Social Status - Social Strife

The Moral Animal - Whe We Are The Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology - Robert Wright 1995

Social Status
Social Strife

Seeing how ancient these expressions are, it is no wonder that they are so difficult to conceal. — a man insulted may forgive his enemy & not wish to strike him, but he will find it far more difficult to look tranquil. — He may despise a man & say nothing, but without a most distinct will, he will find it hard to keep his lip from stiffening over his canine teeth. — He may feel satisfied with himself, & though dreading to say so, his step will grow erect & stiff like that of turkey.

— M Notebook (1838)1

Among the things Charles Darwin found troubling about the Fuegian Indians was their apparent lack of social inequality. "At present," he wrote in 1839, "even a piece of cloth is torn into shreds and distributed; and no one individual becomes richer than another." Such "perfect equality," he feared, would "for a long time retard their civilization." Darwin noted, by way of example, that "the inhabitants of Otaheite, who, when first discovered, were governed by hereditary kings, had arrived at a far higher grade than another branch of the same people, the New Zealanders — who although benefited by being compelled to turn their attention to agriculture, were republicans in the most absolute sense." The upshot: "In tierra del Fuego, until some chief shall arise with power sufficient to secure any acquired advantages, such as the domesticated animals or other valuable presents, {236} it seems scarcely possible that the political state of the country can be improved."

Then Darwin added, "On the other hand, it is difficult to understand how a chief can arise till there is property of some sort by which he might manifest and still increase his authority."2

Had Darwin mulled this afterthought a little longer, he might have begun to wonder whether the Fuegians were, in fact, a people of "perfect equality." Naturally, to an affluent Englishman, reared amid servants, a society never far from starvation will seem starkly egalitarian. There will be no opulent displays of status, no gross disparities. But social hierarchy can assume many forms, and in every human society it seems to find one.

This pattern has been slow to come to light. One reason is that lots of twentieth-century anthropologists have, like Darwin, come from highly stratified societies, and been struck, sometimes charmed, by the relative classlessness of hunter-gatherer peoples. Anthropologists have been burdened, also, by a hopeful belief in the almost infinite malleability of the human mind, a belief fostered especially by Franz Boas and his famous students, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. The Boasian bias against human nature was in some ways laudable — a well-meant reaction against crude political extensions of Darwinism that had countenanced poverty and various other social ills as "natural." But a well-meant bias is still a bias. Boas, Benedict, and Mead left out large parts of the story of humanity.3 And among those parts are the deeply human hunger for status and the seemingly universal presence of hierarchy.

More recently, anthropologists of a Darwinian bent have started looking closely for social hierarchy. They have found it in even the least likely places.

The Ache, a hunter-gatherer people in South America, seem at first to possess an idyllic equality. Their meat goes into a communal pool, so the best hunters routinely aid their less fortunate neighbors. But during the 1980s, anthropologists took a closer look and found that the best hunters, though generous with meat, hoard a resource more fundamental. They have more extramarital affairs and more illegitimate children than lesser hunters. And their offspring have a better chance of surviving, apparently because they get special {237} treatment.4 Being known as a good hunter, in other words, is an informal rank that carries clout with men and women alike.

The Aka pygmies of central Africa also appear at first glance to be lacking in hierarchy, as they have no "headman," no ultimate political leader. But they do have a man called a kombeti who subtly but powerfully influences big group decisions (and who often earns that rank through his hunting prowess). And it turns out that the kombeti gets the lion's share of the food, the wives, and the offspring.5

And so it goes. As more and more societies are reevaluated in the unflattering light of Darwinian anthropology, it becomes doubtful that any truly egalitarian human society has ever existed. Some societies don't have sociologists, and thus may not have the concept of status, but they do have status. They have people of high status and low status, and everyone knows who is who. In 1945 the anthropologist George Peter Murdock, swimming against the prevailing Boasian current, published an essay called "The Common Denominator of Cultures," in which he ventured that "status differentiation" (along with gift giving, property rights, marriage, and dozens of other things) was a human universal.6 The closer we look, the righter he seems.

In one sense, the ubiquity of hierarchy is a Darwinian puzzle. Why do the losers keep playing the game? Why is it in the genetic interest of the low men on the totem pole to treat their betters with deference? Why lend your energy to a system that leaves you with less than your neighbors?

One can imagine reasons. Maybe hierarchy makes the whole group so cohesive that most or all members benefit, even if they benefit unequally — exactly the fate that Darwin hoped would someday befall the Fuegians. In other words, maybe hierarchies serve "the good of the group" and are thus favored by "group selection." This theory was embraced by the popular writer Robert Ardrey, a prominent member of the generation of group selectionists whose decline marked the rise of the new Darwinian paradigm. If people weren't inherently capable of submission, Ardrey wrote, then "organized society would be impossible and we should have only anarchy."7

Well, maybe so. But judging by the large number of essentially asocial species, natural selection doesn't seem to share Ardrey's {238} concern for social order. It is perfectly willing to let organisms pursue inclusive fitness amid anarchy. Besides, if you start thinking carefully about this group-selectionist scenario, problems arise. Granted, when two tribes meet in combat, or compete for the same resource, the more hierarchical and cohesive may win. But how did it get hierarchical and cohesive in the first place? How would genes counseling submission, and thus lowering fitness, manage to gain a foothold amid the everyday competition among genes within the society? Wouldn't they tend to be banished from the gene pool before they had a chance to demonstrate their goodness for the group? These are the questions group selection theories — such as Darwin's theory of the moral sentiments — often face and often fail to surmount.

The most widely accepted Darwinian explanation for hierarchy is simple, straightforward, and nicely compatible with observed reality. It is only with this theory in hand — only after taking a clear look at human social status, uncolored by morality and politics — that we can get back to the moral and political questions. In exactly what senses is social inequality inherent in human nature? Is inequality indeed, as Darwin suggested, a prerequisite for economic or political advancement? Are some people "born to serve" and others "born to lead"?


