« Florida days | Gene Expression Front Page | Dr. Barista »
March 18, 2004

What Happened?

Dominance hierarchies -- based on the relationship of domination and submission -- are characteristic of all non-human hominid societies (an extreme example being the tiny-testicled, alpha-male gorilla lording it over his band of mates) and are found in many other species of animal -- as in the proverbial pecking order among chickens, dogs, horses, etc.

Likewise, dominance hierarchies are a defining characteristic -- in fact, an overwhelming feature -- of every known civilization before modern times.

It is a curious fact, therefore, that dominance hierarchies are rare in the ethnographic literature describing hunting-and-gathering societies -- and thus, presumably, also rare in hunting-and-gathering societies as they existed during much of our common evolutionary past.

To account for this fact, an anthropologist at UCLA named Christopher Boehm proposed a couple of years ago the idea of a reverse dominance heirarchy.


The gist of his idea is that a love of dominance was so bred into the human species (males above all) during their long, shared hominid past, that they developed an innate distaste of being dominated by others. Thus armed with a motive, and using the cooperative skills which language and their big brains conferred upon them, all the lesser males in a group who were in danger of being dominated by an alpha male, would band together (form a reverse dominance hierarchy) to put the would-be tyrant in his place. In this way, dominance behavior, while not eliminated entirely, could be moderated and dispersed. (To learn more, Google reverse dominance hierarchy or read Boehm's book Heirarchy in the Forest

Boehm's idea is interesting as a concept in evolutionary psychology, quite obviously, to say nothing of the contribution it might make, if it holds up, to the theory of democracy. But the question that I want to ask is different:

Given the presumed rarity of dominance hierarchies during the Paleolithic, and their well-documented universality in all civilized societies that emerged from the Neolithic (when agriculture was developed) what was the actual mechanism that led to the demise of "reverse dominance hierarchies" at the dawn of history: not only in Sumeria and Egypt, but in India, China, Mexico and Peru? (These should probably be treated as independent phenomena, I think, certainly in the case of Mexico and Peru.) Can anyone come up with a reasonably precise and coherent explanation that makes intuitive sense, something we can really understand?

Or do we settle for the grey mush in all the textbooks: that agriculture made it possible to grow a surplus of food, populations built up, societies became more complex, and people gradually lost control?

Posted by lukelea at 05:15 PM