6. The Evolution of Hierarchies

Hierarchies are a fundamental principle of evolutionary processes. The hierarchy of reproductive success defines, which parent animals could propagate half (50%) of their genome to the next generation. In complex organisms, such as most vertebrates, reproductive success is associated with complex hierarchy systems, which usually go beyond single criteria such as strength, or height. One of the most difficult to understand hierarchy systems is the hierarchy of social status. At the same time, especially in complex living beings, such as primates, hierarchies are directly associated with reproductive success. Most of the times, there is a positive correlation between hierarchy-level and reproductive success. Primates, however were only very recently part of life on earth. Around 55 million years ago, shrew like rodents were living in deciduous forests (63). They adapted to this living environment, by developing gripping hands and feet and frontal eyes that were better suited for three-dimensional perception of the world. Futhermore the brain size increased for stimulus processing in the versatile environment of the forest-trees. Developing is actually not entirely correct, as no individual animal developed these traits (as Lamarck would have thought). Rather, individual animals with these traits had more offspring, thus were reproductively more successful, than animals, who had these traits less pronounced. Over generations, offspring were becoming more and more monkey-like and 50 million years later, around 4.5 million years ago, the Australopithecines were the first monkeys that we would nowadays call “hominids”. For each trait one could construct hierarchies, for example for the frontal position of the eyes. The more the eyes were in a frontal position the higher was the probability that the (half-) genome of the corresponding individual was passed on to the next generations


When we talk about hierarchies, we are nowadays refering to social hierarchies, in organisations usually decision hierarchies. With such a perception, one could easily think that hierarchies are a characteristic of complex human societies and a very new phenomenon in evolution that is typical for human beings. This, however, is not the case. Hierarchies are not only a mechanistic constituent of evolutionary selection, but can be found in animal societies long before the emergence of monkeys.

The Lobster Debate

In the beginning of 2018, an interview of the Britisch Channel 4 journalist Cathy Newman with the Canadia psychologist Jordan Peterson went viral in the internet. Previously, Peterson had become prominent for defending freedom of speech against the mainstream-media propagated opinion and reject postmodern language regimes. In particular, Peterson refused the obligatory stipulation to accept and use gender-neutral pronouns beyond male and female. In the course of the interview, Newman tried to put words into Peterson’s mouth that he had actually not said or had not intended to say („So you’re saying….“). Among others she insinuated, Peterson wanted to suggest that we should organize human societies like lobsters (“…you’re saying, we should organise our societies along the lines of the lobsters“).  Certainly, this was not Peterson’s intention. How dit Newman come up with such an absurd remark?


In his book “12 Rules for Life“, (64) Peterson laid out, how the formation of hierarchies is not at all a modern phenomenon among humans, but that it can be observed in evolution again and again and already in phylogenetically ancient lines that emerged long before humans, hierarchies can be observed. As an example, he refered to hierarchies in lobsters. To Newman this reference to shellfish must have appeared so absurd that she thought it possible to ridicule Peterson by smugly asking (“…you’re saying, we should organise our societies along the lines of the lobsters?“). Peterson, however only wanted to illustrate that neurontransmitter bound reward systems appeared much earlier in evolution than us and that the mode of action of antidepressants acts on these ancient mechansims. A lobster, who just has lost a competitive fight with another lobster takes a visibly defensive position trying to appear small and submissive. By applying antidepressants, one can make this lobster unfold again. In humans, antidepressants act on these evolutionary ancient mechanisms in order to give the “beaten” human being the power back for taking on the world again. The phylogenetic diversion of the evolutionary lines that led to man and lobster was somewhen 300-600 million years ago. The fact that such a mechanism persisted over hundreds of million of years, demonstrates the importance of hierarchies in evolution.


