Injustice, inequality and Evolutionary PsychologyBruce G Charlton MD
Reader in Evolutionary Psychiatry
Department of Psychology
University of Newcastle upon Tyne
Editor-in-Chief, Medical Hypotheses
As biological knowledge of "human nature" continues to grow, political theory and public policy will increasingly need to take account of Evolutionary Psychology in order effectively to pursue its goals. This essay stands as an example. Socio-economic differentials are perceived to be unjust, but the reason for this is not obvious given the ubiquity of stratification. It is suggested that "the injustice of inequality" has an basis in social instincts that evolved to promote co-operation in small-scale, egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies with immediate-return economies. Modern Homo sapiens has been "designed" by natural selection to live in such societies, and has "counter-dominance" instincts that are gratified by equal sharing of resources and an equal distribution of resources. However, there are also phylogenetically older "dominance" social instincts (status-seeking, nepotism, mutual reciprocity) deriving from pre-hominid ancestors, and these tend to create inequality under "modern" conditions of economic surplus. Therefore human instincts and gratifications are intrinsically in conflict under contemporary conditions. The radical implications of this analysis are explored. These include support for a Berlin-esque view of politics as an endemic negotiation of irreducibly plural values; a clarification of the deficiencies of right- and left-wing political theory; and a rationale for politics to concentrate primarily on the "micro-level" psychology of subjective gratification of individuals in their local context, rather than the conventional emphasis upon macro- level policies based on abstract statistical analysis of aggregated population variables.
Injustice, inequality and Evolutionary Psychology
Introduction This paper is intended to provide an explanation for some apparently puzzling observations. Humans evolved in an egalitarian society - a society where resources (principally food) were shared equally: it seems that humans were "designed" to live in egalitarian societies. Yet all modern day economic systems demonstrate a markedly unequal distribution of resources. And, despite universal inequality for hundreds or even thousands of years, political creeds such as socialism still command substantial support for their egalitarian ideals. One might imagine that human experience would by now regard inequality as inevitable, yet apparently humans still do not accept inequality, nor have they fully adjusted to it.
I will argue that these observations are a consequence of universal, evolved "human nature" interacting with different environmental circumstances. Human nature is approached from a biological standpoint - specifically from the viewpoint of Evolutionary Psychology (Barkow et al, 1992). Evolutionary Psychology is a recent activity which brings psychology into the mainstream of biology, focused around the integrated study of "instincts" which are interpreted in cognitive terms as domain-specific, information-processing modules which have evolved to detect relevant stimuli in the external and internal environment and respond with adaptive behaviours (Hirschfield & Gelman, 1994; Charlton, 1995). This modern version of human nature employs conceptual advances from across biology: evolutionary theory, cognitive psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, primatology and other disciplines relevant to human behaviour.
It is likely that politics (and the social sciences) will increasingly need to take account of biology (Barkow et al, 1992). Politics is predicated on conceptions of human nature. That is to say that any judgments or assertions concerning the absolute or relative desirability of a certain arrangement of human affairs contain assumptions about what humans are like and what they want. At the most basic level, politics assumes a great deal of obvious but empirical biological knowledge: that humans are animals rather than plants; mortal with a lifespan of about 100 years; are born as dependent babies and develop over several years as children; are able to use language; feel and inflict pain; be happy and sad and so on. As this knowledge is expanded into the realms of instinct, motivation and gratification, and its implications are made more precise, then the implications for politics and social policy will increase.
If human nature is conceptualized cognitively in terms of domain specific instincts, then the instincts of particular relevance to politics are those concerned with social living. Most animals are solitary, and the capacity to live in social groups depends upon psychological specializations. The nature of social specializations has become clearer over the past few decades; and in what follows I draw particularly upon the ideas of Barkow (1975, 1989, 1992), and of Erdal and Whiten (1994, in press) and build upon my previous work in the area of health inequalities (Charlton, 1996, 1997). This analysis deploys a categorization of social instincts into "dominant" and "counter-dominant" according to whether they tend to promote a hierarchy of power and resources on the one hand, or equal sharing of resources and an egalitarian distribution on the other. These fixed, universal instincts interact with modern economic and social circumstances to produce the various emergent patterns of "macro-level" statistical inequality measured by economists and sociologists and which form the subject matter of policy.
The egalitarian ancestral environmentIt is generally believed that key aspects of the economic and social structure of human "ancestral society" remained roughly constant for approximately two million years of hominid evolution, and through most of the existence of Homo sapiens sapiens from the emergence of the species about 150 000 years ago. Much has been inferred of ancestral societies by employing convergent evidence from archaeology, contemporary anthropological studies, the study of primates, and cognitive psychology; and a reasonably coherent picture has emerged (Lee & DeVore, 1968; Woodburn, 1982; Flanagan, 1989; Brown, 1991; Knauft, 1991; Barkow et al, 1992; Bird-David, 1992; Boehm, 1992; Diamond, 1992; Erdal & Whiten, 1994; Burch & Ellana, 1995; Kelly, 1995; Foley, 1995; Charlton, 1996; Dunbar, 1996: Erdal & Whiten, in the press).
The ancestral society was a nomadic hunter-gatherer "immediate return" economy (Woodburn, 1982) of fluidly-composed extended family "bands" of some twenty-five to forty members, gathered in larger, looser alliances of around one or two hundred members, and "tribal" groups of perhaps one or two thousand people sharing a common language. Such societies operated by collecting food for immediate consumption using tools made as required. There was no surplus of food or material goods, and no storage of accumulated resources.
Ancestral societies were to a high degree egalitarian and without significant or sustained differentials in resources among men of the same age. Equality of outcome in immediate-return economies is achieved by a continual process of redistribution through sharing of resources on a daily basis (Woodburn, 1982) and is enforced by a powerful egalitarian ethos in which participants are "vigilant" in favour of obtaining at least an equal share of food, while making sure that no-one else takes more than themselves (Erdal & Whiten, 1994).
Despite resource equality, status differentials nevertheless exist in simple hunter-gatherer societies (as they do in all human societies), and status differentials are associated with differences in reproductive success. High status men are more attractive to women, have more frequent sex, more sexual partners, younger and healthier partners, and therefore leave more offspring - at least in societies without contraceptive technology (Symons, 1979; Ridley, 1993; Buss, 1994; Potts, 1997). Nonetheless, status differentials tend to be moderate, context-dependent, transitory and down- played in immediate-return societies (Woodburn, 1982) - rather than extreme, rigid, prolonged, public and cross-generational as status differentials may be in the stratified societies of delayed return economies (Barkow, 1975; 1989; Diamond, 1992).
