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Thread: Are humans genetically programmed to live in hierarchical societies?

  1. #1
    Satyavrata Maciamo's Avatar
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    Question Are humans genetically programmed to live in hierarchical societies?

    I am currently reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari, a hugely thought-provoking book that I warmly recommend.

    In chapter seven, he explains:

    "The large societies found in some other species, such as ants and bees, are stable and resilient because most of the information needed to sustain them is encoded in the genome. A female honeybee larva can, for example, grow up to be either a queen or a worker, depending on what food it is feed. Its DNA programmes the necessary behaviours for whatever role in it will fulfil in life. Hives can be very complex social structures, containing any different kinds of workers, such as harvesters, nurses and cleaners."

    A bit further, he claims that there is no natural division in human societies, unlike in beehives. But is it true? How can we be sure? All bees have the same DNA (actually identical, they are clones of one another), yet roles are attributed after birth by circumstances and chance. But even like this, there is always only one queen, and other roles fall into place by themselves depending on how many are needed for each task. Yet bees do not think consciously. The order is self-organising because they are programmed to be. It is part of the extended phenotype, just like the design of their beehives. (If you are not familiar with Richard Dawkins's concept of extended phenotype, I strongly urge you to read more about it, for example on this summary page).

    Virtually all human societies throughout the ages and across ethnic and cultural groups have always had a sort of leader, be it in the form of a tribal chief or elder, a king or emperor, a president or prime minister... Yuval Noah Harari explains earlier in the book that humans only need formal organisations once the group size exceeds approximately 150 individuals. Plenty of sociological studies have demonstrated times and again that 150 people is the critical threshold beyond which human groups and organisations can only maintain themselves through the use of formal ranks and titles to keep order. There is a strong genetic component to this as the same is true of chimpanzees too. Chimp troops generally do not exceed 50 individuals, and on rare occasion can reach up to 100 members. Beyond that point the group ruptures and leads to the formation of new groups.

    Small tribes of hunter-gatherers were in essence just extended families or perhaps 20 to 100 members, just like chimpanzee bands. It's not something we decided. It's set in our genes just like for other animals, and the natural group size for humans is practically identical to that of chimpanzees, our closest living relatives.

    Once humans settled down in larger agricultural communities, when villages became towns, then cities, then kingdoms and empires, there was no alternative but to create titles and ranks, to stratify societies and assign specific roles (farmer, warrior, king), just like in a beehive. There simply isn't any human society other than small tribal groups of less than 150 individuals in which hierarchies and social classes didn't naturally spring up. Any attempt to create perfectly egalitarian and classless societies, like communism, have miserably failed. In fact communism in the USSR and China led to even more marked hierarchies than in some other societies like Scandinavia or Japan.

    If we can't control the fact that human societies automatically and naturally create ranks, hierarchies and class divisions, then it could be argued that it is part of our extended phenotype. We like to think that we are more free and conscious than bees, and that our social organisations are the fruit of our intellect and collective discussions. But then how do we explain that no society, from ancient Middle Eastern kingdoms to modern democracies have ever managed to get rid of social stratifications? The French and American Revolutions have attempted to declare all human beings equal (except slaves, which weren't considered humans in the early USA), but that was just an illusion. There has never been a less egalitarian society in the history of mankind as the modern United States.

    Modern democracies like to claim that humans are born free and equal, but neither is true. The hard truth is that we aren't free and cannot escape the type of behaviour that is set in our DNA. We also aren't born equal, unlike bees within a single hive, which are all clones of one another. We are all born highly unequal, with different genes, inborn temperaments and capabilities - except for identical twins, who have (almost) identical DNA. From birth we differ from one another for our intelligence, social skills, motor skills, height, physical strength, resistance to cold, heat or diseases, ability to digest some foods, tastes, and even in the social dominance we exhibit toward other human beings.

    Some genetic configurations will prosper more in a chaotic and violent environment where dominance, aggression and physical strength are rewarded. Others will thrive in peaceful and meritocratic environments in which intellect, conscientiousness and friendliness are rewarded. Yet all kinds of variants co-exist at the same time within a given society. Depending on what genes we inherited, our position in the social hierarchy will go up or down, based on how well our genome fits with the established social model. If that is so, then it is not just that humans naturally create stratified societies, but also that our position in a specific society is somewhat predetermined by our genome (except in rigid societies like the traditional Indian caste system of past centuries where social stratification was determined by birth only).

