[Paleopsych] Unequal Societies, Unhealthy Societies

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Unequal Societies, Unhealthy Societies

    Why An Unequal Society Is An Unhealthy Society
    Marek Kohn

    This article first appeared in the New Statesman's 'Big Ideas'
    feature, 26 July 2004.

    Among those committed to understanding the mind as the work of natural
    selection, there is a sense that the time has come: we are now
    beginning to see what we really are. Two major propositions have
    emerged, sustained by a construction boom in Darwinian theory and the
    confidence that supporting data will increasingly be delivered in hard
    genetic currency.  One is that human nature is evolved and universal;
    the other is that variations in personality and  mental capabilities
    are substantially inherited. The first speaks of the species and the
    second about individuals. That leaves society - and here a third big
    idea is taking shape. In two words, inequality kills.
    The phrase (which is that of Richard Wilkinson, one of the leading
    researchers in the field) sticks out from current consensus like a
    sore thumb. For the most part,  the major biological ideas concerning
    human nature and mental capabilities are seen to confirm the way the
    world has turned out. In a world so seemingly short of serious
    alternatives to the way it is currently arranged, that is only as
    expected. But what might be the biggest biological idea of all, in
    terms of its implications for human health and happiness, shows the
    world in a very different light. It finds that society has a profound
    influence over the length and quality of individuals' lives. The data
    are legion and the message from them is clear: unequal societies are
    unhealthy societies. They are unhealthy not just in the strict sense
    but also in the wider one, that they are hostile, suspicious,
    antagonistic societies.
    The most celebrated studies in this school of thought are those
    conducted among Whitehall civil servants by Michael Marmot, whose
    recent book Status Syndrome presents his ideas in popular form. He and
    his colleagues found a steady gradient in rates of death between the
    lowest and the highest ranks of the civil service hierarchy. Top civil
    servants were less likely to die of heart disease than their immediate
    subordinates, and so on down the ladder; at the bottom, the lowest
    grades were four times more likely to die than the uppermost. The key
    features of these findings were that the gradient was continuous, and
    that only about a third of the effect vanished when account was taken
    of the usual lifestyle suspects such as smoking and fatty food. This
    influence upon life and death affected everybody in the hierarchy,
    according to their position in it. Differences in wealth were an
    implausible cause in themselves, for most of the civil servants were
    comfortably off and even the lowest paid were not poor. The fatal
    differences were in status.
    What goes for Whitehall seems to go for the world. In rich countries,
    death rates appear to be related to the differences between incomes,
    rather than to absolute income levels. The more unequally wealth is
    distributed, the higher homicide rates are likely to be. Although the
    findings about income inequality are controversial, the broad picture
    is consistent; and remains so if softer criteria than death are
    measured, like trust or social cohesion. Inequality promotes
    hostility, frustrates trust and damages health.
    It is hard to make sense of these findings outside a framework based
    on the idea of an evolved psychology. Understanding humans as evolved
    social beings, however, made what we are by the selective pressures of
    life in groups of intelligent beings, it is easy to see that our minds
    and bodies depend upon our relations with our kind. These relations
    assume central importance for our health once economic development has
    minimised the dangers of infectious disease and relegated starvation
    to history.
    Studies of baboons, social primates obliged by their nature to form
    hierarchies, tell the same story. A state of subordination is
    stressful; such stress may put the body into a mode that is vital in
    emergencies but corrosive as a permanent condition, interfering with
    the immune system and increasing the risk of heart disease.
    Conversely, human relationships formed on a broadly equal basis may
    support the immune system and promote health. An American researcher,
    Sheldon Cohen, demonstrated this by dripping cold viruses into
    volunteers' noses, and then asking them about the range and frequency
    of their social relationships. The more connections they had - with
    acquaintances, colleagues, neighbours and fellow club members as well
    as with nearest and dearest - the less likely they were to develop
    The relationship between the length of life and its everyday quality
    is the relationship between its biological and social dimensions,
    which demands an evolutionary explanation; and the findings seem to
    demand egalitarian measures. It's an unfamiliar combination. But
    Darwinian readings of the data on health and equality are not
    incompatible with claims that humans are innately unequal. They do,
    however, lead to markedly different views of how to make the best of
    So do the prior ethical commitments that evolutionary thinkers bring
    to their projects. In his book The Blank Slate, having stated the case
    for the substantial innateness of all human characteristics and their
    imperviousness to parental influence, the psychologist Steven Pinker
    devotes a chapter to denouncing the past century's art and its
    associated discourses. Folk wisdom and popular taste are right, he
    affirms; `elite art' is perverse and wrong. The argument is built upon
    the idea that we all share an evolved human nature, but it would not
    be terribly difficult to remove the Darwinian passages and produce a
    standard-issue comment piece for those pages of right-leaning
    newspapers that are devoted to castigating the liberal elite.
    Pinker turns his moral compass to take bearings on literary reference
    points such as 1984, that affirm the individual and condemn attempts
    to impose equality upon humankind's natural inequality. At a
    fundamental level, modern Darwinism encourages individualism, for it
    holds that evolutionary processes act on individual organisms rather
    than upon groups of organisms. It makes no particularly strong
    predictions about variations among individual human minds. That part
    of the picture comes from the behaviour geneticists, who compare
    identical twins with fraternal twins (or study their prize specimens,
    identical twins who have been reared apart) and conclude that a large
    proportion of the variation between individuals' personality traits,
    temperaments and intelligence is due to inherited differences. Such
    findings readily lend themselves to a view of the world which attaches
    great importance to allowing individuals to fulfil their potential,
    while regarding social programmes to reduce inequalities as vain at
    best. Equality of opportunity is a fundamental principle; equality of
    outcome is a pernicious fantasy.
    The result is an upbeat fatalism; upbeat about the prospects for
    scientific understanding of human psychology, fatalistic about the
    prospects that society might be improved by such understanding ... and
    upbeat, also, in the confidence that society needs no radical
    alteration. Many of those who dislike such visions collude in them, by
    acquiescing in the assumption that the effects of environments can be
    altered but those of genes cannot, and by failing to recognise the
    words `tend to'. The big idea that provides much of the driving force
    for evolutionary psychology, the project to describe a universal human
    nature, is that the sexes have different reproductive interests. The
    sex which invests the most in reproduction will be the one which takes
    more care in its choice of mates. Among humans, this implies that
    women will tend to be more discriminating than males in their choice
    of partners. It also implies that men and women will have different
    emotional propensities - as Stephen Jay Gould put it, conceding the
    central principle of evolutionary psychology in the very act of
    deploring the neo-Darwinian school. It does not imply that every woman
    will be more circumspect in choice of partners than every man, or that
    every man will be readier to take risks than every woman, any more
    than the tendency for men to be taller than women means that all men
    are taller than all women. Through the widespread failure to recognise
    that evolved behaviours and ways of thinking are tendencies,
    evolutionary psychology has determinism thrust upon it.
    In the application of evolutionary perspectives to health and
    equality, however, the prospect of a better society - or at least of
    better communities or workplaces - is unmistakeable. This way of
    understanding human nature has the qualities that have marked great
    Darwinian ideas since the Origin of Species: it is profound in its
    implications, potentially transformative, and challenges existing
    wisdom. On one hand, it calls into question the idea that equality of
    opportunity should be pursued without regard for equality of outcome.
    On the other, it goes beyond the mechanistic assumption that the task
    of `progressive' politics is to ensure that the least well off have
    enough, emphasising that how much is enough depends on how much others
    have. It replaces vestigial sentiments about the abstract virtue of
    co-ops and community spirit with data about life and death, implying
    that we would all (or almost all) be healthier and happier if we were
    prepared to share more of what we have. It speaks to the world we live
    in, where want is marginal but trust is precarious.
    In Richard Wilkinson's words, it is `the science of social justice'.
    Like other big evolutionary ideas, though, it may be honoured more by
    denial than by engagement.

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