Christopher Boehm
Hierarchy in the forest:
The evolution of egalitarian behavior

Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999

In this book, Boehm presents an anti-Niezschean argument:

Egalitarian societies constitute a very special type of hierarchy, one in which the rank and file avoid being subordinated by vigilantly keeping alpha-type group members
under their collective thumbs.

Boehm situates this argument in an evolutionary framework, arguing that group selection may have acted to create psychological adaptations favoring egalitarianism:

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. (64-5)

Egalitarianism was favored by a number of factors, but local culture also made a difference:

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. (88)

Like Hobbes (1651), Boehm suggests the development of weapons paved the way for egalitarian societies:

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 type of egalitarianism Boehm proposes has a strong aggressive component:

... 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. (254)

For further information, see publisher's presentation (external) and editorial reviews ( Reviewed by Vincent Kiernan (external).





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