Why inequality undermines societies – an evolutionary perspective

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This article originally appeared on Contributoria, at .

The level of economic inequality within countries has been linked to a range of worse health and social outcomes. Evidence from the evolutionary behavioural sciences of how we have evolved to react to our environment may shed light on why we fail to flourish under extreme inequality.

Five years ago The Spirit Level was published, bringing into the mainstream the evidence on the harms of economic inequality. The two academics behind the book, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, drew on research in the various social science disciplines involved in their day jobs. They went beyond their own field of social epidemiology to show that more unequal societies are not only less healthy, but have worse outcomes on myriad other measures. It’s worth listing these to emphasise the diversity of inequality’s ill effects: infant mortality, child wellbeing, educational attainment, teenage births, social mobility, obesity, mental health, drug abuse, trust, altruism and cooperation, violence and homicide, imprisonment, foreign aid, and environmental sustainability. In the years since the book was published, inequality has become a major political issue internationally.

The explanations which are put forward to explain the effects of inequality usually focus on our immediate responses. Biologically, our levels of stress hormones rise; behaviourally, we become more prone to compete and be aggressive with others; psychologically, we become anxious and obsessed with our social status. But that’s where most explanations stop asking why – short of asking ‘why do we respond in these ways to inequality?’ On one level, it’s sufficient to know the proximate causes and ignore the ultimate causes, but this misses an opportunity to learn something instructive about human nature.

“Why do we respond in these ways to inequality?”

To go beyond the visible and measurable factors, a more expansive timeframe is needed. As a species we evolved over millions of years – for physical traits, this is uncontested scientifically. There is more vigorous debate over the extent to which mental traits have been subject to natural selection. Evolutionary psychology is often thought to portray traits as genetically determined, innate and fixed. While this is an approach that some academics take, it is clearly inappropriate to apply this to the inequality evidence. However, the responses to inequality appear to be consistent across societies. This indicates that there are adaptive traits which respond to inequality systematically – we have evolved the ability to adjust to our current situation.

This principle of calibration to the environment is well established in the evolutionary field of life history (LH) theory. It characterises a strategy which we take throughout life as a trade-off between growth and reproduction. At any given time, we can invest (unconsciously!) biological resources in growth at the expense of reproduction, or vice-versa. Ideally, we would take time to grow for as long as possible to ensure long-term health, before bringing the next generation into the world. This wasn’t always possible in the ancestral environment we evolved in – famine, war, diseases and other components of ‘environmental harshness’ all reduced life expectancy. With such considerations, it would have been no good taking your time to develop, only to die before you could reproduce. Rather, the onus is on as quickly as possible getting to a state where you can pass on your genes.

What results from the trade-off is a scale of LH strategies from slow to fast. In an uncertain environment, early maturation and reproduction protect against the risk of dying before reproducing. Other traits typical of the fast LH strategy include having more children, as a hedge against high infant mortality, and investing less parental care in them, be it shorter breastfeeding duration or father absence. Babies are born smaller, which leads to lower adult height, but with an increased risk of obesity and certain chronic diseases later in life.

The obvious objection to applying LH theory to modern problems is that thanks to developments of civilisation like modern medicine, sanitation, and the rule of law, we no longer really need to worry about making it to adulthood. But we’ve simply not had enough time to evolve and adapt to our new environment. The result is a mismatch between the environment we are adapted to and the one we find ourselves in. This is why we still respond to cues of environmental harshness.

It appears that inequality is a cue of environmental harshness which accelerates LH strategies. This is understandable in the context of access to resources – food, shelter, social capital – which are essential to survival. But egalitarianism was the norm for our early human ancestors. They lived in bands of hunter-gatherers, where meat was shared equally in the group regardless of who killed it. We can infer this from the archaeological record, as well as anthropological reports of the few remaining tribes of hunter-gatherers. In these groups, counter-dominance strategies like ridicule and ostracism prevent any one individual from gaining too much power.

“Egalitarianism was the norm for our early ancestors”

Groups became unequal with the advent of agriculture and other developments. Again, this may be too recent for evolution to have taken effect. However, we may have adapted to inequality in ancestral groups of hierarchical primates, prior to the emergence of the Homo genus. Either way, inequality seems to elicit faster LH strategies, whether as a functional adaptation or not.

