Culture, Evolution and Dominance

Are human beings nice or nasty?

Posted Jun 08, 2010

One of the puzzles faced by those who think about human evolution and our relationship to non-human primates is this: If we look at the social organizations of our closest relatives, the great apes, they are typically marked by strong dominance hierarchies. This is especially clear with our closest cousins, the chimpanzees. They live in groups in which dominant males rule the roost and control access to breeding females and other goodies such as choice foods.

The puzzle-which has been raised by anthropologist Bruce Knauft and others-is this: If dominance and submission are built into our genetic code, why is it that early social groups of homo sapiens were (as it is widely agreed) egalitarian? How in the world could early humans have overcome their deeply rooted instincts for dominance and submission and begun to treat each other more or less as equals?

The anthropologist Robert A. Paul has recently suggested an answer to this question, based on one of Sigmund Freud's more controversial theories. And of course, since many now regard Freud's theories as little more than speculation, you have to know that his more controversial proposals don't have a big following these days. Nevertheless, Paul does a good job of defending Freud's thesis of "the primal crime."

Freud asserted, in his book Totem and Taboo, that truly human creatures were born in rebellions led by groups of junior males in proto-human groups (he assumed they were ruled by a single alpha male). These junior males banded together to kill the dominant males in their groups, and having done so became free to mate with the heretofore inaccessible females of the group. However-according to Freud's theory-these junior males were also likely to then feel guilty about what they had done. Thus the characteristic result of these rebellions was that the group of males instituted some new rules aimed at minimizing both aggression and mating within the residential group, and in so doing created the first fully human social groups.

Paul argues that, with some relatively minor modifications, this scenario is quite compatible with recent understandings of human evolution. First of all, evolving tool and weapon technology would indeed have made it difficult to sustain chimpanzee-style dominance in proto human groups, because weapons are equalizers. As an organization based on such dominance became less workable, something was needed to take its place. Human communities are indeed always based on powerful cultural mechanisms that sustain a certain level of peace and cooperation. These mechanisms include ostracism and ridicule, the moral rules of religions, and the range of probably uniquely human emotions such as guilt and shame that help keep us in line.

However, these powerful mechanisms do not erase our biological heritage, so that we retain strong tendencies to try and dominate, to be willing to submit. Thus our history-especially in the last 10,000 years or so-provides plenty of good examples of the re-emergence of brutal competition and hierarchical groups following dominant leaders.

This argument is interesting because it provides a fresh perspective on the age-old question of the dual character of human nature: Are we competitive or cooperative, peace-loving or warlike, democratic or authoritarian? The answer is that being human is precisely a matter of having tendencies, based in both biology and culture, that lead us to be all these things at the same time. When you look at the world today, this makes a certain amount of sense.

This is another of my occasional posts on psychological anthropology; for more please visit my website. Photo provided on flickr by Threepin.