Skip to content

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


  1. Jonathan Jonathan

    Humans have consistently lost sexual dimorphism, which suggests that intersexual tensions have relaxed over our evolutionary history.

    Also, the social hierarchies in our relatives has been shown to be, at least partially, the result of socially-derived biases in the observers. An example of this is the classic assumption that male gorillas battled for dominance and that this dominance resulted in the dominant male being the only one allowed to mate with females. That assumption stood until the invention of DNA analysis. When the DNA of offspring were analyzed, less than 30% of the offspring were fathered by the dominant males. While the dominant males were popular with the females, much like Brad Pitt is popular with human females, the females were making decisions on who they mated based on their own preference, not on the presumed dominance hierarchy. It was the socially-derived bias of the observer that men acquire sexual services from women, who are mostly passive actors.

    That the observers also come from hierarchal social systems could be influencing their observations as well. Such a bias also wouldn’t be as amenable to empirical as breeding habits currently is. So the cladistic argument might not be as strong as you assume. You should give the argument more merit than you’ve warranted it so far.

  2. Well sexual dimorphism is roughly an index of the ratio of the number of successful sexual matings, so it indicates rather the changes in sexual mating strategies of a species. If our dimorphism has reduced (and arguably we are not the only species of primate in which that occurs) then perhaps that indicates instead that we are doing more parental investment in fewer progeny, or protecting less territory, or fewer mates.

    As to the point about social dominance, I agree that it is often cultural and social, but the fact remains that we do construct dominance hierarchies – nothing as simple as the dominance of a gorilla (which is itself a unique species with a unique structure), but dominance hierarchies nonetheless. We have at least three: sexual (each gender has its own hierarchies, and a combined one in which the status of women often supersedes those of males, ironically), class, and ethnic. However that plays out in particular contingencies, there is a universality to it. Bias aside, we remain hierarchical – the bias goes to the evaluation of the hierarchies in a given society.

    I thought the sneaky mating among gorillas was more like 15%, which is a remarkably constant figure among various primate species. Humans have a similar percentage. But I could be misremembering that figure.

  3. John, I’m unsure that you’re distinguishing between “egalitarian” and “anarchy.” If I correctly understand this, then egalitarianism works with the concept of leadership although ethnicity and gender never eliminates anybody from the possibility of leadership while anarchism rejects any type of leadership. Given those definitions, there’s no perfectly egalitarian society, but as far as I know, some human societies are drastically closer to this compared to non-human primates.

    • bob koepp bob koepp

      James – Not that it’s relevant to the point of John’s post, but your “definition” of anarchy leaves much to be desired. Throughout history, thoughtful anarchists have acknowledged that abilities and aptitudes are not uniformly distributed among people, and have recognized the need for leadership when projects require cooperation among large numbers of people. What anarchists have consistently rejected is the use of coercion to enforce the decisions of leaders.

  4. There are some human groups which have much less in the way of hierarchies than others. For example, the Pirahã have a lot less in the way of dominance structures than most human societies. But, yes pretty much all human societies have some.

  5. John S Wilkins John S Wilkins

    My Internet has gone down, so this will be brief. It sounds like some are conflating dominance with politics. They can be linked, but I have social standing in mind here.

    • Okay, well, if dominant versus egalitarian social standing has nothing to do with political coercion, then I don’t support egalitarian social standing and perhaps agree with you.

  6. Helga Vierich Helga Vierich

    Many known forger groups like the San (Bushmen) living in egalitarian societies. There is still “popularity” and competition of a sort for the respect and admiration of one’s fellows, but it is not based on acquiring greater wealth or celebrity, nor by physical aggression in developing a dominance hierarchy as in Pongo. Rather, it is based on displaying diligence in working at subsistence activities, good humour, generosity, kindness, and intelligence. I suspect that this needs to be explained – why did human social behaviour and reproductive strategies depart from the patterns we see in our closest living relatives? I think we need to explain the relative capacity for egalitarian social systems and a reproductive strategy based on pair bonding (even if temporary) and bilateral kinship, as well as reciprocal access to territory. This is NOT seen in the great apes. Humans evolved another pattern.

