Egalitarians R (Not) Us

Posted: July 9, 2011 in Culture, Economics, Science

Several things stand out in this article in the NY Times, among them the tiresome attempt to tease behavioral characteristics out of hunter-gatherer cultures and apply them or at least draw parallels to modern First Worlders. I see this all the time in online discussions of evolutionarily advantaged cultural practices, a questionable concept itself worth distinguishing from immediate survivability. Most of the time, the author appears to be some yahoo with a high school understanding of biology and no real understanding of anthropology trying to combine the two. Or is the writing merely dumbed down for the audience? (My own expertise does not extend to these fields, so maybe I’m in a poor position to judge, but I’m extremely skeptical nonetheless of unsupported claims, hypothetical explanations, and cherry-picked details torn from context.)

Natalie Angier (the author linked to above) has numerous articles in the NY Times science section, including these recent titles:

  • Opossums: A Fast Life and Success That Starts in the Pouch
  • Much More to Jellyfish Than Plasma and Poison
  • Serotonin, Our Utility Hormone, Still Surprises
  • Humans and Animals: An Ancient and Complex Bond
  • New Caledonian Crows Owe Their Toolmaking Skills to a Nourishing Nest
  • Searching for the Source of Our Fountains of Courage
  • Musk Oxen (Ovibos moschatus) Tell a Tale of Survivors

I suspect a substantial discontinuity exists between behavioral data aggregated over diverse populations and long stretches of time and the responses we exhibit to the short-term, rapidly shifting incentives of modern life (not those dealing with actual survival pressure on the savanna but more typically those about maximizing profit). But Angier doesn’t let that stop her from a whiplash-inducing shift from snapshots of Ache hunter-gatherers in eastern Paraguay,¬†!Kung bushmen of the Kalahari in Africa, and Hadza foragers of northern Tanzania to “top American executives,” who represent the peaks of hierarchies that are far less pronounced in, shall we say, less developed cultures.

Subsistence cultures often adopt behaviors such as insulting the meat of a successful hunter to discourage pride and to encourage sharing. (The urban poor have similar coping mechanisms.) But this is not the case in cultures of abundance, where power hierarchies emerge and those who manage to scramble to the top quickly pull up the ropes and ladders behind them. Obviously, incentives differ between haves and have-nots. History has shown the former are fairly uniformly prone to corruption and cravenness. The latter would probably go there, too, but for their limited resources.

Angier traces a line, perhaps unintentionally, from childish egalitarianism and zealous devotion to fairness (read: the limbic or reptile brain) to adult acceptance of the necessity of unfairness. Here’s the really nasty part:

When given a mild anti-anxiety drug that suppressed the amygdala response, subjects still said they viewed an 80-20 split as unjust, but their willingness to reject it outright dropped in half.

So what portion of the public is being prescribed antidepressants? The most recent numbers I could find were reported in USA Today in 2009:

About 10% of Americans — or 27 million people — were taking antidepressants in 2005, the last year for which data were available at the time the study was written. That’s about twice the number in 1996, according to the study of nearly 50,000 children and adults in today’s Archives of General Psychiatry. Yet the majority weren’t being treated for depression. Half of those taking antidepressants used them for back pain, nerve pain, fatigue, sleep difficulties or other problems, the study says.

How easy is it to connect the dots? If the rate of usage doubled from 1996 to 2005, what must it be now, six years later? If I were a fascist or other controlling type and sought ways of getting the public to acquiesce to authority, accept injustice unblinkingly, and forgo civil rights, what could possibly be better than medicating the public into submission? Some egalitarian instinct we have.

  1. halsmith says:

    Thanks for the link; I found the Times article interesting and believable.

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