A tentative biological theory about human hierarchy, with frequent reference to anarchists (and occasional reference to baboons, Dada, violence, Christian mysticism, and wolves)

January 2, 2016

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am occasionally asked what I am doing in school, to which I sometimes reply that I am studying biology with an interest in behavior generally and social conflict in humans particularly. This comes out of a twin lifelong obsession with behavior (my initial adult interest in wild nature came from my observations of raven behavior) and a sense of terminal futility with social struggles. Most of the core theoretical frameworks on which resistance movements are based I think are terribly flawed, and one of the essential ways in which I think they are flawed is that they avoid any discussion of the innate variation that exists among people and the role it has in shaping patterns of social division and conflict. I wrote this purely as a means of organizing and setting a framework for some of my own research–the vague idea being that I might as well start doing literature reviews and thinking about experimental procedures now, thus assuring a decent project to work on by the time of graduate school. I decided about halfway through writing it to publish it here, and subsequently made some minor edits and tacked on a few hasty notes. As a result, it has at times an extremely informal tone, and is a far cry from literature throughout, but I think it might prove of some interest to some people.]

I guess it could be called a developmental genes and cognitive plasticity theory of human hierarchies. It is not nearly as biologically explicit as it ought to be yet, but it’s a framework to start working in. An essential tenet of this theory is that some political differences within complex societies (like the United States) are owing to variation in individuals’ fundamental orientations towards basic social attributes like hierarchy, and the extent to which people tend to prioritize moral claims about harm/threats to their own group (e.g. nation, race, demographic) perpetuated by other groups (nations, races, demographics) vs. prioritizing moral claims about harm/threats to others perpetuated by one’s own group.

Perhaps the most thorough framework I am aware of that examines the relationship between truly basic dispositions and political values is cultural cognition. Cultural cognition is a variant of cultural theory which explores the politically polarized perceptions of risk around issues like climate change and nuclear power. In essence, it places individuals somewhere on a Cartesian plane with four quadrants, created by intersecting axes like the x and y axes of the graph of a function. The axes have at their poles opposing orientations (hierarchy vs. egalitarianism is one axis, individualism vs. group the other), and placement on each axis is determined by an individual’s answer to a series of questions. Notably, while these questions have no overt, logical relationship with the political orientations they predict, one’s unique position on this Cartesian plane, as a result of one’s unique combination of scores on the two axes, does very reliably predict perceptions of a number of politically polarized risks. (1)

sst-four_rationalities

Cultural cognition purports to explain political attitudes with something that looks a lot like this Cartesian plane. I’m skeptical, but not nearly as skeptical as you might think.

I don’t think I unequivocally embrace every aspect of cultural cognition. When I try to fill out the questionnaire they use to predict political attitudes, I have no trouble answering any of the questions about egalitarianism vs. hierarchy, but am thoroughly baffled by almost every question relating to group vs. individual, and feel I have no suitable answer—perhaps a predictable dilemma for someone whose politics very roughly fall into the category of anarchist, an ideology notoriously conflicted on the respective roles and obligations of the individual and the group. But I do think cultural cognition is extremely interesting. There’s no particular reason that one’s thoughts on income inequality and racism should so reliably predict one’s thoughts on climate change, unless people tend to form perceptions of risk not solely on evaluations of the risk itself, but also on the basis of how a given risk perception does or does not reinforce their fundamental cultural outlook (climate change, for instance, is a difficult risk for a “hierarchical individualist” to accept, because of an aversion to regulation of profit-seeking behavior).

Cultural cognition doesn’t seem to be overtly biological, but acknowledging I’m not explicitly using it so much as citing it as a validation of the more general tenet that variation in political outlook corresponds to variation in fundamental outlooks (and accepting that in particular hierarchy vs. egalitarianism seems a fundamental orientation I am comfortable saying predicts political attitudes), we must acknowledge some political outlook variation is inherited, just like some of the variation in intelligence and criminal behavior. If we ask in what genes variation in politically-predictive orientations is found, and what other behaviors or cognitive tasks said genes might be involved in, a variety of interesting relationships present themselves for further investigation.