Unfortunately, not only Newman misunderstood the lobster example. The proceeding of the interview in mainstream media was not among media’s brightest hour. When the interview had been taken up by so many people all over the world, even German established media could not longer ignore it and articles in “Der Spiegel” and “Die ZEIT” appeared. Unfortunately, these articles did not do much more than vilify Peterson without contributing to a potentially interesting debate. The article in “Die ZEIT” testimonies an abysmal scientific ignorance of the authors and can be taken as evidence for the qualitative decline of formerly serious media outlets already before the year 2020 (65).


The main point from this debate is that the formation of hierarchies is a very ancient phenomenon that shaped evolution as the position in hierarchies impacts the reproduction probability by determining the reproduction opportunities of the individual. This also applies to Homo sapiens.

Human Hierarchies in Evolution and History

Traditional hunter-gatherer-societies usually have flat hierarchies. Possessions play a minor role and everyday life plays around the satisfaction of physiological need (food), safety (shelter and protection from dangers) and social requirements (living in a group). In the maslow’s pyramid of needs the basic needs are sometimes regarded as deficit need as their non-satisfaction leads to scarcity.


At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are individual needs and self-actualisation, which are surely less important in traditional hunter-gatherer-societies. These are sometimes regarded as insatiable needs as these needs can never be entirely satisfied. We all may have realized, that everlasting satisfaction can never be reached, once we have reached a self-actualisation target for which we had long worked for. At best, a temporary sentiment of satisfaction may come up, however new individual needs for growth will immediately emerge. The longing for satisfaction of individual needs for growth has motivated humans to enormous cultural and technical achievements, however it has also installed greed as a factor driving social intercourse.


Basic needs have to be fulfilled in a society, before individuals turn towards individual needs and self-actualisation. For societal progress to manifest, basic needs even have to be overfulfilled allowing creative individuals to liberate time, resources and efforts to pursue aims beyond their primary needs. Interestingly it is especially the engagement with (non-essential) creative activities of self actualization that open-up possibilities for rising in the social hierarchy, for example an individual, who becomes a religious leader, can tell the other, primary needs-fulfilling individuals, what to think and do. Certainly this requires a certain authority as the religious leaders are fed and maintained by the hunters and gatherers over whom they rule (36). 

An Example of a Complex Middle-Age Society

The old imperial city of Goslar accommodated in the 11th and 12th century the back then most important “Kaiserpfalz” (imperial palace), of which the buildings can still be visited today. Goslar lies far from high-speed train main routes, but the beautifuly conserved Altstadt with gorgeous half-timbered ensembles and churches, are worth the effort of changing trains several times. The Kaiserpfalz is a symbol of power in the already complex society of the middle ages, with classes and hierarchies. In contrast to the localized centralized power in the Roman Empire (Rom), the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire traveled from Pfalz (palace) to Pfalz, so the highest political power was always localized at the present location of the emperor. For everyday normal life of the farmers, the emperor was only of symbolical meaning, as he was far away and the relation to the local feudal lord was more proximate to their life. From the train from Goslar to Wolfenbüttel, one can see a small tower with a triangled wooden roof and a small wall close to the small village Werlauburgdorf. This is a reconstructed early Pfalz, which still was an important staging post for the empire in the 10th century during the Ottonic rule. Compared to the gorgeous palace in Goslar, the small Pfalz in Werlauburgdorf looks almost cute. The farmers’ living environment feels still closer here compared to Goslars. For the farmers usually only the immediate lord of the manor is visible, the one to whom they pay their dues and work the fields.


But what was the first step from mainly egalitarian hunter and gatherer societies to the emergence of such complex power systems as the system of feudal tenures in the Middle Ages with a distant emperor at the top? In hunter-gatherer societis and also in sedentary cultures before the onset of the Industrial Revolution 250 years ago, people lived in relatively small groups of hardly more than 100 individuals. Somebody, who grew up in a hunter-gatherer society knew every other member in the group. Sedentary village inhabitants knew each other and the individuals from the neighbouring village were at least recognized from occasional meetings.


