The view is often expressed – particularly by sociobiologists and their modern counterparts evolutionary psychologists – that human beings are naturally driven to compete against one another and as a result human societies are naturally stratified and hierarchical, with different classes and castes. This is surely innate to us, since our ‘selfish’ genes mean that we are only concerned with our own our survival and reproduction.
Our chances of survival are increased if we can gain access to greater supplies of food and other resources, and so we are driven to compete against one another to gain access to these. The more power we have, the more control we have over resources. And sex is a factor here too, according to evolutionary psychology. Women are naturally attracted to powerful men – since they can protect and provide for them better – and so men are naturally driven to compete for power in order to try to attract females. Because of these reasons, egalitarianism has no survival value, and philosophies such as socialism are, in the words of E.O. Wilson (1995), ‘based on an inaccurate interpretation of human nature.’
However, advocates of these ideas have to explain the complete absence of inequality and social stratification in the most simple – and the earliest – human societies. In general, bands of hunter-gatherers – and also many sedentary tribes – do not have authoritarian leaders, reach all their decisions by consensus, share their food, have no different classes or castes, and have strong ethical principles which negate any expression of greed or selfishness. Hunter-gatherer bands seem to exist in a natural state of communism – a fact which Marx himself recognised, and referred to as ‘primitive communism’. According to Lenski’s statistics in Human Societies (1978) – based on the data in Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas – only 2% of contemporary hunter-gatherer societies have a class system, while private ownership of land is completely absent in 89% of them (and only ‘rare’ in the other 11%). Similarly, Lenski notes that slavery is ‘extremely rare’ amongst hunter-gatherers (in contrast to ‘advanced horticultural’ societies, 83% of which possess it) and that they tend to have a strikingly democratic system of making decisions. Many societies have a nominal chief, but their power is usually very limited, and they can easily be deposed if the rest of the group are not satisfied with their leadership. Political decisions are not taken by the chief alone, but are usually ‘arrived at through informal discussions among the more respected and influential members, typically the heads of families.’ As Briggs (1970) wrote of the Utku Eskimos of northern Canada, for instance:
The Utku, like other Eskimo bands, have no formal leaders whose authority transcends that of the separate householders. Moreover, cherishing independence of thought and action as a natural prerogative, people tend to look askance at anyone who seems to aspire to tell them what to do (p. 42).
While as David Boehm (1999) summarises,
This egalitarian approach seems to be universal for foragers who live in small bands that remain nomadic, suggesting considerable antiquity for political egalitarianism.
One possible explanation for this egalitarianism was put forward by Cashdan (1980). She suggested that hunter-gatherers are inevitably egalitarian because their mobile lifestyle precludes the accumulation of possessions, so that no single person can own more goods or more wealth than another, which prevents inequalities from arising. Gluckman (1965), on the other hand, suggested that the important factor is the hunter-gatherers’ lack of role specialisation. Since nomadic foragers tend be ‘jacks of all trades’ no individual can assume a more important role than another.
There are obvious objections to these theories. One is that the egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers extends far beyond the possession of property, or economic roles. There is no reason why equality in terms of possessions and economic roles should necessarily translate into a lack of formal leadership, or group decision-making processes. But the greatest objection to these theories is that egalitarianism is not confined to mobile hunter-gatherers. There are many sedentary horticultural peoples who are just as egalitarian as foragers. The Wape of New Guinea, for example, have weak leaders, use consensus for group decisions, and any possessions or gifts which an individual receives are quickly redistributed (Mitchell 1978). The Ila of Zambia also have a group decision-making process, and chiefs are considered facilitators rather than powerful leaders. Chiefs must also never make a show of wealth, and be willing to share any wealth they gain (Tuden 1966). As Boehm (1999) summarises:
Many other nonliterates [besides hunter-gatherers], people who live in permanent, settled groups that accumulate food surpluses through agriculture, are quite similar politically [to hunter-gatherers] These tribesmen lack strong leadership and domination among adult males, they make their group decisions by consensus and they too exhibit and egalitarian ideology (p. 38).
