Hierarchy and evolution

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Joined: 1-07-13
Jul 1 2013 15:12
Hierarchy and evolution

Hi there,
I'm a recent graduate who is currently researching several theories of evolution and epigenetics in relation to the creation of hierarchies in humans. I am working for an author who believes that hierarchies in humans are not an innate evolutionary trait. Unlike other primates, the nature of the hierarchies humans sort themselves into are constantly contested (capitalism vs communism, toalitarian vs. democratic etc.). The book follows on from CHristopher Boem's "Hierarchy of the forest", in which Boem basically suggests that whilst gorillas and chimpanzees have rigid hierarchical structures, human beings in pre-agricultural societies don’t; more to the point, although there is a latent tendency for individuals to assert their Alpha Male status, the rest of the group form alliances of "the weak" to keep them in their place using a variety of strategies from ostracism to mockery in a system he calls "counter-hierarchical". Boem suggests, and this theory is backed up by other academics, that it was the invention of agriculture which caused the hierarchies to form. I could go into this in greater detail, but what I really want to know is whether anyone has read anything about this subject? Are there any studies on the effects of epigenetics or evolution and their affect on hierarchies? Or, indeed, any work, related to gentics or not, which focuses on the idea that hierarchies aren't innate?

Thanks for reading, sorry if i posted this in the wrong place.

H xxx

Joined: 25-12-11
Jul 1 2013 16:16

Sounds interesting, not sure what the significance of epigenetics is here though? Maybe I'm missing something.


armillaria's picture
Joined: 1-09-09
Jul 1 2013 20:28

There are some interesting studies I've seen that show how wolves really only have prominent alpha-male setups when they're in captivity.

Which is cool because it suggests a cross-species understanding that machismo is just a shit substitute for actual liberty. wink

Joined: 1-07-13
Jul 2 2013 14:43

Thanks for the stuff on the wolves, really useful. Does anyone have any interesting studies of hierarchies which relate to primates?

The epigenetics element of this is, in my view, tenuous. I'm helping an author research his book, and he has been using the term 'epigenetics' as a way of describing the forced shift of humans from egalitarian to hierarchical societies. I think he is using the term in a similar fashion to Adrian Bird, who defines epigenetics as "the structural adaptation of chromosomal regions so as to register, signal or perpetuate altered activity states." but from a more psychological point of view- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epigenetics_in_psychology.

The problem I have with his use of epigenetics is the assumption that behaviour is a genetic factor which is obviously up for debate. The nature vs nurture debate becomes even more difficult here because of the influence that agriculture and the domestication of animals has had on the creation of hierarchies- does the discovery of new technologies full under the category of 'natural? TBH, its the very early stages of project, and my degree was in social anthropology, not biology, so I'm kind of teaching myself as I go along...

ultraviolet's picture
Joined: 14-04-11
Jul 2 2013 18:15

Hi there!

First off, with primates, bonobos are non-hierarchal (and non-violent, equality between sexes). We are as genetically related to bonobos as we are to chimps. The theory is that chimps, bonobos, and humans all split from a common ancestor who is now extinct.

Unfortunately, the initial flood of theories about human nature in relation to our primate past were formed before we knew this, so the focus was on the relatively violent, hierarchal, competitive chimps*... and so this was thought to represent humans true "animal nature" that is only tempered by rational thought and restraint and civilization.

(* Although altruism and cooperativeness has also been found amongst chimps, both in anecdotal observations and research. Frans de Waal's more recent work touches on this.)

The archeological and anthropological evidence indicates that hierarchies did not (and don't) exist in "simple hunter gatherer" societies, which means they did not exist for most of human existence. But they did begin to develop before agriculture. They began developing in settled (non-nomadic) societies which are sometimes called "complex hunter-gatherers" or "chiefdoms" - but these communities tend to also have horticulture (growing food in garden plots, which is distinguished from agriculture), or if not that they live in an area with enough food resources (such as fish) that there is not the need to be nomadic. In these cases there is some accumulation of possessions and hierarchies of status and power exist, though in limited form.

The emergence of such societies is also thought to correspond with the emergence of war. But it was the agricultural revolution which really saw both war and hierarchies balloon, whereas in the "complex hunter-gatherer" societies they were only emerging.

I've read about this various places before, but can't remember all the sources. But a recent one I do remember which discusses this in certain chapters is "Beyond War: The human potential for peace" by Douglas P. Fry. The discussion is short (since the focus of the book is on war and peace, not hierarchy), but it will provide references for further research,

Here's a small blurb on horticulture vs. agriculture, in the context of anthropology:

Horticulture primarily differs from agriculture in two ways. First, it generally encompasses a smaller scale of cultivation, using small plots of mixed crops rather than large fields of single crops. Secondly, horticultural cultivations generally include a wide variety of crops, even including fruit trees with ground crops. Agricultural cultivations however as a rule focus on one primary crop. In pre-contact North America the semi-sedentary horticultural communities of the Eastern Woodlands (growing maize, squash and sunflower) contrasted markedly with the mobile hunter-gatherer communities of the Plains people. In Central America, Maya horticulture involved augmentation of the forest with useful trees such as papaya, avocado, cacao, ceiba and sapodilla. In the cornfields, multiple crops were grown such as beans (using cornstalks as supports), squash, pumpkins and chilli peppers, in some cultures tended mainly or exclusively by women.[20]

edit: p.s. you may also want to read this, as it is relevant to primates, hierarchy, and nature vs. social structure and culture: http://libcom.org/forums/general/baboon-ruling-class-dies-peace-results-22052013

ultraviolet's picture
Joined: 14-04-11
Jul 4 2013 16:45

sorry, made a mistake. in larger sedentary or semi-sedentary tribes, often using horticulture or as part of their diet, is when hierarchy was just beginning to emerge. in cheifdoms it was already quite developed (though not to the extent of states), and there is more reliance on horticulture. i was using these two societal types as synonyms, when they are in fact distinct.

and the pages in the book that focus on this topic can be read online here, pages 69 to 72, in chapter 6 "war and social organization from nomadic bands to modern states": http://books.google.co.in/books?id=kPsTTYEl86kC&pg=PA69&dq=%22social+organization+must+be+taken+into+consideration+by+anyone+who+is+interested%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Z6PVUcD5Asf-qgHIiYCoCQ&ved=0CC4Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22social%20organization%20must%20be%20taken%20into%20consideration%20by%20anyone%20who%20is%20interested%22&f=false

the end notes / references, 11 to 14, will provide the original sources from which you can do further research, are:

11. Elman Service, Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective, 2nd ed. (New York: Random House, 1971).

12. Robert Kelly, The Foraging Spectrum: Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995), 302; Service, Primitive Social Organization; T. Douglas Price and James Brown (eds.), Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers: The Emergence of Cultural Complexity (New York: Academic Press, 1985).

13. Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior (Cambridge-Harvard University Press, 1999), quote from 146; Service, Primitive Social Organization, 166—69.

14. S. Reyna, "A mode of domination approach to organized violence," in S. Reyna and R. Downs (eds.), Studying War - Anthropological Perspectives, 29—65 (Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach, 1994); Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest.

Joined: 18-08-11
Jul 8 2013 21:10

You could do worse than check out these Libcom articles:

Primitive communism, barbarism and the origins of class society - Lionel Sims

Anthropology: Reclaiming the dragon (what was primitive communism?) - Lionel Sims

Sex and the human revolution - Chris Knight

Anthropology - reading guide