Hierarchy in the Forest

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Book: Christopher Boehm. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University Press.

Google Bks version: http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=ljxS8gUlgqgC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false


"Boehm, professor of anthropology and director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at the University of Southern California, ranges broadly in his quest to determine the evolutionary origins of social and political behavior. Combining an exhaustive ethnographic survey of human societies from groups of hunter-gatherers to contemporary residents of the Balkans with a detailed analysis of the behavioral attributes of nonhuman primates (chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos), Boehm focuses on whether humans are hierarchical or egalitarian by nature. His thesis "is that egalitarianism does not result from the mere absence of hierarchy, as is commonly assumed. Rather egalitarianism involves a very special type of hierarchy, a curious type that is based on antihierarchical feelings." This "Reverse Dominance Hierarchy," as Boehm calls it, depends on the rank and file banding together "to deliberately dominate their potential master if they wish to remain equal." Boehm extends his analysis to argue that the processes of group selection originally advanced by David Sloan Wilson can account for the evolution of altruistic behavior in humans. While Boehm's hypotheses are not always persuasive, they are invariably intriguing and well documented. His presentation can be difficult for the nonspecialist, but he raises topics of wide interest and his book should gain attention."[1]


"This book is not just about politics, then, but about the human capacity for altruism and also about morality more generally, about the moral communities in which humans lived prehistorically and especially about the political side of morality. (p. viii)

"All men seek to rule, but if they cannot rule they prefer to be equal." This adage parsimoniously explains the political attitude that keeps an egalitarian ethos in place, be it forager or tribal. (p. 105)

Hierarchy in the Forest is a must read for those very interested in sociobiology and evolution as it relates to political science. Unlike, the first two reviewers at Amazon, I didn't find it so engrossing that I couldn't put it down. Boehm has some interesting ideas and stories to relate, but he is no Richard Dawkins or Stephen Jay Gould. As a whole, I found the book to be repetitive and slow moving. Parts, however, were quite enlightening.

The author's hypothesis is that small bands/tribes evolved egalitarian behavior (unlike that exhibited by other primates) approximately 100,000 years ago. With the advent of agriculture and larger societies this egalitarianism broke down and we saw the rise of governments and hierarchies which seek to keep people in line through rules, regulations, and hierarchical power rankings rather than through the egalitarianism that can still be witnessed in hunter/gatherer groups.

As Boehm states on page 170:

- The disposition in question is not one that orients us specifically to equality, but one that makes us resentful of being unduly subordinated, however that happens to be defined individually--or culturally. Today's human egalitarians define inappropriate domination culturally, and do so on a hair-trigger basis. Their ingenious invention is to define the ideal society in a way such that no main political actor gets to dominate another. Then they see to it, as a group, that anyone who tries to infringe seriously on this rule is himself dominated.

Obviously, this method of keeping domination in check is much easier to accomplish in relatively small bands and groups. Boehm gives example after example which sound a bit anecdotal but combined seem to back his case. His examples include South African !Kung-speaking foragers, Inuits (Eskimos), Navajos, and others.

Boehm doesn't explain why hunting bands of humans developed egalitarian behavior while other primates did not until the last third of the book. In his view "all humans are innately prepared to engage in dominance-and-submission behavior, either in orthodox hierarchies or in reverse hierarchies that are operated decisively by the rank and file." (p. 154) He draws this conclusion from the fact that all primates engage in dominance-and-submission behavior. Therefore, the "Common Ancestor" must have done so also. What humans were able to do is turn these hierarchies on their head and form reverse hierarchies that foster egalitarianism. Boehm also comes up with an example of how chimpanzees do similarly--just not as frequently as our hunter/gatherer neighbors and ancestors.

In more detail, and in Boehm's own words, the hypothesis is as follows:

- "My argument also followed [Richard] Lee's insights, but in an evolutionary direction. The premise was that humans are innately disposed to form social dominance hierarchies similar to those of the African great apes, but that prehistoric hunter-gatherers, acting as moral communities, were largely able to neutralize such tendencies--just as extant hunter-gatherers do. The ethnographic basis for that hypothesis was that present-day foragers apply techniques of social control in suppressing both dominant leadership and undue competitiveness. . . In 1993 I published the principal results of my continuing survey of forager and tribal egalitarians. With respect to both the hunter-gathers and the tribesmen in my sample, the hypothesis was straightforward: 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 preemptively, 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. 64-5)

The evolution of which Boehm speaks is usually a reference to social, rather than biological, evolution. What exactly are the environmental and/or social changes that cause the evolution to or from egalitarianism? Food storage and large group size seem to help groups move away from egalitarianism, but there are no hard and fast rules that guarantee one form of social and political structure or the other.

As Boehm explains beginning on page 88:

- A hunting and gathering way of life in itself does not guarantee a decisively egalitarian political orientation; nomadism and absence of food storage also seem to be needed. Nomadism in itself does not guarantee egalitarianism either, for after domestication of animals some pastoral nomads were egalitarian but others became hierarchical. Nor does becoming sedentary and storing food spell the end of an egalitarian ethos and political way of life. Neighbors of the Kwakiutl such as the Tolowa and Coastal Yurok also lived in year-round villages with food storage, but they kept their leaders weak and were politically egalitarian.

The bulk of the text doesn't just go over Boehm's ideas in his own words. He spends a great deal of time providing detailed accounts (many from other researchers) of how various groups actually function. These portions of the book are the most interesting. They also seem to be somewhat anecdotal instead of grounded in "hard science". One who isn't intimately familiar with the field can only hope that the presented examples are representative of the whole and not hand picked at the exclusion of others which would contradict or nullify Boehm's hypothesis.

Although Boehm never mentions the word "meme", nor am I aware of any book on memes which cite Boehm's hypothesis as collaboration of memetic theory, I think the two can go hand in hand and help support each other. Altruism, in particular, can be explained by a combination of the two. Boehm's Chapter 9 entitled "Paleolithic Politics and Natural Selection" could have easily been doubled from its current length of 27 pages had a discussion of memes been brought into play. Not only would it have added more weight to Boehm's explanation of the "genetic paradox of altruism" but it would have made things clearer and more reasonable.

One of the key possible answers to when our ancestors became more egalitarian is included in Boehm's hypothesis regarding the advent of weapons. Without weapons, the biggest and strongest can dominate others via hand-to-hand combat and other intimidations. With weapons, even the smallest can have a say in matters. Weapons, in this situation, can even the playing field. Likewise, dozens of spear points aimed at a dominator are far more fearsome than the single spear the dominator can wield.

Boehm explains

- My hypothesis is that weapons appeared early enough to have affected dentition, body size, hair loss on the body, and display loss, and that they helped to ready humans for egalitarian society by making fights less predictable and by enabling groups collectively to intimidate or eliminate even a dominating serial killer. (p. 180-1)

The final chapter includes some interesting philosophical musings based on the ideas the author has covered. For instance, we read on page 254

- In this respect, our most amazing accomplishments are complex societies that verge on being antlike in their division of labor and organic cooperation--and also their unusual capacity to go to war. I believe that the potential for intensive, genocidal warfare would not have arisen had we not invented both morality and the egalitarian syndrome. It is morality that enables us to shame our males into putting their lives on the line for the group, while it is innate altruistic propensities that help to motivate those males to suffer and die in the interest of the rest of the group.

For more details on the content of this book and Boehm's field of inquiry see this review published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

- My "reverse dominance hierarchy" interpretations are oriented to conflict, and many will take them to be distinctly Hobbesian. Others will see them as realistic. Others may even think that I am underplaying the conflict component. As an admirer of both Hobbes [hawkish] and Rousseau [dovelike], I hope that my approach has been in accordance with the facts rather than overwhelmed by ideology. (p. 227)"[2]

Hunter-Gatherers’ Egalitarianism

Robert Bellah:

"What accounts for the difference between primate bands and hunter-gatherer egalitarians? The absence of a disposition for dominance? Not likely. In Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, anthropologist Christopher Boehm argues that we share with chimpanzees and bonobos a tendency toward despotism. Yet nomadic hunter-gatherers have nevertheless been uniformly egalitarian, seemingly for thousands if not millions of years. Boehm explains this seeming contradiction with the claim that hunter-gatherers have “reverse dominance hierarchies”: the adult males in the society form a general coalition to prevent any one of their number, alone or with a few allies, from dominating the others. Male egalitarianism is not necessarily extended to females—the degree to which females are subject to male despotism varies, even among hunter-gatherers. But the reverse dominance hierarchy prevents the monopolization of females by dominant males. This makes possible the heterosexual nuclear family as we know it, based on (relatively) stable cross-gender pair bonding and mutual nurturance of children by parents, precisely what is missing in our closest primate relatives.

Egalitarianism is thus itself a form of dominance, the dominance of what Rousseau would have called the general will over the will of each. The hunter-gatherer band is not, then, the family enlarged; rather it is the precondition for the family as we know it.

Boehm identifies “moral community” and “the deliberate use of social sanctioning to enforce political equality among fully adult males” as the two components of egalitarian social control. I would add ritual as the common expression of the moral community without which the process of sanctioning would make no sense."[3]

More information

  • Book : Boehm, C. (2011). Moral origins: The evolution of virtue, altruism, and shame. New York: Basic Books.