Elitism – The New White Meat


I have been called an Elitist before by any number of people, and not only by those whose throat I was stepping on at the time. It is a term I have never shirked, in fact, I wear it with the same pride I wear other oft derided titles, such as Geek or Jew. Meant as insults, I take them as badges of honour and accomplishment. I understand that “elitist” defines me to a certain degree, but I have always felt that the more able will inevitably rise to the top in any single endeavor, and to deny that fact is to deny nature itself.

Therefore, I was quite delighted when I encountered the following article that works from the premise that elitism and heirarchies were bred into us all through countless prehistoric ages, and continue to be expressed actively or passively in most human endeavors and undertakings…such as Caledon, perhaps?

The following is reposted from The Australian.

Hard-wired for the ups and downs

by Denis Dutton

I’M here not to praise elitism but to understand it, not so much through a history of elites but by talking about elites in prehistory.

Human beings are naturally hierarchical and they like arranging themselves into hierarchies of skill, age, wealth, competence, experience, whatever. We can deny it if we want, but we all know that when the chips are down and the anarchists have formed the anarchists’ association, the first thing they do is elect a governing committee.

The Pleistocene is the period from 1.6million years ago to 10,000 years ago, when cities began to be built and agriculture and writing were invented. Following it is the modern period, the Holocene. But it’s in that earlier, much longer period, the Pleistocene, when the human personality and human sociality were formed; and that’s what is so important for evolutionary psychology.

Based on what we know about hunter-gatherer societies from the Pleistocene to the present, we can say a little bit about how hierarchies form in human groups. It’s worth considering our Pleistocene inheritance in this context because although hierarchies are conditioned for every society by local cultural conditions, the will to form hierarchies in human associations is as hard-wired as blood clotting or the liking for sweet and fat.

Some general sense of fairness is intrinsic to hunter-gatherer hierarchies. Pure self-interest or the interest of your family is not all that counts. There is also fairness in, say, food distribution: the obligation of individuals to divide, rather than keep for themselves or their family, the kill from some successful hunting expedition. As far as status and opportunity are concerned, I think we’d learn a lot by looking at how hierarchies tend to be found in typical Pleistocene hunting bands.

These bands seem to be adjusted to create maximal success in terms of mobility, flexibility, skill specialisation and stealth. They required co-operation. They were male units. Bands of brothers is perhaps going too far, but the standard hunter-gatherer societies were anywhere from 25 to 150 people in size and certainly included a lot of cousins and brothers. It’s interesting to note that the size of the hunter-gatherer hunting band drawn from these societies was about 10 to 12 men, which happens to be the size of the basic platoon in the British army, the squad in the US army and the basic unit in almost every army since the Romans.

It is also close to the default size — nine to 12 or so — of teams in many sports and boards of directors of corporations.

This is a contingent fact about human nature. We could have evolved so that the most comfortable operating group was 50 people, or 100, or three. Then we’d have a different memory as a species for names and faces, and we’d have a different way of forming associations in societies. But as things evolved for Homo sapiens, we came to this number of 12 as a default size of these types of co-operative groups worldwide.

These bands, as well as the larger hunter-gatherer groups that they fed and protected, were involved not only in hunting but in running raiding parties and defences against other human raiding parties.

They were governed by what are called reverse dominance hierarchies. A pure dominance hierarchy is one in which the individual at the top of the heap dominates all those underneath him: likely a him, by the way, rather than a her. Such arrangements became practical on a large scale only in the modern age; that is to say, during the past 10,000 years, with the invention of agriculture and cities, which allow food to be stored and police forces and armies to be fed.

We do have pure dominance hierarchies in the modern world, and we have had them for the past 10,000 years. Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union was a pretty good example of a modern pure dominance hierarchy, from the boss on down. It makes me think of wolf hierarchies. I once observed a wolf hierarchy in a zoo and it was unbelievably brutal if you looked at the one or two animals at the very bottom of the pecking order. The final wolf, who’s the weakest of the group, is tormented night and day, attacked, howling, constantly in pain and terror. Dominance hierarchies are brutal.

Of course, I say that because I evolved as a member of a reverse dominance hierarchy. We all did. Maybe if we’d evolved differently, which is the contingent part of this, we’d admire wolf hierarchies. But a human reverse dominance hierarchy is something that is led by an individual at the top who by dint of skill, talent or knowledge, or maybe just force of personality, becomes the corporal, the staff sergeant, the team captain, the platoon leader or the chairman, and the rest of the guys go along with it. It’s called a reverse dominance hierarchy because the leader needs the co-operation of the led.

Attempts at dictatorial domination were likely to be responded to in the Pleistocene with exile, homicide, non-cooperation and, interestingly, ridicule. Ridicule is a standard way for all human societies to deal with people at the top. We need look no further than Australian politics.

It seems to be in our genes, if Pleistocene hunter-gatherer groups are indicative, to be suspicious or resentful of whoever is at the top of the heap. We like to think for ourselves and we demand autonomy and withhold co-operation if we don’t get it.

This desire of human beings for relative autonomy while co-operating in small groups reveals itself clearly in modern, organised mass societies, democracies and dictatorships alike. Americans, for example, and Australians are inveterate joiners of small groups, special interest clubs for stamp collectors or antique enthusiasts, garden clubs, church groups, service groups such as Rotary and the Lions, sports clubs, Civil War re-enactment societies, and choirs.

