Thursday, July 22, 2010

Footnotes on Things I’ve been Reading: Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest

Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior (1999).

This is a book about human “political nature.” Clearly the mature fruit of a long life of anthropological research, the book considers a question that goes back to Hobbes and Rousseau: the origins of inequality (or rather, of equality, in this case) and its relationship to “human nature.” To answer this question, Boehm draws on a wealth of ethnographical and archeological evidence, as well as studies of primate societies (primarily chimpanzees and bonobos, but also baboons and gorillas).

The starting point of the book is the observation that, though human societies range from the extremely egalitarian to the abjectly despotic, and our closest primate relatives create basically despotic groups, human forager bands are always extremely egalitarian (Boehm knows. He obviously read almost all significant ethnographies of forager bands as of the late 1990s). This egalitarianism is of course partly due to basic material causes: in a forager society with little division of labor it is difficult to stockpile durable resources or acquire scarce skills in ways that can be exploited for political advantage, as Rousseau saw, especially when dissatisfied individuals have a relatively cheap (though not costless) exit option (people can move between bands easily). But the material causes are not the whole story, as the despotic forager social groups created by our close primate relatives, who also have little “property,” show. In particular, human forager bands are politically egalitarian (and not just economically egalitarian), recognizing no real, permanent authorities (there are typically no chiefs or “alpha males,” and decisions are made by consensus) and displaying a “democratic” ethos of autonomy where each individual thinks himself the equal of the rest (Whether women are considered equals within the band varies from forager band to forager band, partly depending on environmental factors and patterns of exogamy, but for the most part women in forager bands tend to have higher status than women in other forms of society). Boehm tells some striking stories about the general ineffectiveness of “chiefs” in forager bands: people who try to give orders in them basically get ignored.

This observation about forager societies is important because it seems reasonably well established that foraging societies were our “ancestral societies,” i.e., the environments where any natural dispositions that human beings possess even today evolved. We probably lived for at least 100,000 years in such societies before we came up with different forms of social organization, and so the (controversial, but at least plausible) assumption is that insofar as human beings have a political nature, it would be manifested most clearly in such societies, or at least it would have been shaped in such societies (though it is not clear that the forager societies of today are good proxies for the forager societies of 100,000 years ago): there should be a sense in which we were ecologically adapted to life in such societies (rather than in contemporary complex societies). The question is, then, what explains the egalitarianism of forager bands, both current and historical? And is the explanation for forager egalitarianism something that we can attribute to “human nature”?

Boehm’s main thesis is that forager egalitarianism is sustained by moral communities that enable the rank and file to build coalitions to put down would-be “alphas.” Forager bands, in his view, have “reversed” dominance hierarchies that prevent bullies and aggressors from creating a dominance hierarchy of their own: egalitarianism is sustained by the coordinated dominance of the strong by the weak. Without the ability of the rank and file to form large coalitions to put down would-be dominators, the primate tendency is to establish dominance hierarchies, as we see in chimpanzees and bonobos; but the ability to form large and stable coalitions in turn depends on the development of the capacity for symbolic communication, and, to a lesser degree, of projectile weapons. (Low-ranking chimpanzees can sometimes band together and put down alpha males, as the chimpanzees at Yerkes Primate Research Center are reported to have done, but they do not seem to be able to create stable coalitions that get rid of the entire dominance hierarchy, unlike human beings). This seems right to me: in order for status equality to be resilient against attempts to subvert it, it requires a vigilant community to sanction upstarts and bullies; and the vigilance of the community is primarily made possible by a set of norms that strongly promote values such as generosity, sharing, and the like and proscribe certain forms of arrogance, etc., as Boehm notes.

But Boehm goes further: he argues that the emergence and maintenance of egalitarianism in forager societies supports a view of human “political nature” that he calls “ambivalent:” human beings (especially males) display tendencies towards dominance, just like chimpanzees and bonobos (though within a group the strength of these tendencies will be variable, of course), but they also resent being dominated, and in humans that resentment of domination is able to generate strongly egalitarian societies in the right material circumstances. (Boehm suggests that the same resentment of domination can be observed in chimpanzees and bonobos, though without the ability to form stable coalitions for egalitarian purposes they can’t do much about it, especially since male chimps and bonobos do not have an “exit” option: solitary males who leave the group are liable to be killed on sight by other groups). Hobbes and Rousseau, in other words, are both right: in the “state of nature” it is the case both that “every man looketh that his companion should value him, at the same rate that he sets upon himselfe” (Leviathan XIII) which leads to attempts to dominate others (to “extort a greater value from his contemners, by dommage,; and from the others, by the example,” what Hobbes also calls “glory”), and that this very same tendency, when combined with the ability to form large coalitions, informed by an ethos of equality (and with a general lack of “property,” understood as durable and potentially scarce resources that can be exploited to create personal forms of dependence, as Rousseau noted), results in the sort of fierce independence that Rousseau praised in the Second Discourse, at least under the right material conditions (little division of labor or durable property). By contrast, similar tendencies among chimpanzees or bonobos evolved into more or less stereotyped dominance and submission behaviors (which make sense from an evolutionary perspective, since they seem to obviate the need for actual conflict over resources, with its attendant risk of death) and the development of clear status hierarchies.