Throw a bunch of hens together, and, after a time of turmoil, including much combat, things will settle down. Disputes (over food, say) will now be brief and decisive, as one hen simply pecks the other, bringing quick deferral. The deferrals form a pattern. There is a simple, linear hierarchy, and every hen knows its place. A pecks B with impunity, B pecks C, and so on. The Norwegian biologist Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe noticed this pattern in the 1920s and gave it the name "pecking order." (Schjelderup-Ebbe also observed, in a frenzy of politically loaded overextrapolation: "Despotism is the basic idea of the world, indissolubly bound up with all life and existence... . There is nothing that does not have a despot."8 No wonder anthropologists shied away from evolutionary accounts of social hierarchy for so long.) {239}

The order of the pecking is not arbitrary. B had a marked tendency to defeat C in early conflicts, and A tended to prevail over B. So it isn't, after all, such a great challenge to explain the emerging social hierarchy as merely the sum of individual self-interest. Each hen is deferring to hens that will probably win anyway, saving itself the costs of battle.

If you've spent much time with chickens, you may doubt their ability to process a thought as complex as "Chicken A will beat me anyway, so why bother to fight?" Your doubt is well placed. Pecking orders are yet another case where the "thinking" has been done by natural selection, and so needn't be done by the organism. The organism must be able to tell its neighbors apart, and to feel a healthy fear of the ones that have brutalized it, but it needn't grasp the logic behind the fear. Any genes endowing a chicken with this selective fear, reducing the time spent in futile and costly combat, should flourish.

Once such genes pervade the population, hierarchy is part of the social architecture. The society may look, indeed, as if designed by someone who valued order over liberty. But that doesn't mean it was. As George Williams put it in Adaptation and Natural Selection, "The dominance-subordination hierarchy shown by wolves and a wide variety of vertebrates and arthropods is not a functional organization. It is the statistical consequence of a compromise made by each individual in its competition for food, mates, and other resources. Each compromise is adaptive, but not the statistical summation."9

This isn't the only conceivable explanation of hierarchy that skirts the pitfalls of group selectionism. Another is based on John Maynard Smith's concept of an evolutionarily stable state — more specifically, on his "hawk-dove" analysis of a hypothetical bird species. Imagine dominance and submission as two genetically based strategies, the success of each depending on their relative frequency. Being a dominant (for example, walking around intimidating submissives into giving you half their food) is fine so long as there are lots of submissives around. But as the strategy spreads, it grows less fruitful: there are fewer and fewer submissives to exploit, and meanwhile {240} dominants encounter one another more and more, engaging in costly combat. That's why the submissive strategy can thrive; a submissive animal must often surrender some of its food, but it avoids the fighting that takes an increasingly large toll on dominants. The population should in theory equilibrate, with a fixed ratio of dominants to submissives. And, as with all evolutionarily stable states (recall the blue-gill sunfish from chapter three), this equilibrium ratio is the point at which each strategy enjoys the same reproductive success.10

There are species that this explanation seems to fit. Among Harris sparrows, darker birds are aggressive and dominant, and lighter ones more passive and submissive. Maynard Smith has found indirect evidence that the two strategies are equally conducive to fitness — the hallmark of an evolutionarily stable state.11 But when we move to the human species — and, indeed, when we move to other hierarchical species — this explanation for social hierarchy encounters problems. Prominent among them is the number of findings — in the Ache, the Aka, many other human societies, and many other species — that low status brings low reproductive success.12 This is not the hallmark of an evolutionarily stable mix of strategies. It is the hallmark of low-status animals trying to make the best of a bad situation.

For decades, while many anthropologists have downplayed social hierarchy, psychologists and sociologists have studied its dynamics, watching the facility with which members of our species sort themselves out. Put a group of children together, and before long they fall into distinct grades. The ones at the top are best liked, most frequently imitated, and, when they try to wield influence, best obeyed.13 The rudiments of this tendency are seen among children only a year old.14 At first, status equals toughness — high-ranking children are the ones that don't back down — and indeed, for males, toughness matters well through adolescence. But as early as kindergarten, some children ascend the hierarchy via skill in cooperation.15 Other talents — intellectual, artistic — also carry weight, especially as we grow older.

Many scholars have studied these patterns without bringing a Darwinian slant to their work, but it's hard not to suspect an innate underpinning for such robotic patterns of learning. Besides, status {241} hierarchies run in our family. They emerge with great clarity and complexity in our nearest relatives, the chimps and bonobos, and are found also, if in simpler form, in gorillas, our next closest kin, and in many other primates.16 If you took a zoologist from another planet, showed him our family tree, and pointed out that the three species nearest our limb were inherently hierarchical, he would probably guess that we are too. If you then told him that hierarchy is indeed found in every human society where people have looked closely for it, and among children too young to talk, he might well consider the case closed.

There is more evidence. Some of the ways people signify their status, and the status of others, seem to hold steady across cultures. Darwin himself, after widely questioning missionaries and other world travelers, concluded that "scorn, disdain, contempt, and disgust are expressed in many different ways, by movements of the features, and by various gestures; and that these are the same throughout the world." He also noted that "a proud man exhibits his sense of superiority over others by holding his head and body erect."17 A century later, studies would show that posture becomes straighter immediately after social triumph — as, say, when a student gets a high test score.18 And the ethologist Irenaiis Eibl-Eibesfeldt would find that children in diverse cultures, after losing a fight, lower their heads in self-abasement.19 These universals of expression have reflections within. People in all cultures feel pride upon social success, embarrassment, even shame, upon failure, and, at times, anxiety pending these outcomes.20

Nonhuman primates send some of the same status signals as people. Dominant male chimps — and dominant primates generally — strut proudly and expansively. And after two chimpanzees fight over status, the loser crouches abjectly. This sort of bowing is thereafter repeated to peacefully express submission.