Our response to inequality goes beyond behaviour directly related to reproduction. Natural selection will have acted on aspects of our biology, psychology and behaviour to form a coherent suite of responses to the social environment. For instance, the rational reaction to living with social stratification is to compete for all you can get, as you’re not guaranteed a fair share. Appeasing those above you in the pecking order while exploiting those below you is the usual result –the opposite of the healthy disrespect for authority found in the egalitarian groups. Sycophantic worship of celebrities alongside demonization of people at the lower end of society may be the modern-day version of these social processes.

The cluster of traits associated with the fast LH strategy share the theme of short-termism. This even extends into the choices we make, in the form of a cognitive bias known as future discounting. When offered the choice of a smaller reward now or a larger reward at a certain point in the future, some are better than others at resisting the temptation of instant gratification. But when the long-term future is uncertain, it’s rational to discount it and take what you can get today. This is another trade-off, between taking a hit for a bigger payoff in the long run, or short-term benefits at the expense of long-term costs.

“When the future is uncertain, it’s rational to take what you can today”

LH strategy has a strong social gradient – lower socioeconomic status (SES) tends to mean a faster LH strategy. Returning to the health and social outcomes of The Spirit Level, a recurring theme is that most of them show a social gradient, with worse outcomes at lower SES. What Wilkinson and Pickett demonstrated was that outcomes that are associated with deprivation are also associated with inequality in itself: average outcomes are worse in more unequal societies. It may be that LH traits follow the same pattern, and that the well-established link with SES can be extended to inequality.

Indeed, the effects of inequality seem to reflect the consequences of the fast LH strategy. More babies being born underweight leads to higher infant mortality. Less parental investment in children lowers child wellbeing. An obsession with social status exacerbates depression and anxiety. A bias to discount the future shortens perceived time horizons, leading to lower educational attainment and lower impulse control in drug abuse. Sustainability and climate change are similarly neglected by a short-term perspective. And a general quickening of life stages shortens childhood, increases teenage births and curtails healthy lives.

Excess inequality can be added to deprivation as a scourge that stunts our growth and flourishing. This inevitably follows from our evolved tendency to react to our social environment. What this means for social policy is that outcomes which have been seen as pathological must be reappraised as contingent responses to our circumstances.

This doesn’t mean that they should be accepted of course. But interventions like education campaigns that appeal to reason can’t solve social problems, when social conditions affect our biology, psychology and behaviour through mechanisms which are outside of conscious control. To get to the root cause, society must be made more equal.

References

Inequality

Flannery, K. (2012). The creation of inequality: how our prehistoric ancestors set the stage for monarchy, slavery, and empire. Harvard University Press.

Wilkinson, R. G., & Pickett, K. (2011). The spirit level. Penguin, London

Life History Theory

Brumbach, B. H., Figueredo, A. J., & Ellis, B. J. (2009). Effects of Harsh and Unpredictable Environments in Adolescence on Development of Life History Strategies: A Longitudinal Test of an Evolutionary Model. Human Nature (Hawthorne, N.Y.), 20(1), 25–51. doi:10.1007/s12110-009-9059-3

Dickins, T. E., Johns, S. E., & Chipman, A. (2012). TEENAGE PREGNANCY IN THE UNITED KINGDOM : A BEHAVIORAL ECOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE, 6(3), 344–359.

Ellis, B. J., Figueredo, A. J., Brumbach, B. H., & Schlomer, G. L. (2009). Fundamental Dimensions of Environmental Risk. Human Nature (Vol. 20, pp. 204–268). doi:10.1007/s12110-009-9063-7

Figueredo, a, Vasquez, G., Brumbach, B., Schneider, S., Sefcek, J., Tal, I., … Jacobs, W. (2006). Consilience and Life History Theory: From genes to brain to reproductive strategy. Developmental Review, 26(2), 243–275. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2006.02.002

Griskevicius, V., Ackerman, J. M., Cantú, S. M., Delton, A. W., Robertson, T. E., Simpson, J. a, … Tybur, J. M. (2013). When the economy falters, do people spend or save? Responses to resource scarcity depend on childhood environments. Psychological Science, 24(2), 197–205. doi:10.1177/0956797612451471

Kruger, D. J., Munsell, M. A., & French-turner, T. (2011). USING A LIFE HISTORY FRAMEWORK TO UNDERSTAND THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN NEIGHBORHOOD STRUCTURAL DETERIORATION AND ADVERSE BIRTH OUTCOMES, 5(4), 260–274. Nettle, D. (2010). Dying young and living fast: variation in life history across English neighborhoods. Behavioral Ecology, 21(2), 387–395. doi:10.1093/beheco/arp202

Future discounting

Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (2005). Carpe diem: Adaptation and devaluing the future. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 80(1), 55-60.

