December 25, 2010
Read says that groups are delighted to have the aggressive man as a warrior, for he fights well and commands well in battle. However: "the precipitate, compulsive individual may be a constant source of irritation or disruption in his own group, where the use of force or the threat to use force is proscribed under the ideal of group consensus." --(Read 1959:435 in Boehm 1999:111) [italics emphasis added]

From this point Aztec prophecies foretold a glorious future: The might of our powerful arms and the spirit of our hearts shall be felt. With them we will conquor all nations near and far, rule over all villages and cities from sea to sea, become lords of gold and silver, jewels and precious stones, feathers and tributes. We shall become lords over their many lands and over their sons and daughters who will serve us as our subjects. --500 Nations, A Jack Leustig Film hosted by Kevin Kostner, From Discovery Times

We do not intend to abolish the inequality of man. ... There will be a Herren-class....There will be a great hierarchy of party members. They will be the new middle class. And there will be the great mass of the anonymous, the serving collective, the eternally disenfranchised. Beneath them there will still be the class of subject alien races--we need not hesitate to call them the northern slave class. --Adolph Hitler Quoted in Hermann Rauschning, The Voice of Destruction: Hitler Speaks

What's Wrong With Hierarchy?

What's all this bandwidth knocking hierarchy, you may be wondering. We now know our ancestors didn't tolerate hierarchy, pecking orders, or persistent leadership. But, apparently unlike them, we do. Are we modern "urban literate" humans really different from our ancestors in this respect?

It will be very helpful in answering these questions to understand just how hierarchies -- and their associated pecking orders -- are established and maintained, particularly in the face of other individuals perpetually wanting a "higher" position.

For some insight, we can look to other hierarchical species and see how they establish and attempt to maintain hierarchies. When we do, we discover that hierarchical pecking orders are established and maintained by force -- ultimately the dominant male and a challenger fight it out. However, fighting-it-out is dangerous to the survival of one or both of those involved in any such pecking order fight.

Dominance Displays

The danger to the survival of a species from the possible loss of same-species individuals if they regularly have dominance battles is enough to have powered the evolution of alternative methods of resolving most intra-species pecking-order disputes. [1] Rather than fighting it out, other species have evolved what are generally called "competitive displays" or "dominance displays."

"Dominance displays" are a stand-in for the force they imply. A male copping a display is saying in effect, "Just look at me. You can see how big and powerful I am. If you don't knuckle under, I'll use all this to attack you." "Displays" then, attempt to replace the overt use of force with a surrogate, in particular, the threat of the use of force. When completely successful, this substitution of threatening displays in place of actual physical violence avoids any physical harm to the individuals involved.

Although the significance probably wasn't clear at that time, we already referenced human "displays" in Chapter 4 , "What About the Pecking Order?" above. In that chapter we questioned whether small ancestral groups had well developed pecking orders. What we discovered, remember, is that "Male [human] foragers do not exhibit frequent competitive displays aimed at decisive political domination of other males," and, directly related, that in small human groups, things are not routinely decided "on the basis of threats backed by the possibility of attack." If "competitive displays" are a stand-in for establishing hierarchies in other species, the fact our small-group ancestors avoided even the stand-ins supports the notion they didn't tolerate hierarchies -- or their associated pecking orders either.

In contrast, hierarchical "pecking orders," in whatever species found, are largely maintained by "competitive displays" which, ultimately, amount to "threats backed by the possibility of attack." A thesaurus synonym for "threat" is "intimidate" -- and the synonyms for "intimidate" are "browbeat," "coerce," "extort," "alarm," "dismay," "scare," "frighten," and "terrify," which are indeed the tactics and emotions integral to establishing and maintaining human hierarchies and their associated "pecking-orders" too.

While the pecking-order-establishing methods making use of these feelings and tactics may be significantly better than actual injury-causing physical force, it's still quite clear why our small-group ancestors treated would-be hierarchical pecking-order- establishing leaders the way they did. You know, -- criticize, ridicule, ignore, shun, ostracize, desert, etc., remember. And you don't want such behavior surfacing regularly because it can easily lead to actual physically damaging confrontations.

