Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Political Egalitarianism During the Last Glacial

Are human beings naturally egalitarian or naturally hierarchical?

On the one hand, for most of human evolutionary history, our ancestors lived in foraging communities that were probably very egalitarian, with no one exercising despotic dominance over others.

On the other hand, for the past 5,000 years, most political communities have had rigid hierarchical structures, with those at the top exploiting those at the bottom.

Modern liberal democratic republics are officially based on the principle of human equality, with governmental authority based on the consent of the governed. But, obviously, these democratic states are hierarchical in that those at the top have more power, privilege, and property than those below them.

A little over ten years ago, I was excited to read a book manuscript by Christopher Boehm for Harvard University Press that helped me to think through this problem. The book was published in 1999 as Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. As suggested in the title, Boehm makes a complex--but persuasive--argument for human beings as combining hierarchical and egalitarian tendencies as shaped by their evolutionary history.

"My thesis," Boehm says, "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" (9-10). A society can have an "egalitarian hierarchy" in which the subordinates use sanctions--such as ridicule, disobedience, ostracism, or execution--to restrain "politically ambitious individuals, those with special learned or innate propensities to dominate." In every society, there will be leaders in some form. But an egalitarian society will allow only "a moderate degree of leadership" (154).

Against the "visionary democrats" like Marx and Engels who believed that hierarchical leadership could be totally abolished in the future withering away of the state into a classless society, Boehm defends the position of the "realistic democrats" who believe that a formal or informal system of checks and balances can allow for moderate leadership without exploitative rule of dominants over subordinates (256-57). There is, Boehm argues, "a universal drive to dominance." But that natural desire for dominance can be checked by the natural desire of subordinates not to be dominated (39).

Boehm supports his argument primarily through two types of evidence--primatological studies of chimpanzees and ethnographic studies of human foragers and tribesmen--which he uses to infer that the "Common Ancestor" of human beings as evolved in the Paleolithic was shaped for a foraging society of "egalitarian hierarchy."

While chimpanzees have a dominance hierarchy with an alpha male at the top, they show what Frans de Waal has called "egalitarian dominance" as opposed to the "despotic dominance" of rhesus monkeys. The rhesus alpha male is rarely challenged by his subordinates. But the chimp alpha male can be challenged by subordinates who create alliances to resist the alpha male who becomes too despotic. (Doesn't this sound like how Hobbes and Locke describe equality in the state of nature?)

Similarly, human foragers in small nomadic groups that live by hunting and gathering have ways to punish ambitious people who become too assertive. Individuals who become too proud and aggressive can be ridiculed or ostracized. Others in the group can simply refuse to obey their orders. Or, in extreme cases, those who become aggressively dominant can be killed.

Richard Lee, in his study of the Kung! San nomadic foragers in the Kalahari Desert, writes:

"Egalitarianism is not simply the absence of a headman and other authority figures, but a positive insistence on the essential equality of all people and a refusal to bow to the authority of others, a sentiment expressed in the statement: 'Of course we have headmen . . . each of us is headman over himself.' Leaders do exist, but their influence is subtle and indirect. They never order or make demands of others, and their accumulation of material goods is never more, and often much less, than the average accumulation of the other households in the camp." (1979:457)

Boehm concludes from this that human beings evolved in the Paleolithic for a social life of "egalitarian hierarchy" in which leaders would be strictly limited by vigilant subordinates ready to punish any overly assertive upstarts. But, then, beginning 10,000 years ago, with the development of agriculture, human beings formed sedentary communities with growing populations, which led to the first urban agrarian states. In these novel circumstances, it became ever harder for subordinates to organize themselves to resist the despotic dominance of their leaders, who now ruled through elaborate military, religious, and administrative bureaucracies.

The profound meaning of this move in human history is captured well in the Old Testament, in First Samuel 8, where the people of Israel want to give up the informal leadership of judges and have a king, so that they can compete with all the other powerful agrarian states around them. Samuel warns them of the despotic oppression that will come from this. But they refuse to listen. Later, modern republican thinkers--John Milton, John Locke, and others--cite this as Biblical support for their rejection of monarchic absolutism and embrace of limited republican government.

