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Did Alpha Male Alliances Institutionalise Patriarchy over 300,000 years ago?

Updated: Jan 14, 2023

For the past 48 hours, my brain has been on fire, transfixed by a ground-breaking new theory. Professor Richard Wrangham argues that councils of elder males enforced patriarchy in the Middle Pleistocene, over 300,000 years ago. Is he right? If you would rather listen, check out my podcast (Rocking Our Priors).

Men making a coordinated attack on the alpha male. Generated by AI.
America's Founding Fathers
Tswana kgotla
Italy's bishops with the late Pope
Politburo Standing Committee © AP

Wrangham's theory

Our nearest relatives (Catarrhini monkeys and apes) are dominated by a singular alpha male. Having physically defeated all others, he becomes an unpunishable, polygnous free-rider, fathering a large share of the offspring. Since the most aggressive male had greatest reproductive success, evolutionary selection amplified aggression. This is a truly Hobbesian state of nature, a "war of all against all". Chimpanzee are over a thousand times more violent than humans.

300,000 years ago, during the Middle Pleistocene, humans became increasingly smart, savvy, communicative and coordinated. Exploiting improved language, beta males conspired to kill despotic tyrants. They forged 'alpha alliances' and thereafter maintained hegemony by murdering aggressive bullies. The absence of private property did not make hunter-gatherers egalitarian. Alpha alliances ostracised and eliminated reactive aggression. This enabled a virtuous circle of trust, cooperation, linguistic evolution and 'moral communities'.

Male members of the alpha alliance were evenly matched egalitarians. 'Winner takes all' polygny began to wane. The rise of monogamous pair-bonding likely triggered shifts in sexual selection. Men attracted desirable mates by signalling paternal investment, while women competed for generous providers.

The alpha male alliance could have propagated laws that served their interests: "men must eat first", "female adultery is immoral". Wrangham maintains that even if some wives dominate their husbands, all societies have institutional patriarchy. Hence to truly understand patriarchy, we must focus on how it has been legally institutionalised by the alpha alliance.

Is this plausible? Well, it does explain many unique features of humans, namely pro-sociality, intra-group cooperation, low reactive aggression, and institutionalised patriarchy.

Edit: Daron Acemoglu suggests an alternative term, "reverse dominance coalitions". This nicely captures how men coordinated against a single alpha male. RDCs then paved the way to linguistic evolution and the institutionalisation of power. Can this be confirmed empirically? No. Writing was only developed in 3400 BC. There is no available evidence about moral codes in the Middle Pleistocene. We do not know whether norms were necessarily patriarchal nor whether they emerged through top-down enforcement. A growing body of evidence supports an alternative hypothesis; cooperation was encouraged by religious rituals and fear of supernatural punishment.

Is Wrangham correct to focus on the universality of institutional patriarchy? Well, this premise may be over-stated. Our world is marked by considerable heterogeneity. The most patriarchal societies in the world today have a strong preference for female seclusion. Women are then tightly policed and their networks remain weak. The fundamental question is not why are all societies patriarchal, but why do some idealise seclusion?

Over the past ten thousand years, there have been three major waves of patriarchy. These include conquest by Yamnaya steppe pastoralists, the emergence of inherited wealth amid insecurity, and male-organised religions (especially Islam). The stronger the reliance on kinship as well as the greater the concern for purity, the stricter the surveillance, inhibiting women’s freedoms and friendships.

Contra Wrangham, patriarchy was not only imposed by elites, but also emerged as a result of the patrilineal trap, marriage markets, and ever so many boys' clubs. Wrangham also overstates the universality of patriarchy. African women often maintained powerful alliances.

Ten Thousand Years of Patriarchy (Evans)

The Patrilineal Trap - in Song China

Song China marked a major step change in female seclusion. Mothers even began to break their daughters' feet. This was not mandated. So why did they do it?

Confucianism became more widespread, it formed the basis of the meritocratic civil service exam. Scholars praised chaste women who confined themselves to the inner quarter and sacrificed themselves for male honour. And these texts became increasingly affordable thanks to printing.

Patrilineal kinship was another important catalyst. The Song Dynasty heralded booming commerce, urban expansion and upward mobility. The gentry could only survive the turbulence of meritocracy, partible inheritance and violent attacks by pooling resources within their lineage. Extended families bound together to finance their sons’ education. Chinese families ensured tight-knit cooperation by praising filial piety, eulogising ancestors, and compiling genealogies.

Patrilineal purity became increasingly paramount. Women bore sons to perpetuate their husbands' lineage. Since the paternity of sons must never be in doubt, the slightest hint of sexual activity by a woman outside the confines of marriage constituted a threat to the social order. The entire sense of honour and shame became bound up in women's sexual propriety .

Families then competed over ideal grooms by hobbling their daughters, binding their feet, and offering ever more generous dowries. Women in northern China retreated from the public sphere. Paintings of Kaifeng’s bustling city streets show porters, innkeepers, monks, and traders, but a conspicuous absence of women. In poetry, women shied from public view or else were pilloried by male critics. Anonymous wall writing conveys their sadness, anxiety and abuse.

Spring Festival on the River, by Zhang Zeduan. 12th century

Confucian patriarchy was thus enforced by a reverse dominance coalition, as theorised by Wrangham. But China also became caught in what I call a 'patrilineal trap'. Families tightly restricted their wives and daughters in order to maintain honour, prevent gossip and improve their marriage prospects. Since no family wanted to deviate from this norm unilaterally, all were trapped in a negative feedback loop.

The Middle East, North Africa and South Asia remain caught in this patrilineal trap. Male honour is contingent upon female seclusion. Women have competed over grooms by offering guarantees of paternal certainty: foot-binding, female seclusion, nuptial virginity tests, and infibulation. Most women thus remain at home, unable to forge independent alliances.

Boys' clubs

Wrangham's emphasis on top-down enforcement also overlooks the multitude of patriarchal networks, at every level of society.

European guilds and trade unions were no aristocrats, but still organised to kick women out.

Within Hinduism's caste system, there is a hierarchy of upper and backward castes. Brahmins certainly idealised seclusion, but they were not the only enforcers of patriarchy. All jati panchayats disciplined female sexuality to preserve endogamy, trust and cooperation. Disobedient families might be fined or outcaste.

In the US, college men are more likely to deny a perpetrator’s guilt if he’s in their fraternity. A meta-analysis of college athletics and fraternities finds that male members are more likely to believe rape myths and self-report sexual aggression.

Top-down enforcement is not the only game in town!

Female seclusion is not universal

Cultural evolution has been mediated by oceans, mountains and parasites. Impregnable parts of the Americas, Gulf of Guinea, Southeast Asia and Southern Africa never idealised female seclusion.

Male bias in folklore (Michalopoulos and Xue 2021)

Sub-Saharan Africa was characterised by land abundance and labour scarcity. Tsetse fly regions remained inhospitable to both cattle and Islam (which spread amongst pastoralists). So there was no inherited wealth or cult of seclusion. Prosperity depended on control over labour.

Women continued to move freely, exercise authority, build independent alliances and propagate folklore that glorified their powers.

Portuguese records suggest many independently wealthy women marshalled networks, commercial acumen and linguistic skills to thrive in coastal exports.

The Asante, Igbo and Yoruba maintained dual sex systems of governance. Markets were controlled by women, who set the rules and punished wrongdoers. Igbo and Bakweri women harassed men for mistreating their wives, violating market rules or harming their crops. When Ethiopian Emperor Susenyos embraced Catholicism, royal women staged an armed insurrection. They rejected this patriarchal religion. In 19th century Congo-Brazaville, a husband would not take even ‘an egg from her chicken coop’ without permission from his wife. In southern Nigeria and Cote d'Ivoire, women marshalled their independent networks to mobilise en masse against imperialism.

Female fertility was also culturally revered - I suspect this stems from both perennial demand for labour and powerful female alliances. A girl’s first period was celebrated. Women were respected as Creator Gods, priestesses, oracles, deities, and queen mothers. Cosmology upheld gender complementarity. Coercion remained a constant threat, however. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, vulnerable women were pawned, captured in raids, betrothed to cement ties or persecuted as witches. The King of Dahomey was guarded by powerful women, but this was no feminist utopia. He profited from domestic slavery and dispensed patronage by redistributing wives. Dahomey communities also permit all unmarried men to rape 'public whores'. This may have reduced resentment of their polygynous hoarding.

Labour scarcity meant that some women were enslaved while others could leverage powerful networks.

Did reverse dominance coalitions enforce patriarchy 300,000 years ago?

Wrangham seeks to explain the universality of institutional patriarchy. His argument is plausible, but the premise needs tempering. Our world is marked by a 'great gender divergence'. Alpha male alliances are strongest in cultures where family policing inhibits women's collective resistance. If we want to understand contemporary patriarchy, we really need to identify the historical drivers of female seclusion. This blog has benefitted from conversations with Robin Dunbar, Richard Wrangham, Daron Acemoglu, Manvir Singh and Nwando Achebe.

Ratio of female to male labour force participation (World Bank 2022)

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