Reverse Dominance Hierarchy

Part Of: Politics sequence
See Also: The Domestication Of Sapiens
Content Summary: 2400 words, 12 min read

On Human Political Nature

Nearly all mammals inhabit dominance hierarchies. But the elaboration of dominance behaviors varies widely across species. In egalitarian species, competition for food and mates is muted; displays of dominance or submissive signaling are rare; and status rivalry contests are absent. In despotic species, dominance behavior is very elaborated: with coalitionary behavior, easily discernible status cues, and robust resource competition. Boehm (1999) describes dominance drive in chimpanzee males as follows:.

Every young male, as he approaches or reaches adolescence, becomes driven by political aspirations. First, he displays at low-ranking adult females until they begin to pant-brunt submissively when they greet him. Then he moves on to the more formidable females. Sometimes he suffers reverses along the way, particularly if the females have allies to help them, Eventually he will dominate all the females and begin to direct his displays at lower-ranking adult males. (Goodall 1986). If he is successful in that pursuit, he keeps working his way up the male hierarchy until he can go no further. 

This continuum of dominance steepness can be quantified. Several powerful metrics (Vehrencamp 1983, De Vries 2006) can measure the political nature of a given species: is it more despotic or egalitarian

What is the political nature of Homo Sapiens? While philosophical arguments can clarify disagreements, only behavioral data are diagnostic. What happens when we apply behavioral measurements, these highly reliable instruments for understanding non-human animal sociality, and turn them on ourselves? 

It depends on which human communities you examine. If you limit your search to modern states, the data are clear: human beings are despotic – their dominance relations are steep. Yet foragers do not feature resource competition, nor status displays.

What’s going on?

The Egalitarian Ethos

An ethos is a set of values that guide behavior. The egalitarian ethos is a value system shared across nearly all forager bands surveyed. A desirable leader is likely to be of high social standing, generous, wise, experienced, successful in what he does, and self-assertive in general. It also helps if he is fair-minded, tactful, reliable, morally upright, apt at resolving disputes, and a competent speaker (Boehm 1993). Here is a brief example of egalitarian consensus-seeking:

All the adults are free to participate, and in a protracted discussion various opinions are weighed by the group. Silberbauer (1982) provides an astute assessment of Kalahari G/wi hunters and their decision process. Unlike tribes, whose members all tend to assemble for a decision meeting, the G/wi discuss their alternatives in small subgroups, sometimes privately and sometimes publicly, looking to arrive at a consensus. This type of political process seems to be widespread (Knauft 1991, Boehm 1996). As group opinion begins to emerge, strong social pressure can be exerted on those holding a minority opinion to agree to the majority strategy. The reason for such pressure is obvious to foragers and anthropologists alike. A divided band will fission.

With the domestication of plants and animals, Neolithic societies began transitioning from bands (foraging economy) to tribes (food production economies). Tribes were much larger (from a few hundred members to many thousands) and seem to have invented intensive warfare. Yet such warrior societies managed to remain egalitarian, with military decisions made via group consensus. Boehm (1993) again surveys the ethnographic literature, and confirms that the egalitarian ethos apply equally well in band societies. Only with the advent of chiefdoms did our politics resume their hierarchical character. 

This U-shaped curve of human political history demands an explanation (Knauft 1991). Why did our species abandon its despotic roots for millennia, only to rediscover coercion later in the Neolithic? 

What leveling mechanisms promote human egalitarianism? There are several hypotheses:

  1. Relational mobility: unstable long-term group membership 
  2. Economic redundancy: non-specialized production
  3. Redistribution of big game
  4. Nomadic lifestyle constrains accumulation of material. 

These ecological hypotheses do possess explanatory power. Surplus and heritable property in particular does seem to promote our despotic potential. But two other considerations should give us pause.

First, human egalitarianism remains viable across radically different ecological circumstances. Tribesmen were able to stay egalitarian even as their communities developed surplus, became increasingly warlike, and grew in size (from a few hundred to many thousands). The stability of egalitarian instinct speaks to the viability of biological hypotheses, to complement the above ecological hypotheses.

Second, even in the most egalitarian bands on record, hunter-gatherer behavior diverges strongly from other egalitarian species, such as squirrel monkeys. Squirrel monkeys don’t form political coalitions. Humans do. Squirrel monkeys don’t signal dominance and submission. Humans do, via the emotions of hubristic pride & shame, respectively. 

How does a primate with an elaborate dominance psychology still manage to form egalitarian groups?

Sanctions as Leveling Mechanisms

Egalitarian societies forbid any behaviors that threaten the autonomy of the group. Within most forager households, the male is free to dominate his wife and children; however, imposing his will on other men is proscribed. Those upstarts who violate the ethos are subject to sanctions designed to lower the status of the recipient. These leveling mechanisms are often employed pre-emptively:

Even after his show of modesty, other band members preemptively take pains to put down the successful hunter. When they go to carry in the kill they express their “disappointment” boisterously. “You mean to say you have dragged us all the way out here to make us cart home your pile of bones? Oh, if I had known it was this thing I wouldn’t have come. To think I gave up a nice day in the shade for this. At home we may be hungry but at least we have nice cool water to drink.”

The actual feelings of the critics, who simultaneously are joking and deadly serious, is revealed in the words of a culture member: “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.”

In fact, leveling mechanisms can be expressed in a wide range of behaviors. A group will climb the sanctions ladder: begin with mild interventions, and escalate if deemed necessary. This apex of sanctioning behaviors is, of course, capital punishment. An example from Lee (1979):

A man named /Twi had killed three other people, when the community, in a rare move of unanimity, ambushed and fatally wounded him in full daylight. As he lay dying, all the men fired at him with poisoned arrows until, in the words of one informant, “he looked like a porcupine.” Then, after he was dead, all the women as well as the men approached his body and stabbed him with spears, symbolically sharing the responsibility for his death.

Boehm (1993) goes on to survey other types of sanctions (including disobedience, ostracism, and exile) and how these behaviors are ubiquitous in the ethnographic literature. 

Humans punish their alphas as a unified moral community. We do not see this behavior in chimpanzees. Sanctions are a human universal, yet also unique to our species. They forestall coercive dominance. 

Simple egalitarian species like squirrel monkeys do not wish to rule, because for them coercive dominance does not beget reproductive success. Not so for humans. Human egalitarianism is ambivalent. As Schneider said, “All men seek to rule, but if they cannot rule they prefer to be equal.” Perhaps sanctions explains why our species is so apt towards political confabulation. As de Waal (1982) writes:

Politicians, for example, are vociferous about their ideals and promises but are careful not to disclose personal aspirations for power. This is not meant to be a reproach, because after all everyone plays the same game. I would go further and say that we are largely unaware that we are playing a game and hide our motives not only from others but also ourselves. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, are quite blatant about their “baser” motives. Their interest in power is not greater than that of humanity; it is just more obvious. 

The hominin lineage diverged from Pan 6mya. How did sanction psychology evolve? 

The Logic of Reverse Dominance

To come to grips with human-specific political adaptations, we must first understand chimpanzee politics. Beyond basic dominance perception and pursuit, chimpanzees males form micro-coalitions to help them gain status. For example, dethroned alphas often support other males in their bid for alpha status (like the aging Yeroen in de Waal 1982). These ex-leaders often support weak candidates, whose very dependence leads to the ex-leaders garnering significant political & sexual privileges. 

Chimpanzee male sociality is not purely competitive. There are certain scenarios when the entire troop unite in macro-coalitions to solve collective action problems (CAPs) such as predator defense, territory defense, and warlike raids. Chimp macro-coalitions typically address challenges outside, not inside, the group.

