On Inequality

Modern society exhibits unprecedented levels of social and economic inequality, with the richest 1% of the population on target to own two-thirds of all wealth by 2030. Sometimes this is justified by saying that inequality and hierarchy is the natural state of things for Homo Sapiens. This is very far from the truth.

When thinking about the "natural" state for our species, we should go back tens of thousands of years to the first hunter-gatherer communities that roamed the land before the invention of agriculture. Unfortunately, we cannot physically go back in time, but we can study contemporary hunter-gatherer communities in Africa or North America to get an idea of what the natural state for Homo Sapiens looks like. Anthropological studies done on such primitive societies show something striking: with very few exceptions, hunter-gatherers tend to have an egalitarian social ethos. In addition to social and economic equality in hunter-gatherer societies, there is often sexual parity as well, with women roughly as influential and powerful as men.

This is particularly striking when viewed in an evolutionary context. One of humanity's closest primate relatives, chimpanzees, are anything but egalitarian, forming themselves into hierarchies that are often dominated by an alpha male. This of course begs the question of why chimpanzees and humans are so different in this specific trait, given that they are evolutionarily so close. The safest bet is to assume that egalitarianism is one of the characteristic human features that emerged when the two species, humans and chimpanzees, split from the last common ancestor. In fact, so great is the contrast between the hierarchical behavior of chimpanzees and the egalitarianism typical of human hunter-gatherers that it is widely argued by paleoanthropologists that resistance to being dominated was a key factor driving the evolutionary emergence of higher intelligence, language and social organization. In other words, egalitarianism in behavior emerged as a natural consequence of complex cognitive processes.

If that is true, then where does all the inequality come from? If egalitarianism is so deeply embedded in human nature, whence all the tremendous inequality that we see all around us? It is also not a new phenomenon. Inequality has existed in some form or other since our ancestors were forced to abandon the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and adopt agriculture 12000 years ago. In fact, for all we know, the seeds of inequality were planted together with the first seeds of grain during the agricultural revolution, which completely reshaped the way humans lived, for better and worse.

Humans started cultivating land because they were forced to. Their natural lifestyle had become unsustainable due to overhunting, so in those parts of the world that were not exceptionally prosperous, humans had to invent agriculture to avoid extinction. Agricultural societies rely on food surplus (the part of the harvest that remains after the basic needs of the society have been met) to survive, since they are pretty much at the mercy of the elements. And this of course means that food surpluses become highly desirable to control. In fact, those who control the surpluses control the whole society. This led to the rise of oligarchy, the rule of the few, throughout the "civilized" world, the dominant power structure even today. Labor roles became more gendered as well. Generally, men did the majority of the fieldwork while women were relegated to child-rearing and household work. Without contributing food, women became second-class citizens.

It seems to me that oligarchy in agricultural societies is not just an accident, but rather an unfortunate byproduct. Tribes are relatively small social groups where a direct democracy is possible and indeed almost required by human nature. All the historical evidence at our disposal, however, points to the fact that it is extremely difficult for any sufficiently large and complex organization to function purely as a direct democracy. Power within an organization has always been delegated to individuals within that group, elected or otherwise, which have then used that power to consolidate and legitimize their position. This has led, among other things, to the birth of nations, armies, and religions.

Does that mean that inequality is inevitable in any large complex society? I don't think so. For one thing, it runs against our fundamental human values. Secondly, new technologies might help us bridge the gap between tribes and complex societies, and provide the decentralization needed for a successful direct democracy on a potentially global scale. We now have the opportunity to end the atrocious legacy of the agricultural revolution, one that has plagued our species for too long.