July 10, 2011

"All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God." --Thomas Jefferson, June 24, 1826
"Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self- government, because no one is fit to be a master and no one deserves to be a slave." --U.S. President G. W. Bush, Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 2005

But What About the Pecking Order?

O.K. So our small ancestral groups didn't have persistent "alpha" leaders - - - at least not for long (and today's "alpha" leaders -- or at least their speech writers -- pay lip service to the same notion) - - - but what about hierarchy and a "pecking order"?

In other animal groups, "leadership" and "pecking order," also known as "hierarchy," are inseparable. In fact by practice and definition, the animal at the top of the "pecking order" is the hierarchical "leader," the "alpha (meaning first in the alphabet) male." We would suspect, then, that small-group humans, lacking persistent alpha leaders, would also not have a "pecking order" or hierarchy. But let's see.

Male [human] foragers do not exhibit frequent competitive displays aimed at decisive political domination of other males; they do not live in well-developed dominance hierarchies, as chimpanzees do; and access to females and natural resources is not decided routinely on the basis of threats backed by the possibility of attack. In pondering this lack of [small-group human] hierarchy, cultural anthropologists have remained perplexed. (Boehm 1999:40) [italic emphasis added]
Speaking on behalf of the Alaskan Eskimo group he studied, Jenness(1922:93-94) tells us: "Every man in his eyes has the same rights and the same priviliges as every other man in the community. One may be a better hunter, or a more skillful dancer, or have greater control over the spiritual world, but this does not make him more than one member of a group in which all are free and theoretically equal." (Boehm 1999:68)
Focusing on males as the more obvious political actors, Fried pointed to significant individual differences of strength, skill, prestige, influence, and authority, and demonstrated ethnographically that up to a certain point such differences were appreciated and accepted. What was absent, he insisted, was the cultural habit of summing these advantages in such a way as to "establish an order of dominance and paramountcy" (Fried 1967:33 in Boehm, 1999:34) [italics emphasis added]

So skills were acknowledged, differences were appreciated, but no "order of dominance and paramountcy" -- no pecking-order or other hierarchical conclusions or structures -- resulted. And as usual, this condition, this lack of hierarchy, kept our urban literate hierarchically biased cultural anthropologists perplexed.

Here's an example of a modern-day attempt to re-create an atmosphere without any "order of dominance and paramountcy":

We have arrived in Mecca after driving from Jeddah. We packed everything we needed, as for camping. My husband looks just like one of the crowd from the back in his identical white two piece garment. Of course that is the aim -- to have everyone look equal in the eyes of one another -- irrespective of nationality, color and family standing. Only the goodness of the heart or the piousness sets one above another in real Islam. Everyone around me looks alike and is a fellow brother or sister in Islam. --Diary of the Haj, By Aesha Lorenz Al-saeed, Tuesday April 15, 1997

It's worth noting the above attempt at an atmosphere without any "order of dominance and paramountcy," without any pecking-order, is somewhat superficial: The stated aim is to have "everyone look equal" while according to Fried just above, in ancestral groups "differences were appreciated and accepted." It's hierarchical equality -- that is, equality of political or hierarchical position -- that exists in small ancestral groups, not equality of appearance or anything else. If individuals in such groups all "come and go just as he or she pleases" and a spiritual leader can't even get them to stand in church on cue, how are you going to get equality of anything other than political position?

Nonetheless, Mrs. Al-Saeed still can't resist invoking hierarchy when she suggests that "Only the goodness of the heart or the piousness sets one above another." Thus the transient and temporary feelings of equality, created in such large modern groups by superficial means, likely have significant differences from the persistent and subliminal feelings and expectations of what we're calling political equality that exist in small face-to-face groups. Like leaderless groups themselves, this egalitarian "hierarchical equality only" idea seems to be one of those cultural relativity issues that is extremely difficult for us "urban literates" to understand. It should clarify as we proceed, particularly in Chapter gn, Going Native.

Who's more useful and "important," (and should thus be higher-up in the pecking order), a weight-lifter or a brain surgeon? The answer is, it depends on the situation. If you're trapped under a heavy fallen tree, you might well value the weight-lifter more. Under other circumstances, the brain surgeon might well be more important to you. In general, it behooves you to have access to both. Of course our ancestral groups didn't have the "extended order" and its prices for "labor" -- in combination with today's extreme specialization -- as an easy and ubiquitous measuring device automatically indicating what skill "the markets" determined was more "valuable" at the moment.