Beneath the behavioral parallels between human and nonhuman primates lie biochemical parallels. In vervet monkey societies, dominant males have more of the neurotransmitter serotonin than do their subordinates. And one study found that in college fraternities, officers, {242} on average, have more serotonin than do their less powerful fraternity brothers.21

This is a good opportunity to extinguish a once-flourishing misconception that, though in decline, has yet to die its richly deserved death. It is not the case that all behavior under "hormonal control," or some other "biological control," is "genetically determined." Yes, there is a correlation between serotonin (a hormone, like all neuro-transmitters) and social status. But no, that doesn't mean that a given person's social status was "in the genes," preordained at birth. If you check the serotonin levels of a fraternity president well before his political ascent, or of an alpha vervet monkey well before his, you may find them unexceptional.22 Serotonin level, though a "biological" thing, is largely a product of the social environment. It isn't nature's way of destining people at birth for leadership; it's nature's way of equipping them for leadership once they've gotten there (and, some evidence suggests, of encouraging them to make a bid for leadership at a politically opportune moment).23 You too can have a high serotonin level, if you can get elected president of a college fraternity.

Certainly genetic differences matter. Some people's genes dispose them to be unusually ambitious, or clever, or athletic, or artistic, or various other things — including unusually rich in serotonin. But these traits depend, for their flowering, on the environment (and sometimes on each other), and their eventual translation into status can rest heavily on chance. No one is born to lead, and no one is born to follow. And to the extent that some people are born with a leg up in the race (as they surely are), that birthright probably lies at least as much in cultural as in genetic advantage. In any event, there are good Darwinian reasons to believe that everyone is born with the capacity for high serotonin — with the equipment to function as a high-status primate given a social setting conducive to their ascent. The whole point of the human brain is behavioral flexibility, and it would be very unlike natural selection, given that flexibility, to deny anyone a chance at the genetic payoffs of high status, should the opportunity arise.

What does serotonin do? The effect of neurotransmitters is so subtle, and so dependent on chemical context, that simple generalizations are risky. But often, at least, serotonin seems to relax people, {243} make them more gregarious, more socially assertive, much as a glass of wine does. In fact, one of alcohol's effects is to release serotonin. As a slight and useful oversimplification, you might say that serotonin raises self-esteem; it makes you behave in ways befitting an esteemed primate. Extremely low levels of serotonin can accompany not just low self-esteem, but severe depression, and may precede suicide. Antidepressants such as Prozac boost serotonin.24

So far this book has said little about neurotransmitters like serotonin, or about biochemistry in general. That is partly because the biochemical links among genes, brain, and behavior are largely unfathomed. It is also because the elegant logic of evolutionary analysis often lets us figure out the role of genes without worrying about the nuts and bolts of their influence. But, of course, there always are nuts and bolts. Whenever we talk about the influence of genes (or environment) on behavior, thought, or emotion, we are talking about a biochemical chain of influence.

As these chains become clearer, they can give form to inchoate data, and help graft the data onto a Darwinian framework. Psychologists found several decades ago that artificially lowering self-esteem (by giving false reports about scores on a personality test) made people more likely to cheat in a subsequent game of cards. A more recent study finds that people with lower serotonin levels are more likely to commit impulsive crimes.25 Maybe both of these findings, translated into evolutionary terms, are saying the same thing: that "cheating" is an adaptive response, triggered when people are shunted to the bottom of the heap and thus find it hard to get resources legitimately. Maybe there's some truth to that ostensibly simplistic refrain about inner-city crime — that it grows out of "low self-esteem," as poor children are reminded, via TV and movies, that they're nowhere near the top of the roost. Again we see how Darwinism, often caricatured as genetically determinist and right-wing, can mesh with the sort of environmental determinism favored on the left.

We also see another way to test group-selectionist theories. If the acceptance of low status had evolved mainly as an ingredient of group success, success that then trickles down and benefits even the lowly, {244} you wouldn't expect low-status animals to spend their time subverting the group's order.26

Confirming a link between serotonin and status in nonhuman primates is a messy task, and no one has tried it with our first cousins, the chimpanzees. But the smart money says the link is there. Indeed, so striking are the parallels between the human and the chimpanzee pursuit of status, and so closely related are we to chimps, that there may well be many biochemical mechanisms — and corresponding mental or emotional states — that we share with chimps by common descent. Chimpanzee striving is worth taking a look at.

Of the lavish attention that chimpanzees pay to status, much is merely ritual: greetings humbly offered to a social superior. Chimps often bow down and may literally kiss their master's feet.27 (The foot kissing seems to be a cultural quirk, not found in all chimp colonies.) hut in the case of males, at least, the rankings so peacefully acknowledged are set by struggle. If you see a chimp that regularly inspires great homage, he has won some pivotal fights.

The stakes are very real. Resources are allotted in rough accordance with status, and the alpha male tends to get the lion's share. In particular, the alpha jealously guards desirable females during estrus, their conspicuous phase of fertility.

Once this status ladder exists, and the higher rungs bring reproductive payoffs, genes that help a chimp climb it at acceptable cost will spread. The genes may work by instilling drives that, in humans, get labeled "ambition" or "competitiveness"; or by instilling feelings such as "shame" (along with an aversion to it and a tendency to feel it after conspicuous failure); or "pride" (along with an attraction to it and a tendency to feel it after doing impressive things). But whatever the exact feelings, if they raise fitness, they will become part of the species' psychology.

Male chimps seem more dramatically in the thrall of these sorts of forces than female chimps; they work harder for status. For that reason, male hierarchies are unstable. There seems always to be some young Turk mounting a challenge to the alpha male, and alpha males spend a lot of time spotting these threats and trying to head them off. Females settle into a hierarchy with less conflict (seniority often {245} counts for a lot), and are thereafter less preoccupied with their status. In fact, the female hierarchy is so subdued that it takes an experienced eye to discern it, whereas spotting a pompous, imperious alpha male is something a schoolchild can do. Female social coalitions — friendships — often last a lifetime, whereas male coalitions shift with strategic utility.28


Some of this has a familiar ring. Human males, too, have a reputation for being ambitious, egotistical, and opportunistic. The linguist Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don't Understand, has observed that for men, unlike women, conversation is "primarily a means to preserve independence and negotiate and maintain status in a hierarchical social order."29 Many people have argued, especially during the second half of this century, that this difference is wholly cultural, and Tannen, in her book, accepts this view. It is almost surely wrong. The evolutionary dynamics behind the male chimpanzee's fevered pursuit of status are well understood, and they have been at work during human evolution.

