Reverse Dominance Hierarchy
- 1 Description
- 2 Discussion
- 3 More Information
"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."
"Intentional leveling linked to an egalitarian ethos is an immediate and probably an extremely widespread cause of human societies' failing to develop authoritative or coercive leadership. This is a psychological interpretation. A "material" factor that seems to correlate universally with absence of such leadership is smallness of social scale. Rather than scale's being the more fundamental leveling mechanism, however, it would appear that, in the absence of other constraints such as environmental ones, it is intentionalleveling that limits scale. Locally autonomous groups in which authoritative leadership is suppressed are well known to subdivide at a certain basic size, often just a few hundred persons. This takes place not just where resources are sparse but even where they are relatively abundant and where sedentary life gives everyone a local subsistence investment (e.g., Chagnon 1991). I offer this as a hypothesis worthy of testing."
"Women’s bodies evolved over a million years to favour the ‘one woman, one penis’ principle, rewarding males who were willing to share and invest over those who competed for extra females, at the expense of investment. But we’ve got to remember that as we became more Machiavellian in our strategies, so did would-be alpha males. The final steep rise in brain size up to the emergence of modern humans likely reflects an arms race of Machiavellian strategies between the sexes.
As brain sizes increased, mothers needed more regular and reliable contributions from male partners. In African hunter-gatherers this has become a fixed pattern known by anthropologists as ‘bride-service’. A man’s sexual access depends on his success in provisioning and surrendering on demand any game or honey he gets to the family of his bride – mainly his mother-in-law who is effectively his boss. Where women are living with their mothers, this makes it almost impossible for a man to try to dominate by controlling distribution of food.
The problem for early modern human females as they came under the maximum stress of increased brain size would be with males who tried to get away with sex without bride-service. To deal with this threat, mothers of costly offspring needed to extend their alliances to include just about everyone against the potential alpha. Men who were relatives of mothers (brothers or mother’s brothers) would support those females. In addition, men who willingly invested in offspring would have interests directly opposed to the would-be alpha, who undermined their reproductive efforts. This pits a whole community as a coalition against a would-be dominant individual. Evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm describes this as ‘reverse-dominance’, a political dynamic that for the first time established a morally regulated community.
So the occasion for reverse-dominant collective – moral – action happens whenever a prospective alpha male tries to abduct a potentially fertile female. Can we describe this in any more detail in terms of actual behaviour?
The alpha male strategy is to find and mate with a fertile female, before moving on to the next one. But how does a male identify fertile females, considering that in human evolution ovulation became progressively concealed? One cue to the human reproductive cycle could not be so easily hidden: menstruation. With no sign for ovulation, menstruation became a highly salient cue to males that a female was near fertility.
For an alpha male, a menstruating female is the obvious target. Guard her and have sex with her until she is pregnant. Then, look for the next one. In nomadic hunter-gatherer camps, women of reproductive age are pregnant or nursing much of the time, making menstruation a relatively rare event. Undermining cooperative childcare, menstruation threatens to trigger male competition for access to an imminently fertile female, and also competition among females, because a pregnant or nursing mother risks losing male support to a cycling female.
Mothers have two possible responses to this problem. Following the logic of concealed ovulation, they might try to hide the menstruant’s condition so that males would not know. But because the signal has potential economic value by attracting male attention, females should do the opposite: make a big display advertising imminent fertility. Whenever a coalition member menstruated, the whole coalition joined that female in amplifying her signal to attract males. Females within coalitions would begin to use blood-coloured substances as cosmetics to augment their signals. This has become known as the Female Cosmetic Coalitions model of the origins of art and symbolic culture.
In creating a cosmetic coalition in resistance, females deter alpha males by surrounding a menstrual female and refusing to let anyone near. They are creating the world’s first taboo, on menstrual blood or collectively imagined blood, speaking the world’s first word: NO!
But even as a negative, this cosmetic display is encouraging to investor males who are willing to go hunting and bring back supplies to the whole female coalition. Those cosmetically decorated females who create a big show of unity and solidarity against alpha males ensure that investor males will get the fitness rewards. It is fully in the interests of investor males to sexually select females belonging to ritual cosmetic coalitions, because they then eliminate competition from the would-be alphas.
The Female Cosmetic Coalition (FCC) model shows us the prototype of a moral order, upheld through those puberty rituals, taboos, and prohibitions that surround menstruation in so many ethnographic accounts. Ekila, discussed above, is a classic example.
The FCC strategy is also the prototype symbolic action, with collective agreement that fake or imaginary ‘blood’ stands for real blood. While it is revolutionary at the level of morality, symbolism and economics, the strategy emerges as an evolutionary adaptation, driven by male sexual selection of female ritual participants. On this basis, through reverse gender dominance, the hunter-gatherer institution of bride-service emerges, with roughly equal chances of reproductive success for all hunters.