    At present I cannot think of any argument against this view. It would mean that hierarchical societies and social classes are a sort of extended phenotype set in the human genome. It is inescapable and clashes with the egalitarian ideals proposed by Christianity, which were taken over by the American Constitution and the Declaration of Human Rights. Humans were born neither free, nor equal, and they are not genetically designed to live in a classless society.

    Perhaps it is time that people embraced social classes the way British people did, not as a way to discriminate, but as a way to distinguish oneself and to socialise with similar people. In Britain social class is determined more by what kind of person you are, what you like, the way you think, speak and behave, your job, interests and hobbies, where you live and what you like to wear, than by how much money you have. Some dukes or earls are broke nowadays but they still belong to the traditional upper class. It's not about money. It's a state of mind, a way of clustering people who share defining genetic traits together. It's really just a sort of club mentality applied to society as a whole.

    Now that people can think in term of genomes and genetic differences, if they can see beyond the illusive egalitarian utopia, and see beyond mere physical differences, society could organise itself more into "classes" based on personality, tastes, interests and values, rather than merely by birth or money, because after all humans also have a natural tendencies to seek and socialise with like-minded people. This is why Internet forums and social media are such a huge success.
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  2. #2
    Advisor Angela's Avatar
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    I agree with almost everything in your post. The only major thing I would disagree with is your characterization of the American constitution. It nowhere says that all people are equal. The closest formulation in the founding documents is in the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson, which says that "all men are created equal." I think context is important here, and given that Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner and remained one to his death I think we can deduce that he didn't mean that literally in the way you mean.

    The only place where the "equality" of people is addressed in the Constitution is in an amendment passed after the Civil War which had to do with the newly freed slaves, and it says that all people in the jurisdiction of the U.S. have "equal protection under the laws". It's commonly just referred to by attorneys and government people in general as the equal protection clause.

    In modern American thought, if it can be generalized at all in that way, very few people believe that everyone is equal in the talents and gifts they possess, although a good number of people don't believe that there is a difference by "ethnicity" as to what talents and gifts, like intelligence, people possess. Everyone does believe that in addition to being equal before the law, everyone has the right to the same opportunities, me included, which is why I absolutely wouldn't want to live under the kind of class system which exists in Europe and particularly in Britain. That kind of system rather ensures people won't have equal opportunities. I think we have to remember that while identical twins may have close to identical gifts and personalities, there are, thanks to recombination, differences between other siblings, and between parents and children. Not every brilliant composer has brilliant composer children, or even musical children. So, I guess you could say that I believe in equal opportunity, but not equal outcomes.

    As socialistic principles have increasingly been fed to American youngsters at institutions of higher learning, there is a corresponding increase in the number of people who do indeed believe in equal "outcomes" in terms of shelter, food, education etc. Those kinds of "liberals" are the type of people who don't want to give up their Gucci bag; they just want everyone to have them.

    I don't think that ever works. Most people are not going to go to university for seven or eight years and then work 50, 60 or more hours a week to wind up with a lifestyle equal to that of some 25 year old pot head who works a couple of hours a day and badly at that.

    As for the attitude of the early Christian church, I again don't think they were talking about equal gifts. Indeed, there's a lot in the epistles to the effect that people are gifted differently by God. What some early Christians tried to do is institute a sort of form of communistic living where despite those different gifts people would live the same life-style. It didn't last very long, because as we're saying, it's against human nature. The only place I've ever seen it work is in convents or monasteries, but there the ideology in the form of their "Rule" and their theology is overcoming their natural instincts. Everything about the three major "rules" of obedience, poverty and chastity is against nature in that sense, although I've known a lot of these people, and to a person they maintain that the most difficult of the three is obedience.


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    Satyavrata Maciamo's Avatar
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    You are right, Angela. I confused the American Constitution with the Declaration of Independence.

