How Prestige Ru[i]ns Our World, Part 1

I want to try something a little different. I’ve written a long piece on social comparison and radicalization in the age of the Internet, one of my central concerns at the moment and the primary reason for resurrecting this blog after several years of inactivity. Instead of dumping the whole thing in one post and hoping you’ll slog through to the end, as I did with my piece on the honor-cultured far Right, I’m gonna try dribbling this one out as a series of shorter, less intimidating posts. I hope you’ll find time to read and digest them all (and comment, if you’re so moved!), as the issues they touch upon are, I think, of increasingly grave concern.

From Agonistic Behavior to Dominance Hierarchy: An Evolutionary Parable


Picture a wild animal of your morphological choosing. It’s solitary and highly territorial. Outside the mating season most of its encounters with conspecifics take the form of agonistic clashes over resources. It has consequently evolved some fairly simple neurocognitive machinery for dealing effectively in these encounters. What it does, briefly put, is first assess the size of any competing conspecific relative to itself and then do one of two things: If the conspecific is clearly bigger, the animal flees; if it is roughly the same size or smaller, the animal attacks and attempts to drive it off.

Now, suppose the habitat of this animal shrinks dramatically, squeezing the entire population into a very limited (but still survivable) space and greatly increasing the encounter rate between individuals. This solitary species, in other words, is forced into a kind of impromptu sociality. Now, under these new conditions a rather remarkable thing will occur. The neurocognitive machinery that allowed these animals to deal adaptively with others in dyadic agonistic interactions will now, with no major evolutionary adjustments, sort them into a de facto dominance hierarchy (such hierarchies are in fact often mapped by ethologists simply by observing who defers to whom in all possible within-group dyads).

Dominance hierarchies are complex, conflict-minimizing, and thus fairly stable social arrangements (though, of course, individuals may rapidly change positions within the hierarchy), and this can make them look like finely honed adaptations. Indeed, one who discovered our hypothetical animals only after their population had been condensed might easily conclude that they’d been living socially for millions of years.

There’s a tendency, I think, among evolutionary psychologists and affiliated thinkers engaged in the modeling of complex social behaviors to read the abstract structure of their models back into both the deep cognitive architectures of the individuals comprising the modeled group and into the “logic” of the selective pressures and adaptive solutions that shaped those architectures. We might, for example, be tempted to assume that an animal in a complex, well-structured social hierarchy has in its head something like a detailed atemporal map of the various abstracted positions (alpha, beta, gamma, etc.) into which it regularly sorts and re-sorts itself and its cohabitants as they, and fortune, have their way with each other. But we shouldn’t prefer these sorts of complex, highly domain-specific, hyper-adaptationistic models to simpler, kluge-ier, satisficing ones unless and until good evidence compels us to do so.

The scenario sketched above, simplistic and hypothetical though it is, offers a sort of proof of concept that such dedicated cognitive sophistication isn’t necessary for the emergence and maintenance of a stable dominance hierarchy. In fact, this scenario is not purely hypothetical; Uyeda, et al. (2015) have documented the emergence of a “primarily size-based dominance hierarchy” among typically solitary water monitor lizards (Varanus salvator bivittatus) whose population has recently concentrated around a novel food source (human garbage sites). Though these animals are not ancestrally social, the presence of highly ritualized (i.e., nonlethal) combat among them suggests a history of frequent agonistic conflict, and it is likely that the cognitive structures that subserve this kind of combat were instrumental in the formation and maintenance of the dominance hierarchy into which this particular population has recently organized.

In beginning with such a tale, I want to put in your heads in a vivid way the notion of evolutionary pre-adaptation (or exaptation, as the famous biologist S. J. Gould preferred to call it). Novel adaptations often piggyback upon older ones or their byproducts, and for a fairly simple reason: Solutions to a new problem that make large use of pre-existing structures and processes are much easier to stumble upon in a random mutational walk than solutions requiring more numerous and dramatic genotypic changes. Our hypothetical case above is an extreme example in which no mutation at all was needed for a hierarchy-supporting psychology. Of course, this “solution” to the problem of population concentration would inevitably prove imperfect, and should these new social conditions persist over enough generations, we might well expect to see a number of evolved cognitive refinements on individual capacities to successfully live within a hierarchy. (e.g., improved abilities to recognize individual conspecifics, to remember the outcomes of previous agonistic encounters, and to make inferences as to whether one would be likely to prevail over a new individual by observing their dominance and submission behavior in interactions with individuals already known). But it’s worth appreciating just how much of the adaptive gruntwork involved in the formation of stable social hierarchies can be done by pre-existing cognitive equipment not dedicated, historically speaking, to this particular task.

In the posts to follow, I want to hypothesize a bit about hierarchy-related behavior and affect in humans and how technology may be modulating the underlying psychological systems in new and dramatic ways. Though I will attempt to situate many of the contributors to human hierarchical systems in evolutionary context, I take the account of the “hierarchical” monitor lizards as a cautionary tale and will endeavor to appeal in my explanations only to the simplest, best evidenced, and most phylogenetically grounded cognitive machinery adequate to the task.

My aim is to weave together a number of theoretic and evidential threads from a variety of disciplines—primatology, anthropology, psychology—into a coherent and convincing portrait of a little corner of our psyche that is, I think, responsible for a good deal of the chaos we now see in the world. It’s my hope that, once we’ve adequately characterized this part of ourselves and the ways in which it interacts with our environments, we may begin to make effective, morally salutary interventions in it.

Our journey must begin with an important clarification, for human hierarchies are unlike most animal hierarchies in at least one significant respect: While nonhuman animals typically attempt to procure resources and social influence by force, humans often acquire these goods by impressing others who then give them up willingly. That is to say, we have largely swapped a system of status-seeking based on dominance for a system based on prestige. This shift, I think, has radically altered—and expanded—the ways in which we compete with each other.

In the next Part, I’ll attempt to reconstruct the natural history of this novel status system, using evidence from chimpanzees and bonobos to identify likely pre-adaptations possessed by the last common ancestor we shared with them. Particular attention will be drawn to our unique, bisexual dispersal pattern and the challenges of ingratiating ourselves within social groups composed largely of genetic nonrelatives.

In Part 3, I’ll address an apparent evolutionary puzzle: why both chimpanzees/bonobos and humans in developed nations live in often extremely steep social hierarchies while nomadic hunter-gatherers (and, presumably, our hominin ancestors) are highly, even adamantly, egalitarian. My central claim will be that the suite of mental pre-adaptations undergirding our ability to compete for prestige will jointly yield different (i.e., egalitarian or hierarchical) social organizations depending on ecological, structural, and economic context. The first half of this section will be specifically concerned with the emergence of egalitarianism out of a background of hierarchical behavior, while the second half will focus on the re-emergence of hierarchy out of a background of egalitarianism.

Part 4 will take us out of the realm of anthropology and into the realm of psychology as we take a closer look at some of the individual cognitive and affective contributors to our prestige-competitive behavior. I’ll focus particularly on what psychologists call the local dominance effect and on what I’m going to call the upward comparison dominance effect, and on how these interact with our more general aversion to inequitable outcomes. I’ll also discuss a partial consilience between my views and Dr. Marilyn Brewer’s Optimal Distinctiveness Theory.

Part 5 will examine the effects of the Internet and social media on our prestige-competitive behavior. I will attempt to show how the social environment created by platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—an environment that increasingly overlaps with the physical environment of our day-to-day experiences—stokes status anxieties and incentivizes increasingly radical behaviors as prestige-seeking signals, with worrisome consequences.

Finally, Part 6 will offer a brief wrap-up and a glance forward, posing some additional questions and attempting to limn some avenues to solutions.

More will likely be added in the future, pending your feedback and any further insights. Look for Part 2 in a few days.

This is Part 1 of a series on prestige competition and its broader contemporary effects. For other parts, click below (updated as they go live).

Part 2: From Dominance Hierarchy to Prestige Hierarchy

Part 3: From Hierarchy to Egalitarianism to Hierarchy Again

Part 4: The Prestige Complex

Part 5: Dr. Praiselove or: How I Learned to Start Worrying and Loathe the Internet

Part 6: Taking Stock and Looking Ahead


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