Injustice, inequality and Evolutionary Psychology Bruce G Charlton
Bruce G Charlton MD Lecturer Department of Psychology Ridley Building University of Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU England Tel: 0191 222 6247 Fax: 0191 222 5622 e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org> ABSTRACT Injustice, inequality and Evolutionary Psychology 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 environment It 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 equality In 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" instincts The 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-wing It 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 reform Nonetheless, 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 equality It 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. Conclusion As 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. References Barkow JH. (1975). Prestige and culture: a biosocial interpretation (and replies). Current Anthropology, 16, 553-576. Barkow JH. (1989). Darwin, sex and status. 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