Fighting for life and sight in Ethiopia

ABEL WAS BORN with one eye larger than the other.

The difference wasn’t striking, but it caught the attention of the doctor who delivered him, and Abel’s father Getahun sought advice on what might have caused it.

“There’s nothing wrong with the baby,” doctors told him.

Many parents would have given up at this point, but Getahun persisted. He tracked down experts on eye diseases, and asked their opinions.

Eventually, at 3 months old, Abel was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eyes that occurs almost exclusively in children.

The lucky ones

In Britain, 40 or 50 children are diagnosed with retinoblastoma each year, of whom one may die [1]. In Ethiopia, it’s the other way around: Perhaps a hundred children are born with it, and only one or two may survive. [2]

Abel is one of the lucky ones. The doctor who diagnosed him connected the family to colleagues in Nairobi, Kenya, where the affected eye was removed before the cancer had a chance to spread.

My family has straddled this epidemiological divide. When my son was diagnosed with retinoblastoma in 2012, we were living in Ethiopia. The diagnosis sent us hurrying back to the UK. Now 3 years old, Isaac has received many rounds of treatment; the journey hasn’t been easy for us. But he’s retained some useful vision, and he’s flourishing in spite of the disease.

Each time I go back to Ethiopia I think about how much greater the challenges would have been if that door to the UK hadn’t been open for us.

A new path

This Spring, I brought together a diverse group of people to talk about eye cancer in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. The participants included doctors, representatives from the Ministry of Health, and members of charities working on cancer in Ethiopia and Kenya. Families affected by retinoblastoma took part as well. The stories they shared — and the presence of their children, who variously sat with us and played around the sides of the meeting — helped bring home the reality of the subject matter. One of those children was Abel.

addis Rb meeting

Participants, from left to right: Getahun Tsegaye (with Abel), Girma Mekonnen, Ermias Kibreab (with Bisrat), Yemesrach Tadesse, Faith Barasa, Jed Stevenson, Molla Ayele, Brian Ouma, Wondu Bekele, Dr Abu Beyene, Dr Jakob Schneider, and Sister Atsede

The goal was to identify a way forward:

  • What are the most important priorities?
  • If £10k or £100k were available to improve retinoblastoma care in Ethiopia, where should it be invested?

The consensus of the meeting was that Ethiopia needs an organization devoted to eye cancer. An organization with active participation from parents in defining its mission and overseeing its work. Getahun is on board, and so are several other families. Veteran campaigners are providing advice, and the Ministry of Health has given its blessings. [3]

Ethiopia’s not out of the woods yet as far as this disease is concerned, but hopefully this may be the right path.

Jed is taking part in a ‘bush trek’ in Africa in September 2014, to raise funds for eye cancer in Ethiopia. For more information, or to donate, visit Life and Sight for Ethiopia.

Jed with Getahun and Ermias, and their sons Abel and Bisrat

Jed with Getahun and Ermias, and their sons Abel and Bisrat


[1] Cancer mortality statistics from Cancer Research UK.

[2] In Kenya, survival is estimated at 27% (Dimaras et al. 2012, The Lancet.) In Ethiopia, Dr Emebet Girma reports that only 10% of the children she sees at Hawassa University Hospital (the major referral centre for the south of the country) arrive early enough to have much chance of cure.

[3] The minutes of the Addis Ababa meeting are available here. I reported on a prior meeting in 2013 here.


Posted in cancer, children, Ethiopia, health, medicine | Tagged | 2 Comments

Eye cancer in Ethiopia, revisited

My son suffers from a cancer of the eyes that is fatal if untreated. Now three years old, he’s leading about as close to a normal life as a child can with such a disease — thanks in large part to Britain’s excellent medical system. Seeing him through cancer treatment is quite a project, and I’ve written a lot about it here. But my wife and I also have bigger project in mind — in Ethiopia.

In 2012 our pleasant life in Addis Ababa was turned upside down. Selam was working for the UN refugee agency and I was doing research in public health. Our baby boy, doted on by his nanny and neighbours alike, was almost one year old.