A different picture in modern western big cities: For 4 years facing my apartment, lives a young man. He is tall and when we ocassionaly see each other, we politely great each other. He seems to be a nice fellow. Nevertheless, I don’t even know his name. It just did not happen that we introduced one another by name. We live in apartments on the same floor, 4 meters apart, but our social networks have no overlap. (APARTment seems quite an appropriate name for this form of living arrangements in a society). Instead of knowing each other as neighbours, there are people on other continents, whom we know better. In a hunter-gatherer society or a farmer village until 300 years ago, it would have been unthinkable, that inhabitants of two huts facing each other would not know each other. My social networks mainly consist of people who live more or less far away from me, whom I regularly meet for professional work, which made them become my social network. If I lose my employment or change it, this social network resolves immediately, similarly as it would have resolved for a village inhabitant, who leaves the village in hunter-gatherer times. In contrast to modern employees, he could have returned to the village. After having lost an employment, returning to your workplace is usually not possible anymore.


Although, currently more people are living than ever before, the modern, postindustrial society of the 20th and 21st century is only a blink of an eye in the timeline of history. The atomization of modern societies with its loss of appreciation for love and family has a decline of population growth as a side effect. Maybe societies with persistently high population growth are heading towards disastrous conditions (58). Our postindustrial „oversexed and underfucked society” is probably rather the evolutionary exception and should not be regarded as a generalisable modell for the development of human societies after having become sedentary. More typical seem times, when parent and offspring generations had very similar lifes as great parents and grandchild generations, when progress took place over generations or centuries and live was unaffected by exponential growth. This was the case until 300 years ago.


Hierarchies certainly do exist at my workplace; however, these are not working directly on human evolution. My position in this hierarchy has nothing to do with my (missing) reproductive success. There are no family connections or tribal loyalities with my colleagues. Sexual attractions may still shortly surface in modern professional life every now and then, however these are rather natural, instinctively driven behavioural patterns from the past, which are unwanted in modern cooperat work-life and even can be sanctioned with hard consequences. In cooperative competitive work life, love and sexuality have no monetizable value and will lose importance in the long run, also because for dependently employed individuals, emotions bear a risk of losing a job and their economic existence.

In a hunter-gatherer society, the authority over hunted or gathered resources are somehow plausibly obvious. The person, who has hunted an animal or has collected eatable plants will certainly have a strong influence on who may have a share of the resource. We can assume that in such societiey able and brave hunters (and in case of conflicts fighters) had a high reputation. If such brave hunters were also intelligent and able to communicate well thought-out hunting plans, they could become leaders.


To what extent hunter-gatherer societies established different gender-based roles remains speculative. Social structures in contemporary traditional societies suggest that such gender-based roles were very distinct (40). Homo sapiens children are born very imature and rely on support over years to survive. We therefore have to assume that mothers in all societies enjoyed special protection and thus were especially released from dangerous tasks. Furthermore, men simply have more physical power and endurance. A corresponding sharing of tasks with women rather taking over tasks in the lair/home seems plausible. Therefore we may assume that Homo sapiens groups developed gender-specific hierarchies with alpha men and alpha women, similar as can be observed in other animals such as wolves (66). Probably there was a tendency of partnerships formed befitting one’s rank already before actual classes had emerged. Men and women with a high reputation, thus ranking higher in the yet informal emerging hierarchies may have had better chances for mating and reproducing. For their offspring they wanted advantages and if possible, always the best and used their influence and power in the group for their own children’s benefit. Having strong proponents in their own parents, children of high-ranking parents had a good starting position for achieving high ranks in the emerging hierarchies. With increasing complexity of societies and specialization of individuals (professions), children, especially sons, learnt their tasks, duties and profession from their parent (the son from the father). After sedentism, the accumulation of commodities meant that parents could pass on properties to their children. Lucky were children, whose parents had the biggest house in the village, because of their success. The children inherited this house and often (at least partly) the status of their parents. Over the generations, a class emerged, whose profession was to rule over others or to simply be privileged. If this privileged position in a society is passed on over generations, a nobility emerges.