The mask falls

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The mask falls

A Ghanaian chief walks back to his 4x4 vehicle, shaded by a servant carrying a parasol. Photo by Alfredo Caliz/Panos

Hunter gatherers may have very egalitarian societies, but evolution says the human love of status runs deeper

Dylan Evans is the founder of Projection Point, a risk analysis firm. His latest book is Risk Intelligence: How to Live with Uncertainty (2012).

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When The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett came out in 2009, it chimed well with the post-crash mood. The book claimed that higher levels of inequality were associated with a whole range of poor health issues, including lower life expectancy, increased obesity, and higher murder rates. It seemed that those fat cat bankers hadn’t just wrecked the financial system: they were making us all ill, too.

Subsequently, however, these claims came in for a great deal of criticism, especially from sociologists on the libertarian end of the political spectrum. Whether right or wrong, however, the original book has raised a deeper question, and one that is still wide open. By framing the debate about inequality in a biological context, The Spirit Level harked back to an older philosophical conundrum about human nature. Are we, fundamentally, an egalitarian species or a fiercely competitive one? Or are we perhaps so flexible that we can be equally at home in either kind of society?

Evolutionary biology casts considerable light on this question. Start with the fact that our species has spent more than 90 per cent of its existence living in highly egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. There is no room in this nomadic existence for the accumulation of property, and hence no great differences in material possessions. As the American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins observed in his 1968 essay on the ‘original affluent society’:
Of the hunter it is truly said that his wealth is a burden. In his condition of life, goods can become ‘grievously oppressive’ … and the more so the longer they are carried around. Certain food collectors do have canoes and a few have dog sleds, but most must carry themselves all the comforts they possess, and so only possess what they can comfortably carry themselves.

It was only when the first humans started farming, around 10,000 years ago, that it became possible for one person to accumulate many more possessions than another. Farmers are sedentary and can therefore store property in buildings, and stake a claim to land by building walls. Farming is also more efficient than hunting and gathering, so a division of labour can develop. Some grow enough food to support other people who have nothing to do with food production, such as artisans, soldiers, priests and kings. Inevitably, those who do not produce food end up far richer than those who do. Kings skim off the surplus production in the form of taxes and use it to finance armies, palaces and temples. Priests spin yarns about tithing to justify all this robbery in exchange for an income of their own. In just a few thousand years — a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms — humans have gone from living in small egalitarian bands to large-scale sedentary societies with extreme levels of inequality.

It would hardly be surprising then if the sudden appearance of inequality didn’t have deleterious consequences for the human mind and body. Other novelties associated with the advent of farming, such as the constant proximity of domestic animals and higher population density, exposed our ancestors to new threats for which they were unprepared, such as the rise of infectious diseases. Evolutionary psychologists have speculated that our ancestors found the new landscape of social inequality similarly damaging, and that there has not yet been enough time for natural selection to adapt us to it, if it ever will.

According to the social competition hypothesis of depression, humans are exquisitely sensitive to small differences in social status. Such sensitivity was vital when our ancestors lived in smaller bands of hunter-gatherers, where status differences were relatively slight. But in today’s world, where the global elite earn thousands of times more than those at the bottom of the economic heap and have completely different lifestyles, our status detectors go into overdrive. Hence a sensitivity that evolved to help low-status individuals signal obedience would, in today’s world, produce pathological results.

It is not enough to succeed, as Gore Vidal said; others must fail

Support for this idea is provided by studies of dominance hierarchies in other primates. Low-ranking vervet monkeys, for example, have serotonin levels that are half those of the alpha males, and low-status yellow baboons have elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Both of these physiological responses are found in depressed people, so perhaps inequality does literally get under our skin. A study of British civil servants found that those in lower-grade jobs showed significantly higher levels of the cortisol-awakening response (the difference between cortisol levels at waking and 30 minutes later, which is thought to be linked to the hippocampus’s preparation to face anticipated stress) than those in higher grades. Contrary to popular belief, then, it seems that those at the top of the pyramid, who tend to have the most decision-making responsibility, have the least stressful lives. One theory is that, the lower one is in the chain of command, the less control one has over one’s daily life. Taking orders, rather than giving them, results in raised heart rate, stress hormones, and blood pressure.

