Gender Egalitarianism Made Us Human

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* Article: Gender egalitarianism made us human: A response to David Graeber & David Wengrow's 'How to change the course of human history' - by Camilla Power.



Camilla Power:

"In this response, I first want to establish that Graeber and Wengrow really have nothing to say about human origins. Then I am going to present evidence that beginning with our ancestors in genus Homo, and culminating in our recent modern human ancestors, we did live in increasingly egalitarian societies. What’s more, gender egalitarianism was pivotal to the evolution of our language-speaking ancestors. Finally I’ll ask whether it makes a difference if our modern human bodies and minds evolved through a prolonged period of increasing egalitarianism. Would it help us if it were true that this was our nature? That we were designed by natural and sexual selection to be happy and healthy in egalitarian conditions? If so, then perhaps the positive question that needs asking first is not ‘how did we get to be unequal?’ but ‘how did we first become equal?’

The transitions I focus on occurred 2 million, half a million and 150,000 years ago, a different timescale from Graeber and Wengrow’s.


"Back in the 1980s to early 1990s, it was possible to write about the revolution which made us human, invoking art, symbolism and language, and only address evidence from the European Upper Palaeolithic. The idea that, while we evolved anatomically in Africa, we only really got smart when we hit Europe, as shown by the beautiful cave paintings and figurines, now looks dated, Eurocentric and borderline racist, relegating our African evolutionary history to purely biological, as opposed to cultural significance.

Since then there has been an intensive focus on the archaeology of modern human origins in Africa reaching back over 200,000 years. We now know that Africa in its diversity was always the cutting edge.

Today, if you write about human origins, you have to write about Africa. The timeline for emergence of modern humans now stretches back 300,000 years, seen in the Moroccan fossils at Jebel Irhoud with modern faces, culminating more than 100,000 years later in the fully modern Ethiopian fossils at Omo Kibish and Herto with their round braincases. We are discovering that modern humans left Africa earlier than we previously thought, but even given this, Homo sapiens has been in Africa two to three times longer than on any other continent.


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."


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.


"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.


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.


Does it matter that women organizing as the revolutionary sex bust through the ‘gray ceiling’ of brain size? That deep social mind gave us the platform of trust for sharing language, rhythm and song? That female political strategies created human symbolic culture? That resistance is at the core of being human? Should we be telling our children the story of our Paleolithic heritage of gender equality – the untold secret – and how it gave our African ancestors an extraordinary future? If we want that future stretching ahead of us as far as it stretches back into our hunter-gatherer past, I think it does.

We are lingering in the dying days of a clapped-out Neolithic gender system. The more that women all over the world achieve true equality, the more they regain the Palaeolithic birthright of all humans. Through gender egalitarianism, we became language-speaking, artistic, shamanistic, all-singing, all-dancing human beings roughly 200,000 years ago. Against the lifespan of our species, Neolithic patriarchy is a historic blip in time."