Evidence for an Increasing Egalitarian Tendency in Human Evolution
(from a critique of Graeber & Wengrow's The Dawn of Everything)
"What evidence is there for an increasing egalitarian tendency in human evolution, and why did this necessarily have a dimension of gender? There are three main areas to consider: firstly, our species biology, life history and evolved psychology – the evidence of our bodies and minds; secondly, the ethnography of hunters and gatherers, particularly African hunter-gatherers, who give us specific insight into how egalitarianism works in practice; and thirdly, the archaeological record in Africa of art, culture and symbolism stretching back long before 40,000 years.
Egalitarian bodies and minds
Let’s begin with the biology. Perhaps the hallmark of our egalitarian nature is seen in the design of our eyes. We are the only one of well over 200 primate species to have evolved eyes with an elongated shape and a bright white sclera background to a dark iris. Known as ‘cooperative eyes’, they invite anyone we interact with to see easily what we are looking at. By contrast, all great apes have round, dark eyes, making it very difficult to tell from eye direction what they are looking at. Like mafia dons wearing sunglasses, they watch other animal’s moves intently, but disguise from others what they are thinking about. This suits a primate world of Machiavellian competition.
Our eyes are adapted for mutual mindreading, also known as intersubjectivity; our closest relatives block this off. To look into each other’s eyes, asking ‘can you see what I see?’ and ‘are you thinking what I am thinking?’ is completely natural to us, beginning from an early age. Staring into the eyes of other primate species is taken as a threat. This tells us immediately that we evolved along a different path from our closest primate relatives.
In Mothers and Others, Hrdy gives the most convincing account of how, why and when this happened. She presents a straightforward argument. We do babysitting in all human societies, mothers being happy to hand over their offspring for others to look after temporarily. African hunter-gatherers are the champions of this collective form of childcare, indicating that it was routine in our heritage. In stark contrast, great ape mothers – chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orang utans – simply will not let their babies go. Because of the risks of harm to their infants, they are hyperpossessive and protective, not daring to take the chance.
This particularly applies to great apes. Monkeys behave differently, being prepared to leave a baby with a trusted relative. The key factor involved is exactly how closely related individuals are. Old World monkey mothers usually live with female relatives; great ape mothers don’t. This means ape mothers have no one nearby whom they can trust sufficiently. This is telling us something significant about the social conditions in which we evolved. Our foremothers must have been living close to trusted female relatives, the most reliable in the first place being a young mother’s own mother. This ‘grandmother hypothesis’ has been used to explain our extraordinarily long postreproductive lifespans – the evolution of menopause.
Hrdy explores how multi-parental care shaped the evolution of our species’ unique psychological nature. While cooperative childcare may start with the mother-daughter relationship, bonding with grandchildren would quickly lead to the involvement of aunts, sisters, older daughters and other trusted relatives. From the moment when mothers allow others to hold their babies, says Hrdy, selection pressures for new kinds of mind-reading are established. These give rise to an array of novel responses – mutual gazing, babbling, kissfeeding and so forth – to enable this variegated triad of mum, baby and new helper to consolidate bonds while monitoring one another’s intentions. Within a few short hours after birth, a baby in an African hunter-gatherer camp will have been introduced to and held by numerous relatives and friends, of both sexes.
Childhood itself is a unique aspect of human life history which coevolved along with those hard-working grandmothers. After weaning and before eruption of adult teeth, children need help with finding food they can process, and that is where grandma steps in. In this role, mother’s mother would have had a big impact on a child’s survival, while the mother could begin the cycle of having her next baby. This has resulted in the special characteristic of ‘stacked’ families among humans, where – unlike other great apes – a mum has several dependent offspring at once.
The most salient feature of our anatomy distinguishing us from other apes is the extraordinary size of our brains. While a human and chimp mother have a fairly similar body weight, adult humans today have upwards of three times the brain volume of a chimp. Brain tissue is very expensive in terms of energy requirements. Doing the whole job by themselves, great ape mothers are constrained in the amount of energy they can provide to offspring and so apes cannot expand brains above what is known as a ‘gray ceiling’ (600 cc). Our ancestors smashed through this ceiling some 1.5-2 million years ago with the emergence of Homo erectus, who had brains more than twice the volume of chimps today. This tells us that cooperative childcare was already part of Homo erectus society, with concomitant features of evolving cooperative eyes and emergent intersubjectivity.
