conscious idea that one society’s way of thinking is superior to another’s. Consciousness of one’s power, and all the wealth and advancement associated with it, may further this drive toward imperialism.

If we consider imperialism to be a meme, then we must say it is being selected against by cultural and historical occurrences. “For us, the sorrows of empire may prove to be the inescapable consequences of the path our elites chose after September 11, 2001…The ubiquitous symbol of the Christian religion, the cross, is perhaps the world’s most famous reminder of one sorrow that accompanied the Roman Empire.” Even more daunting than the fall of Rome are the inescapable parallels between the US and Rome.

If present trends continue, four sorrows…are certain to be visited on the United States….First , there will be a perpetual state of war, leading to more terrorism against Americans wherever they may be and a growing reliance on weapons of mass destruction among smaller nations as they try to ward off the imperial juggernaut. Second, there will be a loss of democracy and constitutional rights as the presidency fully eclipses Congress….Third, an already well-shredded principle of truthfulness will increasingly be replaced by a system of propaganda…and glorification of war, power, and the military legions. Lastly there will be bankruptcy, as we pour our economic resources into ever more grandiose military projects....

While this may be construed as a bit radical, the downward path Johnson suggests seems reasonable given imperialism and militarism’s pasts.

Throughout the discussion, a paradigm of imperialism has emerged as defined by specific and discrete behaviors—the implementation of binary hierarchies and symbols of power. Even at two very different points in history, the Roman Empire in the first century AD and the US’s contemporary empire-like expanse, imperialism rears its head and brings temporary grandeur but with the imminence of doom and downfall. Yet at the peak of imperialism’s function, we can draw analogy between the behaviors of human society and bee society. Because the two species are analogous behaviorly, and because the perpetuations of genes associated with eusociality has been verified, it is reasonable to assume by extension that imperialistic tendencies in human beings also lies in genetics. This assumption is over-simplified, however, as high levels of human consciousness add another layer of meaning and complication. With human beings, both genes and memes serve as vehicles of transmission, as substrates on which natural selection can act. Nature has apparently perpetuated imperialism among bees, as the halictidae remain imperialistic and eusocial across evolutionary time. Imperialism has been perpetuated among human society as well, but its failure to wield long and successful civilizations would suggest that it should be selected against. Yet limitations, such as the expanse of the human genome and controversy surrounding the concept of memes, make it nearly impossible to prove that imperialism even has biological or inherent roots among human beings. This is where the power of analogy and paradigm comes in and helps to bring meaning and rationalization to history and the complexity of human behavior.

Works Cited

Ancient Rome History Resource. [updated March 2004; cited 30 November 2004] Available www.hadrians.com/.../ sources/roman_maps.html.

Brunt, P.A. Roman Imperial Themes. Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1990.

Danforth, Bryan. “Evolution of sociality in a primitively eusocial lineage of bees.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. 10.1073 (2001) [updated 2002; cited 20 Nov 2004] Available http:// http://www.pnas.org/cgi/content /abstract/012387999v1.

Garnsey, Peter and Richard Saller. The Roman Empire. Redwood Press Limited: London, 1990.

Johnson, Chalmers. The Sorrows of Empire. Henry Holt and Company: New York, 2004.

Joslyn C, V. Turchin and F. Heylighen. “Social Evolution.” Principia Cybernetica Web [cited 20 Nov 2004] Available http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/SOCEVOL.html.

Kagan, Donald, ed., The End of the Roman Empire. DC Heath and Company: Lexington, 1978.

Michener, Charles D. The Social Behavior of Bees. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1974.

Schiavone, Aldo. The End of the Past. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 2000.
Seeley, Thomas D., The Wisdom of the Hive. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1995.

“Tables and Charts on Empire.” Global Forum Policy [updated Nov 2004; cited 1 Dec 2004] Available http://www.globalpolicy.org/empire/tables/2004/forward%20operating04.pdf.
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