Male-Male Alliances and the Evolution of Societal Patriarchy

For the first time in two years, Stanford hosted its annual Tanner Lectures on Human Values, a three-day event meant to celebrate scholarship that contributes to the intellectual and moral life of mankind. Sponsored by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society and the Office of the President, President Tessier-Lavigne celebrated the lectures’ return in his opening remarks, but also highlighted the relevance of these ethical discussions in the face of Russia's devastating invasion of Ukraine.

Richard Wrangham, Ruth B. Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology in the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, delivered the March 2022 Tanner Lectures. Titled "The Evolution of Societal Patriarchy," Wrangham’s two lectures interrogate the far-reaching consequences of the “targeted conspiratorial killings” he argues pushed pre-humans away from purely selfish motivations into a tension between selfishness and altruism approximately 300,000 years ago.

Human Groupishness   

In his first lecture, “The Evolution of Societal Patriarchy: Human Groupishness,” Wrangham defines “groupishness,” prosocial behavior, and posits how pre-humans evolved, genetically, from an entirely selfish species to one where individuals balanced self-interest and the interests of the group. While we may now view collaboration as a typical and inevitable human trait, Wrangham argues it was initially absent in pre-humans and does not exist in any non-human primates.

To understand the development of groupishness, unlike most other scholars who explore what encouraged group cooperation, Wrangham foregrounds what he believes constrained selfish behavior in homo sapiens. He theorizes that once language became sufficiently complex, about 300,000 years ago, beta males were able to form alliances and conspire together to enact “targeted conspiratorial killings” (TCK) of alpha males, who, without checks on their reactive aggression, deprived all other males of resources—most importantly, mates.

Over time then, according to Wrangham’s “execution hypothesis,” violence was selected against and less aggressive, groupish males became genetically dominant. These males then set group norms that both punished anti-sociality and rewarded prosocial behavior. Wrangham labels this process “self-domestication” and contends that it is responsible for the more egalitarian male structures we now see in humans. He acknowledges that the “accumulation rate of domestication syndrome traits” cannot yet be tested against the fossil record, but hopes it may eventually explain how homo sapiens “somewhat suddenly” became a “very effective cultural species.”

Male-Male Alliances and the Institution of Law

In "The Origins of Societal Patriarchy and its Moral Consequences," Wrangham’s second lecture, he explores why, despite human males’ reduced propensity for reactive aggression and their groupishness, male dominance among humans is “more pervasive and elaborate” than that in non-human primates

Referencing scholarship that divides patriarchy into domestic and societal, he contends that because individual women may dominate their husbands within the household and women often wield considerable power, domestic patriarchy is not a human universal that can explain why there is “not a single society known where women, as a group, have decision making power over men, or where they define the rules of sexual conduct or control marriage exchanges.” On the other hand, because men have a “culturally legitimated right to women’s subordination and compliance” in every known society, according to Wrangham, societal patriarchy is a human universal—a refinement of the same male-male alliances formed to enact targeted conspiratorial killings and enforce social norms. .

Finally, law, “an arbiter of disputes between people within a society,” is another universal, Wrangham argues, and an outgrowth of male-male alliances that produce societal patriarchy. As a result, although law can benefit the group, law has evolved as a system of alliances among males. The physical and moral consequence of the universality of law, is the universal subordination of women and outlier males. While Wrangham insists that this gendered perspective of the law is consistently overlooked, he also notes that because societal patriarchy is the product of an institutional arrangement (law), he asserts that the changes to it over the last 100 years demonstrate that it can and has changed.

A Biologist and a Philosopher of Science Respond

Each of Wrangham’s lectures was followed by comments from a respondent, as well as audience questions. Deborah M. Gordon, Stanford professor of biology, whose work focuses on ant colonies and their cooperative networks, commented on his first lecture. Gordon strongly opposed Wrangham's focus on the uniqueness of groupishness among humans, arguing that collective collaboration among individuals "is the most fundamental characteristic of life.”  Further, she insisted  that the development of human groupishness is a cultural, narrative process, rather than an evolutionary one. Therefore, using biological evolution to account for it “invites us to reformulate our prejudices as science.”

Elisabeth Lloyd, Distinguished Professor and Arnold and Maxine Tanis Chair of History and Philosophy of Sciences at Indiana University responded to Wrangham’s second lecture. Her research interests include the philosophy of biology and science, scientific models and gender in science. Lloyd applauded Wrangham for his generative research questions and “significant evolutionary projects,” and was most compelled by his hypotheses about self domestication. Unlike Gordon, she argued that group selection research modeling exists that can confirm the “emergence and maintenance of the types of traits Wrangham is theorizing.”  However, she also complicated Wrangham’s claims of self-domestication by pointing to contemporary examples of domestic violence that demonstrate both individual male’s proactive aggression against women and the strategic proactive aggression embedded in our current legal system.

A Compellingly Incomplete Story

At the final discussion seminar on Friday,  Wrangham was joined by Richard Klein, the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Anthropology and Biology at Stanford, and Ian Morris, a Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics and historian and archaeologist at Stanford Archaeology Center, as well as by his earlier respondents and audience members. In general, the questions raised during the seminar, and in response to his individual lectures, fell into two categories: first, how to balance Wrangham’s genetic explanation for societal patriarchy with cultural or institutional explanations; and second, how his evolutionary hypotheses could be falsified.

Morris began the seminar’s discussion and, like Gordon before him, worried about Wrangham’s focus on biological evolution as the primary cause of reduced rates of reactive aggression among humans. He argued that the “only thing hardwired into us is the capacity for cultural cumulative evolution, the flexibility to respond to the world in ways that no other animals that we know of can,” noting that Wrangham had made more of the cultural aspects of these changes in his book than in his lectures. Finally, as a historian, he worried about the discontinuity of Wrangham’s narrative, which jumps from 300,000 years ago to today.

Klein was also intrigued by Wrangham’s ideas of evolution, but explained that he didn’t do “big ideas like Richard [Wrangham],” rather, he was interested in theories that could be falsified or supported by something in the archaeological record. Further, he wondered how Wrangham could fit his claims about the development of complex language and “targeted conspiratorial killings” 300,000 years ago into the very dramatic changes the archaeological record demonstrates occurred in pre-humans 50,000 years ago.

While it was unsurprising that the right balance between cultural and biological explanations for groupishness and societal patriarchy was left unanswered, against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and the increase of autocracies worldwide, understanding what moves humans away from aggression and towards prosocial behavior—genetically and culturally—feels particularly critical.

Donna Hunter is freelance writer, editor and tutor living in San Francisco. She has a PhD in English from UC Berkeley and was an Advanced Lecturer in Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric.