EGALITARIAN AND MACHIAVELLIAN INTELLIGENCE IN HUMAN EVOLUTION
David Erdal /Andrew Whiten
MODELLING THE HUMAN MIND
Ed. Paul Mellars/Kathleen Gibson
McDonald Institute Monographies 1996
 
 
Keywords: egalitarianism - hunter-gatherer egalitarianism: food-sharing and by a virtually complete absence of hierarchy or dominance - evolution of counter-dominance - psychology ot egalitarianism  - One key question which this analysis raises is why, given this evolved psychology, the development of herding and agriculture about 10,000 yearsago triggered the creation of big-men, of chiefs, ofclasses and ultimately of multilevel institutionalized hierarchies. As we have said, there was not time for significant biological evolution to take place: these developments must depend on the same psychology as hunter-gatherer egalitarianism. The answer must lie in the fit between the evolved psychological pre-dispositions and the new environment. Since this is no longer the environment in which humans evolved, the evolved predispositions need not in principle lead to behaviour which is functionally effective.The correlation between the proximate cause of the behaviour and the genetic function of the behaviour may be broken in a radically different environment




The egalitarian puzzle

The egalitarianism of modern hunter-gatherers is an apparent anomaly in evolutionary terms. The puzzle is that although dominance hierarchies are likely to have characterized the ancestor shared by chimpanzees and humans, and institutional hierarchies are characteristic of modern humans, the hunter-gatherers representing the intervening phase are almost entirely egalitarian in social structure and behaviour.     

This anomaly was characterized by Knauft (1991) as a 'U' shaped curve in evolution: moving down the left arm from ape hierarchies to hunter-gatherer egalitarianism, and then up the right arm with agricultural and then modern hierarchical societies.     

This curve is a useful way to conceptualize the evolution of social behaviour, but it must have been a heavily skewed 'U'. We do not know when the bottom of the left hand arm was reached—when egalitarian behaviour first appeared in evolution—but we do know that the left arm and the bottom together covered a period of several million years.
We also know that the process at work involved biological evolution, with an enormous increase in brain-size being a key result. If there are specific inherited predispositions for social behaviour, it must have been during this period that they were shaped by evolutionary processes.     

On the other hand, the right hand arm turned upwards, into hierarchical social organizations, only about 10,000 years ago, with the advent of agricultural societies. There were possible precursors in the complex hunter-gatherer societies of the northwestcoast of North America, perhaps five thousand years earlier (Kroeber 1939, 29; Suttles 1968,105) and possibly earlier still in Europe (Mellars this volume). However, until the advent of agriculture this social complexity is not characteristic. 

The evolutionary pressures that led to modern levels of encephalization took effect in the long preceding period when humans and their precursors lived in simple foraging societies - associated, we therefore infer, with egalitarian social behaviour. The process that led to hierarchy was not an additional period of biologically driven evolution - there was not time for that, and no further significant biological changes are apparent. It was rather the result of the already evolved human psychology meeting new circumstances. As a result, the 'U' may look (perhaps appropriately), more like a question mark lying on its back (Fig. 12.1).     

In order better to model the mentality underlying the different parts of the curve and to attempt tounderstand the processes which moulded it, we need a deeper appreciation of the nature of the egalitarianism in question. This is the task of the next section. 
 

Hunter-gatherer egalitarianism: Hunter-gatherers are characterized by food-sharing and by a virtually complete absence of hierarchy or dominance.

1 Food sharing
2 Predisposition towards counter-dominance: 
Those who attempt dominance can be ignored, criticized, ridiculed, overruled, abandoned, ostracized or killed. Boehm (1993) explains this as a conscious, intentional, joint response by followers operating as a group, emphasizing the role of conscious decision making in the process.     

We have put the argument that food-sharing is better explained as a culturally influenced activity founded on an evolved disposition to share, rather than being a culturally created process in contradiction with purely selfish evolved predispositions. 

Exactly the same argument applies to counter-dominance.Counter-dominance and egalitarian behaviour depend on psychological dispositions which create and support them. If the dominance hierarchy had remained functionally effective in evolution, then the possibility of creating egalitarianism in hunter-gatherer bands simply would not have arisen. 

The psychological predispositions which underlie counter-dominance—for example, resentment at aggressive behaviour, discomfort or anger at being dominated, satisfaction when consensus is reached, respect for others' feelings—form part of our psychology because they were more effective functionally than the dominance / submission psychology out of which they must have evolved. There would be no abilityto take conscious decisions to counteract dominant individuals—certainly not as a characteristic behaviour—if we did not have the underlying psychological disposition to do so.

The evolution of counter-dominance

How could the evolutionary change represented by the first part of the 'U' curve in Figure 12.1 have come about? We have argued that human egalitarianism represents a radical innovation when compared with the dominance structures of non-human primates.     