It was Selam who first noticed the odd glow in Asa’s eyes and, out of curiosity, Googled it. A few days later we were on a plane to England, and Asa began chemotherapy the following week.

Like cleft lip and extra digits, retinoblastoma is one of those things that can go wrong in the process of building a body. And like some other genetic conditions, it crops up with a regularity — about 1 in 20,000 births — that holds across world regions, without respect to the capacity of communities to respond.

If the signs — glowing pupils and crossed eyes — aren’t noticed and treatment initiated quickly, tumours originating in the retina can migrate into the eye sockets, brain, or bone marrow. After that, cure is very difficult.

In Ethiopia, poor systems of monitoring and referral mean that the great majority of children affected aren’t taken to hospital until the disease is far advanced. In Hawassa, the capital of the Southern region of the country, Dr Emebet Girma estimates that only 10% of children arrive at the university hospital with “early” signs; 90% have tumours so big that their eyes are bulging out of their sockets.

A matter of priorities

But in a country burdened by so many health problems, why should anyone bother about this cancer?

One reason is that, if treated promptly, patients can go on to lead full lives — sometimes without even a memory of the disease. Untreated, the suffering is unspeakable.

Another is that improving systems of diagnosis and referral for retinoblastoma would almost certainly have positive side-effects for other diseases: Spotting the tell-tale signs requires a high level of vigilance; readier recourse to medical advice; and closer communication between rural clinics and urban hospitals.

And cancer in the developing world isn’t as rare as you might think: It claims more lives than malaria, TB, and HIV-AIDS. Partly this is a result of international mobilization to combat those infectious diseases; the time is ripe for a similar approach to cancers.

Prospects for Ethiopia

Two week ago I flew to Addis again.

Last year I’d gathered here with doctors who treat retinoblastoma, and families whose children have been affected, to discuss the state of affairs in Ethiopia. Now it’s time to move the conversation forward. Tomorrow we’ll be meeting — along with several new participants — to try to identify priorities for action.

One of the guest speakers will be Brian Ouma, executive director of Daisy’s Eye Cancer Fund Kenya, an organization that has done amazing work improving services in that country. Less than a decade ago, Kenya had a very weak system for identifying and treating Rb; it now serves as a regional hub for treatment.

For Ethiopia — and for other countries where eye cancer causes so many unnecessary deaths — these achievements should be a great cause for hope.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A distorted lens

Before They Pass Away, a project of the Anglo-Dutch photographer Jimmy Nelson, provides a window on some of the indigenous peoples of the world. His photographs — reproduced in a coffee-table book and a lavish website — are beautiful. But like museum exhibits without labels, there’s a great risk that they may be misinterpreted.

Citing Edward Curtis as an influence, Nelson set out to document what he calls “the world’s most aesthetic peoples” — he aims to “put these people on a pedestal, make them icons.” But speaking at University College London yesterday to promote the book, he revealed a startling ignorance about the actual state of the people he photographed.


Not all of the world’s indigenous people are equally at risk.

Lumping all of the 17 groups in the project into the same category of endangerment is crass. The Mursi of Ethiopia, for example, face very different pressures from the Gauchos of Argentina.

The Gauchos, cowboys of the Argentine pampas, are largely farmers or city-dwellers who come together for “a weekend-long picnic” every four years. They’ve long since integrated in Argentine society — indeed they are emblems in the national mythology of the states of the region.

The Mursi, who continue to rely almost entirely on cattle herding and small-scale agriculture in the Omo Valley, are under threat from rapidly expanding commercial agriculture and from a government that views their culture with contempt. To present their demise, as Nelson’s website does, as the result of  “extreme drought” and “national parks”, does them no favours.


Their “passing away” isn’t always voluntary or peaceful.

Nelson seems convinced that these cultures are doomed, and that their unraveling will happen quickly and painlessly.  “The world of materialism is so attractive that they’ll choose to leave,” he said in his presentation at UCL. “Nobody’s going to die, but their culture will.”

