Fair Questions: Whence inequality?

I was once asked to identify the root cause of inequality.  While many people would talk about capitalism or the state at this point, I think that the roots are much deeper than ideology.

From a naturalistic perspective, inequality is driven by evolution. It turns out that nature is not egalitarian. I get the impression that most folks who want to talk about the causes of inequality really just want someone to blame. Which is too bad, because looking at the cause would actually be a great idea.

But this begs the obvious question for all the well-educated folks out there who think of human social behavior in terms of social constructs and seek to tear down those evil social constructs where they find them.

How is it possible that political and economic inequality is a result of evolution?  Political systems and economic systems are social constructs, after all.

I certainly agree that they are social constructs.  But we need to talk about how the physiological and social systems are integrated. We can certainly analyze them as separate systems, and while that’s useful, they are not in fact separate systems.

Our social constructs are precisely that: constructs. They were built, and usually for a purpose, assuming that you’ll grant that most constructed things are built because they perform a function we deem useful to accomplishing our goals or at least intuitively grasp to be useful in that way.

Typically, the sorts of norms by which human social groups evaluate behavior are rooted in a desire to encourage behaviors which serve the benefit of the group and discourage behaviors which do not serve that benefit. Obviously, what is beneficial to human social groups can change and the norms will change as a result, and some norms will become maladaptive and be discarded while norms which are harmless will probably be retained.

If we look at the sorts of norms which are common to human social groups, it’s pretty easy to see that the norms typically discourage eliminating members of the group who can or will probably contribute to the survival of the group (e.g. prohibitions on murder). It’s pretty easy to see that many of the norms (including laws regarding property rights or alcohol use) serve the purpose of fostering group cohesion, which is critical for survival. Our social constructs are adaptations in the same way that all of our behavioral traits and physiological traits are adaptations.  Even the construct of government is an adaptation; it is a response to the difficulties in accomplishing group cohesion and group goals as the group grows in size and complexity.

This is tied to civil and political and economic inequality via competition for resources and our response to scarcity.  Even if we consider a social group existing under circumstances in which resources are infinite, we have evolved to deal with scarcity on a physiological and behavioral level and we will continue to engage in those behaviors geared toward resource acquisition even after scarcity is gone because our physiology evolves quite slowly. This is to a large degree why we still have so much inequality; we are still hard-wired to act as though resources (political, civil, and economic) are scarce and to hoard them.

The one thing that can help us overcome our physiological responses are those pesky social constructs which can provide us with external motivations to act in a way which corresponds to the reality of infinite resources. It will take a long time for us to evolve physiological systems which effectively enable us to respond to an environment with infinite resources, and so if we reach such a society, I suggest we all get real cozy with the idea that we need social constructs so that we can adapt to those circumstances while our physiology plays catch-up with our environment.

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