From ancient times, human societies have had people who are “more equal” than the rest of us. It makes you wonder: Is inequality in our genes?
I spent a few years of my early life living in a Kibbutz, a communal farming society striving to create the ideal egalitarian, fair and just society. We were young, enthusiastic, and as it turned out, naïve.
Although we ignored subtle inconsistencies in our utopia, they were there nonetheless. The General Secretary of the Kibbutz was “one of us” of course, yet because he belonged to the Kibbutz management team, he did not have to do kitchen duty, night patrols, or sanitation work.
At the time, we didn’t give a second thought to the matter. We accepted it because he was doing something important and shouldn’t be distracted by menial chores or chores that would disaffect his ability to “govern.” After all, how could you expect the Secretary to negotiate the best price for our produce after being up all night on patrol?
Still, this inevitably created a hierarchy. And, as we know now, this is the way of Nature.
We are still hunter-gatherers in our DNA
Modern Homo sapiens made its appearance on the great stage of evolutionary history around 200,000 years ago. We lived in small bands, eking out a living primarily by gathering fruits and seeds. Occasionally our ancestors would come across a dead or dying animal, which provided a richer source of protein. Yes, for a very long time we were actually scavengers-gatherers—somewhat less glamorous than the commonly used appellation of hunters-gatherers.
We became hunters when some clever ancestors developed the first spears, about 90,000 years ago, allowing us to kill prey at a distance without becoming prey ourselves. It wasn’t until 80,000 years later, around 10,000 years ago, that humans—most likely women—domesticated the first grain plants, and farming was born.
So you do the math: for 190,000 years out of 200,000 years of our existence as a species, we lived in small bands. Wouldn’t you expect the survival mechanisms that this lifestyle demanded to be encoded in our DNA? Of course, it was. The evidence is all around us. To use a present day example, take our suspicion of the alien and loyalty to kin and tribe.
Although those traits served us well up to 10,000 years ago, are they really so important for survival today? Unfortunately, even if they are not, 10,000 years is not enough time for the wheels of natural selection to affect genomic change; they, like justice, are agonizingly slow.
Were we ever egalitarian?
It is quite in vogue nowadays to hanker for the simple life of the hunter-gatherer. They had the best diet (paleo), and were, we imagine, admirably egalitarian. So the self-satisfying assumption would be that the egalitarian reflex is encoded in our DNA and hard-wired in our brain.
Not so fast. With their nomadic lifestyle, could they really accumulate possessions? Having a bigger tent, or bulky stores of seeds, would inhibit mobility—a distinct survival disadvantage in a nomadic lifestyle. So, an egalitarian culture was probably not in their stars and not in our genes. We had to be equal if we wanted to compete effectively with the more agile, mobile and quick. Equality was forced on us.
And yet, like in the Kibbutz, there had to be cracks in the façade of absolute equality. We couldn’t defy the natural order. Where could we find what Natural Selection dictated for these small bands of nomads?
All you need to do is look at bands of our cousins the gorillas, chimps, and even more distant relatives like the monkeys. Not only does hierarchy exists in their social organization, but the tensions and frustrations it entails manifests itself in stress hormones levels and in general health problems.
The grizzly silverback gorilla, who deposed his elder/predecessor and had the scars to show for it, will eventually grow old and will himself be deposed by a younger bully. This is the way of the world, and the head of the hunter-gatherer band must have been the local bully as well. And his mate, just like silverback’s favorite female, was a cut above the other females of her group. And, of course, their offspring were first among equals, if not outright enjoying superior status.
How did we get here from there?
Admittedly, these were not terribly egregious differences. The band shared with the day’s collection of seeds and occasional meat. This was an imperative for survival of the band.All the gatherers had to be fed for them to continue gathering. All the hunters had to get their share, or else they couldn’t go on. But of course, the bully/head of the band got the prime choice, just like the silverback gorilla. And, archeology tells us that the head bully’s female flaunted her status with bead bracelets, pendants and necklaces, the jewelry of the time.
Then, about 10,000 years ago, came the farming revolution, starting in the Middle East and Anatolia in Turkey. Farmers could store their seeds, domesticate animals to do the heavy work, and acquire more land with their accumulated wealth. We can easily see how this technological revolution, just like the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century and today’s tech revolution, bred an upper class.
Was the ancient 1% bothered by social inequality? Not in the least. Increased land holdings called for tenant farmers who received a meager portion of the fruits of their labor and protection from marauders, with the rest going to the land owner. Thus came into being the feudal society.
To add insult to injury, the early kings were simply the stronger bullies, adept with weapons and war-making. They would collect taxes from the newly minted land barons to maintain armies, an early version of protection money. Which in turn, vested the kings and their armies with more money and power.
Why didn’t the farmers revolt?
Indeed, history is strewn with a smattering of farmer and slave revolts, all ending in abysmal defeats. They were fighting with pitchforks against the weaponry and trained armies of their times. But by and large, they actually acquiesced with this state of affairs.
Why? To put it succinctly: Because aversion to inequality is simply not in our DNA.
In an article in the British Aeon magazine, Dylan Evans describes a remarkable experiment:
“Evolutionary psychologists have 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 percent 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”.
Revolution or Evolution?
Is revolution the answer to social and economic inequality? Probably not. All revolutions, starting from the French through the Bolshevik and Chinese, eventually consumed their own children. On the other hand, democratic society did not tolerate the status quo for too long. It took the accumulation of power by the cartels to elect Teddy Roosevelt and usher in the Progressive Era at the turn of the century. It took the egregious speculation of Wall Street to plunge the U.S. into the Great Depression and the election of his nephew Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930’s and the onset of the welfare state and its social and economic safety net. Can you hear an echo of those days in today’s state of income and social inequality?
The crux of the lesson is that free societies, like the free market, eventually self-correct. We need not be prisoners of our hunter-gatherer DNA. We countered some of its worst legacy with enlightened legislation, education, and science. We’ve done it in the past, and nothing can stop progress from asserting itself again.