We can really track the degree of egalitarianism in the societies of descendants of Homo erectus, by measuring the size of brains in these early humans, using the fossil record. From 6-700,000 years ago we begin to see cranial values in the modern human range, three times as large as present day chimps. From half a million years ago, for both African (modern human ancestor) and Eurasian (Neanderthal ancestor) populations, an extraordinary acceleration of brain size is seen. What we find evidenced in the fossil record is materially more energy for females and their offspring. This implies an inevitable gendering of the strategies that enabled this to happen.
Any tendency to male dominance, sexual competition and strategic control of females would have obstructed these unprecedented increases of brain size. While there must have been variability in the degree of dominance or egalitarianism among human groups, we can be confident that those populations where male dominance, sexual conflict and infanticide risks remained high were not the ones who became our ancestors. Our forebears were the ones who somehow solved the problem of great ape male dominance, instead harnessing males into routine support of these extraordinarily large-brained offspring.
One key question is what actually drove the increase of brain size. Brains are wonderful to have if you can afford them. But such large increases of brain size are vanishingly rare in evolution because of the expense. What are these large brains for? One major hypothesis is the Social Brain theory. This relates brain size, specifically the size of the neocortex, across primate species, to the degree of social complexity, the network of relationships that any individual needs to deal with. This can be measured by average group sizes for any particular species, or sizes of coalitions and cliques within social groups. One version of the ‘social brain’ focuses on specifically female group sizes as most critical in driving the evolution of intelligence.
The original idea behind social brain was called Machiavellian Intelligence. Arising in the late 1980s, this switched the focus of understanding the evolution of intelligence from technology and foraging to social relationships. Machiavellian intelligence is a subtle idea that sees animals in complex social groups competing in evolutionary terms by becoming more adept at cooperation, and more capable of negotiating alliances. In this theoretical perspective, then, the significant increases of brain size in the primate order, from monkeys to apes, and then from apes to hominins, result from increasing political complexity and ability to create alliances.
Egalitarianism is difficult to explain using Darwinian theory premised on competition. Andrew Whiten, one of the inventors of Machiavellian intelligence theory, and his student David Erdal saw that Machiavellian intelligence could generate the difference between primate-style dominance hierarchies and typical hunter-gatherer egalitarianism. At a certain point, the ability to operate within alliances exceeds the ability of any single individual, no matter how strong, to dominate others. If the dominant tries, he (assuming ‘he’ for the moment) will meet an alliance in resistance who together can deal with him. Once that point is reached, the sensible strategy becomes not to try to dominate others, but to use alliances to resist being dominated oneself. This was termed ‘counterdominance’ by Erdal and Whiten, and they used it to describe what is found regularly in African hunter-gatherer societies, so-called demand-sharing, an attitude of ‘don’t mess with me’, humour as a levelling device, and the impossibility of coercion since no particular individual is in charge. They saw counterdominance as fundamental to the evolution of human psychology, with competing tendencies for individuals to try to get away with bigger shares where opportunity presents, but, faced with demands from others, to give in and settle for equal shares.
Whiten and Erdal focused on food-sharing as the most visible aspect of hunter-gatherer egalitarianism. But how does sex fit into this model? Whiten and Erdal noted the general hunter-gatherer tendency for monogamy, or serial monogamy, which contrasts with polygyny among propertied farmers and herders. But again we need to go to our biology to see the underlying features of our reproductive physiology that lead to reproductive egalitarianism – the most significant form of egalitarianism from an evolutionary perspective.
Women have evolved a sexual physiology which can be described as levelling and time-wasting. Why? Because if a hominin female really needs extra energy for her hungry offspring, better to give reproductive rewards to males who will hang around and do something useful for those offspring. Our reproductive signals make life hard for males who want to identify fertile females, monopolise the fertile moment and then move on to the next one (a classic strategy for dominant male apes). We have concealed and unpredictable ovulation. A man cannot really tell when his partner is ovulating, and women appear to confuse the issue with all kinds of biochemical signals. On top of that, women are sexually receptive, potentially, for virtually all of their cycle, a much larger proportion than any other primate. The combined effect is to scramble the information for males about exactly when a female is fertile.
From the viewpoint of a dominant male trying to manage a harem of females this is disastrous. While he is guessing about the possible fertility of one cycling female, he has to stay with her, and is missing other opportunities. Meanwhile, other males will be attending to those other sexually receptive females. Continuous sexual receptivity spreads the reproductive opportunities around many males, hence is levelling from an evolutionary perspective.
