It’s easy to read about “chimpanzee politics” (I’ll never forget reading Frans de Waal’s book by that title) or watch nature shows in which the stentorian, accented narrator assigns names and ranks to chimps or gorillas and then, looking around at the rigid hierarchies of the institutions where we learn or where we work, as well as those in the realm of actual human politics, and conclude that there must have been a pretty linear development from the ancestors we share with the apes to the eras of pharaohs and kings to the Don Draperish ‘60’s till today, at least in terms of our natural tendency to form rank and follow leaders.
What to make, then, of these words spoken to anthropologist Richard Lee by a hunter-gatherer teaching him of the ways of the !Kung San?
“Say that a man has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart, ‘I have killed a big one in the bush!’ He must first sit down in silence until I or someone else comes up to his fire and asks, ‘What did you see today?’ He replies quietly, ‘Ah, I’m no good for hunting. I saw nothing at all…maybe just a tiny one.’ Then I smile to myself because I now know he has killed something big.” (Quoted in Boehm 45)
Even more puzzling from a selfish gene perspective is that the successful hunter gets no more meat for himself or his family than any of the other hunters. They divide it equally. Lee asked his informants why they criticized the hunters who made big kills.
“When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this.”
So what determines who gets to be the Alpha, if not hunting prowess? According to Christopher Boehm, the answer is simple. No one gets to be the Alpha. “A distinctly egalitarian political style is highly predictable wherever people live in small, locally autonomous social and economic groups” (36). These are exactly the types of groups humans have lived in for the vast majority of their existence on Earth. This means that, uniquely among the great apes, humans evolved mechanisms to ensure egalitarianism alongside those for seeking and submitting to power.
Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior is a miniature course in anthropology, as dominance and submission—as well as coalition building and defiance—are examined not merely in the ethnographic record, but in the ethological descriptions of our closest ape relatives. Building on Bruce Knauft’s observations of the difference between apes and hunter-gatherers, Boehm argues that “with respect to political hierarchy human evolution followed a U-shaped trajectory” (65). But human egalitarianism is not based on a simple of absence of hierarchy; rather, Boehm theorizes that the primary political actors (who with a few notable exceptions tend to be men) decide on an individual basis that, while power may be desirable, the chances of any individual achieving it are small, and the time span during which he would be able to sustain it would be limited. Therefore, they all submit to the collective will that no man should have authority over any other, thus all of them maintain their own personal autonomy. Boehm explains
“In despotic social dominance hierarchies the pyramid of power is pointed upward, with one or a few individuals (usually male) at the top exerting authority over a submissive rank and file. In egalitarian hierarchies the pyramid of power is turned upside down, with a politically united rank and file decisively dominating the alpha-male types” (66).
This isn’t to say that there aren’t individuals who by dint of their prowess and intelligence enjoy more influence over the band than others, but such individuals are thought of as “primus inter pares” (33), a first among equals. “Foragers,” Boehm writes, “are not intent on true and absolute equality, but on a kind of mutual respect that leaves individual autonomy intact” (68). It’s as though the life of the nomadic hunter and forager is especially conducive to thinking in terms of John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance.”
The mechanisms whereby egalitarianism is enforced will be familiar to anyone who’s gone to grade school or who works with a group of adult peers. Arrogant and bullying individuals are the butt of jokes, gossip, and ostracism. For a hunter-gatherer these can be deadly. Reputations are of paramount importance. If all else fails and a despot manages to secure some level authority, instigating a “dominance episode,” his reign will be short-lived. Even the biggest and strongest men are vulnerable to sizable coalitions of upstarts—especially in species who excel at making weapons for felling big game.
Boehm address several further questions, like what conditions bring about the reinstitution of pyramidal hierarchies, and how have consensus decision-making and social pressure against domineering affected human evolution? But what I find most interesting are his thoughts about the role of narrative in the promulgation and maintenance of the egalitarian ethos:
“As practical political philosophers, foragers perceive quite correctly that self-aggrandizement and individual authority are threats to personal autonomy. When upstarts try to make inroads against an egalitarian social order, they will be quickly recognized and, in many cases, quickly curbed on a preemptive basis. One reason for this sensitivity is that the oral tradition of a band (which includes knowledge from adjacent bands) will preserve stories about serious domination episodes. There is little doubt that many of the ethnographic reports of executions in my survey were based on such traditions, as opposed to direct ethnographic observation” (87).