First it is useful to briefly state a few of the observations which provided an initial foundation for these inquiries. One such observation, summarized, perhaps horribly, in The Marginal and the Magical, (2) is that from shamans in societies living with Paleolithic technology to modern civilization, one can find figures who tend to violate similar social taboos in similar ways (e.g. cross-dressing, violations of sexual customs, general tendency to come into conflict with the social order) and who tend to have similar preoccupations (e.g. intimate relationship with death, sexuality, transformation, self-transgression and transgression of form). In this case the correspondences between a cross-cultural phenomenon found in very traditional societies and the behavior of modern artists was documented, but engendered the broader question of what semi-stable or universal forms of social division or conflict might be discerned throughout human history and across the technological spectrum.

sst-iron-maiden-3YZT_o_tn

Iron Maiden, for instance, could reasonably be described as a band whose combined thematic obsessions with supernatural forces, sex, and death are mirrored in diverse cross-cultural expressions which might ultimately have a common origin in the Paleolithic. Seriously.

Another key foundation is that there does seem to be some inherent variation in socially complex animals with respect to their interest in the dominance hierarchy and their tendencies toward intergroup aggression. This is certainly true of closely-related primates like chimpanzees, and somewhat less closely-related primates like baboons. There’s a famous study in which a bunch of male baboons within a troop were into going to a garbage dump and fighting the resident males for access to the garbage, while a different bunch of male baboons exhibited no interest in this behavior. All the garbage-raiding baboons got sick from a bad batch of garbage and died (along with everyone in the troop that resided at the garbage dump), leaving only the less aggressive male baboons. As new juvenile males entered this peaceful troop, they acclimated to the less hierarchical behavior. The behavioral flexibility is interesting, and this baboon troop retained its novel culture intergenerationally, although it’s also worth noting it’s still a demographically unique troop (1:2 male-to-female ratio). Still, there must be something underlying the initial pattern of variation, the baboons less interested in fighting, who also tend to spend more time in social and sexual activities, and the baboons who are more violent and less inclined to interpersonal affiliation.

Finally, there was the noteworthy similarities between certain resistance movements throughout a very broad swath of history, from the mystical Christian sects like the Cathars to the peasant revolts to modern revolutionaries. These groups tended to object to very similar institutions (property, or at least the accumulation of it; hierarchy, or at least intense forms of it) and to emphasize certain other attributes (sexual permissiveness, for instance). (3)

sst-cathars

Dying brutally at the hands of ruthless despots: a cross-culturally common preoccupation of people involved in egalitarian resistance movements. Pictured here are Cathars.

All this inevitably leads to the very general question of whether variation in certain genes associated with behavior and cognition in the human population correlate roughly to cross-culturally common and temporally fairly stable (or recurrent) modes of social division/conflict. This of course doesn’t negate any of the myriad other, experiential factors which might dispose an individual to any given orientation. In the United States, for instance, there are a number of demographics who experience far more negative repercussions of the dominance hierarchies of the state and the capitalist economy than others, people for whom violence at the hands of the state’s agents and dire poverty are far more common, and they are of course likely based on this experience to have a different outlook on hierarchy in general than someone else. Nonetheless, some—perhaps a good deal—of the observed variation must be biological. If we examine two kids who grew up at the same time in a middle class neighborhood in New Jersey, both of whom had roughly similar experiences of alienation and injustice, and one becomes an underground Animal Liberation Front operative and the other goes to work for the Peabody Mining Corporation, we must assume that these two people do in fact simply have their innate differences.

An interesting procedure for searching for genes responsible for the variation in crucial cognitive and behavioral domains which shape political and economic outlooks (egalitarian vs. hierarchical frameworks) would be to search for areas in which people with a politically-predictive tendency excel or underperform cognitively. If genes associated with these behaviors were known, it might be reasonable to investigate further the possibility that they are also responsible for variation in outlooks on hierarchy. If such genes were then determined likely to be responsible for both these traits—performance within a cognitive domain and perception of hierarchy—this would then of course further compel question of why. This question could essentially be expanded to: what, fundamentally—biologically—is variation in human perception of hierarchy? Does it correspond to variation in any broader and more fundamental set of traits or behavioral dispositions?