There’s a smugness here about the allure of Western lifestyles. For many Mursi, however, exchanging their cattle and mud-hut for an office job and a city apartment doesn’t sound at all like a good deal. Modern life certainly has its attractions, but the people I’ve gotten to know in Ethiopia and the Congo desire certain parts of it (e.g., medicine and literacy), rather than the whole package.

Furthermore, the idea that nobody gets hurt in these transitions is dead wrong. This is a sanitized version of history — like an episode of the A-Team where there’s lots of action but nobody ever gets hurt.


Many of these groups are actively engaged in struggles to secure rights to their lands.

Both locally and internationally, many campaigns are being fought to defend the sovereignty of these people.* After his talk, I asked Nelson if he was engaging with any of them. He had been bombarded with requests, he said. But he didn’t seem to have pursued them.

There was one exception — the United Nations, he said, was interested in screening some of the images on Times Square in New York. For five minutes, perhaps, their strange and beautiful faces would replace the ads for Coke and McDonalds. And perhaps as quickly, be forgotten.


Beautiful portraits alone won’t help these people.

There are several precedents to what Nelson’s doing, and it’s unclear that they have helped the groups concerned. What did Leni Riefenstahl’s photographs of the Nuba of Sudan do for them? Or Angela Fisher’s photographs of the peoples of the Omo Valley?


Changing course?

Nelson has a chance to redeem himself, and to channel the attention that his project is receiving in positive ways. The next steps in the project, he says, will be to take the book back to the people he photographed. And to ask, “Did I represent them correctly?”

A sequel and a BBC TV series are in the works. Done sensitively, they could be an opportunity for learning on both sides.** Done in the style of the first installment, they’re likely only to mislead.


* Some of the many organizations that are advocating for the rights of indigenous peoples include the Forest People’s Programme, the Rights and Resources Initiative, Survival, and Friends of Lake Turkana.

** For a great example of how to do this right, see Cory Kratz’s book on the reception of images of the Okiek in Kenya and the USA: The Ones That are Wanted: Communication and the Politics of Representation in a Photographic Exhibition (California, 2002).


Posted in anthropology, Ethiopia, indigenous people, justice, photography, politics, Westernization | Leave a comment

The EPA: A victim of its own success?

William Ruckelshaus was the first director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In a recent interview he reflected on what’s changed during the 43 years since the agency was established — and in particular since the passing of landmark legislation on clean air and water in the 1970s (full interview here).


Interviewer: Take me back to the time of the creation of the Clean Water Act – what was the feeling at the time that made the EPA and made the Clean Water Act necessary?

Well, the sentiment was an explosion of public concern about the environment. It was caused by a number of factors. Rachel Carson’s book [Silent Spring], which was written in 1962, had a cumulative effect that was quite pronounced in the country at the time. We had flammable rivers — you already mentioned the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. We had people in Denver wanting to see the mountains and people in Los Angeles wanting to see one another….

The difference today from where we were 40 years ago is where public opinion is. If public opinion were as intolerant of what’s happening to our environment and our public health today as they were 40 years ago, you wouldn’t have a partisan split on this issue. There was almost unanimity that something be done about it.

Interviewer: So, what changed?

I think a number of things changed. Maybe the most important thing is success. The EPA may well be a victim of its own success. We don’t see the same kinds of visible pollution problems today that we did. We don’t have flammable rivers anymore and we don’t have smog that’s so awful that you can’t even see one another. That was the situation back in the ’60s when the public’s concern began to express itself.

We still have problems today; they tend to be more invisible. They tend to be things that you can’t smell, touch and feel the way you could 40 years ago. And that just doesn’t get public attention.


In the developing world there are still plenty of “smelly” problems. But it may be that the invisible, odorless ones are ultimately the most perilous.

How do we mobilise concern over invisible threats?

If the nudge units of the world aren’t working on this already, they ought to be.

