University Greek Systems are Natural Experiments for Multi-Level Selection Theory (Waiting to be Investigated)

The photo on the left made the internet rounds & pictures a student on her way to the District 4 polls in the one of the chauffeured limos

The photo on the left made the internet rounds & pictures a student on her way to the District 4 polls in the one of the chauffeured limos. This ironic composition is anonymous.

I was talking with a UA EvoS student & member of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority the other day about the current controversy here in Tuscaloosa.  Last week, a municipal school board election was essentially bought by greek-backed candidates.  This student is a personal friend of one of the challengers whose win in the election is fraught with accusations of fraud & bribery.  “The greek kids,” she told me (& I am paraphrasing here)—meaning the kids in the fraternities & sororities–

think you guys are against them.  They think it’s a greek vs. non-greek thing.  They don’t know why you’re all so upset because they think they were just voting for their friend or one of their own & then got to go to a party, as with everything else they do.  They don’t understand the implications for the community or even really what they were voting for.

It’s not a greek vs. non-greek thing.  I think the greek system is fascinating.  Furthermore, as someone who found his way to anthropology by taking a course as an undergrad called “Cults, the Occult, & Secret Societies,” I think The Machine—the secret society known to control most of the greek system at UA & decide all significant on-campus elections—is spectacularly intriguing (pun intended).  In fact, I’ve been prodding students for years to consider a bio-cultural study of the greek system because it is a great natural experiment that can provide insight into numerous outcomes related to sub-cultural models, socioeconomic disparities, entrenched racial disparities, and an array of sex & gender-related issues.

This artistic rendering was left anonymously on my door the other day, perhaps by someone who thinks I don't like the greeks?  The greeks are an important part of our campus diversity!

This artistic rendering was left anonymously on my door the other day, perhaps by someone who thinks I don’t like the greeks? The greeks are an important part of our campus diversity!

But first a little background is warranted.  The University of Alabama has what is among the largest greek fraternity/sorority systems in the country.  UA has set records for number of girls rushing to be accepted into a sorority for at least the past 3 years.  This year, 2,112 girls pledged sororities here during rush week.  Much of the greek system here has a considerable heritage dimension in Alabama & require significant investments to join.  The cost of joining a fraternity or sorority varies if a pledge is accepted.  My understanding is that the multicultural & African-American houses cost less than the historically white ones & that the more exclusive houses entail an additional $2k/year tuition (which, in addition to purported sponsorship by Bud Light, means that they have tremendous economic capital around here).  And, yes, while they do not have public policies of exclusion, the numerous houses have resisted even forced integration, managing to ignore University dictates in that regard.  How do they manage to ignore such a policy in the face of such a charged issue?  The Machine.

The Machine is the (worst-kept) secret society controlling Greek & Student Government Association (SGA) politics at the UA.  It has been investigated by journalists numerous times, most recently by the HBO series Vice (or so I am told, as this has yet to air), & was brought to national attention perhaps most prominently via a 1992 Esquire cover storyIt officially began in 1914 as the Alpha Rho chapter of Theta Nu Epsilon.  As a secret organization, its officers are largely unknown even to those they represent, but there are numerous students past & present who verify personal contact with Machine officers.  For instance, a local reporter who recently interviewed me about the election controversy told me that she used to date the Machine president when she was in college.  While the Machine primarily controls University student politics, it also puts up & backs candidates in local & state politics.  The Machine is a training ground for public office, schooling its candidates on how to run & steal elections, & it has deep coffers.  Numerous state-level politicians can be traced to the Machine from their days at UA & continue to receive its support throughout their careers.

In the recent municipal election, school board candidates Lee Garrison & Cason Kirby were reportedly Machine-backed, as both are UA alumni, former Greeks, & Kirby is a former SGA president (there are a gajillion news pieces on this story already, but here is an editorial on the situation out today).  They were part of a power grab intended to displace the entire current school board to achieve their ends (see 3rd bullet here) & raised nearly $200k to promote that effort.  Ultimately, only 3 of their candidates were successful (one ran unopposed) but were successful specifically because of their power to bring out a university student vote (Denise Hills won 5/7 districts, but District 4, which holds the entire UA campus, housing, & greek houses, tipped the balance to Lee Garrison).  As I stated, there are currently allegations of voter fraud, due the registering of multiple Sigma Nu fraternity guys who live outside one district at the home of another brother in the district Kirby was running for.  There are also allegations of bribery, as fraternities  & sororities linked to Garrison & Kirby paid for free drinks at local establishments for students who voted & encouraged them to vote for Garrison & Kirby.

This type of organization makes a perfect case study for hypotheses related to multi-level selection (also known, vulgarly, as group selection).  In other words, in asking “how are the potentials of individuals elevated by being members of a select group?,” we can look to university greek systems & especially the large & influential system at Bama to test specific questions.  Ergo, one could potentially test the prediction that being a member of a Machine fraternity or sorority enhances the opportunities of individual members for success while they are university students & throughout their lives.  Or the prediction that, taken as a whole, there are more successful alum from Machine-backed fraternities & sororities than from non-Machine ones or from a similar sample of non-greek students.  A few years ago, psychologist Rosanna Guadagno (now at NSF) & I began a study along these lines, though we did not focus on the Machine per se.  Our study was handed off to a series of students & a paper is currently making the rounds of review, but what we essentially found is that the greek system reinforces traditional gender stereotypes & accords with standard Sexual Strategies Theory.  Frat guys notoriously put high value in & seek promiscuous intercourse opportunities while sorority girls avoid promiscuity & closely guard their limited reproductive resources.

And, frankly, I am surprised that Ed Wilson, as a UA alum who is doubtless familiar with the Machine, has not also used them as an example in his promotion of multi-level selection theory.  As heritage organizations, Machine fraternities & sororities are only open to kids from backgrounds of white privilege in Alabama.  While going through the rite of passage that is college &, furthermore, the notorious rites associated with pledging, these students enter what is essentially an age-grade, which is a social organization based on age that persists throughout one’s life.  This is a developmentally significant period of time, as one’s early twenties are when most people make their lifelong friends.  And this is a period of the consolidation of power & influence, as attested by the ability of this student group to control elections historically & of this year’s Machine-backed candidates to garner nearly $200k in support from a state-wide political action committee.  Most importantly, this is the most salient period for reproductive success, when courtship behaviors are in overdrive, mating (not just sex, but actual kid-having) takes off in earnest, & power-coupling is not just a high school homecoming conceit (witness Lee Garrison’s ex-wife has been embroiled in scandal with Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange).

In saying all this though, I do not want to fall into the trap that the power of the Machine is a foregone conclusion, as have many fatalistic locals in Tuscaloosa, any more than I want to reify the misconception that evolutionary tendencies are destiny.  In considering greek systems & the biology the groups & individuals represent, it is important to recall the critical component of all Darwinian scenarios—variety.  To maintain a healthy ecosystem capable of adapting to changing conditions, variation is key.  The greek system is not the only system in play, & the levels of selection exist not only within the greek system but around it.  Ethics & morality are evolved capacities of social species, & the ultimate crystallization of social ethics & morality is the rule of law.  Laws are the codification of ethical/moral systems of groups vying against each other in Darwinian cooperation to constrain the real & potential nastiness of dog-eat-dog competition that vulgarly & incorrectly characterize evolutionary processes.  The Machine may have very well over-reached in its ecosystem this time because it is ethically & morally outrageous to a majority of people that a transient student population has bought an election that will have long-term consequences for local children.  And, yes, this directly affects my children & my friends’ children & my children’s friends, so I, aside from my academic interest, I am also downright pissed off!

My kids & wife at the polls supporting our district rep, Kelly Horwitz

My kids & wife at the polls supporting our district rep, Kelly Horwitz

In this case, we have numerous examples of variation inside & outside the greek system & as part of the larger ecosystem that maintain its robustness.  We have individual students working from the inside against the Machine, whistle-blowers who don’t believe in vote-buying.  Several greek students have shared emails & Facebook messages with the press that they were sent by advisers in their houses telling them who to vote for & what rewards they would receive for voting.  This may lead to legal action that thwarts Machine efforts in this case, or at least causes them to be less arrogant & obvious in their power-grabbing attempts.  Outside the Machine there are numerous people who have fought against them over the years, &, while they have not necessarily “won,” neither have their efforts hampered their own success.  Joe Scarborough of MSNBC is one example of someone who ran against Machine candidates & was vocal in his efforts & has gone on to national prominenceMany others have gone one to prominence in local & state politics.  And in pitching in to help with the current battle for my district’s school board representative, I have met two local reporters who admitted past associations with the Machine & subsequent moves away from it.

ABC 33/40 – Tuscaloosa Municipal Election Controversy

So, students take note, this would not be an easy path for your academic career, but it is a ripe fruit waiting to be selected!

Christopher Lynn

About Christopher Lynn

Christopher Dana Lynn is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama, where he directs the Evolutionary Studies program.  Chris teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in biological anthropology, human sexuality, evolution, biocultural medical anthropology, and neuroanthropology.  He received his Ph.D. in Biological Anthropology in 2009 from the University at Albany, SUNY, where his doctoral focus was on the influence of speaking in tongues on stress response among Pentecostals.  Chris runs a human behavioral ecology research group where the objectives include studying fun gimmicky things like trance, religious behavior, tattooing, and sex as a way of introducing students to the rigors of evolutionary science.  In all his “free” time, he breaks up fights among his triplet sons, enjoys marriage to the other Loretta Lynn, strokes his mustache, and has learned to be passionate about Alabama football (Roll Tide!).  Follow Chris on Twitter: @Chris_Ly
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One Response to University Greek Systems are Natural Experiments for Multi-Level Selection Theory (Waiting to be Investigated)

  1. Carmi Turchick says:

    Of course, these kinds of things happen many places. When I was a student activist I ran for student senate at the U of Arizona, twice. The second time the campus paper’s annual endorsement article was primarily about why everyone should vote for me. I worked my butt off. There was a record turnout that year and I narrowly failed to get elected. Had turnout been average I would have easily made it in with my vote total.
    But an interesting thing happened during that election. Mysteriously someone “broke into” the elections office and stole numerous blank voting forms. On the day of the election an elections official approached me and said I may have a serious problem. There were verified reports of multiple people in suits giving out voting forms with my name pre-checked. Were they my friends? I simply stated that I would be shocked if any of my friends owned a suit, and this was so clearly true that they did not pursue this attempt to frame me any further.
    I found out from someone who later became a member of Congress who the culprits were, members of the Young Republicans who were also of course part of the Greek system.

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