Human psychology was therefore shaped by, and adapted for, an egalitarian social environment where resources were equally shared on a day by day basis (Diamond, 1992; Charlton, 1996).
Dominance instincts and the evolution of equalityIn his typology of human societies, Gellner (1988) remarks on the uniquely egalitarian structure of nomadic, foraging hunter-gatherer societies. Gellner interprets equal distribution largely in "negative" terms, such as the lack of surplus product, the weakness of "coercive" mechanisms for confiscation and defence of this surplus, and so on. Hence equality is seen as a consequence of the impossibility of inequality under the conditions of an immediate return economy. However, this negative view of egalitarian societies being a default state neglects the fact that humans evolved from ape ancestors whose social structure was almost certainly a dominance hierarchy of economic stratification. As an explanation for stratification as a universal feature of "modern", delayed-return economies, Jerome Barkow has suggested a triad of social instincts - status-seeking, nepotism, and mutual reciprocity. When operating upon surplus resources (Barkow, 1992). "Barkow"s triad" of social instincts - or something like them - will lead to unequal distribution of resources. Humans will compete for status, and high status individuals will be able to appropriate and store a greater than equal share of resources. Those differentially favoured with resources will then use these resources differentially to favour their relatives", to build mutually beneficial alliances with other status-peers, and to exchange for the services of allies. Nepotism will mean that such differentials tend to be perpetuated down the generations.
In our living primate relatives such as chimpanzees and gorillas, status differentials lead to corresponding resource differentials with a "dominance hierarchy" of high status males securing a disproportionate share of food, as well as mating opportunities (Barkow, 1975, Barkow, 1989; Byrne, 1995; Kummer, 1995; de Waal, 1996). It is likely that the same applied to our pre-human ancestors.
Egalitarian arrangements are therefore relatively recent in the human evolutionarily lineage, having been operative during the Palaeolithic era during the evolution of the Homo genus (from approximately 2 million to 150 000 years ago) and until the development of delayed-return hunter- gatherer, agrarian or industrial economies from around 12 000 years ago (Knauft, 1991; Erdal & Whiten, in the press). Given the existence of "dominance" instincts, such as Barkow"s triad, there must have been "counter-dominant" instincts that evolved to enable the egalitarian economic structure of Paleolithic foraging nomads. In other words, humans underwent a transition from dominance hierarchies to the egalitarian arrangement of nomadic foraging. This implies that, uniquely among primates, humans have evolved "egalitarian" or "counter-dominance" instincts which were able to balance-out the evolutionarily more ancient behavioral patterns that would otherwise have led to dominance and economic hierarchies (Erdal & Whiten, 1994 and in the press).
The most important of these counter-dominant instincts is sharing - especially sharing of scarce and valued resources such as meat (Cashdan, 1985, de Waal, 1996; Ridley, 1996). Under immediate- return conditions where food is gathered daily for rapid consumption, the outcome of strict sharing is an equal distribution of resources. Another aspect of the egalitarian instinct is that this equal outcome is regarded as acceptable and equitable (Erdal & Whiten, 1994 and in the press). Under delayed-return economic conditions the redistributive effect of egalitarian instincts is overwhelmed by an amplification of the outcomes of other "dominance" instincts, leading to an unequal resource distribution.
Counter-dominance and the "egalitarian" instinctsThe egalitarian instincts for equal sharing and the preference for a uniform resource distribution remain operative since human nature has not had sufficient time to evolve new adaptations over the past twelve thousand or so years since the development of delayed-return economies. This continuing ethos of equal shares presumably underlies the endemic and refractory sense of the injustice of dominance hierarchies which fuels social dissatisfaction concerning economic differentials.
This perception of "the inequity of inequality" (Charlton, 1997) is extremely powerful, even in those affluent societies where access to resources is continually rising across all social groups, or where resource differentials might seem (to the outside observer) to be trivially slight - the perceived injustice appears to be triggered by qualitative differentials rather than any specific threshold of magnitude. The egalitarian instinct leads to sustained peer pressure towards redistribution at the micro-social level of inter-personal relations; and finds its abstract expression at the macro-level through a wide range of "leveling" and left-wing political movements such as communism, socialism, anarchism etc.
There are various theories as to why egalitarian societies evolved, and for the nature of the reproductive advantage egalitarian instincts offer. The answer is probably linked to the benefits of cooperation. Cooperation - once established - carries great social advantages stemming from the ability to specialize and to pool efforts (Ridley, 1996). The tougher question is how cooperation arose initially, in particular how cooperation benefited those with low status and differentially- lowered reproductive opportunities. A further key question concerns the mechanisms by which cooperation was maintained against the constant tendency for natural selection acting upon individuals to creative "parasitic", exploitative behaviours (cheating, stealing etc.) which would subvert cooperation (Barkow et al, 1992; Ridley, 1996).
One plausible hypothesis is that equal sharing is enforced upon high status individuals by spontaneously-arising counter-dominant coalitions of lower status individuals (Boehm, 1991; Erdal & Whiten, 1994). Sharing may be a way of encouraging co-operation and preventing conflict (Franks, 1988); it would compensate low status males for their reduced access to females of high reproductive potential and can be seen as a way of "buying off" potentially hostile rivals who might otherwise refuse to cooperate or take hostile action.
The nature of counter-dominant instincts: equal sharing and equal distribution "Counter-dominant" instincts (Erdal and Whiten, 1994 and in the press) operate in two ways: firstly to enforce equal sharing of resources, and secondly to be satisfied with an equal distribution of resources. In support of this idea, primatologists such as Byrne (1995), Kummer (1995) and De Waal (1996) have traced the evolutionary history of food sharing (and of other counter-dominant - and proto-moral - behaviours) through monkeys and apes to reach the highest (non-human) intensity and sophistication among the chimpanzees.
