Hail Christopher Boehm

Evolutionary psychology is a powerful set of ideas, from which I’ve drawn great insight over the last decade or so.  But like most of its fans, I didn’t realize I was missing half of the story.  You see, academic anthropology departments have long been split into two warring camps: physical vs. cultural anthropology.

Physical anthropologists include folks who dig up old skulls, and who work with animals like chimps. Cultural anthropologists focus on studying humans in diverse societies, and are more hostile to evo psych. From a review of  Evolutionary Thought in Psychology: A Brief History:

Cultural anthropology was a different story. Raw self-interest and out-group hostility played a larger role. Plotkin argues that the rise of cultural anthropology was, in no small measure, a reaction against evolutionary approaches in the social sciences. On the one hand, it was a classic turf war. Cultural anthropologists feared that an evolutionarily based social science would put them out of business, and this motivated them to drive out the evolutionary infidel. On the other hand, many leading cultural anthropologists, particularly Franz Boas and his students, who were distrustful of the theory of natural selection. They argued that cultural expressions and the science of culture had little to do with biology and that everything from human sex differences to aggression were purely cultural.

Yes, it made political sense for evo psych folks to rely more on data from physical anthro folks who approved of their work, and to neglect the data of the cultural anthro folks hostile to their work. But it doesn’t make scientific sense.

Yes, since human psychology evolved from the psychology of earlier primate ancestors, studying other primates can give us important clues about the origins of our psychology.  And yes, physical fossils like skulls give us clues to how our ancestors changed.  But cultural anthropologists have studied in great detail recent human societies that seem to have retained much of the lifestyle of our distant nomadic forager ancestors. Surely these contain powerful clues about the social environment in which human psychology evolved.

Which brings me to Christopher Boehm and his 1999 classic  Hierarchy in the Forest, a book that has greatly influenced my thinking over the last few months.  Boehm studied on both sides of the anthropology divide, working with both chimps and “primitive” humans.  He has fashioned a powerful synthesis. A few quotes:

As members of bands or tribes, humans can be quite egalitarian … Individuals who otherwise would be subordinated are clever enough to form a large and united political coalition. … Because the united subordinates are constantly putting down the more assertive alpha types in their midst, egalitarianism is in effect a bizarre type of political hierarchy: the weak combine forces to actively dominate the strong. … They must continue such domination if they are to remain autonomous and equal, and prehistorically we shall see that they appear to have done so very predictably as long as hunting bands remained mobile. … The egalitarian political lifestyle of Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers could have profoundly affected our evolving social nature.

The three African great apes, with whom we share this rather recent Common Ancestor, are notably hierarchical. … Starting about five thousand years ago … people were beginning to live increasingly in chiefdoms, societies with highly privileged individuals … But before twelve thousand 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. For more than five millennia now, the human trend has been toward hierarchy rather than equality. But the past several centuries have witnessed sporadic but highly successful attempts to reverse this trend. …

Large-game hunting brings special reputational benefits. Large game is shared by the entire band, and the resulting prestige lends itself to political ascendancy.

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  • Buck Farmer


    A good friend of mine studied neolithic Chinese teeth to understand variations in diet across gender and age in order to map out their social structure. Anthro is beautiful stuff when it works.

  • Yes, Hierarchy in the Forest by Boehm is a valuable book. It’s a little repetitious, but that just drives home the point about how anti-hierarchical hunter-gatherers are.

    There is another angle to this, however, besides egalitarianism: that’s the independence, the sheer orneriness of many hunter-gatherers, who don’t like taking orders from anybody, so they split from the band and start a new one.

    Think of famous American Indian heroes. Most of them are famous because they were political geniuses who could get enough Indian warriors to assemble in one place to do battle. Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse won undying fame by getting enough braves to show up at the same time and cooperate long enough to defeat 222 American cavalrymen at the Little Big Horn.That doesn’t sound like all that much when you think about it from the perspective of, say, King Hammurabi, but you trying getting 1500 braves to agree on something.

  • The other thing to keep in mind is that just because hunter-gatherers are one way doesn’t mean that non-hunter-gatherers are the same way. A lot of evolving has still been going on since agriculture was invented.

    Most people alive today are descended from people who, on the whole, won more battles than they lost. And one cause for a winning record in battles is being on the larger side.

  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropology says anthropologists are usually classified as falling into five “fields”; Biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, social anthropology
    and archaeology. In the US it says social anthropology and cultural anthropology are synonyms.

  • Noumenon

    a book that has greatly influenced my thinking over the last few months.

    Maybe that’s why I’ve noticed you writing “Our ancestors in their bands behaved like X” recently, I was just skipping any posts that had that kind of thing because I wasn’t aware you had any sources for their behavior.

  • Great post, and good job keeping ideological capture from warping your analysis, imo.

  • Steve, yes we have evolved both genetically and culturally over the last 10,000 years, but it is important to understand where we came from, including that orneriness.

