Deep Cooperation Made Us Human

Deep Cooperation Made Us Human

by John M Repp

Humanity could use a new understanding of how we got here that can help us survive the coming era of climate catastrophe. The origin story needs to be more cross-cultural, more universal than Genesis, the traditional Judeo-Christian story. The story needs to show us a variety of human behaviors, unlike a simplistic “survival of the fittest” understanding of evolution, which paints humans mainly as competitors. The story should be based in science.

Some of the parts of a new story can be found in the work of several anthropologists who have published books and articles over the last few decades. Their work is not widely known, and this essay is an attempt to remedy that.

Most mammals form hierarchical ranking systems. Our hominid ancestors were primates and we think they formed male-dominant hierarchies. An example of such a male-dominant hierarchy is a troop of chimpanzees where dominant male chimps use force or threats of force to obtain whatever food and sex they desire. There is an alpha male and his coalition male partner or partners who dominate the troop. There is a ranking of all the members, from top to bottom, understood by all the members of the troop. All females are submissive to adult males in chimp society.

The bonobos are another species closely related to the chimpanzees, sometimes called the gracile chimpanzee. They have a female dominant system where females can form coalitions more easily than males and they will discipline an unruly male. It is thought that because bonobos evolved in a part of the African rain forest where gorillas are not present, their favored foods were more readily available. This allowed bonobos to be able to live in larger groups than chimps and this enabled female bonobos to make coalitions with other females to protect themselves from males who wanted to dominate. The result was the selection of less dominant males.

Our hominid ancestors evolved in the rich and abundant ecosystems in the African Rift Valley. This niche allowed our ancestral societies to be relatively large for big-bodied primates and encouraged a vibrant sociality. This is one reason our brains were larger than primates who evolved in smaller societies. This was the niche in which egalitarian societies developed.

Homo sapiens, our species, continues to have a propensity to learn the behaviors at the root of hierarchy formation, called by psychologists the dominance behavioral system or DBS. DBS has three parts. 1) Each individual wants to achieve the highest rank possible for the benefits that rank accrues. 2) Consciously or unconsciously, in facing others, there is a calculation of relative power of each. 3) Then a decision is made to dominate or submit. In every group, different individuals will carry a range of domineering tendencies and political abilities running along a spectrum from strong to weak. That seems to make a ranked hierarchy inevitable.

Instead, our species learned to form band-wide coalitions to prevent alpha types from becoming tyrants over the band and to keep competition in check. Band is the name given to small hunter-gatherer societies. The band members cooperated deeply, working together to stop the formation of hierarchical ranking. Collective action to prevent alpha domination was an evolutionary breakthrough that made possible the evolution of Homo sapiens with the ability to feel shame, to blush, and to have a conscience.[i] It is difficult to imagine morality functioning in a hierarchical ranking society where the alpha males do what they want.

Anthropologists observing the few forager bands still around, describe a set of behaviors such as gossiping, joking, talking directly to an alpha, cold greeting, shunning, banishing, and even assassination in order to enforce the rules of “no dominance” and to keep competition at a minimum. The band members created an egalitarian ethos. For a significant example that has been seen on every continent where our species settled, big game hunting parties elaborated rules to ensure that every individual in the band, not just allies of the hunting party, or family of the hunting party, gets a portion of the big game meat that is brought back to the home base. Humans are the only meat-eating mammal that does this. Other social carnivores distribute the catch to keep their dominance coalition together.[ii]

This idea of how an egalitarian society was created is called “reverse dominance” or “counter-dominance” and was described by anthropologist Christopher Boehm in the 1990s based on work done by many anthropologists. Collective behavior stopped hierarchies from forming and allowed society-wide cooperation to function. With that in place, our species thrived.

Boehm’s theory barely refers to gender. What was the role of females in creating egalitarian societies? Here our prehistory gets very interesting. Here is a rough chronology of the time periods discussed here. The middle Paleolithic period was from 300,000 to 45,000 years ago. The late Paleolithic period was from 45,000 to 10,000 years ago. The patriarchies we know from sources like The Bible or early Greek and Roman history came later. The earliest Bible verses were written 3500 years ago. Rome lost its republic and became an empire about 2000 years ago.

Anthropologists agree that males and females in middle and late Paleolithic bands were much more equal than today. Near equality of the genders was the norm for most foragers who were still living in the old way when they were studied by resident anthropologists in the 19th and 20th centuries. Not all the individuals of a foraging band were genetically related and the membership in a band was fluid and always changing. From time to time, couples with their children moved to be with the birth family bands of both genders and this indicates equality between the genders.[iii]

There is evidence that females began what later became band-wide coalitions making counter-dominance possible. Females needed the support of mothers and sisters in taking care of their big brained, slow developing babies. By way of contrast, chimps and bonobos do not allow other females to even touch their babies. The first thing a group of humans do when someone has a new baby is pass the baby around for everyone to hold. “Cooperative breeding”, a term a social scientist would use for babysitting by an individual unrelated to the child, is most probably the source of the deeply cooperative and trusting behavior that was later manifested society-wide in our species.