Here is one theory which could potentially be used to explore this question, of what the essence of variation in hierarchy perception is: The theory states that changes in developmental genes which are involved in transitioning the brain from a juvenile learning phase (i.e. a more plastic state, where behaviors are still being learned) to an adult phase (a less plastic state, brain less adaptive) have been a significant part of the evolution of the human brain from the smaller and lower cerebral cortex proportioned brains of our distant hominid ancestors. The retention of juvenile brain plasticity further into life has facilitated the development of characteristically flexible human brain function.This has been part of a broader overall tendency toward neoteny (the retention of juvenile features into adulthood) throughout H. sapiens evolution, which is also reflected in our anatomy with respect to the anatomy of closely-related primates at different ages (human hairlessness, facial features, etc. corresponding to infant or even fetal developmental stages in chimpanzees and other close relatives). (4)

sst-riot cops

It is either the case that these men failed to understand, in choosing their aesthetics, who the villains were in Star Wars, or there is some truly essential difference between them and me.

While changes in these brain plasticity-related developmental genes have played a significant role in human evolution overall, there also exists significant variation in these genes within the human species. Said genetic variation produces variation in any number of behavioral and cognitive domains, perceptions of hierarchy being one of them. As yet, I suppose I really don’t have a truly explicit idea of why variation in developmental genes concerning the timing of brain plasticity phases is also involved in the perception of hierarchy—but there are some tentative directions. I mostly like the theory because I think it helps explain an interesting set of covarying human attributes.

To present a few items from the truly enormous list of interesting things which might also be reasonably expected to vary with varying genes governing brain plasticity: 1) tendency towards behavioral neoteny in general (i.e. general “youthfulness” of behavior with respect to age, however this would be best measured within a given human society); 2) capacity for abstract, symbolic thought (greater brain flexibility presumably being associated with a greater ability to reconfigure existing patterns of conceptualization, language, or behavior to achieve novel effects, and thus respond to novel circumstances); and perhaps, if we extend the theory a little bit, 3) relationship with novel stimuli; 4) tendencies toward aggression; 5) relationship to property and residence pattern; 6) tendencies towards sexual promiscuity and experimentation.

It’s noteworthy that these six potentially covarying cognitive/behavioral aspects would be reasonably suspected to be related to developmental genes involved in brain plasticity for a few different reasons.

1) Assumes some genes governing brain plasticity are essentially determining the timing of juvenile vs. adult brain phase, and so could be expected to be involved in the development of any number of characteristically adult behaviors. (5)

2) Assumes that increased capacity for abstract, symbolic thought is also partially under the control of genes involved in brain phase timing.

3-6 are all extensions of the basic premise of 1; they all assume specific forms of behavioral neoteny, positing different behavioral dispositions as characteristically juvenile.

sst-banksy

Love them or hate them, it can hardly be denied that anti-authoritarians have a knack for symbolic expression.

 

3) Assumes that behavioral experimentation, exploration, and play are behaviors associated with juvenile brain stages, and thus juvenile brain stages are associated with a greater congeniality to novel stimuli. I think I have read somewhere that one’s openness to novel stimuli predicts how egalitarian one’s perspectives are, so suggesting this is perhaps cheating. If we go off this relationship, it would also bias us to expect a relationship in the direction of greater tendency toward juvenile behavior=greater tendency toward egalitarian thinking. This would further tell us that for instance with 2 we could expect increased capacity for symbolic thought to be associated with increasingly egalitarian tendencies. It likewise has implications for 4-6.

4) Assumes that a certain level of aggression—perhaps lethal aggression against members of our own species, perhaps aggression resulting in severe injury of a member of our own species—is uncharacteristic of juvenile developmental stages. Going off our insidiously creeping assumption that juvenile brain stage=egalitarian thinking, this would imply that people with more egalitarian inclinations are less likely to use violence.