Egalitarian human societies are therefore not without their social conflicts: their harmony is of the nature of a dynamic equilibrium between dominance and counter-dominance, both of which sets of instincts continue to operate, the equilibrium between which can be altered by a change of circumstance. In all human societies, even in egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies, the persistence of dominance instincts leads to recurrent attempts by high status individuals to dominate, take more than an equal share of resources, or hoard (Knauft, 1991; Erdal & Whiten, in the press). However, in immediate-return economies attempts by high status individuals to breach the egalitarian distribution and attain coercive power will readily be detected, and can be met by counter-dominant community alliances of lower status individuals (Woodburn, 1982; Boehm, 1993).
Counter-dominant alliances may employ a wide range of tactics for mobilizing concerted opposition from the rest of the community in such forms as public complaint, ridicule, threat, ignoring the would-be dominant individual"s orders, or actual group violence against dominant individuals. Homicide is not uncommon (and difficult to prevent) in hunter-gatherer societies. Other alternatives include expulsion of recalcitrant individuals, or mass emigration to another band to escape domination.
Such strategies are possible due to the lack of sustained power differentials underwritten by resource differentials - in immediate-return economies no one person can become so powerful as to be immune to counter-dominant strategies. But when - as in delayed-return economies - high status individuals can appropriate a greater than equal share of resources, they are able to sustain this inequality by building alliances among high status individuals; and by enlisting supporters (eg. a "gang" or "bodyguard") to create larger and more powerful alliances, trading the stored resources as payment for cooperation (Barkow, 1992; Gellner, 1988).
Implications for political theory: dominance = right-wing; counter-dominance = left-wingIt is striking that the division between "dominance" and "counter-dominance" instincts so closely parallels the political divisions between right-wing and left-wing, reactionary and radical, conservative and socialist.
The political right have tended to emphasize a set of values much along the lines of Barkow"s triad: the essential reality of competition (ie. striving for status), the importance of the family as a natural source of values and social coherence ("nepotism"), and the effectiveness of reciprocity as a principle of distribution (eg. the trading of goods and services to mutual benefit). By contrast the political left has seen these conservative virtues as vices: and promoted an ethic that is anti- competitive, favors general obligations over family ties, and a distributive scheme based upon need rather than mutual benefit. And, of course, the core of socialism is the egalitarian instinct; the sense that fair shares are equal shares and the only just distribution is an equal distribution. Conservatism has, by comparison, tended to see this demand for "social justice" as springing from resentment: envy masquerading in the guise of altruism.
By this analysis, each side of the political spectrum has grasped some part of the truth about human nature in relation to the social instincts. However, both also deny the fundamental nature of those elements of human nature which conflict with their overall moral scheme. For example, socialism regards competitiveness as a contingent product of social conditioning that would be eliminated by a just form of social organization; conservatives denigrate the egalitarian impulse either as a personality defect which should not be indulged - or else as the by-product of an unsatisfied appetite for goods which will be gratified by increased social productivity.
Interestingly, the common conservative idea that the right-wing vision of human nature embodies "deeper" and more "fundamental" instincts than does socialism turns-out to be in line with the time sequence suggested by evolutionary psychology. Dominance is indeed phylogenetically older than counter-dominance, and these instincts are more powerful in delayed-return economies. But then the socialist idea that the left-wing egalitarian ethic of equal shares for all is a more "advanced" moral imperative than conservatism is also supported by its having been more recently evolved and its overlying and neutralizing of the dominance instincts under appropriate economic conditions. It is striking that evolutionary psychology supports a view of modern politics that is closely analogous to that epitomized by the work of Isaiah Berlin (1969). Berlin"s vision of politics sees it as the continual attempt to accommodate the irreducible plurality of moral values (eg. justice and freedom) that are at the same time intractable and intrinsically opposed. Similarly, the conflict between dominance and counter-dominance instincts - at least under modern, delayed economy conditions - seems to be both intractable and intrinsic. There is no intrinsically harmonious or indefinitely stable "solution" to this endemic problem; and any attempt to privilege instincts in a one sided fashion, and to deny the other instincts any form of gratification, is likely to lead to powerful reaction.
Consequences for political and social reformNonetheless, it is uncertain whether these egalitarian instincts can be fully satisfied in a delayed- return economy. There are no examples of egalitarian, delayed-return economies (Gellner, 1988) and inequality seems to be indefinitely sustainable - presumably because the injustice of social stratification operates most powerfully on the least powerful people. An equal distribution of resources is naturally generated by counter-dominance mechanisms in an immediate-return economy. But the "dominance instincts" (such as Barkow"s triad) appear to operate more powerfully in delayed-return economies; and these would need to be overcome in order to enforce equality. For example, in principle an egalitarian system of distribution in a modern industrial state might be imagined whereby competition for status was suppressed, nepotism outlawed and reciprocity prohibited. But whether such an arrangement is either create-able or sustainable is doubtful. The thwarting of dominance instincts would substitute a new set of perceived injustices for the inequity of inequality. Furthermore, the creation of the redistributive "bureaucracy" necessary to implement counter-dominant redistributive policies, would itself create a dominance hierarchy whereby power and status were concentrated in the bureaucracy. The perceived injustices of the system (consequent upon the thwarting of dominance instincts) would then be greatest for the most powerful members of the population, and it seems implausible that their continued altruism in implementing equal sharing could be depended upon.
This is one of the major problems with policy goals such as "the state" equalizing income through confiscatory and redistributive taxation, originally proposed by Fabian socialists such as Bernard Shaw (1928). The "end" of equality may in itself be gratifying to the counter-dominant instincts, but this "means" of attaining equality by creating a powerful state to enforce sharing would surely prove unworkable. The hope was that the ruling bureaucracy could be "re-educated" so that they would voluntarily forgo the opportunities to distort the equal distribution system in their own favour. But forms of social organization that depend upon permanently and totally thwarting the fundamental dominance instincts of the most powerful members of society are not likely to prove practicable or enduring (Barkow, 1989; Wright, 1994).
Another possibility, which can only be hinted at here, is that unhooking the gratification of instincts from the original circumstances in which they evolved opens human society to the kind of "unnatural" harmony envisaged and explored by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932) - a society in which technologies of gratification (eg. drugs, and other direct stimulants, tranquilizers and euphoriants) have substituted for those realities of social and sexual gratification which are denied by the nature of the social life. Hence an otherwise unsustainable form of organization is made possible. It is at least plausible that artificial gratification may be an inadvertent consequence of the contemporary media culture combined with advances in psycho-pharmacology (Postman, 1985; Barkow, 1992; Diamond, 1993).
