The Evolutionary Psychology of Inequality

This index measures the degree of inequality i...

Income inequality by country

Income inequality is used as the principle measure of economic inequality by the authors of The Spirit Level, though they acknowledge that it is an incomplete measure. It fails to account for savings or property, but is employed as a reasonably simple and widely available statistic. Social capital may be the real driving force behind outcomes, contend the authors, but it may not correlate perfectly with wealth – a poor person with a wide social network may fare better than a rich loner.

So income inequality may be acting as a proxy not only for overall wealth but social capital too. From an evolutionary perspective, it is unlikely that wealth alone is the best predictor of outcomes.

The social hierarchy provides a more complete explanation for why less unequal societies do better. In every society, natural and sexual selection operate on individuals relative to other people in the same society. It is because of this that relative poverty rather than absolute poverty is the determining factor in outcomes in rich countries.

Concepts of behaviour being ‘for the good of the species’ always missed the point because competition is fiercest between individuals of the same species. This is because the resources they compete for – food, habitat, mates – are exactly the same ones their conspecifics want.

In hierarchical primate species, those further up have better access to resources. Presumably the bigger the social gap, the bigger the gap in access to resources. In humans, the manifestation of the gap in access to resources is financial wealth. It seems unlikely that Americans are much more spread out in terms of innate ability than Danes or Norwegians, so it isn’t the case that the income structure of a country reflects natural justice. Rather, income structure determines people’s access to resources.

But because we intuitively associate people’s wealth with their place in the social hierarchy, the poor are more likely to be seen as deserving to be poor in more unequal countries. Because of this, less help is given and there is less political will to reduce inequality. This forms a vicious circle and a self-fulfilling prophecy between the justification of extreme inequality and its presence.

In reality I think it is likely that position in the social hierarchy correlates very strongly with income, but is a better predictor of outcomes. Even it would still fall short of predicting outcomes perfectly though. An assumption of this is that the social hierarchy isn’t simply ordinal; it can have differently sized gaps between people – some alpha males are more alpha than others.

Our societies will always be hierarchical – as attempts at complete egalitarianism in the past have shown, some will always be more equal than others. But between this extreme and the current levels of inequality in modern societies, there must be a sweet spot – an ideal level of inequality. This would not be determined by ideological imperative, but would be measurable on the health and social outcomes used in The Spirit Level.

Apart from the revolutionary effect that the knowledge of the importance of inequality will have on government policy, it represents a chance for evolutionary psychology to shake off the chequered history of its previous incarnations. Applying Darwinism to societies in the past led to inhumane ideologies like Social Darwinism and eugenics. Now, it has the chance to explain why, far from championing  survival of the fittest, cooperation should be favoured over competition, for the benefit of everyone.


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