However, anthropoid primates do exhibit social characteristics which make the evolutionary innovation less miraculous that it may seem at first sight. First, a substantial new literature shows that competition amongst monkeys and apes is mediated to a significant degree by brain as well as brawn. The social and cognitive expertise concerned has been called 'Machiavellian Intelligence' (Byrne & Whiten1988). Skills such as tactical deception (Whiten &Byrne 1988; Byrne & Whiten 1992; Byrne this volume) permit the physical superiority of dominant individuals to be undermined, even if only to a limited extent.     

Second, the formation of alliances, in which two or more individuals cooperate to displace a third who is capable of dominating each of them in a dyadic contest, has now been well documented in anthropoid primates (Harcourt 1988; Harcourt & de Waal 1992).     

These characteristics appear to be special to anthropoids (Harcourt 1988; 1992). They are sufficiently widespread that it is uncontroversial to suggest that counter-dominance has been built on such foundations. That these foundations are limited in non-human primates, however, is emphasized by the fact that dominance relations continue to permit gross variations in access to resourccs.     

In our closest relatives, chimpanzees, detailed studies of captive groups have revealed these political abilities to be particularly refined (de Waal 1982;1992a). The operation of alliances incorporates a number of specific communicative abilities which function to recruit and reassure potential allies, in what are often protracted sequences of negotiation.Other political acts are deployed at times remote from the operation of alliances themselves. These include affiliative acts directed at potential allies before an attack on an adversary is launched; reward of supporters (through grooming, for example) in the aftermath of a conflict; interference in the formation of competing alliances; and revenge against those who switch allegiance. In addition, powers of deception and counter-deception reach new heights (Byrne& Whiten 1992; de Waal 1992b). 

Observational and experimental data converge in support of chimpanzees' abilities to read states of mind in others and exploit this ability in sophisticated social manipulation (Whiten 1991; 1993). As a result of this cognitive repertoire, chimpanzee dominance relations can be highly dynamic. De Waal (1982) charted the way in which each of three adult males succeeded in gaining alpha status, only to be ousted by a coalition of the other two: 'the strongest of the three competing parties almost automatically elicits cooperation against himself, because the weaker parties gain more by joining together and sharing the payoffs than by joining the strongest party, who will monopolize the payoffs' (de Waal cited in Leakey & Lewin 1992, 290).     

Such instability and political skill suggest the sort of social preadaptations from which humancounter-dominance is likely to have evolved. Chimpanzees are not our ancestors, of course, and to treat them as such would court the dangers of referential modelling. In the spirit of the more robust approach of strategic modelling referred to earlier, it is important to acknowledge those features of Machiavellian behaviour outlined above, especially alliance formation, which are widespread in anthropoid primates and therefore reliably inferred attributes of our last non-human ancestor. In conjunction with this picture, chimpanzees demonstrate how far an ape encephalized to an extent similar to Austrnlopithecines can push the manipulation of dominants.     


 

...emphasis on attractive as against coercive tactics...

Clearly, such temporary and partial counter-dominance could have formed the evolutionary precursor to the more comprehensive counter-dominance we have described for hunter-gatherers. Answers to how and why the shift occurred must at present be speculative. Erdal & Whiten (1994) have suggested that a small increase in encephalization would permit a refinement in counter-dominance, which could set in train a spiralling selection pressure for further political skills. Robert Frank has suggested to us that among the new skills a greater emphasis on attractive as against coercive tactics would be predicted—a strategy of 'dominance through charm'. We envisage the evolutionary spiral eventually reaching a ceiling where the Machiavellian skills of the population at large were so refined that it would no longer have been strategically practicable to expend energy in an effort to dominate other individuals physically. This logic is parallel to that of Trivers (1971), who proposed that an arms race of subtle cheating in a population of reciprocal altruists could escalate to a ceiling where the only viable strategy is generalized altruism.     

At this point different behaviour would have become functionally viable—more viable than attempted dominance. Instead of wasting time and energy in a futile effort to dominate others, who devoted enough of their personal resources to counteracting others' dominance, but did not waste time and energy by themselves trying to achieve dominance, would be able to devote much more energy to productive foraging and social behaviour. Those who remained trapped in the old dominance / submission patterns would be wasting their time by comparison. 


In particular, the ability of a group of individuals arranged in a dominance hierarchy to exploit resources with the unpredictably scattered, large package characteristics of the hunter-gatherer ecological niche is severely limited. The successful strategy in that niche includes the daily dispersion of the hunters and gatherers, the return to a home base and the sharing of food (Isaac 1978,92). This implies a complex set of social skills involved in making trustworthy commitments. The underlying psychological predispositions are quite different from those of the old dominance / submission spectrum. In particular, a switch is required from an individual “scare off the others and get what I can” strategy, to one of fair play, of identification with the others in the group, of pleasure in relationships of equality rather than dominance, of emotional commitment to share and to help others in need, of confidence that others will help. These positive feelings are seen, for example, in Rasmussen's observation among the Netsilik that 'People living together in a hunting camp feel closely attached to one another in many ways' (1931, 147), and inTanaka's report that after a night of dancing 'Feelings of peace and security flood the San camp' (1980,115).     

An important element in this fairplay complex is the inclination in each individual to resist being dominated or taken advantage of, either in food-sharing or in leadership: hence the vigilance seen among hunter-gatherers in sharing, and in bringing leaders to heel when they step out of line.
 

The psychology ot egalitarianism       

If something like this evolutionary process occurred,  then the resulting psychology would be expected to be very complex. Each individual must still retain the disposition to 'look out for number one', at least on an opportunistic basis. In the case of sharing, this will include the inclination to hoard and perhaps even to steal, as well as supporting the vigilance noted above. But it must not be strong enough to make sharing break down. And it must be combined with a willingness to punish cheating in others—something which no 'rational self-interest' model can predict or explain, because the process of punishing others is costly to the one who punishes (Frank 1988). In the case of leadership, presumably the earlier pre-disposition to 'dominate if possible' has not been eradicated; but it has been coupled with the desire and commitment to resist domination too, and to accept an equal relationship as a good outcome. In addition, there must be a willingness to take the initiative, particularly where one is confident of one's knowledge or expertise—but one must also be prepared to listen, and to follow a different line if the group goes that way, or to defer if someone else clearly has superior skill or knowledge. Boehm (1989) similarly models a complex psychology with self-contradictory elements.     

An important psychological element underpinning both food-sharing and egalitarian leadership is the process of weighing up one's own position vis-a-vis that of others. If a carcass is being divided up,each individual is extremely sensitive to anything which suggests that he or she is not getting a fair share relative to each other participant. 
And if one is listening to an expert hunter's proposal on how to get hold of the next carcass, each person is very aware of his own position relative to that of the would-be leader. It is interesting that apparently the predisposition is not to achieve superiority: not to get more meat than anyone else, nor to dominate the expert. But if anyone else seems to be getting more meat, or becoming too self-assertive, then a trigger is pulled, and someone steps in, to ensure a fair distribution, or to bring the leader back into line. This is not so much keeping up with the Joneses, as making sure that none of the Joneses gets ahead in the firstplace. Frank (1985) examines a multitude of economic and political effects of this pre-disposition to measure ourselves against those with whom we feel some affinity. This tendency could be the outcome of combinations of contradictory dispositions: to get more and at the same time to stop others from getting more; to dominate, and to stop others from dominating. As these contradictory predispositions evolved,one result must have been that behaviour became more and more flexible: there are a host of different possible responses to any social situation. And here there is a likely role for the ability to pass on and absorb a culture—by what is virtually an imprinting process. Culturally defined ways to behave limit the choices that have to be made, helping to resolve what would otherwise be constant psychological dilemmas. Additionally, with this varied psychology, there is an important role for the ability to think. With so many self-contradictory options there would be a clear adaptive advantage in the ability to hold in mind important features of the environment, particularly the social environment, for long enough so that one's reactions could be resolved into a decision.


The model presented here has not yet been tested on humans in psychological experiments or surveys, although the studies by Cosmides & Tooby on cheater detection (1992) and by Frank (1988) and Caporael et al. (1989) on cooperation, among others, seem to support the model. 

One key question which this analysis raises is why, given this evolved psychology, the development of herding and agriculture about 10,000 yearsago triggered the creation of big-men, of chiefs, ofclasses and ultimately of multilevel institutionalized hierarchies. As we have said, there was not time for significant biological evolution to take place: these developments must depend on the same psychology as hunter-gatherer egalitarianism. The answer must lie in the fit between the evolved psychological pre-dispositions and the new environment. Since this is no longer the environment in which humans evolved, the evolved predispositions need not in principle lead to behaviour which is functionally effective.The correlation between the proximate cause of the behaviour and the genetic function of the behaviour may be broken in a radically different environment (Symons 1979, 306-7; Tooby & DeVore 1987, 198).


Key aspects of the environment which are different include the availability of stored surpluses; the existence of highly productive assets; the population density; the ability of individuals or small groups to control the surpluses and the assets; and the planning time horizon (Johnson & Earle 1987). Somehow, the counter-dominant tendency became ineffective, although it recurs consistently (Boehm1993). How that happened would take us far from modelling the early human mind. The early human mind is likely to have been characterized by psychological dispositions supporting egalitarianism: vigilant food-sharing, informal leadership and counter- dominant behaviour.






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