BaYaka women of the Congo forest have a slogan perfectly expressing their resistance to male philandering: ‘One woman, one penis!’ This serves as their ritual rallying cry against any attempt by a man to form a harem. Basically, hunter-gatherer women are demanding one man each to support their energy requirements and investment in costly offspring.
In farming and herding societies, some men may be able to muster resources, large livestock or land, enabling them to acquire more than one wife, those wives and their children then forming the patriarch’s labour force. This automatically means other men are going without reproductive opportunities. But for immediate-return hunter-gatherers, those who consume all they hunt and gather the same day, men cannot accumulate resources and harem-holding is simply not stable.
So far, I have claimed that these features of our biology, life history and evolved psychology provide evidence of an egalitarian past during our evolution: our large brain size; our cooperative eyes; menopause and childhood; our intersubjectivity and Machiavellian counterdominance. These are underpinned by women’s evolved sexual physiology which increases equality of reproductive opportunities among men, compared with great ape cousins.
Now I am going to argue that using symbols and speaking language could only have emerged on the basis of a ‘platform of trust’ afforded by that egalitarianism. I will draw on some famous social anthropologists because they are experts on symbolism in practice. Over fifty years ago, leading US anthropologist Marshall Sahlins made a revealing comparison of nonhuman primates against human hunter-gatherers. Noting egalitarianism as a key difference, he saw culture as ‘the oldest “equalizer”. Among animals capable of symbolic communication’ he said, ‘the weak can collectively connive to overthrow the strong.’ We can reverse the arrow of causality here. Because among Machiavellian and counterdominant humans weaker individuals can connive to overthrow the strong, we are animals capable of symbolic communication.
Only in such conditions is language likely to emerge. The strong have no need of words; they have more direct physical means of persuasion.
Here listen to David Graeber himself, discussing the ignorance and lack of imagination of those in power in state administration, but his words apply very well to the evolutionary origins of language as the essence of human creativity:
- If you have the power to hit people over the head whenever you want, you don’t have to trouble yourself too much figuring out what they think is going on, and therefore, generally speaking, you don’t. Hence the sure-fire way to simplify social arrangements, to ignore the incredibly complex play of perspectives, passions, insights, desires, and mutual understandings that human life is really made of, is to make a rule and threaten to attack anyone who breaks it.
Language as the mutual exploration of each other’s minds – ‘the incredibly complex play of perspectives, passions, insights, desires, and mutual understandings’ as Graeber has it – requires nonviolent safe space and time to be able to work. Conversation as a necessarily consensual process expresses the quintessential opposite of the relations of dominance applied by the big stick. It relies on the ultimate in intersubjective negotiation and ability to look through the eyes of the other. A fundamentally egalitarian matrix is the only possible ground for the evolution of language.
With his anarchist instincts, Graeber associates arbitrary rules with the power of the bureaucratic and bullying state which has no interest in what its subjects actually think since it can apply violence with impunity. All too true. But the first rules ever invented by human beings surely did not come from the minds of dominant individuals. The powerful need only operate by the maxim of ‘might is right’.
Rules and taboos observed in hunter-gatherer communities where there is no possibility of coercion follow another dynamic. On first examination, they may appear as random collections of weird customs with no particular logic. Take for example the concept of ekila among the BaYaka. This is an ancient idea found across the Congo basin among diverse groups of forest hunter-gatherers. Untranslatable, it encompasses food taboos, hunting luck, respect for animals, menstrual blood, fertility and the moon. For anthropologist Jerome Lewis, ekila provides a trail of breadcrumbs for any individual as they grow up, teaching them how to ‘do’ their culture. This is thoroughly egalitarian because the authority for these rules does not rest with any single influential person, but with the forest itself. The axiom of ekila is proper sharing, interdependency and respect, between those of different age or sex, between humans and animals. Then the forest provides. We can tell that this was not dreamed up by some dominant male because for a man to maintain his ekila (roughly, his hunting luck), he should not have sex prior to a hunt. A woman preserves her potency or ekila when she goes to the moon, that is menstruates. All those in the same hut as her must follow the same observances and taboos.
Ekila is a very ancient self-organising system of law that may echo the big bang of earliest human culture. It really represents what I claim is the original rule, the rule against rape, ‘No means NO’, a woman’s body is sacred if she says so."