Finally, the FCC model is the only evolutionary hypothesis that explains what we find as the earliest symbolic material in the archaeological record. When the theory was first put forward in the mid-1990s, it predicted that the world’s first symbolic media would consist of blood-red cosmetics. It predicted where and when we should find them: in Africa, preceding and during our speciation, in relation to the increases of brain size. This points to a pigment record from 6-700,000 years ago and especially with the rapid growth of brains in the last 300,000 years.
These theoretical predictions have been strikingly confirmed. The evidence which Graeber and Wengrow neglect to mention, coming long before the European Upper Palaeolithic, and pervading the record of the African Middle Stone Age is of blood-red iron oxides, red ochres. These pigments are the first durable materials to be mined, processed, curated and used in design. They date back at least 300,000 years in the East and southern African record, possibly as old as half a million years. From the time of modern humans they are found in every southern African site and rock shelter. They become the hallmark of modern humans as they move out of Africa around the world, found in copious quantities in both the Upper Palaeolithic of Europe, and in Australia from the first entrance of modern humans to those continents."
Data on collective action against 'aggressive men', by a coalition of men in indigenous societies
"The ultimate egalitarian political rebuke is to terminate a person's leadership role. The final solution is assassination; in bands or tribes that do not feud, an entire community can do this readily in the absence of "bodyguards" or a loyal "police force." Woodburn (1982:436) points to individual lethal retaliation as a powerful leveling mechanism among the Hadza and one that carries little risk since it can be accomplished by stealth. In certain parts of Arnhem Land, Australian Aborigines traditionally eliminated aggressive men who tried to dominate them (Berndt and Berndt 1964:289), and Spencer and Gillen (1976:263) recount that the Iliaura got rid of a man who was "very quarrelsome and strong in magic" by handing him over to an Arunta vengeance party. In South America after contact, a Yaruro "chief" was killed for making his own deals with outsiders (Leeds 1962: 599). A !Kung community may execute "extremely aggressive men" (Lee 1982:47). The !Kung also execute incorrigible offenders (Draper 1978:40), much as the Eskimo collectively kill recidivist murderers and others (see Hoebel 1964:88-92). In New Guinea, according to Knauft (1987:475-76), Gebusi assassination of "sorcerers" (people viewed as being unusually aggressive) parallels this !Kung behavior; however, because Knauft believes that the Gebusi are not singling out unusually aggressive people on a conscious basis, their executions would have to be counted under "witchcraft." For this reason, the Gebusi case and others like it have been set aside.~~' Of course, in classical feuding societies killing an extremely aggressive person becomes problematic with clan retaliation, but a man's own clan can put him to death with no further killing."
Reverse Dominance Hierarchy and State Formation
"Reverse Dominance Hierarchy and State Formation I have made the case that egalitarian behavior arises from dislike of being dominated. At the individual level, this might be called "love of autonomy," but I have chosen to approach it in terms of group values (or ethos) and political coalition formation. Individual dislike of being dominated, reflected in the ethos and reinformed by it, is transformed by small communities into what amounts to social policy. I think it is accurate to call the result a "reverse dominance hierarchy" (Boehm 1984, 1991) because, rather than being dominated, the rank and file itself manages to dominate. So-called acephalous societies and even incipient chiefdoms have reverse dominance hierarchies. By contrast, authoritative chiefdoms, kingdoms, and primitive states are not committed to such egalitarian ideals (even though they recognize and deal with power abuse), and therefore they have dominance hierarchies that are "orthodox" in that they follow a pattern shared with our closest phylogenetic "cousins," the African great apes. Compared with both African great apes and other humans at the strong chiefdom level or higher, human groups committed to egalitarian behavior have gone in an opposite direction. They have done so because followers discovered that by forming a single political coalition they could decisively control the domination proclivities of highly assertive individuals, even their chosen leaders. This political direction was somehow reversed after the invention of agriculture, and an "orthodox" version of social dominance hierarchy reappeared. This argument is highly relevant to theories of state formation. To understand the earlier phases of political centralization, I believe it will be necessary to examine what is happening with simple foragers (Knauft 1991), complex hunter-gatherers (e.g., Price and Brown 1985; see also Paynter 1989), various types of "tribesmen" (Sahlins 1968), and both incipient and authoritative "chiefdoms" as the next stage beyond "egalitarian society" (Service 1975), keeping in mind the potentially explosive political tension that would appear to be inherent in any reverse dominance hierarchy."
- Book: Christopher Boehm. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University Press.