    The fact that this other pattern has recently been overturned CULTURALLY is also interesting, but the possibility that human socio-economic hierarchies may be culturally homologous rather than identical to the -apparently- biologically innate behavioural patterns as seen in wild chimps does not seem to occur to most people in Evolutionary Psychology.

  7. A. Clausen A. Clausen

    There was a wedding a couple of weeks of ago in which hundreds of millions of people tuned in because the groom is going to be the ruler of a kingdom that most of the viewers don’t even live in. This wedding was celebrated by everything from made-for-TV movies to cupcakes.

    From a hierarchy point of view, we haven’t involved one little bit from the other great apes.

  8. Jeb Jeb

    The Anglo- Saxons had an egalitarian society. They still managed to take over the U.K using ethnicity as a tool. Anglo-Saxon legal codes ruthlessly targeted the local population ensuring major economic dis-advantage and collapse.

    They adopted the Celtic concept of Kingship on the way and adapted to a new environment with ruthless efficiency.

  9. It looks like she has conflated political egalitarianism with a lack of social dominance hierarchies.


    • Yes. The point is that while all political hierarchies are social dominance hierarchies, not all SD hierarchies are political – gender, age, class, social role of warrior classes, economic divisions, caste, etc. Egalitarian social systems still have low status groups.

  10. Jeb Jeb

    Egalitarian cultural orientation is an interesting subject.

    I don’t understand the premise the book is making. As far as I am aware the distribution of egalitarian ideology is wide-spread (it seems to be a universal) and is specifically seen in small- scale societies and on a historical basis prior to the development of the chiefdom.

    “no society treats everyone as equals”

    No. The ethos could simply be that every (male) adult is politically equal. Women and children can still be excluded in such systems and you can still see pretty major acts of violence taking place in such groups.

    It still seems to suggest a role for community and culture and that this at times can regulate and order our biology to a degree when it offers an advantage.

    Social order and reduced levels of violence are the advantages I think for small -scale groups

  11. A. Clausen A. Clausen

    The Anglo- Saxons had an egalitarian society. They still managed to take over the U.K using ethnicity as a tool. Anglo-Saxon legal codes ruthlessly targeted the local population ensuring major economic dis-advantage and collapse.

    They adopted the Celtic concept of Kingship on the way and adapted to a new environment with ruthless efficiency.

    The Anglo-Saxons, like most of the West Germanic tribes, were more egalitarian than the Celts or Romans, to be sure, but still, they had their chieftains and kings, and in general conformed to the Indo-European norms.

  12. Jeb Jeb

    The U.K is unusual in this respect. The settlement morphology before the late seventh century shows an utter lack of hierarchy. The only clear distinction post 7th century is between royal sites and others.

    The U.K is very different from the pattern seen on the continent with regard to Germanic invasion in a number of areas.

    You are generalizing to much.

  13. Jeb Jeb

    That should have read mid 7th century. 750-950 is a period of massive change in Anglo-Saxon social structure in Britain.

  14. A. Clausen A. Clausen

    The U.K is unusual in this respect. The settlement morphology before the late seventh century shows an utter lack of hierarchy. The only clear distinction post 7th century is between royal sites and others.

    The U.K is very different from the pattern seen on the continent with regard to Germanic invasion in a number of areas.

    You are generalizingto much.

    I’m not sure where you get this from. The original Anglo-Saxon invaders were profoundly West Germanic. I’m not saying that the Anglo-Saxons, at any point prior to 1066 had a class structure of the like forced upon it by the Normans, but most certainly there were classes; all the way from the king through earls/jarls, thanes and right down to ceorls (the bulk of the freemen of Anglo-Saxon society), and yes, even bondsmen, who, while not a one-to-one match to the kind of manorialistic serfdom found on the Continent, certainly were a bottom rung bound-to-lord-and-land class.

    You seem similar social arrangements among most of the West and North Germanic (Scandinavian) peoples, and, so far as I understand it, these had their antecedents in earlier Roman-era Germanic social organization.

