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How Prestige Ru[i]ns Our World, Part 3 – Consequential -isms

How Prestige Ru[i]ns Our World, Part 3

This is Part 3 of a series on prestige competition and its broader contemporary effects. For other parts, click below.

Part 1: From Agonistic Behavior to Dominance Hierarchy: An Evolutionary Parable

Part 2: From Dominance Hierarchy to Prestige Hierarchy

Part 4: The Prestige Complex

Part 5: Dr. Praiselove or: How I Learned to Start Worrying and Loathe the Internet

Part 6: Taking Stock and Looking Ahead

From Hierarchy to Egalitarianism to Hierarchy Again


From Hierarchy to Egalitarianism


Contemporary hunter-gatherers are famously egalitarian and seem to have been so for quite some time. In these groups formal leadership tends to be absent, and while there may be recognized experts in particular domains (hunting a certain animal, crafting a certain tool, making or administering a certain medicine), such expertise cannot usually be parlayed into notably greater political power. Group-level decisions are arrived at via discussion and consensus. While there usually is not complete gender equality, hunter-gatherers tend to fare much better on this count than sedentary agricultural societies. All this presents a bit of a historical puzzle, given the hierarchical character of both our distant Pan-like ancestor and of modern nation-states.

According to anthropologist Christopher Boehm in his influential Hierarchy in the Forest, egalitarianism in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies is not a passive, effortless state of affairs but a concerted arrangement requiring constant vigilance and enforcement. He characterizes this arrangement as an “inverted hierarchy” in which rank-and-file group members band together (another modern task for our coalitional psychology) to tamp down on the greedy, proud, violent, or ambitious.

What is most interesting about Boehm’s analysis, for our purposes, is the observation that it’s not just traditional dominance or formal political power that is heavily policed in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies but prestige as well.

Richard B. Lee’s pioneering research on the !Kung San foragers of the Kalahari offers a fascinating window into some of the customs by which prestige may be regulated in hunter-gatherer societies. The translated words of one of his informants (requoted in Boehm, 1999, p. 45) reveal a complex system of ritualized humility:

“Say that a man has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart, ‘I have killed a big one in the bush!’ He must first sit down in silence until I or someone else comes up to his fire and asks, ‘What did you see today?’ He replies quietly, ‘Ah, I’m no good for hunting. I saw nothing at all…maybe just a tiny one.’ Then I smile to myself because I now know he has killed something big.”

When the hunter then shows his kill to his fellows, others theatrically express “disappointment”:

“You mean to say you have dragged us all the way out here to make us cart home your pile of bones? Oh, if I had known it was this thin I wouldn’t have come. People, to think I gave up a nice day in the shade for this. At home we may be hungry but at least we have nice cool water to drink.”

The rationale for this half-serious, half-jesting shaming behavior is given (again by an informant) as follows:

“When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can’t accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle.”

Further anti-hierarchical measures are revealed in the peculiar way !Kung foragers distribute meat from killed game. Boehm writes:

Credit for the kill goes to the owner of the first arrow to hit the game. This man (who may not even have been present) has to distribute the meat formally to all household heads in the band—a task associated with not only prestige, but tension. Because the !Kung trade arrows often (Wiessner 1996), the responsibility of owning the meat while it is distributed is randomized, thereby preventing the more successful hunters from presiding over their own accomplishments. In effect, it is a way of removing the temptation to dominate. The fact that the best hunters speak so modestly, and frequently swap arrows to avoid envy, is a monument to the efficacy of ridicule as an instrument of social control. (Ibid., p. 46)

But ridicule is far from the only weapon egalitarians use to keep upstarts in check. Boehm (pp. 75-84) documents a number of widespread, escalating antihierarchical sanctions observed by anthropologists, from passive disobedience (e.g., ignoring commands) to active shunning to expulsion to assassination. Egalitarianism, it seems, is serious business.

Why would prestige seekers tolerate such limitations? I mentioned in the previous section that individuals were free to relocate to other groups if they felt they were getting insufficient prestige for their contributions. Boehm, however, suspects their realistic transfer options will tend to be fairly limited:

For a moral nonconformist, living with other people in a band often is quite literally the only way to stay alive. Most foragers have alternative bands they can join, but the number is very limited. If the individual runs out of bands, in some environments he and his family are likely to perish without the cooperation and sharing that are advantageous in making a living. (pp. 72-73)

And, of course, if every group is placing hard limits on the amount of individual prestige one can accumulate, then it may not matter very much where one moves.

This widespread intolerance of upstartism Boehm christens “the egalitarian ethos” (p. 66). In his view, its successful enforcement among hunter-gatherers constitutes a remarkable feat of social engineering, a triumph of communal will over individual desire. An examination of more complex and sedentary societies, however, reveals it to also be quite tenuous.


From Egalitarianism Back to Hierarchy


Just as notable as the omnipresence of egalitarianism in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies is its near omni-absence in more complex, modern social arrangements. Human populations swept up in their first agricultural revolutions reliably abandoned their egalitarian ways and reverted to hierarchical sociopolitical structures. How might this transition be explained?

Boehm’s view, seemingly widely shared among others who study human hierarchical behavior, goes something like the following: We have a deep, innate drive toward hierarchy inherited from our chimp-like ancestors. In nomadic hunter-gatherer societies, this drive is effectively suppressed by the concerted efforts of a majority of band members, but it reasserts itself as soon as resources can be hoarded and inequalities of wealth and power can develop. In the words of anthropologist Harold Schneider (approvingly quoted by Boehm, p. 124): “All men seek to rule, but if they cannot rule they prefer to remain equal.” Thus, for these thinkers, hierarchy is not just historically but motivationally (and, at least in Boehm’s case, conceptually) primary to egalitarianism. I have a couple of qualms about this particular story.

For one, adaptations don’t usually persist long in conditions under which they are no longer useful. Adaptations are expensive; they hog resources that could be deployed toward other adaptations, and so the “moment” (evolutionarily speaking) they cease earning their keep, selection will tend to favor those with increasingly attenuated versions of these formerly useful structures.

For two, it’s unclear what, exactly, is meant by an “innate drive toward hierarchy.” The worry I raised in Part 1 about mistaking the conceptual structure of our cognitive models for the conceptual structure of the modeled cognitive systems resurfaces here. When we speak, in evolutionary contexts, about a “drive toward some x,” it often seems that we’re imbuing either the evolutionary process itself or the brain structures that instantiate that drive with some sort of frontloaded representation of the end goal, x. While I hope it’s sufficiently clear that evolution itself ought not be granted a conceptual capacity, the second proposition is a little trickier to evaluate. While of course our brains represent a great many things, it’s usually assumed that the goals of these “innate drives” require neither conscious representation nor learning. They are very different beasts from, say, my drive to finish this blog post. So it seems that what we’d have to be talking about here is something like the existence of innate concepts. The problem is, pace Jerry Fodor, it’s very unlikely that we have such things (I’ll save the long argument for another post, as it would constitute too wide a digression here).

A more metaphysically innocent way of unpacking “innate drive” might involve dispensing with any necessary representational component and stipulating that the thing the drive is toward (i.e., its intentional object) is simply whatever produces a feeling of satisfaction and temporary abatement of that drive. On this view, when we say we have an innate drive for, e.g., sugars and fats, we’re not saying that we have unconscious or subcortical representations of these nutrients but only that we have a certain sort of appetite which sugars and fats are required to satisfy. This is a step in the right direction, but pitfalls still abound. You’ve probably heard tell of some version of the Olds and Milner experiment in which electrodes were implanted in the reward centers of rats’ brains and the rats were allowed to self-stimulate these centers by pushing a lever. Said rats quickly become very eager to continually push that lever, even to the point of starvation. We wouldn’t, though, say that the rats had an “innate drive” toward lever-pushing.

The key question here is whether we’re dealing with a drive toward dominance per se or merely a drive (more realistically, a bundle of distinct but contextually confluent drives) toward the acquisition of salient resources, which would tend to produce dominance-seeking behavior in certain social settings (recall the newly “social” monitor lizards discussed in Part 1; I don’t think it would make much sense to say that these formerly solitary creatures had an innate drive toward dominance per se). The difference may seem trifling, but it matters insofar as these two characterizations might yield rather different predictions as to the preponderance and recalcitrance of dominance-seeking behavior in humans.

I think it’s worth taking very seriously the idea that hierarchy-conducive behavior might not be the necessary upshot of a singular, highly circumscribed drive toward dominance but a sort of emergent pattern resulting from the joint operations of a variety of distinct cognitive pre-adaptations. I think the same is true of egalitarianism and that a number of the same pre-adaptations are implicated in both social arrangements. Thus, contra Boehm, I don’t know whether it makes any more sense to say that we have an innate drive toward dominance than that we have an innate drive toward egalitarianism. My preferred characterization is that we have a suite of pre-adaptations that readily yield hierarchical or egalitarian social organizations depending upon certain conditions.

In The Architecture of Rage, I briefly discussed three of what I consider to be key players in this suite of pre-adaptations: (1) intolerance of unfairness; (2) habituation to present circumstances; and (3) the use of local comparisons for assessing one’s standing within a group (referred to by social psychologists as the “local dominance effect”).

These aren’t the only relevant pre-adaptations, of course (language and theory of mind, among many others, would also have played important roles), but I focus on them for reasons that will become apparent in the remaining parts of this series. I’m quite confident in attributing all three capacities/dispositions to our recent ancestors, as there is evidence for them in many lesser anthropoid species (here again, for instance, is a rather clear—and famous—example of unfairness intolerance in capuchin monkeys, with whom our nearest common ancestor would have lived about 40 million years ago).

It’s time now to try to flesh out the story of hierarchy’s re-ascension. Boehm (pp. 137-146) discusses seven distinct forms of human social organization—(1) nomadic hunter-gatherers; (2) acephalous tribes; (3) Big-Man societies; (4) sedentary foragers; (5) chiefdoms; (6) primitive kingdoms; and (7) ancient civilizations/modern societies—and attempts to locate each on an egalitarian-despotic spectrum inspired by the work of ethologist Sandra Vehrencamp (1983). I’m going to be relying more on Boehm’s descriptions of these social forms than on his particular analysis with respect to the degree of despotism they exhibit, and for two principal reasons: (1) Boehm conceives of dominance primarily in terms of recognized political power. He doesn’t recognize the distinction we’ve been drawing between traditional dominance and prestige, the latter of which, I will argue, is playing a major role in the contemporary dynamics of social hierarchy. (2) Boehm considers even egalitarian hunter-gatherers to be rather despotic, for, as we’ve seen, he considers humans to be driven toward dominance by default. Again, this is a claim that needs more unpacking and scrutiny than Boehm gives it.

“Acephalous tribes,” as Boehm calls them, tend to be larger and more socially complex than nomadic forager bands. They are usually pastoralists or horticulturalists, but may hunt and gather supplementarily. Despite Boehm’s terminology (“acephalous” means headless), it’s not unusual for them to have de facto leaders. Boehm nevertheless considers them nearly as egalitarian as nomadic hunter-gatherers because the power of these leaders is usually quite limited. They function much more as consensus-facilitators than as decisive rulers, and their influence is tenuous, circumscribed, and nonhereditary. They are viewed merely as primi inter pares—“firsts among equals”—by the rest of the tribe.

I see a greater distinction than Boehm does between these groups and nomadic foragers. While tribal societies may still be largely egalitarian with respect to recognized political power (the only measure Boehm considers), they are notably less egalitarian with respect to both prestige and resource distribution. Families in these societies tend to produce food only for themselves. Resources like cattle and garden plots are typically privately owned and protected by implicit or explicit property rights. With increases in private property come increased vulnerabilities to theft and raiding, and it’s no coincidence that such societies—particularly pastoralist societies—often give rise to cultures of honor centered on the advertisement of masculine formidability.

Raiding, and warfare more generally, often plays a major role in tribal life, and military success is a common basis for prestige and the accordance of leadership functions. Military leaders, owing to the exigencies of the situations over which they preside, are typically entrusted with more unilateral (if circumscribed) power than peacetime leaders.

Boehm’s study of Montenegrin Serbs (1983, recounted in 1999, pp. 98-101) provides one account of the gradual emergence of hierarchy under military pressure. In the late 15th century these predominantly Orthodox Christian Serbian tribes came under siege by the Ottoman Empire, and by the 17th century the tribes had begun to confederate in unified opposition. This confederation was headed by a vladika, a warrior-bishop popularly elected from one of the tribes (a different tribe each election) by the opsti zbor, a central assembly comprised of members of all confederated tribes. The vladika, while in charge of the army, still had fairly limited formal political power (though his prestige was considerable); most significant intertribal-level decisions were at the time still made via the opsti zbor. But then something pivotal happened:

At the turn of the eighteenth century, Vladika Danilo [the First] Petrović led the tribal army to signal victories in which many “Turkish” heads were taken, and this very popular war leader was allowed to name his successor. The leadership role suddenly became hereditary, and a chiefdom began to replace the tribal republic. (Ibid., p. 99)

Still, the quashing of the egalitarian ethos was far from immediate. Tribes successfully resisted further expansions of the vladika’s power for well over a century. It wasn’t until Danilo II was able to unite a number of loyal tribes into his personal army and dispatch dissenters en masse that centralized authority finally became widely recognized across the confederacy.

But war is not the only context conducive to the erosion of egalitarianism. In the Big Man societies of western Melanesia, status is attained and defended via a complex system of competitive gift-giving which places recipients in de facto debt and thereby allows the most “generous” men to cultivate large networks of followers and supporters. More complex versions of this system are seen in the potlatch ceremonies practiced in the sedentary, aristocratic Native American societies of the Pacific Northwest.

Elsewhere, political power first coalesces around elders and shamans, who are able to parlay their wisdom and talents into increasingly potent, unchallengeable, and, finally, hereditary political influence. Among the Samburu of Kenya, for example, elder males rule the roost and are in charge of arranging marriages, which power they use to give themselves multiple wives at the expense of younger males (and, you know, the wives), who are regarded as in a state of protracted adolescence until their 30s. The elders are constantly paranoid of these young bachelors stealing their stock or sneaking into bed with their wives, and they keep them in check with the threat of curse, for the elders alone are believed to be able to entreat God to bring misfortune upon those who have wronged them.

There was probably no single, canonical path from egalitarian forager societies to hierarchical chiefdoms or proto-states. Tribal societies plagued by intensive warfare and raiding may have followed a course similar to that of the Montenegrin Serbs, forming intertribal confederacies and appointing a supreme military leader capable of controlling and coordinating all the confederated tribes. Those tribal societies whose relations with neighbors were characterized primarily by trade than by overt hostility, on the other hand, might have instead followed something like the Big Man route, according political influence to the most conspicuous “altruists.”

Still other routes are possible. What I suspect will be common to them all is an initial relaxation in the regulation of prestige. Prestige, recall, is given to those with skills and dispositions beneficial to the rest of the focal community, so it is on the basis of contribution to the group that asymmetrical political influence first comes to be granted. Once political offices come to be inherited, however, this meritocratic link between usefulness and power is severed.

Nomadic hunter-gatherers like the !Kung may police prestige quite intensely, as Lee’s account suggests, but this is done to a notably lesser degree in tribal societies. The aforementioned greater need for the leadership of highly skilled individuals provides one reason for this. Another reason is that prestige policing is simply more logistically difficult in the larger, more private societies of pastoralist/horticulturalist tribes. But a complete picture of the dynamics by which hierarchical and egalitarian social shifts are effected requires going beyond the structural/economic/ecological accounts mentioned above and peering into the psychologies of the individuals who comprise these variously ordered groups. It is to this task that our next section will be devoted.

1 thought on “How Prestige Ru[i]ns Our World, Part 3

  1. An excellent summary. In my thinking the only innate drive among humans and our ancestors is to survive. All actions and behaviours are derived from this basic instinct. Nothing more and nothing less. As a social animal we have accumulated behaviours that would reflect this basic drive. Namely individuals acting alone have a lessor capacity to survive, let alone find a mate. Humans as with all social animals have inherited behaviours demonstrated as effective and therefore selected over the course of time. Prestige is a reflection of every individuals need to be acknowledged and recognized for their individual contribution to the group. If the contribution is significant then they will be accorded the requisite prestige. This proportional division of prestige is a zero sum situation among the connected group that are in line to benefit (a portion of the meat from a large kill) As a consequence the others who benefit would need to submit a proportional amount of their own prestige (submission) This balance as you have indicated works to maintain social order, which of course is a benefit to all (survival)

    Groups that grow where individual members are not able to maintain the minimum contact time required to sustain the balance of prestige and submission of same become unstable. Uncertainty among individuals that are not familiar with each other translates to insecurity angst (unpredictability etc…)

    Hierarchy is the natural evolution of the maintenance of power within groups It represents a practical trade off where individuals will submit a portion of their prestige for social order and a minimum share of the resources needed to survive as well as a reasonable access to mates sanctioned by the group. The catalyst for this dynamic evolution is the exceptional individual (Alpha males) These type of individuals exert pressure through personal example, heroic deeds etc…In the end their power and indeed their prestige is wholly dependent on their ability to accrue allies within the group

    At the end of the day it is all about survival and that which an individual is prepared to give up to another for peace and security. Heredity is tolerated for the same reason as just another practical trade off.

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