why we want it, how we get it
Unrelated to this post, but I am mentioning it because of its connection to the familiar Klingian distinction between easy to fix and hard to break. The article in the link below claims that the smoke that the parts of the United States are experiencing from Canadian forest fires is so intense because Canadian forest managers don't set many small controlled fires (easy to fix), so they get less frequent but much larger and uncontrollable fires (hard to break).
The Henderson article has extended comments from both men and women on the effect of women's entrance into previous all male domains such as business management and staff. These comments from actual participants are quite consistent with Arnold's earlier comments on the topic pointing out the problems that arise from female values coming into play in formerly male dominated large systems.
From a political perspective, the Henderson approach to status might be interpreted as a rationalization of the “successful business people ought to run the world” strain of anti-populist political theory perhaps best exemplified by Larry “force behaviors” Fink and Peter “democracy is incompatible with freedom” Thiel (who is a citizen of three different countries). Let’s call it the Fink-Thiel School. Henderson’s theory that status achievement is key to human evolution seems congruent with the currently popular notion that “people are not equal in any possible way, the rich and powerful are simply better than you and me and we should be appropriately deferential to their superior wisdom.” This notion is foundational to the currently popular craze for supranational organizations to displace local government and manage human welfare from on high. By making the achievement of status central to what it means to be human, Henderson implicitly values high status individuals as more worthy and their dominance as entirely natural and irresistible..
Historically, such a world view appears doomed and likely to produce widespread misery. Perhaps the most successful nation every run by rich businessmen was the Venetian republic. Yet, the dominance of the few was what inevitably led to stagnation and Venice’s decline:
In the Republic of Venice, as seemingly was common throughout Europe, economic inequality tended to grow monotonically from the fifteenth century until the end of the early modern period (which is also the end of the Republic of Venice as a specific political entity).
Generally speaking, this inequality growth could not simply be considered the consequence of economic growth, as it also covered phases of economic stagnation. Indeed, the Italian domains of the Republic of Venice transitioned, over the period 1500-1900, from being one of the richest and most advanced areas of Western Europe, to being one of the poorest. Partly as a consequence of this, it is very unlikely that during the period, and especially from 1600 on, inequality growth could have taken place in a context of easy upward social mobility.
Our research aims to measure rates of socio-economic mobility in different periods, based on a range of case studies, including the large and very important city of Verona. Our results so far confirm that during the early modern period inequality growth came to be increasingly associated with more difficult upward socio-economic mobility.
This provides useful hints about the nature and the causes of inequality growth in pre-industrial Europe. We pay particular attention to the role played by state taxation in consolidating the relative position of the richest, while compromising the ambitions of upward mobility of other socio-economic groups.”
Sounds a lot like the United States today.
In contrast, the Netherlands whose egalitarian, democratic, and decentralized governance flourished until recently crushed by the EU. In Pioneers of Capitalism, Prak and Luiten Van Zanden argue:
“Dutch capitalism was rooted in circumstances that were also available to people in other parts of Europe: regional markets, urbanization, local institutions of self-governance, technologies that were increasingly easy to access. Two however, stand out as specific to the western areas of the Netherlands. The first was the ecological bottleneck that was overcome during the late Middle Ages by a commercialization of the countryside and the expansion of overseas trade. This forced the Netherlands onto a path of early and intense market orientation The second was the establishment of a federal state during the Dutch Revolt that left local autonomy intact. This gave the Dutch ‘punch’ on the international stage, while maintaining the advantages of ‘agency’ for (local) civil society and the economic activities that emerged from those local contexts.”
Perhaps in the long term, the US might still be saved from its trajectory of doom if it were to revisit the imposition of faux-federalism at the tragedy in Philadelphia. Shorter term, one might do well to be cautious in endorsing any political candidate associated with either Fink or Thiel.
Based upon the quotes from the Henderson lecture presented here, it would seem that there may be wide disparities in the interpretation of the hunter-gatherer record among economists and others. A nearly completely opposite interpretation, for example, is afforded in the chapter on our hunter-gatherer heritage in economist John M. Gowdy’s Ultrasocial: The Evolution of Human Nature and the Quest for a Sustainable Future https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/ultrasocial/our-huntergatherer-heritage-and-the-evolution-of-human-nature/F0FAE24179317811BE1420E9BA5A290E
Henderson places status at the center of reproductive success:
“It’s possible that there were early humans who didn’t care much about status or reproduction. They might’ve only cared about safety, survival, and didn’t concentrate on attracting mates or having children. They didn’t reproduce. Those early humans are not our ancestors.”
For Gowdy, who embraced a “mosaic” view of human evolution, brain plasticity and early child development are key: “Two features of the human brain are particularly important to sociality and gene-culture co-evolution: brain plasticity and the existence of specific neurons that may facilitate social interaction.” He quotes Wexler “There is an evolutionary advantage for life forms that reproduce sexually because mixing of genetic material from parents produces variety in their offspring. Thus, different individuals have different characteristics, which increases the likelihood that some members of the group will be able to function and reproduce even when the environment in which the group lives changes. In an analogous manner, the distinctive postnatal shaping of each individual’s brain function through interaction with other people, and through his or her own mix of sensory inputs, creates an endless variety of individuals with different functional characteristics. This broadens the range of adaptive and problem-solving capabilities will beyond the variability achieved by sexual reproduction.”
And Gowdy touches on the more speculative realm of economic neurons: ”Another remarkable feature of the human brain is the presence in the human brain of Von Economo neurons that apparently evolved to enable people to make rapid decisions in social contexts. These neurons are located in cortical areas positioned at the interface between emotional and cognitive processing...Among hunter-gatherers fusing and splitting was seasonal, with small bands being the group type for most of the year but coming together to form larger groups when resource availability permits. In this kind of social organization groups are continually changing in composition. Allman et al.69 suggest that Von Economo neurons help humans to adjust quickly to social situations:
We hypothesize that VENs and associated circuitry enable us to reduce complex social and cultural dimensions of decision-making into a single dimension that facilitates the rapid execution of decisions. Other animals are not encumbered by such elaborate social and cultural contingencies to their decision-making and thus do not require such a system for rapid intuitive choice.
In humans, most of these neurons are formed after birth and develop according to environmental influences, again pointing to the blurred line between heredity and socialization.”
Citing various sources, Gowdy further argues status hierarchy is more an agricultural society innovation: “Dyble et al.101 found that human hunter-gatherer bands, in contrast to other great ape social groups, have “fluid social networks where family units are relatively autonomous, with couples and their children moving often between bands, living with the kin of either the husband or the wife.” They present an agent-based model showing that if men and women are equally likely to decide the group of residence after marriage (with the husband’s family or the wife’s family) the result will be the observed relatively low within-group relatedness. By contrast, DNA analysis of early agricultural communities (about 4,000 years ago) in the Lech River valley in Bavaria found evidence of patrilocality, and social differentiation based on gender and class”
Achieving status would not seem to be such a reproductively-rewarding strategy if social groups were not stable.
Gowdy concludes: “Our long history as hunter-gatherers tells us that (1) it is not “human nature” to be greedy and exploitative and (2) hierarchical and repressive societies are not “natural” to the human condition. Pogo was wrong. The enemy is not “us” but rather the peculiar economic system we stumbled into 10,000 years ago.”
There are also appears to be some disagreement on basic facts.
Henderson states “humans were nomadic hunter gatherers roughly spanning 300,000 years ago up until about 12,000 years ago before the agricultural revolution.” Gowdy says: “as late as the year 1500, one-third of the habitable part of the planet was occupied exclusively by hunter-gatherers.”
Lorenzo Warby also has a substack out today that covers this territory and which also seems to offer alternative interpretations.
People want to fit in AND to stand out. Be included yet have higher status. It is stretching these truths a bit to combine them with agency/action and feeling/care morality issues - yet also they're related because morality itself is part of wanting to fit in, yet also striving for "moral superiority" (status!).
Tracking status (hierometer) and inclusion/communion (sociometer) are clearly done a bit by most folks, but it's good to be honest about it and what it means. The most politically important point was Henderson's Wrangham quote:
"…humans domesticated themselves to be kind, loyal, and cooperative with their in-group. And absolutely vicious to outsiders, to the out-group."
This explains so much so often about "how humans are".
In market economies most folk DO trust most sellers most of the time, especially bankers. Yes, it should be verified they're not ripping you off (too smart), and also checked that they've filled out all the paper work (incompetent) - but most folk free ride w/o checking based on "the market" (=other people) doing enough checking that they don't have to.
In thinking of the 2000-2008 MBS fiasco, it was a few smart bankers correctly noting ways to make higher short term profits, while ignoring systemic risks. Then these smart pioneers' deals are copied & copied until the system's high riskiness resulted in huge, downward spiraling losses. More lazy thinking rather than smart cheating or dumb mistakes. The lazy rich should have lost, hugely, rather than getting bailed out by the gov't -- and their losses would have made the rich more careful. (The bailout also keeps the high status folk rich)
Instead ... more risky short term profits with somewhat socialized risks. At least SVB equity investors lost. More banking equity should be required of all banks, with less regulations.
I misread the title and subtitle of this piece. I was like, yeah, I want to attend Rob Henderson lectures on social status. How do we get those?
The statement: "humans domesticated themselves to be kind, loyal, and cooperative with their in-group. And absolutely vicious to outsiders, to the out-group." is only partially correct as we are also much more cooperative with outside groups relative to all other primates. Most primates are nasty to outsiders by default.
The evolutionary driving force for both our cooperative nature and our big "energy using brain" may be the standard "specialization and trade" creating a huge energetic advantage. Stone tools and fire existed long before homo sapiens existed, but not all stones are not distributed equally. Having a volcanic mountain with flint or obsidian creates an option for a tribe leader (the alpha male) who meets a stranger with a hunk of a much better rock. He could take his rock, kill him and take his rock, or give him some food and something they have too much of (shells, antlers, etc.) and send him back home and bring more rock. Both are better off with either better stone tools or better shells the females like.
Stones are obviously not equally distributed but neither is salt, making the payoff for trade enough to justify our large brain that burns 20% of our energy. Homo erectus did have fire and stone tools but not as big of brain so the complexity of fire and stone tools wasn't high enough to drive the evolution of huge energy burning brains. You needed the huge complexity increase of "specialization and trade" to allow the selection of big wasteful brains.
For evolution to create a peacocks tail is only a 3% energy hit combined with a higher predator risk that is a binary risk (dead or not -- with reproduction being the fitness objective a 3% energy cost and a few % mortality cost is trivial relative to reproduction probability). Humans are talking about absolutely huge amount of energy devoted to being the smartest animal (> 20%). <https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1323099111 > good data on children in the >50% range to feed that growing brain.
I am kind of scared about this psychological research and conclusions. I mean whole point of covid and this terrible teror was that someone hijacked or bypassed person reason with this status thing. They nudge people to behave this way or they would lose the status and so on. It's not only status per say, to reproduce you have to be able to have sex - so normal physical connection not only virtual, you have to have place, opportunity, also take care of the offspring and deal with your ex partners. There is planty things and it's not that simple.