Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior

Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior

by Christopher Boehm

Hierarchy in the Forest addresses this question by examining the evolutionary origins of social and political behavior.

Christopher Boehm, an anthropologist whose fieldwork has focused on the political arrangements of human and nonhuman primate groups, postulates that egalitarianism is in effect a hierarchy in which the weak combine forces to dominate the strong.The political flexibility of our species is formidable: we can be quite egalitarian, we can be quite despotic.

Boehm looks at the loose group structures of hunter-gatherers, then at tribal segmentation, and finally at present-day governments to see how these conflicting tendencies are reflected.Hierarchy in the Forest claims new territory for biological anthropology and evolutionary biology by extending the domain of these sciences into a crucial aspect of human political and social behavior.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Anthropology
  • Rating: 4.01
  • Pages: 304
  • Publish Date: November 2nd 2001 by Harvard University Press
  • Isbn10: 0674006917
  • Isbn13: 9780674006911

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He has read hundreds of anthropological studies on a variety of human societies. There are numerous types of societies, ranging from egalitarian (no bosses) to hierarchical (some have more power than others). At the extreme, despotic societies have a dominant alpha to whom all others must submit, like chimps or Nazis. Boehm presented theories on the evolution of politics and morality among chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and humans. Based on how the four species behave today, he imagined that the common ancestor of all four, who lived seven million years ago, was innately despotic and that all four today remain near the despotic end of the political spectrum. Civilized societies have pyramid-shaped hierarchies, with the powerful at the top, and the dominated masses spread out below. Egalitarian societies have an upside down pyramid, a reverse dominance hierarchy. Upstart males, exhibiting impulses to dominate others, were a serious threat to the stability and survival of the society. Once upon a time, Boehm had succeed in earning the trust of Navajo elders, in his quest to learn about mental illness in the tribe. In that society, folks were expected to smile, laugh, and joke to behave like happy people. The Eskimos tolerated a lot of extremely inappropriate behavior, because Briggs was a visitor from a tribe that was notoriously loony. Its hard for us to imagine spending our entire lives among a small group of people, where survival depends on cooperation, where competition and conflict were toxic. Based on incomplete information, Boehm assumed that bonobos were at the despotic end of the spectrum, but later research revealed that they were remarkably egalitarian. For bonobos, egalitarian behavior was normal, natural, almost effortless. Humans are closely related to both despotic chimps and egalitarian bonobos.

He looks at such behaviour in the apes, and in hunter-gatherers who remain in the world for us to study.

Con: He starts of the book with great examples from anthropology literature about bands and tribes.

This book was super interesting and important because it really changed my understanding of hunter-gatherer egalitarian politics. "Guys!" Boehm says, "I have figured out a way for us to get rid of the alpha males that are stealing all the best chicks!" I am super glad I read this book because I used to think hunter-gatherers lived in freedom. But hunter-gatherers are actually only free to be exactly like everyone else in their group. And woah to the guy who is a better hunter than everyone else in his group - hunter-gatherers have a 15% homicide rate to deal with uppity people like that. Boehm argues, convincingly, that hunter-gatherers were/are extremely hierarchical, extremely politically controlling and dominating - it's just the hierarchy pyramid is upside down. He thinks that the best hunter in a village should share all his meat, and that people should make sure he never gets a big head by not even appreciating his meat. I'll make you a king." And then all the best hunters were like, "That is a WAY better arrangement!" And all the women thought so too because in exchange for giving their man some reverence, they had meat every day for them and their children. If the group rises up and kills her husband, she can return to them.) Also, Boehm, thinking that women are naturally submissive, ignores them for the entire book. It's really really hard.") What if women were largely responsible for hunter-gatherer egalitarianism? But then women realized that they could actually get a lot more from their best men in hierarchy. If you have the freedom to work harder than I do, you will eventually have more stuff than I have, and you will most likely end up with the best mate. Boehm, myopic academian that he is, seems to know little of history after hunter-gathers, like that societies that embraced hierarchy obliterated them.

Boehm apparently feels the need to cover entirely too much ground in the effort to support his case, leaving the book feeling long, plodding, disorganized and convoluted. Much of the book's value lies in the 1st half, where Boehm provides fascinating anthropological and primatological studies. He makes a decent argument for how weapons could have revolutionized political and social organization (Ch. 8), and gives countless examples of tribal prohibitions against selfishness.

Is it even worth worrying about?) Putting some serious thought into these theories should help us design better models of governance (or anti-governance) but at some point scientists need to admit that they're never gonna be able to definitively end all these debates and tell us for sure what the best living arrangement is for all of humanity.

Not only did it reframe how I understood political humor, and its role in egalitarian societies (the focus of my research), it changed how I viewed politics more generally.

Boehm clearly establishes the book's main thesis: that in nearly all nomadic forager societies, as well as in many horticultural and pastoralist societies, egalitarianism is established and maintained by a strong social ethic.