Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Hierarchy and Equality: The Essential Tension in Human Nature

I've bumped this to the top of the queue in recognition of AOC's advocacy of a 70% tax rate on income above $10M. Tyler Cowen thinks this is a mistake. He's got a point. But what if Christopher Boehm is correct about the underlying (biological) psychology on the issue of egalitarianism vs. hierarchy, that we've inherited proclivities for both? What determines the balance between the two? I'd say it's culture, and that the balance is inherently unstable.
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I'd originally published a longer version of this essay on The Valve in 2010, where it accumulated various comments and addenda. I first republshed it here specifically in connection with my work on The Greatest Man in Siam. It's the section, Egalitarianism and Hierarchy, that's directly relevant, but you may want to read the sections on Shakespeare and Greene as well. I'm now bumping it to top top of the cue as I'm thinking about literary morphology.
The purpose of this essay is to consider some recent developments in, shall we evolutionary psychology, as it's called, and to argue that these developments indicate that human nature contains within it an essential tension that may well be one of the drivers of history. I begin with the psychology and then move to literature, first Much Ado About Nothing, and then a comparison between Greene’s Pandosto and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. I conclude with a modest gesture toward Marx.

Egalitarianism and Hierarchy

Let us consider Christopher Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior (1999), which speaks to issues of class and equality. Boehm is interested in accounting for the apparent egalitarian behavior of hunter-gatherer bands, the most basic form of human social organization. While individuals can assume a leadership role for specific occasions, e.g. a hunt, there are no permanent leaders in such bands. Boehm does not argue that such bands are egalitarian utopias; on the contrary, primitive egalitarianism is uneasy and fraught with tension. But it is real.

Boehm finds this puzzling because, in all likelihood, our immediate primate ancestors had well-developed status hierarchies. Boehm ends up adopting the notion that the hierarchical behavioral patterns of our primate heritage are overlain, but not eradicated or replaced, by a more recent egalitarian social regime. Other than suggesting that this more recent regime is genetic Boehm has little to say about it.

Independently, Alan Fiske has been arguing that that humans have four different modes of social behavior (The Four Elementary Forms of Sociality: Framework for a Unified Theory of Social Relations. Psychological Review, 99, 689-723, 1992, PDF; here’s a briefer online presentation). In communal sharing, all members of a social group are treated as being equivalent. For example, if one member of a family is honored, the honor accrues to the whole family. Authority ranking is what the name implies; individual with different ranks in a hierarchy have different rights and obligations. In equality matching people work to maintain some kind of balance among them. Finally, there is market pricing, in which interactions are mediated by quantitative market mechanisms (p. 692) and which, on that account does not seem as basic as the other three (cf. Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought, 2008, p. 409) and which will, accordingly, play no role in my analysis. In Fiske’s analysis not only are relationships between different people mediated by different modes, but different aspects of a relationship between two individuals can be mediated by different modes.

It is not entirely clear to me just how these two conceptions are aligned. Boehm’s phylogenetically older system seems to be Fiske’s authority ranking mode, while his newer system seems to encompass communal sharing and equality matching as well. Market pricing has no obvious place in Boehm’s analysis. In any event, this is not the place to examine the relationship between these two conceptions. What is important for our purposes is that both Boehm and Fiske argue that human social interaction is mediated by distinctly different behavioral systems and that there is at least an approximate alignment between their conceptions.

Much Ado about Hierarchy and Equality

Let’s look at Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, which weaves two intertwined comic stories into a single, if a bit loose, complex plot (on the interlinking, see Richard Levin, Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama, 1971, pp. 90-93). The play gets its overall dramatic shape from the Claudio-Hero plot, in which Claudio wrongly suspects Hero of being unfaithful to him just as Leontes wrongly suspected Hermione. I have argued elsewhere that Claudio’s ambivalence stems from his difficulty in assimilating Hero to both to a behavioral system for attachment and one for sexuality (see my “At the Edge of the Modern, or Why is Prospero Shakespeare's Greatest Creation?” for a complete argument).

The play’s other story, however, is quite different in texture. It involves Beatrice and Benedick and their virtuoso wit combats. Their relationship is quite different from that between Claudio and Hero. It is clear that, as the play opens, they have already established a relationship; they know one another and talk freely. In contrast Claudio and Hero barely interact, and when they do Claudio does all the talking. He has more lines in the play than Hero does, and most of hers are spoken to someone other than Claudio, such as her father, Leonato, or her attendants, Margaret and Ursula. Claudio initiates the relationship and she responds. But he does not initiate the relationship directly with her. Rather he calls on the authority relationships of aristocratic hierarchy and has his feudal lord and military commander, Don Pedro, make contact with her father, who is Don Pedro’s peer.

That is all we need to argue that the Claudio-Hero relationship embodies one mode of social interaction, a phylogenetically older (Boehm) authority ranking (Fiske) system while the Beatrice-Benedick relationship embodies a phylogenetically newer and uniquely human (Boehm) equality-matching (Fiske) system. Just as the Claudio-Hero relationship founders on the problem of establishing both an attachment and a sexual relationship with the same person, so does the Beatrice-Benedick relationship. Benedick regards cuckoldry as the inevitable fruit of marriage (Act I, scene 1, ll. 229-236 in the 1964 Signet edition):
That a woman conceived me, I thank her; that she brought me up, I likewise giver her most humble thanks. But that I will have a rechate winded in my forehead, or hand my bugle in an invisible baldrick, all women shall pardon me. Because I will not do them the wrong to mistrust any, I will do myself the right to trust none; and the fine is (for the which I may go the finer), I will live a bachelor.
Beatrice is of a similar mind, as is clear from her exchange with Antonio and Leonato at the beginning of Act 2.