It was proto-human hominid females who were finally able overcome the dominance strategies of their males. This is the bold hypothesis of Christopher Knight, a hypothesis ignored by most academic anthropologists, and virtually unknown by the educated populace.[iv]

Knight points to the characteristics of the unique reproductive system of human females as evidence. Hidden ovulation was naturally selected in proto-human females for a reason. A reproductive system that suppressed estrus – heat – a hormonal state where the impulse to have sex is irresistible, meant the females could decide when and with whom to have sex. This had selective advantage. The females could say no. With this they could better cooperate with each other, rather than compete for alpha males. In addition, the female period is almost exactly the length of the cycle of the moon and the synchronization of female menstrual cycles with the phases of the moon was helpful for female cooperation. When the menstruation of the females was coordinated, the reproductive system was driven away from harems or multi-male promiscuous mating towards monogamy.

The final act of what Knight calls “the human revolution” was cultural. This part of his theory seems like mythology but the insight that females played a key role in the early development of human culture rings true. The cooperating females learned to sing, dance, and decorate themselves with red ochre at the dark of the moon. The red ochre was used to paint the bodies of all women in the band to mask who was really menstruating. It was, Knight writes, the first art and the first example of symbolic culture. With this, the females reversed the accepted meaning of menstruation which had always been a signal to dominate males that there was a soon-to-be-fertile female. All the women were instead communicating “No!” to the men. The females needed the males to go hunting for meat for the children.

Knight calls these actions by the females a “sex strike”. The “strike” would end when the men returned to the home base with the catch of the hunt under the full moon. Then the whole band would feast and celebrate. With their solidarity and the new rules and taboos they established, the females achieved what no other primate female could: they got the males to help feed the babies. The division of labor between hunters and gatherers, men and women that defined human society for millennia was established.

According the Knight, even more momentous is the fact that this collective action by females was the beginning of human symbolic culture. Using the red ochre to signal something other than what was the case started the process of carving out a symbolic world. We humans live in two different worlds, the real world and the symbolic world of our own creation. Knight thinks the trust, understanding and cooperation that the females learned with each other led to the natural selection and evolution of human language. Language could only develop in a cooperating society. When humans have tried to teach chimpanzees and bonobos to use language, the animals use it when they are with their human trainers in the laboratory. They do not use it when on their own. They do not trust each other enough to tell the truth.

Counter-dominance used to create equality was so much easier to achieve in a small society such as the hunter-gather bands where everyone knew each other, and many individuals were related. But even in these bands we see the ambivalence we humans face: we have natural propensities to form and fit into hierarchies and rank (DBS), but we also have a propensity and desire for egalitarian society.

Over millennia, horticulture, agriculture, and herding allowed human societies to get larger and warfare gave selective advantage to larger societies. Few people know that organized war large enough to leave an archaeological record originated relatively late in prehistory. Having heard about chimpanzee “war”, many believe that war has been with us forever. But the archaeological evidence and a close look at the ethnological evidence does not support that belief. Separate human bands generally avoided each other, except when they had big seasonal celebrations, often in the fall. They moved away from each other when there was conflict. The low density of human population made that possible and conflict rare. The “first generally accepted evidence of war in the Near East and the world” was 10,000 to 12,000 years ago at a site called Nubian site 117.[v]

As war developed, so did a male warrior culture, and that helped male-dominant hierarchies become re-established. Slaves were originally people who had been captured in a war. War made class societies possible, with hierarchy and wealth produced by the lower classes and controlled by the upper classes. We call this new kind of society “civilization”. However, we must not conclude that all ancient societies that had grown large enough to have cities were hierarchical. We know from the history of Western civilization that there was a form of democracy in ancient Athens, at least among the free males. The Athenians selected their political leaders by lot, by a random selection process called sortition.[vi] Equality was the goal of selecting political officials by lot. And archaeologists are finding the ruins of ancient cities in Tlaxcala in Mesoamerica as well in India that seem to reveal egalitarian societies. All the houses show roughly the same level of wealth; there are no palaces with luxury goods, only ceremonial plazas in each neighborhood. Thus, we see that the egalitarian ethos was practiced in some parts of the world even after the first cities were built.[vii]