Greece Financial Crisis

What does it tell us that conflicts between opposing ideologies are so often conflicts of people armed with stones against people armed with guns?

5) Assumes that somewhere in the universal pattern of human development across societies, there is some tendency for young people to own less than older people, and perhaps a tendency for young people to be more transient than older people (accumulation of property usually being synonymous with sedentism and the acquisition of some territory in which to be sedentary and keep possessions). Keeping to our pattern, we would then predict people with more egalitarian attitudes would tend to be more transient and to have more ambiguous or hostile attitudes towards ownership of property (although it’s worth noting that hostility towards ownership might be more or less synonymous with the very definition of an egalitarian outlook, at least an economically egalitarian one—but the other aspect, of transience vs. sedentism, has no such inherent logical relationship to egalitarianism). I suppose 5 assumes that, in keeping with a pattern observed in a number of animals, at some point in human evolution there was a tendency for young individuals to disperse to new territories, before settling into an adult pattern of territorial defense.

6) Likewise assumes sexual experimentation and promiscuity to be statistically more common among people in developmentally earlier phases, a pattern observed in at least some animals, and thus by extension assumes that people with more egalitarian attitudes will be more sexually permissive.

 

Because it is a subculture with which I am familiar, and in which I (somewhat marginally) participate, contemporary anarchist subculture is a convenient unit of analysis for examining some of these putative realms of covariation. This may or may not be an anthropological cheap trick. I am, for the moment, unconcerned. I think I was somewhat inspired by David Graeber to decide that anarchists per se were an anthropologically valid subject, (6) but I’ve always found subcultural analysis to be worthwhile. Anarchism is the most egalitarian of political ideologies, so in this evolutionary schema it should be expected to correspond to the most juvenile-phase brain stage behaviors and cognitive dispositions. This sounds pejorative, but neoteny in this evolutionary scheme, with its putative relationship to cognitive flexibility, is an essential trait of the human species—if one wanted to make anarchists sound charismatic rather than like people prone to throwing tantrums, one could perhaps argue that those with more plastic (juvenile) cognition are more characteristically human.

With all six of these suggested realms of covariation, there are indeed corroborations within anarchist subculture, some of which I might go so far as to describe as striking. It is important to note that “anarchist subculture” here denotes a holism of two parts: one, a specific political ideology and ethical framework; and two, a subculture (or subcultures) which are anarchist in the sense of adhering to said political ideology/ethical framework, but which also have a number of other idiosyncratic features which have no logically explicit relationship with anarchism. Punk rock subculture is a convenient and familiar example: a subculture in which anarchism is arguably the dominant political ideology, but which has a number of other distinct behavioral tendencies (transience, poverty, sexual promiscuity, tendency to violate social taboos, etc.) which have no clear, logical relationship to this particular egalitarian philosophy, and thus may be seen as reasonable candidates for covarying behavioral tendencies in the biological framework we have established.

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Anarchists.

If we examine anarchism as this holism, as an ideology and as the other, seemingly unrelated cultural tendencies associated with the ideology, there are a number of clear corroborations for this biological interpretation of (some of) the observed variation in the human perception of hierarchy. Here I present some of them with merciless concision, offering no documentation whatsoever, but only the assumption that someone familiar with anarchist subculture will readily acknowledge each attribute of it I identify is valid (and why offer proof of something I already know?—this is after all just an outline to organize my own thinking which I am only just at this moment deciding I might publish online; why start troubling myself over citations at this late stage?).

1) In anarchist subculture, reference is fairly often made to adulthood or “growing up” with contempt. A number of anarchists refer to themselves as “kids” well into adulthood. It’s also noteworthy that arguably the most common pattern for participation in anarchist organizing and struggles is beginning involvement somewhere in teens or twenties and ceasing involvement later on in adulthood.