Inequality is not a negative-sum game — in which everybody ends up worse off — but a zero-sum game, in which the poorer health of those at the bottom of the pile is offset by the health gains of those at the top. There is nothing like the sight of a beggar to make one feel rich. It is not enough to succeed, as Gore Vidal said; others must fail.

Evolutionary psychologists have also looked to experimental psychology for evidence that we are naturally averse to inequality. In the ultimatum game, for example, two strangers are paired and given a sum of money. One of them — usually referred to as the ‘proposer’ — has to decide how to divide the money. The proposer might suggest a 50-50 split, or they might offer only 10 per cent and keep the lion’s share. The other player can then either accept or reject this offer. If the responder accepts the offer, each player walks away with the share suggested by the proposer. If the responder rejects the offer, each player walks away with nothing.

According to game theory, a rational proposer should always offer the smallest amount possible, and a rational responder should always accept the proposer’s offer, no matter how small it is. After all, some money is better than none. But this isn’t what people actually do when they play this game. Instead of offering the smallest possible amount, most proposers offer between 40 and 50 per cent of the money. And on the few occasions that proposers offer less than 20 per cent, responders reject about half of those offers, despite the fact that this means both lose.

Such findings have been interpreted as evidence that people naturally dislike inequality and will sacrifice some personal gains to avoid it. However, when the experiment has been carried out with indigenous people with a low degree of market integration, the results are very different. Machiguenga farmers in Peru, for example, offer very little, and accept almost every offer, no matter how derisory. In the cultures least exposed to the influence of capitalism, people behave almost as greedily as game theory suggests they should. This does not bode well for the idea that inequality aversion is part of our DNA.

Levels of inequality might have fluctuated during our evolutionary past. The last common ancestor we share with chimpanzees — a primate who lived in the rainforests of Africa some five million years ago — was probably as hierarchical as chimps still are today. Alpha male chimps are, basically, big bullies who take what they want and brutally punish junior males who dare to challenge them, and the first hominids were probably similar. Yet, according to the anthropologist Christopher Boehm, all this changed around 500,000 years ago when our ancestors first developed spears. The development of more sophisticated weapons meant that physical strength was no longer decisive in determining the outcome of a fight. Weaker males could now kill stronger ones, enabling the transition to more egalitarian communities in which leadership was more a matter of skilful negotiation and bargaining than simple brute force.

If Boehm is right, it is the egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers that is unusual from an evolutionary point of view, a mere phase between the dominance hierarchies of our primate inheritance and the social inequality brought on by the advent of farming. Far from being our natural state, the low levels of inequality in bands of hunter-gatherers might be a fragile achievement resulting from a certain stage of military technology, a temporary truce among creatures who are innately predisposed to hierarchical arrangements.

Attempts to forge a more equal society will have to contend with our competitive instincts and our innate desire for status

The development of weaponry might also have favoured the transition to egalitarianism by enabling our ancestors to hunt big game. There is far too much meat in a dead bison for one hunter to consume all by himself, so most of it is eaten by others. But the link between meat-sharing and egalitarianism does not pass by way of equal distribution. Some scholars argue that hunter-gatherers do not divide the spoils of the hunt equally among the members of the band as if they were practicing some kind of primitive communism. Rather, those who come back empty-handed snatch scraps of meat from the successful hunter without permission. This is a model of human sharing known as ‘tolerated theft’. The theft is tolerated by the successful hunter only because he is too busy stuffing his own face to punish every transgression. Once again, egalitarianism arises from the difficulty of coercion, not because of fellow feeling or kindred spirit.

The discovery that inequality might go deeper in the psyche than egalitarianism tells us nothing, of course, about what kind of society we should strive to create. To jump from empirical evidence about our hierarchical nature to moral conclusions would be to commit the naturalistic fallacy. But while we can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, a better understanding of human nature can enable us to identify the obstacles that hinder the path to greater social equality, if this is what we desire.

In particular, attempts to forge a more equal society will have to contend with our competitive instincts and our innate desire for status. These are not cultural artefacts that can be swept away by economic reforms, as the ideologues of the Russian Revolution believed when they looked forward to the emergence of the ‘New Soviet Man’. On the contrary, they are deeply etched into our nature, and will find ways to express themselves in any society. Indeed, they might well be the reason why Europe’s communist societies lasted as long as they did. Given the Soviet Union’s huge inefficiencies, it is a puzzle how it managed to survive for close to 70 years. Perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that it never managed to become truly communist. Despite strenuous attempts to stamp them out, tiny pools of capitalism persisted, and these provided just enough steam to keep the system going. For example, factory bosses were given bonuses when they met their production quotas, and often relied on tolkachi (‘fixers’ or ‘pushers’) whose job was to pull strings and set up unofficial arrangements with other factories. Ironically, then, it was the old, unreformed elements of human nature that allowed the communist party to survive for so long. People look for ways to compete, even when competition is forbidden.

How can our competitive instincts and our innate desire for status be channelled in ways that favour a more equal society? The answer lies in our capacity for instrumental reasoning and our ability to respond intelligently to incentives. Competition might be in our DNA, but what we compete for is not; our ancestors fought to kill the biggest beast, while we compete to buy the bigger house or the faster car. Likewise, status-seeking might be a given, but what counts as a status symbol varies from culture to culture. A plump figure was once the height of fashion, but not today.

This limited flexibility both constrains the range of workable social systems and suggests certain ways of tinkering with them. A communist society might be forever beyond our grasp, even if we wanted one, but it should be possible to create better forms of capitalism by more closely aligning individual incentives with socially desirable outcomes. The million-dollar question is how.

The obvious way is by means of clever social engineering. For example, if the use of stock options in executive compensation gives managers the incentive to take excessive risk and fraudulently manipulate the company’s stock price, executives could be forced to wait a few years before exercising these options. The problem with all such solutions is that people are good at finding new loopholes. In other words, it is precisely our capacity to respond intelligently to incentives that makes it so difficult to design foolproof incentives. A whole area of game theory known as mechanism design has arisen to address the challenges of designing systems that can’t be outwitted, but it is still in its infancy and is of course fiendishly complicated.

Left to their own devices, people will find ways to check the most extreme inequalities

An alternative to social engineering is to let social systems evolve in the hope that we will thereby discover better forms of organisation that we might not have been clever enough to design ourselves. This might seem like political nihilism, an irresponsible abandonment of any attempt to correct the inequities of the market. But, viewed from another perspective, it can be seen as a humble acceptance of our cognitive limitations, and a deep faith in the wisdom of the crowd. It has also proved far more effective at producing equitable institutions than the more deliberative approach. Take British common law, for example. This hodgepodge of accumulated precedents seems to be far better at promoting fairness and equality of access to justice than the more streamlined Napoleonic code on which the legal systems of most Latin American countries are built.

Left to their own devices, people will find ways to check the most extreme inequalities without eliminating all incentives to work. The spread of norms about sharing seems to bear this out. Norms which govern sharing and negotiating with strangers are a cultural invention, not an innate part of human nature. It seems likely that they began to develop only with the emergence of long-range trading between unrelated groups, around 35,000BC. From there, it was a long, slow journey to the merchant bankers who financed grain trading in medieval Italy, and on to the complex mechanisms of today’s global economy. The gradual development of market mechanisms would have been impossible without the co-evolution of norms about what constitutes a fair exchange. And this gives rise to a paradox: markets are both the cause of great inequality, and the source of ideas about what constitutes fair exchange. Perhaps Marx was on to something when he suggested that capitalism would sow the seeds of its own destruction. Or perhaps it has simply provided the mechanisms for softening its worst excesses.

Read more essays on evolution, fairness & equality and politics & government


  • Gyrus

    An interesting piece on a crucial topic, thanks. One point...

    I agree that, given primate dominance hierarchies, our 200,000-year period of egalitarianism may have been as much a cultural achievement as it was a hard-wired adaptation. However, as ever with arguments slanted towards competition, you've highlighted the social behaviour of only one of our two closest primate cousins: the common chimp. We're equally related to bonobos, which split from common chimps 2 million years ago when the Congo River formed.

    As is well known, bonobos are very friendly and frisky with each other; they are also matriarchal, and hierarchy plays a far lesser role in their society than we find in other primates. Their 'champion', Franz Waal, says he often finds himself having to placate people who get over-enthused about the fluffy bonobos, reminding them "bonobos are not *always* nice to each other". Of course, such distorted expectations exactly mirror the "Noble Savage" myth, which lumps hunter-gatherers with an exaggerated image of peaceability, inevitably inviting debunking - and the forgetting of the importance of the peaceability that *is* there.

    If early humans, the common chimp, and the bonobo all shared a common ancestor, the weight of evidence for the social organization of this ancestor seems to lean towards something more egalitarian than competitive. Omitting the bonobo seems to be a case of cherry-picking. At best, the jury is definitely out on the importance of our genetic heritage in social organization.

    On a simpler and more opinion-based level, it seems to me that the past five years are ample proof that the idea of capitalism curbing its own excesses is as destructively idealistic as any hippie utopia! More grist for the mill of the hyper-rich, unfortunately.

  • Robert Karl Stonjek

    I read down the article expecting Dylan to correct the
    rubbish in the opening paragraphs but it never happened. The idea is that small
    egalitarian bands existed until individuals could accumulate wealth at the onset
    of farming followed by discrimination and the rest.

    Utter rubbish. It was the small egalitarian bands that
    could accumulate wealth in the form of territory, fruiting plants and other
    resources and women. Bands constantly fought against each other both in the
    farming communities (middle eastern tribes are still at each other's throats)
    and in stone age settings untouched into modern times e.g. in New

    What happened at the onset of farming and village life
    is that individuals could also accumulate wealth and not just one or two high
    status individuals in a tribe (leader, respected elders, wise individuals etc)
    and the tribe proper. So there was a shift to the individual and not an
    emergence of wealth as claimed in the article.

    The evidence for tribal wealth and tribal conflict
    (discrimination) is found in pretty well every tribal region ever studied. So
    much for 'egalitarianism'...

    Note that such group rivalry has been found in
    Chimpanzees where the stronger group will attempt over-run and even wipe out
    weaker ones.

    • Gyrus

      I'm not sure what anthropology you're basing your views on, but I suspect it's populist and badly researched, or non-existent.

      I've read a lot recently of what might be broadly (but in the end misleadingly) called the "neo-Hobbesians" (e.g. Steven Pinker, Lawrence Keeley) and the "neo-Rousseauians" (Raymond Kelly, R. Brian Ferguson). Pinker's The Blank Slate is a great book, but his rubbishing of the Noble Savage myth is dubious. He relies a lot on Keeley's War Before Civilization, where Keeley tries to show that pre-state societies are often as violent as state-based societies - and succeeds admirably. The thing is, it's generally only naive lay people who think that the state is the origin of violence per se. When any argument is made for relative peace (and genuine egalitarianism), anthropologists are usually talking about simple hunter-gatherers (as opposed to complex, usually sedentary hunter-gatherers). These are the folk that Dylan is talking about at the start of this piece, and who you're trying to refer to.

      You conflate egalitarianism and peacefulness - there are certain relationships between these axes, but it's misleading to conflate them. All humans are violent, and it's true (as Pinker makes much of) that some surviving simple hunter-gatherers (e.g. the !Kung) evince murder rates rivaling those of modern urban hot-spots. The thing is, a huge murder rate of something like 40 per 100,000 per annum works out, in a band of 150 (a typical traditional !Kung band) to about one murder every 16 years - once a generation. Everyday life is generally friendly and communal and rarely disrupted by fighting. The point is that social scale counts for a lot when we look to the quality of life behind the quantitative data (this particular issue is an exemplar of the old adage that "there are lies, damned lies, and statistics). All this also assumes this !Kung murder rate is unaffected by the incursions of neighbouring pastoralists and farmers, which is a very complex question. Another complex question is whether we can project such data back to similar social structures in deep history. I'm not saying things were obviously even more peaceful back then, I'm saying it's a very complex issue - and one that is more frequently simplified by "neo-Hobbesians" than by "neo-Rousseauians".

      As for egalitarianism, there's no evidence whatsoever of wealth accumulation among simple hunter-gatherers. Your "stone age setting untouched into modern times", New Guinea, was agricultural and socially stratified almost as long as Mesopotamia has been. Ethnographies from there has zero bearing on Palaeolithic existence.

      Towards the end of the Palaeolithic some sedentary hunter-gatherer societies developed, leading to social complexity and increased conflict. But when "simple" hunter-gatherers are referred to (and this is what Dylan's talking about - the form of life we find among the !Kung and throughout most of our species' existence), we're talking about mobile peoples who range over a specific region. They only possess what they can carry, and any social inequality is temporary (i.e. not inherited) and merit-based. That is, people can gain respect - but there's no serious material privileges as a consequence. They are not "tribal", except in casual terms. Tribes, anthropologically, are kinship-based social groupings that are never found among simple hunter-gatherers.

