Capitalism’s Last Frontier#18 Hierarchy and Gender Division

Humans are unique amongst primate species for the heavy use of meat in their diet.  This, and the perception of violence and strong stratification amongst ape species such as chimpanzees led to a perception, especially in 1960s texts, of ‘man the hunter (which came from a conference in 1966)’, and then in the Sociobiology of the 1980s as an explanation of human nature and human society driven by  hierarchy, aggression, male dominance and territorial expansion, and the rise of human cognition as a result of this factors and the need for co-operative hunting.

This crude view has been chipped away at for many years, but its legacy lingers.  For example against the caricature of ‘man the hunter’ we have the equal one of ‘woman the gatherer’.  Early evolutionary models of Man the Hunter fell out of favour in the 1970s due to the tendency  focus on male-dominated activities while ignoring the important nutritional contributions of women in hunter- forager societies.  From then on we have had a crude division of Man as society, woman as nature.  This ideas have been particularly prevalent in feminist writings and have rarely been helpful, simply replacing an inaccurate stereotype with its reflection.

The challenge to explain is the turn in the early evolution of the immediate ancestors of humans from a hunter scavenger model of subsistence, with strong stratification and gender roles, towards a hunter-foraging model which was much less stratified and more egalitarian, then towards a sedentist agrarian model, where stratification grew and then a hierarchical-city state model where stratification was extreme as was the diminished role and status of women.

Now it is easy to romanticise hunter-foraging societies, especially from speculative projections of current groups to the past.  But it is clear that these were much less status driven than later societies.  Wealth was what could be carried and is difficult to accumulate.  The population carrying capacity of hunter-foraging is low, so there there is a limited scale of social hierarchy that can be achieved.  The gender division of labour seems less clear cut and rather than tribes we seem to have less rigidly defined hunter-foraging bands.  The tribe only seems to develop with the arrival of agricultural sedentism.

In recent years we have gained much greater appreciation of the fundamental shift that occured early in the development of modern man through the development of meat eating and cooking, developed in Craig B. Stanford’s The Hunting Apes: Meat Eating and the Origins of Human Behavior (1999).  and Richard Wrangham.  Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009)  Prior to the discovery of cooking man could only digest limited parts of animal carcasses focussing on fatty parts, and the energy costs of the hunt, compared to the return, was low.  Cooking allowed much less time chewing and digesting, and more blood flow could go to the brain.  Wrangham suggests that cooking led to the origin of patriarchy, with male hunters requiring tending of a hearth for cooking.  Similarly Stanford believes meat sharing rituals may lie at the origins of patriarchy.

It is easy to overstress this as the increase in foraging intensity and the earliest development of agriculture, even the earliest towns such as Catal Hayeck, seem not to have led to an increase in stratification and a widening of the social division of labour.   Indeed the reverse seems to be the case.

The egalitarianism of modern hunter-gatherers is an apparent anomaly in evolutionary terms. The puzzle is that although dominance hierarchies are likely to have characterized the ancestor shared by chimpanzees and humans, and institutional hierarchies are characteristic of modern humans, the hunter-gatherers representing the intervening phase are almost entirely egalitarian in social structure and behaviour.    Erdal and Whiten 1996

The thesis in Beno Dubriel’s  Human Evolution and the Origin of Hierarchies (2011) is that this led to a lessening of the dominance hierarchies typical of primate societies.  The reasons for this are the increased cooperation needed for groups to survive through intense foraging and agriculture, and with increased sedentism or pastoral nomadism a lessening of the gender division of labour, as hunting gradually had lesser importance.  Group living required food sharing, especially for those who could not directly gather food themselves such as pregnant and nursing women, the elderly and infants.

As Erdal and Whiten state

 Instead of wasting time and energy in a futile effort to dominate others, who devoted enough of their personal resources to counteracting others’ dominance, but did not waste time and energy by themselves trying to achieve dominance, would be able to devote much more energy to productive foraging and social behaviour. Those who remained trapped in the old dominance / submission patterns would be wasting their time by comparison.

By contrast Boehm places the emphasis on the actions of the dominated groups

Egalitarian behaviour arises from dislike of being dominated. …Individual dislike of being dominated, reflected in the ethos and reinformed by it, is transformed by small communities into what amounts to social policy. … Compared with both African great apes and other humans at the strongchiefdom level or higher, human groups committed to egalitarian behavior have gone in an opposite direction. They have done so because followers discovered that by forming a single political coalition they could decisively control the domination proclivities of highly assertive individuals, even their chosen leaders. This political direction was somehow reversed after the invent ion of agriculture, and an “orthodox” version of social dominanc e hierarchy reappeared. This argument is highly relevant to theories of state formation. Christopher Boehm Egalitarian Behavior and Reverse Dominance Hierarchy Current Anthropology, Vol. 34, No.3. (Jun., 1993), pp. 227-254

In the following sections we shall examine the thesis often put that agriculture in and of itself created hierarchy and that hierarchy formed the basis of urbanisation and civilisation.  As we will see the causation is often reversed.

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