Tribal vs. Modern Egalitarianism
We often hear that our primal human nature is ‘egalitarian’ because our foraging ancestors, who lived in bands of hunter-gatherers tens of thousands of years ago, treated each other largely as equals:
- Social equality. Hunter-gatherers did not have hierarchical social structures. Their decision making was consensual. There was not one ‘Alpha’ to rule them all—”I’m your leader, follow me!” Rather, there were experienced men who took the initiative whenever they had the skills and knowledge relevant to a certain task—”I know where that bear is hiding and how to hunt it down, follow me!”
- Economic equality. Hunter-gatherers distributed resources (meat, nuts, fruits, honey, weapons, etc.) pretty much equally.1 And since they could not possess many things anyway as they were constantly on the move, material inequality was hardly viable.
- Moral equality. Beyond their virtue-based honor system, our prehistoric forebears had egalitarian values like autonomy, permissive childrearing, and nonviolence (although disputes over women could escalate): men were not bossed around by one entitled chief; they let their children learn through play instead of order; and they could not violently oppress any subgroup in a group where every member was constantly armed and around them.
Now, does this mean that our egalitarian human nature justifies modern egalitarianism in the liberal sense of “all humans are equal”?
- Social equality? Egalitarianism among hunter-gatherers was possible due to their sexual division of labor: men did the hunting, women the gathering. In other words, there were strict gender roles to fulfill.
- Economic equality? Whereas hunter-gatherer societies had reliable mechanisms to punish lazy free riders (shaming, social exclusion, etc.), equal distribution of resources makes less sense in an affluent society where people are relatively anonymous and free to choose how much energy they devote to work and innovation.
- Moral equality? The egalitarian values of hunter-gatherers were exclusively tribal. They did not treat men from other tribes as equals, but as… men from other tribes. Typically, threats. In no sense did prehistoric egalitarianism span all of humanity.
What we can learn from our foraging forebears, though, is why political equality still makes sense today, especially in the form of direct democracy. This is because we evolved ruling ourselves—not having one or a few rule over us (manifest in our desire for freedom), nor being the one or among the few who rule over all others (manifest in our tendency to be corrupted by power).
- The Merits of Direct Democracy
- Sex and Human Nature (Edward O. Wilson)
- The Mindcoolness Declaration of Ideology
- Update: According to Steven Pinker, “while nomadic hunter-gatherers share meat, since hunting is largely a matter of luck and sharing a windfall insures everyone against days in which they come home empty-handed, they are less likely to share plant foods, since gathering is a matter of effort, and indiscriminate sharing would allow free-riding. […] A recent survey of inequality in the forms of wealth that are possible for hunter-gatherers (houses, boats, and hunting and foraging returns) found that they were “far from a state of ‘primitive communism'”: the Ginis [Gini coefficients indexing wealth distribution] averaged .33, close to the value for disposable income in the United States in 2012″ (Pinker, 2018, p. 103).