Perhaps because chimpanzees must strike a balance between cooperation and competition, after rivalry fights, chimpanzees do engage in reconciliation behaviors. Sometimes females encourage these behaviors, which suggests it is in their interest that peace should be restored (de Waal 1982)

When both parties were reluctant, reconciliation was always facilitated by (non-estrous) adult female. After the conflict between the two rivals had died down, the female mediator would walk up to one of them and kiss him or groom him for a short time. After she had presented herself to him and he had inspected her genitals, she would walk slowly over to his opponent. The first male would follow her, sniffing at her vulva every now and again and without looking at his opponent. The male’s decided interest in the mediating female’s behind was unusual. In other situations an adult male would not follow a female who had just presented herself to him, especially if she did not have a sexual swelling. (In fact females with a sexual swelling have never been seen to act as mediators. This is understandable, because they would only be a source of further disagreement.) The male probably followed the female mediator as a kind of excuse to approach his opponent.  When she and the male reached his opponent, the female would sit down and both males would proceed to groom her, one on each side. When the female discreetly withdrew a few minutes later the two males would continue grooming as if nothing had happened, but now, of course, they would be grooming each other. 

Chimpanzees do find submission subversive (who wouldn’t), but also express a form of moral indignation at especially coercive alpha behaviors. These are manifest in the waa bark. An example from de Waal (1996):

Jimoh once detected a secret mating between Socko, an adolescent male, and one of Jimoh’s favorite females. Socko and the female had wisely disappeared from view, but Jimoh had gone looking for them. Normally, the old male would merely chase off the culprit, but for some reason perhaps because the female had repeatedly refused to mate with Jimoh himself that day–he this time went full speed after Socko and did not give up. He chased him all around the enclosure- Socko screaming and defecating in fear, Jimoh intent on catching him. Before he could accomplish his aim, several females close to the scene began to waa bark. This indignant sound is used in protest against aggressors and intruders. At first the callers looked around to see how the rest of the group was reacting; but when others joined in, particularly the top-ranking female, the intensity of their calls quickly increased until literally everyone’s voice was part of a deafening chorus. The scattered beginning almost gave the impression that the group was taking a vote. Once the protest had swelled to a chorus, Jimoh broke off his attack with a nervous grin on his face; he got the message. Had he failed to respond, there would no doubt have been concerted female action to end the disturbance. 

The evolution of egalitarian sanctions is now easier to comprehend. Sanctions evolved as human macro-coalitions began to reliably punish despotic behavior. 

The Evolution of Morality

What changed? Boehm (1999) argues that weapons were the precipitating cause. Attempting to kill a truly intimidating alpha is extremely risky for a forager to do with their bare hands – but weapons dramatically reduce the risk. 

We have already seen that humans were under strong selection against reactive aggression, and that our skeletons begin to exhibit domestication syndrome in the Pleistocene (100-400 kya). Sanctioning behaviors likely evolved then. But weapons long predate the Pleistocene. Wrangham (2021) argues that improvements to the expressive potential in our language made possible targeted conspiratorial killing (TCK)

Once the coordinative machinery of sanctions was in place, the scope of proscribed behaviors could expand. Morality may have started as a single norm against bullying, but it gradually expanded to other social ills. The resultant norm psychology, stabilized through cultural transmission, provided a template of desirable and undesirable behaviors. The sanctioning ladder thus became weaponized against reactive aggression (incl. murder), rape, and free-riding among others. 

Both Boehm (1999) and Wrangham (2019) use proscriptions on free-riding to explain the altruism and food sharing manifest in foraging societies. But I suspect human altruism predates morality. Rather its roots may reside in cooperative breeding.

Until next time. 


  • Boehm (1993). Egalitarian behavior and reverse dominance hierarchy
  • Boehm (1996). Emergency decisions, cultural-selection mechanics, and group selection
  • Boehm (1999). Hierarchy in the Forest
  • De Waal (1982). Chimpanzee Politics
  • Goodall (1986). The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behavior
  • Hobson et al (2015). The socioecology of monk parakeets: insights into parrot social complexity
  • Knauft (1991). Violence and Sociality in Human Evolution.
  • Lee (1979). The !Kung San: Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society.
  • Silberbauer (1982). Political process in G/wi bands
  • Vehrencamp (1983). A model for the evolution of despotic versus egalitarian societies
  • Wrangham (2019). The Goodness Paradox
  • Wrangham (2021). Targeted conspiratorial killing, human self-domestication and the evolution of groupishness

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