Thus, we have two parallel plots in which sexual ambivalence stands in the way of marriage. The two relationships are organized according to two different principles, one hierarchical, the other egalitarian. The play ends with the full expectation that both couples will be married. Shakespeare has intertwined the two plots in such a way that each one plays a significant causal role in advancing the other. The double plot thus insists that both modes of organization are important, that they support and complement one another. Yet neither relationship embodies both.

But, the theater-goer, or the reader, follows and imaginatively re-enacts both of these relationships, intertwined as Shakespeare has presented them. From that it follows that the reader’s experience brings, not only hierarchy and equality together, but sexuality and attachment as well. Four for the price of one! And all within the relatively brief compass of a few hours in the library or at the theater. Could the theater-goer use this experience as a tool for psychological integration? (Cf. my remarks on Kenneth Burke)

From Greene to Shakespeare

Now let us consider two other texts, one by Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, and the other by one of his immediate predecessors, Richard Greene, Pandosto: The Triumph of Time. Shakespeare’s play follows Greene’s novella quite closely. there are, however, some critical differences, which I have detailed in a recent longish post (second section, “Family Problems”). These differences involve a father’s incestuous desire for his daughter, which is present in Greene, but not Shakespeare. Why did Shakespeare change that element of the story, and only that element?

Both stories are set in a world where there is a strong class difference between the nobility and the peasantry. One consequence of this difference is that marriage between the two classes is all but forbidden. Let us postulate that this class difference is a cultural expression of the older hierarchical system of primate social interaction. If that is so, then, it would seem that the attraction between the young adults, Perdita and Florizel in Shakespeare, Fawnia and Dorastus in Greene, is not being governed by that older system or that it is not being governed only by that system. Those young adults believe themselves to be of different classes and are prepared to leave their local society rather than give up their relationship. The fact that they are, in fact, social equals puts theater-goers readers at ease (otherwise known as defense) and authorizes their relationship when their identities become known, but has no bearing on how they originated their relationship or on why they want to maintain it. Theirs is a relationship that fuses the egalitarian mutuality of phylogenetically newer system with the sexual desire of the phylogenetically older system.

Or perhaps it uses the newer system to stabilize the relationship between the two phylogenetically older systems, attachment and sexuality. There’s no obvious way to tell from the text what the underlying neuro-physiological configuration might be. Nor is it clear that it makes much difference.

When Pandosto is sexually attracted to Fawnia and, in consequence, proposes to her, his relationship to her is obviously regulated by the phylogenetically older sexual system, a fact the Greene fixes in our minds by devoting six paragraphs to it (see my earlier post). That he drops his pursuit when he learns the truth does not erase that association in reader’s minds. In contrast, Leontes hardly attends to Perdita’s sexual beauty, thus leaving us the option of interpreting his interaction with her, and her companion, as being regulated, not by any of the phylogenetically old (Boehm) authority ranking (Fiske) systems, but by the newer and more egalitarian (Boehm) equality-matching (Fiske) system. I further suggest that Leontes’ relationship to his wife, once she is revealed to be alive, is now under the auspices of this newer system as well. When he had believed her to be dead, he mourned her, and thus extirpated his old bond with her, a bond that required her strict subordination to his authority. Now that she is alive, he can forge a new bond with her, on a new psychological basis, one that no longer requires wifely subordination.

My argument about the difference between these two narratives, then, is that Shakespeare’s Leontes has become comfortable with the phylogenetically newer social system while Greene’s Pandosto has not. That is why, in terms of drama-craft, of how Shakespeare crafts his plot, Leontes doesn’t make any sexual overture to Perdita and that is why he can joyfully accept the emergence of his wife. Had Leontes made such an overture, the anxiety it would have created in his audience would have interfered with the particular happy ending that Shakespeare wanted for this play.

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Do I really believe this argument? Frankly, I do not know. I fully acknowledge its speculative and tentative character. The question is whether or not such a speculative argument is worth making. I believe it is and I offer it in the hope that others will construct other arguments speaking to the strategic differences between Pandosto and The Winter’s Tale and that we can then examine the various proposals and learn something about how these texts work.

Given that these two modes of social organization are inherent in human nature—as both Boehm and Fiske argue — it is not surprising that we find both in these two Shakespeare plays, Much Ado About Nothing and The Winter’s Tale. One would expect to find them in many stories, if not all. It is thus heartening that a large-scale study of 19th Century British novels concludes that a tension between these two modes is central to those novels (Johnson et al., Hierarchy in the library: Egalitarian dynamics in Victorian novels, Evolutionary Psychology 2008 6(4): 715-738, PDF). What’s important for close textual analysis is how, specifically, the two modes are deployed, relationship by relationship. Shakespeare has deployed them in these two plays in such a way that the final resolution of each play depends on the complementary interaction of the two modes.


  1. "It is not entirely to me just how these two conceptions are aligned."

    The last chapter of Boehm's Blood Revenge
    The Enactment of Conflict in Montenegro and Other Tribal Socities, 1984 may prove helpfull to some degree.

    His discussion of dominance relations in segmentary society works rather well with my understanding of the historical move from non-stratified society to the chiefdom.

    But I find the messy and fragmented nature of segmentary systems rather interesting.

    I should read more of his work, never got beyond reading his research on Montenegro.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    I'm inclined to think that Fiske's market pricing relationship is relatively modern and entirely the product of culture. As for communal sharing and equality matching, the second strikes me as requiring more cognitive machinery. But it still might be primitive to the human system.

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