Religion and Equality in Human Evolution

With the development of agriculture, the egalitarianism of early human societies gave way to increasing inequality. This painting by Claude Vignon depicts King Croesus, a fifth-century ruler whose wealth became legendary. Credit: Creative Commons/Claude Vignon.

Where did we come from? What should we do here? Where are we going? As long as human beings ask these questions, we will need metanarratives—accounts of cosmological and biological evolution that place the human species in the context of what we know about the universe as a whole.

In my book Religion in Human Evolution and its sequel, a work-in-progress titled The Modern Project in the Light of Human Evolution, I have been exploring a new metanarrative by means of an extended hypothesis about religion and equality in human evolution—a hypothesis that is open to correction at every point and raises far more questions than it can answer.

I have come to view the Marxism of Marx and Engels (not of Lenin, nor certainly of Stalin, nor Mao) as a version of the biblical metanarrative about the history of salvation. Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right has further awakened me to the Marxist quality of this biblical metanarrative. (Eagleton is a radical Irish Catholic with a deep conviction of the truth and current relevance of Marx’s teaching.)

Marx’s version of the biblical history of salvation begins with what he calls “primitive communism,” when all things were held in common—a kind of Garden of Eden. Then comes the “fall” into class society that occurred when several forms of the domination of the poor and vulnerable by the rich and powerful succeeded each other—slave society, feudal society, and capitalism. Marx also foresees a version of “that Day” when the Lord will set all things straight, reward the faithful, punish the wicked, and create a reign of peace and justice on earth: socialism and communism.

Eagleton points out that Marx was quite aware of how much he owed to the biblical tradition. Moreover, when Marx’s wife wanted to join a women’s “secular society,” he told her it would do her more good to read the Hebrew prophets.

Hunter-Gatherers’ Egalitarianism

The earliest humans, hunter-gatherers, were often remarkably egalitarian. But our history as a species did not begin with this “Eden” (we will see how we need to qualify that analogy in a minute), but with primate ancestors who were anything but egalitarian: our nearest primate relatives, the chimpanzees, live in strongly hierarchal bands dominated by alpha males who attempt to maintain sole sexual access to the females of the group and keep both other males and females in subservience to them.

What accounts for the difference between primate bands and hunter-gatherer egalitarians? The absence of a disposition for dominance? Not likely. In Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior, anthropologist Christopher Boehm argues that we share with chimpanzees and bonobos a tendency toward despotism. Yet nomadic hunter-gatherers have nevertheless been uniformly egalitarian, seemingly for thousands if not millions of years. Boehm explains this seeming contradiction with the claim that hunter-gatherers have “reverse dominance hierarchies”: the adult males in the society form a general coalition to prevent any one of their number, alone or with a few allies, from dominating the others. Male egalitarianism is not necessarily extended to females—the degree to which females are subject to male despotism varies, even among hunter-gatherers. But the reverse dominance hierarchy prevents the monopolization of females by dominant males. This makes possible the heterosexual nuclear family as we know it, based on (relatively) stable cross-gender pair bonding and mutual nurturance of children by parents, precisely what is missing in our closest primate relatives.

Egalitarianism is thus itself a form of dominance, the dominance of what Rousseau would have called the general will over the will of each. The hunter-gatherer band is not, then, the family enlarged; rather it is the precondition for the family as we know it.

Boehm identifies “moral community” and “the deliberate use of social sanctioning to enforce political equality among fully adult males” as the two components of egalitarian social control. I would add ritual as the common expression of the moral community without which the process of sanctioning would make no sense.


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Robert N. Bellah is professor of sociology emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley. He was educated at Harvard University, receiving both a B.A. and a Ph.D. there. In 1985 he published Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, in collaboration with Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven Tipton.

Source Citation

Bellah, Robert N. 2012. Religion and Equality in Human Evolution. Tikkun 27(4): 13.

tags: Democracy, Economy/Poverty/Wealth, Rethinking Religion   
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