Posted in anthropology, climate, environmental science, health, politics, USA, water | Leave a comment

Top ten books of 2013

These are the books that marked the year for me.* Each resonated in one way or another with things I’ve learned as a researcher in Ethiopia and Congo, and as a dad.



1. The landgrabbers: The new fight over who owns the Earth
, by Fred Pearce (2012).

Since the food crisis of 2008, there’s been a rush by food-importing countries to buy up land overseas on which to grow food (or fuel) for the folks back home. Pearce, an award-winning science journalist, traveled the world looking into the ramifications of this phenomenon for local people. The crops involved range from wheat to jatropha (used for biofuels), and every continent is represented — though Africa, with the cheapest land and least accountable governments, figures prominently.


2. Full planet, empty plates, by Lester Brown (2012).

This book provides more back-story on the food crisis, and describes how — unless we tackle it quickly — climate change will likely lead to mass starvation over the next century. Under “Business as Usual,” we face a 6-degree rise in average temperatures by the end of the century; and for each degree rise, crop yields fall by 10%. Usefully, Brown has a plan for getting out of this mess. The short version is drastic energy reforms (reducing carbon emissions by 80% in a decade) combined with measures to reduce population growth through combating poverty and spreading education.


 3. Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway (2010)

If we are to have any hope of pulling this off, we will have to study a little history, and there are important lessons to be learned from the battles to regulate CFCs, tobacco, and noxious pesticides. The historians of science Oreskes and Conway have studied these cases in depth, and they make two key points: (1) The marketers of the products have never submitted easily; they’ve fought tooth and nail, and in every case action by citizens has been crucial. Carbon pollution is the current front in this war, and given the wealth and influence of the corporations concerned — and the heavy dependence of the industrialized world on dirty energy — this battle dwarfs the others. (2) The “lack of scientific consensus” that has slowed down the transition to cleaner technologies can be traced to a few merchants of doubt – ideologues with scientific credentials who are on the payroll of the companies that profit from the status quo.


4. Raising Elijah: Protecting our children in an age of environmental crisis, by Sandra Steingraber (2011)

This book personalizes the issue of environmental risks, and highlights its special relevance to parents and children. Diagnosed with cancer as a young adult, Steingraber recounts her attempts to raise her son without the risks she faced. Well versed in biology, and with an inquisitive bent, she finds dangers lurking all around, and sets out to remodel her family’s lifestyle to minimize them. “Once you know,” she writes, “you can’t not know.” If we would see our children (and theirs) live well, we will all have to make courageous decisions like her, and push our political representatives to do likewise. As my wife Selam and I are supporting our son through his cancer treatment, this book struck a strong chord.


5. Conservation refugees: The hundred-year conflict between global conservation and native peoples, by Mark Dowie (2009).

After returning from the Congo to London this autumn I learned that the communities who’d hosted us during our research had been evicted from the forest camps they called home, on the grounds that they were engaged in unsustainable hunting. This came as a surprise, but it turns out it’s part of a widespread phenomenon of indigenous people being evicted from their ancestral lands in the name of conservation — becoming conservation refugees. Dowie pulls together many such stories and asks how conservationists became involved in injustices like this. He exposes as a fallacy the idea that people and nature are intrinsically opposed, and proposes a formula for covenants that indigenous peoples might make with governments and conservation organizations, to manage their homelands sustainably.


If the foregoing has depressed you, read on. The rest are more hopeful!


6. One illness away: Why poor people become poor and how they escape poverty, by Anirudh Krishna (2010)

Although it hardly needs saying for anyone who’s familiar with conservation refugees like the !Kung/Basarwa, the idea that poor people are “born, not made” is obsolete. Krishna is an economist who’s done a lot to promote the idea of poverty flows, and here he describes a method he devised for identifying the steps that families pass through on their way down into or up out of poverty. He and his colleagues have applied this method in communities on all four continents, and what emerges is a typology of hazards — snakes and ladders — that can tip people everywhere into poverty or help pull them out. (The book’s title is an allusion to the most common hazard of all: a catastrophic illness that ends up draining a household’s capital.) The logical next step is to put in place institutions (such as nationalised medical care) that protect people from these traps, or buffer them when they fall down.


