Caveman, Salaryman, Baboon, Thief

July 8, 2014

Christopher Boehm is a professor of anthropology and biology at the University of Southern California. He studied chimpanzees with Jane Goodall. In his book, Hierarchy in the Forest, he makes the case that our ancestors practiced “self domestication,” meaning they enforced an egalitarian climate by ostracizing or executing domineering individuals, which bred their descendants—us—to be egalitarian and altruistic.

Sharing a large kill leveled survival chances within the group, but even superior hunters needed the group for survival and reproduction, giving egalitarian groups a survival advantage over despotic groups.

Our ancestors had ideas about how things should be and how individuals should behave. Language allowed them to share these ideas, as well as events that happened elsewhere, earlier, or that simply might happen.

A baboon could express outrage at being bullied, but if she and the culprit were the only witnesses, nobody would know what she was screaming about. Language also allowed bands to instruct their young in moral conduct, praise virtue, and shame viciousness.

Weapons allowed coalitions, allied by language, to enforce their will in extreme cases. Boehm tells about a band of contemporary nomadic foragers in the Kalahari Desert. “A man named Twi killed three other people, when the people in a rare move of unanimity ambushed and fatally wounded him. They shot him with many poisoned arrows, and everybody stabbed his corpse to claim responsibility.”

It’s not surprising that early humans conspired to control or punish bullies, just as modern humans imprison and execute wrongdoers. Corporations have been called the planet’s “new dominant life form.” A corporation is a legal entity set up for business or charitable purposes. Usually the owners’ liabilities for debts and damages are limited.

Corporations go back at least to the 14th century. European monarchs chartered some to colonize the Americas. Originally, the United States allowed incorporation for projects that benefited the commonweal, mostly infrastructure. Charters were temporary and contingent on the corporation remaining law-abiding. The Civil War bolstered corporate power, and it has grown since.

Some clever soul on the Internet used the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to diagnose corporations as sociopathic, noting they routinely break the law, deceive people for profit, and are aggressive.

Corporations have blown up mountains for coal, driven entire small-town economies out of business, and been complicit in the deaths of developing-world activists. They have obstructed popular understanding of ecological peril, and continue to actively obstruct attempts at conservation. The dilemma and difficulty of corporate wrongdoing is that we are all corporate beneficiaries.

Robert Sapolsky is an American anthropologist and neuro-endocrinologist who studied baboons in Kenya for more than a quarter century. He took blood from wild baboons and measured stress hormones, linking high stress levels to deteriorated health. But Sapolsky doesn’t like baboons. “The chief cause of death to male baboons is male baboons.”

In a baboon troop, a member knows who can torture him, whom he can torture, and whom that baboon will torture later. Males are “bastards.” Dominant males get more food, sex, and plenty of sycophants willing to eat the bugs from their fur. Females take a lot of grief.

Sapolsky suffered an apparent setback when tuberculosis killed half the male baboons in the troop he studied. The deaths weren’t random, though. Baboons raided a garbage dump and got some tuberculosis-tainted meat.

The alpha males claimed the dump and drove away the less aggressive. The troop wound up two-thirds female, and the surviving males were, “to use scientific jargon, good guys...not aggressive jerks, they were nice to the females, they were very socially affiliative, and it completely transformed the atmosphere in the troop.”

The Keekorok have remained egalitarian. “If they’re able, in one generation, to transform what are supposed to be textbook social systems—sort of engraved in stone—we don’t have an excuse when we say there are certain inevitabilities about human social systems.

“So, what do baboons teach the average person? Don’t bite somebody because you’re having a bad day; don’t displace on them in any sort of manner; social affiliation is a remarkably powerful of the greatest forms of sociality is giving rather than receiving; and all of these things make for a better world.”

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