      This is all pretty much dull consensus in anthropology. The onset of agriculture did not instantly lead to wholesale inequality - there were attempts at egalitarian, democratic society right from the start. I mean, who would immediately give up on equality as soon as some chief started hoarding and claiming superiority? But sedentism (even among foragers) and then certainly agriculture facilitated a far greater scope for inequality. Again, dull consensus. Check out the recently published The Creation of Inequality by Keith Flannery and Joyce Marcus.

      What we're dealing with is that fact that large-scale society necessitates certain inequalities. The problem is to not let these inequalities get out of control - and that this effort will never cease to be necessary. The fact that most of our species' existence was egalitarian certainly has a bearing on our present struggle to reign in the obviously absurd inequalities that abound. But any open-minded reading of the literature reveals the whole area - in primatology, archaeology, and anthropology - to be extremely complex. Some well-meaning people simplify things in favour of a rosy image of early humans, but you'll be hard-pressed to find those in contemporary social sciences. In the popular end of academic publishing, however, you'll find many who simplify things in favour of a heavy-handed dismissal of this rosy image - and in support, unwitting or not, for the capitalist system that creates gross inequality and endangers the stability of our world.

      • Rusty Wilson

        The individual has been lost here. Some people are more competitive and possessive than others. Some must win all the time and others don't care. In our capitalist society those who don't compete and accumulate wealth and status are looked upon as losers and even as psychologically ill; this is taken to a social darwinist extreme by blaming the poor and the ill for being poor and, or, ill.

        "Attempts to forge a more equal society will have to contend with our competitive instincts and our innate desire for status". This is another variation on the "human nature" justification for capitalism which rewards competitive instincts and desire for status; if one would rise to a position of power one had better know how to act like a sociopath. Rewarding competition and status seeking would make it seem as though those individuals are only expressing "human nature" but how much of that is pathological especially when it comes at the expense of harming others. Sociopaths lack empathy, enjoy manipulating others and by "having the most decision-making responsibility, have the least stressful lives" doing what comes naturally, making others miserable. We had better find a way to get this under control as capitalism has reached a point where the ever increasing demand for natural resources can only be met by the increasing destruction of the ecology and, probably, the human race; we certainly deserve to become a victim of the sixth mass extinction event we are responsible for.

      • Leo Zhao

        yes, as Gyrus correctly points out, a lot of false conflation going on with Robert Karl Stonjek's post, very popular ones... conflating pre-modern societies with pre-civilized, for one...

  • beachcomber

    "Some scholars argue that hunter-gatherers do not divide the spoils of the hunt equally among the members of the band as if they were practicing some kind of primitive communism. Rather, those who come back empty-handed snatch scraps of meat from the successful hunter without permission. This is a model of human sharing known as ‘tolerated theft’. The theft is tolerated by the successful hunter only because he is too busy stuffing his own face to punish every transgression." Thank you this edifying explanation of the attitudes underlying the current South African (and perhaps other post-revolutionary) government.

    "A plump figure was once the height of fashion, but not today." I dispute this - see above.

    "Left to their own devices, people will find ways to check the most extreme inequalities without eliminating all incentives to work." Really? Ref: Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism ....

    We are still "red in tooth and claw" and will ever be. The only vague hope is that the electronic age shifts the flow of sensitive information (military, religious, political, financial, social) out to the masses in such instantaneous blasts that the hierarchies in these areas understand that they cannot behave as if the masses exist as a means of supporting their often bizarre lifestyles.

  • Melissa

    Your final point seems to be (1) that the socioeconomic system will equalize by the gradual forces of the 'socioeconomic market' and (2) that systems emerging gradually in this way (evolutionarily, as you allude to) are more stable, strong and effective. Egalitarian societies will evolve and stabilize into place, given enough time to sort themselves out.

    This idea makes me nervous. It takes a deceiving picture of socioeconomic history and combines it with a naive understanding of socioeconomic evolution.