2) I note that Graeber says anarchists tend to come from a spectrum of socioeconomic backgrounds but tend to have more experience with higher education than the general population, a circumstance that would correspond to a greater capacity for abstract thought. Also, there is the interesting tendency for anarchist subculture to converge with a number of underground art movements, many of them quite experimental. This is a pattern that can be generally discerned throughout complex modern societies in history; radically egalitarian politics and art, including some very experimental art, have been intimately wedded throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, in Dada, Surrealism, Situationism, punk rock, etc.

There is absolutely no such tendency within conservative political ideologies, to consistently be infused by and entwined with art movements. There are of course fleeting moments of convergence between the artistic avant-garde and conservative politics—the poetic totalitarianism of the Futurists, an Ezra Pound or two—but overall, these moments essentially stand out as anomalies, sort of like Spain in 1936. (7) People with fiercely egalitarian ideologies tend not to excel at claiming physical territory, but they seem to almost completely dominate the terrain of artistic experimentation.

sst-dada performance

Dada performance aesthetics: why the fuck is this anyone’s means of expressing their outrage at the senseless carnage of World War One? A biological relationship between egalitarian attitudes (which predict an aversion to war) and abstract/symbolic thought, that’s why.

Here I must also deviate from the focus on anarchist subculture to make a few expanded observations about the relationship between egalitarian values in general and symbolic proficiency. One is the noted dominance of egalitarian political outlooks in universities, a phenomenon that would be expected in this framework.

Another more complicated additional note concerns the relative successes and failures of egalitarian movements, such as movements against identity-based oppression. If we take for instance the various movements for black liberation and equality in the United States, it is difficult not to conclude that these movements have had a far greater impact on culture and language, on how race is discussed and conceptualized, than they have on physical reality, in which perpetual incarceration and dire poverty consume black communities.

A number of analogous patterns could be found in the victories and defeats of modern egalitarian movements. Even the existence of phenomena like greenwashing indicates that egalitarian movements tend to succeed in claiming cultural space–in getting people to shift customs or change language–while failing to win the same contests in physical reality.

Graeber says something to the effect that anarchists tend to excel in the realm of small, difficult to regulate, easy to conceal objects (like books) and falter in the realm of large, easy to regulate, hard to conceal objects (like factories). Thus one finds far more anarchist bookstores than anarchist automobile manufacturers. One plausible interpretation of this state of affairs would be that anarchists excel in the realm of ideas, but perhaps aren’t the sort of people who are as interested in manipulating large blocks of concrete as they are in maneuvering new ideas and relationships. (Note that this has wonderful consequences for the prospects of anarchist art and tragic consequences for the prospects of anarchist revolution).

3) Alongside books on sexual assault accountability and animal liberation, anarchist book distributors and bookstores very often sell tracts detailing exploits of vagabondage, trainhopping, dumpsterdiving, and other forms of adventure. Such exploits are not merely a common narrative obsession but are also directly experienced by many anarchists. This interesting convergence supports not only the notion that novel stimuli seeking and egalitarianism are related, but also has implications for 5, the notion that transience and an aversion to ownership would be correlated with egalitarianism.

4) It seems a case could readily be made that anarchists do not excel at actual violence. Acts of defiance and property destruction far outnumber acts of actual interpersonal violence, especially lethal violence. This would lend support to the notion that a pre-lethal violence cognitive-behavioral stage is associated with egalitarian outlooks. However, it should be hastily noted that physical violence might also be logically somewhat incompatible with egalitarianism, or at least inherently less preferable under an egalitarian framework than in a hierarchical one, and thus this could also explain the relatively tepid relationship of anarchism to interpersonal violence.

5) As already noted, anarchism is indeed intimately associated, today and throughout its brief but rich history, with poverty and transience. A number of social animals (e.g. at least some species of baboons, some wolves I think, girl chimps but I don’t think boy chimps, there’s lots of others) have juvenile stages in which they leave their birth territory and wander, not belonging to any territorial social group (and thus playing no role in any hierarchy). Some of these juvenile animals, notably common ravens, form complex social groupings whose purpose is to provide collective self-defense against the adults whose territories they travel through, taking resources the territorial mated adult pairs “own.” (8) A number of friends who I have described this juvenile raven life stage to have said something to the effect of, “Oh, they’re like us.” A potentially very salient observation.

6) I think even the most casual ethnographer of anarchist subcultures would agree that they are more prone to promiscuity and sexual experimentation than the general population.

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Sluts.

So how to further investigate such a thing? Of course, there’s filling in all the blanks on genes and actual biologically explicit mechanisms as possible. And the vast literature review all this entails, mercilessly investigating all these heterogenous threads. Some of it will doubtlessly be abolished by a moment’s research and some of it may slowly be allowed to agonizingly convolute and re-form into something else that becomes a workable theory. Or perhaps it will all be perfectly validated and no one else will have done any of this work before. But extremely unlikely.

I could readily imagine trying to extend this ostensible terrain of behavioral covariation into other complex species, like ravens. Would be decent graduate work if I could keep my focus for long enough to remember any of this by the time I get to graduate school (unlikely for a perpetually novel stimulus-seeking anarchist like myself). One could imagine asking: is there a relationship between the time a common ravens spends in juvenile confederations and their competency at some cognitive task? Is there some behavioral test at which ravens have varying competencies which could be seen to vary with varying time in juvenile confederations? (Perhaps not at all—perhaps time spent in this stage doesn’t have a strong developmental/genetic component; perhaps all the variation is ecological, and ravens just settle down and get territories whenever they find one. I don’t remember anymore.)

But ultimately, and that truly is the point, this crazy, elaborate theoretical framework provides a number of interesting avenues of inquiry and relationships to examine, and some of it could possibly go somewhere.

NOTES:

  1. See Dan. M Kahan’s paper “Cultural Cognition as a Conception of the Cultural Theory of Risk.” In press. S. Roeser, ed. Handbook of Risk Theory. Springer Publishing. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1123807
  2. I’m not being as small-spirited as it might seem here. The Marginal and the Magical” is my own writing, which I published on the internet in 2007 and which was reprinted in Amarantos zine #3. http://amarantoszine.blogspot.com/ In this piece, I developed a truly elaborate set of comparisons between similar institutions in a number of very disparate societies. I don’t remember them all (it was after all years ago and I was just kicking drugs), but the general implication I recall seems to be an inclination toward artistic abstraction and conceptual exploration commonly corresponds to an antagonistic relationship with prevailing social standards and institutions of power.
  3. I am uncertain of what work to cite here. I suppose one could read Silvia Federicci’s Caliban and the Witch, which discusses some resistance movements, or Engels’s historical work on the peasant wars and whatnot on which Federicci draws. Radicals seem consistently obsessed with this book, but I admit I find it incoherent. If the witch hunts are primarily to be explained by some reconceptualization of the body in the transition to capitalism, what are we to make of the very similar persecutions of lepers, Muslims, and Jews which immediately preceded the witch hunts and were virtually identical to them? I could, let me assure you, continue to rant like this for awhile. Elaine Pagels also wrote some pretty decent books about some of the mystical Christian sects who have been involved in armed conflict with more authoritarian Christians. I don’t remember what any of them are called and apparently these are the kind of notes I’m writing right now.
  4. It seems improper to cite because it’s so old, but my source for this is somewhere in the labyrinthine corridors of Konrad Lorenz’s two-volume work Studies in Animal and Human Behavior.
  5. Somewhere out there there’s a paper describing how chimpanzee brain development is similar to humans’ for a time until their brains take on more rigid patterns of activity while human brains remain flexible. If I’m ever feeling studious I’ll track down the paper and post a link here.
  6. I am referring here to Graeber’s books Direct Action: An Ethnography and Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology.
  7. For those not already heavily steeped in anarcho-mythology, in 1936 anarchists claimed a good deal of Spain.
  8. Ravens in Winter by Bernd Heinrich changed my life when I was 16 years old.

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