Book Review: Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership

Naturally Selected:
The Evolutionary Science of Leadership
By Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja
HarperBusiness; 272 pp; $25.99

At long last, a book explaining why CEOs are intrinsically better than the rest of us! While shelves groan under the weight of leadership manifestos, Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja deserve some credit for unleashing a Trojan Rabbit into this crowded genre. Naturally Selected: The Evolutionary Science of Leadership is a peculiar, sometimes interesting, sort of pseudoscientific, and often baffling explanation of how evolution has created a subspecies of men who grow tall, remarry constantly, and make oodles of money. If it's true, it might one day give Upper East Side divorce lawyers the same clout The Origin of Species gave biology teachers.

Van Vugt, a psychology professor at the VU University Amsterdam, and Ahuja, a former Times of London science writer, build their argument from numerous scientific, anthropological, historical, and biological studies. They trace the evolution of leadership back some 2 million years to the early Homo sapien ancestors pottering around the African savanna. "Throughout human evolutionary history," they write, "there has been an ongoing arms race between leaders and followers to gain the upper hand in the battle for power." And though we've come a long way in the intervening millennia, the authors contend that our instincts for following dynamic leaders remain primal. This basic assertion—the bulwark of their lecture circuit-ready Evolutionary Leadership Theory—is meant to explain away everything from Wall Street's fixation on Steve Jobs' health to why Rupert Murdoch, Jack Welch, and Larry Ellison have been married a combined 10 times.

According to Naturally Selected, these behaviors are all rooted in our ancestry. A leader's sickness, they claim, has always forced us to fear for the group he leads—particularly if its stock is trading at more than $300 per share. Historically, as men grow ever more powerful, the most evolved have attracted more babes. Based on studies of early African statesmen, the authors note, it's only to be expected that the richer our leaders become, "the age of women they liaise with drops (thus increasing their chances of conceiving)." Finally, a thoughtful explanation of why J. Howard Marshall married Anna Nicole Smith.

The main premise of Evolutionary Leadership Theory is to root the complicated lives of modern business moguls in an historical context. Status, the authors argue, has always drawn people to their leaders. Yet over the years, the ability to wrestle an animal has been replaced with running a company. "And so," the authors explain, "thanks to Evolutionary Leadership Theory, we have a thread linking money to power and to sex."

Befitting our ancient behavior, corporations prefer entrusting their chief executive jobs to healthy studs, van Vugt and Ahuja contend. "In ancestral times, the only real selection process for aspiring leaders was through appearance and demeanor," they write. "Every time you see an attractive person, that skipped heartbeat is evolution's shorthand for saying they've got great genes and therefore any offspring you have stand a decent chance of survival."

The authors also argue that such corporations cannot deny an ancestral urge to pick the taller candidate. Their statistics, at first, support this claim. In 2005 more than 30 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs stood 6'2" or taller, compared with 4 percent of the general U.S. population. The authors also note that with the exception of George W. Bush's defeat of John Kerry, the taller candidate almost always wins the U.S. Presidency. Two million years ago, "a taller person would have been a more formidable warrior in hand-to-hand combat, and a better peacekeeper," they write. Fittingly, Bush's victory is explained with a Darwinian asterisk. Dubya looked more masculine—a quality favored during wartime.

Yet a host of contradictory evidence appears to have been overlooked. Blackstone CEO Steve Schwarzman—along with seemingly half of Wall Street and almost all of Hollywood—stands below six feet. As did a Corsican semi-dwarf who once nearly took over Europe. At 5'7", Welch, the former CEO of General Electric (GE), might not make a middle school basketball team but was somehow one of the great corporate leaders of the late 20th century. Go figure.

The authors also gloss over the fact that every wartime President since James Madison has won reelection. Or that more than two dozen women now run Fortune 1000 companies—despite van Vugt and Ahuja's assertion that "a woman wielding great power is still somehow seen as unnatural, especially if she is of childbearing age." Unfortunately, explaining away a culture's less acceptable habits remains a lucrative business proposition. The evolutionary arms race between leaders and followers has nothing on the race between publishers over gimmicks to sell leadership books.

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