That the human species is hierarchical and "despotic", and that humans naturally exhibit a love of individual freedom may appear to be two contradictory claims. But, as Christopher Boehm demonstrates in his book Hierarchy in the Forrest - The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, these two claims merely reflect different sides of our species' "ambivalent" political nature. Boehm argues that, on the one hand, human beings have innate dispositions to dominance and submission that easily lead to the formation of social dominance hierarchies (similar to those of the African great apes). But, on the other hand, we also have an innate tendency to dislike being dominated by others. Boehm notes that "these behaviorally opposed tendencies have coevolved" and further that they "underlie the predictable psychological ambivalences that are experienced by individual decision-makers in a variety of political contexts". What political form a given human society takes at a given time can be said to depend on in what direction the "ambivalences of both subordinates and would-be dominators are resolved".
As any student of history knows well, human societies can take on many different forms. "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", Boehm writes. This has led many scholars to believe that human political nature is infinitely flexible, or even that there is no such thing as human political nature at all; that we are born as Lockean "blank slates". Boehm points out that this is a serious mistake and explains how "the same quite definite and 'hierarchical' human political nature could have been supporting not only despotic societies of recent humans and ancestral apes, but also the egalitarian societies of humans [in hunter-gatherer bands]".
The three innate propensities mentioned by Boehm--(1) to dominate others, (2) to submit to domination, and (3) to dislike being dominated by others--are present in all of us, but in different degrees and configurations, giving rise to different individual political strategies. How different political strategies play out against each other determines the degree of despotism in a society. (Here, I think that a game-theoretic approach would have been useful to model frequencies of political strategies in a population, but Boehm unfortunately eschews formal methods in favour of a strong focus on ethnographic descriptions and similar observations from primatology.)
The reverse dominance hierarchy
Before twelve thousand years ago, humans basically were "egalitarian". They lived in what might be called "societies of equals", with minimal political centralization and no political classes. Everyone participated in group decisions, and outside the family there were no dominators. Small local groups of hunter-gatherers had no leaders with any real authority and members could leave the group at will and join another. "Strict equality was practiced with respect to political relations among adult males. Leaders were weak and merely assisted a consensus-seeking process when the group needed to make [collective] decisions." How was this possible given that humans are naturally hierarchical?
Boehm's key insight is that political egalitarianism "does not result from the mere absence of hierarchy, as is commonly assumed. Rather, egalitarianism involves a very special type of hierarchy, a curious type that is based on antihierarchical feelings". In this type of hierarchy, which Boehm calls a reverse dominance hierarchy, "the rank and file avoid being subordinated by vigilantly keeping alpha-type group members under their collective thumbs". Politically egalitarian society, then, "is the product of a large, well-united coalition of subordinates who assertively deny political power to the would-be alphas in their group". This differs markedly from orthodox dominance hierarchies, "like those of chimpanzees or gorillas, or humans living in chiefdoms or states". While in orthodox dominance hierarchies "the pyramid of power is pointed upward, with one or a few individuals (usually male) at the top exerting authority over a submissive rank and file". In reverse dominance hierarchies "the pyramid of power is turned upside down, with a politically united rank and file decisively dominating the alpha-male types".
Boehm stresses that the rank and file "must continue such domination if they are to remain autonomous and equal, and prehistorically [...] they appear to have done so very predictably as long as hunting bands remained mobile". Egalitarian hunter-gatherers "seem to realize", says Boehm, "that if a little authority is permitted to develop, then a normal human leader is likely to want more". If the tendencies leading towards despotism are to be continuously suppressed, both eternal vigilance and (occasionally harsh) social sanctions are necessary. The sanctions employed by hunter-gatherers range from ridicule to ostracism to execution. Boehm emphasises that these sanctions are informal and that "foragers have no need of constitutional conventions in order to define and institutionalize their mode of self-governance".
The ever present inclination to dominate others asserts itself by the fact that alpha-types sometimes try to turn the tables and engage strongly in political upstartism: "Regularly, but not frequently, critical domination episodes with feared individuals occur, in which hunters are too cowed to use [sanctions] as a way of resolving their political predicament. The tactical problem is obvious: whoever speaks up first may be putting his life in danger". (This is what game-theorists call a prisoners dilemma situation). So how do nomadic peoples overcome this tactical problem? Boehm talks about a "social agreement" or "implicit contract" collectively upheld by an "egalitarian ethos". The essence of this social contract is parsimoniously captured in the adage "All men seek to rule, but if they cannot rule they prefer to be equal" (a quote Boehm borrows from an anthropologist named Schneider and that expresses an attitude that he claims to be universally manifested among hunter-gatherers). Boehm unpacks the slogan thus:
Even though individuals may be attracted personally to a dominant role, they make a common pact which says that each main political actor will give up his modest chances of becoming alpha in order to be certain that no one will ever be alpha over him.
... we all agree to give up our statistically small chance of becoming ascendant in order to avoid the very high probability that we will be subordinated. We agree to settle merely for individual autonomy for all, rather than seeking ascendancy or domination [for ourselves over others].
This reminds strongly of Thomas Hobbes's recommendation in Leviathan "that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far-forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down [his] right to all things, and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself". Interestingly, Boehm mentions both Hobbes and Rousseau (the original social contract theorists) and suggests that their respective views "may reflect human nature quite accurately--but only if we combine their contradictory viewpoints, rather than allowing them to compete" (tying in with his "ambivalence theory" of human nature). Boehm clearly is in a better position than either Hobbes or Rousseau to provide a more empirically accurate characterisation of the "state of nature" (the starting point for social contract reasoning).
