Do we naturally form hierarchies?
This is an important question for anyone that wishes to live in an egalitarian society. If we naturally form hierarchies equality can only exist for a short time or by suppressing our natural instincts. And to suppress our natural instincts goes against one of the fundamentals of equality. Freedom!
While reading up on this subject researchers and philosophers slot into two distinct interpretations of humans past which are based more on preconceived ideologies rather than self analysis. One, mainly anthropologists, see early primitive hunter gatherers as non-hierarchical, as equal. There was no hereditary title or god given status, hierarchies only developed once we formed agrarian civilisations and could create a surplus of food. This surplus gave those that possessed the grain houses power over those that did not. And soon after hereditary status temples and kings developed.
Others, mainly political analysts and sociologists, see even hunter gatherer societies as hierarchical. They were patriarchies where the dominant male ruled over his children and females and passed on this power to his favoured son. They were violent gangs fighting with other tribes for territory and power, subjugating women and weaker males. And they see this in our closest cousins the apes, and even in flocks of birds and chickens, which is were the term pecking order comes from. To them hierarchy is natural in any social creature and observation proves it.
I shall try and bring these two observations together for there is truth in both. I think the problem is partly about the definition of equality and hierarchy and about how and why we form groups. Not all groups that look to have an order have the detrimental affects of hierarchy.
First we should look at why we desire equality, then why we form groups and then how hierarchies can occur, and lastly I’ll look at self organising systems – mobs, for to some they were order without hierarchy but unfortunately they display much of a hierarchies worst attributes.
Why we desire equality
First I should ask do we desire equality? I know I do. I recall when travelling, leaving the order and hierarchy of the most celebrated egalitarian country in the world Australia, I felt a great levity having freedom. For even in my home built on equality and the tall poppy syndrome there are many rules, expectations, and stratum to the ladder of achievement and self worth. To go where I wished, to treat everyone I met based upon how they treated me, and to be human is the greatest asset of human beings. To love others for being same same but different. To be good and find so much goodness in others. This is very equal and very lovely. I feel we all desire this equality. We all feel more at peace and at home without a hierarchy, we adore equality. If you feel different please leave a comment below. I could be wrong. But I shall move on with the belief that we desire equality because we loathe hierarchy, and there is good reason to loathe it.
I have written extensively on why hierarchies are bad on the site JeSaurai so I shall just summarise in this piece. Those at the bottom of the hierarchy have increased levels of stress (cortisol levels) this makes them angry then to compensate for their lack of control they release endorphins which make them weak (they put on weight and lose confidence), sick (heart disease, decreased immune defences), conservative (unwilling to take chances or experiment) and stupid (decreased neurogenesis, and connectivity in the brain). The leaders get a testosterone kick making them over confident (hubris) lacking empathy (immoral) aggressive (violence and war), and short sighted (not literally but they can’t plan for the distant future or see the consequences of their actions). We end up with a group which is only really capable of going to war and that’s what we end up doing. Or the hierarchy collapses catastrophically because it becomes rigid and uninventive, completely incapable of adapting to a changing environment. It is the worst possible way to organise a society which begs the question why would we evolve to form hierarchies when they seem to be the worst way to sustain a group for any great length of time.
Of course Rome lasted for centuries and was very hierarchical, as did the British empire although for a much shorter time, and the American empire may prove to be the shortest lived global empire. These hierarchical societies only staved off collapse by invading and absorbing other cultures and resources. Their new ideas came from the fluidity of expansion. A lowly clerk from England could move to Africa or Australia and get lands and move up the hierarchy, this devolution helped to prolong these empires but not indefinitely. Eventually rigamortis sets in and they were (are) easy pickings for the new kid on the block. And when you think about it America’s reign has really only been 100 years, a mere blink in civilised history.* China’s may be far shorter!
Why we form groups
It is generally accepted that we are social animals, we naturally from groups. I hate generally accepted ideas because once we accept an idea it closes down any analysis or conversation about whether the assumption is true or not. Some of us don’t like other people much, some like to be alone. People throughout the ages have chosen to live on their own, ascetic monks, nomads on the steppes and agoraphobics. But we do rely upon the world around us to survive, and we generally have a better life when in groups. And there is much evidence to show that connectivity and human touching makes us happy, healthy and calm. So it seems forming groups is good for most of us. But why do we do it? Well we can achieve more in a group than on our own, but most importantly we are born dependent and die dependent. A child must be cared for to survive, and when we are sick or old we must rely on others for food and care. Without others none of us would be here at all. So I think we have a natural (I shall discuss my problems with this word in the next section but for now I shall continue to use it) tendency to form groups and defer decision making to others. The child has no choice and the adult can achieve more security and success with others.
Equality does not mean the same. We all have different aptitudes and physical abilities and knowledge. We constantly defer to others who know more than us, we defer to a doctor about our health, we defer to our parents on how to bring up our children, we defer to the strongest to protect us, we defer to the bravest to cross the ragging river first. We defer to meteorologist to predict the weather. This deference gives the other power. We also like deferring responsibility, sometimes we are not sure, we wander in a fog of options and cannot make up our mind and feel making the wrong (this is often the socially wrong) decision will harm us, so to defer the decision and the responsibility to another makes us more assured. This of course can lead to a further lack of confidence and inability to take responsibility for our own choices so we defer again and again. We become a weak follower.
All people defer power to others at some point often just through laziness or disinterest. You don’t know what to order for dinner so you say to your girlfriend “order for me” and she does and your happy with it. Even if your not its her fault you got a lousy meal not yours. However the next time you have to make a decision she may feel you incapable again and make it for you. This will be the start of a division of power. It has moved from one situation to another. She feels empowered and you feel you are incapable so either follow again or fight. The winner will extend their power. But as a couple you are stronger because while she is making decisions for you you can relax and think about your finances or you next trip or work all of which she will benefit form. Division of decision making makes the group more capable. But if you defer all the time and feel weak, unconfident, filled with stress from being dominated you cannot plan while she makes decisions for you. You are only a heavy but compliant weight behind her choices.
However I would not call deference a hierarchy, if anything it is a soft fluid hierarchy which is bottom up. We can choose to follow advice of those we defer to or not, we can choose not to defer power but to make decisions ourselves, we can choose. You can choose to order a different meal. And groups that work on this bottom up deferral system avoid the bad effects of hierarchy. The people deferring power don’t feel powerless rather they feel more capable because their friends, acquaintances and connections have made them able to do things they would not normally have been capable of. And those that are deferred to know that this position of power is fleeting because it is situation and mood based, as situations and moods change so does the decision maker. So the decision maker only gets a minor testosterone boost, enough to make them feel good but not so much as to make them overconfident. And often the responsibility can outweigh the power and the decision maker can actually become more humble, and thus encourage strength and confidence in the other. They wish to share. Both power and responsibility.
Of course the more we defer to others, the more we defer to an absolute power. When we defer responsibility we see the decision as absolute, authority comes from the absolute and therefore is truth. Authority right or wrong proclaims truth and having the power over others makes us more absolute in our answers. We desire respect. As we defer to others we rely less upon our intuition, our own experience. We become less confident about the world we see because we no longer test it against our own experience. We loose confidence, we loose self will. To learn we must make decisions for ourselves but with reference and sometimes deference too others. A wise man learns from the mistakes of others, a smart man learns from his own mistakes, and a fool never learns… he follows the leader.
But these pluralistic (many groupings for different situations and purposes) and fluid (ever devolving and interacting) groups can easily form a hierarchy which is rigid and dangerous, but first I shall talk a bit about words and definitions because the word natural gives me shivers.
The problem with words
Words are abstract and rigid. The definitions of words are very personal, influenced by experience and perception. Dictionaries like to nail words to the floor, but even their definitions change over time. In this sense the way we communicate is much like all we create, a rigid form with fluidity all around it. We want the absolute truth from an inexact world.
The word natural is used to imply inevitability, and absolute which cannot be questioned because it is ingrained into our genetic code. It is who we are. So anything natural must be accepted as the expression that will occur with freedom. Firstly our genetic code is not fixed. Evolution is the changing of genetic code over generations in response to sexual selection and environmental suitability. Even within an individual epigenetics is showing the expression of our genetic code, what instructions are turned off or on, is influenced by our environment. So even “natural” inclinations do change in response to the environment and maybe even our own will.
So if we say we were naturally hierarchical that doesn’t mean we still are naturally hierarchical or that will will remain naturally hierarchical. Or vice versa. We change, the world changes, things are fluid. This of course makes it very difficult to find security from truth. What we end up with is a string of belief based upon a web of evidence and self examination. We find the best truth possible for now but leave the door open to new information, and are willing to change our mind. I might say one of the worst aspects of rigid hierarchies is the inability to do that simple task. To change their mind.
It seems to me people have a very poor understanding of equality. It does not mean all the same, nor does it mean we all have the same wealth, abilities or aptitudes. It was thought to mean that you couldn’t follow, or lead. I think now we use equality to mean we are not ruled. To rule is to have the right over another life, to be able to chose how another lives, behaves even thinks. And not to be questioned by those below. This is what exists in a class or caste system, most corporations and even democratic societies. Others make the rules on where you can live, how you are to build your house, what is considered smart, what will be rewarded with wealth, and even what you wear. This is a hierarchy.
How hierarchies form from groups
So how does a fluid group that has individuals deferring to many others and has others defer to them form a rigid hierarchical group in which one or a few get to make decisions without their asking?
Lets start with the most natural deferral attachment. Parents and children. Parents get to make pretty much all the decisions for the baby, although the baby does have some quite effective mechanisms to get what they need, from crying, too those big baby eyes that make even the harshest man love them. Even this grouping it not absolute! As the child grows up the parent allows the child to make more and more of their own decisions until they rebel usually around puberty and decide to devolve into new groups, usually friends. If the parent moves the early power they have over their child into a complete dominance this can make a very weak adult who can’t rebel. The parent can withhold affection, they can punish strictly they can manipulate to maintain power and this extends what was a group into a hierarchy.
Then this replicates. The child will either rebel and try and form their own rigid hierarchy with them at the top, or they will remain weak deferring all decisions to a new leader. Once the parent is dead, in some cultures this hierarchy is maintained through ancestor worship. By deferring to a new authority figure they will create a dominate person who will then try to enslave more followers through physical strength – they have compliant followers to bash individuals into submission. Wealth or emotional manipulation are now more often used.
Just being aware of a hierarchy and your position in it can be enough to well hubris or weakness in us all. See someone driving a Astin Martin and you long to be them, hate them and respect them all at once. Meet them and you feel small. And the driver feels the world and all its inhabitants are mere puppets at the end of his tentacles.
As I described before once the deference of power has been moved into areas outside a persons speciality or is demanded (or just expected) by the one in power testosterone and cortisol kick-in to fix the hierarchy. It becomes more rigid and more stratified. This tightly bonded hierarchical group makes a formidable foe for more fluid groups and they can and do invade and conquer other groups thus expanding and replicating the hierarchy. The only way to repel such a force it to form your own group. Fear increases, cortisol makes people less inventive and more likely to follow a hubristic leader. The most psychopathic amongst us move to the top because they do not feel the fear. War is the result.
Luck could also play a part. Imagine that one person in a fluid group wins the lottery, or finds a wild orchard full of free fruit, or kills a buffalo with a lucky spear throw. We can’t explain why they have been blessed and not us so we think they have a power that we don’t. Nature adorns them with more gifts. At first we beg for some of the money, fruit or meat and then we start to follow what ever they do because if we act like them and do what they say maybe we to will be blessed. Or we just come to a conclusion they are better than we and to do well we should follow the lucky – god blessed, one. The hierarchy forms and then it narrows and elongates because of the physical and emotional drivers. Then it replicates for to gain freedom against a blessed “lucky” leader all we can do is form another hierarchy, or mob.
I also think some people, probably a very few have a tendency to weakness – to defer all decisions to others, and others also very few to dominance. Some are just inclined to follow, and others to a self-confidence that feeds off belittling others. I’m sure you can see that these two types of people will find each other and form a connection, a very strong bind which will make them stronger than any one individual and from here they can expand the hierarchical group by force if necessary. Like a tiny cancerous cell finding the perfect host, it invades again and again ignoring the future for the immediate rush of power, the invaded cell feeds the cancer as a follower feeds a tyrant.
So we form groups that defer power but maintain independence and the ability to devolve, but the rigid hierarchical group can easily form from these flexible connections and once it does it can proliferate like a cancer devouring all around. And look at the world around you now pretty much everywhere you look is a hierarchy. The cancer has subsumed the body.
In a mob, be it a mosh pit, protest march, lads on a night out or TV audience (as used by French doco makers in a version of the Milgrim experiments and Derren Brown in his “Experiments”) we can feel we are not being told what to do, we are not deferring power but non-the-less still act as one. We become part of a superorganism. We actually feel more powerful, we get an adrenaline and testosterone boost like the leader of a hierarchy, we get power from the security within the group but as a few go one way we all follow. We don’t even know who is leading. This has been described by some lovers of Ayn Rand as a self organising system and they have used it as an argument against hierarchy and for individualism which I find odd. My mother called it peer-group pressure.
The classic question against group stupidity is to ask the teenager. “If everyone else jumped off a cliff would you?” Of course you say no. I wouldn’t be so stupid as to follow the mob to death. But of course we know many do. The mosh pit keeps pushing until some suffocate. The protesters attack the police and get shot, the TV audience tortures a man to death.
So The mob looks all the world like a hierarchy without a leader, where all the people get the testosterone boost but at the same time feel they cannot leave like a cortisol filled follower. And again they are dangerous, they think short term, don’t worry about consequences, are aggressive to outsiders, and are often immoral.
The greatest empires have used this mob mentality combined with hierarchy. An army is the classic mob. Each soldier relies on his comrades and becomes bigger and more powerful from them. It counters the affects of hierarchy on the subservient foot soldier, they gain power from the group.
But why do mobs form? Well they mostly form when a person feels under threat, and feels individually powerless. As teenagers go through the rebellious stage against their parental leader they form mobs of teenagers, these mobs can form hierarchical gangs and then hierarchy replicates again. To my mind mobs form in response to hierarchy or as a tool of hierarchy.
There’s a classic experiment from the time of early silicon valley which encouraged the idea of self organising systems – mobs. They put a bunch of students and IT boffins in a cinema and on the screen they played a game of pong. The first video game where two opposing lines move up and down the side of the screen and a dot acting as the ball pings between them. They gave everyone in the cinema a controller and the paddle would only move if the majority agreed. Very quickly the whole cinema was playing as one, like two individuals thinking for themselves hundreds had self organised to act together to play the game.
So what drove them to consensus. A single agreed goal. Hit the pong back. This didn’t require a meeting, or a vote, just a reaction to shared information, the movement on the shared screen. So who is the real leader here? The screen, the shared goal. This requires a narrowing of perceptions enhanced by testosterone, as they got better they focused more, as they focused more they acted more together, and this replicated. The mob acted like the hubristic leader of the hierarchy.
So why do hierarchies and even mobs form?
They form in response to external restrictions. Sanctions and manipulations of the outside world and our societies. We form ordered corridors on a busy street when hemmed in by buildings, roads and goals that carry a penalty. If we are late for work we may lose our job. So we self organise into all walking together on the left or on the right and get pissed off when others don’t follow the rules.
We form mobs and hierarchies to gain security from a changing world that does not guarantee food or shelter. We tighten the group when threatened by another group. And our biology encourages power in the leader, submission in the follower and bonding in the mob.
We cannot create a world without some sanction or manipulation. We are born weak and dependant. We age and become weak and dependant once more. We are born in certain locations, some which offer much food and a pleasant climate others that are harsh and threatening. We are born with certain aptitudes and abilities which are better or worse than others.
We can change though, and we can modify our environment decreasing the environmental and natural sanctions. And we have done this very well. But ruefully we have replaced them with human made hierarchies which replicate our fear of the natural world.
We have made order to gain freedom, but instead of embracing freedom we have replicated sanctions and manipulations to maintain the hierarchy and the mob. We created these tools (hierarchy and mobs) to give ourselves freedom from fear, freedom from reliance, freedom from the unpredictability of the world that created life. But now we prolong these tools rather than embrace freedom. Those at the top wish to maintain their status so tell us if we relax for just a second the hierarchy will collapse and all around us the natural world will invade and you will perish from fear alone. The mob keeps us focused on the short term goals of fashion and common goals to get us the energy to fight through our cortisol stress from powerlessness.
Was it so terrifying being a nomad? Being with nature. Was it so bad we had to create a hierarchy which destroys the majority to avoid it. And most importantly could a fluid group be more secure than a hierarchy or mob? I think so. It will definitely be less stressful and more humane.
Going with the flow
There is something to be said for going with the flow. It basically means we don’t worry about the unexpected but rather embrace the new. To do this we need no fear, and it replicates no fear. A full belly helps but many ascetics and loners I mentioned at the beginning,those monks in the cave got by with very little food, and very poor shelter, if any. What they had was a lack of fear. This allowed them to imagine a very distant future, a very distant world, a foreign place without hierarchy or mobs, without fear or plenty. They found peace.
When we are at peace we don’t need hierarchy, nor the mob, but can join and leave at a whim. We can play dream and achieve. We can even lead, by example. And defer when we meet greatness.
So are hierarchies natural
Well sort of. They seem to be a beneficial short term tool to fight external threats. As is the mob. But really like many things that have short term gains but cause long term damage such as drugs, alcohol, fighting and most wonderfully hedonistic things they are a really crap base to build a society upon. If we have any intellect at all we will find a way to allow us to devolve from hierarchies once they become to rigid and this should allow a more fluid pluralistic system which allows us to defer power without losing esteem.
David J Campbell
The author of Fluidity – the way to true DemoKratia
* If you think the USA is not on the decline look to its followers. France (don’t forget it was France who supported the American revolution, and was its intellectual base) and the UK now act independently in African and middle eastern conflicts. And the EU is fracturing and solidifying with different power brokers, many from the Nordic and eastern states. Australia the compliant follower of great powers, first Britain then USA is now looking to China and Asia. When the followers leave the power is lost.