We appear to be adapted to life in hierarchical societies, but there is evidence that we are not. It has been proven empirically that the more equal the society the better the health as measured by life expectancy and infant mortality. The more unequal the society, the more stress there is. Other good social outcomes also occur with lower income inequality: a higher level of trust between people, less mental illness, less drug use, lower rates of obesity, higher literacy, higher educational achievement, lower crime rates, lower rates of violence, lower rates of incarceration, higher status of women and even lower teen pregnancy.[viii]

More evidence of maladaptation to ranked society and hierarchy appears when big natural disasters strike. Today that might mean electrical power is off, cell phones are off, ATMs don’t work, and police are nowhere to be found. To our surprise, small ad hoc communities arise that are egalitarian with altruistically behaving individuals that find great joy in sharing and caring for each other. This happened in the aftermath of Katrina. Such happenings are not usually reported in corporate news.[ix] It is as if egalitarian band level societies reappear.

We now live in a ranked and hierarchical society. And our history books start their narratives after this form of human society made an appearance. Many think a ranked and hierarchical society is the only “structure” large human social groups can take. What is the possibility that human societies and cultures can revive the egalitarian ethos and learn again how to practice counter-dominance, this time on a larger scale? This has been the dream of revolutionaries throughout history.

A militant nonviolent direct-action campaign could weaken and dissolve hierarchy and restore democracy. According to Gene Sharp,[x] the pre-eminent theorist of nonviolence, the ultimate source of political power is cooperation, not force. People in the lower levels of hierarchies are dependent on the people in the higher levels for jobs and promotions as well as subject to punishment if they do not cooperate. But it is also true governments, the military, and corporations are dependent on the people in the lower levels for their skills, knowledge, and work. All hierarchical systems need the acceptance, submission, and help of people at all levels – from the lowest workers to the highest bureaucrat – to function. Normally, the people in the lower levels accept the authority of those above and cooperate. But there are times when deep conflicts occur, and the authority of the higher-ups is no longer accepted by the rank and file. When the loss of authority moves people to action and they organize and when enough people i.e. 3.5 % of the citizenry[xi] withdraw their cooperation for enough time and maintain or widen that withdrawal in the face of the ruler’s punishments or repression, the power of the ruler disintegrates.

For militant nonviolent strategy and tactics to be effective, the people not participating in the opening actions of a nonviolent campaign need to learn the truth of what happens in the streets or in the occupied spaces. Our dominant corporate press will confuse the events with the phrase like “violence occurred downtown yesterday”. This type of dishonest reporting obscures the responsibility of the police for the violence, assuming the people maintained discipline and remained nonviolent. A well-planned strategy for political change would include tactics like exposing police informants and agent provocateurs and setting up an alternative communication system so the people will know what is happening on the streets.

One takeaway from this understanding of how humans created egalitarian cooperative societies is that our societies need a democratically formed power that can keep egotistical dominator types, psychopaths or sociopaths, from becoming tyrants. If naïve anarchists think we need no such power, this narrative suggests otherwise.

Peace and environmental justice organizers who are working for a more democratic and egalitarian society can gain encouragement from understanding the ambivalence of Homo sapiens about hierarchy and equality and how band level foragers created egalitarian societies. With the creation of egalitarian society, human nature appears to change, when in fact it is the structure of human society that changes. Band-wide cooperation and solidarity was able to keep in check the selfishness with which we are born. Despite the return of male dominant societies in late prehistory and throughout much of written history, most of the time even today when people come face to face, they do not act like chimps or baboons. If they do try to take by force a bit of food or take by force sex, it is a crime. It is even less the case that when good friends are hanging out together, open dominance behavior is accepted. Instead people are relaxed, and they talk with lots of laughter. We did become human.

We face a daunting challenge in the coming years. Climate change and its effects are already upon us. The conflict over immigrants fleeing north from droughts, conflict manifested both in Europe and the United States is one manifestation in 2019. We need unprecedented cooperation and we cannot let national boundaries, race, class and gender divide us. Our survival depends on learning to practice at another scale the deep cooperation that made us human.[xii]


[i] Christopher Boehm. Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue Altruism and Shame. New York; Basic Books. 2012

[ii] Christopher Boehm. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1999

[iii] Science  15 May 2015: Vol. 348, Issue 6236, pp. 796-798

[iv] Chris Knight. Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1991

[v] Raymond C. Kelly. Warless Societies and the Origin of War. University of Michigan Press, 2000

[vi] David Graeber. The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, and A Movement. New York: Spiegel & Grau. 2013, p. 159


[viii] Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Wellbeing. Penguin Press. 2019.

[ix] Rebecca Solnit. A Paradise Built in Hell; the Extraordinary Communities the Arise in Disaster. Penguin Books. 2010




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