“How equality slipped away
For 97 per cent of human history, all people had about the same power and access to goods. How did inequality ratchet up?
is professor of philosophy at the Australian National University. His books include Language and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Language (2nd ed, 1999), co-authored with Michael Devitt; The Evolved Apprentice: How Evolution Made Humans Unique (2012) and From Signal to Symbol: The Evolution of Language (forthcoming, 2021), co-authored with Ronald J Planer. His most recent book is The Pleistocene Social Contract: Culture and Cooperation in Human Evolution (2021).
Our particular species of humans has been around for about 300,000 years and, best as we can tell, for about 290,000 of those years we lived materially poorer but much more equal lives. For most of our life as a species, most communities lived as mobile foragers, shifting camps when local resources became scarce, but probably sticking to a regular pattern over a defined territory.
Mobile foragers live in small bands (tens, not hundreds), but with connections of kith and kin to neighbouring bands, in social worlds of a few hundred to a few thousand. In many respects, these forager cultures are varied. They have differing cultural traditions and face different environments. The Australian Western Desert and the High Arctic could hardly be less alike, and both differ sharply from the rainforests of the Congo basin. Even so, in crucial ways, their social lives are remarkably similar. They sometimes have elders or initiates, but they have no chiefs. No-one has command authority over other adult males. Relations between the sexes vary but, in many forager cultures, women are indispensable, skilled, autonomous and essential props of the foraging economy. They gather plant foods and small game, and make much of the equipment of everyday life. They often have a good deal of social and sexual choice.
There are two developments in mobile forager cultures that tend to set the stage for the establishment of inequality. One such scaffold to inequality was the emergence of clan structure. Clans have a strong corporate identity, built around real or mythical genealogical connection, reinforced by demanding initiation rites and intense collective activities. They become central to an individual’s social identity. Individuals see themselves, and are seen by others, primarily through their clan identity. They expect and get social support mostly within their clan, as the anthropologist Raymond C Kelly writes in Warless Societies and the Origin of War (2000). Once storage and farming emerged, incipient elites used clan membership to mobilise social and material support.
The second development was the emergence of a quasi-elite based on the control of information, which created a hierarchy of prestige and esteem, rather than wealth and power. This was originally based on subsistence skills. Forager life depends on very high levels of expertise in navigation, tracking, plant identification, animal behaviour, and artisan skills. The genuinely expert attract deference and respect in return for generously sharing their knowledge, as the evolutionary biologist Joseph Henrich argues in The Secret of Our Success (2015). As the social anthropologist Jerome Lewis has shown, this economy of information can include story and music, and the same can be true of its ritual and normative life. Indeed, there might be a fusion of ritual with subsistence information, if ritual narratives are used as a vehicle for encoding important but rarely used spatial and navigational information. There’s some suggestion of this fusion in Australian Aboriginal songlines, and the idea is expanded from Australia and defended in detail by the orality scholar Lynne Kelly in Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies (2015). So there can be expertise and deference not just in subsistence skills, but also with regards to religion and ritual.
So, two scaffolds of inequality developed in the still fairly equal forager world. These scaffolds became potent as communities gave up movement in favour of a settled life – storage and farming – beginning about 10,000 years ago. Some foragers developed a lifestyle around storage (sometimes called ‘collectors’ rather than ‘foragers’). Hunters and fishers of the Pacific Northwest built an economy around salmon runs and marine resources. It’s possible that, in glacial Europe, sedentary foragers intercepted migrating herds, and built their economy around stored or smoked game. But giving up a life on the move and depending instead on stored foods is mostly connected to the origins of farming, and the new climatic regime of the Holocene, beginning about 12,000 years ago.
The viability of farming depends not just on access to the few wild species that can be shaped into crops and flocks, but on predictable weather patterns. The Holocene is not just warmer and wetter than the Pleistocene glacial that preceded it. It’s much more stable. Grain agriculture never developed in Aboriginal Australia in part because of the marked annual variation in many Australian climates. Without industrial storage and transport, dependence on crops would have been suicidal. Whatever the causes of this revolutionary change, its consequences were immense. Farming and storage make inequality possible, perhaps even likely, because they tend to undermine sharing norms, establish property rights and the coercion of labour, amplify intercommunal violence, and lead to increases in social scale.
If this picture of the road to inequality is right, it leads to four expectations. First, inequality depends on a prior establishment of an economy of storage and an expansion in social scale. Second, transegalitarian communities emerge from forager communities with clan-based organisation. Third, transegalitarian communities emerge from forager communities where the normative and ritual life is in the hands of a small group of initiates. And finally, such communities emerge in regional contexts with intermediate levels of intercommunity violence, contexts in which violence is a risk, but one that can be managed.
Bottom line: egalitarian, cooperative human communities are possible. Widespread sharing and consensus decision-making aren’t contrary to ‘human nature’ (whatever that is). Indeed, for most of human history we lived in such societies. But such societies are not inherently stable. These social practices depend on active defence. That active defence failed, given the social technologies available, as societies increased in scale and economic complexity. There’s no going back to Pleistocene equality, and I for one wouldn’t embrace the social intimacy and material simplicity of such lives. But we do have new social technologies. China (especially) is showing how those can be used to enhance elite surveillance. Let’s hope they can be reconfigured to support more bottom-up social action, to mitigate some of the effects of imbalances of wealth and power.”