In modern totalitarian states such as the post-war Soviet Union, it is likely that many citizens who felt alienated from the power of a remote monolithic government invested more of their sense of personal solidarity in a local chess club or in organising outings for children in the Young Pioneers. Such small groups remain hierarchical, though, and people often try to retain status in hierarchies of small groups of which they’re members.

So an individual who may have a low situation in his role as a worker in a large corporation or government department may yet be president of a model aeroplane club.

Well-structured societies today, including modern mass democracies, provide adequate outlets for our hunter-gatherer preferences to fit into hierarchies, to achieve relative dominance in them and to possess personal autonomy, all at the same time. The variety of independent spheres of life today opens greater possibilities than the Pleistocene did for individuals to fit in, to lead and to follow in organised groups.

As for hierarchies and elitism, our intrinsic resentment of leaders, our Pleistocene anti-elitism, may partly be explained by the fact that small-scale tribal societies were zero-sum economies. Everything that was owned by one person was something that someone else could not enjoy. Some psychologists argue that the zero-sum nature of the Pleistocene gives us a psychology that has a lot of trouble grasping concepts of borrowing, interest and economic growth.

In the Pleistocene, people had a very poor notion of inheritance because mobile bands could not acquire land or much in the way of possessions to pass on to children. Inheritance became possible only when cities were established, along with systems of kingship and ways for power and property to be passed through dynasties. There were no dynasties in the Pleistocene.

The Pleistocene mentality tends to regard anyone who gets rich as having done so at the expense of someone else. When it comes to the benefits of free trade, for instance, this kind of thinking makes us hard-wired protectionists. Our intuitions favour basic Pleistocene-style exchanges, but modern economies involve much more than that, with processes such as interest and investment that we don’t always understand.

There’s another way that hierarchies tend to be formed in the hunter-gatherer societies, and it shows itself in the distinction between pure dominance hierarchies and production hierarchies. In a dominance hierarchy, someone lords it over everyone else because of birth inheritance or sheer physical power in some cases. That wasn’t really possible in the Pleistocene because one man couldn’t physically control all the other men in the group.

Productive hierarchies are not physically coercive: the guy at the top of the ladder got there because he was somehow more skilful, wise, competent or creative than other people. Bill Gates’s wealth derives from his cleverness, but it is not a cleverness in assassinating rivals. Saddam Hussein, on the other hand, headed a dominance hierarchy. He was very intelligent, too, but it wasn’t a productive intelligence; it was used to force people at gunpoint to follow and support him.

Given their Pleistocene inheritance, human beings tend to confuse different types of hierarchies. Anti-elitism in the contemporary world is a manifestation of ancient tendencies towards envy and resentment.

We resent the rich and end up sometimes resenting their achieved values. Such envy is counterproductive. Or we resent the rich and everything that we associate with these “elitist bastards”.

An interesting example of this can be found in a book published last year by John Carey, an Oxford don and critic, called What Good are the Arts? Despite Carey’s great literary insights — he writes wonderfully on the history of British literature generally — he seems to have absolutely no ear for music. His deafness in this area is combined with a huge British class chip on his shoulder. He therefore is certain that the opera is just a way for rich people to show off their jewels and furs: that it’s a ritual, like opening parliament. It is a scandal for him that Covent Garden receives state subsidies.

The structures of hierarchies, if you don’t understand their values, can look pretty strange. Most of us figure we don’t understand enough physics to understand why someone got the Nobel prize in physics this year, but we sort of take it for granted that it’s probably legit and somebody understands what they’re doing.

That kind of humility does not seem to come naturally to Carey on the subject of the arts, which he does not understand well. (But of course when you’re talking about the arts and critics, frauds do abound; perhaps in his day Carey has seen too many Derrida-inspired post-structuralist English professors.)

The tendencies I’ve been talking about are, in my view, permanent features of an evolved human nature.

It is part of our Pleistocene inheritance that many people will resent the elitist values they associate with the rich, whether it’s the opera, chardonnay, gallery openings, being able to distinguish between words such as criterion and criteria, using apostrophes properly or spouting an apposite quote from Shakespeare off the top of your head.

There are French theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu, and some British Marxist sociologists, who try to find grand philosophical justifications for treating anything that the rich can do or seem to enjoy as nothing but a social marker with no intrinsic value.

The defence of elitism in a modern democratic state will be a defence of values of taste and education that are intrinsically, objectively rewarding. We do not have to apologise for preferring science to superstition, Goethe to gangsta rap. Such values in themselves imply nothing about social hierarchies except insofar as the achievement of elite values may require education. More of that seldom hurts.

Now playing: The Crüxshadows – Winter Born (This Sacrifice)
via FoxyTunes


1 Comment

  1. Well, there is one great truth in that what you wrote, and that is the fact of hierarchy. But it is not so much true that this occurred in Pleistocene, actually, it had to happen eons ago. Basically all the animals, all the organisms living in groups developed some kind of hierarchy, not only humans and not only in the times of hunters and gatherers.

    Similar problem is morality. Again morality is not the invention of humans, it is the invention of evolution, long before humans came to being in whatever form. Wolves have hierarchy and vampire bats have hierarchy as well as a certain form of morality.

    You are right in so far that in last 1.6 million years humans have developed and still are developing their hierarchy as well as their morality, but you are a sort of imprecise as far as the origin of hierarchy is concerned. Nearly every group of animals has its own hierarchy too; just watch elephants, gorillas, chimps, dogs and even vampire bats, wild horses, etc. Think of that. Hierarchy is absolutely nothing that is only human; it is something that humans inherited from their animal ancestors.

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