Cooperation in Neolithic Culture and the Implications for Feminism

A new study, reported by the New York Times, dramatically challenges the prevailing, Darwinian understanding of human social development.  Not “natural selection” but cooperative behavior influenced the structure of early human societies. This view has profound feminist implications because it contradicts Darwin’s assumption that early human societies formed around dominant men competing with other men for women.

Early human groups, according to the new view, would have been more cooperative and willing to learn from one another than the chimpanzees from which human ancestors split about five million years ago.  The advantages of cooperation and social learning then propelled the incipient human groups along a different evolutionary path.

Anthropologists have assumed until now that hunter-gatherer bands consist of people fairly closely related to one another, much as chimpanzee groups do, and that kinship is a main motive for cooperation within the group.  Natural selection, which usually promotes only selfish behavior, can reward this kind of cooperative behavior, called kin selection, because relatives contain many of the same genes.

A team of anthropologists led by Kim S. Hill of Arizona State University and Robert S. Walker of the University of Missouri analyzed data from 32 living hunter-gatherer peoples and found that the members of a band are not highly related. Fewer than 10 per cent of people in a typical band are close relatives…

Darwin did not assert that human beings split off from chimps, but rather that we are “descended from some ape-like creature,” (Origin of Species, Penguin, 658).  More than 30 million years ago, our ancestors belonged to the same group that included the lines that would develop into Gibbons, Orangutans, Gorillas, Bonobos, and Chimps.  We are genetically far closer to Bonobos and Chimps than we are to Gibbons, Orangutans and Gorillas.  Modern-day Chimps and Bonobos are more closely related to one another than modern day humans are to either group, although we are significantly closer genetically to Bonobos than we are to Chimps.  There is very little reason to assume that contemporary chimpanzee behavior and social structure offer us a portrait of ancient human societies, but this has not stopped mainstream scientists–nearly all of them men–from doing it.

Scientists are not immune to the gendered assumptions that dominate the cultures in which they acquire their knowledge, as feminist scholars such as Emily Martin, Donna Harraway,  and Londa Schiebinger have repeatedly demonstrated.  The assumption that early human societies resembled contemporary chimpanzee societies, which are dominated by males who remain in the group and fight with males of outlying groups for mates, has helped to codify the erroneous but deeply entrenched belief that male domination is “natural” and intrinsic to the species.

Evolutionary biologists who base their assumptions about human nature on chimpanzee societies have reinforced Charles Darwin’s sexist theory of natural selection, which states that men did the majority of the work in the early struggle for survival in the wild.  According to Darwin, ancient (he says “savage”)  men were far smarter than women:

The chief distinction in the intellectual power of the two sexes is shewn by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman–whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of senses and hands. (Origin of Species, 629)

Darwin offers absolutely no evidence for this argument other than the specious theory of natural selection, which postulates that the “strongest and boldest men” fought with one another for “wives” and got to pass on their genes, and that

the characters gained will have been transmitted more fully to the male than to the female offspring…Thus man has ultimately become superior to woman (Origin of Species, 630-31)

This unscientific assumption is part and parcel of Darwin’s fantastic belief that men are primarily responsible for survival, i.e., that they furnished food and shelter while women sat around nursing their babies or staring stupidly at their feet.  This view of ancient human society has been completely debunked by studies of ancient and modern hunter-gathering societies, which show that women most likely invented tools for cutting, weaving, cooking, fire-burning, and food gathering. Women are also most likely the ones who invented and perfected traps for small game, which could be set around the dwelling area.  The myth of the cave man hunting down the Mammoth so that mamma and the kids could eat is nothing more than a myth, since archaeologists such as Margaret Conkey and Joan Gero, have shown that hunter-gatherer societies subsist largely on gathered nuts, roots, foliage, fruit, and fish, and that game was a rare addition to a mostly vegetarian diet.  [Indeed, even that most unscientific of unscientific documents that lend credence to the fantasy of original patriarchy suggests that human beings originally eschewed meat: Genesis 1:29-30.] So there is actually much more archaeological and anthropological evidence that women and men contributed equally to survival.

This latest anthropological study corroborates the view that, for 90 per cent of the time that human beings have been human beings–100,000 years, we lived in hunter-gathering groups of diverse and distantly related men and women who shared power and work equally.  Instead of assuming that contemporary chimpanzee society illustrates ancient human society, it studies contemporary hunter-gatherers for evidence of how our ancestors lived and developed.  The Darwinian myth imagines that humans banded around dominant males who selected their kin through fighting, and that humans, like chimpanzees, cooperate with one another in the group but are largely hostile to out-lying groups.   (This story never made sense to me, since I could never understand how human beings could survive and develop complex cultures through war-mongering, which is essentially suicidal.) What Kim Hill, Robert Walker and their associates have suggested makes is far more believable.   Contemporary hunter-gatherers, both male and female move around from tribe to tribe.  Moreover, as primatologist Bernard Chapais has shown, the pair bond between a human female and male allowed people to recognize their relatives, which is something that chimps cannot do very well.  Family members that disperse to neighboring bands would recognize and cooperate with one another, instead of fighting with one another, as chimps do.

Cooperation, not competition, is key to survival and development.  As the NYT reports,

Hunter-gatherers probably lived as tribes split into many small bands of 30 or so people. Group selection could possibly act at the level of the tribe, Dr.  Hill said, meaning that tribes with highly cooperative members would prevail over those that were less cohesive.  …

A hunter-gatherer, because of cooperation between bands, may interact with a thousand individuals in his tribe.  Because humans are unusually adept at social learning, including copying useful activities from others, a large social network is particularly effective at spreading and accumulating knowledge.

While this study in particular does not speculate about power-sharing between men and women in ancient human societies, it corroborates the argument that male domination of women is a relatively recent development in human history.  The oldest Neolithic cities that we have unearthed, in Catal Höyük and Asikli, indicate that thousands of people lived together without any centralized architecture and no division of labor.  They were sedentary but not necessarily agricultural, and they traded with distant cities.  Figurines of voluptuous female bodies have prompted some scholars to maintain that the societies that lived in these cities 6,000 and 7,000 years B.C.E. were matriarchal, but Gerda Lerner and other feminists have made a much more convincing argument for an egalitarian civilization.