(Reading time: 4 - 7 minutes)
Hierarchy in the Forest

Christopher Boehm is a professor of anthropology and director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at the University of California.  He has read hundreds of anthropological studies on a variety of human societies.  He also spent time with Goodall at Gombe National Park, observing the behavior of wild chimpanzees.  These experiences inspired him to speculate on our evolutionary journey, and to attempt the daunting challenge of defining “human nature,” the core essence shared by all humans.  He presented his ideas in Hierarchy in the Forest.

Before we begin, the goal of my work is to help people who are interested in learning about ecological sustainability.  Boehm’s book pays little attention to ecology, and I quit reading about 75 pages before the end.  Folks who are eager to learn about the various trends and controversies in cultural anthropology should put it on their reading list.  I was intrigued by some of the passages I read.  My plan is to jabber a bit about these, and then call it a day.

There are numerous types of societies, ranging from egalitarian (no bosses) to hierarchical (some have more power than others).  Among hierarchical societies, some have many layers of rank and status, like wolf packs.  At the extreme, despotic societies have a dominant alpha to whom all others must submit, like chimps or Nazis.  Boehm presented theories on the evolution of politics and morality among chimps, bonobos, gorillas, and humans.  Based on how the four species behave today, he imagined that the common ancestor of all four, who lived seven million years ago, was innately despotic — and that all four today remain near the despotic end of the political spectrum.

He believed that humans took a strange path.  In the beginning, we were hierarchical.  Later, for much of the hunter-gatherer phase, we were egalitarian.  Then, around 12,000 years ago, with the domestication of plants and animals, hierarchy returned to ascendance, and grew to monstrous proportions over the centuries.  This was not black and white, some early societies of herders or horticulturalists remained egalitarian, despite having private property and unequal wealth.

Oddly, egalitarian societies were also hierarchical.  Civilized societies have pyramid-shaped hierarchies, with the powerful at the top, and the dominated masses spread out below.  Egalitarian societies have an upside down pyramid, a “reverse dominance hierarchy.”  When someone began behaving in an inappropriate manner, the entire group united to confront the misbehaving oddball.

Cooperation was fundamental to the success of hunter-gatherer societies, so conflict avoidance was imperative.  Upstart males, exhibiting impulses to dominate others, were a serious threat to the stability and survival of the society.  Nothing was more uncool.  The antidote to disruptive upstarts was sanctions — criticism, ridicule, disobedience, ostracism, shunning.  Sanctions often helped the upstart get the message, and return to conformity.  If these failed, the upstart might move to a different group.  If all else failed, he might be executed.

Hunter-gatherer cultures had time-proven methods for encouraging conformity, and discouraging the impulses of problem personalities.  It was always uncool to be boastful, arrogant, or overbearing.  When a hunter brought home excellent meat, he would apologize for the worthless crap that was unfit for dog food.  Self-depreciation helped to level out differences, and discourage painful swellings of pride.

Once upon a time, Boehm had succeeded in earning the trust of Navajo elders, in his quest to learn about mental illness in the tribe.  One day, he realized that he had left a watermelon in his car, which he had bought to be a gift.  He ran out, got it, ran back, offered it to the elder — and immediately obliterated the trust he had carefully earned, terminating his research.  His action had been too sudden, and was perceived as aggressive.  The Navajo have a low opinion of white people, and are highly distrustful of them.  In Indian country, people are expected to be calm, composed, dignified, and respectful.

One passage especially touched me.  Jean Briggs was an anthropologist who spent more than a year with the Utku Eskimos of northern Canada.  She apparently behaved like an ordinary American, who had moody days, and sometimes displayed a flash of anger when irritated.  This freaked out the Eskimos, who sometimes ran out the cabin when she was crabby and hissing.  In that society, folks were expected to smile, laugh, and joke — to behave like happy people.  Nothing was more uncool than showing your emotions, because strong thoughts can kill or cause illness.  Anger was dangerous juju, highly toxic.

The Eskimos tolerated a lot of extremely inappropriate behavior, because Briggs was a visitor from a tribe that was notoriously loony.  They gave her hints for behaving more politely, but she missed their meaning.  Eventually, they reached their limits, and Briggs became a nonperson.  She simply could not learn how to conform.

Briggs was brought up in a hierarchical culture, where we all compete against one another to acquire, hoard, and display the most status trinkets.  Self-centeredness is the expected norm.  Most of us live amidst hordes of perfect strangers, and the sight of strangers must make our tropical primate brains squirm and sweat.  When chimps see a strange male, they don’t welcome him with smiles and hugs; they kill him.  Gorillas are also impolite unknown visitors.  Of course, humans take great delight in savagely killing foreigners by the millions.

It’s hard for us to imagine spending our entire lives among a small group of people, where survival depends on cooperation, where competition and conflict were toxic.  The Eskimos were not merely “acting” happy.  They were raised in a culture where it was normal and healthy to mindfully maintain respectful relationships with all others.  They had to spend long dark winters in close quarters, so it was impossible to tolerate selfish spoiled brats or infantile tyrants.  Everyone’s highest responsibility was to maintain the stability of the group.

Boehm’s book was published in 1999.  Most research on wild bonobos occurred after 2003.  Early studies had to be abandoned, because of a civil war that raged between 1994 and 2003, claiming three million lives.  Based on incomplete information, Boehm assumed that bonobos were at the despotic end of the spectrum, but later research revealed that they were remarkably egalitarian.  Also, they were not egalitarian in the sense of “reverse dominance hierarchy.”  For bonobos, egalitarian behavior was normal, natural, almost effortless.  Humans are closely related to both despotic chimps and egalitarian bonobos.

Why are chimps and bonobos so different?  Ecology may be the primary factor.  Bonobos enjoy an ideal habitat, with abundant food, and no serious competitors in their niche.  Chimps live in leaner lands, and compete for food with gorillas and baboons.  Scarcity creates tensions, and territorial boundaries must be aggressively defended against trespassers.  Crowding is the mother of conflict.  Extreme crowding turns humans into bloodthirsty mass murdering maniacs.

Boehm, Christopher, Hierarchy in the Forest, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1999.


Richard Reese lives in Eugene, Oregon. He is the author of What Is Sustainable, Sustainable or Bust, and Understanding Sustainability. His primary interest is ecological sustainability, and helping others learn about it. His blog wildancestors.blogspot.com includes free access to reviews of more than 160 sustainability-related books, plus a few dozen rants.

Reprinted with permission from the author.


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