The revolution that worked

There is an unspoken taboo among paleoanthropologists against calling what made us human a social revolution – and Christopher Boehm’s work has broken through that taboo, CHRIS KNIGHT of the Radical Anthropology Group argues in this guest post. Knight is  responding to Steve Drury’s extended review of Boehm’s recent book, published by People & Nature earlier this month.

Boy practising archery

A young boy of the Hadza tribe of Tanzania practices archery skills. Photo: University of Pennsylvania

I was disappointed to read Steve Drury’s review of Christopher Boehm’s recent book, Moral Origins. It’s bewildering to find a reviewer getting the wrong end of the stick quite so consistently and comprehensively. Steve writes:

The germ of Boehm’s approach is that human social behaviour is dominated somehow by genes and that it evolved in a dominantly Darwinian sense through the increased fitness that he believes its various aspects conferred. This is the approach of sociobiology, which plays down or ignores the influence on human behaviour of an individual’s social environment, including culture and each individual’s mark on society and culture.

When I read this, I could hardly believe my eyes. After all, Boehm is widely recognised among anthropologists as an eloquent opponent of genetic reductionism and determinism. Far from arguing that genes dictate behaviour, his whole point is precisely the reverse: a revolutionary change in culture and politics can decisively reconstruct our deepest nature, altering the trajectory of genetic evolution.

Boehm’s focus in all his work is the so-called “human revolution” – our African ancestors’ momentous transition from a hierarchical, more-or-less primate-style political system to assertive, ever-vigilant egalitarianism of the kind characteristic of modern hunter-gatherers. According to Boehm, this was the greatest and most successful revolution in history. It was the revolution that worked. The evidence that it worked is that (despite everything!) we are still here today, with our uniquely human capacities for self-awareness, language, morality and culture. Reactionaries who are still repeating that tired old mantra that “no revolution can change human nature” need to get scientifically up-to-date.

Unfortunately, Steve doesn’t believe in the human revolution at all. He is one of those who thinks that the first genuine revolution in history was the Neolithic transition. Steve writes:

Widely known as the “agricultural revolution”, this was the most fundamental transformation of hominin activities since the first stone tools around 2.5 Ma. It indeed enabled a revolution, through the development of regularly reproducible vegetable foods, some of which were storable for several years, and more or less tame “meat on the hoof”. The essence of the revolution was that for the first time it became possible for labour to create surpluses whose “durability” enabled them to be stored, moved and eventually traded. Such food security allowed populations to grow.

I have to admit that Steve Drury is far from alone in this. A whole school of archaeologists have long been arguing that nothing special happened when our species – Homo sapiens – emerged in Africa around 200,000 years ago. Britain’s senior and most celebrated archaeologist – Colin Renfrew, Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn – is notorious for his position that the earliest hominins were foragers, essentially like monkeys and apes, and that hunter-gatherers up to the present continue in this tradition, in the sense that they don’t actually produce their food or other means of subsistence. For Renfrew, you can’t have “fully developed mind” until you get labour, and you cannot have true labour until the development of agriculture, when – for the first time – humans began producing their own food.[1]

Needless to say, Steve Drury and Colin Renfrew have rather different politics. As a Conservative member of the House of Lords, Renfrew actively celebrates class inequality, high priests, temples, armies, bureaucracies, writing and private property – viewing such developments as essential to the emergence in Homo sapiens of a “fully developed mind”. Remembering his marxism, Steve commendably hesitates to go down that road. He acknowledges that if the neolithic represented some kind of “revolution”, it was in social and political terms a step backwards, certainly for women and on most counts for the majority of the population. So we have scholars from opposite ends of the political spectrum combining to highlight the Neolithic as the first social and political revolution. I can understand what’s in it for Renfrew – it nicely legitimises his reactionary politics – but I am mystified as to why any marxist would want to collude.

More than any other prominent figure, it is Boehm who has exploded Renfrew’s reactionary myth. Renfrew says you can’t have co-operation in the labour process unless you have top-down coercion by the state. Boehm argues the exact opposite. Socially productive, communally organised childcare, gathering, hunting and so forth are, he insists, not just primate-style reproduction and consumption – they are aspects of the distinctively human labour process. If you hunt an animal using a weapon and eat the meat yourself, that’s not labour. If the meat you obtain is shared out among the entire band, then your activity qualifies as “productive labour”. Bottom-up resistance to any form of selfish appropriation or domination, Boehm insists, is the secret of hunter-gatherer generosity in the distribution of meat. In that sense, politics is decisive in establishing whether human tool-use is subordinated to private consumption or qualifies as genuine labour, genuine production.

Clearly there is a political difference between Renfrew and Boehm, but I don’t think we should decide between them on political grounds. Steve Drury seems at pains to acquaint us with Boehm’s left-leaning liberal politics, his illusions in the United Nations and so forth. But who cares about his muddled political musings? As with any scientist, you dig beneath the surface. The point of interest is whether this or that theory – no matter who invented it – actually works. I could happily set aside Renfrew’s reactionary politics if his archaeological perspective made some kind of sense. Likewise, Boehm is no revolutionary Marxist, but so what? I seem to recall Friedrich Engels recommending Lewis Henry Morgan, who wasn’t a Marxist either.

For decades, palaeoanthropologists have been happy to tell us about a prehistoric “tool-making revolution”, “technological revolution”, “cognitive revolution” or whatever. For them, the term “revolution” is fine. But there’s always been an unspoken taboo: never call what made us human a “social revolution”. Boehm has smashed through that patently unscientific, ideologically motivated taboo. Rebellion culminating in full-scale social and political revolution, he says, is what made us the species we are. Designed for egalitarianism, our deepest nature is the product of that first and greatest social revolution in history.