Boehm sees modern republican government as a new form of the "egalitarian hierarchy" that once prevailed in the foraging groups of our Paleolithic evolutionary history. The universal dominance drive will express itself in the ambition of individuals who want to rule over others, but in a republican system of governance, their ambition is channelled and checked in ways that protect their subordinates from despotic dominance. If Boehm is right about this, then we can say that the cultural evolution of republican politics has produced a system of rule that conforms to the evolved natural desires of human beings as shaped in the Paleolithic.

But some people would say that this is only a highly speculative "just-so" story that cannot be supported with scientific evidence, because we have no scientific way to study human social behavior in prehistoric time. We can study the prehistoric evolution of human anatomy through the evidence of skeletal fossils. But how do we study the prehistoric evolution of human politics, considering that political behavior doesn't fossilize?

The answer to this question is provided in a recent article--Doron Schultziner, et al., "The Causes and Scope of Political Egalitarianism During the Last Glacial: A Multi-Disciplinary Perspective," Biology & Philosophy, June, 2010, 25: 319-346. One of the authors is Rebecca Hannagan, one of my colleagues in political science at NIU.

Here's the abstract: "This paper reviews and synthesizes emerging multi-disciplinary evidence toward understanding the development of social and political organization in the Last Glacial. Evidence for the prevalence and scope of political egalitarianism is reviewed and the biological, social, and environmental influences on this mode of human organization are further explored. Viewing social and political organization in the Last Glacial in a much wider, multi-disciplinary context provides the footing for coherent theory building and hypothesis testing by which to further explore human political systems. We aim to overcome the claim that our ancestors' form of social organization is untestable, as well as counter a degree of exaggeration regarding possibilities for sedentism, population densities, and hierarchical structures prior to the Holocene with crucial advances from disparate disciplines."

The Last Glacial is the last ice age, a climatic period that by radiocarbon dating began about 74,000 years ago and ended about 11,500 years ago. The Holocene epoch is the climatic period that stretches from about 11,500 years ago to the present. During the Last Glacial, climatic conditions were colder, more arid, and more unstable than during the Holocene.

The key point here is that the unusually stable climate of the Holocene epoch has provided the necessary conditions for human agrarian civilization over the past 11,500 years. Prior to that, the climate of the last ice age made sedentary, agrarian life impossible for our evolutionary ancestors, who could only live in small, nomadic foraging bands as they moved in search of sufficient food from wild plants and wild animals. The authors of this article argue that in the climatic conditions of the Last Glacial, human beings must have lived as egalitarian foragers, and thus our human ancestors during this prehistoric environment of evolutionary adaptation must have evolved for an egalitarian social and political life. The implication of this is that human beings are naturally egalitarian, despite the cultural evolution of hierarchy over the past 11,500 years.

Although I generally agree with the reasoning in this article, I see a fundamental ambiguity in the argument that is never cleared up by the authors. I should say that when I read an early draft of this paper, I pointed out this ambiguity in the paper. The authors made some revisions in response to my comments, but the ambiguity is still there.

Here's the problem. On the one hand, the authors adopt Boehm's reasoning, which suggests that they agree with him that the evolutionary adaptation of ancient human foragers was for "egalitarian hierarchy" with "a moderate degree of leadership." On the other hand, the authors contrast "political egalitarianism" to "political hierarchy" in a way that suggests that the ancient human foragers had no hierarchy at all, which would deny Boehm's position.

I think Boehm's right. I think human beings are naturally evolved for "egalitarian hierarchy," but they are not evolved for an absolute egalitarianism with no hierarchy at all. I detect a faint Marxist (or Rousseauean) propensity in this article--a wish to find a utopian egalitarianism in our evolutionary past to support the possibility of such utopian egalitarianism in our socialist future. The authors never come out and actually say this. But I can smell it.

They write: "Political egalitarianism is a social organization in which decisions are reached through deliberation and consensus, individuals do not command authority over, or coerce, other group members; social status, honor, and positions (if and when they exist) are voluntarily granted or withdrawn, and not inherited; and individuals can freely leave their group peers or residence. Political hierarchy is a social organization with opposite characteristics" (320).

Notice the dualistic opposition they set up--"political egalitarianism" is the opposite of "political hierarchy." This contradicts Boehm's claim that egalitarianism does not result from the absence of hierarchy, because human beings have never lived without at least some leadership. As Boehm says, "We always live with some type of hierarchy, which suggests that our behavior is constrained by human nature" (237).

Notice also the ambiguity of the parenthetical phrase about social positions of status in an egalitarian society--"if and when they exist"--which leaves the reader wondering whether they think positions of leadership can be totally eliminated or not. Later in the article, they repeat this odd phrasing--"leaders (if they exist) have little authority over group members" (326). Well, do they exist or not? We are not told, but we are left with the impression that egalitarian societies could have no leaders at all, which, again, would contradict Boehm, Lee, and others who argue that even the most egalitarian foragers have some form of leadership.

Another way in which this ambiguity is conveyed in the article is that the authors say that foragers use "levelling mechanisms" that "keep the political system as close to flattened as possible" (326). Well, how flat is it? We are never told. But the suggestion is that it could be completely flat. If that's the claim, then the authors would have to defend that radical assertion of complete equality without any hierarchy at all, which they never do.

Despite this disagreement, I can agree with everything in this article if it's interpreted as providing evidence and argumentation for Boehm's "egalitarian hierarchy."

The reasoning moves through six steps corresponding to the six parts of the article.

(1) They survey the data for global climatic change during the Last Glacial, and they infer that the dry, cold, and unstable climate would have forced human beings to live in small, foraging groups that roamed in search of plants, animals, and water. This would have made agriculture impossible. And this would have severely limited group size and forced the groups into a nomadic way of life.

(2) Ethnographic studies of foraging groups shows a "foraging spectrum" (Kelly 1995) that includes semi-sedentary foragers that show some hierarchical structure, and some anthropologists have concluded from this that our foraging ancestors in the Paleolithic could have been hierarchical (Hayden 1995). But the authors of this article argue that the climatic conditions of the Last Glacial would have forced Paleolithic foragers into a nomadic life, which would have limited the accumulation of personal property, forced food sharing, and restricted the size of the group. Consequently, they would have looked like the nomadic foragers of the Kalahari studied by Richard Lee.

They write: ". . . These limitations on group size make internal group affairs easier to maintain and hence reduce or eliminate the need to concentrate power in the hands of individuals who can resolve conflicts by coercive authority. . . This fluidity of band composition makes the domination of others very difficult, and arguably irrelevant" (327).

Notice, again, their ambiguous language: "reduce or eliminate" and "very difficult, and arguably irrelevant." But if they agree with Boehm and Lee, then they should say that hierarchy--at least moderate forms of leadership--cannot be eliminated or made irrelevant.

(3) Employing the logic of evolutionary biology, the authors argue that if having high rank in hierarchical societies conferred fitness advantages--reproductive success and better access to food and other valuable resources--then we can infer that natural selection would favor an innate desire for dominance. But at the same time, we can infer that there would also be an evolutionary pressure favoring an innate desire of subordinates not to be exploited by dominants. This would create two countervailing tendencies--the natural desire for dominance and the natural desire to be free from exploitative dominance.

This is in fact what we see in nomadic foraging bands. "One the one hand, the fact that foragers need leveling mechanisms means that there is an innate tendency of some individuals to exaggerate their rank and status. On the other hand, there exists an innate tendency to thwart others' attempts to gain power because it may beecome dangerous and harmful to oneself and one's peers" (329). What this means is that dominance behavior is never completely lost, but it can be balanced by the natural tendency of subordinates to resist dominance. This required subordinates to find ways to form coalitions to check dominants. The evolution of language could have made coalition-formation easier. And the invention of projectile hunting weapons could have increased the power of subordinates to challenge dominants.

But then, with the cultural evolution of farming and agrarian states, the innate disposition to dominance created ruling elites who could escape the leveling mechanisms used by subordinates in foraging societies.

Notice here that the authors of this paper clearly concede that dominance behavior is innate in all human societies, and therefore they implicitly concede that equality with no hierarchy at all is impossible.