By the term 'egalitarianism' Boehm does obviously not mean the same as the political philosopher Jan Narveson in the latter's paper "Egalitarianism: Partial, Counterproductive, and Baseless". Boehm is talking about egalitarianism with respect to political power (not with respect to material resources). While, as Boehm writes, "Politically egalitarian foragers are also, to a significant degree, materially egalitarian", he points out also that "social and economic nonequals could build a 'society of equals' when it came to the enjoyment of individual autonomy" and that "Foragers are not intent on true and absolute equality, but on a kind of mutual respect that leaves individual autonomy intact". As a libertarian, Narveson certainly is an "egalitarian" in this sense. Libertarians (especially of the anarchist variety) hold that everyone should have the same amount of political power (namely, zero). And this is indeed precisely what the social contract requires according to Narveson's contractarian libertarianism (expounded in his The Libertarian Idea and elsewhere).
The biologically sophisticated economist Paul H. Rubin referred to Boehm repeatedly in his excellent book Darwinian Politics - The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom (my review here). Rubin too points out that our preferences for material equality are outdated and counterproductive in today's world. The environment in which our preferences evolved was essentially a zero-sum world in which the only way to accumulate wealth was to take it from others. In such a world, if some are wealthy, this must be at the expense of the poor. But we no longer live in a zero-sum world. In the market economies of modern western societies the most efficient and the most common way to accumulate wealth is to provide productive benefits for others. Today's wealthy have not in general accumulated their wealth through "exploitation". In the modern world, egalitarianism with respect to material resources (or for that matter "equality of opportunity") is indeed "partial, counterproductive, and baseless". But egalitarianism with respect to political power is as relevant as ever before.
Rubin further argues that both ordinary people and professional students of human behaviour and evolution have often confused dominance hierarchies and productive hierarchies. The universal human dislike of dominance hierarchies, aptly described by Boehm, can lead people to dislike productive hierarchies as well, even though the latter may benefit all members. The result is that people today may be overly hostile to productive hierarchies and as a result choose policies that make us all worse off. Rubin takes Marxism to be the most powerful and tragic example of this phenomenon. Boehm comments on Marxian communism that it was "formed with a flawed understanding of human political nature, and for that reason failed".
The history of human hierarchy
Humans were egalitarian for thousands of generations before hierarchical societies began to appear. "For more than five millennia now, the human trend has been toward hierarchy rather than equality." However, "the past several centuries have witnessed sporadic but highly successful attempts [starting in America and Europe] to reverse this trend". Maryanski and Turner have argued that modern western society is more similar to the environment of our ancient ancestors and that industrial (and post-industrial) societies, in virtue of the increased freedom that individuals enjoy in these societies, are far more compatible with human nature than any other societal formations since hunting and gathering.
Boehm notes that "Ancient and modern democracies may temper individual power with checks and balances, but centralized power still exists and is backed by the coercive force supplied by professional policemen or soldiers". He compares modern nations with "primitive kingdoms" as "both have strongly centralized polities with abundant coercive force available to the rulers":
[A]ncient civilizations and modern nations are highly despotic because the leaders can govern strongly, with abundant coercive power. Although this is somewhat less true of democracies, they too are more similar to primitive kingdoms [which are more despotic] than to chiefdoms [which are less despotic].
Boehm likens chiefdoms to the hierarchies of chimpanzee society and says that given humans' "apelike despotic nature, the advent of chiefdoms was no political surprise". "By contrast, the degree of centralized political control in primitive kingdoms and early civilizations was phenomenal by primate standards."
Implications for today
Even though humans are "resentful of power abuse in a wide variety of political circumstances, and this resentment stems rather directly from human nature", Boehm points out that, "as human political groups become larger and more hierarchical, the psychological ambivalences of individual actors become more complicated":
In addition to the triadic pull between dominance, resentment of domination, and submission, other factors enter the picture: for example, tendencies to resent control from above may be heavily tempered by appreciation of what a benevolent dominating leader does for one, as in chiefdoms or primitive kingdoms or modern democracies where largesse is redistributed from the political center. Or one may identify with a powerful leader on a chauvinistic basis, as he (or she) tries to advance the political advantage of one's nation. Or one may simply be captivated by a leader with powerful charisma.
Boehm points out that "the power of centralized government, be it national or local, is a perpetual threat to the personal autonomy of its citizens". Inspired by Boehm, Rubin recommends that "those of us not involved in government would do well to form our own reverse dominance hierarchy and attempt to limit the power of government."
The book could easily have been considerably shorter than it is, and it could have been better structured. The main thesis is stated over and over with new ethnographic illustrations being cited. One problem I had with the book, which is thankfully confined to chapter nine, is Boehm's unmotivated appeal to group selection theory. Group selection is highly controversial (see this recent piece by Steven Pinker on the topic) and Boehm does not need it to support the main thesis of the book. The ultimate starting point when it comes to evolutionary approaches to politics is Rubin's book that I mentioned above. The latter gives a more complete picture while Hierarchy in the Forest offers only one piece (though an essential one) of a larger puzzle.