Opposing a hierarchy does not imply egalitarianism

by Viliam6 min read23rd May 20205 comments

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World Modeling
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Epistemic status: just thinking aloud...

Trigger warning: bullying (without details)


I have repeatedly seen the claim that people are egalitarian in nature. It goes roughly like this:

Before invention of agriculture, people didn't have hierarchies. Of course, some people were always stronger or more skilled than others. But when we observe the behavior of hunter-gatherer tribes today, we see that they have strong social norms against bragging. For example, a superior hunter always downplays his success, and attributes it to luck rather than his own skills. (And the rest of the tribe often plays along, ritualistically mocking the hunter and his catch.) A hunter violating this social norm would antagonize everyone, and he knows he cannot afford it. This shows that people naturally oppose hierarchies.

I am not an anthropologist, and I could only guess how our ancestors really behaved. This article is not meant as a positive statement about the actual behavior of our ancestors, but rather as a criticism of the argument, which I will shorten to: "I have seen people oppose a hierarchy, which means that they are egalitarians."


Allow me to illustrate what I mean, using a simple model:

Imagine a completely fictional social environment; let's call it "high school". As a simplification, imagine that it contains three kinds of people. First group, let's call them "normies", is average at everything. Second group, let's call them "jocks", is superior at physical skills, and inferior at mental skills. Third group, let's call them "nerds", is superior at mental skills, and inferior at physical skills. The typical behavior observed at the schoolyard is "jocks" bullying "nerds".

An external observer, focusing on a subset of facts, could easily conclude that the high school is an exemplar of egalitarian society, and describe it thusly:

Before becoming adults, children do not have hierarchies. Of course, some children are stronger or smarter than others. But when we observe the behavior at schools today, we see that they have strong social norms against bragging. For example, a student superior at math will try to hide his or her skills in the classroom, to avoid antagonizing classmates. Otherwise, he or she would likely be bullied. This shows that children naturally oppose hierarchies.

And when you read it like this, it sounds kinda convincing.

And when you ask a random student, they would probably tell you there obviously is a hierarchy at the high school, with "jocks" on the top. (No one is bullying them for demonstrating their superior skills in sports, right?)


Again, I have no idea about our ancestors, or about current primitive tribes, -- and I am not even sure how reliably the latter can be used as a model of the former, -- but I can imagine a simple fictional model which would produce the behavior observed as an evidence for egalitarianism, without actually being egalitarian.

Again, as a simplification, let's have three kinds of primitive people. The "normies" are average or below average at everything. The "warriors" are superior at violence against people. The "hunters" are superior at hunting animals.

I would expect the "warriors" to be at the top of status hierarchy, because their skills are directly useful for non-lethal conflicts between individuals. And if that happens, I would assume that "hunters", despite providing most of the meat for the tribe, would engage in some self-deprecating behavior, lest they invoke a punishment from "warriors" for overstepping and trying to reach higher than their status permits.

Is this how you imagine an egalitarian society? Because it can be described so.


A few objections I expect:

1) Yes, I did the cheap trick of taking the "high school" model, and substituting things for things; most questionably, substituting "hunter" for "nerd". Of course, by taking a model with the desired properties, and randomly substituting things for things, you could argue for anything. Is this analogy more substantial than that? Do "hunters" and "nerds" actually have anything in common?

In my model, the common abstraction for "hunter" and "nerd" is "a person specializing at something that is not directly useful for interpersonal violence". By "hunter" I imagine someone who lays traps or shoots animals with a bow; skills that are not useful in a fist fight. (I assume that the tribe has a taboo against murder, so the "hunter" who got beaten by "warriors" cannot reciprocate by shooting them the next day. Just like it is illegal for a bullied child to use a gun against the bullies.) And the common conclusion is that hierachies of competence useless for interpersonal conflict will be suppressed, in favor of hierarchy of competence at interpersonal conflict; and that an observer might mistake this for egalitarianism.

2) Why the dichotomy? A good warrior can also be a good hunter; actually, both should correlate positively with physical skills. And a child good at sport may simultaneously be good at math.

Yes, because I wanted to keep the initial model simple. We could also make a 2×2 model with people good at sport, good at math, good at both, and good at neither. Depending on how high we set the bar for "good", the intersection can be quite small; for example, if we define "good at sport" and "good at math" as being in top 10%, then only about 1% of people would be "good at both". Which means the original model still fits 99% of population. But let's assume generously that we have 25% of people in each quadrant. In that case, my argument becomes that people who are "nerds but not jocks" / "hunters but not warriors" will have to downplay their skills, lest they receive the status-regulating slapdown (and this would be interpreted by the naïve observer as egalitarianism); but the people who are "nerds and jocks" / "hunters and warriors" can be a part of the elite.


