Book of the Day: The Hierarchy in the Forest

Book: Christopher Boehm. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University Press.


“Boehm, professor of anthropology and director of the Jane Goodall Research Center at the University of Southern California, ranges broadly in his quest to determine the evolutionary origins of social and political behavior. Combining an exhaustive ethnographic survey of human societies from groups of hunter-gatherers to contemporary residents of the Balkans with a detailed analysis of the behavioral attributes of nonhuman primates (chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos), Boehm focuses on whether humans are hierarchical or egalitarian by nature. His thesis “is that 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.” This “Reverse Dominance Hierarchy,” as Boehm calls it, depends on the rank and file banding together “to deliberately dominate their potential master if they wish to remain equal.” Boehm extends his analysis to argue that the processes of group selection originally advanced by David Sloan Wilson can account for the evolution of altruistic behavior in humans. While Boehm’s hypotheses are not always persuasive, they are invariably intriguing and well documented. His presentation can be difficult for the nonspecialist, but he raises topics of wide interest and his book should gain attention”.

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