    YES, the societies that have stabilized toward egalitarianism have done so gradually. But you cannot forget that this evolution is comprised of a series of decisions, events and policymakings. What, in retrospect, looks like the social systems evolving is actually the product of political and citizen leaders making important decisions. This is exactly what is happening with healthcare reform in the US right now. The Obamacare plan is a step in the evolutionary process of change in our socioeconomic system ... Surely, the healthcare plan will undergo drastic modifications in the upcoming decades, tweakings to certain policies, additions and repeals. In science, we call this process 'pilot testing.' As we work through this pilot testing now -- and in the upcoming years -- progress will feel very directed, like isolated policy events, like social engineering. Years on, however, we'll look back on the policies as having evolved very naturally and organically from the socioeconomic conditions through the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Evolution vs. directed decision making, in the context of socioeconomics, is a distinction of perspective and scope, not of the actual process. My point is: the evolution of social systems is really just the trial-and-error process of social engineering.

    The problem is: believing past progress to be the product of socioeconomic evolution -- and not social engineering as policy making, events, decisions -- removes the burden of leadership. If we concede change to evolution, then no one is tasked with fighting conservative-ism. We don't gravitate towards social change naturally (especially when those with the power to make change easily very much enjoy that power) -- we do indeed need leaders to promote the small steps of social engineering.

  • c_turchick

    Just lots of silly things wrong here, indicating some strong confirmation bias at work. "Our ancestors fought to kill the biggest beast" - Nope, they COOPERATED to kill the biggest beasts, they had to since one guy against an elephant or rhino or hippo is doomed to failure. And in order to have repeated success hunting big game, and making herds of game run off cliffs and so on, they needed to share the spoils equally.

    "In the cultures least exposed to the influence of capitalism, people behave almost as greedily as game theory suggests they should. This does not bode well for the idea that inequality aversion is part of our DNA." Well, are they dividing something neither one particularly needs, money? Would it be the same if they were dividing meat or wool or Llamas? Also, in such societies status does not equal monetary or material wealth as it does in capitalist societies, since very few people have or think they need many material goods. If I have three wives and you have none, your giving me one dollar and keeping nine is not a threat to my status, and thus this ultimatum game says nothing about inequality in humans at all, and never could say anything about genetics and inequality.

    "The discovery that inequality might go deeper in the psyche than egalitarianism tells us nothing, of course, about what kind of society we should strive to create." Blindingly wrong. The more equal, the happier, healthier, more stable, more sane, safer, and so on the nation is. Now, pretty much everyone else agrees that lower crime, lower rates of insane people, lower numbers of crimes and murders, better health and education and more happiness are all things we should change society to obtain if we know how to do so. Properly understood that the vast majority are suffering pointlessly for very little real gain for the wealthiest, I think only the lunatic fringe Libertarians would not be able to figure out what kind of society we should change to.

    "It was only when the first humans started farming, around 10,000 years ago, that it became possible for one person to accumulate many more possessions than another." You have some weird obsession with possessions here; the big inequality was women, not possessions. Men cooperated to defend their women and to take women from other groups. Men shared with each other to keep each other strong and bonded with each other against other groups.

    There are a number of extent examples of how modern societies can be more egalitarian and have smaller gaps between wealthy and poor, it is not the puzzle requiring "million dollar" answers you make it out to be. It is pretty simple, actually. The only question is whether Americans want to needlessly suffer or cause others to, or vote for their own interests instead.

  • Gyrus

    I finally found time to track down your reference to the "ultimatum game" applied to Machiguenga people in Peru. It seemed like an important part of this piece, the punchline as you segue from the evidence for the "naturalness" of egalitarianism to the evidence for the "naturalness" of hierarchies.

    I assume your source is Joseph Henrich's 2000 paper 'Does Culture Matter in Economic Behavior?' (this and other material available on his website). After reading this (and Henrich's 1997 paper on market incorporation among the Machiguenga), the conclusion you draw from it seems less convincing. You said: "In the cultures least exposed to the influence of capitalism, people behave almost as greedily as game theory suggests they should. This does not bode well for the idea that inequality aversion is part of our DNA."

    Firstly, while the Machiguenga are "indigenous", they are hardly the people least exposed to capitalism. Like many Amazonian cultures, they were decimated by the rubber boom around 100 years ago - an event that no doubt set in motion intense transformations of traditional ways of life. In fact, even prior to that, it seems they had no memory of ever making stone tools, since they engaged in exchange relations with highland cultures dating back to the Inca Empire. Over the past 30 years this long history of market incorporation has intensified as they increase their reliance on horticulture and cash crops in order to fuel their desire for consumer goods.

