Are humans by nature hierarchical or egalitarian? 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. Hierarchy in the Forest traces the roots of these contradictory traits in chimpanzee, bonobo, gorilla, and early human societies. 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. This book will be a key document in the study of the evolutionary basis of genuine altruism.
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Table of Contents
The Question of Egalitarian Society
Hierarchy and Equality
Putting Down Aggressors
Equality and Its Causes
A Wider View of Egalitarianism
The Hominoid Political Spectrum
The Evolution of Egalitarian Society
Paleolithic Politics and Natural Selection
Ambivalence and Compromise in Human Nature
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Maybe the most important trend in contemporary social science is the revival of social Darwinism, especially the continuing series of persuasive studies on the evolution of morality and altruism, among which there has been no contribution more original than Boehm's book. Everyone with any interest in this subject will have to read it. It has been argued before - by Charles Darwin, among others - that morality has a genetic base; Boehm is the first to give us a plausible historical explanation of how this could have happened. In brief, his argument (based on a comparison between the societies of the great apes and primitive men) is that human nature has both innate hierarchical and innate egalitarian tendencies, but at some early stage in human evolution, the late Paleolithic at latest, there took place an egalitarian rebolt against domination by 'alpha males' which created a reverse hierarchy. It reminds one of Nietzsche's thesis about the historical revolt of slave morality against aristocratic morality, except that Nietzsche of course was on the side of the aristocrats. Boehm thinks this happened largely by genetic evolution; he does not give much attention to the possiblity that there is also a process of cultural evolution that mimics genetic evolution, and which may make genetic explanation largely unnecessary; but perhaps that is a subject for another book. He manges to end on an optimistic note, for he sees in modern representative democracy a revival of tribal egalitarianism. One can buy that, but his own argument suggests a dmore somber conclusion. Contemporary egalitarians do not behave much like Boehm's egalitarian primitives; the latter must exercise constant vigilance and harsh sanctions to repress selfish behavior, not just the bullies but also the freeloaders. Current 'progressive' thought is concerned about keeping down bullies, but seems oblivious to the danger of free riders. One of the merits of Boehm's book is that it invites such arguments.
This book is easy to read, revolutionary in its interpretation of the evolution of human egalitarianism and altruism, and in addition a warning about our current state of liberal democracy -- though the author does not see the danger. The book traces out how the development of language and the use of tools and weapons, allowed our ancestors, the hunter-gatherers to overthrow the hierarchy we find in other primates. That is, males hate to be dominated, and if they can they will form coalitions and enforce egalitarianism. So for tens of thousands of years, virtually all human bands used weapons to kill upstarts who might try to dominate the group, and gossip maintained a keen eye on everyone's contribution to the group. Free-riders were suppressed, eliminated or expelled, and after time they were kept to a minimum genetically. In addition, altruism within the group was selected for through group evolutionary strategies. That is, with this new arrangement of group cohesion and forced adherence to the group's particular ethos or moral code, the groups who had higher levels of ethnocentrism, patriotism, or altruism towards members of the group -- including willing to die for the group when battled broke out between groups -- predicted that group evolutionary strategies selected for these very traits. That is, altruism was a product of between-group warfare and competition for resources. When humans began to form civilizations however, and with the accumulation of wealth in the form of food through the growing of crops and the domestication of animals, dominance once again took over. Through religion, actuarial practices, and coercive leadership, humans once again yielded to the authority of a central figure. So far so good. But Boehm believes that with our present Western democracies, that all is well again. This is surprising, because by the very mechanism he so elegantly elucidates in the book, by all reasonable measures, we are now in an ecological situation where racial strife, a return of free-riders, and an end to altruism will set in. By our very form of government there is no need to abide by rules as we know them, and the people who have the genes for selfishness or the free-riders will again multiply. That is, human behavior is never fixed but is always changing. Evolutionary stable states can only exist when the environment does not change -- but it has. From welfare to shirking military duty, the new free-rider will again out-produce the once altruistic motivated solid citizen. Free-riders can hide within modern democracies, and they are not bound by the old moral codes. We are surely entering a dysgenic trend in these traits, if not in intelligence itself. So I see little optimism that what was once a wonderful mechanism for human advancement against dominance will not now slide back towards more aggressive and a selfish human nature. Fortunately, with a better understanding of the human genome, and a renewed interest in neo-eugenics, we may be able to salvage our evolved egalitarian traits once again.