The prospects for equalityIt is reasonable for policy makers to be concerned by questions of equality, not because such concern is the core of a political creed, but because a concern for equality (of the kind outlined above) is an aspect of human nature: universal, inevitable, continuously operative. But - for it to make a positive difference to human satisfaction - the quality of this concern should take a form very different from the large scale analyses and plans typical of conventional socialism.
It is often assumed by social democrats that an amelioration of inequalities short of complete equality of sharing and outcome would suffice to increase social justice, and satisfy the endemic egalitarian aspirations. So, social democrats accept that inequality is inevitable (or even desirable) in modern society, but may passionately believe that current levels of inequality are excessive, that their magnitude ought to be reduced, and that such reduction would effect a qualitative transformation in equity and increase the sum of human gratification.
However, it seems likely that the instinct for perceived inequality is an a qualitative absolute, all-or-nothing state. The perception of injustice is based on direct experience of inequality, not abstract ideology and statistics. So far as instinct is concerned, fair shares are equal shares: anything other than parity is perceived as unjust. ("Equal" shares being defined in this context as qualitatively equal to human regard; such that any residual difference is considered insignificant.) Certainly, there is no reason why perceived inequity would be mathematically associated with the measured quantity of inequality; and all experience speaks against such a relation. Egalitarian instincts have their evolved role and basis in ancestral tribal societies which were small scale, with a large amount of personal surveillance and interaction. The process of sharing was public, the result of distribution could not be concealed, and the consumption of resources was directly observed. This corresponds to the observation that even slight differentials between social peers tend to provoke social sanctions, while statistically-measured differentials of vastly greater magnitude at the national or international level usually fail to provoke counter-dominant strategies (Barkow, 1989).
If resource differentials are indeed a reliable consequence of a delayed-return, surplus economy, then inequality might be regarded as an endemic injustice which cannot be eradicated but must nevertheless be negotiated (see Berlin, 1969; with reference to "freedom" and "justice") . Reducing the magnitude of differentials will not have any necessary or direct effect on perceived inequity; the inequity of inequality therefore requires containment, compensation and compromise at the "capillary" social level - the family, the workplace and the community. The "currency" of such brokerage is explanation, persuasion and bargaining; and negotiations need to be based upon satisfying subjective experiences of wealth and health, rather than the kind of objective and aggregated measurements generated by economics and epidemiology.
Barkow has remarked that human self-esteem is essential for happiness - but that the human capacity for cognitive distortion, the abstract, symbolic nature of cultural values, and the segmented nature of social organization with multiple hierarchical systems of economic and associational life mean (perhaps fortunately) that self-esteem can be more widespread than the existence of society- wide stratification might imply (Barkow, 1975 & 1989). Satisfying the counter-dominant instincts requires either egalitarian arrangements or, as second best, the phenomenon of encapsulation (Barkow, 1989). Encapsulation operates when people in different social groups perceive themselves to be qualitatively different, hence not comparable - as when a peasant considers a king to be almost a different species, and so does not resent his greater power and wealth. Stable societies in the past have often combined step-like inequality, stratification of classes or castes, with egalitarianism within strata.
Given the implausibility of creating across-the-board equality in a mass industrial civilization, perhaps the most realistic prospect for a more "just and happy" society is an arrangement where there is an encapsulated hierarchy of resources with egalitarian arrangements among immediate acquaintances, and differentials confined to a more abstractly reported level. In other words: local equality; remote inequality.
ConclusionAs biological knowledge of "human nature" continues to accumulate and to increase in precision, political theory will need to take account of it in order to determine which aspects of human behaviour are universal and must be "worked around", and which aspects are contingent and potentially malleable. On this basis, the instinct for "the injustice of inequality" should count as a universal, but essentially a "micro" issue; a matter of individual psychology and close personal relationships. However, it is "abstract" inequality at the macro-scale - the statistics of inequality constructed from the objectively measured group data of economics and sociology - that is commonly reported and debated by politicians, the media and academic researchers. This is a mistake: it cannot be assumed that these averaged variables are a reflection of subjective human experience.
Where egalitarian arrangements have actually occurred in a sustained fashion in human affairs equality has not been imposed from above but enforced from below by micro-social forces generated in circumstances of small-scale, stable social interactions where power was evenly dispersed. Under these conditions, effective counter-dominant alliances will form spontaneously to enforce equal sharing, and these groupings can impose their will on high status community members. By contrast, abstract inequality in the form of statistical reports may arouse ideological disapproval, and even political reform or revolution - but does not provoke effective remedial action.
If the intention of reform is to enhance human gratification, then macro-action ought to be framed towards increasing the egalitarian nature of appropriate micro-environments in which the egalitarian instincts can best be gratified. Macro-scale action (such as political revolution, change of government, legal or fiscal reform) undertaken to adjust the statistical reifications of abstract inequality in the interests of "social justice" conceived at the level of nations is missing the point, hence failing to tackle the problem. Policies to reduce the perceived injustice of health differentials need to provide a framework for micro-level, personal relationships such that counter-dominant instincts can operate spontaneously to enforce equality. In other words, attention should be directed at addressing subjective experiences of inequity, and creating the structures to allow the emergence of counter- dominance alliances to enforce sharing - rather than creating bureaucratic structures for adjusting objective, statistical measurements of inequality.
The interactions between human nature and justice are complex, and their scientific understanding remains importantly incomplete. Yet it would be foolish to ignore what is known. Contemporary humans are attempting to "hijack" instinctive psychological equipment that is designed to maximize reproduction in an ancestral, hunter-gatherer society; and instead deploy these instincts in maximizing health and happiness under modern conditions. The scope for success is necessarily partial, there will always be a mismatch between the basic "design" of humans and the novel functions and roles we wish to perform; nonetheless, the best results are likely to come from acknowledging the strengths and limitations of human psychology, and from trying to frame social and political policy that cuts with the grain of evolved instincts rather than ignoring human nature or deliberately thwarting it.
Acknowledgment - Thanks are due to George Davey Smith and Doug Carroll for stimulating this paper by commissioning a contribution on the related topic of socio-economic health variations for a special issue of Journal of Health Psychology (1997, Volume 2): the present paper draws substantially upon the reading, thinking and writing I did for that volume.
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Postscript on Equality and PoliticsBruce G Charlton - 2000
Bruce G Charlton MD
Politics and psychiatryOne of the most significant ways in which modern society differs from the nomadic foraging societies in which humans first evolved relates to political equality. Power and status form key aspects of the human condition - they are, I suggest, the basis of 'politics'. And the distribution of power, especially, within a society is a critical element in psychiatry; since the social and personal consequences of any social policy relating to psychiatry will depend upon the relative power of the people involved.
All modern day economic systems demonstrate a markedly unequal distribution of resources. And, despite universal inequality for hundreds or even thousands of years, political creeds such as socialism still command substantial support for their egalitarian ideals. One might imagine that human experience would by now regard inequality as inevitable, yet apparently humans still do not accept economic inequality, nor have they fully adjusted to it. Yet humans evolved in an egalitarian society - a society where resources (principally food) were shared equally: it seems that humans were 'designed' to live in egalitarian societies.
The egalitarian ethosAncestral societies human societies are generally assumed to have been, to a high degree, politically and economically egalitarian. Economic equality probably did not apply between the sexes, or between children and adults; but with these differences all known immediate return societies are without significant or sustained differentials in resources (mainly food, especially meat) among men of similar age. In other words there is no class or caste system, no hereditary slave community.
If ancestral societies resembled contemporary immediate return societies (such as the King San bushmen, the Hazda, or the Ache hunters) equality of resources is achieved by a continual process of redistribution through sharing of valued resources on a daily basis. This sharing-out is enforced by a powerful egalitarian ethos in which participants are 'vigilant' in favour of obtaining at least an equal share of food, while making sure that no-one else takes more than themselves.
Equality is not aimed-at directly, so much as being the only stable and sustainable outcome under immediate return conditions. Equal shares is the least objectionable form of distribution, the one which minimizes dissent in a society in which the differentials of power are small. However, equal distribution does not eliminate dissatisfaction. Each participant would, of course, prefer to have more than an equal share for themselves, but would resist others getting more than an equal share at their expense.
For example, if four men bring meat from a hunt, any man who takes more than a quarter will leave less to be shared by the other three. Appropriating a scarce and valued resource is not only a manifestation of dominance, but a way of sustaining and amplifying dominance - by using the scarce resource to 'pay' others for cooperating, as when meat is exchanged for sexual access in chimpanzees. Any individual taking more than an equal share, and asserting dominance, immediately creates a majority who will have their status reduced - since status is a positional good any increased status must be paid for by reduced prestige of others. Each member of the majority will therefore have a direct interest in preventing any individual from attaining a greater share than they themselves have. Any hunter who takes more than a quarter of the kill will (all else being equal) create a majority of three other hunters with less than a quarter each.
Status and resourcesStatus is different from resources; and equal shares in resources are compatible with differentials in status. Status is the prestige or respect granted to a person by other people. Status differentials exist in simple hunter-gatherer societies (as in all human societies) despite equality of resources.
Status is of great evolutionary importance since differentials in status are associated with differentials in reproductive success - especially in men, where status is the single most important determinant of sexual attractiveness. High status men are rated as more attractive by women, have more frequent sex, more sexual partners, younger and healthier sexual partners, and consequently high status men leave more offspring on average - at least in societies without contraceptive technology sufficient to break the link between copulation and conception.
Hence natural selection has ensured that there is a fundamental disposition for healthy individuals to seek to maximize status. This status-seeking is seen among all animals who live in dominance hierarchies - although the ways in which status is pursued may be indirect and long-term. Any animals who are not driven to seek status would tend to leave fewer descendants; so that any genes associated with a tendency for an animal to be contented with low status and be indifferent to their social ranking would tend to be eliminated from the gene pool.
Status differentials in immediate-return hunter-gatherer societies tend to be moderate, context-dependent, transitory and down-played. By contrast, status differentials in delayed-return agrarian and industrial-mercantile societies are more extreme, rigid, prolonged, public and cross-generational. The relationship between resource distribution and status seems straightforward - status differentials tend to be amplified and stabilized by the existence of resource differentials.
Status is a form of power which assists an individual in getting what they want; and resources are also a form of power, which compounds with status differentials. In consequence, in delayed return societies resource differentials are very substantially correlated with status - the wealthiest are also the most powerful and prestigious (chiefs, kings and emperors), while the poorest are also the weakest and least prestigious (especially when prestige is measured in terms of sexual attractiveness and reproductive success).
Dominance instincts and the evolution of equalityUnder immediate-return economic conditions it seems that human psychology leads to a substantially egalitarian distribution of resources - essentially resources are equally shared on a day by day basis. But this egalitarian organization requires explanation, given that the evolutionary roots of Homo sapiens lie in great ape ancestors, such as the common chimpanzee, who lived in straightforward dominance hierarchies. A dominance hierarchy is one in which the high status individuals who have access to a larger than equal share of sexual activity also get a larger than equal share of desired resources such as food. In other words, in a dominance hierarchy prestige and power go together and reinforce one another. Modern humans live in a dominance hierarchy.
Some commentators, such as Gellner, have interpreted the equal distribution found in immediate-return societies largely in 'negative' terms - such as the lack of surplus product, the technological inadequacies of food storage, the weakness of 'coercive' policing mechanisms for confiscation and defence of this surplus, and so on. Hence equality is seen as a consequence of the impossibility of inequality under the conditions of an immediate return economy. Egalitarian societies are seen as being a default state.
This argument contains important elements of truth, but neglects the fact that humans evolutionary ancestors inhabit societies characterized by economic stratification. Most of human's living primate relatives such as baboons, gorillas and chimpanzees, have dominance hierarchies, in which status differentials correspond to resource differentials. Power and resources go together, such that high status males secure a disproportionate share of food as well as mating opportunities. It is likely that the same political and economic hierarchy applied to pre-human ancestors; and that egalitarian arrangements were a relatively recent evolutionary development - probably occurring during the Pleistocene era during the evolution of the Homo genus (from approximately 2 million to 150 000 years ago) and until the development of delayed-return hunter-gatherer, agrarian or industrial economies from around 15 000 years ago.
The negative argument also fails to take into account the status-seeking drive of modern humans; and the tendency of high status individuals to dominate - given the opportunity. The implication is that for an egalitarian society to arise and continue requires counter-dominance to combat the instinct for dominance - especially among high status individuals.
Counter-dominanceIf egalitarian economics are 'natural' to humans (at least under immediate return conditions), and if these egalitarian arrangements are recently evolved, then this raises the fascinating question of what evolved? To be more exact, what are the psychological adaptations that originated and supported the kind of equal-sharing societies that anthropologists have observed among contemporary nomadic foragers, and which palaeo-archaeologists have confirmed as being the probable economic pattern of hominid ancestors and Pleistocene humans.
Given that dominance hierarchies were operative among human ancestors there must have been a capacity for what has been termed 'counter-dominant' behavior to prevent or counteract the development of hierarchies and create enable the egalitarian economic structure of foraging nomads. In other words, human ancestors apparently underwent a transition from living in dominance hierarchies to the egalitarian arrangements typical of nomadic foraging.
It has been suggested that, uniquely among primates, humans have evolved 'egalitarian' or 'counter-dominance' instincts which were able to balance-out the evolutionarily more ancient behavioral patterns that would otherwise have led to dominance and economic hierarchies. For example, anthropologists describe a powerfully egalitarian public ethos in immediate return economies where communities are alert to aggrandizement of individuals. Departures from equality of status in the form of arrogance, boasting and attempts at dominance are frequently met by concerted community action in the form of ignoring, ridicule and resistance.
Probably the most important of these counter-dominant behaviors is sharing - especially sharing of scarce and valued resources such as meat. Proto-sharing - in the form of 'tolerated' begging or theft - is found in chimpanzees. Meat is a valued food, which it is gratifying to consume, which can be used to build alliances and buy sex, and the supply of which is usually limited relative to demand. Under such circumstances the taking of a greater than equal share by any individual would signal dominance requiring justification, since it would disadvantage other members of the society.
Equal sharing - by this account - is a device to minimize envy - it is a dynamic equilibrium at which no individual can point to anyone else and say 'but he's got more than me'. Any change from this point will create more envy than it removes; and envy - as we all know - can be a powerful spur to hostile action.
Alliance formation and sharing in chimpanzeesHow should we regard the existence of proto-sharing or tolerated-begging of meat in chimpanzees? Essentially there are two possible mechanisms - either the dominant chimp is doing it from generosity, despite the fact that this diminishes his power; or the sharing is enforced upon the dominant chimp by the subordinate chimps. I would favour the latter explanation. How, then, could sharing be enforced upon the dominant chimp? Since power in chimpanzee society is largely a matter of alliances, the implication is that sharing in chimpanzees occurs because chimpanzees are more capable of forming alliances than, say, baboons which do not share meat.
Alliances are the main source of power in chimpanzees and humans. In the common chimpanzee the strongest male is not necessarily the alpha male - the alpha male is usually a socially 'intelligent' male that can secure the support of another 'lieutenant', and the consent of most other members of the troop. With this backing he can defeat even a more physically powerful opponent. The larger the alliance, the more power, and there are more low status individuals than there are alpha males - but under the ecological and social conditions of wild common chimpanzees the largest alliances possible seem to be only pairs of males.
Alliance formation depends upon familiarity over time, so that stable groups with a high frequency of social interaction are able to generate larger and more powerful alliances - so long as sufficient cognitive capacity exists to support the necessary learning. In the wild, females of the common chimpanzee species do not form alliances (although males do). But in zoos, where the groups of females tend to be more stable, the common chimpanzees will sometimes form female alliances to counteract male aggression to some extent, and to influence the choice of the alpha male.
And in bonobo chimpanzees which live in larger and more stable groups than common chimpanzees, and in which the females participate in frequent 'lesbian' sexual interaction; genetically unrelated females form large and powerful alliances which are counter-dominant to males. These female alliances largely prevent male violence, such as the infanticide, coercive sex and 'homicidal' raiding parties which are found among male common chimpanzees. Although females cannot match males for strength in one-to-one personal encounters, the cooperative network of females can defeat any individual male who attempts to dominate females (male bonobos do not form alliances in the manner of male common chimpanzees).
It seems probable that the capacity to form alliances could be the primary mechanism of counter-dominance. The urge to resist domination is presumably found in all primates, since it is disadvantageous to be dominated. But the ability to resist domination depends upon the ability to form alliances. Without alliances the strongest individual will dominate, since they can defeat any other individual in a one-to-one encounter. Only an alliance of weaker individuals can defeat the strongest individual.
Pre-requisites of counter-dominant alliances. In order for an egalitarian society to be sustainable, counter-dominant alliances must therefore be large enough to combat the tendency for high status individuals to compound their status with resources hence power. To form alliances requires three ingredients. The first is cognitive capacity.
It is clear that alliance formation in primates requires considerable cognitive support. Indeed, it has been argued by Dunbar that increasing group size was the primary correlate of increasing brain size in human evolution. In other words, he suggests that the main reason why the pre-frontal lobe underwent such as rapid evolutionary expansion, was to enable human ancestors to operate in progressively larger groups. In particular, cortical expansion seems to be required to enable the development of 'reciprocity' as a means of cooperation. The kind of psychological modeling needed to build up groups of mutual assistance among genetically unrelated (or distantly related) individuals for mutual benefit seems to require considerable computational sophistication.
This is where the somatic marker mechanism as the neurological substrate of consciousness comes in. The SMM provides the mechanism by which human ancestors were able to model social interactions, so that social identities could be combined with emotional information. The SMM provides a means whereby an animal could keep track of past interactions and exchanges, and predict the outcome of future exchanges - not by any kind of mathematical tally of costs and benefits, but by emotional 'markers' indicative of attributes such as dispositions, intentions and motivations. So that one individual might be cognitively 'marked' as probably trustworthy and generative of gratifying emotions, the favour done for another individual would lead to a characteristic sense of an obligation due, and so on - the recollection to working memory of each member of the social group leading to the enactment of a characteristic set of emotions that tailor behavior adaptively to the 'personality' of each individual in the troop.
So, something like the SMM is necessary to alliance formation in primates, and the capacity of working memory probably acts as a constraint upon the size of the alliance - only in animals with expanded pre-frontal cortices (hence expanded working memory) is there the ability to perform the complex computations necessary to cooperate with non-relatives.
And increasing the size of the group probably expands the computational requirements in an exponential fashion, since the number of possible interactions in a group increases with the square of the number of members in the group. The exponentially expanding demands of this computational load are probably what drove the large scale and rapid expansion of prefrontal cortex in hominid ancestors.
