Egalitarianism is an uneasy compromise

Saturday, February 4th, 2023

For most of human history we have been egalitarian, Rob Henderson explains, with status equivalency among the decision-makers of a group and no powerful group leaders:

Behavior in these societies is maintained by “moral communities.” Both men and women are quick to judge the misdeeds of others, and compare such actions to how people should behave.

For upstarts, awareness of predictable and swift punishment tends to modify their behavior. And if they don’t adhere to moral norms, they get eliminated.

A band will use social control against any adult, usually male, who behaves too assertively in an aggressive way.

Generally, both sexes get to contribute to the decision of whether a person has been socially deviant. For severe infractions, people were either ostracized or killed. Though women have some say in the decisions, the executions were typically carried out by men.

Within the groups, adult men tend to treat one another as equals, and women and children are treated as subordinate.

The book describes the indigenous Yanomamo tribe in Brazil. They have chiefs—leaders selected for their skill or bravery. But they cannot give direct orders to other men. They can simply make suggestions, which tend to hold more weight than the suggestions of others.

But this egalitarianism doesn’t apply within families, where men beat their wives without consequence. “On one occasion, though,” Boehm writes, “when a man was beating his wife so brutally that he was likely to kill her, a chief did intervene physically.”

Generally speaking in hunter-gatherer communities, if there was a conflict of interest between men and women, rules typically favored the men.

For example, male hunter-gatherers throughout Australia used women as political pawns. Wives could be required to have sex with multiple men at special ceremonies. They could also be loaned to a visiting man, or ordered by their husbands to have sex with another man in order to erase a debt or make peace. In 1938, the anthropologist A.P. Elkin reported that Australian Aboriginal women lived in terror of the expectations others had of them during ceremonies.

Generally speaking, across hunter-gatherer societies, status equivalency appears to apply only to adult males. Strict egalitarianism in making decisions for the community is practiced only among men.


The book [Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior] states that both egalitarianism (status equivalency) and hierarchy are “natural conditions of humanity.” Everyone wants to dominate others, and everyone doesn’t want to be dominated by others.

Egalitarianism is an uneasy compromise.

As the anthropologist Harold Schneider puts it: “All men seek to rule, but if they cannot rule they prefer to be equal.”


But even with the power of norms and social pressure, violence is far more common in hunter-gatherer bands than in modern societies. Bands and tribes strongly favor peace, cooperation, and despise conflict, but violent outbreaks are not infrequent.

Perhaps the most important reason for this is that there is no formalized authority.

There is no strong leader or council of elders who have the power to arbitrate disputes. In fact, those who attempt to broker peace are often killed. As a consequence, once a serious conflict arises, there is no truly effective means of settling the dispute.

The most common cause of murder in hunter-gatherer communities involves matters of sex, adultery, or jealousy.


  1. Jim says:

    “Hunter-gathering” isn’t a luxury, it’s a lower state of being for races who for whatever reason couldn’t make the transition to nomad-pastoralism.

    A bright mind such as Rob Henderson should take it upon himself to explain why Anglo-Germanics and other formidable warriors are reflexively obedient, and the implications.

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