The most interesting and controversial part of Boehm’s book is in the last couple of chapters, where he tells a story about how the emergence of egalitarian moral communities in our distant forager past changed the selection pressures operating on human beings to produce some altruistic tendencies. The story is too complicated (and necessarily speculative) to summarize here, but basically it has to do with how egalitarian moral communities neutralize the reproductive advantages of bullies and aggressive individuals and increase the force of “between group” selection pressures (favoring “altruistic” dispositions) against “within group” selection pressures (favoring “selfish” dispositions). For example, Boehm has some fascinating remarks about the “meat sharing” systems that almost all foragers develop. Hunting is an important source of protein in forager societies, but it is also irregular. Since some people are better hunters than others, these people could perhaps exploit their hunting skills to extract various advantages (including political domination and reproductive advantages), and indeed they sometimes try. But in all forager societies the group basically “randomizes” credit for kills (by giving credit to the owner of the arrow, for example, but swapping arrows incessantly!), so that the actual hunter cannot exploit the fact that he made a kill to dominate the group in any way. Such meat-sharing systems thus seem to reduce the “reproductive” advantage of selfish dispositions.

In general, this is an excellent book, despite some occasional repetition and somewhat pedestrian prose. But it is worth wondering whether it implies much of anything for politics in complex societies. Boehm is too good of an anthropologist to suggest that we simply have a “natural” tendency to create egalitarian societies (there are many human societies where the ethos of equality of forager bands does not exist, as he notes) but he does seem to think that democratic societies (including larger, more complex societies with formal checks and balances, from the Iroquois confederacy to modern representative democracies) are in far better accord with “human nature” than other forms of society. It is not entirely clear to me what this means. Partly, I suspect that he means that we are happier in more equal societies, or at least that we have a tendency to view justice through the lens of equality; if indeed in the vast sweep of human history over the past hundred millennia we have mostly lived in egalitarian societies, it should not be surprising that we have some deep preference for such societies (I was thinking of this when reading this interesting proposal for “income and wealth ceilings” through taxation – deciding collectively that no one should have more than, say, $100,000). But we would need a more robust moral psychology (I’m inclined to think that this moral psychology would follow “Rousseauan” lines about the interaction between self love and love of esteem) to think properly about this question; and it seems to me at any rate that Boehm underplays the ways in which our moral ethos interacts with material factors. It seems rather important that truly egalitarian societies only exist in circumstances where the division of labor is minimal and the possibilities for exit from the group relatively large, and that complex societies are all over the place in terms of the despotic/egalitarian continuum; much of what Boehm says suggests to me that egalitarianism is actually quite fragile once material conditions change. And if the story of forager societies for 100,000 years is basically a story of egalitarianism, the story of complex agricultural societies has been one of inegalitarianism for a good 5,000 years, which, though not as impressive, is still a pretty long time and has involved more people than the previous 100,000 years. Whether truly egalitarian complex societies are possible seems like an open question, and one that cannot be answered by simply pointing to modern democracies (which have many inegalitarian spaces and some egalitarian spaces).

Human nature, it seems to me, is best understood as capable of “moral coalition” formation (coalitions that are also moralized by a specific justificatory ethos). Under some conditions, these coalitions can be used to generate egalitarian societies, but in others they generate inegalitarian societies (every dominant dictator in a complex society needs a coalition to support him, and these coalitions tend to be moralized and justified in various ways). This seems consistent with what Boehm says, but is perhaps a more “pessimistic” about the possibilities for egalitarianism in complex societies. Anyway, I did not intend to write this much about the book, but it is really good; heard about it via Robin Hanson (thanks!), who also has many interesting things to say about how we might describe human nature.


  1. "Whether truly egalitarian complex societies are possible seems like an open question, and one that cannot be answered by simply pointing to modern democracies"

    Yes, this seems right. But the question clearly also can't be answered in the negative just by pointing to the status hierarchies formed by primates and implying that this is the 'default' or 'natural' human tendency, as some conservatives are probably prone to do; and this book, to judge from your post, would be a strong addition in the arsenal of egalitarians who want to answer that line. In this connection the argument about the link between symbolic communication and the ability to form stable anti-dominance coalitions is v. interesting. Hadn't encountered this point before, I don't think. (On the other hand it is the case, as you say, that the last 5,000 yrs or so (maybe even 10,000) of human arrangements have featured more inegalitarianism, of one sort or another, than equality.)

  2. Anonymous5:48 AM

    As an anthropologist who definitely hasn't read all the literature I don't think it true that foraging societies are all egalitarian or at least that there is little consensus about it. Not having read his book I find it hard to know how he defines foragers but the debate on egalitarianism among hunter gatherers, primitive communism etc is I think quite a live one e.g. debates over the Kalahari etc. My impression was that Bonabos are not particularly hierarchical and that, to the extent that they are it is the females who are dominant, I also think there are quite a few bonabos who practice the exit option and bonabos do not kill strays and unlike chimps Bonabos first resonse on meeting a stranger is to have sex with them, (though again I am no expert and may well be wrong). The point I would take is that some societies, including many quite successful ones are markedly more egalitarian than others and any recourse to 'nature' to justify it falls on this hurdle