So there is a limit on the size of cooperative groups that is set by the capacity of working memory. Male common chimpanzees can apparently only cooperate in pairs, so that a single male cannot usually dominate and a pair of males is required. Nevertheless, one pair of chimps can dominate all the other males, at least for substantial periods of time. But human males can cooperate with larger numbers of other males, in principle with all the other males in the band, hence they are able to prevent the emergence of any dominant individual or even a dominant pair.
Therefore, it is suggested that human counter-dominance is based upon the cognitive capacity of humans to cooperate in large groups to mutual reciprocal advantage. My suggestion is that the ability to cooperate to resist domination is not a primary adaptation in its own right, but a by-product of increased social intelligence. All low status apes would resist domination if they were 'intelligent' enough, if they had sufficient computational ability in their working memory; but only humans have the cognitive capacity effectively to do this.
However, the ability of low status humans to enforce egalitarian distribution of resources is only effective under certain forms of social organization.
Contemporary politicsThe distribution of divisible, scarce and valued economic resources tends to reflect the distribution of 'political' power in a society. So long as the will of the majority dominates, then equal distribution will tend to be the norm, and departures form this will need to be justified. But if power is concentrated, then a greater share will routinely be claimed and justified by those with power. By this account, sharing is seen as something enforced by the community on the individual, and the degree of inequality I resources is a measure of the degree of inequality in power.
This perception that inequality is unjust is extremely common, and expresses itself in envy and the desire to 'pull everybody else down to my level', as well as the more high political programs of anarchism, socialism and the like. My hunch is that it is less the material inequality that troubles people than it is their hatred of being dominated. As I said before, nobody likes to be low status, and the high status of others is a real direct threat to our own status.
In other words, it the power of others that people most fear. Even in those affluent societies where access to resources is continually rising across all social groups, or where resource differentials might seem (to the outside observer) to be trivially slight - a sense of perceived injustice appears to be triggered by any qualitative differentials rather than any specific threshold of magnitude of inequality - as if people realized the tendency for inequalities to be self-amplifying and self-perpetuating unless opposed by counter-dominant alliances.
Where egalitarian arrangements have actually occurred in a sustained fashion in human affairs equality has not been imposed from above but enforced from below by micro-social forces generated in circumstances of small-scale, stable social interactions where power was evenly dispersed. Under these conditions, effective counter-dominant alliances will form spontaneously (because they advantage the participants) to enforce equal sharing, and these counter-dominant groupings can impose their will on high status community members. By contrast, abstract inequality in the form of statistical reports may arouse ideological disapproval, and even political reform or revolution - but does not provoke effective remedial action.
Because people find domination psychologically aversive, low status individuals will tend to self-organize and exert sustained 'peer pressure' towards redistribution at the micro-social level of inter-personal relations. The same instinct is, I suggest, operative at the macro-level through a wide range of 'levelling' and left-wing political movements.
Social organization and counter-dominanceCooperation is what enables counter-dominance, and equality is the consequence of the ability to cooperate. Modern humans in 'stratified' societies are psychologically identical with the humans that lived in egalitarian nomadic foraging societies. This implies that it is the difference in social arrangements which explains the difference in distribution of resources. Different social arrangements between cultures may result in entirely different distributive outcomes because they change the balance of counter-dominance with dominance.
Specifically, it is the difference between an immediate return economy and a delayed return economy that makes the crucial difference. The forces toward inequality in an immediate are present, but weak. When there is storage of food and other resources in a sedentary, agrarian economy, power differentials arise and are sustained such that the forces for inequality are stronger, and will (to a greater or lesser extent) overwhelm the forces of counter-dominance.
Egalitarian human societies are not without their social conflicts: their harmony is of the nature of a dynamic equilibrium between the dominance of the minority of high status individuals and the counter-dominance of the rest of the community, the equilibrium between which can be altered by a change of circumstance. In all known human societies, even in egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies, there are recurrent attempts by high status individuals to dominate, take more than an equal share of resources, or hoard. However, in tribal, face-to-face, immediate-return economies; any attempts by high status individuals to breach the egalitarian distribution and attain coercive power will readily be detected, and can be met by alliances of lower status individuals.
Counter-dominant alliances may employ a wide range of tactics for mobilizing concerted opposition from the rest of the community in such forms as public complaint, ridicule, threat, ignoring the would-be dominant individual's orders, or actual group violence against dominant individuals. Homicide is not uncommon (and difficult to prevent) in hunter-gatherer societies. Other alternatives include expulsion of recalcitrant individuals, or mass emigration to another band to escape domination.
Such strategies are possible due to the lack of sustained power differentials underwritten by resource differentials - in immediate-return economies no one person can become so powerful as to be immune to counter-dominant strategies. But when - as in delayed-return economies - high status individuals can appropriate a greater than equal share of resources, they may be able to sustain this inequality by enlisting and paying supporters (eg. a 'gang' or 'bodyguard') from among lower status individuals to create larger and more powerful alliances, trading the stored resources for cooperation. The gang can then appropriate more than an equal share of resources, and the process may become self-sustaining.
Prospects for equalityThe social pre-requisites of equality are becoming better understood. Counter-dominant alliances depend upon building up networks of mutual assistance or 'reciprocity'. Reciprocity seems to require sustained and repeated interactions so that people can observe each other, gather 'intelligence' from others, and test out each others' trustworthiness over a period of time - gradually building-up exchanges of favours and mutual assistance.
Egalitarian instincts have their evolved role and basis in ancestral tribal societies which were small scale, with a large amount of personal surveillance and interaction. The process of sharing was public, the result of distribution could not be concealed, and the consumption of resources was directly observed. This corresponds to the observation that even slight differentials between social peers tend to provoke social sanctions, while statistically-measured differentials of vastly greater magnitude at the national or international level usually fail to provoke counter-dominant strategies.
But in contemporary 'Western' social systems the opportunity for such interactions is increasingly lacking - social groups are too fluid, social interactions between specific individuals are too few. In so far as current trends in the United Kingdom go, counter-dominant alliances (such as trades unions, or any other organization of low status individuals) seem to be getting progressively weaker; and this is probably a reflection of the increased atomization of society. People move houses more often, move around the country, move between jobs, engage in fewer social activities and more solitary entertainment. Likewise, direct observation of resource differentials is less common.
