“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
- Second paragraph of the United States Declaration of Independence
“This system [hierarchy], endemic to all primate groups, largely goes unquestioned.”
- Primates, Library of Nature
Senator Lyman Trumbull, the man who authored the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution outlawing slavery, called the phrase, "All men are created equal" the "immortal declaration." It is certainly one of the most enduring concepts of the Revolutionary period. Americans learn the phrase as children and accept it as part of the natural order of things.
Yet—think about it—no two humans have ever been born equal. Humans are a hierarchical species. Put a group of strangers in a room and they will sort out an informal hierarchy within ten minutes. It is a hierarchy that emerges only in that room at that time but, during that period, everyone in the room subconsciously internalizes and conforms to it. Hierarchy has a clear reason for existing, as primate studies of social baboons, macaques, and our closest primate relations, chimpanzees, have consistently found.
Knowing our place in the social hierarchy – albeit subconsciously -- enables us to function as a social unit. Unlike our more hirsute primate cousins, we don’t live in a small troop managing social relations only with the same familiar few. We live in a large social mesh of overlapping groups – family, work, friendships, colleagues, organizations, etc. – each with its own hierarchy. We are constantly managing our standing in groups, because those groups shift constantly. Marshall McLuhan was wrong. We don’t live in a Global Village[i] . We live on a globe of villages.
Humans are very adroit at maneuvering their way through this web of shifting hierarchies on the local level. We do it unconsciously. We have worked out social mechanisms for filling in the gaps. That’s why business executives, educators, academics, and others of the professional class have titles. In America, social rank is not tied to birth but to accomplishment. That’s why the second question[ii] you ask a stranger at a party is “What do you do?” It is the reason theme parks feature switchback lines – the accomplishment, in this case, being the act of getting there in an orderly sequence. Everyone knows who is in front of them and who is behind. Cutting in front of this hierarchy will bring down the wrath of the group because it violates another uniquely American concept: fairness.
Yet, on a larger scale, hierarchy is in direct contrast to the equality we look for in political life. This is where the battle for dominance plays out. The search for equality as an inalienable right is the cultural value we seem to value most in every pursuit. This assertion creates a paradox when paired with our primate nature. In our striving society (and worldwide), humans are constantly asserting dominance over others: in promoting our values, our careers, our associations, even in religious context. Americans in particular have chosen to battle out this war of ideas: competitive advantage, or equality? Sounding like a dilemma, this is not a straight-out contradiction, as a search into our evolutionary history can show. A subtle accommodation is being made, operational across our history.
Let us take a trip to glimpse inside the history of dominance in primate evolution by taking historical note of our closest cousins – our fellow primates, featuring monkeys (baboons and macaques) and apes. Originally, as today, primates lived in groups—some highly social, others (like gorillas) less so. Within these groups there are alphas and betas, with the rules of supremacy well understood and followed by all members. As in human society, there are leaders and supporters inside an elite circle at the top who lead making decisions and keeping the peace. Primatologists have reported that the higher the social index/activity of the species—baboons and macaques especially—the more pronounced are rank and dominance among these aggressive species—aggression and sociability being highly correlated. Sociability is the main fact in predicting the group’s behavior and the social graph (the map of personal connections).
Primates practice dominance across the board, as group animals must to survive –to find food and practice defense. But there is also the need for inner harmony within any group of any size, so members can coexist without the leading caste exercising ruthless oppression on everyone. Someone must lead and thus enjoy the privileges of the alpha life, but tyrants live in constant fear of rebellion and resistance, even the disbanding of their supporters. So some sense of equality must also be active. Americans consider this a fairness test in all situations, from the Electoral College to playgrounds to prisons.
It is worth noting here that fairness is almost exclusively an American concept (in contrast to the British meaning, which is closer to justice) and that we hold it out as the ultimate test of social virtue. The Declaration’s equality cry is built into the fairness concept, and it underlies—at a gut level—discussions of social justice, which go far beyond the technical meaning of justice as a legal concept to express an American-branded ideal. But that ideal must always play against the dominance-hierarchy reality of social relations, and that is our paradox to deal with. Fairness must constantly be parsed, defined, and understood within our primate nature of highly social, striving opportunism under hierarchic hard-wiring.
Fairness is the American answer to a strict hierarchy. The reality is that while all may be created equal, no one is expected to stay equal for long. We live in a very American classless society. It’s not that we don’t have classes; we do, though we don’t talk about them much. When Europeans speak of a classless society the proposed solution is to create a biological impossibility - one big egalitarian class. To Americans, a classless society means not being restricted to the class you were born into. In fact, Americans expect to move up from whatever level they were born into. That’s where fairness enters, by determining whether you are being treated in a way that might wall off your opportunities to do so. This is also the core of political correctness.
In the next few posts, we will examine specific examples of how our dichotomy of fairness ethic and inborn hierarchical nature play out in real life, from our family, social life, to business, education, and entertainment (remember the switchback line?). But in the meantime, here’s something to think about, right out of the primate hierarchy playbook. Consider the following:
When the alpha leader of a troop of primates is impulsive, erratic, or unstable, rather than protective and value-driven, the troop grows anxious, restless, and prone to infighting to try to establish dominance to transcend or disrupt the leader’s headstrong ego. This kind of flagrant leadership upsets the order of things, disturbing relations between groups without confidence in the leader’s ability to protect and promote the body of the group. Understand that, and you can understand the why behind what you see on the evening news.
[i] The term “Global Village” was coined by Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, and popularized in his books The Gutenberg Galaxy: The making of typographic man (1962) University of Toronto Press ISBN 978-0-8020-6041-9 and Understanding Media (1964) McGraw-Hill, ISBN 81-14-67535-7.
[ii] The first question, of course, is “What is your name?”