This is related to the more general topic of "status" that I am quite confused about, because I believe in two things that both feel true, and also feel contradictory to each other.

First, there is more than one hierarchy of status. People can be feared, if you meet them in a dark alley alone. People can be feared because they have the political or social power to hurt you. People can be admired for... thousands of different things, each of them impressive to some people and unimpressive to others. Each of these can be referred to as "status": a crime lord is high-status, a mayor is high-status, a rock star is high-status, a popular blogger is high-status, etc.

Second, despite the thousand dimensions of status, saying that someone is high-status still feels more meaningful than merely "there exists at least one trait where this person is above average". It feels like if you get a group of people in the same room, there usually will be a unified status ladder. (It seems imaginable, but unlikely, to arrange a meeting of a crime lord, a mayor, a rock star, and a popular blogger, who would see each other as equals. It is possible that each of them would start with the feeling of personal superiority, but further interaction would likely prove some of them wrong.) Now of course this may depend on context: did they meet in a dark alley; surrounded by the police force; in the middle of a concert; or are they having an online debate and the popular blogger is safely pseudonymous?

The way I try to resolve this contradiction is by imagining "status" roughly as "the power to make other people do what you want, whether because they fear you or because they love you". This power can spring from thousand different sources, and yet it makes sense to compare its total amounts wielded by different individuals. (And yes, even the total amount depends on the audience. Or you may have followers that are totally willing to do X for you, but they are incompetent at it. It's complicated. But it's real nonetheless.)

And because in some situations two high-status people may want contradictory things, and their followers then need to make a choice, in that sense status is a zero-sum game. In a sufficiently small group, each of us could be at the top of a different ladder, each of us could excel at a different admirable thing; but in case of an intra-group conflict, some dimensions would become clearly more important than others.


Robin Hanson calls the two basic forms of status "dominance" and "prestige"; the fear-based and the admiration-based sources of social power respectively. He also notes how people high in "dominance" prefer to be perceived as (also) high in "prestige" [1, 2]. Simply said, a brutal dictator often wants to be praised as kind and smart and skilled (e.g. the "coryphaeus of science" Stalin), not merely powerful and dangerous. The same mechanism also applies in less extreme situations.

Which of course means that people who have "prestige" but not "dominance" need to avoid direct competition with the ones who have "dominance" and also desire (the same kind of) "prestige". You don't want to say "actually, I know way more about science than Stalin", no matter how true it is and how many Nobel prices you have to prove it. You probably don't even want to say "I am very impressive at science" when Stalin is in the same room, because there is a risk it might be interpreted as a comparison, and the stakes are just too high. It is safer to stay in the corner of the room, and if someone points at you, say humbly "I am but a shadow compared to our glorious leader". The better at science you actually are, the more careful you need to be.

And... maybe I am imagining things here, but couldn't the self-deprecating behavior of the successful primitive hunters be caused by the same mechanism? If you are not ready to challenge the chieftain for the leadership of the tribe, and if you don't want to risk being perceived as such, the safe behavior is to also downplay your skills as a hunter. (And everyone will pretend to agree with you, because they don't want to be perceived as opposing the chieftain either. Also, it is a nice opportunity to prevent you from having higher status than them.)


Now I don't want to imply that primitive tribes have Stalin-like levels of oppression. There is another, much simpler mechanism reducing the number of hierarchies: fewer people, simpler life (fewer things to compete at). Thinking about the example where the crime boss, the mayor, the rock star, and the popular blogger stop being all high-status when they enter the same room, the number of "rooms" seems like a limiting factor.

What does the "room" mean here, non-metaphorically? Subcultures, I guess, defined as groups of people who regularly meet separately from others. There is not enough place for many "rooms" in a primitive tribe. On the other hand, I would still expect hunters to be one of them. But maybe the whole tribe should be modelled as one "room", because the successful hunter cannot avoid the chieftain indefinitely, in the same way the crime boss, the mayor, the rock star, and the popular blogger can avoid each other and live in their own worlds.


The summary is that it's not just egalitarianism that destroys hierarchies. A very strong "dominance" hierarchy also suppresses "prestige" hierarchies, because it competes with them for the fraction of total status. But a strong "dominance" hierarchy seems like the very opposite of egalitarianism.

How could anyone mistake one for the other? For an external observer, it can be easy to accept the propaganda of the "dominance" hierarchy. (If you sincerely believe that Stalin is a competent scientist, the fact that all scientists agree with him doesn't seem more suspicious than the fact that all mathematicians agree that 2+2=4. No hierarchy here, only great minds thinking alike!) With primitive societies, the observer's exposure to the "noble savage" meme can do the same. And a modern group using egalitarianism as their applause light might even confuse itself, and mistake the submission of other hierarchies to their own "dominance" hierarchy for actual egalitarianism.

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