Social Hierarchies:What Role Do They Play In Our Culture?
What purpose do social hierarchies play in our culture? What are the origins of such hierarchies, when do they improve a groups fitness and when don't they?
Imagine a world where there is no order. No one leads, no one follows. There are no role-models for kids to strive to mimic. There is no one to serve the food, or make the homes; why should they do such a task? This is a world without a cultural hierarchy, a land without authority.
As we grow up we revel in the chance to rebel, defy the figures of authority in our lives. Yet when we get older, we realize that we must listen, for if we don’t…. If we don’t, then the world will cease to function, for there will be no one to put all of the pieces into place.
You don’t just wake up one morning and say “I must find a leader, and follow him faithfully.” Theoretically such a subconscious thought actually has evolved into existence in our heads. Depending on a group’s surroundings, pending threats, and nutritional supply, there is some sort of chain of command.
Humans aren’t the only species which have such hierarchies in their society. The red deer are led by the elder female. Zebras group into “harems” of females with a senior male as their leader. The baboons in Kenya form large groups to protect themselves from lions. Some birds join into flocks only at dawn, this is what has traditionally improved their fitness. During the days they can be more discreet in pairs, or by themselves. Each species has adopted a specific societal organization that improves their fitness.
When social behavior was first developing in primates, there were advantages to sticking together and to having one omnipotent leader. A large pack of primates can thwart an attack by an oncoming predator better than a lone primate. Having a leader made things simpler, imagine forty monkeys all trying to decide which way to go.
So how did they decide who the leader was? Dominance. The primates fought their way into the top positions in the hierarchy of their group. Once they were at the top, their were always open to attacks, however these attacks were rare. What about in today’s society, how do we decide who the leader is?
Nowadays, fighting is not an appropriate way to claim dominance, at least not in the modern world. As opposed to such a barbaric ritual, we use the educational system. The most educated, the richest, and the most influential people become the leaders in today’s society. A doctor has higher status than a garbage man. Chances are the doctor participated in many years more schooling than the garbage man, thus staking out his place in society.
Although we like to consider ourselves more civilized, and beyond the drives that evolution has put forth for us, we still are animals. Homo sapien is a species. We haven’t changed the game, simply the rules.