Samir’s Selection 06/08/2016 (p.m.)

  • All primate societies, Boehm notes, are governed by similar dynamics. If any one individual has the opportunity to climb the hierarchy, he or she is likely to seize it; unfortunately, as soon as power is gained, others resent it. In such a society, Boehm writes, there are three potential outcomes. One is conflict, in which newcomers continually and overtly challenge the powerful for a position at the top. Another is stable dominance, where the powerful relentlessly and permanently dominate the rest. And a third is an equally stable social structure which Boehm calls “reverse dominance hierarchy,” in which those on the bottom of the pyramid figure out a way to band together and “deliberately dominate their potential master.” In such a society, dominance is still exercised. It just comes, collectively and consistently, from below.Chimps, bonobos, and gorillas struggle to achieve stable reverse-dominance hierarchy. They can occasionally flatten their pyramids, but only briefly. The problem is that the powerful are likely to be strong, intelligent, and socially connected. To topple them, and prevent them from taking over again, you need a powerful and persistent threat, which nonhuman primates don’t have. Boehm has discovered that, among the tribal and hunter-gatherer human societies he studies, the development of projectile weapons is a key step in the growth and maintenance of equality: it puts the strong at greater risk from the weak. Such weaponry is one reason that human societies are more equalized than those of other primates.But weapons aren’t enough to make equality last. Boehm finds that, to really maintain the new social order, the dominated need to trust one another. They must have stable social bonds and anticipate a long future together. Most important, they must be able to communicate effectively. To Boehm, therefore, there is something distinctively human about sustained equality: only human beings communicate well enough to keep it going for long periods. Van Berkel, for her part, suggests that we default to hierarchical models for developmental reasons, since respect for authority is what we learn first. But it’s also possible to read her findings in a humanistic way: deferring to authority could be a tendency that honors our less deliberative, more animalistic selves…Unfortunately, when it’s seen through the lens of Van Berkel and Boehm’s work, our contemporary society seems to encourage us to stick with the default setting of hierarchy. We now know that poor people experience cognitive exhaustion, because they are constantly preoccupied by money, food, housing, and other basics of survival; meanwhile, the well-off distract themselves with smartphones. To the extent that Van Berkel’s work suggests that we need calm and clear minds to think liberally about equality, it’s plausible that our fast-paced, distracting world is encouraging us to fall back on hierarchical thinking. Meanwhile, although Boehm’s work identifies trust, communication, and a collective belief that we have a future together as social factors on which long-term equality depends, the modern era has enabled increasingly polarized and individualistic behaviors for many of us.In a broad sense, this research gives us a picture of how dominance, in the abstract, works to sustain itself. If you’re at the top of a very hierarchical society and are absolutely determined to stay there, then you want three things. First, you want people to fear your power, so that they’re unwilling to risk toppling you. Second, you want to occupy people’s minds—and potentially, their bodies—so thoroughly that they’re mentally exhausted and oriented more toward hierarchy and authority than toward equality and justice. Finally, you want to make sure that those you dominate are unable to meaningfully communicate—or that, if they can, they are loath to trust one another in the long run. Division is your ally. Power wants the powerless to be scared, thoughtless, and alone.

    tags: inequality power politics control competition evolution primate psychology biology behaviour hierarchy conservative fear dominance socialclass

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