Once aggrandizers are given an inch of leeway under favorable resource conditions, they quickly stretch that inch into a mile and keep on going.
— Brian Hayden
Once upon a time, there lived the ancestral apes that gave rise to humans, chimpanzees and bonobos.
In all likelihood, they lived in bands dominated by the strongest, most aggressive individuals — the male alphas. This tends to produce a rather disagreeable state of affairs where anyone can be humiliated or brutalized at any moment, and the best food and most mates go to just a few. Even baboons would rather opt out when the opportunity arises! In addition, our growing brains demanded the fats found only in scarce meat which the alphas commandeered.
Evolution snaked forward. The chimps pretty much put up with the true and tried. Bonobos evolved out of this unpleasant arrangement into an alliance of females, cemented by mutual sexual pleasuring. Humans likewise evolved out and into an alliance of betas, cemented by unprecedented, increasingly more subtle communication abilities, eventually including laughter and speech.
In conjunction with weapons-at-a-distance that equalized brawn and brains, power came to be shared, and so was the meat. The resulting egalitarian bands, a durable and satisfying arrangement, saw humans through the harshness of repeated ice ages and other natural calamities. During this time, humans became survivors par excellence on the planetary stage. The egalitarian strategy of “vigilant sharing” had proven itself a winner.
When did our first egalitarian revolution occur? Nobody knows, as yet. Some experts posit it could be as far back as when we came down from the trees, others place it into our sapiens timeline. The oldest known wooden, fire-hardened spears come from about 300-400,000 years ago.
This agreeable social arrangement began to slightly unravel in areas of plenty in the late European Paleolithic, and gradually wound down among the so-called “complex hunter-gatherers” after 15,000 years ago. Complex or transegalitarian foragers were people who forged new pathways into competition, accumulation, increasingly violent conflict, and ratcheting economic growth. Individuals known in the literature as Big Men or aggrandizers led this “elitist revolution,” becoming quite the experts on getting people to crank out work and surpluses, by hook or by crook.
In the beginning, these hardworking, enterprising, and generous leaders couched their projects in the language of altruism and community. But being “triple-A” (aggressive, acquisitive, ambitious) personalities, they were also surreptitiously looking out for number one. As more and more wealth of the tribe flowed through their hands, they learned to skim a little, then a bit more, for themselves. They finessed a plethora of strategies that created social imbalances among the people of the tribe. At first, only a few families were left behind, and most did well in the aftermath of Big Men’s projects. But in time, poverty spread apace with increasing social stratification. And after a few millennia of these increasingly manipulative and coercive tactics, the very individuals who early on worked the hardest and kept the least became those who worked the least and kept the most.
As the ratchet picked up speed, wealth and power inequalities grew to such an extent that a genetic bottleneck shows up around 8,000 years ago [reports just off the press, here and here] in various communities of the mid to late Neolithic. Just like in the days of our apish ancestors, the most aggressive alphas grabbed the best food and most of the mates. H. sapiens went baboon.
More work meant more food meant more people. Aggressive, accumulative, highly competitive societies gained a short-term advantage and were pushing out those who stayed with the old relaxed, egalitarian lifestyle. The needs of power came to trump the needs of life on the “Parable of the Tribes” planet. Elite-run societies are very good at producing goods; they nevertheless have a variety of disadvantages. The key one being this: aggrandizers have a problem with brakes. In the long run, they drive their societies off a cliff.
And here we are. Time, once again, for a crash. Except, this time, it’s global. Except, this time, it’s affecting the entire web of life our own lives depend on. The planetary ecosystems are devastated; some are dying. Our fellow creatures are disappearing forever. The soils that feed us are blowing away and turning into desert. There are invisible poisons everywhere, in the air we breathe, in the food we eat, in mothers’ milk. Clean water has become a rare commodity. Oceans are chock-full of garbage. Pathetically enough, the aggrandizers are losing their touch: jobs are vanishing at a time when people depend on them for their entire livelihoods. A stain of misery seeps across the anguished blue planet.
Our leading aggrandizers, of course, are not paying attention. It is one of elite privileges, not having to listen to the peons. Not having to listen to bad news. Not having to face feedback that is simply inconvenient to their plans and schemes, inconvenient to getting even richer and more powerful. One of the cherished perks of being rich and powerful is ignoring anyone who isn’t. Why not continue to live in a bubble and pretend that the bubble that’s lasted so long is permanently impervious to reality?
The Earth is running out — out of minerals, out of peoples and places to exploit, out of space for waste, out of patience. And the teetering tower of complexity, having reached the point of diminishing returns, stirs deep memories of quite another lifeway. Our species knows how to handle hardship and austerity — this knowledge is part of our genetic endowment. When resource conditions worsen to the point that aggrandizing behaviors again pose a threat to community and survival, humans set down tight limits on greed and narrow self-interest. I reckon we are about there. Time for the second egalitarian revolution, don’t you think?