Our small-group ancestors quite successfully suppressed such intra-group dominance- establishing behavior almost entirely. In some cases in our modern hierarchical societies however, "dominance displays" have been honed to a fine edge. In certain contexts in fact, caricatures of these pecking-order-establishing displays have even been refined and ritualized into art forms.

You have almost certainly observed some of these yourself occasionally. Examples are the stare-down typical of promotions for high-profile boxing matches -- and the similar if more chaotic behavior popularized in the phenomenally successful "professional wrestling" shows populating TV these days (2004 A.D.).

Such displays have been particularly stylized in the pre-match posturing that's standard between competing Summo Wrestlers, which until the TV age could last for hours even though the match itself is over in minutes if not seconds. (Many oriental martial arts, and particularly Thai kick-boxing, on the other hand, incorporate non-hierarchical -- perhaps even anti-hierarchical -- ceremonial elements.)

And not by mistake, you can observe similar intimidating displays in the arrogant, coercive demeanor American L.E.O.s (Law Enforcement Officers) are taught to adopt in dealing with "we the people." Here's a good current post 9-11 example:

A month ago I experienced a very small taste of what hundreds of South Asian immigrants and U.S. citizens of South Asian descent have gone through since 9/11, and what thousands of others have come to fear. I was held, against my will and without warrant or cause, under the USA PATRIOT Act. ... All of a sudden, there was a terrible commotion [in the Indian restaurant where my roommate Asher and I were having dinner] and five NYPD in bulletproof vests stormed down the stairs. They had their guns drawn and were pointing them indiscriminately at the restaurant staff and at us. "Go to the back, go to the back of the restaurant," they yelled.
... One of the policemen pointed his gun point-blank in the face of the waiter and shouted: "Is there anyone else in the restaurant?" The waiter, terrified, gestured to the kitchen. The police placed their fingers on the triggers of their guns and kicked open the kitchen doors. Shouts emanated from the kitchen and a few seconds later five Hispanic men were made to crawl out on their hands and knees, guns pointed at them. ... As they continued to kick open doors to closets and bathrooms with their fingers glued to their triggers, no less than ten officers in suits emerged from the stairwell.
... When I asked to speak to a lawyer, the INS official informed me that I do have the right to a lawyer but I would have to be brought down to the station and await security clearance before being granted one. When I asked how long that would take, he replied with a coy smile: "Maybe a day, maybe a week, maybe a month." ... We insisted that we had every right to leave and were going to do so. One of the policemen walked over with his hand on his gun and taunted: "Go ahead and leave, just go ahead."
...       Three days later I phoned the restaurant to discover what happened. The owner was nervous and embarrassed and obviously did not want to talk about it. But I managed to ascertain that the whole thing had been one giant mistake. A mistake. Loaded guns pointed in faces, people made to crawl on their hands and knees, police officers clearly exacerbating a tense situation by kicking in doors, taunting, keeping their fingers on the trigger even after the situation was under control. A mistake. And, according to the ACLU a perfectly legal one, thanks to the Patriot Act. --Patriot Raid, By Jason Halperin, AlterNet, April 29, 2003

It's probably such domination, pecking-order establishing "display" behavior that served as the genetically suggested signal that our small-group ancestors should criticize, ridicule, ignore, shun, etc. the individuals exhibiting such behavior.

And, as of 2010 A.D., we can see just how far beyond just "dominance displays" U.S. "Authorities" are already going: It seems the U.S. Government has a "Hit List" - - - and can now place U.S. citizens on that list at will.

Are We "Moderns" Hierarchical?

So, are our "urban literate" societies hierarchical in comparison to those of our small-group ancestors? (Boehm 1999:39) happens to include a highly relevant over-view:

"Weber (1947) defines ... [centralized political] authority in terms of an ability to control the behavior of others through threat or application of coercive force, and we all know from dealing with the state highway patrol and tax collectors that such authority is pervasive in modern nations. By contrast, an individual adult chimpanzee is basically on its own, as is an individual hunter in a human band." --[Italics emphasis added]
This is all very nice and theoretical, but let's look at things from our more normal perspective. Societies with Kings, Queens, Dukes, etc. are clearly and explicitly hierarchical, but how about the folks here in The United States of America -- where the founders wrote in their original founding document: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ...

