Hierarchy in the Forest

by Christopher Boehm (1999)


Boehm has a relatively simple hypothesis: environmental circumstances pressured early hominids to evolve altruistically despite strong genetic pressure toward selfishness. His arguments are mostly convincing, and his knowledge of anthropology expansive enough to support any claims of expertise.

The packaging of this argument, however, leaves much to be desired. Boehm apparently feels the need to cover entirely too much ground in the effort to support his case, leaving the book feeling long, plodding, disorganized and convoluted. He also gets into trouble in the later goings with conspicuously thin hypothesizing while attempting to shore up any holes in his theory.

Chapter 7, “Ancestral Politics,” is probably the most egregious chapter on the whole. Here he claims, for example, that the hominid’s Common Ancestor had the potential to revolt against tyrannical leadership, but bases the claim solely on one documented instance among captive Chimpanzees. Another example of shoddy hypothesizing is evident in the “Pleiotropic Support” and “Warfare” hypotheses at the end of Chapter 9, the explanations of which more resemble throwing darts at a wall to any sort of scientific rigor.

Much of the book’s value lies in the 1st half, where Boehm provides fascinating anthropological and primatological studies. He makes a decent argument for how weapons could have revolutionized political and social organization (Ch. 8), and gives countless examples of tribal prohibitions against selfishness. The most interesting points for me were his explanations of how tribes keep potential upstarts in check via an escalating spectrum of social sanctions. The tension between this reality and our alleged genetic selfishness, which do not theoretically allow for such communal actions, is the central conflict of the book.

I would recommend this book only to avid amateur anthropologists, because it becomes unfortunately dry and droning as it goes on. I also believe that political theorists, evolutionary psychologists or philosophers could get some value out of it, but that they can probably stop after Chapter 6 (p. 148) and not miss anything at all.


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