Since counter-dominance is based upon general mechanisms of social modelling, it is imited by the mode of action of the SMM. This means that the more complicated the modelling, the less valid or accurate its predictions will be. In a complex society, it is more likely that different individuals will reach different conclusions about what is the best course of enlightened self-interest. Under contemporary political conditions in non-face-to-face societies, causes and consequences are so remote and so multifarious that our social reasoning mechanisms cannot cope. While people can still tell whether or not they are being dominated in the here-and-now by actual individuals, the same people do not always know where their self-interest lies in relation to political policies, and are highly vulnerable to propaganda - especially in relation to long term and remote events, people and policies that cannot be checked by direct experience.
Males and femalesOther mechanisms of cooperation must also be considered, for example kin selection. This is cooperation based upon genetic relatedness, and the principle that any genetic modification which causes me to assist the reproduction of genetic relatives is a candidate for being amplified by natural selection. In other words, genes which have behavioral effects that promote copies of themselves in other organisms, are the genes that are likely to spread. Many primates such as the human have a social group based-upon genetically related males. Under most social conditions, female cooperation based upon reciprocity weaker than male cooperation based upon genetic relatedness; with the result that males have historically dominated most forms of human society.
In other words, domination of females by males depends upon the greater power of cooperation between genetically-related males, as well as upon the greater physical strength of males. The pattern is seen in many other primates, and the exception proves the rule - in bonobos the ability of females to resist male domination is dependent upon large scale mutual assistance among females, and this depend upon sustained and intense social interaction.
Women no more like being dominated than do low status men - but without the conditions for counter dominance there isn't much that women can do about it - especially since they are (usually) physically weaker and more averse to physical risk than men. In many societies women are socially isolated and unable to build up mutual assistance groups of sufficient size and power to resist domination. The implication is that if women are to improve their position relative to men then this depends upon stable and highly interactive forms of female social organization - and insofar as these are absent or diminishing, the position of women relative to men is likely to decline.
If women's solidarity were to become real and powerful, it would require long term and interactive social structures. On the positive side is the fact that women are good at building alliances based-upon reciprocity and exchange of favours - better than men. If the resources and effort put into such futile exercises as the mass mutual exchange of Christmas cards could be channeled into counter-dominance, who knows what might happen…
ReformIf the intention of reform is to enhance human gratification, then macro-level political action ought to be framed towards increasing the egalitarian nature of appropriate micro-environments in which the egalitarian instincts can best be gratified.
Macro-scale action (such as political revolution, change of government, legal or fiscal reform) undertaken to adjust the statistical reifications of abstract inequality in the interests of 'social justice' conceived at the level of nations is missing the point and failing to tackle the roots of the problem. Creating bureaucratic structures for adjusting objective, statistical measurements of inequality is doomed to fail since establishing a bureaucracy creates exactly the power differentials that lead to inequality - as the experience of the Soviet Union and its eastern Bloc satellites demonstrated all too clearly.
By contrast, policies to reduce the perceived injustice of health differentials need to provide a framework to enable stable and sustained micro-level, personal relationships such that counter-dominant instincts can operate spontaneously to enforce equality.
In sum, at present there is less opportunity for people to get to know, and trust, their colleagues and neighbors; hence there is less inclination to take risks or make sacrifices for their mutual interests. I would guess that, under these circumstances, the prospects for a more equal society are slim - whatever the professional political rhetoric may say. An if a person is serious about promoting equality, then they should not be working at the level of politics - but at the level of people.
Human natureResistance to domination is an aspect of strategic social intelligence. Resistance is natural, nobody wants to be dominated, and resistance is mobilized when we believe that some person or group is trying to exert power over us or assert higher status than us. It is against any individual's reproductive self interest to be dominated; and when the few try to dominate the many it is in the interest of the many to resist the few. This applies to baboons and chimpanzees as well as to humans - yet the chimpanzee society is based on a dominance hierarchy while the ancestral human society is egalitarian. The difference is that humans have the cognitive capability to cooperate in groups large enough to resist domination; while baboons cannot cooperate, and in chimpanzees it seems that two is the largest number that can cooperate.
Given this background in biology, it is unsurprising that humans are concerned by questions of equality, and that such concern may be seen as the core of a political creed. A concern for equality is an aspect of human nature: universal, inevitable, continuously operative. Resistance to domination is as much a fundamental instinct as the desire to attain high status. In this sense human society is inevitably a site of conflict and compromise - everybody cannot be optimally happy since everybody cannot attain the highest status. But if it is meaningful to talk of the sum of happiness, then the sum of happiness in relation to status would probably be higher in an egalitarian society than a stratified one - since the egalitarian society minimizes the number of low status individuals, their hopelessness, and the amount of coercion required to stabilize the social arrangements.
The nomadic foraging type of society in which human evolved was - as almost all observers agree - on average happier than contemporary society. And in so far as we are stuck with the existing industrial-mercantile economy, the increased dissatisfaction of inhabiting an unequal society is intractable. No matter how much propaganda is expended, human beings are never going to get used to class or caste systems, low status people will always resist domination, slaves will always want to be free. It is human nature.
Egalitarian arrangements are based upon a human instinct for insubordination. Humans do not like to be dominated because it is reproductively disadvantageous to be dominated, and those who did like to be dominated would not have left behind as many offspring - we are the genetic descendents of perpetual rebels. Resistance to domination will tend to lead to mutually advantageous alliances against those who attempt to dominate; but forming alliances based on reciprocity is a learned behavior, and will only arise if the circumstances to support it are present.
So equality is a kind of 'enlightened self-interest' on the part of the majority. But the ability to pursue a strategy of enlightened self-interest depends upon the cooperation of others, which depends upon the prevailing form of social organization. The only option for those people who are miserably stuck in positions of low status in stratified social systems is to 'change human nature'. And that, perhaps, is where psychopharmacology and other technological means of enabling or enhancing gratification, may have a role.
Whether or not psychopharmacology has the effect of stabilizing an unjust state of affairs by creating artificial happiness; or whether psychopharmacology is used to increase energy, creativity and to create more powerful counter-dominant social alliances among low status individuals, is not predetermined. The future is what we make of it.
also by Bruce Charlton
Cargo Cult Science
The Malaise Theory of Depression
Delirium and Psychotic Symptoms
Public Health and Personal Freedom
Psychiatry and the Human Condition
Awareness, Consciousness and Language
Psychopharmacology and The Human Condition