So, here in USA --where all men are created equal-- do our leaders normally act as described in the previous chapter, Lessons From Leadership? Do they act as "facilitator(s) as opposed to governor(s) or ruler(s)" -- or do they instead normally attempt to "govern" and/or "rule?"

Are our leaders "noticeably reserved and modest" -- or do they tend to be condesending and arrogant? Are our leaders "obliged to lead by example" as was the Adis headman, or are they more likely to issue commands?

Are our leaders "sharing their ideas with the group in the form of suggestions, without asserting any authority" or do they regularly assert authority in the form of rules, regulations, orders and controls - - etc.? Particularly in the case of The U.S. President, in the form of so-called "Executive Orders."

Are "Tsars," (as in "Drug Tsar," "Homeland Security Tsar," etc.) hierarchical or are they egalitarian? As of July, 2009, the U.S. has thirty- three (33) of them. [2]

In short, are our leaders like leaders in small groups who "never order or make demands of others" and "cannot boss another man?" Or not? Or are they like those leaders which our small-group ancestors would criticize, ridicule, ignore, shun, etc.?

If your conclusion matches mine, it's telling to note that the great "communist revolution," quite expressly "egalitarian" in it's original nature -- though otherwise seriously flawed -- was none-the-less hi-jacked by some of the bloodiest hierarchists on record: Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot of Cambodia, Kim Il Sung of North Korea, etc. We'll have more to say about this apparent anomaly later.

And from the standpoint of us urban literate "citizens," do we consider standing on command during a church service objectionable? Are we headmen over ourselves -- or are we under the thumb of "centralized political authority" ultimately enforced "through threat or application of coercive force?"

Here's a hint if you still need one: While visiting Las Vegas, Nevada, you may be arrested by no less than 128 government agencies. Except for four agencies (Nellis Airforce Base - Military Police, Nevada Test Site - Security, Gaming Control Board, and Paiute Indian Reservation Police) this is fairly typical of other U.S. cities.

It seems clear that modern societies are all significantly hierarchical, particularly when compared to small-group egalitarian societies. So we modern humans indeed live in hierarchical societies, and by ancestral standards, extremely hierarchical societies at that. How and why did we humans go from "egalitarian" to "hierarchical?" We'll try to find out as we proceed, but particularly in previously touted Chapter gt, The Great Transitions.

So, What's Wrong With Hierarchy?

In the meantime, the question might still be, "So. What's wrong with hierarchy?" After all, the modern world works just fine. Doesn't it? - - -

The "alpha" males in other species fight, intimidate, and sometimes kill their way to the top position. As long as they hold this position, they get first dibs on food and females, with any surplus that's left trickling down the hierarchy, perhaps sometimes as far as the last animal on the totem. Of course, the other would-be alpha males regularly test and challenge the reigning mon-arch until one out-dominates him and takes his place. And so forth. And the rest of the pecking order is established similarly.

Would you like to live that way?

Further, we know, inversely from Boehm, that in hierarchies of other species, males frequently engage in "competitive displays" aimed at "political domination of other males." And that in these hierarchies, "access to females and natural resources" (food etc.) is "decided routinely on the basis of threats backed by the possibility of attack."

Would you like to live that way?

And we now know that, even in supposed modern "democratic" human societies, our leaders behave as hierarchists -- drug Tsars, etc. -- and not as egalitarians. Thus we can expect human cultural reflections of the hierarchies and pecking orders found in other species. The increasing disparity between rich and poor, for example, as the "food" "trickles down" the hierarchy, perhaps eventually reaching the lowest individual on the totem. [^^w REFERENCE INCOME DISPARITY HERE]

And we know that such hierarchies are at least partially maintained by "competitive displays" which, ultimately, amount to "threats backed by the possibility of attack" and thus that hierarchical human societies regularly include tactics designed to "intimidate" "browbeat," "coerce," "extort," "alarm," "dismay," "scare," "frighten," and "terrify." Like this, for example - - -

Pittsburgh Police Use Nazi Style Tactics VClip 01

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

We are change, Sept. 24, 2009

We've seen how American L.E.O.s employ these tactics, and that they are an integral part of maintaining modern "centralized political authority."

