Saturday, December 29, 2007

Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest

The subtitle of this book is "The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior," and therein lies its interest to me as sometime historian of democracy. About 15 years ago Phil Paine and I wrote an article in which we argued that democracy was not the intellectual property of just one culture, but that most cultures contained the raw materials out of which democracy could be built. (See "Democracy's Place in World History," Journal of World History, 4 (1993): 23-45.)

Boehm in his book is interested in a similar point, and I certainly would have been happy to have access to his thinking in the early 90s. Are humans basically hierarchical or egalitarian? What does anthropological evidence tell us? How about comparison with other great apes?

Boehm argues that contemporary nomadic hunter-gatherers are universally egalitarian, as are some sedentary hunter-gatherers. But it's not because humans don't have a strong prediliction for hierarchy (which is pretty obviously the case); it's because in small communities hunters, who are all armed, trained killers, don't tolerate potential alpha males lording it over them. The male hunters, and the women too, use gossip, criticism, ostracism and ultimately execution to keep such "upstarts" under control.

Thus humans have evolved in such a way that both strong hierarchies and egalitarianism are real possibilities.

Boehm never mentions Athens, but archaic Greece was always on my mind as I read the book. In particular, ostracism and the career of Alcibiades.

Image: Socrates Tears Alcibiades from the Embrace of Sensual Pleasure, by Regnault. All sorts of smart remarks come to mind, the most presentable being adding "for about 15 minutes" to the title.

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Blogger Sandra Dodd said...

Did you look at Santa Clara Pueblo and the other northern New Mexico pueblos? They have a matriarchal clan system, and an elected governor. They take turns by years. A friend of mine (guitar playing buddy, we went to high school together) has been governor of San Juan Pueblo.

When the U.S. voting age was still 21, 18 year olds could vote in pueblo elections. I don't know how long it had been 18; didn't think to ask. Now that all elections are open to 18 year olds, it's not so remarkable, but I remember when we were teens in the 60's that it was cool that some of the Pueblo kids could vote already.

6:08 PM  

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