    Quote Originally Posted by Angela
    Everyone does believe that in addition to being equal before the law, everyone has the right to the same opportunities, me included, which is why I absolutely wouldn't want to live under the kind of class system which exists in Europe and particularly in Britain. That kind of system rather ensures people won't have equal opportunities.
    What makes you think that modern British system offers less equal opportunities than the US system? Actually when it comes to going to court, I'd rather be in the UK than in the US because money plays a much bigger role in winning a case in court in the USA. In my eyes this is lack of equal chances in justice mean.

    If we compare the country data for the Rule of Law Index 2015 for the United Kingdom and the United States, the UK performs better overall and much better for discrimination in civil or criminal justice (10 and 23 percentage points higher, respectively). The US is actually quite famous for racial discrimination in criminal cases. The UK also outperforms the US for accessibility and affordability of justice.

    In Europe, only Germanic countries (except Belgium) rank higher than the UK. All Germanic countries, including Belgium and the UK + France, Finland and Estonia rank higher than the USA.

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    1 members found this post helpful.
    we are all gifted with different talents
    but whether our talents matter and whether we as an individual will prosper with our talents depends largely on in which society we live

    on the other hand, societies that don't value the right talents will dissapear in the (very) long end

    evolution is certainly not a straight line, sometimes it can be negative and destructive for a while

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    Quote Originally Posted by Maciamo View Post
    You are right, Angela. I confused the American Constitution with the Declaration of Independence.



    What makes you think that modern British system offers less equal opportunities than the US system? Actually when it comes to going to court, I'd rather be in the UK than in the US because money plays a much bigger role in winning a case in court in the USA. In my eyes this is lack of equal chances in justice mean.

    If we compare the country data for the Rule of Law Index 2015 for the United Kingdom and the United States, the UK performs better overall and much better for discrimination in civil or criminal justice (10 and 23 percentage points higher, respectively). The US is actually quite famous for racial discrimination in criminal cases. The UK also outperforms the US for accessibility and affordability of justice.

    In Europe, only Germanic countries (except Belgium) rank higher than the UK. All Germanic countries, including Belgium and the UK + France, Finland and Estonia rank higher than the USA.
    I'm afraid I don't put much credence in surveys like this. This is based on the definitions of the people creating the analysis, based on admitted and published data. Are there differences between countries in terms of corruption? Yes, I think there are, but the differences are sometimes exaggerated too. I think some countries are just bigger hypocrites about corruption as well as about a lot of other things.

    As for access to free legal aid, in the U.S. it's indeed mandated by law, as I'm sure it is in a lot of countries in Europe. The best lawyers in the U.S. rarely sign up to do free legal work for indigent or poor defendants, but I'd be very surprised to discover that it's much different in Europe. The best British and continental lawyers I've met certainly didn't do it.

    Plus, the class system just doesn't affect access to quality legal work. It affects every aspect of life, some institutionalized and some just part of the social zeitgeist. By my grandparents' time, my father's family had lost all their influence and money. We could never have achieved in Europe what we've achieved here.

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    Quote Originally Posted by bicicleur View Post
    we are all gifted with different talents
    but whether our talents matter and whether we as an individual will prosper with our talents depends largely on in which society we live

    on the other hand, societies that don't value the right talents will dissapear in the (very) long end

    evolution is certainly not a straight line, sometimes it can be negative and destructive for a while
    I can't disagree with any of that.

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    Quote Originally Posted by bicicleur View Post
    we are all gifted with different talents
    but whether our talents matter and whether we as an individual will prosper with our talents depends largely on in which society we live

    on the other hand, societies that don't value the right talents will dissapear in the (very) long end

    evolution is certainly not a straight line, sometimes it can be negative and destructive for a while
    I agree with that,
    I do not believe that human is programmed to live under Hierarchy,
    but we learn to respect the expert, and the right, the divine will,
    I believe we are all different, and our societies are based to that,

    even in tribal or villagers that had same economy, like some shepperd or wood cutter mountain villages, Hierarchy was achieved either by force, either by respect to someone that is different,
    and many times just respect was not enough,
    we allow another human to raise an hierarchy level of society, in order to avoid meaningless deaths.

    So IT IS ALSO IN OUR NATURES TO CRITISE THE CORRECT DESICION OF HIERARCHY, AND CHANGE IT,
    I mean IT IS ALSO IN OUR NATURE TO FIGHT HIERARCHY,
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