There is also some archaeological evidence that egalitarian societies existed long after human societies became agriculturally based. Archaeologically, one of the clearest signs of inequality are differences in the sizes of graves and in the possessions which are placed in them. And there is no evidence of any of these differences until around 4000 BCE, 4,000 years after the so-called ‘agricultural revolution’ began. In particular, until this point there are no ‘chieftain graves’ which are many times bigger than normal, filled with wealth and often in a central position. As James DeMeo (1998) writes of the agricultural communities of Northern Africa during the sixth millennium BCE, for example, ‘[they were] cooperative, productive and peaceful in character, without social stratification or strong man rule.’ Or as Eisler (1987) summarises:
The prevailing view is still that male dominance, along with private property and slavery, were all by-products of the agrarian revolution despite the evidence that, on the contrary, equality between the sexes – and among all people – was the general norm in the Neolithic (p. 12).
Even some of the earliest civilisations seem to have been strikingly free from social stratification and inequality. Ancient Crete was characterised by what Eisler (1987) describes as an ‘equitable sharing of wealth’, the result of which was an apparent lack of poverty, with a high standard of living even for peasants. There were no differences in graves, and no depictions of powerful leader figures in their artwork. This also seems to have been the case at other ancient cities such as Catal Huyuk and the Jomon settlement of Aomori city in Japan, where craft specialisation and a high level of social organisation existed, but where no there was an apparently even distribution of wealth and a lack of class differences (Rudgley, 1999).
The onset of social inequality does not seem to be connected to the shift to a sedentary lifestyle or to the beginnings of civilisation. Archaeological evidence suggests that inequality became increasingly common from 4000 BCE onwards, and that it began with certain human groups in Central Asia and the Middle East. The Indo-Europeans began to migrate away from their homeland in the Steppes of southern Russia at around this time, and their different graves – including large chieftain graves with massive amount of wealth and much smaller graves with no possessions, presumably belonging to ordinary people – clearly suggest a hierarchical social system (Gimbutas 1974). The Indo-Europeans also give us what appear to the world’s first ever instances of slavery. At some early Indo-European sites, the female population mainly consisted of women who were not Indo-European, suggesting that as they invaded new territories the Indo-Europeans killed the men and children but spared some girls and women, who became their concubines or slaves (Eisler 1995).
In contrast to the civilisation of Crete and the city of Catal Huyuk, the civilisations of Sumer and Egypt – which developed during the 4th millennium BCE – were extremely hierarchical and unequal. House plans show that the size of Sumerian houses varied greatly. Some houses were large well-laid out ‘mansions’, while others were tiny one-room hovels which were squeezed into gaps between existing buildings (Oates 1986). According to Oates:
Perhaps the most striking feature of Mesopotamian [the larger area which Sumer was a part of] social structure at all periods is the apparent lack of other than economic stratification. Society fell basically into 2 groups, those who owned the means of production, especially property in land, and those dependent on them (p. 57).
Studies of human remains from ancient Egypt show that after the civilisation began the protein intake of ordinary farmers decreased, suggesting a centralisation of wealth (DeMeo 1998). A small elite of nobles (who were exempt from taxes) owned massive areas of land, while the rest of the population lived as serfs. Serfs could be called upon to perform ‘corvee’ (forced labour) for the state at any time, which seems to be how the pyramids were built. And the pyramids themselves, of course, are a grotesque illustration of social stratification, the most extreme example the world has ever known of inequality of grave sizes and burial goods. As DeMeo (1998) puts it, ‘Enormous and magnificent structures were built at tremendous cost to house the corpses of dead kings, while the bodies of the commoners and slaves who built them were interred in communal pits.’
All of this seems very puzzling, if we take competitiveness as a ‘given’ fact of human nature – and consequently, inequality and social stratification as inevitable facets of human societies. If this is the case, why does inequality seem to be such a late development, and why are there so many native peoples who are free from it?
