Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior

Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior

Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior

Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior

Synopsis

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 ofhuman political and social behavior. This book will a key document in the study of the evolutionary basis of genuine altruism.

Excerpt

To one who is living one's life as a democrat, egalitarianism is a topic that affects not only the head, but the heart. My heart was in this book, not only in the research that underlies it, but in its writing. For egalitarianism, as opposed to actual equality, is intrinsic to the democracy that many people on this planet enjoy and often take for granted. We democrats live in societies that define us as political equals, and in spite of voter apathy and predatory lobbies we continue to wield our votes: the collective voice of the people continues to be, ultimately, powerful. It is this essential political leverage in the political decision-making process that keeps alive human freedom and human rights as we know them, and I shall argue that this type of political stance is quite ancient.

We participate in this type of political leverage because we want to keep a say in our own governance, but, more basically, we exert it because we are suspicious of all governance and wish to limit the powers of those who lead and may try therefore to rule. To a democrat the power of centralized government, be it national or local, is a perpetual threat to the personal autonomy of its citizens, and ultimately it is the potential for rebellion by the rank and file that keeps our personal autonomies intact. We knowingly make a sensible compromise between maximization of personal freedom and the needs of a nation that must keep law and order and prevent civil war. Having made this implicit compromise, we tend to be vigilant about our rights--with good reason.

Our earliest precursor, in this respect, may well have been an African ape living some 5 to 7 million years ago. This vanished ancestral hominoid was likely to have formed political coalitions that enabled the rank and file, those who otherwise would have been utterly subordinated, to whittle away . . .

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