Even more to the point, small groups also lacked the system of grades (A, B, C, D, E) or "honor rolls," particularly in government schools and their clones, both clearly "summing ... advantages" and thus at a very early age, developing in our children "the cultural habit" of establishing a pecking order -- including, at least subliminally, a self-judged position for themselves in it. [1] In the process, this tends to destroy the self-worth and self-confidence and diminish the self-image of the overwhelming majority of students. There can be only one "best" per school, and the larger the schools, the fewer overall {self-judged }"bests" in society.

Unavoidably in these schools, rather than learning they are a unique, competent and important part of a small group, children learn instead that they are a small, inconsequential and less than competent cipher in a huge impersonal system. And even the "best" doesn't measure up as "best" in every subject area --- and certainly not "best" in much broader modern society.

To the extent we insist on taking such rankings seriously, clearly the world-wide use of mass-media exacerbates the problem. How many "best in the world" weight-lifters can there be? In large part such rankings in the modern world are hierarchy for hierarchy's sake and have little redeeming social value. We'll have more to say about government schools and such cultural habits of ranking later.

The reverse side, that is the ancestral way -- lacking "the cultural habit of summing these advantages in such a way as to 'establish an order of dominance and paramountcy'" -- would be tolerance -- with differences being "appreciated and accepted" rather than advantages being summed. It's clear you don't want particularly the less able in your small group further hamstrung by being judged -- or judging themselves -- to be less than competent. And appreciating and accepting differences would mean your group had a variety of viewpoints and responses available when innovating or confronting novel problems.

Redjacket, Seneca on tolerance VClip ?

Click here if video doesn't play after a bit.

from "500 NATIONS"

In direct opposition to the practices of our ancestors, we have allowed the habit of establishing pecking-orders in the modern world -- and the resultant lack of tolerance -- to become almost as normal as breathing -- and nearly as unconscious. As a result, I suspect, we live in a society of individuals who, compared to our small-group ancestors, are much more likely to be dependent rather than independent because they feel fearful, insecure, uncertain of their worth and much less than competent.

So attempting to rank us humans according to the usefulness of our particular skills and abilities -- or how well we performed some arbitrary coda on a particular day compared to a particular group of competitors as subjectively determined by a group of fallible "judges," -- from the small-group viewpoint at least, is short-sighted and of limited -- or more likely negative -- value. In real life, it's sustained performance anyway, not peak performance.

Accepting and appreciating differences as they do, small groups not only don't have much use for persistent leaders, they don't have much use for a pecking order either. There are good underlying practical reasons for this embedded in our genes as we shall see.

So, there are significant consequences to falling into hierarchical habits, consequences our small-group ancestors assiduously avoided. This suggests a question: "Are there any essential reasons for modern hierarchies and their associated pecking-orders?"


Summary

We discovered that our ancestors "do not live in well-developed dominance hierarchies" and "access to females and natural resources is not decided routinely on the basis of threats backed by the possibility of attack." In fact, while skills were acknowledged and differences were appreciated in small ancestral groups, no "order of dominance and paramountcy" -- no pecking-order or other hierarchical conclusions or structures -- resulted. This is eminently practical: It's not clear -- until you know the specific circumstances -- which member of your group is more useful -- for example a weight lifter or a brain surgeon. AND that changes over time and depends on the circumstances.

On the other hand, we moderns tend to train our young to create and fit into pecking orders from an early age, particularly by giving grades and such in our government schools. In fact, we have allowed the habit of establishing "an order of dominance and paramountcy" in the modern world to become almost as normal as breathing -- and nearly as unconscious. Comparing this with ancestral tendencies, it's clear that modern hierarchy is hierarchy for its own sake. There are consequences, as we will see. But our ancestors tolerated neither persistent leaders nor pecking orders -- which begs the question, "Are there any essential reasons for modern hierarchies and their associated pecking-orders?"


NOTES:

[1] School-yard bullying also contributes to establishing dominance and thus hierarchy. return


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