 7. Literacy and mothering: How women’s schooling changes the lives of the world’s children, by Robert A. LeVine, Sarah LeVine, Beatrice Schnell-Anzola, Meredith Rowe, and Emily Dexter. (2012).

One widely recognized route out of poverty is education. Literacy and Mothering shows how women’s schooling also contributes to the health of the next generation, by equipping mothers with a set of linguistic skills that facilitate effective communication in clinics and increase their receptivity to authoritative bureaucratic advice. This is the first systematic demonstration of how “what kids learn in school” translates into improved child survival. It ought to stimulate educators to maximize the contributions that schools make to this process — and motivate clinicians to devise ways of communicating more effectively with patients who lack the skills that schooling provides. (It inspired me to carry out a similar investigation in Ethiopia for my PhD; I’ve written a longer review of the book here.)


8. Whose freedom? The battle over America’s most important idea, by George Lakoff (2007)

There’s a big political dimension to each of the challenges in the books reviewed here — transitioning to clean energy, eradicating poverty, and improving education systems. For that reason, this book by a Berkeley cognitive scientist and linguist is perhaps the most hopeful of the lot. What Lakoff does is break down the very sophisticated communication techniques of the American conservative movement, and demonstrate how they can be harnessed by progressives. His focus is on the radically opposing associations — and therefore, meanings — of the word freedom for conservatives and progressives; and his argument is that reaffirming a progressive meaning of freedom (which includes the freedom to live a healthy life) may be a prerequisite to progress on many other causes.


9. The Neighborhood Project: Using evolution to improve my city, one block at at time, by David Sloan Wilson (2011).

In social work, it’s rare to find compelling “evidence-based” policy that’s framed in terms of evolutionary biology. Wilson (the son of a novelist who grew up to be an evolutionary anthropologist) has made important contributions to the theory of multilevel selection (the idea that natural selection operates at the level of genes and groups as well as at the level of individual organisms) and the evolution of religions; and more recently he’s emerged as an evangelist for evolution as a resource for improving human communities. In this book he describes his first attempts to apply evolutionary ideas to civic life in his hometown of Binghamton, New York. Wilson was recently interviewed about this project on Krista Tippett’s radio programme, On Being.


 10. The Way of Life according to Lao Tzu (seventh century BC?).

I first read this work (also known as the Tao te Ching) as a teenager, and something led me back to it this past year. Rather than attempt to summarize the collection of poems, I quote here a stanza from one of my favourites, in the translation of Witter Bynner:


Can you hold the door of your tent
Wide to the firmament?
Can you, with the simple stature
Of a child breathing nature,
Become, notwithstanding,
A man?


* The list doesn’t necessarily draw on things published in 2013. No apologies for not being up to the minute. (I’m still catching up on five thousand years of literature!)



Posted in anthropology, climate, education, environmental science, evolution, food, health, inspiration, medicine, politics | 2 Comments

A day in the life, in the Congo rainforest

A further installment from last summer’s research trip to the Congo


Within an hour of sunrise, I was woken by the heat. Outside my tent, Jerome sat on a makeshift bench, with his laptop open in front of him.

“If you want to work with these people, you’re going to have to get up earlier than this,” he said.

It was 7 AM.

Next to Jerome sat three Mbendjele men. As I set about making coffee, they watched me carefully, occasionally chatting and laughing, and passing around a joint. The men, it turned out, were brothers, and founding members of the three camps in this part of the forest. Over the following weeks, they became well known to us, as during the days we mapped their family trees; and on a few occasions we followed them along forest trails as they went out to check traps.




We’d traveled here to learn about their lives in a part of the world — the Central African rainforest — where, more than anywhere else, hunting and gathering remains a viable way of life. In line with Jerome’s advice, for the rest of the three months of fieldwork, we woke up earlier, and started work soon after first light. By a couple of hours after dawn, many people would head out into the forest to gather food.