  15. Jeb Jeb

    “I’m not sure where you get this from”

    Most of my undergrad degree was spent studying 6th century British history and archeology. Not a popular choice. My original post was rather vague and to say that the Anglo Saxons adopted kingship from the British was sloppy; elite emulation and the identity question are complex issues in 6th cen. British history

    As I stated, the picture in the U.K is very different from the continent. Excavation of sites prior to 750 shows no evidence of settlement hierarchy, no enclosed buildings or large structures serving as a community focal point. Grave goods indicate differences in sex and age rather than status. This changes from 700 to 750 when isolated single high status burials begin to appear. This seems to have some form of correlation with the adoption of Christianity.

    What the evidence suggests is that the social structure is non-ranked and composed of localized family groups. Pretty much the kind of thing that John described at the start. This is a slave owning culture. But between the family groups their is no evidence to suggest a ranked society. So I would slightly disagree with John here, but not by a great deal.

    My old tutor is perhaps better at explaining things than I am. I was thinking of this article among other things, when I made my first comment. You may find some interesting further reading from it.The archeology of the 6th to 7th cen. Anglo Saxon settlement is widely available and discussed; its standard stuff.

    The picture is not as uniform as you are suggesting when you put it in context.

  16. jeb jeb

    T.M Charles- Edwards once made the suggestion that for most of this period the social structure revolved around the standard family unit. He suspected that the concept of lordship (loaf- giver) was replicated through the entire social structure at all levels i.e. the household head dispensed gifts of food to dependant members.

    But for about 100 to 150 years the relationship between Anglo -Saxon households is non-ranked. It’s is an intensely small- scale, localised society. Even in the 7th century, 6 armed men constitute a criminal gang, 7 is the legally stated size of a warband, which gives an indication of the scale.

  17. On the subject which started this thread, Dubreuil’s book “Human Evolution and the Origin of Hierarchies”, I have put my own review on Amazon. I have tried not to cover the same ground as Catherine Driscoll of NCSU. To clarify what Dubreuil means by the disappearance of dominance hierarchy in humans, he defines it as overt physical aggression against other group members to gain privileged access to food and mates.

    • Thanks for that clarification, Hugh. The idea that dominance is just physical aggression is such a weird idea – dominance in all primates is usually achieved by grooming, playing alliances and politics, and only occasionally aggression, just like human beings.

  18. Helga Vierich Helga Vierich

    That, John, was my earlier point. In human societies based on the oldest economic system, there is social “dominance” but it is not based on aggression. It is notably less aggressive than in Pongo and Gorilla, in that there are no loud displays to intimidate rivals.

    Once you had sedentism, and the consequent population growth and development of defensive strategies to retain control over fixed resources, then there was obvious advantage in having more explicate hierarchical decision-making .

    The Anglo-Saxons were a pretty typical tribal society, where most relationships and transactions were based on kin-ship.

    Human societies in mobile forager are not tribal. Let me repeat this: NOT tribal. They are called “band-level” societies because the main residential and economic group is the camping group. Although they might assemble in greater numbers during some seasons around temporarily abundant resources, even then this involves just bringing a lot of camp groups together , not the development of a larger polity. So these people are egalitarian in a way many of us can hardly imagine, because even children are not ordered around, or expected to “obey” the adults. Women are vocal and highly respected. There are no permanent political positions.

    • Sorry, but while humans are less violent than most primates, that doesn’t mean we aren’t violent in our dominance establishment, as any teenaged boy can attest, let alone a male aged 25 on a Saturday night. But I haven’t seen actual figures comparing the different primate species. Chimps are very aggressive and violent, yes, but gorillas aren’t (mostly posturing), and bonobos aren’t. It may very well be that chimps, not we, are the deviant species from the ancestral norm.

      As to violence in foraging societies, that rather depends on the definition of forager. Nomadic tribal societies tend to a very aggressive attitude to the outsider, and rank is determined by success in skirmishes. Village foraging societies, as in Papua or ancestral Bantu societies determine rank by physical prowess and ownership of things like cattle. In every case they do this by posturing and occasional acts of aggression. At best what might distinguish humans is that they can read intent and recall previous aggression better, maybe.

  19. bob koepp bob koepp

    “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.

Comments are closed.