First Human Revolution

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Chris Knight:

"a revolutionary change in culture and politics can decisively reconstruct our deepest nature, altering the trajectory of genetic evolution.

Boehm’s focus in all his work is the so-called “human revolution” – our African ancestors’ momentous transition from a hierarchical, more-or-less primate-style political system to assertive, ever-vigilant egalitarianism of the kind characteristic of modern hunter-gatherers. According to Boehm, this was the greatest and most successful revolution in history. It was the revolution that worked. The evidence that it worked is that (despite everything!) we are still here today, with our uniquely human capacities for self-awareness, language, morality and culture. Reactionaries who are still repeating that tired old mantra that “no revolution can change human nature” need to get scientifically up-to-date.


Renfrew says you can’t have co-operation in the labour process unless you have top-down coercion by the state. Boehm argues the exact opposite. Socially productive, communally organised childcare, gathering, hunting and so forth are, he insists, not just primate-style reproduction and consumption – they are aspects of the distinctively human labour process. If you hunt an animal using a weapon and eat the meat yourself, that’s not labour. If the meat you obtain is shared out among the entire band, then your activity qualifies as “productive labour”. Bottom-up resistance to any form of selfish appropriation or domination, Boehm insists, is the secret of hunter-gatherer generosity in the distribution of meat. In that sense, politics is decisive in establishing whether human tool-use is subordinated to private consumption or qualifies as genuine labour, genuine production.


For decades, palaeoanthropologists have been happy to tell us about a prehistoric “tool-making revolution”, “technological revolution”, “cognitive revolution” or whatever. For them, the term “revolution” is fine. But there’s always been an unspoken taboo: never call what made us human a “social revolution”. Boehm has smashed through that patently unscientific, ideologically motivated taboo. Rebellion culminating in full-scale social and political revolution, he says, is what made us the species we are. Designed for egalitarianism, our deepest nature is the product of that first and greatest social revolution in history.

Boehm’s Moral Origins is a sequel to his earlier (and, in my view, better) book, Hierarchy in the Forest: The evolution of egalitarian behaviour.[2]If hunter-gatherers are egalitarian, according to this fascinating account, it’s not because they have egalitarian genes (which are not too different from ape or monkey genes). It’s because their ancestors in the East African Rift Valley discovered the realistic possibility of collective resistance against primate-style dominance. As a result they eventually organised a revolution – a bottom-up rebellion (“the human revolution”) – whose egalitarian outcome has required constant vigilance on the part of hunter-gatherers ever since." (


On the occasion of a polemic and review of the book: BMoral Origins. By Christopher Boehm.

1. Christopher Boehm, from Hierarchy in the Forest:

"Collectively creating and maintaining an egalitarian society requires a high degree of political intelligence and a systematic understanding of political dynamics and outcomes. It also requires a political capacity to operate in large coalitions and a cognitive capacity to arrive at a shared plan of action. Deciding to move vigorously against an aggressive deviant can be a politically risky act, so it is necessary for the rank and file to feel they are acting together, or at least for the leading “moralists” to sense the potential force of their group solidly behind them. A preexisting shared conception of group goals stimulates such solidarity, and that is where cognitive “blueprints” fit in. (p. 193)

…such people are guided by a love of personal freedom. For that reason they manage to make egalitarianism happen, and do so in spite of human competitiveness – and in spite of innate human tendencies to dominance and submission that easily lead to the formation of social dominance hierarchies. People can arrest this process by reacting collectively, often pre-emptively, to curb individuals who show signs of wanting to dominate their fellows. Their reactions involve fear of domination, angry defiance, and a collective commitment to dominate, which is based on a fear of being individually dominated. As potential subordinates, they are able to express dominance because they find collective security in a large, group-wide political coalition. (p. 65)" (

2. Boehm quotes Lee on the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert:

"Egalitarianism is not simply the absence of a headman and other authority figures, but a positive insistence on the essential equality of all people and a refusal to bow to the authority of others, a sentiment expressed in the statement “Of course we have headmen… each of us is headman over himself”. Leaders do exist, but their influence is subtle and indirect. They never order or make demands of others, and their accumulation of material goods is never more, and often much less, than the average accumulation of the other households in their camp. (p. 61)." (

More Information

  • Boehm, C. 2001. Hierarchy in the Forest. The evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.