Quote of the Day: Natural Hierarchies

A quote on the naturalness of hierarchies in humans

opposable thumbs
Image by lucianvenutian via Flickr

Hold on guys and gals. This is a big’un.

A Redditor asks:

I just think back to my earliest times of hanging out with friends, organizing baseball games, and working on group projects, and the utility and convenience of creating hierarchies seems like a part of the “natural order”

And another responds:

The hierarchies you speak of are, in many ways biological. Packing orders of other primates (baboons for example) also have hierarchical social systems. This doesn’t mean that they are desirable or unavoidable.

There are many natural symbiotic systems (bees and flowers for example) which are purely cooperative, with no top-down, pyramid hierarchies. They are complex systems and each entity needs to maximize it’s own natural abilities to take advantage of the others’ but in taking advantage of one another, neither entity is put at a disadvantage.

Even in primate packs there are no artificial governing rules that the individuals follow, they evolve naturally based on genetic predispositions of strength and intellect as well as factors like age and sex.

But one of the major evolutionary stepping stones on the way to becoming homo sapiens sapiens was the evolved ability of homo erectus so-called beta pack members to band together and form units that were, through strength in numbers, able to overpower individual alpha male “rulers” to form egalitarian hunter-gatherer communities that could successfully fend of warring packs and hunt large mammals without aid of alpha males or single centralized leadership.

This particular trait precipitated many evolutionary milestones in communication and technology. Coordinated hunts, for instance, require linguistic ability which in turn breeds technological advances.

That is not to say they didn’t have leadership or complex social structures it’s just that the responsibilities of leadership were divided amongst many and the social structures naturally evolved from that. This made homo erectus one of the most successful and long-lived species of hominid of all time, as well as, gave rise to the most successful branch of the homo genus and the entire Animalia kingdom – modern day humans.

And while modern day humans retain the tendency for hierarchical pecking orders inherited from primate orders that are still visible today, that tendency is, in fact, a primitive feature, like the opposable thumb.

Cooperation and egalitarianism are derived, advanced features, like the opposable pinky.

This a very succint explanation of what people like Engels was writing about in the Origins of the Family. This is a very good explanation on why humans have a far greater attunement with cooperation and egalitarianism than we have with hierarchies and competition, even though for some (not all) of our closest cousins, this is not the case.

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7 thoughts on “Quote of the Day: Natural Hierarchies”

  1. Just excellent, as you said very succinct and to the point. I think it’s interesting that people automatically point towards hierarchy as ‘natural’, and dismiss egalitarian ideas as if they weren’t, also, natural.

    I also think it’s interesting that people think that something being ‘natural’, such as a slight propensity towards hierarchy, as meaning it’s automatically the ‘best way’. There are lots of things that are ‘natural’ that we’ve, over time, decided society was better off moving beyond – or at least that society could CHOOSE to move beyond if we wanted to. I’m in a monogamous relationship, for example, and there are all sorts of indicators that this might be ‘less natural’ then a polygamous or polyamorous lifestyle (the whole spreading the seed to increase the species argument’). But while biologically that might be true, socially it may be an evolutionary advantage for me to be in a monogamous relationship (indeed, from a familial stability standpoint, thus insuring my progeny survive and flourish, I’d argue it is).

    The point I’m trying to make is that we can’t simply look at biological evolution as the only source of ‘natural’ any longer – it’s short-sighted and only half the story to do so. From biology we’ve evolved socially, and society itself adds new dimensions to what is evolutionarily desirable for our species — including the (social) evolution of egalitarianism over the (biological) imperative towards hierarchy.


  2. So have anarchists as a group decided that hierarchy is a "biological imperative" to be overcome, as opposed to a purely social construct to be eliminated outright? Maximizing the biological imperative to cooperate over the imperative to hierarchy doesn't sound as exciting as saying that cooperation is the biology and hierarchy is the arbitrary social construct.

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