Bands and hierarchies (I)

Until the Neolithic Revolution got stable, the Sapiens lived in bands. (It's likely that the ancestors of the Sapiens also lived in bands, but that's rather irrelevant). The band is broadly composed of members of an extended family - up to 100 individuals.

Sapiens bands were somewhat hierarchical, but with a loose and fluid hierarchy, an informal leadership, and with decisions made rather by consensus (given the possibility of "voting with one's feet", it was also hard to be otherwise). From this point of view, the organisation of the Sapiens is less like that of chimpanzees and more like that of our other cousins - the bonobos (with whom we are also most similar in sexual behaviour - and the two similarities are not accidental).

In any case, organizing into bands - with loose and fluid hierarchies, informal leadership and consensual decision-making - seems to be a species characteristic, a behavior either genetically hardwired or caused by moderate sexual dimorphism (more moderate than in chimpanzees and very similar to bonobos) and/or concealed ovulation.

The only human societies similar (up to a point) to chimpanzee societies were the feudal ones, which included the unconditional right of access of the senior to all females of the group. But even then, chimpanzee-like behaviour was artificially enforced, through cultural and legal norms, and was quite often violated, either for fear of possible reprisals (which the chimpanzee alpha male has little to fear) or through behaviour that is non-existent in chimpanzees but common in humans and bonobos: orgiastic behaviour.

Band organisation is so specifically human (in the sense that it occurs spontaneously in Sapiens) that we find it even in modern hierarchical organisations: in military organisations, in public bureaucracies and in private ones (firms). In all these organisations we have simultaneously a formal, normatively imposed hierarchy and a para-organisation constituted exactly on the model of the band: more egalitarian (with a weak and fluid hierarchy), with informal leaders and consensual decisions.

And, as any new minister, any new general or any new CEO knows, the para-organisation can be so influential that it has the ability to successfully boycott all decisions of the official leadership. The general may be the head of the organisation, appointed to office and vested with coercive powers, but the leader may be an obscure lieutenant or sergeant major with whom everyone else consults.

On the other hand, as any general, any minister or any experienced CEO knows, there is no point in eliminating informal leaders, because the para-organisation has the capacity to spontaneously generate others. Ask any coach of football, basketball or any other team sport and he or she will tell you how, in reality, teams organise spontaneously like bands: with informal leaders (the player the rest of the team looks up to in the locker room, who mobilises them, holds them together and arbitrates their conflicts), with rather loose and fluid hierarchies - and with rather consensual decisions.

When dealing with formal hierarchical structures, the organisation never coincides with the para-organisation - because humans are not chimpanzees; the Sapiens are more like bonobos than chimps. In the case of dysfunctional hierarchical organisations, the incongruence between organisation and para-organisation is (almost) total and conflict-generating. In the case of formal functional hierarchies, capable of self-replication, the incongruence between hierarchy and band is managed through cooperative mechanisms capable of generating win-win solutions.

The only organisations where this incongruity is (almost) non-existent are those that allow for horizontal coordination: network organisations. They respond best to the human instinct to organise in bands. But horizontal organisation is counter-intuitive to all those who have the urge to be bosses - a minority deviating from the Sapiens norm. That's probably why we consider members of this minority psychopaths or sociopaths (not necessarily in the clinical sense, but rather in a metaphorical one).

And perhaps the same evolutionary "norm" that makes us spontaneously organize into bands makes us always dream of a world where formal hierarchies disappear. Modernity promised this when it abolished feudal hierarchies, but in the end it has only succeeded in replacing traditional hierarchies with hierarchies of efficient reason: with public and private bureaucracies. Yet, by all appearances, the new technological revolution is capable of generating modes of organization that are closer to our instincts.