    Henrich's basic point about market incorporation is that some indigenous people actively desire it. He makes no claim to explain this phenomenon. He says his intent "is not to unravel the complex set of reasons why such a large and rising proportion of Machiguenga desire ever-increasing access to Western goods, but seeks only to demonstrate that many Machiguenga are active and eager participants in the commercialization process." Naturally this counters the naive belief that all indigenous people resist this process. But I imagine some people will take Henrich's work as evidence of the supposed desirability of market incorporation. This seems equally naive, and much more dangerous. It seems clear while the situation is very complex, the legacy of devastation by the rubber boom must be taken into account. Further, Henrich shows that the impact of Machiguenga cash cropping and intensified horticulture has often been disastrous in terms of sustainability and social cohesion. Obviously we need to realize that indigenous people are not all-knowing sages - nor are they helpless children. They are human beings. Equally, while many of us realize, through long and bitter experience, that consumer capitalism bears deep problems beneath its surface sheen, these problems are not always obvious to outsiders. I can't say where that leaves us in terms of managing our impact on traditional cultures, but clearly we can't neglect the complex responsibilities that go along with the complex power of the culture we have created.

    This is a slight digression from the "ultimatum game", but it's important scene-setting. The Machiguenga results are, to me, evidence of the pathological impact of the cultural trauma of transition from traditional lifeways to capitalism. Henrich concludes that "cultural transmission can substantially affect economic decisions. If cultural differences do greatly influence economic behavior, then the implicit assumption that all humans share the same economic decision-making processes, the same sense of fairness, and/or the same taste for punishment must be brought into question." The problem I have with the conclusion your draw in this article is that you do not question the "egalitarianism is inherent" perspective, and leave it at that. You swing from that to a "hierarchy is inherent" perspective. But the whole point of Henrich's paper is that cultural factors are crucial. He says in a note to the above point: "This by no means suggests that we cannot generalize about human behavior. Rather, it suggests we need a theory of culture, or of cultural transmission, to do so."

    Part of me wonders how the ultimatum game would play out among genuinely egalitarian foragers. But besides the difficulty of finding such people in today's world, the idea of this experiment in that context seems to question the game itself. The fact that the methodology removes the participants from direct personal contact with each other seems to invalidate the experiment, seeing as this living relationship between people is obviously a prime factor in the maintenance of egalitarianism in premodern societies. This says a lot about the necessity of the messier and more challenging "soft" science of participatory anthropology, the limitations of "hard" scientific methodology, and the latter's affinity with individual atomization in consumer capitalism.

    Both the omission of bonobos and the complexities behind Henrich's work undermine the "inherent hierarchy" argument, and emphasize the importance of our collective, active engagement in creating the kind of culture we want. I appreciate that separating 'is' and 'ought' is part of your argument. But by the end of the piece, a lean towards the "inherent hierarchy" seems to become part of your contention that we "ought" to increase our economic liberalism. Left to their own devices in small groups, people will find ways to check the most extreme inequalities. In mass societies, the most important devices are surely the public institutions designed to represent the collective will. We need to sharpen these devices, and prod the corporate bullies hard enough to move towards a fairer society. Seems to have worked pretty well for Iceland.

    • Christopher Ryan


      You make many excellent points, and obviously know this material very well. You might want to take a look at John Colapinto's excellent piece on the Piraha people, who illuminate some of your thoughts on competitiveness among h/g people. Here's a link to the article:

      • Gyrus

        Thanks, that's a fascinating piece. The bit that struck me as relevant to reading about the "ultimatum game" experiments is where the Piraha refuse to be isolated for tests. The scientific methodology of isolating phenomena from their real-life contexts is obviously inherently limiting. It's interesting at the end when the writer meets Everett's ex-wife, who realized that she had to focus on the complexity of the Piraha woman "singing" - everything about her that manifested in the present moment - to really grasp her communication. We can never isolate the present moment, but that is where the most interesting stuff happens.

  • Ormond Otvos

    Piketty disagrees with you on most points. And he backs his views with serious research. Read up!

  • CrankyFranky

    nature and nurture - yes as social animals we like to play well with others - but at least 1% will always be selfish sociopaths manipulating others for personal gain - call that natural selection/genetic diversity/whatever - result - society evolves - and we learn and change as we go - to adapt to changing circumstances - 2015 is way different to when I was a kid - whoa baby - hang on tight and enjoy the ride !