(4) As the fourth step in their argument, they show how the fossil records of hominid brain-size, skeletons, and teeth supports the evolution of political egalitarianism in the Paleolithic. The increase in brain-size and the associated evolution of language allowed subordinates to cooperate in socially complex ways to check dominance behavior. The evolutionary reduction in sexual dimorphism (males being larger than females) and in the size of canine teeth is associated with egalitarianism, because males are less able to build and protect large harems.

(5) Archaeologists can see various kinds of empirical evidence for social and political hierarchy. If some people have been buried with signs of wealth, if some people have had larger or more elaborate housing, if there is monumental architecture, or if there are other signs of unequal resources, then we can infer that some people had more wealth, power, or status than others. The authors argue that there is very little evidence of this kind for hierarchy in the Paleolithic.

They do concede that Paleolithic cave art might be interpreted as evidence for shamans, who would have had superior status. But while this does suggest differences of social status, they argue, it does not require rigid hierarchy. Ethnographic studies of foragers shows that "social esteem is granted to shamans and other individuals who benefit the group (i.e. successful hunters) only by group members' consent, and shamans who abuse their role are constrained or even killed" (335).

(6) The authors conclude by explaining the transition from the political egalitarianism of the Paleolithic era to the political hierarchy of the Neolithic era. The transition to a sedentary life allowed the accumulation of wealth, which supported economic inequality. They observe: "some individuals are better than others at hunting, gathering, herding, cultivating land and so on, and those differences can translate into economic inequality if the ecological setting is stable enough" (337). The transition to larger and more dense populations with a greater division of labor favored political hierarchy as power was centralized and concentrated in a bureaucracy of specialists who coordinated the collective activity of the agrarian state.

For me--as a political theorist with an interest in biopolitical theory--what is most interesting about this article is how it provides scientific evidence and argumentation that supports the account of political evolution found in the writings of Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and Smith. The political history of humanity turns on the shifting balance between authority and liberty, between the natural desire of the few for dominance and the natural desire of the many to resist dominance. This shifting balance underlies the three-stage movement of political history: the egalitarian hierarchy of Paleolithic politics, the despotic hierarchy of agrarian-state politics, and the modern emergence of commercial republican liberalism based on a new kind of egalitarian hierarchy combined with high civilization.


Troy Camplin said...

The egalitarian hierarchy idea sounds like the idea of heterarchy put forth by Frederick Turner. A heterarchy is a fluid hierarchy -- non-rigid -- meaning, members can more through it. A chimpanzee leader can lose support and,thus, his position to another chimpanzee who formed a strong coalition. The hierarchy is there, but it is fluid -- someone at the top can suddenly find himself much lower.

I would also argue that as societies became more complex, people had to adapt to the changing life conditions. Their brains complexified in reaction to the more complex societies -- resulting in new behaviors. Now, those new behaviors were still built on the old ones, so it is still important to learn as much as possible about our original state, to be sure, but at the same time, looking back cannot tell us anything about the future, as a more complex society will result in even more complex behaviors.

Anonymous said...

Let's not forget the role of warfare in the rise of oppressive hierarchy that results from the transition to agriculture. While foraging societies fight, it is generally in the form of small-scale, sporadic raiding. This is because the tribe is divided into a number of bands, and any land taken will be lost when the band moves in a few months.

With agriculture it becomes possible to assemble an army and take permanent possession of land. As a result warfare becomes chronic, and any society that wishes to survive must evolve a highly centralized structure of command. And once you have a permanent general, sooner or later he becomes a king. Andrew Schmookler discusses this process and its consequences in his book, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution.

-- Les Brunswick

Troy Camplin said...

This is true in part, but the percentage of men who die in war goes down with each increase in social complexity. This is obvious if you think about it. If you are constantly at war, how can you grow crops? You lose a small parcel that you were hunting and gathering on, and you can move to another place. No big deal. But if you go to war and someone burns all the fields, you have a famine on your hands. So yes, you can put together a bigger army, and yes, the wars of such armies are worse, but at the same time, they are fewer and farther between -- or else civilization would collapse (as it sometimes did, locally, when rulers overextended themselves).