Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, Harvard University Press, 1999

All men seek to rule, but if they cannot rule they prefer to be equal.
Harold Schneider, 1979.

All animal societies can be placed on a continuum from despotic to egalitarian and this placement reflects the social rigidity or level of control that dominant individuals can express over subordinates. In societies resting closer to the despotic end of the spectrum, the alpha-animal usually has access to the most resources and is able to bully other societal members. In contrast, societies residing closer to the egalitarian end of the spectrum have societal members that control the resource exploitation of dominant animals through the formation of coalitions. In this way, egalitarian social structures resemble what we can call a reverse hierarchy, as it is a system where coalitions of individuals suppress (i.e. dominate) the domineering tendencies of would-be dominant animals.

An integral aspect of true egalitarianism is in how these coalitions are maintained. Boehm claims that truly egalitarian units are characterized and maintained by moral communities, which consist of political actors that actively guide the group through the power of consensus decision-making while also preemptively squandering the ability of any individual to overcome the egalitarian nature of the society. These moral communities must consist of intentional beings that consciously derive an egalitarian ethos, rather than being the result of innate dispositions, such as in squirrel monkeys. The reason intentional thought is needed is because a true egalitarian system involves group decision-making and the formation of a unified attitude. These components require mental evaluations and thus consciousness.

The main goal of a moral community is to eliminate what Boehm has identified as upstartism, which is when an individual goes against the egalitarian ethos and attempts to dominate others for their own individual gain. The most important method is to preemptively inhibit any attempts that a potential bully might make. To be able to do this, the moral community must be strong enough to uphold its system of social conformity and it must use social sanctioning when necessary. Boehm proposes several methods utilized in egalitarian societies that are used to preserve the social fabric and punish non-conformers. The most benign mechanism, gossip, is used to monitor and form public opinions about the moral status of other group members. From gossip, the attitudes and public opinions of moral communities emerge. More direct mechanisms include criticism and ridicule, which are employed by confronting the upstart directly in an effort to control their behavior. Even more severe methods include ostracism and assassination.

True egalitarianism probably has its roots in early human foraging bands, around 10,000 years ago, where there were no specific leaders and political decisions were made through group consensus. In these groups, leaders did not actively make decisions for other members, but rather only facilitated them. Boehm uses cladistics to determine how long egalitarian traits have been in the human lineage by reviewing the dominance styles and social behavior of African apes. In chimpanzees, we find a despotic lifestyle where an adult male gains dominance over others and exploits access to resources that are competed for. We do not necessarily consider this alpha-male a leader though, because comparable to the early foraging humans, the alpha chimp does not actively make group-decisions. Rather, the alpha fulfills a control role with only a small ability to influence the behavior of others rather than controlling their actions entirely. Boehm extends his review beyond chimpanzees by looking at gorillas and bonobos and we find that they are also graded down near the despotic end of the continuum. Through this review, Boehm explains that none of the African apes give us a quality model for true egalitarianism and so it is not hard to conclude that our pre-human ancestors were probably despotic animals.

What these non-human animal societies lack are conscious leveling mechanisms that suppress any one individuals ability to dominate other group members. In early human foraging groups, leaders were considered primus inter pares, or first among equals. Despite the suppression of leaders, these groups were not completely free of despotism because at the family level domineering fathers were still in charge of the social unit. Boehm explores why early foraging humans did not develop strong linear hierarchies at the group level and in doing so claims five reasons for a relaxation of their hierarchies. These traits included a nomadic lifestyle, meat sharing beyond the family unit, an inability to accumulate material wealth, unstable grouping patterns, and little economic specialization or division of labor. But even after listing these characteristics, Boehm admits that a mystery still exists because there are primitive people that lack any of these traits but still exhibit egalitarianism. Consequently, we have not yet identified the true causes of egalitarianism and therefore need to dig deeper to account for this phenomenon of reversing the hierarchy.

To dig deeper, Boehm examines and determines the innate components necessary for egalitarian behavior. At first glance, it is not hard to see that the most rudimentary tendency lying at the foundation of reversing the hierarchy is the innate behavior patterns of dominance and submission. These are characteristic traits of all anthropoids and therefore using a cladistic approach could prove very informative, especially if we look at how flexible domineering tendencies can be. Boehm reminds us how Hans Kummer (1971) pointed out that the environment modifies the degree to which hamadryas baboons express their innate capacities, a phenomenon he labeled as adaptive modification. Essentially, Kummer was saying that although there were innate components to the social behavior of baboons there was also a large degree of modification due to learning during development. From this perspective, Boehm argues that humans innately fall closer to the despotic end of the dominance style spectrum. He claims that we have a universal drive to dominance but that our expression of this is extremely flexible, making us flexible despots. We push adaptive modification to its extremes in overcoming our domineering tendencies, but quite often fail to remove despotism entirely.

To understand how egalitarianism evolved in an innately despotic species we need to look at ancestral politics to understand what human nature is all about. We begin at the age-old philosophical debate over what constitutes true human nature that is well represented by contrasting Rousseau and Hobbes. In truth, humans are both violent dominators and peace-seeking subordinates and both of these aspects of our nature are necessary for us to sort out our political dilemmas. It would not be possible to have one of these innate tendencies without the other, for if we were instinctually only dominators than who would we have to dominate and if we were only peaceful who would we submit to? Consequently, we must understand that we are not looking at the absence of domination, but rather a redirection of dominating behavior against would-be bullies. Clearly, egalitarianism is built upon natural tendencies of domination and submission.

An additional ancestral predisposition that Boehm points out in the evolution of egalitarianism is the ability to form macrocoalitions. He argues this is a crucial ingredient because coalition formation allowed groups to collectively dominate other individuals. Numerous other primates form macrocoalitions and therefore innately express a major ingredient for egalitarianism. Consequently, we can argue that our pre-human ancestor had this ability as well. During human evolution, macrocoalitions became crucial to the formation of egalitarian units once they began to be used intentionally as a means to inhibit social action of group members. When intention became the motivation behind coalition formation moral communities had evolved.

Another crucial ingredient to egalitarianism is a trait that seems to be widespread amongst humans and apes. We can refer to this as the ambivalence model where subordinates submit to dominants against their own volition. This is most apparent in displays of indignation, where a subordinate acts resentful of its subordinate status. An example of this characteristic is the utilization of chimpanzee waa-barks, a call that is emitted by subordinates when dominants are at a safe distance away. Jane Goodall (1986) reports that during submissive displays a subordinate emits loud screams in response to the dominant animal, but as the subordinate moves away its screams grade into waa-barks that are indicative of the subordinates defiance against the dominant chimpanzee. This sort of ambivalence is important because this innate predisposition could motivate animals to form coalitions that are aimed at ridding themselves of domineering individuals. Once again, cladistics allows us to conclude that our pre-human ancestor had this innate tendency.

But why did true egalitarianism only form in humans if all of the key ingredients are present in ape species and therefore our non-human ancestor? Boehm resolves this issue by pointing out several more key ingredients, including the advent of weapon use, advanced cognition, and the development of true language. True egalitarianism did not emerge until these ingredients were thrown into the evolutionary crock-pot about 10,000 years ago. Without language and advanced cognition, animals lacked the ability to form an egalitarian ethos that is passed on culturally from generation to generation. Weapon use gave subordinates added power, and would-be subordinates could change their status through the use of weapons more easily than by using their innate physical prowess alone. Furthermore, higher levels of between-group competition and lower levels of within-group competition were added to the innate predispositions of our pre-human ancestor and the strong cultural capacities of modern humans, resulting in natural selection favoring the formation of egalitarian bands. Group unity became a necessity and individuals that clung to an egalitarian ethos found reproduction easier than those humans that did not. Once we entered into this form of selection, the pressures of egalitarian life on individuals acted to reduce phenotypic variation, and consequently genetic variation. This was because strange individuals that did not live up to the moral consensus were removed from the group, or at least did not fare as well reproductively. We then get into a positive-feedback loop driving us to higher levels of cooperation. Ultimately, it seems that egalitarianism arose from the pleitropic affects of innate tendencies, a high cultural capacity, and natural selection favoring strong group unity.

References Cited

Goodall, Jane. 1986. The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior. Cambridge, Mass. Belknap Press. Harvard University Press.
Kummer, Hans. 1971. Primate Societies: Group Techniques of Ecological Adaptation. Chicago. Aldine
Schneider, Harold. 1979. Livestock and Equality in East Africa: The Economic Basis for Social Structure. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.