Knowing our level on the social ladder is an ancient trait — but the ladder doesn’t have to be extremely high.
You might have heard of ‘that lobster’ by now — it plays a central part in Jordan Peterson’s book, ‘12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’. Peterson starts off his ‘Rule 1’ by discussing lobsters and territory. Lobsters fight for territory — and this results in winners and losers. There are significant consequences for defeated lobsters — their chemistry and brain changes, they lose confidence, and even their posture reflects their lowly social status.
Peterson’s lobster seems to have taken on a life of it’s own, with Jordan being ridiculed for having a “fixation” on lobsters, by drawing “laughable” comparisons between human hierarchical structures and those of lobsters, but, trumping all that…. the lobster ending up on T-shirts.
As a scientist with a biological/palaeontological bent, I think I ‘got’ the lobster thing immediately. The smart move that Peterson made was to identify a creature that demonstrated dominance hierarchy behaviour — and which branched off from us in an evolutionary sense (lobsters are arthropods), a long, long time back. By highlighting dominance hierarchy on such a deep branch of the evolutionary tree, Peterson is implying that stressing about one’s position in the social hierarchy goes back a long way.
Lobsters themselves go back 350 million years or so (and I’m delighted to see that the first-author on the paper Peterson cites for this, Bracken-Grissom et al, 2014, was in one of my classes at the University of Queensland back in 2000*. Way to go Heather!). We can imagine that trilobites, a hundred million or more years earlier, were involved with social status too.
The precise details of the dominance behaviour are likely irrelevant in that broader context. Jordan’s point is that one can infer that such behaviour — keeping a close eye on your position in a social hierarchy, was present in whatever common ancestor we humans have, with the lobsters, and from there on down to us. Dominance behaviour has been around for so many millions of years that it can be regarded as a sort of fundamental.
Peterson uses this struggle for social dominance as background for his Rule #1: ‘Stand up straight with your shoulders back’. The connection is, as far as I can tell — that by projecting an image of yourself as a winner, not a loser, you’re at least part way there. Science shows that your serotonin levels will increase, making you feel better, and people will start treating you as someone higher up the social ladder, and perhaps higher than them.
Your position in the social hierarchy is important in a biological way. As Peterson points out, research (Ziomkiewicz-Wichary, 2016) shows that we all have a part of of brains (in Peterson’s words) “deep within … at the very foundation of your brain, far below your thoughts and feelings” … monitoring “exactly where you are positioned in society”.
So far, so-good. It seems like good advice, backed up with research. I’m cool with that. But here’s where things get more complicated. Peterson links that ancient awareness social status, and the struggle for dominance, with what he calls ‘The Principle of Unequal Distribution’. As he puts it:
“It’s winner-take-all in the lobster world, just as it is in human societies, where the top 1 percent have as much loot as the bottom 50 percent — and where the richest eighty-five people have as much as the bottom three and a half billion”.
In other words, the persistent awareness of your social position, results in a perpetual struggle for dominance, which results in an extreme hierarchy.
But there’s a whole lot more to this narrative than what appears in ‘12 Rules for Life’. It turns out that for a significant part of our existence as humans — such extremes, or hierarchies, did not exist. For tens of thousands of years, humans lived in relatively egalitarian societies. In at least such small societies, people are perfectly capable of saying “Shut up you pompous fart” to people trying to exert their dominance over the others. They are shamed (or worse) back to equality.
The primeval awareness of where someone sat on the social ladder remained, but with no or little actual height of the ladder — the issue vanishes. In other words, awareness of your social position need not translate into there being a hierarchy and massive inequality.
This egalitarian phase of human evolution is documented by Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus in their fascinating book, ‘The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire’. They go on to lay out the various paths which different societies have taken towards great inequality, largely triggered by the discovery of agriculture.
For example, in parts of New Guinea, men who had that primitive drive to get to the top, would give gifts, or hold feasts — which had to be reciprocated by the other party. The ante was upped until one side caved - and there was a winner and a loser.
The inequality which such an ‘arms race’ created is stressful for everyone. It’s stressful for those low on the social ladder to know their lowly position, but also stressful for those at the top, to constantly have to maintain it. There are very real consequences for societies which go down this path.
Suicide, depression, teen pregnancy, all these and more social ills tend to be more prevalent in societies with high ‘social inequality’. A good introduction to this topic is Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book ‘The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better’ and its follow-up, ‘The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-Being’.
As Peterson argues elsewhere, inequality has its useful side — it drives innovation, for example. But like a lot of things, it doesn’t necessarily follow that more is better.
Sadly for the health of lobsters, they are not high enough up the evolutionary tree for several of them to gang together and bang an uppity one over the head with a clam shell. But human societies have ways in to keep that primitive urge to dominate in some sort of check (taxes for example). That deep-down part of our brain monitoring “exactly where” we are positioned in society will always be there — but we do have a choice as to what kind of society that is.
*That strikingly blue crayfish in the featured image is held by a student in one of my classes on Australian Terrestrial Ecology. They would all go up to the amazing Lamington National Park/O’Reilly’s Guest House for a few days. On one day, I would take each class on a full-day’s hike up through the rainforest to the Queensland-New South Wales border. Each class would cross the spot where that crayfish hung-out and was occasionally briefly scooped up by someone. My apologies ….
Bracken-Grissom, H. D., Ahyong, S. T., Wilkinson, R. D., Feldmann, R. M., Schweitzer, C. E., Breinholt, J. W., Crandall, K. A. (2014). The emergence of lobsters: Phylogenetic relationships, morphological evolution and divergence time comparisons of an ancient group.” Systematic Biology, 63, 457–479.
Flannery, K. and Joyce Marcus, J. 2012. The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire. Harvard University Press.
Peterson, J. 2018. ’12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos’. Random House Canada/Penguin Allen Lane (UK).
Pickett, K. and Wilkinson, R.G. 2009. The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone’s Well-Being. Penguin Press.
Wilkinson, R.G. and Pickett, K. 2009. ‘The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better’. Allen Lane.
Ziomkiewicz-Wichary, A. (2016). “Serotonin and dominance.” In T.K. Shackelford & V.A. Weekes-Shackelford (Eds.). Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science, DOI 10.1007/978–3–319–16999–6_1440–1.