Boehm’s claim is that at some point during the last half-million years, well after the advent of language, our ancestors created the first true moral communities.32 In these communities, people used gossip to identify behavior they didn’t like, particularly the aggressive, dominating behaviors of would-be alpha males. On the rare occasions when gossip wasn’t enough to bring them into line, they had the ability to use weapons to take them down. Boehm quotes a dramatic account of such a community in action among the !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert: 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 of 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.33
For hierarchy, according to the anthropologist Christopher Boehm. Boehm studied tribal cultures early in his career, but had also studied chimpanzees with Jane Goodall. He recognized the extraordinary similarities in the ways that humans and chimpanzees display dominance and submission. In his book Hierarchy in the Forest, Boehm concluded that human beings are innately hierarchical, but that at some point during the last million years our ancestors underwent a “political transition” that allowed them to live as egalitarians by banding together to rein in, punish, or kill any would-be alpha males who tried to dominate the group. Alpha male chimps are not truly leaders of their groups. They perform some public services, such as mediating conflicts.28 But most of the time, they are better described as bullies who take what they want. Yet even among chimpanzees, it sometimes happens that subordinates gang up to take down alphas, occasionally going as far as to kill them.29 Alpha male chimps must therefore know their limits and have enough political skill to cultivate a few allies and stave off rebellion.
In the last chapter I suggested that humans are, like our primate ancestors, innately equipped to live in dominance hierarchies that can be quite brutal. But if that’s true, then how come nomadic hunter-gatherers are always egalitarian? There’s no hierarchy (at least among the adult males), there’s no chief, and the norms of the group actively encourage sharing resources, particularly meat.26 The archaeological evidence supports this view, indicating that our ancestors lived for hundreds of thousands of years in egalitarian bands of mobile hunter-gatherers.27 Hierarchy only becomes widespread around the time that groups take up agriculture or domesticate animals and become more sedentary. These changes create much more private property and much larger group sizes. They also put an end to equality. The best land and a share of everything people produce typically get dominated by a chief, leader, or elite class (who take some of their wealth with them to the grave for easy interpretation by later archaeologists). So were our minds “structured in advance of experience” for hierarchy or for equality? For hierarchy,