David Boehm (1999) makes a valiant attempt to explain the egalitarianism of many native peoples without stepping beyond the Neo-Darwinist (or evolutionary psychological) paradigm. He describes his basic theory as follows, writing in the past tense:
The premise was that humans are innately disposed to form social dominance hierarchies but that prehistoric hunter-gatherers, acting as moral communities, were largely able to neutralize such tendencies, just as present day foragers apply techniques of social control in suppressing both dominant leadership and undue competitiveness (p. 64).
Boehm describes some of these techniques. Many native peoples customarily ‘put down’ and ridicule individuals who are boastful, for example. The !Kung of Africa swop arrows before going hunting, and when an animal is killed, the credit does not go to the person who fired the arrow, but to the person who the arrow belongs to. And in occasional instances when an ‘alpha male’ tries to take control of the group, native peoples often practice what Boehm calls ‘egalitarian sanctioning’. They gang up against the domineering person, ostracise him, desert him, or even – in extreme circumstances, when they feel that their own lives may be in danger due to his tyrannical behaviour – assassinate him. In this way, Boehm says, primal societies are ‘reverse-dominance’ societies, in which, in his words, ‘the rank and file avoid being subordinated by vigilantly keeping alpha-type group members under their collective thumbs’.
One problem with this theory is that, as Boehm admits, what he calls ‘egalitarian sanctioning’ occurs only very rarely – he says he ‘had to examine scores of forager ethnographies to find a few dozen usable reports of egalitarian sanctioning.’ But surely if it was a question of suppressing an innate need for power and status in human beings then this would happen much more often, constantly even. In fact, if this need really was innate then it would not be a question of small number of alpha males breaking the egalitarian code; everybody would break it. It would be impossible to ‘neutralize’ competitiveness and sustain egalitarianism because everybody would be competitive. After all, in later non-egalitarian societies, it is not just a question of a few alpha males ruling over everybody else, but of a general desire for power and status, common to almost everybody.
In addition, if hunter-gatherer peoples managed to neutralise their innate tendency to dominate for the good of society as a whole, why were later peoples so spectacularly bad at suppressing their domineering impulses? The difference is perhaps that it is only possible to control potential dominators in primal societies because there are so few of them, since the need for status and power is not innate to them.
The Over-Developed Ego
The egalitarianism of native peoples and the inequality of later societies is perhaps best explained in psychological terms – or to be more precise, in terms of a fundamental psychic difference between them and us.
1. In fairness to Boehm, his main aim is not to explain why native peoples are not as socially stratified and unequal as later civilised societies, but to explain why they lack the dominance hierarchies of primates such as gorillas and chimpanzees. In this more limited sense, his theory is more satisfactory. However, the mistake he – and many others – makes is to equate the hierarchical systems of some primates with the inequality and oppression of modern human societies, and to suggest that both are inevitable results of the same ‘selfish genes’. The inequality of modern human societies is an altogether different phenomenon to the inequality of primate groups, in the same way that human warfare is a vastly different phenomenon to aggression within the animal kingdom. The competitiveness and aggression which appears to be natural and instinctive to animals is fairly mild, and massively amplified within human beings. The power of dominant primate individuals, for example, does not go beyond gaining better access to food and better making opportunities. They have very little power over the behaviour of others, and certainly do not oppress or exploit them as human dominators do. As Boehm himself states, ‘There are few contexts in which he [a dominant male chimpanzee] actually controls the group Every chimpanzee decides autonomously where to forage, and whether or not to join in a hunt or go on patrol.’ (26). It is not a question of ‘despotism’ being natural to all living beings – like warfare, despotism is a specifically human phenomenon, and one which belongs to some human groups, but by no means all.
Werner’s (1957) study of the ‘perceptual and cognitive functioning’ of European-Americans and native peoples found that European peoples have a more pronounced sense of individuality. He notes that native peoples are ‘de-differentiated with respect to the distinctions between self and object and between objects’. They experience a strong sense of connection between themselves and other people, and between themselves and the world around them. They can also sense a connection between objects which we perceive as separate and distinct. According to Werner, European/American peoples inhabit a world of separateness – separateness between ourselves and the world, ourselves and other individuals, and between the different objects and phenomena around us.
This difference was the source of great problems to the colonists of the Americas and Australia. Their egalitarianism made it very difficult for native peoples to adapt to the European way of life, with its emphasis on private property and individual gain. The Native Americans found it difficult to cultivate their own pieces of land or to trade or run stores for profit, because it conflicted with what Ronald Wright (1995) describes as the ‘ethic of reciprocity [which was] fundamental to most Amerindian societies.’
Some European colonists were actually aware of this difference themselves, and realised that they would only be able to truly ‘civilise’ the natives by developing their sense of ‘self-ness’. Senator Henry Dawes – who attempted to turn Amerindians into small scale landowners – went to heart of the matter when he wrote of the Cherokees in 1887, ‘They have got as far as they can go [i.e. they are not going to progress any further], because they hold their land in common There is no selfishness, which is at the bottom of civilisation’ (in Wright, 1995). The English missionaries in Australia tried various measures to develop the aborigines’ sense of individuality. As Bain Atwood (1989) writes, ‘the missionaries sought to make each [aborigine] an integrated centre of consciousness, distinct from the natural world and from other aborigines.’ To this end, they made them live in separate houses and tried to stop going into each other’s. They baptised them so that they would think of themselves in terms of a permanent name, instead of the fluid aboriginal names which could change and include the names of other tribe members. This was not successful, however. The aborigines never developed a sense of personal ownership over their houses or the possessions inside them. They wandered in and out of each other’s houses, and continually swapped possessions.
The European-American strong sense of individuality develops slowly from birth to adulthood, as a part of our general psychic development. During the first year or so of our lives, we do not experience any degree of separation; we have no sense of anything ‘outside’ us. As Ken Wilber (1980) notes, for a newly born child, ‘there is no real space…in the sense that there is no gap, distance or separation between the self and the environment.’ However, following this our sense of ‘I-ness’ intensifies, and we begin to feel a basic sense of aloneness and isolation. We try to subdue this by making use of ‘transitional objects’ – teddy bears or dolls, for example. We fuse our identity with these, thereby alleviating our sense of aloneness. However, it is probably significant that, as Richard Heinberg (1995) notes, ‘This process does not occur in the same way in the case of primal child-rearing The need for transitional objects seems to be minimised.’ We can presume this is because the children of primal cultures have less need for transitional objects, since they do not develop as strong a sense of separateness as they enter adulthood.
The fundamental difference between European-Americans and primal peoples may be, therefore, that we have a stronger and sharper sense of ego – or individuality – than them.
The Ego Explosion
This stronger sense of individuality seems to have developed at a particular historical point. The researches of the geographer and archaeologist James DeMeo suggest that this was around 4000 BCE. His Saharasia (1998) uncovers evidence of a massive environmental disaster which began at around 4000 BCE: the desertification of the large region of the earth which he terms ‘Saharasia’, which until that time had been fertile and widely populated with humans and animals. Parts of Saharasia were the homelands of groups such as the Indo-Europeans and the Semites, and this catastrophe had a massive impact upon them. On the one hand, it forced them leave their homelands (which explains the mass migrations of the Indo-Europeans and Semites over the following centuries), and on the other, the new living conditions it created transformed their psyche. DeMeo’s research shows that this was the historical point where war became rife, when male domination over women began, and when – most importantly as regards this article – societies became stratified, with different classes and powerful leader figures.
DeMeo himself interprets this transformation in terms of Wilhelm Reich’s concept of ‘armoring’. He suggests that the hunger and discomfort which dominated these groups’ lives made them ‘armor’ themselves against the world, and against their own instincts and natural pleasure-seeking impulses. Adults began to treat their children harshly, depriving them affection, which created further ‘armoring’, which was then passed down from generation to generation. However, if the essential difference between European-Americans (and other ‘literate’ peoples) and native peoples is our stronger sense of individuality, then this could well be the point when this difference was created. In other words, perhaps the Saharasian environmental catastrophe generated a more powerful sense of ego within human beings.
Perhaps there were two main ways in which this happened. First, the sheer hardship of these human groups’ lives when their environment began to change – when their crops began to fail, when the animals they hunted began to die, when their water supplies began to fail and so on – must have encouraged a spirit of selfishness. In order to survive, individuals had to start thinking in terms of their own needs rather than those of the whole community, and to put the former before the latter. Secondly, the new difficulties the groups faced as their environment changed must have brought a need for a new kind of intelligence, a practical and inventive problem-solving capacity. In order to survive, individuals were forced to deliberate, anticipate the future, find quick solutions, and to develop new practical and organisational powers. In other words, the Saharasian peoples were forced to think more, to develop powers of self-reflection, to begin to reason and ‘talk’ to themselves inside their heads. And they could only do this by developing a stronger sense of ‘I’. Self-reflection is the ‘I’ within our psyche talking to itself.
There are also some suggestions from myths that earlier human beings were less individuated than their descendants, and that our strong sense of ego developed at a particular – fairly recent – historical point. The Saharasian environmental catastrophe may be the origin of the myths of the Fall. The story of ejection from a fruitful garden symbolises the enforced migration from a once-fertile homeland, and myths which speak of a degeneration from a more pristine state (such as the Greek myth of a ‘Golden Age’, or the Chinese myth of ‘men of perfect Virtue’) refer to the increasing violence and corruption of human society when male domination, war and social inequality had become normal. But interestingly, the myths also seem to suggest that the reason for the Fall – or for the slow degeneration – was an intensification of self-consciousness. The story of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil suggests this, as also does the notion that they were ‘given understanding’ and also that they ‘realised that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and covered themselves.’ The Chinese myth of the Age of Perfect Virtue suggests that human beings lost their harmony with the Tao as a result of developing a new kind of individuality and self-sufficiency. Individuals began to live by their own will rather than the will of nature. As a result they were much more aware of themselves and their own behaviour. Chuang Tzu tells us that the ‘true man of ancient times did not grow proud in plenty, and did not plan his affairs He could commit an error and not regret it, could meet with success and not make a show’ (in Heinberg 1989). In other words, these ancient men acted without analysing their behaviour, presumably because they were less self-aware, and as a result they were from feelings of guilt and pride. Similarly, the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata states that the ‘holy men of old’ were ‘self-subdued and free from envy’.
By the beginning of the current era, the Saharasian peoples had migrated throughout Europe and Asia, and the old egalitarian ‘matrist’ cultures had almost completely disappeared. From around 1500 C.E. their new ship-building and seafaring prowess enabled the Saharasian groups to spread further afield, and they took their ‘patrism’ to the Americas, Australia and other parts of the world.
The Development of Inequality
The most important point, however, is that the beginnings of social inequality were concurrent with the development of this stronger sense of ego. The same groups who developed the first class systems and hierarchical societies were the same groups who were affected by the Saharasian environmental catastrophe. And since, in addition, the native peoples who are apparently not as individuated as us are also egalitarian, there is a very strong case for suggesting that the ‘sharpened’ sense of ego is the root cause of social inequality.
I have elsewhere suggested (Taylor 2002) that the ‘sharpened’ sense of ego was the cause of the sudden eruption of war which takes place at around 4000 BCE, and my argument here follows similar reasoning. The new sense ego meant that human beings’ experience of life was transformed. They underwent what Campbell (1964) calls The Great Reversal, when ‘for many in the Orient as well as in the West, [there occurred] a yearning for release from what was felt to be an insufferable state of sin, exile, or delusion.’ Life became suffering, in Buddhist terminology. Human beings began to experience a new kind of psychic discontent and disharmony, which was partly related to the painful sense of separation and isolation they now experienced. The sense of connection to the natural world which native peoples experience was lost, and replaced by a sense of being trapped within their own selves, with the rest of reality ‘out there’. And with their new power of self-reflection, human beings became prey to ‘thought chatter’, the endless stream of associative mental material which runs through our minds. This thought chatter is usually negatively based, and so gives rise to anxiety, depression and other uncomfortable mental states. At the same time, this new sense of separation gave rise to a sense of incompleteness, or ‘cut-offness’. As a result these human beings developed a need for external sources of happiness, as a compensation for their inner discontent and as a way of trying to complete themselves. And fundamentally this meant a desire for material goods and for status. From 4000 BCE onwards human beings began to crave for property and power as an escape from their inner disharmony. And since there is only a limited amount of property and power, there began to be competition to possess these, and they became unevenly distributed. Capitalism took over from communism, and societies became stratified and unequal.
At the same time the stronger sense of ego created a fundamental lack of empathy between human beings. They became more ‘walled off’ to one another, and as a result it became much more difficult for them to empathise with others and to ‘feel with’ them. The individual’s own ego-generated needs and desires began to take precedence over the well-being of others. Other human beings become mere objects, which the individual feels he is entitled to actually use to help satisfy his desires. As a result the brutal oppression and exploitation which is always a feature of stratified societies became possible. The nobles and landowners of feudal societies were so ‘walled off’ within their own psyche – and consequently had such limited ‘fellow-feeling’ – that they did not consider their serfs or peasants to be human beings. Legal documents from medieval England refer to peasants’ children as his ‘brood’ or ‘litter’, while in estate records they were frequently listed in the same category as livestock (Lenski 1978).
The egalitarianism of native peoples can be explained in reverse terms. Because their sense of ego is less strong and sharp, they do not suffer from the ‘pyschic disharmony’ which afflicts us. They do not experience a sense of separation from the cosmos or a sense of inner incompleteness, and they do not experience our constant, nagging ‘thought-chatter’. As a result, they lack the powerful inner compulsion to acquire personal wealth and power which creates social competitiveness and inequality. And because they are less ‘walled off’ to another, they are more capable of empathy and compassion, and much less ready to oppress and exploit one another. This fits closely with the notion of native peoples as ‘gentle hunters’ who see hunting as an unfortunate necessity, take no pleasure from killing, treat the animals with great respect and apologise to their spirits (see Turnbull ). In fact the great capacity for empathy which native peoples show could easily be taken as further evidence for their less developed sense of ego-separateness. Their sense of empathy with the natural world makes them extremely reluctant to damage natural phenomena and gives them a strong sense of environmental responsibility. The ability to empathise with others is so central to Australian Aboriginal culture, for example, that mothers take care to ‘teach’ it to their children. Often, when a child grabs some food or another object and holds it to its mouth, the mother – or another female relative – pretends to be in need of it, in order to encourage a spirit of sharing (Lawlor 1991). Similarly, whenever a weak or ill person or animals comes by, the mother makes a point of expressing sympathy for it, and offering it food. As Lawlor notes, by these means ‘the child experiences a world in which compassion and pity are dramatically directed towards the temporarily less fortunate. The constant maternal dramatization of compassion in the early years orients a child’s emotions toward empathy, support, warmth and generosity.’
On the surface all of this might seem to offer as pessimistic a view of human nature as sociobiological or evolutionary psychological approaches. Selfishness and social inequality are clearly not ‘in our genes’ or our brains; but they are still inevitable, it might be argued, since they are in our psyche, and have existed since the ‘Ego Explosion’ took place around 6,000 years ago. In this sense, one might say, Marxism is as misguided as evolutionary psychology. A perfectly egalitarian human society with no private property or status differences is not feasible, since the drive for personal wealth and power is as natural to ‘Saharasian’ individuals as the drive for sex or food. These drives were not created by the ‘capitalist’ social system; they were generated by an intensification of ego-consciousness, and then themselves gave rise to capitalism.
However, there is an important difference in that the human psyche is malleable in a way which our genes are not. Spiritual philosophies such as Buddhism, Vedanta, Tantra and Taoism arose as a reaction against the psychic disharmony which the Ego Explosion brought. They teach methods of transforming the human psyche, of overcoming the separate sense of self, transcending the anxiety of ego-isolation and the constant disturbance of thought-chatter, attaining a sense of inner peace and wholeness and regaining a sense of oneness with the cosmos. In a sense they teach us how to reverse the effects of the Ego Explosion, although with the important caveat that we retain the high level of rationality and hypothetico-deductive thinking which was the positive side of the intensification of ego-consciousness. Once the separate sense of ego is transcended, the need to dominate and oppress other human beings is also transcended.
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