Our work — which in addition to interviews, involved weighing and measuring, and taking saliva samples for genetic analysis — amused some people and perplexed others. But for the most part they put up with it all with patience and good humour.

By afternoon, women would begin drifting back into camp from the forest, carrying whatever they’d found in baskets on their backs: koko (leafy greens), miya (wild yams), bambu (a very sticky, sweet fruit); and sometimes palm-fruit or a few small fish.




As the sun started sinking in the sky, we’d walk down to the river to bathe, and Ndambo, the team’s cook, would prepare our dinner — most often, rice and roast antelope.

After dark a new shift began for the forest community, and sometimes we heard gorillas or elephants calling to each other.

(The gorilla makes a sound (bo-bo-bo-bo!) that inspired their name in BaMbendjele: ebobo).

They’re the owners of the forest,” the locals said.

Other times the insistent cry of a tree hyrax searching for a mate would echo through the trees.

And on certain nights — we never could predict when — we’d hear the deep voices of those men who’d first welcomed us to their camps, joined with those of the women and children in song.


For more information on the Hunter Gatherer Resilience Project, visit the project website:

Anthropolitan, the UCL Anthropology Department magazine, includes contributions from several other  members of the HG Resilience team in its latest issue.


Posted in anthropology, Congo, food, hunter-gatherers | Leave a comment

The roots of egalitarianism

Are we natural democrats? Or will tyrants always be with us?


IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, a handful of anthropologists, living with hunter-gatherers, described the workings of societies without leaders, where food seemed to be equally available to all. [1]

These reports resonated with Rousseau’s visions of primitive equality and Marxist theories about the deep roots of communism. [2]

Could hunter-gatherers be seen as “living fossils,” showing us how we all once lived — and might one day live again?


forest ppl_cover2

Cover image from Turnbull’s Forest People


In the past decades a lot of new work has been done that is relevant to these questions.

Nobody now believes that modern hunter-gatherers are typical of our way of life in the Palaeolithic. But there’s broad agreement that they can shed light on ancestral conditions — that they’re the best analogue we have. [3]

While memory of the Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies is still fresh, I’ll share some current thinking on political organization among hunter-gatherers — particularly the question of how egalitarianism might have evolved.


The egalitarianism papers

In Liverpool there were two presentations on hunter-gatherer egalitarianism — one by Frank Marlowe of Cambridge, and one by me.

Marlowe, using a carefully drawn sample of cultures, showed that lack of social stratification is more common among hunter-gatherers than in societies relying on other types of subsistence (farmers, horticulturalists, or pastoralists).

And among hunter-gatherer populations, those with higher rates of mobility and greater reliance on large game for their diet are less likely to have social stratification.

In other words, while not all hunter-gatherers are egalitarian, those who are, tend often to be mobile and rely on big game.

How typical these features were of our ancestors is a point of contention (to which we’ll return).

In my presentation, I focused on the possible origins of egalitarianism.


Proximate versus ultimate causation

Work on the evolution of egalitarianism, I suggested, might profit from observing a distinction that biologists often make between forces that could select for a behavior and forces that could maintain it once it emerged.

Taking bird migration as an example, the forces that could lead birds in the northern hemisphere to migrate south during winter include genetic disposition and lack of food (ultimate causes), and physiological responses to falling temperature and shorter days (proximate causes). [4]

Only the “ultimate” forces, it’s generally agreed, could cause the behavior to evolve by natural selection.


In the case of egalitarianism, ultimate mechanisms would cause differential survival in hierarchical versus non-hierarchical groups; and proximate mechanisms would include various ways of keeping the playing field level — for example by knocking down aggrandizers.

Some mechanisms that might account for the evolution of egalitarianism are kin selection (favouring your kin, which could promote egalitarianism if relatedness within the group were high), reciprocity (trading of favours), assortment (associating only with others who had proven themselves in the past), and group selection (treating group members as equals, and competing together against other groups).

