Did humans lose dominance?

An extensive critical review has just been published online in advance of publication for Biology and Philosophy. The title is “Evolution and the loss of hierarchies: Dubreuil’s Human evolution and the origin of hierarchies: the state of nature” by Catherine Driscoll.

I haven’t read Benoit Dubreuil’s book. It looks from the review that it is a piece of paleoanthropology, but it is very curious from her review. Driscoll says “Dubreuil appeals to work in evolutionary, physical and cultural anthropology, archeology, primatology, economics, cognitive science, political science and political philosophy.” Unfortunately it didn’t appeal, it seems to phylogenies. Here’s the bit I have a problem with: “The first part of Dubreuil’s book tries to explain how humans lost their dominance hierarchies and ended up living in largely egalitarian societies.” The rest of the book is apparently working from this point.

Say what? Since when do humans live in egalitarian societies? Ever? If you look at our clade sister species, the other apes and the rest of the primates, every single one of them forms dominance hierarchies, whether their troop size is 12 or 1200. Phylogenetically, we should expect that we do too. I don’t know the disciplinary background assumption Dubrueil is working from but I would be very interested to see evidence that humans are not also dominance hierarchical primates. In small “traditional” societies, there are dominant individuals (usually called “elders”: or “head men” or “grandmothers” depending on the contingent social structure of the particular society), and despite whatever mythological interpretation he may be relying upon, no society treats everyone as equals.

Humans are status conscious. There is a literature on social dominance psychology. Every child who underwent the horrors of high school knows humans are socially hierarchical. I confess to not understanding this argument. [NB: I am not criticising Driscoll at all here – she has other fish to fry.] A simple case of phylogenetic inference should suggest that we will be socially hierarchical to the point that it should have challenged the assumption we are egalitarian. Sure, we have inbuilt unfairness detectors (like chimps), and we tend, slightly, to the eusocial, but why think we don’t form status hierarchies in any society at all?

ResearchBlogging.orgDriscoll, C. (2011). Evolution and the loss of hierarchies: Dubreuil’s “Human evolution and the origin of hierarchies: the state of nature” Biology & Philosophy DOI: 10.1007/s10539-011-9266-2

26 thoughts on “Did humans lose dominance?

  1. “At best what might distinguish humans is that they can read intent and recall previous aggression better, maybe.”

    I’d say, at worst, what might distinguish humans is that they construct “rationalizations” for the dominance hierarchy and their respective places in it.


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