Elite envy

Robin Hanson writes:

Consider: what elites did foragers worry most about? Foragers worried most about elite capacity for violence, and an inclination to use it. They also worried lots about unequal access to food and shelter, and to tools useful for all these things. So foragers enforced strong norms against giving orders or doing violence, and norms favoring sharing of food, shelter, and tools. In these senses foragers were egalitarian.

However, foragers worried far less about unequal capacities for art, music, conversation, charm, social popularity, or sex appeal. After all, in a forager world unequal capacities of these sort just couldn’t go anywhere near as horribly wrong as unequal violence or food. Because of this humans seem evolved to tolerate, and even celebrate, unequal abilities in art, popularity, or sex appeal.

As human populations are the descendants of those who survived AND were reproductively successful, I am not sure that Hanson is drawing a useful distinction. If men tolerated inequality in resources OR inequality in mating opportunities when they could do something about it, they would have lower than maximum fitness.

The other conflating factor is that these features – wealth, art, appearance, popularity and so on – are all signals to the opposite sex. Lack of tolerance of income inequality is likely to reflect the effect on reproductive success as much as the consequences for survival. Further, individuals are likely to be better across a spectrum of these traits, with more popular and attractive males also having higher income.

Assuming Hanson is correct in assuming that people worry more about resource scarcity than inequality in abilities in art, sex appeal or popularity, is this because abilities in art, sex appeal or popularity are more difficult to fake? In contrast, excess resources could be acquired through violence (although ability to successfully acquire resources through violence is also difficult to fake). Inequality in sex appeal or popularity can go wrong, but there are more limited means to rectify it. If the ugliest man in the tribe kills the most attractive, he is still the ugliest. The benefits to killing the attractive man would be because he has resources and the killing may raise status, not because it reduces sex appeal inequality.

One interesting piece of evidence about income versus reproductive inequality is about to emerge. As the excess of men in China and India pass through their reproductive prime in the next 20 years, what will trigger the more trouble – inequality in resources or inequality in mating opportunities? We should be able to contrast different regions in those two countries. There may be difficulty disentangling the two as income inequality and inequality in reproductive success are likely to be highly correlated, but the evidence is mounting that excess men are a recipe for trouble.


  1. Studies have consistently shown that life in foraging groups is more violent than in farming societies. Around 20 to 30% of foraging men die by violence among themselves. This is in addition to the vagaries of the hunt. Women suffer lower but similar losses due to violence, usually by men. 

    The most obvious reason for intolerance of in-group (!) violence and economic inequality is group cohesion. A foraging groups depends strongly on cooperation for survival and the acquisition of food. Anything that disrupts cohesion is dangerous. Ultimately, cohesion promotes reproduction and is selected for under Darwinian theory.However, there is always a tension between altruism/cooperation and selfishness/violence. Selfish/violent people benefit from the altruism/pacivity of others, and selfishness/violence  is also selected for. So in any foraging group there is a sort of equilibrium between cohesive and disruptive behaviors. Foraging groups have less ability to police behavior, so the range of individual behaviors in foraging groups is much larger than that in farming groups. The important point is that both kinds of behavior have advantages and disadvantages and that there is selection for and against both.

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