Thus, like it or not, as per above, "we all know from dealing with the state highway patrol and tax collectors that such authority is pervasive in modern nations."

Do you like living that way?

In the modern (2005 A.D.) world, the ultimate in hirearchical intimidation -- of threats backed by attack -- is provided via the U.S. military - - -

Ultimate hierarchical intimidation: Shock & Awe VClip 1

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

Hijacking Catastrophe: The Media Education Foundation

Notice the hierarchical domination language used to describe "Shock and Awe." You can see and hear the direct connection to hierarchical "dominance displays" ... "by means of sheer intimidation, to inflict a deep psychological injury, to scare and terrorize potential rivals into submission." And, in the words of Harlan Ullman of the "National War College:" "Intimidation and compliance are the outputs we seek to obtain. The aim is to affect the will, perception and understanding of the adversary. The adversary becomes impotent and entirely vulnerable."

Particularly in Ullman's quote, "The adversary becomes impotent and entirely vulnerable," the sexual dominance overtones are quite obvious -- and the sexual implications are clear. In hierarchies, remember, "access to females and natural resources are decided routinely on the basis of threats backed by the possibility of attack."

Does all this sound like the way you'd like to live? If not, that's the first answer to the question, "What's wrong with hierarchy?"

The Alpha Complex

The next question is, how are "competitive displays" done among us humans? We already have a few examples. Watch professional wrestling for caricatures, or boxing stare-downs or Summo wrestlers -- and of course, American "L.E.O.s" -- for the extreme in intimidating human displays. But we humans have more range than that -- we have much more subtle alpha signals available, and many of these show up in our voices. For convenience, I'll call the full range of these dominance signals -- from posture to voice -- "The Alpha Complex." And we have more use for them than merely raw intimidation as we'll see later in Chapter 14, Emergency! and Chapter 15, How They Got Things Done .

Camp Bullies, Persistent Hierarchical Leaders and Other Free-riders

In the biological literature, organisms that take without giving "fair value" - - - or any value at all - - - are referred to as "free-riders" and they particularly cause trouble for theorists attempting to explain human "altruistic" behavior as we'll see in Chapter 12, Where Altruism Came From. Here however, we're interested in a particular type of free-rider, specifically what Boehm labels as "bullying free-riders." What kind of individual is likely to be involved in "bullying?" Those with hierarchical domination tendencies, and that's why we're interested in them in this chapter.

Here's Boehm's take on "free-riders" in general - - -

"I define such people [who very likely carry free-riding genes] broadly, to include camp bullies as well as free-loaders and cheaters. Bullying free-riders are taken care of by egalitarian sanctioning, as described in Chapter 4. Other free-riders take advantage of altruists by being lazy, by feigning injury, by selfishly wolfing down meat they have killed secretly, and so on. Such people are not necessarily bullies. --(Boehm 1999:214) [italics and underline added -lrw]

Surprisingly, as you read, it becomes quite apparent that Boehm's focus on free-riders is mainly on bullying free-riders rather than on "free-loaders and cheaters" as you might otherwise expect. In fact Boehm spends nearly a whole chapter -- Chapter 4, Equality and its Causes -- on "bullying free-riders." That chapter deals almost exclusively with handling leaders who get out of control and violate the autonomy of other group members, essentially becoming "bullies." Free-loaders and cheaters get nary a mention. You will find the following, for example, on the fourth page of the 25 page chapter:

This principle of sharing power applies to many aspects of band life, for the personal autonomy of the band's main political actors is of paramount concern--unless their behavior threatens the autonomy of others and therby becomes deviant. A particularly disvalued form of deviancy arises when one of the main political actors belittles, bullies, or otherwise tries to control another (see Boehm 1993)." --(Boehm 1999:67) [underline only added -lrw]

Then two pages later you find the following subheading: "Leadership as a Special Political Problem," wherein Boehm (1999:69) spells out,

"In every case, such a person [with particular expertise] is respected, and the danger exists that he (or she) may try to take advantage of this position and selfishly parlay it into something more. While there are many types of potential upstarts, a leader is likely to be watched quite vigilantly by his egalitarian peers--the other main political actors whose personal autonomies will be at stake if he tries to become bossy or otherwise aggrandize his prerogatives." [all emphasis added -lrw]
In fact members of small groups are so sensitive to group mates becoming bossy or otherwise aggrandizing prerogatives -- Chapter 3, Hierarchy and Leadership? Not in My Group!, remember -- that they develop strategies to head this possibility off at the pass.

