Egalitarian Societies and Social Hierarchies...

The tribes featured in Tawai, The Penan and the Pirahã are both instant return hunter-gatherers. The majority of hunter-gatherer groups around the world enjoy an egalitarian social structure, meaning there are no hierarchies within their community. Since our species emerged over 200,000 years ago nomadic hunter-gathering has been the primary form of subsistence for homosapiens. All human societies are thought to have existed historically as hunter-gathers, with similar egalitarian social structures to those we see today in the few remaining groups who can still live a nomadic lifestyle. It seems that sharing, caring and cooperation, the basis of egalitarian social structure, have been at the core of our species adaptation and survival for over 90% of our existence.

Jerome Lewis, an anthropologist at UCL who studies egalitarian societies, says that as humans

migrated away from tropical regions, where food is available all year round, into seasonal areas we began to need to store food. Our shift from a hunter-gather lifestyle to farming only began about 10,000-12,000 years and it is likely that this precipitated a decline in social equality, as food excess was stored and created a means of accumulating wealth and power.

Hierarchy and Health

With the shift to agriculture and the emergence of social hierarchies, our capacities for navigating a world with a ‘pecking order’ became necessary. A whole suit of psychological operating systems found the social conditions to thrive. Things like increased vigilance for social rejection, motivation to compete, sensitivity to feelings of inferiority, and shame as well as increased self- criticism to tame public perception and achieve desirability. As our social set ups changed so we were required to focus on social rank and the importance of success and failure for attaining and maintaining a safe place in society. Our social world shifted toward one of increased interpersonal competition.

It is important to understand that the biological and psychological foundations for this change already existed within us. In Professor Richard Wilkinson’s next book (The Inner Level, Penguin June 2918) he and Kate explain how social strategies to do with dominance and ranking are actually pre-human and part of our evolutionary heritage, shared with other species. This hierarchical form of social organisation contrasts greatly with the egalitarianism of hunter- gatherers, but humans have the capacity for both, Richard says

‘humans have the evolved psychological basis for two contrasting social strategies, one to do with dominance and the other to do with equality and friendship. Which one we use depends on the social environment.’

The equality among instant return hunter-gatherers is understood to have been maintained by what are called 'counter dominance strategies’. As Jerome Lewis explains in his interview with Bruce, egalitarian societies require work and effort in order to maintain equality.

The psychological shift that accompanied (or facilitated?) our turn to agriculture may have helped us survive, but it is not without costs. Richard Wilkinson says the archaeological evidence suggests early farming communities were less healthy than their hunter-gathering counterparts. Skeletons are smaller with more signs of malnutrition and disease. We may have overcome the nutrition issue with modern farming, but research shows that living like this, operating from a competitive mentality and living in a competitive social system with inequality between people, are detrimental to human health and wellbeing.

Richard Wilkinson Part 1
Through other peoples eyes. Inequality and its relationship to health

Richard explains the impact of socio-economic inequality on health. He outlines how social hierarchy impacts stress, by altering the way we navigate our social world. Bruce and Richard then discuss the social norms of our culture and talk about whether equality is possible in large societies.


An antidote to the illness of inequality?

Today most people live in social hierarchies and are organised by class systems and social status. Income or social media reach and popular influence are our markers of power, and a competitive world is assumed to be ‘just the way we are’. But thanks to the study of our evolution, psychology & neuroscience, we can see our species has other operating systems too - other potentials.

Clinical psychologist Professor Paul Gilbert has researched how these different operating systems or ‘social mentalities’ affect our mental health. The ability to operate from a competitive mentality or a cooperative/compassionate mentality are both useful social survival tools in different situations, and flexibility is key to our adaptive capacity. Compassion however appears to be natures antidote to stress. It evolved from the attachment system (the part of our brain-body that allows us to connect, to care and be cared for) and has the capacity to change people. Compassion can open and re-wire us to better integrate our psychobiological systems and promote health. In his book The Compassionate Mind Prof Gilbert explains more about the effects of living in a competitive state as well as how we can go about developing a compassionate mentality to help reduce stress, cope with suffering and increase our wellbeing.

Paul Gilbert and Richard Wilkinson are both actively involved in campaigning for evidence based policy with regard to how we shape our societies for optimal health and wellbeing. Across the developed world there are differences in social equality in different countries. Richard research not only helps us understand the effects of a hierarchical society on the health and wellbeing of individuals, but also explores how modern developed countries can enjoy the benefits of a more equal society.

Richard Wilkinson Part 2
Reaching new levels of human wellbeing

Bruce and Richard discuss what kind of things we can do to make societies more equal and why reducing income differences offers an exciting way to address a wide range of public health problems.


Likely led by the agricultural revolution, most human societies now operate by a very different structure to our egalitarian past. This guardian article explores this change and how it profoundly altered our way of seeing the world. of-modern-inequality-10000-years-ago