Current Synthesis Version of the Egalitarian Origins of Humanity

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Daniel Bitton:


"I’m going to explain what the current synthesis version of egalitarian origins is, and why most people with enough expertise to have an informed opinion believe in it, despite knowing all of the evidence that Graebgrow cite in this chapter as if to disprove it.

And this is really important for readers of Dawn of Everything, because Graeber and Wengrow attack the idea of egalitarian origins without ever explaining to us the logic behind it. And as a result it makes it seem like the people who believe in egalitarian origins are just stupid or in denial or something.

Now, our current understanding of what our original social structures were like in terms of presence or absence of dominance hierarchy, is largely a synthesis of the work of Christopher Boehm and Sarah Hrdy, plus some psychology and game theory research done over the last few decades, done on people from societies from around the world.

Christopher Boehm tells us that the Hobbes vs Rousseau debate about whether humans are innately cooperative or competitive is a red herring. The Rousseauian idea of humans as inherently good natured cooperative egalitarian smurfs and the hobbesian Gargamel view of human nature as selfish, competitive and hierarchical are not in conflict – they’re both correct.

We all have a tendency to want advantages over others, and therefore to be at the top of a dominance hierarchy – but we also innately hate being dominated and exploited by others and we will do what we can to prevent it if we can, which usually means teaming up with others to stop would-be dominators. It’s the conditions that we find ourselves in, that either give some people an advantage that they can use in their quest to dominate others – or else that give the advantage to the people who are trying to resist domination. And as it happens, the conditions that our earliest ancestors lived in were such that we were able to successfully form coalitions to resist domination – at least for a the first 95% of so of our existence, and the result was egalitarian societies where everyone has equal decision-making power.

One of the practical conditions of our earliest ancestors which allowed people resisting hierarchy to win the day of would be dominators was the invention of lethal projectile weapons by our homo erectus ancestors.

Once jimmy homo erectus invented lethal projectile weapons, it was no longer possible for alpha males to maintain the types of dominance hierarchies that we see in our chimpanzee and gorilla cousins today – because even the wimpiest pee-wee herman homo erectus cold just kill off the biggest macho man high T alpha man with a spear from a safe distance. An Boehm doesn’t mention it, but this would later on extend to poisons and poisoned projectile weapons, which could be used by women as well.

Graeber and Wengrow don’t mention it, but Boehm calls this process of killing off the alpha males and of banding together to prevent domination the “egalitarian revolution” – and this revolution is how Boehm believes that we became human beings. The physical features that we see in animals where men compete with eachother for dominance like males being a lot bigger than females, or like giant fangs or canines, or thick brow ridges to prevent our skulls from getting crushed from blows to the face – these traits fade out over the millenia and almost disappear by the time our modern ancestors appear on the scene 300,000 years ago. Basically, alpha male dominant types just kept getting themselves killed over and over, and people had to learn to cooperate on an egalitarian basis if they didn’t want to get merked by pissed off pee wees and womens.

And the climactic conditions in the paleolithic plus the conditions inherent to the types of hunting and gathering that people did in order to live in that era were such that there was just no way for a bully or more likely a coalition of bullies to succeed in their attempts for dominance for very long.

And these conditions favouring egalitarian social organization continued until after the advent of agriculture and the environmental conditions of the holocene which eventually in combination with other factors made it harder and harder to prevent domination and easier and easier for bullies to form coalitions with which to dominate their peers.

Boehm doesn’t go too deep into theorizing about the conditions that favoured egalitarianism, but he mentions various things which hunter-gatherer specialists discuss like the mobility of hunter gatherer groups in that period which means that people could easily escape any attempts at domination – criteria #2, and the instability of the palaeolithic climate which made it very hard for anyone to dominate any particular territory or hold on to any particular dominance formation for very long – criteria #1.

Now if Graeber and Wengrow actually wanted to disprove egalitarian origins for real, rather than just spin a narrative for a feel good propaganda book, they would have tried to argue that those conditions don’t actually lead to equality. This is what scholars who are against egalitarian origins do. But instead they chose to just leave out all of Boehm’s logic and then they act confused as to why he comes to the conclusions that he does – banking on readers’ not having read his book in order to make egalitarian origins seem foolish and incompatible with the archaeological record.


Meanwhile Sarah Hrdy’s work tells us that more than just not liking to be dominated, humans also do innately love cooperating and working together and are that we are hardwired to do so. Given how expensive it is in terms of calories and energy and time required to raise a human child until it can feed itself, human beings could not have survived as we did without cooperative child rearing. And unlike other great apes, humans don’t just enlist immediate family in childcare, but we also trust and cooperate with unrelated humans to help each-other with child care. Today we have public or for profit daycares depending on where you are, where unrelated strangers take care of our kids, but hunter gatherer camps are a lot like giant daycares with everyone as the staff helping with the little snooglers.

And the only way that we could cooperate on this level – before a wage economy – was by evolving all sorts of traits that could not likely have emerged in a very hierarchical or competitive society – traits like involuntary facial expressions that give away our feelings, or like the cooperative eye where the whites of your eyes are visible so everyone can see what we’re looking at, which other great apes don’t have, because they are constantly competing with eachother in various respects.

And Hrdy doesn’t mention this in her book, but people from the radical anthropology group that I always talk about like Camilla Power and Morna Finnegan have pointed out that many of these sorts of situations like caring for unrelated infants could not have likely happened if people were organized patrilocally – and that therefore this suggest matrilocal residence, which apparently Hrdy has agreed with, and in turn this means that our early ancestors at least were most likely gender egalitarian as well, contrary to what Boehm says in his work which is focuses on dudes killing eachother and takes male dominance for granted.

There are also a lot of other reasons to believe that we were egalitarian – for example, like I mentioned last time, the most hyper egalitarian societies that we know of from modern times practice the same kind of economy that most of our earliest ancestors are likely to have practiced – and the practical conditions of that type of economy usually favour political egalitarianism. There’s also evidence from the way that technology was spread out and trading networks and artifacts were distributed, and even mitochondrial DNA evidence that suggest matrilocal organization, which is often associated with political and gender egalitarianism.

Anyhow, all this stuff plus some psychology experiments which show that we like to dominate and not be dominated and we like to cooperate – more or less constitute the dominant egalitarian origins thesis that Graeber and Wengrow are trying to overturn in Dawn of Everything."