We’re all familiar with the concept survival of the fittest. Have you ever heard of reverse dominance hierarchy? In his research on the origins of egalitarianism, evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm coined the phrase and describes it: the weaker members in a community unite to thwart alpha-types from dominating.* Boehm witnessed it in primates, and concludes that egalitarian practice is not natural, but a learned behavior. Understood as such, egalitarianism has deep roots – a survival not necessarily of the fittest but of the united.
Nature displays hierarchies (ant colonies, for example); hierarchical organizations are not only natural and good, they accomplish manifold tasks. Hierarchy, however, can breed dominance. Egalitarianism – a group or community engaged in the struggle for self-determination and equal opportunity within a larger community or with a competing community – confronts subordinating dominance. Justly engaged, egalitarianism can permeate not only politics and social policy, but market economy as well.
Western philosophers and social commentators, going back to David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, assent that extreme inequalities can only have a destructive effect on society. Social dissention and fragmentation are the inevitable manifestations in a society that tolerates great disparities between its richest and poorest. The American Civil War was, in essence, a battle between egalitarianism and hierarchical domination. The (relatively) new nation was not to be like their European counterpart nations with their monarchies, aristocracies, serfdom, and church authority. American society has fought to put egalitarianism into practice – all the while struggling with what it has meant and means for its indigenous, ethnic minority, female, minor (children), foreign working, disabled, and gay populations.
Some libertarian voices, advocating personal liberty first and foremost, deride egalitarianism as a “revolt against nature” (Murray Rothbard). Might does not always make right – even though the laissez-faire market system has lifted millions from poverty and made others extremely rich, it doesn’t mean the market system can operate with impunity as concerns social outcomes. Egalitarianism is vigorous social progress; we’ve worked hard at it for generations and now is not the time to succumb to such an ardent antagonist. The just reversal of domination is a learned social skill naturally liberating.
*Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, Harvard University Press (1999).
Click here to read What Happened to Egalitarianism? Part 1.