These dynamics are the same ones that explain the male and female approaches to sex: the huge reproductive potential of a male, the limited potential of a female, and the resulting disparity in reproductive success among males. At one extreme, a low-status male may have zero offspring — a fact that, via natural selection, could readily come to imply an energetic aversion to low status. At the other extreme, alpha status can mean fostering dozens of offspring by numerous mothers — a fact that, via natural selection, could embed in males a boundless lust for power. For females, the reproductive stakes of the status game are lower. A female chimp in ovulation, regardless of her status, faces no shortage of suitors. She is not fundamentally in sexual competition with other females.

Of course, females in our species do compete for mates — for mates with the most parental investment to offer. But there's no evidence that, during evolution, social status was a primary tool in that competition. Besides, the evolutionary pressure behind male competition for sex seems to have been stronger than the pressure behind female competition for investment. The reason, again, is that {246} potential differences in fitness are so much greater among males than among females.

The Guinness Book of World Records vividly makes the point. The most prolific human parent in world history is credited with 888 children — about 860 more than a woman could dream of having, unless she had a knack for multiple births. His name and title were, respectively, Moulay Ismail the Bloodthirsty, the Sharifian emperor of Morocco.30 It's a little chilling to think that the genes of a man nicknamed "Bloodthirsty" found their way into nearly 1,000 offspring. But that's the way natural selection works: the most chilling genes often win. Of course, it's not certain that Moulay Ismail's bloodthirstiness lay in distinctive genes; maybe he just had a rough childhood. Still, you get the point: sometimes genes are responsible for a male's inordinate drive for power, and so long as that power translates into viable offspring, those genes thrive.31

Shortly after the Beagle's voyage, Darwin wrote to his cousin Fox that his work was being "favourably received by the great guns, & this gives me much confidence, & I hope not a very great deal of vanity; though I confess I feel too often like a peacock admiring his tail."32 At that point, before natural selection dawned on him, and long before sexual selection did, Darwin could not have known how apt the comparison was. But later he would see that, indeed, the man-sized ego was produced by the same forces that created the peacock's tail: sexual competition among males. "Woman seems to differ from man in mental disposition, chiefly in her greater tenderness and less selfishness," he wrote in The Descent of Man. "Man is the rival of other men; he delights in competition, and this leads to ambition which passes too easily into selfishness. These latter qualities seem to be his natural and unfortunate birthright."33

Darwin also saw that this birthright wasn't just a vestige of our ape days, but a product of forces at work long after our species became human. "The strongest and most vigorous men, — those who could best defend and hunt for their families, and during later times the chiefs or head-men, — those who were provided with the best weapons and who possessed the most property, such as a larger number of dogs or other animals, would have succeeded in rearing a greater average number of offspring, than would the weaker, poorer and {247} lower members of the same tribes. There can, also, be no doubt that such men would generally have been able to select the more attractive women. At present the chiefs of nearly every tribe throughout the world succeed in obtaining more than one wife."34 Indeed, studies of the Ache, the Aka, the Aztecs, the Inca, the ancient Egyptians, and many other cultures suggest that, until the common use of contraception, male power translated into lots of offspring. And even now that contraception has broken this link, a link remains between status and the amount of sex a man has.35

Certainly male competitiveness has a cultural as well as genetic basis. Though male toddlers, generally speaking, are naturally more assertive than female toddlers, they're also given guns and signed up for Little League. Then again, this treatment may itself lie partly in the genes. Parents may be programmed to mold their children into optimal reproductive machines (or, strictly speaking, into machines that would have been optimally reproductive in the environment of our evolution). Margaret Mead once made an observation about primitive societies that probably applies in some measure to all societies: "[T]he small girl learns that she is a female and that if she simply waits, she will some day be a mother. The small boy learns that he is a male and that if he is successful in manly deeds some day he will be a man, and will be able to show how manly he is."36 (The relative strength of these messages may depend on how much Darwinian sense they make locally. There is evidence that in polygynous societies, where high-status males are astronomically prolific, parents nurture their sons' competitiveness with special care.)37

None of this is to say that males have a monopoly on ambition. For female primates — ape or human — status can bring benefits, such as more food or favored treatment of offspring; accordingly, they do seek status with some enthusiasm. Female chimps routinely dominate young adolescent males and, given a vacuum in the male power structure, can even reach for great political heights. When colonies of captive chimps contain no adult males, a female may assume alpha status and then defend her rank ably after male rivals show up. And bonobos — our other evolutionary first cousins — evince even more female lust for power. In several small captive populations, females {248} are the unquestioned leaders. Even in the wild, the more formidable females can prevail over the lowliest adult males.38

So as we look at status battles among chimps, the lessons will apply — in part, at least — to females. We'll focus on battles fought by males, because males battle in such high style. But the mental forces fueling these battles, if they reside in humans, probably reside in women as well as in men, albeit in smaller doses.

Both chimp and human hierarchies are subtler than chicken hierarchies. Which animal defers to which may change from day to day — not just because the hierarchies get reshuffled (which they do) but because dominance can depend on context; which primate gets its way can depend on which other primates are around. The reason is that chimps and humans have something chickens don't: reciprocal altruism. Living in a society with reciprocal altruism means having friends. And friends help each other during social conflicts.

This may seem obvious. What, after all, are friends for? But it really is remarkable. The evolutionary mixture that generated it — of reciprocal altruism and status hierarchy — is exceedingly rare in the annals of animal life.