Some of these ideas can be eliminated quickly. Kin selection, for example, doesn’t square with what we know about hunter-gatherer band composition. (Band membership tends to be diverse and fluid, and kin biases would be hard to maintain. [5]) But others are more difficult to evaluate.


Virtual worlds

Computer simulation seems to be a promising way of investigating how ideas such as these stand up in relation to one another.

Dispensing with all but the most basic features of social life, agent-based models make it possible to investigate the emergence of complex social phenomena from relatively simple rules of social interaction. [6]

A model created by Gavrilets, for example, begins with “bullies” attempting to steal food from others (a common enough occurrence in primate societies). The model demonstrates how, when other group members intervene to defend the weak from bullying, a social norm of fairness can emerge, and this in turn can lead to a stable mode of egalitarianism.


The challenge remains to integrate models with real-world data — to let the virtual and actual worlds speak to each other.

Not long ago, you had to have specialized training to develop and run computer simulations. But within the last decade, off-the-shelf simulation packages have proliferated, and it’s now possible for anyone with even basic computer literacy to experiment with agent-based modeling, for example with NetLogo.



A screenshot from a simulation of the evolution of altruistic tendencies in a population, in the free NetLogo software package



The presentations generated a lively discussion.

Chris Knight took issue with our lack of attention to gender relations.

How could we attempt to understand egalitarianism without taking relations between men and women into account? he asked.

And Ian Watts asked on what grounds I was calling leveling mechanisms a “proximate” force in the evolution of egalitarianism.

Couldn’t they be a primary force in pushing groups towards egalitarian modes?

These questions stimulated me to think about this problem in a new way.


Complex causation

Reading further on the ultimate/proximate distinction, I realized that something of a revolution is underway in how evolutionary biologists are thinking about causation.

Back in the 1970s, Stephen Jay Gould devoted a book to the history of inquiry into the relationship between evolution and life-course development, showing how the topic has been an enduring source of controversy. [7]

The most recent cycle of work in this area has led to a rethinking of the ultimate / proximate distinction. [8]

One of the frame-shifts that this has brought about relates to the idea of the nuclear family versus the extended group as the locus of child rearing.

Hunter-gatherers rely heavily on other members of their groups to share care of offspring, and their kinship and marriage systems seem designed to maximize the availability of helpers. [9]

Networks of support may be spread wider still by cultivating friendships (think of godparents) — what are sometimes called “social kin.” [10]

Sarah B. Hrdy’s hypothesis is that

“Novel rearing conditions among a line of early hominins meant that youngsters grew up depending on a wider range of caretakers … and this dependence produced selection pressures that favored individuals who were better at decoding the mental states of others, and figuring out who would help and who would hurt.” [11]


mothers & others_cover


This ability to read others’ minds and intentions — part of what Hrdy calls “emotional modernity” — would facilitate shared child care; and once care was widely enough distributed, the reproductive success of individuals could begin to be favoured by egalitarian arrangements.


Gender relations

This scenario opens the door to gender relations as a prime mover in the evolution of egalitarianism, as it implies a shift from a situation where mothers bore sole responsibility for child care, to one where others, including men, shared it.

At the same time, the overturning of the proximate/ultimate distinction also makes other hypotheses seem more plausible, for example the idea that being generous with food, and refraining from self-aggrandizement, could be a means of indicating an individual’s fitness (a “costly signal”). [12]


Many roads

As the number of competing hypotheses grows, one may start to wonder whether there’s any hope of resolving the question of how egalitarianism might have evolved.

At least three lessons, however, emerge from all this for me:


First, there is no reason to suppose that egalitarianism should have evolved by the same mechanism everywhere.

Like birds and bats, which made similar-looking wings out of very different starting materials, different human groups may have arrived at egalitarian arrangements by different routes.

Working out which mechanisms were most important for different groups, at different times, requires attention to some of the key variables that scholars have identified, for example the importance of big game hunting and degrees of mobility.


