How hardwired patterns of human behavior reinforce social hierarchies rather than threaten to upend them.
Thanks to the fieldwork of ethologists over the last four decades or so, we now know a significant amount about the behavior of various primate species across a wide range of circumstances. As we humans are merely another group primate species, it’s not surprising that many of the research findings apply strongly to us as well. Furthermore, studies of various human populations have shown that yes, indeed, what’s true of baboons and monkeys is often true for humans too.
Given the time we are passing through, from the futility of Occupy Wall Street to the self-harm of today’s anti-police-brutality protests, it’s pertinent to understand our hardwired behaviors and why they will not result in any significant impact on those at the apex of society.
Or, in other words, why no one is going to eat the rich anytime soon.
Sure, it’s lovely to see people rioting. Right-wing folk can fondle their shotguns and tweet about “looting and shooting” while they cram a few dozen more donuts into their swollen bellies. Left-wing folk can gleefully virtue-signal by tweeting nonsense about eating the rich. And the mass media is grateful for a new source of context-free sensationalism now that they’ve exhausted SARS-COV2 and are reduced to writing stories like Trust Fund Yoga Instructor Millie Saint-Claire Says Coronavirus Killed Her Spirit Animal.
But the harsh reality is that all the behavior is predictable and is basically sound and fury signifying nothing in terms of social upheaval.
In fact, all the sensation so beloved of the mass media is actually reinforcing the current social hierarchy.
To see why this is, let’s commence with baboons in East Africa. Baboons are, like us, a highly social species and as such have a wide range of hardwired behaviors that facilitate group existence. As evolution has no goal in mind, and certainly doesn’t conform to our notions of what could be “nice,” these hardwired behaviors are simply those that on average across the baboons’ evolutionary history have tended to be good enough to permit the survival of the species across the range of conditions they habitually experience.
Baboons, like humans, live in social hierarchies. At any given time there’s an alpha male, a beta male, and so forth down the line. Baboons are what is known as a “tournament species” and so the alpha male is the one who’s presently the most aggressive and physically robust. He’s fought his way to the top of the pile and will remain there for as long as his physical prowess will sustain him against inevitable challengers. Alpha males claim preferential mating rights, so that as females come into estrus the alpha will mate with the most desirable females. The beta male will claim the next-most desirable females, and so on down the line.
Aside from the occasional positional challenge where a younger male is trying to rise up in the hierarchy, the behavior of any individual baboon is strictly governed by where he or she sits in the chain of dominance. What this means is that when the alpha male becomes frustrated, he’ll take out his aggression on any of the lower-ranking males and by so doing will induce a cocktail of biochemical changes, the most notable of which will be to increase the amount of GABA in circulation, which has been associated with greater levels of satisfaction in the post-aggression phase as it inhibits neurons associated with discomfort and the arousal of aggression behaviors.
But a mid-ranking male, when frustrated, won’t attempt to take out his aggression on any male who ranks higher in the troop. Mid-ranking males will only seek out baboons who are lower-status and then take out their frustrations on these “safe targets.” The males will then achieve the same increase in the GABA neurotransmitter and experience the same reduction in feelings of anger and frustration as did the alpha male referenced above.
The same pattern of taking out one’s frustrations on those who are socially inferior has been seen across a wide range of species including primates, dogs, rats, and chickens. In the English language we even have a phrase taken from the latter species to encapsulate the phenomenon: the pecking order.
We humans are exactly the same. When we’re frustrated we seek to take out our aggressive feelings on those who exist below our own place in the social hierarchy. We’re hardwired to avoid challenging higher-ranking individuals because for nearly all of our evolutionary history such a course of action would have been very maladaptive.
It’s not surprising that we’re seeing riots across the USA. The nominal cause is yet another incident of police brutality, a phenomenon sadly all too common across the USA and doubtless one of many relics of the fact the USA was founded on slavery and extreme racism persists across vast swathes of the nation. But examples of lethal police brutality occur on a daily basis and are very often uploaded to social media. So we need to ask why one particular incident has triggered such a dramatic response.
The last few months have seen an unprecedented phenomenon: media-induced mass hysteria about SARS-COV2, otherwise known as covid-19. This global terror, stoked by context-free sensationalist reportage, resulted in politicians embracing all manner of policies the net effect of which was to trigger a second Great Depression. Within a very short period of time around thirty-seven million of the most economically vulnerable US citizens lost their jobs. Many of those jobs will not return. Meanwhile the US government’s bailout mechanisms have been woefully inadequate, resulting in tens of millions not receiving any kind of financial assistance despite the lovely promises made by posturing politicians.
It’s easy to see that frightened and frustrated people are going to be very easy to trigger. They’re going to want some way to decrease their neurotransmitter imbalances and increase GABA levels, thus restoring some degree of internal stability. Furthermore, many studies have shown that aggression is self-reinforcing: in other words, if we’re in a crowd and someone starts behaving aggressively, we’ll all begin to feel more aggressive. It’s why the French word for crowd foule is derived from the word for crazy fou. It’s why violence spreads like a contagion throughout a crowd of soccer spectators. It’s why Hutus in Rwanda suddenly began killing their Tutsi neighbors without provocation.
But, as noted above, aggression isn’t directionless. We direct aggression to those lower than us in the social hierarchy. This is why rioters and looters target local businesses, usually owned and run by people just like them. It’s why working-class unemployed people in Britain used to smash up public phone booths throughout the 1960s to 1980s even though these facilities were the only means of communication they had at the time. It’s why poor crime is overwhelmingly poor-on-poor. For all the fictional nonsense of Bruce Wayne’s rich parents being mugged by a down-and-out, the reality is that our likelihood of experiencing violence is directly proportional to how poor we are. Poor people inflict violence on other poor people; they very rarely inflict it on those above them in the social hierarchy.
This is why we don’t see mobs storming the places where the rich and powerful live. We don’t see mobs marching on Mark Zuckerberg’s mansion or trying to burn down Trump Tower. We see mobs smashing up stores belonging to people just like them. We see mobs burning cars owned by people just like them.
We’re hardwired in such a way that righteous anger is inevitably directed to those least able to bear the cost, and directed away from those above us in the social hierarchy.
The very few times in which this seems not to apply tend to result from actions conducted by agents provocateur whose mission is to increase tensions and discredit their opponents. That’s why Minnesota has witnessed so many busloads of white supremacists coming into the city from elsewhere in order to increase dramatically the level of violence associated with the protests. But even here, the white supremacists are careful not to attack anyone of significant rank in the social hierarchy. Even when someone is an agent provocateur he is still constrained by hardwired limits to his behavior.
Thus all the right-wing bluster and left-wing posturing is beside the point. No positive social change will result from the protests and the only economic outcome will be to exacerbate an already-dire situation within the communities that are bearing the brunt of the looting and burning. We’re simply not hardwired to carry our frustrations up the social hierarchy.
Which is why in the USA and in other economically skewed nations such as the UK, the rich and powerful remain rich and powerful while the rest of society grows ever-less-able to sustain itself economically. Riots may make for entertaining television, but they change nothing whatsoever for the better.
No one will be eating the rich any time soon. Instead, we’ll all be eating each other.
For anyone who’d like more details on the behavioral-biochemical forces in play: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtVfoIkVSu8