[Fourth part of a series: 1, 2, 3]
This was the tremendous strength of the tribal way, that its success did not depend on people being better. It worked for people the way they are – unimproved, unenlightened, troublesome, disruptive, selfish, mean, cruel, greedy and violent.
— Daniel Quinn
Is domination in our genes? It seems very likely. After all, the bands of our closest primate relatives are “run” by alpha leaders: among chimpanzees, the strongest males dominate the troop; among gorillas, a big male presides over a harem, and among the bonobos, both alpha females and related males wield power in the band. It is therefore highly probable that domineering alpha individuals led the bands of the early hominids. Domination conferred advantages: those who could snatch the most resources and mate with the most females “won” by surviving and passing on their genes. But at a certain point along our evolution our ancestors became radically egalitarian, sharing power and economic resources among all members. They lived as near-equals, had direct access to food and basic necessities, enjoyed modest affluence along with freedom and leisure, and refused to tolerate grabs for power, wealth, and prestige. This successful and durable adaptation is documented not only by archeological evidence but also by ample ancient and recent ethnographic accounts of “primitive” societies. [A sampler of links: on human reciprocity and its evolution, on the Batek people, and on tribal egalitarian ways.]
How did this transformation come about? Here is the argument. Our distant ancestors, just like chimps have been observed to do, chafed under the rule of the alphas. Nobody likes to be bullied on a regular basis. Nobody likes to have their food stolen by the bigger fellows just because they can. While rank and file chimps put the kibosh on their alphas only occasionally, stone age hominids figured out how to do it so regularly and thoroughly that a new social system was born. This is such an important and surprising development that we may speak of an egalitarian revolution.
Humans are unique among animals in cooperating in large groups of unrelated individuals, with a high degree of resource sharing. These features challenge traditional evolutionary theories built on kin selection or reciprocity. A recent theoretical model … takes a fresh look at the ‘egalitarian revolution’ that separates humans from our closest relatives, the great apes. The model suggests that information from within-group conflicts leads to the emergence of cooperative alliances and social networks.
— Understanding the “Egalitarian Revolution” in human social evolution
The conjecture has it that it happened when our ancestors became communicative enough to form discreet coalitions, well enough armed to easily threaten or kill an upstart, and motivated to fairly share the meat needed for their growing brains. Nobody knows how long ago this may have been. Computer models have shown that the change may have occurred quite fast, within a few generations. We do know that big game spears date back at least to 400,000 years ago, that the later erectus had a large brain, and that hunting is probably far older than had been thought. Some anthropologists put the egalitarian revolution at perhaps 100,000 years ago, but allow that it may well have happened much earlier. Others go back as far as 2 million years to the beginning of the Paleolithic. I am taking here the liberty of assuming, not unreasonably, that we sapiens entered our speciation in the egalitarian mold.
Before 12,000 years ago, humans basically were egalitarian. They lived in what might be called societies of equals, with minimal political centralization and no social classes. Everyone participated in group decisions, and outside the family there were no dominators. Rather often the egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers pertains more to males than females, but the women enjoy far more political potency than did the women of Athens, and these mobile foragers kept no slaves. Their highly equalized version of political life goes far back into prehistory…
— Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest
For thousands of generations since the egalitarian revolution, we lived in small bands where the many set limits over the few for the benefit of all. The betas put an effective check on the alphas by wit, wisdom and alliance. Aggrandizing individuals who got out of hand were brought down a peg or eliminated. And so the evolutionary advantage went to the cooperators. In the former alpha-led system the advantage was to the strong, and the weak suffered. In the new system the advantage was to the weak(er), and most did well as a result. This state of affairs required continued vigilance, and an ongoing culture of egalitarian traditions of checks and balances. Our ancestors formed a new status quo that suited evolving human awareness, well-being and conscience better than domination. They came upon a strategy of effectively resisting power abuse by advantaging cooperative, sharing, pro-social behaviors.
This remarkable pattern of “vigilant sharing” saw humans through severe ice ages, intense global warmings and volcanic winters. It saw them through all the hardships our species has suffered in the 200,000 years of its existence, and that’s no small thing. A social system where vigilance against Hyde-ish behaviors is coupled with sharing most of the Earth’s bounty confers an evolutionary advantage. During difficult times, tribes that look after each other survive. Those that allow self-aggrandizing alphas’ rise into dominance and resource hoarding will be at a survival disadvantage. After all, those human bands where some gorged on meat while others starved would have, other things being equal, done poorly in ice age competition with other groups whose members were all relatively well fed, or in coping with the hardships of a frozen, arid world.
There were always failures. Despotic or greedy individuals managed to snatch power for a while and disturbed the equilibrium. But this only reinforced overall the traditions and customs mediating these weaknesses. Our ancestors did not try to convert the human nature to something else. They shrewdly acted on what the human nature really was, and cultural evolution did the rest. Displaying the same sharp wit as certain astute American Founders of 200+ years ago, they understood that human society must acknowledge and be shaped around human weaknesses, vices and foibles. They built in checks and balances that curbed the — certain to occur — misuse of power and incipient greed. Their leadership patterns can be described as ad hoc egalitarian meritocracy: people rose into leadership on the basis of helpful qualities, were carefully watched, and unseated if power went to their heads.
Human beings, after all, are not created equal in ability. It is the responsibility of the community to make sure that ambitious or aggressive individuals don’t overstep the boundaries leading to power abuse, while at the same time giving these naturally advantaged people enough leeway that they may benefit the community through their talents and leadership. It’s a balancing act that requires constant care… like driving a car. All goes well most of the time, because continual vigilance is practiced, and small adjustments are easily and continuously made. If the driver stops paying attention, however, trying to right the situation will probably be hard and painful once the tree approacheth ready to smack the vehicle. And so also, once a dominant individual or a clique muscles their way into power, the cost of dealing with them can be quite high. Egalitarians understand well that power goes to people’s heads with tedious regularity, that it devolves on the rest of the community to be alert to it, and that it is the responsibility of the weak to curb the strong.
Let’s go back to the time when the ice began to let up, some 17,000 years ago. There had been occasional societies in the European Paleolithic where a measure of economic and political inequality took hold for a time. Nevertheless, the predominant pattern is remarkable. Here we are, egalitarian to the bone. We are sharers, our possessions are few, we are on the lookout for upstarts and hoarders, standing up for the weaker members of the band. We murder each other with unsettling frequency, mostly men killing other men while competing for women. We skirmish against other bands and tribes, but casualties are limited. Occasionally, a despotic individual arises, wreaks damage, and is eliminated. We live within modest abundance, and famines, as well as great many later diseases, are largely unknown. We are still both nice and nasty inside, but over the last several hundred thousand years have become remarkably nicer in our behavior within the tribe. The underdogs unite to keep the bullies in check for the benefit of all.
Vigilant sharing of power and resources has been the preferred mode of our species’ existence for most of its time on Earth. Did these cultures halt human evil? No; they circumscribed Hyde. And if they could do it, why not us? Finding a way to reconnect with our egalitarian past in the near future seems more and more like the sweetest dream worth pursuing.