This is a theoretical snippet that my brother, Ben Winegard, and I worked on to (partially) explain the sundry problems that result from gross amounts of economic and social inequality. Inequality has increased dramatically in the United States since the 70’s, and has impelled the concerned warnings of many pundits, authors, and politically concerned citizens. Some authors maintain that rapidly expanding inequality doomed the Roman Republic. Although others think such claims are erroneous or hyperbolic, few would argue that dramatic inequality is healthy for a society.
We call our theory CST (cultural strategies theory), but it is clearly an extension of life history theory, an interesting theoretical edifice that was created and refined in the late 90’s and early 00’s. In our snippet, we focus on contemporary American inequality.
Cultural strategies theory, as we conceive of it, is a subtheory of life history theory (and closely related to Robson, Hill, Gurven and Kaplan’s model of “embodied capital”; see, Gurven, 2004; Hill & Kaplan, 1999; Robson & Kaplan, 2003), a relatively recent theory that analyzes the Darwinian logic behind the life cycle of organisms (Hawkes & Paine, 2006). According to life history theorists, an organism can devote (or allocate) energy to three basic processes: somatic growth, somatic maintenance, or reproductive efforts. Using energy on one process precludes using it on another, so organisms are presented with myriad trade-offs. A life history theorist attempts to discern the trade-offs and strategies that a particuliar organism (or group of organisms) “chose” and to determine the ultimate (fitness) reasons for those choices.
CST argues that cultural creatures face a similar set of choices about how to allocate energy (and time) in a cultural environment. Humans, to take the most culturally advanced species (Baumeister, 2005), face a number of decisions about how best to use their natural qualities and propensities in a given culture. Ceteris paribus, such decisions should maximize fitness; however, there are novel cultural creations and temptations that might decouple such decisions from ultimate fitness increases (e.g., becoming a celibate religious leader). Importantly, these decisions are heavily influenced by both relatively innate qualities (e.g., intelligence, athleticism) and environmental (cultural) variables. According to CST, the most fundamental division is between long-term and short-term cultural strategies. Both have necessary trade-offs, but each makes evolutionary sense in specific environments. For example, an intelligent human in a relatively affluent neighborhood with low mortality rates would probably benefit from a long-term investment strategy in intellectual and symbolic capital (Bourdieu, 1977) . However, an intelligent human in a neighborhood that is relatively poor, dangerous (high mortality rate), or unstable would not (Wilson & Daly, 1997; Nettle, Coall, & Dickins, 2011). Long-term strategies generally compel an early lack of status but recompense with a longer and larger peak of status; short-term strategies, on the other hand, offer early status, but the status is often ephemeral and is not ultimately as high.
From a life history perspective, these cultural strategies are entirely sensible. In a less favorable environment, spending many years of reading, studying, or practicing is not a good strategy because it might never payoff. Instead, it would make the most sense, in such an environment, to maximize status as early as possible, taking concrete fitness gains in exchange for potentially larger gains that might never materialize. Upon the other hand, in a safe and relatively affluent environment, spending years of reading, studying, or practicing is a good strategy (given certain phenotypic variables, e.g., intelligence, aptitude) because it often offers abundant returns. We think the same framework can be applied to morality and cultural norms. Moral systems are attached to specific cultural strategies, and they benefit some strategies more than others. In a society with constant and encouraged coalitional violence, long-term cultural strategies are at a disadvantage; in a society with low rates of violence and powerful legal norms, long-term strategies can flourish, and short-term strategies are at a cultural disadvantage. Humans enforce norms and morals not through force alone; they enforce them with status rewards and deductions (Graham & Haidt, 2010). If a person adheres to a moral code, she receives status; if she violates it, she loses status and if she violates it too egregiously, she gets shunned (loses almost all of her social status).
Large cultures–like nation states–often contain a variety of environments and therefore a variety of simultaneous cultural strategies. Sometimes this is healthy and the different groups (of strategies) are harmonized. Sometimes, however, it is volatile because the groups have competing interests. Large disparities in status can provoke envy and resentment as well as scorn and hostility between groups (Fiske, 2011). In the United States, income inequality has steadily increased since the late 1970s (Picketty & Saez, 2003). Further, this inequality has been very much concentrated in the top income brackets, i.e. most incomes have stagnated while the top 1/10th of 1% have seen their income growth dramatically increase (Hacker & Pierson, 2010). Evidence indicates that income inequality contributes to all kinds of social ills, ills that are the result of 1) the engagement of a large number of short-term cultural strategies and 2) a small amount of long-term cultural strategies dominating the cultural pool and 3) an increasing amount of status disparity, resulting in more pronounced status hierarchies and more intense status competition (Pickett & Wilkinson, 2010). As symbolic and intellectual capital begins to dominate a culture, those who cannot acquire it may become angry and resentful ( “they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them…” as President Obama (in)famously put it)–often almost completely detaching from the larger culture and creating a more favorable (from their perspective) subculture.
