(About a 5 minute read)
In light of recent fossil discoveries in Morocco. it now seems true that our noble and esteemed species of fur-challenged, poo-flinging super-apes is at least 300,000 years old.
By most scientific accounts, we spent almost all of that vast time evolving to live in small, remarkably egalitarian, social groups of typically about 200 or so individuals.
Not only is the evidence conclusive that our own species was always a social animal living in groups, but it is nearly just as conclusive that the parents of our species, and their parents, and their parents — and so forth — were all social species going back for up to 20 million years.
All of which almost necessarily means that we have spent “considerable” time evolving, adapting, to cooperate with, and even to depend on each other, for our survival.
But it goes even further than that. Much further.
Not only are we a social animal, but it appears we are also a fiercely egalitarian social animal. Yet if we were a fiercely egalitarian animal, then why were we so egalitarian?
Apparently, our ancestors were ever alert to someone among them rising up to a position that he could threaten the freedoms of the others. In other words, we were egalitarian in order to keep ourselves from being dominated by someone or some group. As the cultural anthropologist, Christopher Boehm explained it:
My argument also followed [Richard] Lee’s insights, but in an evolutionary direction. The premise was that humans are innately disposed to form social dominance hierarchies similar to those of the African great apes, but that prehistoric hunter-gatherers, acting as moral communities, were largely able to neutralize such tendencies–just as extant hunter-gatherers do.
The ethnographic basis for that hypothesis was that present-day foragers apply techniques of social control in suppressing both dominant leadership and undue competitiveness. . . In 1993, I published the principal results of my continuing survey of forager and tribal egalitarians. With respect to both the hunter-gathers and the tribesmen in my sample, the hypothesis was straightforward: such people are guided by a love of personal freedom.
For that reason they manage to make egalitarianism happen, and do so in spite of human competitiveness–and in spite of innate human tendencies to dominance and submission that easily lead to the formation of social dominance hierarchies.
So the ultimate reason we do not see pronounced hierarchies among the people living in hunter/gatherer bands is because those people cherish their freedom — perhaps even to an extent we ourselves do not.
For all that can be said in support of the notion that we are an inherently social species it is absolutely crucial here to recognize that we are also — at the same time — an inherently individualist species! As Einstein once put it:
Man is, at one and the same time, a solitary being and a social being. As a solitary being, he attempts to protect his own existence and that of those who are closest to him, to satisfy his personal desires, and to develop his innate abilities. As a social being, he seeks to gain the recognition and affection of his fellow human beings, to share in their pleasures, to comfort them in their sorrows, and to improve their conditions of life.
Now something quite strange began happening about 5,500 years ago — and first on the sweltering plains of Sumer. We started to organize ourselves into complex societies with largely hereditary hierarchies. Things we now call, “civilizations”.
Gawds! That was such a mistake in so very many ways! Ways too many to get into here, except for one, an extraordinarily significant one: We traded freedom and egalitarianism in order to have social, political, and economic classes. In the most basic sense, just two classes: Elites and commoners, rulers and ruled, rich and poor.
Ever since, our noble and esteemed species of super-adept spear-chuckers has been embroiled in nearly constant — although often purposely obscured and hidden — “war” between the two classes.
It runs through all of civilized history — through every civilization — like a powerful, mostly subterranean river that so many of us do not know is there until one day it boils up in violent rebellions, great revolutions, causing even the most blind to gain the sight to see it.
Typically, the elites have on their side wealth, power, authority, armies, governments, and so forth. The commoners, on the other hand, have the masses, the great majority of people.
But the odds are always stacked in favor of the elites for they also typically have the two greatest advantages of all: Clear insight into what’s going on, combined with the means to obscure and hide those realities from most of us largely via “smoke and mirrors”.
For instance, it still comes as news to many of us when we read Warren Buffett’s statement, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
In America, the elites are split into two parties, and there can be relatively minor, but still important ways in which one party or the other favors policies that benefit non-elites. Yet, that should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the most basic of social, political, and economic divisions is that between elites and non-elites, rather than between elites and other elites.
It’s my contention that if you do not understand how the conflict between elites and non-elites has unfolded over the past 5,500 years, you do not understand history. And if you do not understand history, you do not understand current events.
Comments? Questions? Derisive snorts? Cute pics of your children or grandchildren? Touching memories of the very first time you stuck a snowball down the back of my shirt?
How did society get divided into elites and non-elites? Here’s one possible answer.