Well, no science post today. We're spending too much time watching live footage from Egypt. Not only do we, as Americans and people fortunate enough to live in a democracy, sympathize with the protestors, but our daughter is now living and teaching music in a conservatory in Palestine, amidst people for whom occupation is a constant fact of life (and we sit here smugly, the occupiers of North America, who put its prior indigenous inhabitants essentially in permanent refugee camps).
But in addition to the sense of unfairness about human politics in so many places, this leads us to muse about how it is that human societies manage to establish minority rule, often cruel minority rule. How is it that a small number of people can control the lives of a much larger number?
The evolutionary basis of inequality is perhaps interesting but not the answer. Social hierarchies cannot be put down to the leaders' better intelligence or belligerence genes. Even if dominance were genetic, its evolution over countless generations in small demes would largely have fixed the responsible genes, so that most positions in the dominance hierarchy would be due to chance or something other than genes.
Social pyramids are something different. One person leverages several others by dint of personality or resources or something, and they in turn leverage a larger number. Those at the top control information, resources, education, and so on. They then control acculturation, beliefs (including the belief that the boss deserves to be boss because of some religious or political ideology), and so on.
But these are descriptions of what happens, even in democracies. Yet it seems inevitable regardless of ideology, as communist countries surely and clearly showed. Hierarchies are of all sorts, some more rigid than others, but they are found at all levels of society. It's easy, one might say, to see why organizations from families to teams to clubs to governments function only when they have leaders and followers, but again description is not what's interesting to us from a biological point of view.
From that point of view, how do minorities manage to control majorities? Is the answer to be found in physiology or genetics in any useful sense? Or is it, as the founders of modern (and hence pre-postmodern) social scientists argued, something that must be explained in terms of social, rather than biological facts--that is, that society's structures may be manned by biological organisms, but the nature and evolution of those structures has its own properties independent of the biological details: hierarchies can exist in any population with any set of genotypes. Are there some properties or principles by which such social facts can be explained, and if so are they like 'laws of Nature'? Could it be otherwise, and if not, why?
These are thoughts that come to us as we watch the struggles now going on in the Middle East.