  • Chris T

    It sounds like hierarchies may be a function of the size of the group:

    Small groups can effectively band together and counter a would be strong man. As the groups grow larger, the barriers to effective cooperation rise and strong men are able to assert dominance. The overall group gets too large and different groups begin to effectively check each other limiting the power of strong men again.

    Attempting to make generalizations on human nature based on hunter gatherers can be quite risky.

    • Chris T

      A test of this is to see how hunter gathers adapt when assimilated into a large population.

    • Patri Friedman

      I expect another factor is economics. Hunting & gathering don’t allow for the accumulation of resources, whereas agriculture does, which allows for much greater resource inequality, thus more heirarchy.

  • Jason Malloy

    “Yes, it made political sense for evo psych folks to rely more on data from physical anthro folks who approved of their work, and to neglect the data of the cultural anthro folks hostile to their work. But it doesn’t make scientific sense.”

    I’m confused, because this assertion is nearly the opposite of the quote you preceded it with. It is also false. Cultural anthropology is a fundamental element of sociobiology, and sociobiologists are well-versed in cultural anthropology (e.g. Steven Goldberg, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy) and/or are important contributors to the discipline (e.g. Napoleon Chagnon, Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, Pierre van den Berghe, Pascal Boyer).

  • Right, Jason, in general, classic evolutionary psychologists, such as anthropologist John Tooby, tend to come out of the humanistic cultural anthropology subfield rather than out of the bones-and-genes physical anthropology subfield.

    Henry Harpending is a rare cross-field anthropologist who spent 42 months in the field with hunter-gatherers in Africa and also learned the gene stuff.

    Another way to think about it is using Edward O. Wilson’s consilience framework. Wilson and William D. Hamilton came up to studying humans from biology, while Tooby, Cosmides, Pinker and so forth came down from the human sciences such as cultural anthropology, psychology, and linguistics.

  • Microbiologist

    What is equality exactly, and what is hierarchy? I worry that some less-biological thinkers might use the terms differently from how I would use them.

    A radical biological definition would be that equal individuals must have equal fitness. This definition is not perfect in practice. Suppose Robin and I are both 30-year-olds who are virtually identical for all important variables, ie we don’t look alike but are equally good-looking. We have the same fitness. Now if Robin contracts tuberculosis (which may or may not precede agriculture) or tapeworms, and I don’t, we no longer have equal fitness, yet he can’t force me through dominance or violence to take some of his tuberculousness and give him some of my non-tuberculousness. Therefore, maybe we are still equal in a slightly modified sense.

    OK, back to neither of us having any infections. Suppose we treat each other as equals in every way, and pool all new resources and new costs, such that our fitnesses remain equal. But there is one exception, Robin is married to Charlize Theron (aged 26 at the time in question), while my girl hails from the 30th percentile. How could I let this happen? Maybe Robin just has 7% greater musculature and 20% better agility, so he can always defeat me physically, but that is our only other inequality. You see my point? I would think this kind of inequality would be pervasive in forager groups alleged to be non-hierarchical. (And I am assuming that female beauty is fitness-correlated, though direct evidence for this is so far somewhat limited.) My fear is that a not-so-biological anthropologist might still think we are equal, and I might read him and accept his thinking, when in fact he is mis-defining equality, according to me. Obviously, none of us considers all members of the opposite sex to be remotely equal; it is not anywhere near a matter of indifference who we get for a mate.

  • Microbiologist

    I forgot to mention, Robin and I are in a band hunting mastadons and reindeer on the upper reaches of the Rhine, 30,000 BP. Or whatever. Maybe that area was under ice at that particular time, but y’all know what I mean.

  • Robin, do you think reading Hierarchy in the Forest will help get more accurate at predicting who will be the next target of political coalitions united by egalitarian ideology?

    The basic theory you have outlined seems to have been able correctly to predict that when a polity in the Western world comes to be dominated by the faction more in love with egalitarianism, white males will be targeted.

    • (Continuation of my previous comment directly above.)

      In other words, could reading Hierarchy help me predict which white males will be targeted or who else besides white males will be targeted?

      Alternatively, might it help me get better at identifying which individuals will be most motivated to do the targeting?

      As long as I continue to live in coastal California, I would tend to benefit from improvement in such skills.

      • bo

        Go run into a psychiatric hospital and lock yourself there, please.

  • Mike Ballard

    The change to hierarchical political power of class society comes about with the establishment of a change in the mode production and exchange from hunter/gatherer to agricultural/animal husbandry. With that, comes individual ownership of collectively produced wealth (owning tools, land and animals like sheep and cows) which leads to ‘debt’ of some to the others and the exchange of labour time to pay off the debt. This is the point where women and children become property of males in monogamous and polygamous families i.e. patriarchy. The origins of chattel slavery are to be found here as well. These forms of ownership of wealth by the few gives rise to the need for a political State to protect the few from the many. The old forms of classless family structure break down and with them, the tribe.

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