Against sociobiology: a response to Jane Bassett

Issue: 180

Rosemarie Nünning

Jane Bassett’s critique of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow, published in a recent issue of this journal, is very welcome, and I agree with her basic conclusions.1 However, I would like to make a few additions to her criticisms. I would also like to register a problem with any reliance on the sociobiology of anthropologist Christopher Boehm.

Graeber and Wengrow have created a work they themselves have referred to as “a form of play”.2 Indeed, that is what the book is: a great ­anti-materialist and anti-Marxist confusion game, made all the more ­difficult to see through due to its presentation of a dizzying abundance of societies and ­archaeological finds, which range from the Neolithic period to modern times and across all continents. Their stated aim is to do away with the dichotomy according to which “man” is either inherently evil and thus must be tamed by the bourgeois state (as argued by 17th century English ­political theorist Thomas Hobbes), or is inherently good and remained a “noble ­savage” until private property was “invented” (as argued by 18th ­century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau).3 In the end, however, Graeber and Wengrow remain much more wedded to Hobbes than anything else. Moreover, they ­typically offer the most speculative and conservative ­interpretations of a given matter, frequently ignoring the archaeological evidence and thus discrediting their entire approach.

Ritual, war and cannibalism

An example of one interpretation that is conjured out of thin air concerns Central European dwellings built out of mammoth bones about 15,000 years ago, which have been presumed to have served as camps during cold seasons. According to Graeber and Wengrow, these structures were actually ­“carefully planned” as “monuments” to “commemorate the completion of a great ­mammoth hunt” and “the solidarity of the extended hunting group”. Indeed, they were “not in fact dwellings at all”.4 Nonetheless, archaeologists have found hearths, tools and ivory objects in these constructions, such as that at Yudinovo in western Russia.5 At another site in Mezhyrich, Ukraine, research uncovered internal and external hearths, work sites, waste sites and storage pits.6

In reality, then, these sites were first and foremost places of production and consumption for a few dozen people. None of this excludes the possibility that communal, cultural and “ritual” activities took place at them, but nor is there any conclusive evidence for this. Indeed, given the lack of written evidence, it is impossible to fathom the world of ideas inhabited by Stone Age people. Instead, what often emerges in the absence of such evidence is the projection of today’s ideologies onto the distant past. Graeber and Wengrow indulge in this extensively and with relish throughout the entire book, often without being able to provide any proof.

Another example shows Graeber and Wengrow following the most ­conservative interpretation—and seemingly with some delight. These passages concern the debates about the demise of the Linear Pottery culture, a human culture that existed around 7,000 years ago, with its area of settlement extending between modern France and Romania. After the discovery of bones belonging to 34 women, children and men in a pit near Talheim, Southern Germany, in 1983, a school of thought developed that saw this as evidence of the violent demise of the Linear Pottery culture. Graeber and Wengrow evoke a “period of turmoil, marked by the digging and filling of mass graves”, with entire settlements seeking to ­protect themselves by building defensive trenches. Communities were apparently ­“tortured”, “butchered for cannibalism” and annihilated.7

Yet, among the large number of Linear Pottery culture settlements already found, only two—Talheim and the site at Schletz in Austria—can be taken to suggest warlike events. Yes, the skeletons found in the “mass graves” at both those sites show traces of possible violence. However, the findings at Schletz suggest other explanations worthy of consideration, leaving just one site to serve as evidence for a narrative about the demise of an entire human culture.8

The thesis of a “general crisis” is also contradicted by archaeological finds that point to very different developmental paths in different locations: crisis-ridden change and population decline in one region and continued settlement and transition to the next culture in another.9 Nonetheless, after findings such as those in Talheim, there was a change in the perception of Neolithic societies. Until the 1990s, there had been a widely held vision of the Linear Pottery culture as an egalitarian farming society, but this was now transformed. The notion of the “war at the end of the Linear Pottery culture” saw the ­projection of today’s massacres onto prehistoric times.10 This even extended to racist fantasies of a “genocide”, supposedly “triggered by migrating hordes of people from South East Europe who had to leave their ancestral homeland due to the expanding Black Sea after the Bosphorus dam burst”.11

There is also no evidence that cannibalism has ever constituted some sort of ritual or social norm (unlike cannibalism as a result of hunger). Indeed, the ­skeletal and bone finds associated with the Linear Pottery culture are ­considered by critical researchers to be part of a system of secondary burial; a second burial, or several such burials, took place after the initial ­deposition of the dead person, with the bones scraped, broken and shattered, or the skulls or skullcaps detached.12 A similar practice, the internment of skulls in ossuaries, ­continued until the 20th century in, for example, Germany and Austria.13 Even the ­strongest proponents of the cannibalism thesis, who argue that people ­wandered from far away to the Linear Pottery settlement at Herxheim in Southern Germany to participate in “ritual human slaughter”, raise questions about their own “evidence”.14 What remains is the politically and ideologically motivated evocation of humans’ fundamentally evil nature. The reactionary bourgeois ideological fantasy of the demise of these early human societies through mass murder and ­cannibalism is the selfsame image presented by Hobbes: “a war of all against all”.

Christopher Boehm—reactionary to the core

Strangely, quite a few Marxists and leftists refer positively to Boehm, a United States primatologist and cultural anthropologist. In her review of The Dawn of Everything, Bassett uses Boehm to explain how early human society began to grasp the “advantages” of an “egalitarian order”.15 Early humans “developed strategies to counter individuals who are prone to boasting, self-glorification and selfish behaviour” as well as starting to share their food.16

In their own review of Graeber and Wengrow, Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale name Boehm among their “heroes”.17 According to them, Boehm has found “the last piece of the puzzle” by showing how equality in foraging groups and the system of sharing in human communities were “culturally and consciously achieved”. In order for humans to survive, “we had to consciously agree to repress the jealousy, aggression and selfishness that welled up in us, and we had to repress selfishness in others”. In my view, however, suspicions should be raised by the mere idea that people in a society without wealth and surplus product would have to impose discipline on themselves so as to achieve egalitarian coexistence.

What, then, does Boehm actually argue? First of all, he assumes that ape ­societies are characterised by aggression, competition and, above all, dominance of the male apes—or the top male ape, the “alpha male”.18 Descended from apes, humans are heirs to this behaviour and must temper their natural ­“aggressive egoism and dedicated nepotism” (that is, their desire to gain ­advantages for themselves and their relatives) through certain mechanisms.19 Boehm’s theoretical basis is thus a very conservative reading of Charles Darwin and his theory of “natural selection”. From this perspective, “altruism” is not rooted in an empathy for others, but rather in a survival strategy of the human species.20

According to Boehm, “the shared predecessor of human beings, bonobos and chimpanzees”, which is referred to as “ancestral Pan”, lived in “social dominance hierarchies”.21 He claims that these animals were “likely to have formed political coalitions that enabled the rank and file, those who would otherwise have been utterly subordinated, to whittle away at the powers of alpha individuals”—a rather bizarre way to talk about the social dynamics of groups of apes.22 This evolutionary trajectory supposedly led from our ancient ape ancestors to human hunter-gatherer groups.23 Human beings, evolving from apes, formed egalitarian societies to suppress competition, behaving in an “altruistic” manner. This supposedly even led to the development of an “altruistic gene” through selective breeding over the long period in which humans were primarily foragers.

Egalitarian societies constitute, according to Boehm, “a very special type of hierarchy”, in which the “rank and file” keep alpha-type group members “under their collective thumbs” and thus “dominate their leaders”.24 This “egalitarian syndrome”, as Boehm calls it, “helped to reshape human nature in the direction of altruism over hundreds or thousands of generations”. However, it is precisely this process that increased the probability of intense warfare”, because the possibility of such “risky activity” is “predicated on a strong capacity for patriotic self-sacrifice—and therefore on altruistic genes”.25

This is the logic of sociobiology; rather than individuals competing on the evolutionary stage, groups compete against one another via cooperation between the respective group members. In terms of the “survival of the fittest”, individual “fitness” is replaced by “group fitness”. Boehm even goes so far as to say that without the invention of “morality and the egalitarian syndrome…genocidal warfare would not have arisen”. It is apparently “morality that enables us to shame our males into putting their lives on the line for the group”, and “it is innate altruistic propensities that help to motivate those males to suffer and die in the interest of the rest of the group”.26

According to this rationale, the world has become considerably more dangerous because of the “egalitarian syndrome”. Diminishing the challenge to the dominance of the “alpha male” posed by his subordinates would therefore be a civilisational blessing.

Boehm claims that his studies have been able to prove the “reverse dominance hierarchy” mechanism—in which the community acts as a coercive apparatus to prevent individual dominance—through studies of 53 hunter-gatherer communities. In order to gather this evidence, he combed through studies on about 200 politically autonomous societies, but he rejected more than half of these because they “provided no details as to specific dominance interactions of leaders and followers”. Furthermore, about 100 “provided mere hints (for example, ‘leaders were always unassuming’ and ‘leaders seem to avoid giving commands’)”.27 In the end, only around four dozen studies remained, on the basis of which Boehm claims to prove that there has never been genuine equality in hunter-gather groups.28 He even goes so far as to claim that societies practise the “ultimate egalitarian political rebuke” when “assassinating the leader”.29

Now, it might be argued that, despite all his work’s problems, some of Boehm’s “insights” could be utilised by Marxists, as is certainly sometimes the case with bourgeois social science. However, this is not applicable to Boehm, because his project is not to rectify or expand existing social theory, but rather to set biologism against social theory. His approach is reactionary to the core.

As radical US biologist Stephen Jay Gould argued, “sociobiology begins with a modern reading of natural selection”, with individuals selected “to maximise the contribution of their own genes to future generations—and that is all”. Exposing the fraudulent nature of such an approach, he continued:

Paradoxically…both altruism and selfishness can be selected by this criterion. Acts of kindness may benefit individuals either because they establish bonds of reciprocal obligation or because they aid kin who carry copies of the altruist’s genes.

Human sociobiologists then survey our behaviours with this criterion in mind. When they identify a behaviour that seems to be adaptive in helping an individual’s genes along, they develop a story for its origin through the operation of natural selection upon genetic variation that influences the specific act itself. These stories are rarely backed by any evidence beyond the inference of adaptation.30


There is a strong tendency in the scientific, and especially sociological, study of early societies towards rejecting the notion of a pristine coexistence without hierarchy and oppression. For instance, French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss claimed that civilisation arose when the men of two tribes exchanged women as objects, thus creating mutual bonds and being forced to coexist peacefully.31

Even radicals can assume this sociological presupposition. An example is left-wing feminist scholars Ilse Lenz and Ute Luig, who argue that gender equality requires a constant process of negotiation to prevent patriarchal dominance. They can only perceive a “utopian potential” in the discussion of domination-free, non-patriarchal societies.32 Yet, it is so very pessimistic to assert that equality, regardless of whether it is thought to be able to emerge in a ­classless world or a class society, can only be achieved through constant processes of ­negotiation. What remains is the attempt to change conditions, but not to ­overturn them—to put it succinctly, reform rather than revolution.

Rosemarie Nünning lives in Berlin and is a supporter of the Marx21 network within Die Linke. She has translated, among other things, Chris Harman’s A People’s History of the World into German.


1 Bassett’s original article featured in International Socialism 178. Thanks to Sheila McGregor for a constructive exchange on a draft of my response.

2 Graeber and Wengrow, 2021, p519.

3 Historian David Bell provides a biting critique of Graeber and Wengrow’s account of the importance to the Enlightenment of the “indigenous critique” of European inequality by indigenous Americans and other non-Europeans—see Bell, 2021. He argues that the authors, at least in this part of the book, were “willing to engage in what comes perilously close to scholarly malpractice”. Thanks to Liz Ross for bringing reviews of the book to my attention.

4 Graeber and Wengrow, 2021, pp101-103.

5 Sablin and Iltsevich, 2021, p72; Germonpré, Sablin and others, 2008, p477. Despite this observation, paleozoologists Mikhail Sablin and Karina Iltsevich also “interpret” these as a place of “ritual”—Sablin and Iltsevich, 2021, p75.

6 Soffer, Adovasio and others, 1997, pp48-62. For an accessible presentation on Mezhyrich, see

7 Graeber and Wengrow, 2021, p267.

8 Some scholars give other possible explanations for the “mass graves”, pointing to uncertainty about whether the skeletal remains were deposited at the same time and asking whether the institution of secondary burials has been taken into account. Moreover, they argue that settlement burials were quite common and that the injuries evidenced by the skeletal remains could be the result of accidents. See Orschiedt and Haidle, 2009 and 2012; Link, 2014.

9 Link, 2014, pp279-280.

10 Link, 2014, pp271-273.

11 Link, 2014, p279.

12 German prehistorian Heidi Peter-Röcher points out that it was customary on the Andaman Islands, today part of India, for groups to carry the bones of relatives with them for some time—Peter-Röcher, 2018. See also Orschiedt and Haidle, 2009, pp41-52.

13 Peter-Röcher, 2018. See also Perschke, 2013.

14 Boulestin, Zeeb-Lanz and others, 2009. According to this article, “Even if the causes of death of the individuals could not be determined, it does not mean that they were not killed. Several killing techniques leave no marks on the bones, and it is also extremely difficult to distinguish possible bone modifications due to execution from those related to a post-mortem treatment of the corpse.”

15 Bassett, 2023, p184.

16 Bassett, 2023, p183.

17 Lindisfarne and Neale, 2021.

18 Boehm, 2001, p254. Thelma Rowell offers a particularly fertile discussion of hierarchy and aggression in ape groups. Rowell is a fascinating scientist who systematically and radically reviews the reactionary social assumptions that are applied to the animal world. Vinciane Despret describes how Rowell noted that the notion of a “dominance hierarchy was so commonly accepted…that where groups of apes had been observed in which the usual criteria of rank were not obvious, the concept of ‘latent dominance’ was used to explain an apparent lacuna in an otherwise universal phenomenon”—Despret, 2008, p3. See also Rowell, 1974 and 1988.

19 Boehm, 2001, p254.

20 An interesting critique of Boehm’s approach, which I nonetheless disagree with on some matters, can be found in Drury, 2013.

21 Boehm, 2012, p844. Pan is the genus comprised of chimpanzees and bonobos.

22 Boehm, 2001, pvii.

23 Boehm, 2012, p844.

24 Boehm, 1993, p228; Boehm, 2001, p10.

25 Boehm, 2001, pp222-223.

26 Boehm, 2001, p254.

27 Boehm, 1993, p229.

28 Boehm, 1993, p227.

29 Boehm, 1993, p230.

30 Gould, 1996, p356.

31 For an excellent discussion of Lévi-Strauss, see Leacock, 2008.

32 Lenz and Luig, 1995, p22.


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Bell, David, 2021, “A Flawed History of Humanity”, Persuasion (19 November),

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