The catalyst for the compound is the fact that, once hierarchies exist, status is a resource.39 If status expands your access to food or sex, then it makes sense to seek status in the abstract, just as it makes sense to seek money even though you can't eat it. So an exchange of status-enhancing assistance between two animals is not different in kind from an exchange of food: so long as the exchange is non-zero-sum, natural selection will encourage it, given the opportunity. Indeed, after looking closely at chimp and human society, one might suspect that, from natural selection's point of view, status assistance is the main purpose of friendship.

The evolutionary fusion of hierarchy and reciprocal altruism accounts for a good part of the average human life. Many, if not most, of our swings in mood, our fateful commitments, our changes of heart about people, institutions, even ideas, are governed by mental organs that this fusion wrought. It has done much to form the texture of everyday existence.

It has also formed much of the structure of existence. Life within {249} and among corporations, within and among national governments, within and among universities — it is all governed by these same mental organs. Both reciprocal altruism and status hierarchies evolved as an aid to the survival of individual genes, yet together they're holding up the world.

You can see the foundation in the daily life of chimpanzees. Look at the structure of their society, then imagine a huge growth in their intelligence — in memory, cunning, long-range planning, language — and suddenly you can picture whole buildings full of well-dressed chimps: office buildings, capitol buildings, campus buildings, all functioning much as they do now, for better or worse.


Status for chimps, like status for people, depends on more than ambition and raw strength. True, an alpha chimp's ascent almost always involves beating up the incumbent alpha at least once. And the new alpha may thereafter make a habit of daunting his predecessor, and all other subjects; he runs through the colony, pounding the ground, heading toward a series of apes that, by ducking, acknowledge his supremacy — and he may slap one or two of them anyway for good measure. Still, it often takes strategic savvy, as well, to reach dominance and hang on to it.

The most famous example of cleverly sought status comes courtesy of Mike, one of the chimpanzees studied by Jane Goodall in Africa. Mike, though not a hulking specimen, discovered that by running toward more manly chimps while propelling empty kerosene cans loudly in their direction, he could earn their respect. Goodall writes: "Sometimes Mike repeated this performance as many as four times in succession, waiting until his rivals had started to groom once more before again charging toward them. When he eventually stopped (often in the precise spot where the other males had been sitting), they sometimes returned and with submissive gestures began to groom Mike... . Mike made determined efforts to secure other human artifacts to enhance his displays — chairs, tables, boxes, tripods, anything that was available. Eventually we managed to secure all such items."40

Mike's particular genius is not especially typical and may not be {250} of utmost relevance to human evolution. Among chimpanzees, the most common use of wit in the quest for status has to do not with technological wizardry but with social savvy: the manipulation of reciprocally altruistic allegiances to personal advantage. Machiavellianism.

After all, chimpanzees, like human beings, seldom lead alone. To sit atop a heap of apes, some of whom are ambitious young males, is precarious, so alphas tend to arrange a regular source of support. The support may lie mainly in a single strong lieutenant that helps the alpha fend off challengers and in return is granted favors, such as sexual access to ovulating females. Or the support may lie in a close relationship with the dominant female; she will come to the alpha's defense, and perhaps in return get preferential treatment for her and her offspring. The support may be more complex and diffuse as well.

The best illustration of the fluidity of chimpanzee power, and the attendant emotional and cognitive complexity of chimps, is the primatologist Frans de Waal's gripping, almost soap-operatic, account of life among chimps housed on a two-acre island in a zoo in the Dutch town of Arnhem. Some people find de Waal's book — indeed its very title, Chimpanzee Politics — problematic. They think he too easily attributes to chimps an almost human nature. But no one can deny that this book is unique in its minutely detailed account of life among apes. I'll tell the story as de Waal tells it, complete with his engrossingly anthropomorphic tone, and we'll deal with problems of interpretation afterward.

Yeroen, a leading character in the drama, knew well the precariousness of power. While occupying the alpha position, he relied on the allegiance of various females, most notably Mama, a highly influential ape who occupied the dominant female slot throughout de Waal's narrative. It was to the females that Yeroen turned for help when challenged by the younger, stronger Luit.

Luit's challenge escalated relentlessly. First it was sexual intercourse with a female around ovulation, blatantly performed within sight of the jealous and possessive (like any alpha) Yeroen; next came a series of aggressive "displays," or threats, aimed at Yeroen; and finally a physical assault: Luit descended on Yeroen from a tree, {251} struck him, and ran away. This is not the sort of treatment to which alpha males are accustomed. Yeroen started screaming.

He then ran over to a group of chimps, mostly females, embraced each of them, and, having thus consolidated his strategic ties, led them toward Luit. Yeroen and company cornered Luit, who then dissolved into a temper tantrum. He had lost the first battle.

Yeroen seems to have sensed in advance that this challenge was in the works. De Waal's records showed that during the weeks before Luit's first overt defiance, Yeroen had more than doubled the amount of time he spent in friendly contact with adult females. Politicians do most of their baby kissing around election time.

Alas for poor Yeroen, his victory was fleeting. Luit set about to undermine the governing coalition. For weeks on end he punished Yeroen's supporters. When he saw a female grooming Yeroen, he would approach the two and threaten or actually assault the female, sometimes jumping up and down on her. Yet later, Luit might be seen grooming the same female, or playing with her children — so long as she wasn't with Yeroen. The females got the message.

Perhaps if Yeroen had defended his allies better, he could have hung on to alpha status. But this option was rendered dicey by an alliance between Luit and a young male named Nikkie. Nikkie would accompany Luit during his persecution of females, sometimes giving them a hard slap of his own. Their partnership was a natural: Nikkie, just emerging from adolescence, was struggling to establish dominance over all females — a rite of passage for young male chimps — and the affiliation with Luit made this simple. Eventually, after some hesitation, Luit gave Nikkie the added incentive of special sexual privileges.

Having isolated Yeroen, Luit could ascend to alpha rank. The transition came through several hostile encounters, though it wasn't sealed until Yeroen finally mustered the humility to greet Luit submissively.

Luit proved a wise and mature leader. Under his rule, life was orderly and just. If two chimps were fighting, he would step between them with calm authority, ending hostilities without fear or favor. And when he did side with one combatant, it was almost always the one who was losing. This pattern of support for the downtrodden — {252} populism, we call it — had also been employed by Yeroen. It seemed to impress the females especially; being less caught up in the pursuit of status than males, they seemed to place a premium on social stability. Luit could now count on their support.

In the long run, however, populism would not be enough. Luit still faced, on the one hand, Yeroen's persistent fondness for power (and perhaps some lingering enmity, though the two had lavishly reconciled, with much mutual grooming, after Yeroen conceded defeat); and, on the other hand, the conspicuous ambition of Nikkie. Luit must have found the latter the more threatening, for he sought alliance with Yeroen, thus freezing Nikkie out of the leadership circle. But Yeroen, seemingly aware of his pivotal place in the balance of power, proved a coy ally, and played the two off against each other. Finally, he shifted his weight toward Nikkie and, in league with him, toppled Luit. Alpha status went to Nikkie, but Yeroen continued to play his cards so deftly that for the next year he, not Nikkie, led all males in sexual activity. De Waal considered Nikkie a "figurehead" and Yeroen the power behind the throne.

The story has a morbid epilogue. After de Waal's book was published, Nikkie and Yeroen had a falling out. But their sense of common purpose was revived after Luit resumed alpha status. One night during a brutal fight, they wounded Luit mortally — even going so far, in a gratuitous bit of Darwinian symbolism, as to rip out his testicles. De Waal had little doubt about which of the two suspected killers deserved more blame. "Nikkie, ten years younger, seemed only a pawn in Yeroen's games," he later observed. "I found myself fighting this moral judgment, but to this day I cannot look at Yeroen without seeing a murderer."41


That's the story of the Arnhem chimps, told as if they were people. Does de Waal deserve to be condemned for anthropomorphizing? Ironically, even a jury of evolutionary psychologists might vote for a conviction — on one count of the indictment, at least.

De Waal suspects that, just before Luit's bid for alpha status, when Yeroen started spending more time with the females, he had "already sensed that Luit's attitude was changing and he knew that {253} his position was threatened."42 Yeroen probably did "sense" a change of attitude, and this may well account for his sudden interest in the politically pivotal females. But must we assume, with de Waal, that Yeroen "knew" about — consciously anticipated — the coming challenge and rationally took measures to head it off? Why couldn't Luit's growing assertiveness simply have inspired pangs of insecurity that pulled Yeroen into closer touch with his friends?

Certainly genes encouraging an unconsciously rational response to threat's can fare well in natural selection. When a baby chimp or a baby human, sighting a spooky-looking animal, retreats to its mother, the response is logical, but the youngster presumably isn't conscious of the logic. Similarly, when I suggested earlier that Darwin's recurrent illness may have periodically replenished his affection for Emma, I didn't mean he consciously reappraised her value in view of his poor health (though he may have). Threats of various kinds seem to nourish our affection for the people who help us face threats — kin and friends.

The point is that too readily imputing strategic brilliance to chimps may obscure a basic theme of evolutionary psychology: everyday human behavior is often a product of subterranean forces — rational forces, perhaps, but not consciously rational. Thus, de Waal may be creating a misleading dichotomy when he speaks of Yeroen's and Luit's "policy reversals, rational decisions and opportunism" and then asserts that "there is no room in this policy for sympathy and antipathy."43 What look like policies may be products of sympathy and antipathy; the ultimate policy maker is natural selection, and it calibrates these feelings to execute its policies.

With that verdict rendered, our jury of evolutionary psychologists would probably go on to acquit de Waal of many other counts of anthropomorphism. For often what he imputes to chimps is not human calculation but human feelings. During the early, inconclusive phase of Luit's challenge to Yeroen, the two periodically fought. And a fight (among chimps and many other primates, including us) is typically followed, sooner or later, by rituals of reconciliation. De Waal notes how reluctant each chimp was to start the rapprochement and ascribes their hesitation to a "sense of honor."44 {254}

He gingerly puts that phrase in quotation marks, but they may Hot be needed. In chimp society, as in human society, a peace overture can carry intimations of submission; and submission during a leadership struggle carries real Darwinian costs, as it may bring secondary or still lower status. So a genetically based aversion to such submissions (up to a point, at least) makes evolutionary sense. In our species, we call this aversion a sense of honor, or pride. Is there any reason we shouldn't use the same terms when talking about chimps? As de Waal has noted, given the close kinship of the two species, to assume a deep mental commonality is good parsimonious science: a single hypothesis that plausibly accounts for two separate phenomena.

Wives have been known to say of their husbands, "He can never hung himself to admit he's wrong," or "He's never the first to apologize," or "He hates to ask for directions." Men seem loath to concede the superiority of another human being, even in such trivial realms as municipal geography. The reason, perhaps, is that during human evolution males who too readily sought reconciliation after a fight, or otherwise needlessly submitted to others, saw their status drop, and with it their inclusive fitness. Presumably females did too; Women, like men, are reluctant to apologize or admit they're wrong. But if folk wisdom can be trusted, the average woman is less reluctant than the average man. And that shouldn't surprise us, as the fitness of our female ancestors depended less on such reluctance than did that of our male ancestors.

De Waal also speaks of "respect." When Luit's dominance was finally undeniable, and Yeroen faintly sought rapprochement, Luit ignored him until he heard some "respectful grunts," unambiguous signs of submission.45 A beta chimp may well feel toward the alpha much the way a losing prizefighter feels toward an opponent he says he now "respects." And at moments of utter ape dominance, when the vanquished crouches in abject submission, awe may be an apt word.

Jane Goodall, like de Waal, saw "respect" in the apes she came to know, though she used that word somewhat differently. Recalling the apprenticeship of a young chimp, Goblin, under the alpha male Figan, she writes that "Goblin was very respectful of his 'hero,' {255} followed him around, watched what he did, and often groomed him."46 Everyone who has been through adolescence and has had a role model can imagine how Goblin felt. In fact, some might suggest that reverent is a better word than respectful.