Griskevicius, V., Ackerman, J. M., Cantú, S. M., Delton, A. W., Robertson, T. E., Simpson, J. a, … Tybur, J. M. (2013). When the economy falters, do people spend or save? Responses to resource scarcity depend on childhood environments. Psychological Science, 24(2), 197–205. doi:10.1177/0956797612451471

Other

Scott-samuel, A., Bambra, C., Collins, C., Hunter, D. J., Mccartney, G., & Smith, K. (2013). THE IMPACT OF THATCHERISM ON HEALTH AND WELL-BEING IN BRITAIN, 44(1), 53–71.

Whiten, A., & Erdal, D. (2012). The human socio-cognitive niche and its evolutionary origins. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 367(1599), 2119–29. doi:10.1098/rstb.2012.0114

Image Paul Anderson [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Evolutionary insights for public policy

The significance of an evolutionary approach to public health is increasingly being recognised. The negative effects of poverty and inequality are also being recognised as a huge burden on health. Occasionally, the two are even combined to acknowledge our evolved responses to inequality.

Overall though the various efforts seem to have stopped short of explicitly proposing an evolutionary explanation to the Spirit Level evidence between countries. Understandably, the focus has been on measures like teenage pregnancy and breastfeeding rates that directly measure life history (LH) strategy (see this post on LH theory). But other outcomes may be the result of a faster LH strategy too: infant mortality may be higher in more unequal countries because of a reduced biological investment in each child, leading to low birthweight and prematurity.

The other outcomes in the Spirit Level can be brought under the life history strategy umbrella too, with its general principle of short-termism. The harsher and more unequal the social environment, the more uncertainty there is over long-term prospects. This would have been true in our ancestral environment too, and with morbidity and mortality rates so much higher, the selection pressure on behavioural strategies would have been extremely strong. The danger of dying before or during reproductive years made early reproduction paramount. As a result, we evolved a comprehensive response to harshness, which speeds up the course and development of key life stages, and prioritises reproduction over growth.

The response is evident in various domains:

Biologically, periods of growth are shortened, and puberty is brought forward. As in Barker’s thrifty phenotype hypothesis, where less important organs like the pancreas get less energetic investment when energy is scarce, physical size is sacrificed to allow reproduction to occur earlier. This under-investment early on in life may lead to the various health problems that develop later. Of course middle-aged health problems wouldn’t have been a major problem evolutionarily, if the early reproduction meant that your genes had been passed on in a difficult environment. They may not even have developed, with an environment of low calorie availability and an active lifestyle avoiding the metabolic disorders seen today. The molecular symptom of quicker development is oxidative stress, which is a measure of the biological stress on an individual. It is linked with chronic low-level inflammation and suppression of the immune system. Heightened cortisol levels, and activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis which releases adrenaline, are also implicated. The response to stress is complex, but the various measures are consistently related to low socioeconomic status, and so can be argued to be part of the fast LH strategy.

Cognitively, people show a higher rate of a cognitive bias known as future discounting. This involves taking smaller, short-term gains at the expense of larger, long-term ones. Delaying gratification and impulse control require a low rate of future discounting.

Behaviourally, this bias could be argued to underlie almost any of the behavioural problems in the Spirit Level – drop-out rates from high school and low educational attainment, unsustainable environmental practices, addiction of any kind, from gambling to alcohol and drugs. Public goods problems (like climate change) require a long-term assessment of costs and benefits, so a bias to discount the future is disastrous for agreements on action. Hierarchy also encourages conspicuous consumption to signal status – another unsustainable practice. Future discounting may explain why trust is lower in more unequal countries, as a long-term view is needed to help someone today, when you may not be paid back for a while.

Parental investment is another feature which is sacrificed in the fast LH strategy. This is seen in harsher parenting styles. Parental inconsistency has been linked with elevated levels of stress hormones in children. And one of the parents may not even be there – 26% of families in 2011 were single-parent households. Absent fathers account for the vast majority of these. The effect on boys is the development of excessively masculine traits; girls hit puberty earlier. Both genders are more likely than average to repeat their parent’s lifestyle. The UNICEF index of child wellbeing correlates negatively with inequality, as do childhood behavioural problems.

