Most people are not aware that our own Homo sapiens species within our

Boehm's Moral Origins
Egalitarianism in Human Nature

original hunter gatherer bands were decidedly not hierarchical.  In Hierarchy in the Forest, the evolution of egalitarian behavior (1999,) Christopher Boehm brought to my attention one of the most important enigmas to be solved in the subject of human evolution: how and why did the original foraging humans evolve egalitarian societies within their bands when those of chimpanzees (and Bonobos) are clearly hierarchical.  In his new book, Moral Origins, he updates his views on the subject.  Boehm reiterates the now widely accepted fact that foraging bands prevent the emergence of individual political dominance behavior by the use of constant gossip to build consensus as to whether such “upstart” individuals might need coercive disciplining from the group in the form shunning, outright ostracism and even execution.  In essence, the human hunter gatherer tribes are dominated by their “moral majorities.”

Boehm’s hypothesizes that this “rough egalitarianism” revolves around the sharing of meat and evolved as a result of the cooperation necessary in order to hunt big game, which began about 250,000 years ago.  He notes that wolves and lions hunt big game cooperatively and, although hierarchical, also have evolved to share meat.

If you have been following this blog, you would be correct in anticipating that my view of the “roughness” in the egalitarianism of human foraging bands is that it represents a deterioration from total egalitarianism in the hominid species existing prior to Homo sapiens. According to my hypothesis, influenced by Freud, the breakdown of this prior egalitarianism was caused by the rise of the human sexual ego which meant the increased aggression of sexual competition, which then led to the re-emergence of dominance impulses that had been completely suppressed for millions of years. Boehm himself states that “…a noteworthy area that is poorly regulated socially, and which produces most serious conflict, is competition over females.” So, although sexual aggression was the real culprit, these early humans were only emotionally endowed to counter political dominance by enlisting linguistic and culturally transmitted group behavior.  This “rear guard action” eventually failed with the rise of frank hierarchy in civilizations following the agricultural revolution 12,000 years ago ushering in what I call the “era of usurpation” (of God’s authority.)

Boehm does allow that morality could have pre-existed and led to hunting

Differences in bone cutmarks

cooperatively instead of the other way round and offers only one piece of evidence to support his position.  This is a study by Mary Stiner (2009) that demonstrates that cut marks on bones from the Quesem Cave in Israel were straight 200,000 years ago and “chaotic” 400,000 years ago indicating that they were made by many individuals.  To read into straight cut marks the meaning of more equitable meat sharing is baseless.  Standardization is the hallmark of the onset of culture itself – standardization of the blades as well as how they are used.  400,000 years ago I believe that it wouldn’t have entered the many individuals who took part in the butchering to take more than their fair share for themselves or their families.

Furthermore, Boehm himself points out the moral part of the brain resides in the frontal cortex which is the part of the brain that has undergone the greatest growth.  He neglects the fact most of that growth had already occurred by 250,000 years ago.

Just because I don’t happen to agree with Boehm’s conclusions, doesn’t mean that I don’t think that this is one of the best books on human evolution ever written and that Christopher Boehm deserves great credit not only for establishing as a fact that thoroughly modern humans in their ancestral state, say 45,000 years ago, lived in bands that were egalitarian, but also for introducing the idea that group selection occurred within groups, and not between them.


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2 Comments on “In “MORAL ORIGINS,” Christopher Boehm reminds us that EGALITARIANISM IS PART OF HUMAN NATURE”

  1. Great analysis of what sounds like a valuable book, John. The brilliance of your blog is its subtle, long view of human history. Clearly we are made of several powerful, competing strands and to an extent we are at war with ourselves, let alone with each other or foreign Others. But you show that we have come so far, and are better at base than we suppose. I feel so inspired and hopeful reading your posts.

    1. I do appreciate you comments, Richard. Yes the problem with these ideas is that they are complicated and subtle and can’t reduced to a short catch phrase. Thanks for hanging in there.

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