One interesting example is the !Kung habit of swapping arrows. As a result, the kill-arrow that comes from any hunter's bow is usually someone else's. But it's the owner of the first arrow to strike prey -- not the hunter who shoots it -- who is given credit for the kill. The idea is the arrow swapping keeps the best hunters from getting credit for more kills and/or big heads -- and aggrandizing their prerogatives in unacceptable ways. One hunter-gatherer explains a similar situation and strategy this way:

When a young man kills much meat, he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can't accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. In this way we cool his heart and make him gentle. --(Lee 1979:244-246 from Boehm 1999:45)

In the remainder of Boehm's chapter there is nary a mention of any other "potential upstarts," no mention of the "other free-riders [who] take advantage of altruists by being lazy, by feigning injury, by selfishly wolfing down meat they have killed secretly, and so on." About 83% of Boehm's Chapter 4, Equality and its Causes, then, is about handling out-of-control insistent hierarchical leaders -- that is, "bullying free-riders" -- rather than on, as you might expect instead, handling "free-loaders and cheaters."

Based on the amount of print he spends on them, it's clear that when Boehm speaks of "free-riders," he is talking almost exclusively of would-be persistent hierarchical leaders. Although Boehm doesn't explicitly say so, it's their persistence that makes them potentially the most damaging. Occasionally wolfing down meat, feigning injury, or being lazy doesn't begin to be as draining to a group's resources as does a persistent alpha male who -- often along with his immediate family and cronies -- "makes his living" as a free-rider on a daily basis.

There are a few corroborating references elsewhere in "Hierarchy in the Forest" to "dominance episodes" wherein a group, usually temporarily, becomes dominated by a particularly intimidating "leader." Apparently then, "leaders" are the main source of the most damaging free-riders -- and "free-riding bullies" are only too happy to "aggrandize their prerogatives" into persistent hierarchical leadership if they can. So in addition to being a source of coercion and intimidation, we can add that hierarchical leaders also have the potential to become the most draining free-loaders.

This section isn't meant to be a comprehensive presentation of the nature of hierarchy, just enough to demonstrate that we modern (2005 A.D.) humans, despite our small-group heritage, live under hierarchical forms of differing severity. There are other more subtle aspects of human hierarchy than the existence of kings and other "royalty" -- obvious and otherwise (presidents, tsars, etc.). Many of these other more subtle aspects of human hierarchy involve communication patterns (who talks to whom, etc.) and are also central to understanding the human condition. We will defer discussion of these to later sections, particularly Chapter ww, What's Wrong With Hierarchy? Part II.

Perhaps we can now see at least a few of the things that are wrong with hierarchy and its associated pecking orders -- and a few good reasons our ancestors didn't tolerate them. Regular intimidating "dominance displays" to establish and maintain pecking orders, shock and awe, persistent free-riding bullies. Does this sound like the way you want to live? Well, now you know: While our ancestors didn't, in some ways, you do. IRS, L.E.O.s, Tsars, etc. And to some degree, so have our ancestors since the Great Transitions beginning around 10,000 to 13,000 years ago.

Have our genetic predispositions changed since the Great Transitions so that we "urban literates" now like hierarchy? Not likely -- do you seek out the company of politicians, cops, money changers, tax collectors and bullies? Besides, the geneticists say that 10,000 years is an eye-blink in terms of biological evolution and not nearly enough time for significant new genetically controlled behavior to evolve in such a long-lived species as we are. So if our ancestors didn't like hierarchy, most of us probably still don't like it much either.

As you contiue to read -- and on extended reflection -- you may come to see how thoroughly our modern cultures have been subtly -- and not so subtly -- hi-jacked and shaped by these hierarchical tendencies.

The questions are: "How did these Great Transitions from egalitarianism to hierarchy happen -- despite our ancestors' militant egalitarian tendencies -- and our continued dislike of hierarchy even today?" And, "Are the hierarchical cultural artifacts which resulted from these transitions -- and which pervade our modern societies -- necessary? Are they even useful?"


In this chapter, we asked whether our urban literate societies were more hierarchical than those of our small-group ancestors, and if so, "So what?" After looking at how hierarchy is done in other species, it became clear that the working end of hierarchy involves "competitive displays" and "threats backed by the possibility of attack." That is, hierarchies and pecking orders are established and maintained by tactics designed to "intimidate" "browbeat," "coerce," "extort," "alarm," "dismay," "scare," "frighten," and "terrify" -- in other words, by coercion.

Looking at our urban literate societies -- particularly their "Law Enforcement Officers" (that is, "L.E.O.s") who are used to establish "centralized political authority" -- it became obvious that indeed our modern societies are much more hierarchical than were those of our small-group egalitarian ancestors. We recalled that our ancestors didn't like such hierarchies, and, from a modern example or two (the NYC "Patriot Raid" and the U.S. Military's "Shock and Awe"), we may now see why.

We described the "alpha complex" of signals, used to establish hierarchies and pecking orders, and noted that we humans have a wider range for such signalling -- which we'll explore in greater detail later, particularly in Chapter 14, Emergency! and Chapter 15, How They Got Things Done .

Next we looked at free-riders, that is, folks who take without giving "fair value." In particular, we were interested in "bullying free-riders" which Boehm implicitly equated with persistent hierarchical leaders. We observed that of all free-riders (including those occasionally wolfing down meat, feigning injury, or being lazy), persistent alpha male hierarchist "leaders" are by far potentially more draining to a group than all the others combined. Occasionally wolfing down meat, feigning injury, or being lazy doesn't begin to cost a group as much as does a persistent alpha male who -- often along with his immediate family and cronies -- "makes his living" as a free-rider on a daily basis.

The dangers posed by such draining helps explain why our ancestors went out of their way to keep group mates from becoming bossy or otherwise aggrandizing prerogatives and possibly becoming persistent leaders. As an example, we mentioned the !Kung practice of swapping arrows to keep the best hunters from parlaying their luck and skill into something more.

Finally we noted that since The Great Transitions about 10,000 years ago, not enough time has passed for our predispositions to have changed much from those of our ancestors and thus we "urban literates" probably aren't that fond of hierarchies and pecking-orders either.

The questions are, "How did these Great Transitions from egalitarianism to hierarchy happen -- despite our ancestors' militant egalitarian tendencies -- and our continued dislike of hierarchy even today?" And, "Are the hierarchical cultural artifacts which resulted from these transitions -- and which pervade our modern societies -- necessary? Are they even useful?"



Within the [human] midbrain there is a powerful, God-given resistance to killing your own kind. Every species, with a few exceptions, has a hardwired resistance to killing its own kind in territorial and mating battles. When animals with antlers and horns fight one another, they head butt in a harmless fashion. But when they fight any other species, they go to the side to gut and gore. Piranhas will turn their fangs on anything, but they fight one another with flicks of their tails. Rattlesnakes will bite anything, but they wrestle one another. Almost every species has this hardwired resistance to killing its own kind.
When we human beings are overwhelmed with anger and fear, we slam head-on into that midbrain resistance that generally prevents us from killing. Only sociopaths--who by definition don't have that resistance--lack this innate violence immune system.
Throughout human history, when humans fight each other, there is a lot of posturing. Adversaries make loud noises and puff themselves up, trying to daunt the enemy. There is a lot of fleeing and submission. Ancient battles were nothing more than great shoving matches. It was not until one side turned and ran that most of the killing happened, and most of that was stabbing people in the back. All of the ancient military historians report that the vast majority of killing happened in pursuit when one side was fleeing. return

[2] "We [the U.S.] now have 33 tsars." --Rudolph Giuliani, CNBC, Tuesday, July 28, 2009 7:14 AM return

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