It’s often argued that reciprocity and concern for fairness are human universals—features present in people of every culture. Is there also a universal human preference for equality, helping to explain why inequality is a perennial hot-button political issue?
Over time, the human stance towards inequality has traveled a long and circuitous path. Somewhere between the days (some six or seven millions years ago) when we shared an ancestor with today’s chimpanzees, and the time (say, 60,000 to 100,000 years ago) when our more recent ancestors became fully human, we appear to have become an unusually egalitarian species, by the standards of our extended family. While descended from an ape-like ancestor that was probably family-typical in that it lived in groups with a dominant alpha male and a steep hierarchy, our species as such may at first have lived in remarkably egalitarian groups.
This notion of egalitarianism in our hunter-gatherer past is inferred in part from studies of the remaining societies in which people live mainly by foraging for wild foods. Those studies have yielded accounts of cultures in which people bend over backwards to avoid any assertion of being better and thus of deserving a larger share. We read of hunters who present their catch to the community, or leave it at the edge of the encampment to be fetched by others, and who belittle their achievement. We read of these successful hunters being given the least or worst part, or even none at all.*
Some scientists trying to make evolutionary sense of this find evidence that the successful hunters, though getting less rather than more of the antelopes and sea turtles they bring home, tend to be rewarded in the form of winning better mates and fathering more children—an evolutionary payoff. Even if true, these hunters would bear only a passing resemblance to the dominant gorilla or chimpanzee males who monopolize the opportunities to mate with their group’s fertile females, or who share such opportunities with only a few coalition partners. In comparison to most other apes and to some monkeys including baboons, humans are relatively monogamous, with a tendency to share reproductive opportunities and food that suggests a rather egalitarian bent. And while these lines seem to take male dominance for granted, our species’ position on the gender inequality spectrum seems at least part bonobo, not all chimpanzee.**
Supposing our original bands to have been rather egalitarian, what might have brought about the early human tendency in that direction? One possibility is that our species wandered into an ecological niche in which it specialized in bringing down large game, putting a premium on cooperation among all of a band’s hunters. Another theory is that it was increasing human intellect and tool use that were pivotal. The improved ability to use tools as weapons, along with the cognitive sophistication to plan actions in advance and use deliberative stealth, made it relatively easy for any individual to be killed by any other. Given this near equal potential for lethal violence, no individual could feel safe if perceived to be appropriating too large a share of the group’s resources. That might explain why a penchant for guarding against any hint of self-aggrandizement emerged.***
The second theory implies that our past egalitarianism may have resulted more from a stand-off among prospective alphas than from a breading out of our will to dominance itself. It’s consistent with this that while humans today manifest at least as much cooperation and social-mindedness as the next hominoid, we also display plenty of competition for rank.
In fact, during the millennia since our shift to settled agricultural life, we humans have lurched back toward living in societies hierarchical beyond the imagination of any gorilla, as if we were anxious to prove that our forager egalitarianism indeed reflected only a temporary stand-off. With long-term settlement came storable wealth and the potential to concentrate in specialist hands the command over lethal violence. More advanced tools of violence (armor, chariots, a paid soldier class) also became expensive, putting the wealthy at an advantage in cowing others. There were peasant revolts and insurrections, but for thousands of years, it was generally one dynasty after the next.
Fast forward to the 18th Century. Somehow, it seems, enough people of the time had read enough printed books and come together to discuss them in enough taverns and town squares that the idea of replacing overthrown despots with something different found its place on the human agenda. In a first round of revolutions, traditional monarchs were overthrown in France and North America, and Napoleon ran around Europe pushing laws and norms in comparatively egalitarian directions. Later, with feudalism a mere memory and industrial capitalism maturing, there was yet another wave of radicalism that helped usher in universal suffrage, unionism, and the welfare state.
Are we egalitarians at heart, then? Not clear. The last time income and wealth inequality looked as it does today, we had Teddy Roosevelt come down on the robber barons, his cousin Franklin conjuring up the New Deal, and even more robust welfare states germinating in Europe. In the new millennium, in contrast, we’ve seen only some tens of thousands rallying under the banner of “We are the 99%,” while the word “redistribution” remains effectively forbidden in our politics, and “you’re playing the class warfare card” still stops progressive rhetoric dead in its tracks. In our age of mass communications, we also betray a tendency to lionize individual stars in sports, entertainment, and other fields. In fact, it’s hard for us not to make even our beacons of humility and saintliness, like the current Pope, into rock stars. If caring about fairness is a near-universal among humans, so too, it seems, is putting a few among us on pedestals.
Since our days as members of forager bands, we’ve developed a more complex set of mental constructs that include somewhat more effective norms against killing and clearer ideas about entitlement to the fruits of our labors and trading. That old hunter-gather equilibrium of egalitarianism clearly no longer constrains us. Looked at in this way, the question of the day is: to what degree should we to revert to the “king of the hill” mentality of the ancestors we share with chimps, versus preserving some of our more recent ancestors’ penchant for social cohesion and sharing?
Note: my laboratory experiment on demand for redistribution, reported in the blogpost “American Politics and The Two Faces of Fairness,” has recently been repeated with university subjects in China. Stay tuned for a report on how much people seem to care about equality in the country that’s seen both the most rapid economic growth and the most dramatic shift towards inequality in the past thirty years.
* See, for example, Kim Hill, “Altruistic Cooperation During Foraging by the Ache, and the Evolved Human Predisposition to Cooperate,” Human Nature 13 (1): 105 – 128, 2002; or Douglas Bird, Rebecca Bliege Bird and Eric Smith, “The Benefits of Costly Signaling: Meriam Turtle Hunters,” Behavioral Ecology 14(1): 116-126, 2003.
** See Frans De Waal, Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are. Riverhead Books, 2006.
*** The violence and equality argument is put forward in a great many discussions of the evolution of human nature. A recent overview of standard thinking on that evolution appears in the early chapters reviewing conventional morality in Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them. Penguin, 2013.