Boehm’s Moral Origins is a sequel to his earlier (and, in my view, better) book, Hierarchy in the Forest: The evolution of egalitarian behaviour.[2]If hunter-gatherers are egalitarian, according to this fascinating account, it’s not because they have egalitarian genes (which are not too different from ape or monkey genes). It’s because their ancestors in the East African Rift Valley discovered the realistic possibility of collective resistance against primate-style dominance. As a result they eventually organised a revolution – a bottom-up rebellion (“the human revolution”) – whose egalitarian outcome has required constant vigilance on the part of hunter-gatherers ever since.

To dispel any misconceptions, let me quote a few key passages from this earlier book:

Collectively creating and maintaining an egalitarian society requires a high degree of political intelligence and a systematic understanding of political dynamics and outcomes. It also requires a political capacity to operate in large coalitions and a cognitive capacity to arrive at a shared plan of action. Deciding to move vigorously against an aggressive deviant can be a politically risky act, so it is necessary for the rank and file to feel they are acting together, or at least for the leading “moralists” to sense the potential force of their group solidly behind them. A preexisting shared conception of group goals stimulates such solidarity, and that is where cognitive “blueprints” fit in. (p. 193)

…such people are guided by a love of personal freedom. For that reason they manage to make egalitarianism happen, and do so in spite of human competitiveness – and in spite of innate human tendencies to dominance and submission that easily lead to the formation of social dominance hierarchies. People can arrest this process by reacting collectively, often pre-emptively, to curb individuals who show signs of wanting to dominate their fellows. Their reactions involve fear of domination, angry defiance, and a collective commitment to dominate, which is based on a fear of being individually dominated. As potential subordinates, they are able to express dominance because they find collective security in a large, group-wide political coalition. (p. 65)

Among Boehm’s sources and intellectual heroes is the marxist anthropologist Richard Lee. Lee has spent his life championing the concept of “primitive communism”. Boehm and Lee both agree that this was always more than a static system or hallowed tradition. Communism is potentially unstable and therefore in constant need of vigilance and renewal. Boehm quotes Lee on the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert:

Egalitarianism is not simply the absence of a headman and other authority figures, but a positive insistence on the essential equality of all people and a refusal to bow to the authority of others, a sentiment expressed in the statement “Of course we have headmen… each of us is headman over himself”. Leaders do exist, but their influence is subtle and indirect. They never order or make demands of others, and their accumulation of material goods is never more, and often much less, than the average accumulation of the other households in their camp. (p. 61).

In key respects, Richard Lee, Christopher Boehm and dozens of like-minded anthropologists are on our side. Why attack our friends? Shouldn’t we be attacking our enemies instead?

Far from invoking any kind of genetic determinism to explain politics or morality , Boehm goes out of his way to stress the exact opposite:

… gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees… can be placed well toward the despotic end of the continuum. With humans, it is far more difficult to locate our behavioural dispositions with respect to “despotic” as opposed to “egalitarian”. In different circumstances we practice both types of political behavior. The human animal can exhibit far more tyranny than any despotic African great ape, but it also can be more egalitarian than even the bonobo, an innately hierarchical ape whose males find their power being strongly counterbalanced by coalitions of females. (p. 30)

Finally, here is Boehm’s explicit attack on sociobiology. Note his insistence that genes did not fix or determine prehistory or human nature. He is saying that, on the contrary, it was cultural and political action which, in the human case, reversed the whole trajectory of genetic evolution:

I make the case that… when prehistoric hunter-gatherers became egalitarian this condition substantially modified the “balance of power” within natural selection. The result was an empowerment of selection taking place at the between-group level, a change that eventually had profound effects on human nature.

This argument follows Sober and Wilson (1998) in challenging certain basic tenets of evolutionary biology as practiced by sociobiologists (for example, Williams 1966; Trivers 1971; Alexander 1974, 1987; E. O. Wilson 1975, 1978) and their now quite varied academic descendants in evolutionary psychology. For several decades these scholars have been committed to a degree of methodological individualism that has made human nature appear to be exclusively selfish, or at best nepotistic. In effect, our tendencies to be generous have been reduced to a combination of nepotism, dissembled altruism that society forces on individuals, and selfishly oriented reciprocation that is so exact as to be highly unlikely. (p. 15)

“Genetic determinism”? “Right-wing sociobiology”? The boot is surely on the other foot. We often hear it said that “no revolution can change human nature”. Boehm offers a splendid answer to that popular prejudice. Human practice comes first. Everything distinctively human about our nature, he says, was the product of the greatest revolution in history – the human revolution, out of which language, morality and egalitarianism were forged.

Chris Knight, Radical Anthropology Group

Note: Click here for an up-to-date scientific version of the origins theory I support.

Steve Drury’s review, to which this article responds, is here.


[1] Renfrew, C. 2001. “Commodification and institution in group-oriented and individualizing societies”. In W. G. Runciman (ed.), The Origin of Human Social Institutions, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 93-117.

[2] Boehm, C. 2001. Hierarchy in the Forest. The evolution of egalitarian behavior. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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2 Responses to The revolution that worked

  1. […] Altruism and Shame. Chris Knight of the Radical Anthropology Group took issue with the review in an article, The Revolution That Worked. Here, Steve Drury responds to Chris […]

  2. […] on this site of Christopher Boehm’s book Moral Origins, and the exchange that followed between Chris Knight and Steve Drury. […]

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