Monday, August 25, 2014

The Origins of Egalitarianism

What really differentiates humans from all other animals?   Consider the fact that you are reading this paragraph written by Mr. C. Justice. You may or may not know me.  You may or may not live in the same community or the same country as me.  And yet, you are willing to consider what I have to say.   This is a level of cooperation that escapes any other type of  animal.

I’m sure everyone can think of impressive examples of human cooperation. An example of tightly coordinated human cooperation is a special operations military team.  All the team members hold to the same goal and act to further the same goal. This is called “joint intentionality”, by the way,  which is the prerequisite for collective action

In action they all regard each other and trust each other as equals.  Even the leader is regarded as “first-among-equals”.  Consider what would happen if in an operation the leader put on airs and insisted that everyone follow strict hierarchical protocol and constantly defer to him.  Mission aborted.  Combat missions that require split-second timing cannot afford to have individuals grandstanding or having a melt-down.

The quality of cooperation and the amount of cooperation in humans is distinctly different from that of any of the great apes, our nearest primate relatives.   For all other great apes are ruled by dominance hierarchies, in most cases, where the dominant male controls sexual access to females  and dominant animals control access to the choicest foods.   As long as this situation existed it served to inhibit the development of joint intentionality, and collective action.

Six million years ago, the ancestor that we had in common with chimpanzees  our closest great ape relatives probably had dominance hierarchies too.

But,  what if, deep in our ancestry the situation of dominance hierarchy changed?  In fact it must have, because present day human societies are a mixture of hierarchy and egalitarianism.  That change would have opened wide the possibility of  deeper cooperation and collective action.  

Do humans have dominance hierarchies?  They sure do.  We can see evidence for it everywhere:  gangs, prison behaviour, bullies, tyrants, spousal abuse, the”toxic boss”,  military rank, etc.    But we also see evidence of egalitarianism too, in some types of human pair-bonding and socially in modern-day hunter-gatherer societies, which are the closest thing to the way our nearest ancestors lived.

In Chimpanzee society one male, usually the biggest and strongest, is able to control most sexual access to females when they are in estrus.  His method of dominance is mostly threat displays designed to intimidate subordinates.  If need be he will fight, and if he loses, a new, usually younger alpha male, takes his place.  

Imagine life under a bully who is physically bigger and more powerful than you.  He’s often in a bad mood and often goes into rages.   He’s constantly terrorizing you, sometimes  he beats you up for random things you do that he  perceives as “insults”.  He controls your access to both the best food and to sex.

 Or imagine living in a country where every official is corrupt, and you need to  constantly grease everyone’s palm to stay out of trouble or get anywhere.  This is what life is like in Chimpanzee society.

Six million years ago, Hominids started moving out of the forest and it is hypothesized that they initiated waves of migration because of a series of prolonged droughts.  Africa is a pretty big place.  To migrate any distance would  require a lot of group coordination and group solidarity. Dealing with a dominant alpha male might actually lower a group’s chance of surviving in this type of situation.  For one thing it could negatively affect morale.  Why would the subordinate males want to go along with the rigours and discomforts of migration when they would be denied access to fertile females?

 The idea that early humans consciously cooperated to create egalitarian groups is the hypothesis of Anthropologist, Christopher Boehm in his book  Hierarchy in the Forest.

Group migration, because it is a process of moving over large distances requires collective action.  Everyone needs to be together on certain things, sharing food, protecting against predators, avoiding dangers, and finding the right way.  Humans know how to act collectively, but the great apes are much more limited in this capacity.

I believe  that the reason we are more cooperative is because, way back in our prehistory, eliminating or suppressing the dominant male made migration more feasible. This resulting, consciously maintained  egalitarianism,  then opened the way for pair bonding, language, culture, and human society.

Note that I am not saying that early hominid groups got together and killed the dominant male so that they could migrate.  Migration would have been a necessity forced on them, but groups that did get rid of their alpha male would have been more likely to survive than groups that didn’t and this could have driven hominid evolution.

First of all, why was migration so important?   The last three million years were years of ice ages alternating with shorter warmer ages.  The ice ages have dominated, and during times of glaciation the African Equatorial Rainforest has shrunk and more open environments of desert, savannah, and grasslands have grown.  When glaciers are at their maximum they lock up  tremendous amounts of fresh water.  The amount of ice locked up in Greenland and Antarctica could raise the level of the world’s oceans about 250 feet if it all melted away.  

If, at times of maximum glaciation, there was less fresh water available, then there would be less water in lakes, rivers, and the oceans.  Bipedalism, the ability to walk on the two hind-legs, would have given the first hominids an advantage in finding good sources of water over years and decades, and generations.   

As the hominids became more efficient at walking, greater feats of migration would have become possible.  These could have made the difference between extinction and survival during severe bouts of climate change.

The great apes would have gotten no advantage from eliminating dominance hierarchies because they stayed in the rainforest, where each group staked out and defended territory against rival groups.  As long as dominance was the rule,  life in Chimpanzee society is always a zero-sum game with winners and losers.  In this situation cooperation is almost entirely instrumental and altruism is a losing strategy.  

 The original reasons for the hierarchy reversal could have been the desire of subordinate males for sexual access to fertile females and the access to weapons that occurred when hominids started to manufacture stone blades.  After all, the fact that the majority of male chimpanzees are subordinate means that there are a lot of dissatisfied male chimps who would love to dispatch the alpha male if they had the means to do it.

We can date the first stone tools to  around two and a half million years ago, which is approximately when our ancestors are estimated to have lost all that body hair.  Razor sharp knives and spear points may well have  provided the means for Homo Habilis, our first tool-making ancestor to consciously create egalitarian societies.  Shaving would come two and a half million years later.

Anthropologist Christopher Boehm  studied and compared many different modern hunter-gatherer groups, and what he found was that the vast majority of these groups maintained small egalitarian societies,  that is, societies where  the meat from animals killed by hunters was shared by everyone equally, and bragging, showing off, showing anger, or claiming more for oneself was deeply discouraged by the active use of peer pressure, ridicule etc.,  and if those methods didn’t work, they relied on  the ultimate  threats of group banishment or assassination.  

The point of this conscious culture of egalitarianism was to suppress or reverse the dominance hierarchy of the alpha male.  Instead of competition being a zero-sum game between dominant and subordinates, our ancestors learned to excel at hunting, etc., without taking over everything else.  

Why would the contemporary  lifestyle of a ridiculously small minority of humans matter to the development of human society?  Ten thousand years ago was the beginnings of farming, settled life and living in villages.  For millions of  years previously homo sapiens and our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers.  That means, for the vast majority of time that humans have lived on Earth, they have lived as hunter-gatherers.  

So if contemporary hunter-gatherers are consciously egalitarian, it’s likely that previous hunter-gatherers were as well.  Note that most contemporary hunter-gatherers are nomadic.  They have to migrate in order to get enough food and water to survive all year-round.  Hence the reason for being consciously egalitarian.  Egalitarianism favours survival in small nomadic groups.

Once hunting and gathering was replaced by farming, then the situation changed radically and hierarchical behaviour no longer had an inimical effect on group survival.  Hence our present day mixture of egalitarianism and hierarchy.  

One of the most fascinating things about Boehm’s findings is that egalitarianism in hunter-gatherers has to be consciously and culturally maintained. I believe that this has revolutionary implications today.

In response to climate change, proto-humans conscious adoption of egalitarianism made the deeper and more complex forms of human cooperation possible at the same time that it first put in place  social controls on our instinctual urge to dominate and take advantage of each other.  Civilization eventually followed.

1 comment:

  1. Great book by Scheider called The Great Leveler, similar account of equality in paleolithic society to what I'm saying above: