February 2, 2014

A Genetic Puzzle

Genetic researchers do a thing these days called "cladistic studies." What they try to do with these studies is to infer the behavior of a species from the behavior of known genetic relatives. Genetic comparisons show that our closest genetic relatives are the "great apes." Great apes display significant "political hierarchy" and "despotism." Cladistic theory thus implies that human societies should too, but as we now know, our small-group ancestors didn't.

But wait! Starting perhaps 10,000 to 13,000 years ago -- as we now know from the previous chapter, our urban literate societies have indeed displayed increasing political hierarchy ("centralized political authority" for example) -- and even "despotism" -- some of them (early Egypt, Ming Dynasty China, etc.) markedly. So what we apparently have, at least as anthropologists and evolutionary biologists see it, is a genetic puzzle - - -

With respect to egalitarian society and its evolutionary status, a significant subsequent development was Knauft's (1991) lucid identification of a major puzzle in human evolution. ... In effect Knauft was posing an evolutionary riddle: how could a species apparently lose its innate tendencies to hierarchy for possibly millions of years, then suddenly regain them so forcefully?" (Boehm 1999:65)

To clarify a bit: Our precursor species are strongly hierarchical -- and indeed, so are our modern societies today (Kings, Queens, Presidents, Tsars, etc.). But between these two bastions of hierarchy stand tens of thousands -- perhaps millions -- of years of our small-group anti-hierarchical egalitarian ancestors.

The mystery, as the anthropologists and particularly the evolutionary biologists see it is, "What became of our 'innate tendencies to hierarchy' during our in-between period -- our small-group ancestral period -- which may have lasted millions of years?"

From hierarchy to egalitarianism back to hierarchy. Those are big changes, the last particularly implying a major transition -- an anthropologically sudden and recent one at that. So, how did it happen? How could a genetic trait temporarily disappear?


Summary

Cladistic studies imply that our ancestral species was hierarchical, but the ethnological research shows just the opposite -- that our small-group ancestors were expressly "egalitarian." And we know our modern societies are essentially hierarchical. Thus it would seem we have proceeded from hierarchical roots to egalitarian hunter-gatherers back to hierarchical "moderns." This suggests Knauft's "evolutionary riddle:" "how could a species apparently lose its innate tendencies to hierarchy for possibly millions of years, then suddenly regain them so forcefully?" (Boehm 1999:65) What happened to hierarchical genes during the egalitarian phase? How could a genetic trait temporarily disappear?



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