Second, we need not assume that hunter-gatherers in the distant past were always egalitarian.

It could be, instead, that we have an ability to shift into egalitarian mode under conditions that favour it — we might be facultative or “fair weather” egalitarians. [13]


Third, cultural evolution opens up a wide range of possibilities for the emergence of egalitarianism.

While birds migrating south for the winter may be locked into their behavior patterns by genetic control, human culture permits great flexibility.

Acknowledging that “our species is free neither of itself nor its environment,” [14] the overlay of cultural processes in humans nonetheless creates the possibility of conscious, directional change in political organization.


There’s reason, in other words, for hope that we’re predestined neither for communism nor for tyranny.




[1] e.g. the Mbuti of the Congo and the Hadza of Tanzania. Mbuti: Turnbull, Colin. 1961. The Forest People. Simon and Schuster;  Hadza: Woodburn, James. 1982. ‘Egalitarian Societies’. Man 17 (3) (September 1): 431–451. doi:10.2307/2801707.

[2] Speth puts it well: “Modern foragers, whether they are isolated and autonomous or not, must nevertheless confront and cope with demographic, social, dietary, and other problems that are common to any human society, past or present, that relies for part or all of its sustenance on wild plant and animal foods.” (J.D. Speth, 1991. In Foragers in Context: Long-term, Regional, and Historical Perspectives in Hunter-gatherer Studies (Vol. 10). Ann Arbor: Department of Anthropology, University of Michigan, p. viii)

[3] Engels, Friedrich. 1884. The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. London: Penguin Classics; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1755. A Discourse on Inequality. London: Penguin Classics.

[4] Mayr, Ernst. 1961. ‘Cause and Effect in Biology’. Science 134 (3489) (October 11): 1501–1506. doi:10.1126/science.134.3489.1501.

[5] Hill, Kim R., Robert S. Walker, Miran Božičević, James Eder, Thomas Headland, Barry Hewlett, A. Magdalena Hurtado, Frank Marlowe, Polly Wiessner, and Brian Wood. 2011. ‘Co-Residence Patterns in Hunter-Gatherer Societies Show Unique Human Social Structure’. Science 331 (6022) (November 3): 1286–1289. doi:10.1126/science.1199071.

[6] Gavrilets, Sergey. 2012. ‘On the Evolutionary Origins of the Egalitarian Syndrome’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (August 13). doi:10.1073/pnas.1201718109.

[7] Gould, Stephen Jay. 1977. Ontogeny and Phylogeny. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[8] Laland, Kevin N., Kim Sterelny, John Odling-Smee, William Hoppitt, and Tobias Uller. 2011. ‘Cause and Effect in Biology Revisited: Is Mayr’s Proximate-Ultimate Dichotomy Still Useful?’ Science 334 (6062) (December 16): 1512–1516. doi:10.1126/science.1210879.

[9] Hrdy, Sarah Blaffer. 2009. Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[10] Wiessner, Polly. 1986. ‘!Kung San Networks in a Generational Perspective’. In The Past and Future of!Kung Ethnography, pp. 103-136, edited by Megan Biesele, R. Gordon, and Richard B Lee. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag; Holland, Maximilian. 2004. ‘Social Bonding and Nurture Kinship’. PhD thesis, London: London School of Economics; Hruschka, Daniel J. 2010. Friendship: Development, Ecology, and Evolution of a Relationship. University of California Press.

[11] Hrdy, 2009. Mothers and Others, p. 66

[12] Power, Camilla. 2009. ‘Sexual selection models for the emergence of symbolic communication’. In The Cradle of Language, edited by Rudolf Botha and Chris Knight, 253–277. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Zahavi, Amots, and Avishag Zahavi. 1999. The Handicap Principle. New York: Oxford University Press.

[13] This idea of oscillation between egalitarian and hierarchical social structures was suggested by James Woodburn.

[14] Lancaster, Jane B. 1975. Primate behavior and the emergence of human culture. Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, p. 1

Posted in evolution, politics | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments