Thursday, February 3, 2011

Whence minority rule?

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.


Nate Davis said...

It's worth noting that the social pyramid is here a description of nation-states which employ specialized labor and centralized, permanent politic positions. This is not a necessary organization for human society, but one that's in all likelihood emergent from particular subsistence patterns.

Early ethnographers in highland Papua New Guinea, for example, noted the pervasive prevalence of individual action, and the almost total lack of political power. There were big men, of course, but they didn't have the power of coercion, and if there was no man present who didn't have the necessary skills, they would simply go without a big man. But when a big man was present, he had huge amounts of prestige, and could leverage the exchange networks between groups, and have a kind of persuasive power born of his abilities and individual action. So there was still a kind of hierarchy, but not the kind of deeply embedded, permanently political kind of system with which we're most familiar.

Obviously, there is hierarchy among animals as well. Among mandrills, there is a very tight correlation between the saturation of red in the face and dominance within the society, and of course there are many postulations as to that relationship, most dealing with differences in hormones. Gorillas maintain dominance by being able to effectively navigate and control the physical spaces in which their harems reside. Social foragers in general seem to gravitate toward a top-down structure: canids, equids, many birds...

What's the difference between social animals and the highlanders of Papua New Guinea? Is there something different going on amongst humans, besides scale and complexity? And what's the difference between nation-state structure and that of the highlanders?

I'm not so sure. Behavior is messy, complex, and seems to be only loosely and varyingly defined by rote biological fact. Animals - and humans, if the distinction must be made - act however they can with what they have at any given time. I think it may be only hubris that forces us to somehow call one set of behaviors abiological.

My intuition, then, is that humans are animals doing animal stuff, and the hierarchies which are constructed around us by us are similar, at a deep "grammatical" level, to those shared by our animal brethren. It's complicated by the extremeness of our sociality, and the kinds of deeply complex environments which are thus built up around us.

Of course, one might just as well ask why, ultimately, animals in general behave as they do, and a dozen ethologists will give you different answers. So it goes.

Ken Weiss said...

This is a thoughtful comment and seems to be on target. Indeed, our next post gets at the question of whether there are 'laws' of social organization (culture, in the case of humans) just as there are laws of physics. If not, why not? As Herbert Spencer long ago observed, we're physical beings so we must be the product of physical nature.

Even ethologically, we know that like humans, other animals have variable social structures that differ in different or changing environments.

It's all too easy to say this is 'in their genes', but if the social structure is responsive to conditions, that what is it, exactly that's in their genes?

If (for example) dominance (big-men in the case of humans) is so important, how could there be any variation left in the responsible genes? There are several possible answers, but one of them is that everyone has a (or the) 'dominance' genotype but who is actually dominant is a matter of happenstance--and that, if this evolved for some Darwinian adaptive purpose, even if that was a matter of individual competition, nowadays it functionally has to do with group success or something like that--something that keeps mutation from removing dominance behaviors.

But what if social structures in humans or other species is not about individual genotypic competition? Then are there basic principles--not just descriptive generalizations--that constitute 'laws' involved?

And if so, do we or did our academic forebears know what they are? And if not, how can we find them? Or could this really be out of the realm of what currently constitutes 'science'? In a physically law-like world, how could that be true?

These are important questions to try to answer.

Anne Buchanan said...

Nate, thanks for your thoughts on this question. It is curious when, as Ken says, social order in many different species can change in response to changing environments, and when animals, including humans, can challenge each other for dominance. And, when behaviors that seem to be antithetical to our innate drive to survive and reproduce -- suicide, abortion, infanticide -- are not uncommon, what exactly is driving us? Yes, we're biological animals, but what is it that's innate?