The evolution of egalitarianism

Survival of the fittest. Extinction of the weak. And yet, egalitarianism. Evolution, which seems driven by forces that only make the strong stronger, has selected for egalitarianism in humans. Why and how exactly it has done this remains a difficult puzzle. Evolutionary biologist Sergey Gavrilets (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) has constructed mathematical models that suggest that the reason why egalitarianism evolved is because of purely selfish tendencies.

As far as Gavrilets can tell, human egalitarianism evolved a very long time ago in human evolutionary history. Far from being the product of established civilizations, it emerged as early as the hunter-gatherer days of humanity. In this primitive setting, as Gavrilets hypothesizes, some individuals possessed greater fighting ability than others. Those with superior fighting prowess could take what they wanted with brute force from those with lesser fighting skills. Over time, this lead to the best fighters having the most reproductive success because they had the most resources (especially prized resources). Consequently, a hierarchy formed with the “bullies” at the top. Any law enforcement likewise would come from the top of the hierarchy. In such an environment, where the bullies reigned supreme, one would not at all expect an egalitarian instinct to evolve in humans. Somehow, it still did.

Gavrilets complicates the above equation by adding in a bystander. This bystander could either help or not help a victim facing a bully. Assuming the bully has a physical advantage over his victim, the bystander’s decision matters greatly because without the bystander’s intervention, things will unfold as described above. Even more problematically, the bystander may choose to help the victim, but then the victim might back down from the bully, leaving the bystander to face the bully all alone. Again, assuming the bully possesses a fighting advantage, this puts the bystander at great physical risk.

Despite this risk, Gavrilet argues that the bystander has much to gain. First, the bystander may receive a share of the resource he helped to protect. Second, even if the bystander receive no share, the very fact that the bully had to back down, lost a fight (assuming the victim doesn’t flee and the victim and bystander fight together against the bully), or won the fight but paid dearly in the process, discourages bullying overall for the group. Whenever a resource transfer from a weaker to a stronger group member does not occur, that reduces in-group inequality and thereby increases the resources and reproductive success of the non-strong members.

In other words, as Gavrilet puts it, “seeking personal benefits can lead to a particular other-regarding preference: All others should be more equal.” This means siding with the weak against the strong. Enforcing equality ensures that an oppressive heirarchy doesn’t develop, and in this way fighting for equality ultimately is fighting for one’s own self. Again, to quote Gavrilet: “The helping benefits are direct but delayed. In the end, it is pure selfish tendencies that could drive the emergence of helping behavior, empathy, and moral values.”

Evolution, then, may not be as gruesome and heartless as people usually think. Sure, the egalitarianism that emerges from evolution is due to selfish reasons, but the fact remains that egalitarianism still evolved. Evolution has its positive side too, and to ignore it or refuse to see it would be outright unfair.

For more, see “On the evolutionary origins of the egalitarian syndrome” in PNAS.

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