All of this may sound facile — a grand leap from surface parallels between us and apes to the depths of primate psychology. And maybe it will turn out to have been facile; maybe the uncanny resemblance between chimp and human life isn't grounded in a common evolutionary origin or a common biochemistry. Still, if we are not going to explain such things — respect, reverence, awe, honor, stubborn pride, contempt, disdain, ambition, and so on — as natural selection's way of equipping us for life in a status hierarchy, how, then, are we to explain them? Why are they found in cultures everywhere? Is there an alternative theory? If so, does it explain, as well, why pride and ambition, for example, seem to reach greater heights in men, on average, than in women? Modern Darwinism has an explanation for all of this, and it's simple: natural selection in a context of status hierarchy.


One of de Waal's alleged anthropomorphisms puts flesh on a skeletal speculation made by Robert Trivers in his 1971 paper on reciprocal altruism. De Waal believes conduct among chimps may be "governed by the same sense of moral Tightness and justice as it is among humans." This thought was provoked by a female chimp named Puist, who "had supported Luit in chasing Nikkie. When Nikkie later displayed at Puist she turned to Luit and held out her hand to him in search of support. Luit, however, did nothing to protect her against Nikkie's attack. Immediately Puist turned on Luit, barking furiously, chased him across the enclosure and even hit him."47 It doesn't take great imagination to see in such fury the heated indignation with which you might chastise a friend who had deserted you in time of need.

The deepest source of this "sense of fairness" is, as Trivers noted, reciprocal altruism. No status hierarchy need be involved. Indeed, what de Waal calls two of the basic rules of chimpanzee conduct — "One good turn deserves another," and "An eye for an eye, a tooth {256} for a tooth" — amount to a description of TIT FOR TAT, which evolved in the absence of status.

Still, it is competition for social status — and the attendant phenomenon of social alliance, of collective enmity — that has given these deeply held philosophical intuitions much of their weight. Human coalitions competing for status often feature a vague sense of moral entitlement, a sense that the other coalition deserves to lose. The fact that our species evolved amid both reciprocal altruism and social hierarchy may underlie not just personal grudges and reprisals, but race riots and world wars.

That war may in this sense be "natural" doesn't mean it's good, of course; or even that it's inevitable. And much the same can be said of social hierarchy. That natural selection has opted for social inequality in our species certainly doesn't make inequality right; and it makes it inevitable in only a limited sense. Namely: when groups of people — especially males — spend much time together, some sort of hierarchy, if implicit and subtle, is pretty sure to appear. Whether we know it or not, we tend naturally to rank one another, and we signify the ranking through patterns of attention, agreement, and deference — whom we pay attention to, whom we agree with, whose jokes we laugh at, whose suggestions we take.48 But social inequality in the larger sense — gross disparities in wealth and privilege across a whole nation — is another matter. That is a product of government policy, or lack of policy.

Of course, public policy, in the end, must comply with human nature. If people are basically selfish — and they are — then asking them to work hard yet earn no more than their unproductive neighbor is asking more than they'll readily give. But we already know that; communism has failed. We also know that mildly redistributive taxation does not snuff out the will to work. Between these two extremes is a large menu of policies. Each has its cost, but the cost is a product of plain old human selfishness — something that's not exactly news — and not of the human hunger for status per se.

Indeed, the hunger for status may actually lower the costs of redistribution. Humans, it seems, tend to compare themselves to those very near them in the status hierarchy — to those just above them, in particular.49 This makes evolutionary sense as a {257} ladder-climbing technique, but that's not the point. The point is that if the government takes a thousand dollars more from everyone in your middle-class neighborhood, you're in about the same position relative to your neighbors as you were before. So if keeping up with the Joneses is what drives you, your work incentive shouldn't be dampened as it would if calibrated in absolute monetary terms.

The modern view of social hierarchy also deals a heavy blow to one of the cruder philosophical excuses for inequality. As I've tried to stress, there is no reason to derive our values from natural selection's "values," no reason to deem "good" what natural selection has "deemed" expedient. Still, some people do. They say that hierarchy is nature's way of keeping the group strong, so inequality can be justified in the name of the greater good. Since it now looks as if nature didn't invent human hierarchies for the good of the group, that piece of logic is twice as flawed as it used to be.

The crowning (alleged) anthropomorphism in de Waal's book is its title, Chimpanzee Politics. If politics is, as political scientists say, the process by which resources are divvied up, then chimps demonstrate, in de Waal's view, that the origins of human politics long predate humanity. In fact, he sees not just a political process, but "even a democratic structure" at work in the Arnhem chimp colony.50 Alpha males have trouble ruling without the consent of the governed.

Nikkie, for example, lacked Luit's common touch and never became as popular as either Luit or Yeroen were during their tenures. The females were especially sparing in their submissive greetings, and when Nikkie was needlessly violent, they would pursue him en masse. On one occasion he was chased up a tree by the entire colony. There he sat, alone, surrounded, and screaming — the dominant male, dominated. Maybe this wasn't modern representative democracy, but it wasn't a very smooth dictatorship either. (There's no telling how long Nikkie would have stayed trapped had Mama, the troop's chief conciliator, not climbed the tree, given him a kiss, and led him back down, after which he humbly sought mass forgiveness.)51

Here's a useful exercise: when watching a politician speak on TV, turn down the volume. Notice the gestures. Note their similarity to the gestures politicians everywhere in the world use — exhortation, {258} indignation, and so on. Then turn up the volume. Listen to what the politician is saying. Here's a virtual guarantee: he (or, more rarely, she) is saying things that appeal to the group of voters most likely to get him into power or keep him there. The interests of the governed — or of some crucial slice of the governed — governs what human politicians say, just as it governs what chimpanzee politicians do. In both cases, the politician's ultimate aim (whether he knows it or not) is status. And in both cases we may see a certain flexibility as to what the politician is willing to do, or say, to get that status and keep it. Even the most stirring oratory can boil down to convenient coalition. In turning up the volume, you've capsulized several million years of evolution.


For all the suggestive parallels between ape and human striving, the differences remain large. Human status often has relatively little to do with raw power. It's true that overt physical dominance is often a key to social hierarchy among boys. But, especially in adults, the status story is much more complex, and in some cultures its plainly political aspects have been quite subdued. Here is one scholar's description of life among the Navajo: "No one who actively seeks power is to be trusted. Leaders arise out of example and emulation. If someone is successful at growing corn, he is emulated and to that extent is a leader. If someone knows many verses to a curing chant, he is respected for that accomplishment and his status as a 'singer' is considerable. Politicking, handshaking ... have no place in traditional Navajo society."52

This isn't to say that Navajos don't seek power — only that they seek it subtly. Nor is it to say that status is severed from the goal of reproductive advantage. The expert corn grower and the expert singer probably make for attractive mates. And it's easy to guess why; one has a knack for providing material resources and both show signs of intelligence. Still, these two Navajo didn't gain their reproductive advantage by physically intimidating or otherwise controlling people; they simply found their calling and excelled.

The range of things that can bring status in different cultures and subcultures is astonishing. Making beads, making music, delivering {259} sermons, delivering babies, inventing drugs, inventing tales, collecting coins, collecting scalps. Yet the mental machinery driving these various activities is fundamentally the same. Human beings are designed to assess their social environment, and, having figured out what impresses people, do it; or, having found what people disfavor, avoid it. They're pretty open-minded about what "it" is. The main thing is that they be able to succeed at it; people everywhere want to feel pride, not shame; to inspire respect, not disdain.

This tendency of humankind's psychic unity to hide behind behavioral diversity is what enabled the Boasian anthropologists to minimize human nature. Ruth Benedict wrote in 1934, "We must accept all the implications of our human inheritance, one of the most important of which is the small scope of biologically transmitted behaviour, and the enormous role of the cultural process of the transmission of tradition."53 Strictly speaking, she was right. Once you get past stereotyped acts such as walking, eating, and suckling, "behaviors" don't get transmitted biologically. Mental organs do, and they're usually limber enough to yield lots of different behaviors, depending on circumstance.

It is easy to see how the mental machinery of status seeking, in particular, eluded Benedict's emphasis. She studied the Zuni, who, like the nearby Navajo, play down competition and overt political striving. She wrote, "The ideal man in Zuni is a person of dignity and affability who has never tried to lead... . Any conflict, even though all right is on his side, is held against him... . The highest praise ... runs: 'He is a nice polite man.' "54 Note the subtext. There is an "ideal man," and anyone who approaches the ideal gets "praise," while anyone who falls short has his failure "held against him." In other words: the Zuni confer status on those who don't seek status too fiercely, and deny status to those who do. The very strength of the status-seeking machinery is what keeps Zuni status hierarchies subtle. (Also, as we've seen, the social infrastructure of reciprocal altruism tends in all cultures to exert some pressure toward friendliness, as well as generosity and honesty. Zuni culture may have harnessed this pressure with unusual efficiency, reinforcing the natural link between niceness and status.)

You can look at life among the Zuni as a tribute either to the {260} power of culture or to the suppleness of mental adaptations. It is both, but let's ponder the latter: mental organs, it seems, are so flexible that they can participate in a virtual rebellion against the Darwinian logic behind them. Though the status-seeking machinery lias long energized fistfights and macho politicking, it can also be used to suppress both. In a monastery, serenity and asceticism can be sources of status. In some strata of Victorian England, a nearly ludicrous amount of gentility and humility could help earn status (rather like among the Zuni, perhaps).

In other words, what we call cultural "values" are expedients to social success.55 People adopt them because other people admire them. By controlling a child's social environment, by selectively dishing out respect and scorn, we can program his values as if he were a robot. Some people find this troubling. Well, that just goes to show that you can't please everybody. During the sociobiology controversy of the 1970s, a major source of outrage was the fear that, if the sociobiologists were right, people couldn't be programmed as B. F. Skinner and other behaviorists had promised.

The new paradigm does have room for Skinnerian conditioning, complete with positive and negative reinforcement. To be sure, some drives and emotions — say, lust and jealousy — may never be wholly erasable. Still, the great moral diversity among cultures — that is, diversity in the tolerated behavioral expressions of, say, lust and jealousy — suggests much leeway in the values department. Such is the power of social approval and disapproval.

The big question is: How deeply can the patterns of approval and disapproval themselves be shaped? Or to put it another way: How flexible is society about what it will find pleasing?

Here, no doubt, lie some pretty firm tendencies. Social assets that mattered consistently during evolution may stubbornly continue to carry weight. Big strong men and beautiful women may always have a head start in status competition. Stupidity may never provoke widespread admiration. The command of resources — that is, money — will tend to hold a certain appeal. Still, resistance is possible. There are cultures and subcultures that try to put less emphasis on the material and more emphasis on the spiritual. And their success is sometimes impressive, if less than total. And, moreover, there is {261} no reason to believe that any of them have reached the limits of biological potential.

Even our own culture, for all its materialistic excess, starts to seem almost admirable when you look at some of the alternatives. Among the Yanomamo of South America, one route to status for a young man is to kill lots of men in neighboring villages.56 If, in the process, he can participate in the abduction and gang rape of women from that village, so much the better. If his wife tries to leave him for another man, he can feel free to, say, cut off her ears. At the risk of sounding morally nonrelativistic, we've come a long way.

In some modern urban neighborhoods, values have lately grown closer to those of the Yanomamo. Young men who kill get respect — at least within the circle of young men whose opinions they care about. This is evidence that the worst parts of human nature arc always near the surface, ready to rise when cultural restraint weakens. We are not blank slates, as some behaviorists once imagined. We are organisms whose more egregious tendencies can be greatly, if arduously, subdued. And a primary reason for this tenuous optimism is the abject flexibility with which status is sought. We will do almost anything for respect, including not act like animals. {262}