An evolutionary Occupy


Jason Collins


December 3, 2011

In an evolutionary sense, resource inequality affects survival and access to mates. While the current “Occupy” debates about growing inequality and the power of the 1 per cent are very much focused on the resource issue, the underlying reason people have an innate aversion to the unequal distribution of power (or, more particularly, their being at the wrong end of that distribution) comes back to these evolutionary factors. But to what extent are survival and reproduction actually affected by the inequality being protested?

In the case of survival in a developed country, the “we are the 99 per cent” is a useful benchmark, but in this case it is the 1 per cent at the bottom compared to the 99 per cent above. Only those at the very bottom likely to have their survival through their reproductive years threatened. Survival is not at the core of the debate.

When we consider the issue from a reproductive perspective, the issue becomes more interesting. I would expect that the increased share of income to the top 1 per cent increases their ability to attract mates. This might be through the ability to support more mistresses and to engage in serial monogamy, with the increased wealth allowing second and third wives to be obtained more easily despite advancing years. There would also be some effect on mate quality.

However, I am not sure that the next 10 per cent of the income or wealth distribution are significantly harmed by this, except for the possibility of a small decline in quality. They still have the means to attract mates – and will successfully do so. It is not until we get to men in the bottom, say, 20 or 30 per cent of the income or wealth distributions that we find a group that is suffering.

Inequality in income growth must be one factor in this, but the increase in the status and income of women over the last 50 years (a reduction in inequality), together with growth in the welfare state, has also reduced the benefit for many women of pairing with low-income men. However, I am not sure that low-income men form a significant part of the Occupy movement (or even support it). Maybe they should be the ones protesting in the street?

Or maybe they already are protesting. High levels of single men without access to mates is linked to crime, gambling, risk taking and other social problems – the protest takes a different form. We might be about to see this happen in China.

As a last note, I recently pulled out an essay by Napoleon Chagnon titled “Is Reproductive Success Equal in Egalitarian Societies?” (from a 1979 volume edited by Chagnon and Irons) in which Chagnon nicely captures this issue across time:

Polygyny is widespread in the tribal world and has probably characterised human mating and reproduction for the greater fraction of our species’ history. Given that natural selection by definition entails the differential reproduction and survival of individuals, this fact of life - this inequality - is of considerable importance. This raises the question of the utility of viewing human status differentials largely, if not exclusively, in terms of material resources and the relationships that individuals in different societies have to such resources. That the relationship between people and control over strategic resources is central to understanding status differences in our own highly industrialised, materialist culture is insufficient reason to project these relationships back in evolutionary time and to suggest that all human status systems derive from struggles over the means and ends of production. Struggles in the Stone Age were more likely over the means and ends of reproduction.

Although not as obvious, today’s struggles are over those same ends and means.