Consequently, mental health suffers in unequal societies – especially anxiety. This can’t be said to be adaptive in modern society, but as with chronic stress, it is possible to theorise how it could have helped in an ancestral environment. In small doses, anxiety and low mood may have been one way of avoiding conflict, by avoiding aggression from others. But as with stress, constant exposure is pathological.

Inequality, by stratifying the social hierarchy, favours competition over cooperation as the way we interact with each other. Status becomes more important, as it has always signalled an ability to access resources, including mates. Excessive inequality means that those at the top can monopolise resources, and those at the bottom have nothing to lose when they try to climb the ladder. This manifests itself in higher rates of violence and homicide. Men may go to greater lengths to keep partners as well as compete for them, using violence and sexual coercion. The violence statistics don’t include sexual violence due to international differences in definitions, but (not unrelatedly) the status of women and gender equality are better in more equal countries.

In order to bring about the policy changes necessary to reduce inequality, disparate interest groups need to be made aware of the wide-ranging effects of inequality and the associated LH traits, in order to campaign with a louder voice together. This means physical and mental health organisations, alcohol and drugs charities, violence reduction schemes and so on could benefit from coming together to work for something that would tackle all of their respective issues at source. It’s not about creating a ‘natural’ environment – there’s no such thing, as we adapt to vastly different societies. It’s recognising that a more equal society brings out the best of our nature.

Rising above our nature

Kipling's exceedingly good prediction

Evolutionary psychology is based on the idea that complex human behaviour can be explained by virtue of its adaptiveness. If a trait is maladaptive today, it will have been adaptive when the trait evolved, for example a sweet tooth leading to obesity these days would have been useful in the savannah where high-energy foods were scarce. This type of reasoning has attracted criticism of being just-so stories, due to the lack of available evidence, even if the logic seems plausible.

But what if we stuck to traits that have such a direct effect on survival and reproductive success that their adaptiveness couldn’t be disputed? Survival and reproductive success are the two strongest instincts, because these are the only two criteria natural selection acts on. Every other trait that is selected for is only chosen because of its effect on these two criteria. A trait can even benefit one at the expense of the other, which lead Darwin to differentiate between natural and sexual selection (e.g. the peacock’s tail – a ‘handicap’ display to advertise to the peahen its fitness, that it can survive despite having to grow it and carry it around).

These two strongest instincts we share with every other life form on earth, it’s just we’re (probably) the only ones who know it. You are the direct descendent of billions and billions of individuals, all of whom were better at surviving and reproducing than at least some others in their generation. Put like that, the evolution of complex life sounds at least intuitively more plausible.

So that’s two things we’re pretty good at, but is there anything else we’d like to do with ourselves now that we’ve evolved consciousness? The pursuit of happiness is one such goal, but research shows that, unsurprisingly, we need to pander to our instincts to be content. Comparing the income of a country with its happiness shows that initial gains in income lead to huge gains in happiness, but with diminishing returns after a basic subsistence level is reached. A similar pattern emerges if income is compared with life expectancy, so life expectancy would be a very good predictor of happiness – no surprise given the strength of the survival instinct.

Unfortunately as far as people in rich countries are concerned, economic wealth only improves wellbeing up to a point – which may represent a ceiling in human happiness. According to the authors of The Spirit Level, this is where absolute poverty stops being the limiting factor, and is replaced by relative poverty (economic inequality within a society). The evidence for a correlation between inequality and unhappiness is mixed, but the Nordic countries are among the happiest.

The evidence is much stronger for inequality diminishing societal wellbeing, and reducing mental illness, infant mortality etc. are laudable goals in themselves. The worse behavioural outcomes in more unequal countries are an evolutionary hangover, which can inform efforts to improve societies. People behave in ways that improve their place in the pecking order. All social primates are hierarchical to a greater or lesser extent, and position in the hierarchy is a strong predictor of survival and reproductive success. It is no longer as important for humans in rich countries, as resources are plentiful, so everyone can live and have children. In harsher environments like our evolutionary past, those lower in the hierarchy faced an earlier death and less chance of reproducing, so we have evolved a very strong instinct to climb the social ladder.

This instinct is mediated by the environment, however: it is less appropriate in an egalitarian context, where resources are shared out fairly. But it comes into its own in an unequal society, where being at the bottom of the pile could mean genetic oblivion. By this mechanism inequality leads to lower levels of trust, dealt with in an earlier post, and numerous other negative outcomes, which I’ll cover in future.