Perhaps those predicting doom for the United States (if it doesn’t change) are pessimistic prophets, inclined to see catastrophe everywhere; however, one shouldn’t dismiss such predictions lightly. There are good evolutionary reasons for believing that such inequality is pernicious and that, like rot in a large tree, it might be enough to split a superficially strong society asunder.
Baumeister, R.F. (2005). The cultural animal: Human nature, meaning, and social life. New York: Oxford University Press.
Bourdieu, P. (1977). An outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fiske, S.T. (2011). Envy up, scorn down: How status divides us. New York: Russell Sage.
Graham, J., Haidt, J. (2010). Beyond beliefs: Religions bind individuals into moral communities. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 14, 140-150.
Gurven, M. (2004). To give or give not: The evolutionary ecology of human food transfers. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 27, 543-583.
Hacker, J.S. & Pierson, P. (2010). Winner-take-all politics: How Washington made the rich richer-and turned its back on the middle class. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Hawkes, K., & Paine, R. R. (Eds.). (2006). The evolution of human life history. Santa Fe, NM: School of America Research Press.
Hill, K., & Kaplan, H. (1999). Life history traits in human: Theory and empirical studies. Annual Review of Anthropology, 28, 397-430.
Nettle, D., Coall, D.A., & Dickins, T.E., (2011). Early-life conditions and age at first pregnancy in British women. Proceedings of the Royal Society, 278, 1721-1727.
Pickett, K., & Wilkinson, R. (2010). The spirit level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger. New York: Bloomsbury.
Picketty, T., & Saez, E. (2003). Income inequality in the United States, 1913-1998. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118, 1-39.
Robson, A.J., & Kaplan, H.S. (2003). The evolution of human life expectancy and intelligence in hunter-gatherer economies. The American Economic Review, 93, 150-169.
Wilson, M., & Daly, M. (1997). Life expectancy, economic inequality, homicide, and reproductive timing in Chicago neighborhoods. British Medical Journal, 314, 1271-1274.
I just came across this and it’s great to see this way of thinking and combination of theories! I think you’re right that inequality changes the payoffs of long-term investment in things like education and preventative health, which manifest themselves in the health and social problems linked to inequality. This does create a different culture depending on socioeconomic status, especially due to future discounting.
I’d say that even traditional life history variables like early reproduction (teenage pregnancy) are influenced by inequality. I know that some outcomes have been explicity linked to inequality and explained using life history theory, but to my knowledge no-one has applied LH theory to the Spirit Level style evidence on such a range of outcomes, as a whole. I reckon most of them can be said to be LH variables. I’ve written an article on this at http://expansivepsychology.wordpress.com/2012/12/18/life-history-theory-and-inequality/ if you’re interested.
I quite agree that this area of research should inform policy, rather than countless education campaigns which are doomed to failure!
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I completely agree. And it is a shame that such voices (analyses) are so often absent from important social/political discussions. Some things are too important to leave to politicians. That is something a friend of mine used to say, and it seems germane.
I really enjoyed reading this and I agree with just about everything you’ve said here about the evolutionary logic behind the real danger of such extreme inequality. I’d like to add a few things as well:
While we often consider the variation in environment necessary to produce widely different cultural strategies in terms of differences in production systems (agricultural, industrial, pastoral, hunter gatherer etc.) or degrees of industrialization, but such differences are actually present within individual cities (Nettle, Colléony and Cockerill 2011). These disparities present themselves in terms of preventative health behavior (Nettle 2010), homicide rates (see Daly and Wilson), birth timings (see Geronimus) and parental investment (Lawson and Mace 2010) and are amplified by a combination of these factors to produce what can be seen as different niches at different social classes.
Rather than looking to intrinsic differences between groups of different classes, or ‘character’ problems such as laziness we need to use this evolutionary logic to unearth the forces driving inequality deeper into our societies.