• Sarah Chayes

Insight #2: The Egalitarian Ape


BEAR WITH ME. We’re getting to corruption, I promise. But first we need to step even further back in time, to the very origins of our species. Here’s why: Your understanding of what makes us human – of our fundamental nature -- will determine your view of what sort of society we can aspire to, and how to get there.

The argument over whether humans are, by nature, selfish or generous, domineering or egalitarian, is an old one. Research indicates we’re both. (Surprise!)

But what was radically new about us -- what set us apart from our primate forebears – seems to be the egalitarian part. We pulled off nothing short of a social revolution within the primate order. That revolution, along with less hair and more brains, made us human. Homo sapiens is the Egalitarian Ape.

What got us there, argues primatologist/anthropologist Christopher Boehm among others, is meat. Boehm is one of the rare scientists who has done significant original research both with chimpanzees, our nearest primate relatives, and with human hunter-gatherer communities.


Primates are basically hierarchical. They are also largely vegetarian. That means most members of a band can collect food by and for themselves. Some, such as chimps, occasionally go after game – a special treat. It’s harder to do that alone.


But our hominid ancestors started getting a taste for this high-energy food. Meat started becoming a daily staple. That dietary shift also helped give us our bigger brains.

Remember, these were the days of really large game, like mastodons and cave bears and wooly rhinoceroses. No way a lone hunter could bring one of them down singlehandedly. To take this route, hominids had to hunt in groups.


So, big question: How did they keep those groups together and cooperating? The answer, argues Boehm, is by sharing out whatever meat was bagged. No matter whose spear or dart brought down the prey that day, or who chipped the stone point, the carcass was divided up equally among all members of the hunting party.


This is a big deal. Our closest primate cousins, the chimps, do not do this. When they go out hunting, no matter who brings down the prey, it’s the alpha male who ends up with the take. Everyone else has to crowd around, hands out, begging. The alpha doles out some scraps -- usually to select allies.


Remember that image: an alpha dominator ape who hoards all the meat, and uses the excess to cement ties with his cronies.


Tendencies like that one, which evolved in primates over at least fifty million years, do not disappear overnight. So how did we Homos rein it in and keep our would-be alphas in check?


Simple, Boehm’s findings reveal: we punished them.


He pored over dozens of ethnographies of hunter-gatherer tribes, selecting the ones whose lifestyles seemed most to resemble those of the first humans. He looked for what types of behavior got reprimanded. He found three: murder, incest, and “meat-hogging” – that is, either by guile or force, taking more than your share of collectively hunted meat.


For at least 150,000 years, we slapped down the selfish or domineering among us – the ones who tried to parlay their strength or sneakiness into an alpha-like social superiority. 150,000 years wasn’t long enough to eradicate our hierarchical tendencies, but that time-span did allow natural selection to operate. Would-be alphas were ostracized. They couldn’t get the girls. In extreme cases, they were executed. (See paleolithic cave painting above.) And so we grew more egalitarian.


How early humans punished their meat-hogs is almost as important as the fact that they did.

Before taking any action, says Boehm, hunter-gatherers try to develop a consensus. They discuss the behavior of a suspected meat-hog till they’re sure the whole band agrees that his or her behavior is unacceptable. Only then do they do anything about it.


This unity is crucial. When a band does not confront the meat-hog together, it tends to splinter into angry factions, even to split up. The episode often proves fatal to the little society.


Secondly, hunter-gatherers mete out punishments in a kind of progression, from gentle to severe. First, band-members tease the offender. The next stage might be to criticize him or her in front of the whole group. If that doesn’t work, band-members typically turn a cold shoulder, to ostracize the offender.


All of these are forms of what today we might call “social shaming.” Note that in these cases, it is the powerful band-member, not the misfit or heretic, who is shamed.


The severest punishments in the progression are lethal: an offender might be kicked out of the band to fend for him or herself, or even executed. The result of this process was a stable leveling of human social hierarchy, which lasted for tens of thousands of years.


Here, then, are the keys that this analysis offers for understanding our current conundrum:


1) Egalitarianism is what makes us human. Hierarchical social orders, with their domineering and submissive personality types, are a throwback to the apes.


2) Egalitarianism doesn’t just happen. It has to be policed.


3) The only way to police it – the only thing that can effectively bring the meat-hogs to heel -- is a cross-cutting egalitarian consensus of the entire community.

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© 2018 by Sarah Chayes