Menus Subscribe Search

Conclusion: The Judgment of Fairness

• August 31, 2012 • 9:11 AM

Our multimedia presentation on the evolution of fairness concludes by asking if even today humankind has found a way to be both cooperative and competitive.

Previous: Seeing Fairness Evolve

Brian Hayden’s phrase at the end of the last video—”the judgment of fairness”—captures an important implication of his theory. Whereas the norms of fairness among hunter-gatherers are common to all members of the group, in transegalitarian societies fairness is essentially an agreement among a sufficient number of the wealthy and well-connected, who are able to enforce their version of fairness on the society as a whole.

If Brian’s theory is correct, the process is a slippery slope. What begins as favoritism within a small circle of friends becomes cronyism among the members of an in-group. It’s a system that tends to concentrate power in the hands of a few, but it’s simply a consequence of the natural variability in human personality evolving in conditions of surplus.

A compelling argument for his ideas is that there are parallels in contemporary life—for example, campaign finance in the United States, particularly in the age of Citizens United. Current laws and regulations allow a small group of the wealthy and well-connected to exert a powerful influence over both the perception and the legal definitions of fairness, including tax fairness and acceptable concentrations of wealth.

There is growing sentiment that U.S. campaign finance is unfair, which begs the question we asked earlier—how much has cultural evolution actually changed our human sense of fairness? Does it function differently today than it did in our hunting and gathering days? And how did it really function among the transegalitarians? If our ancestors had in fact developed an innate sense of fairness, wouldn’t the poor at Keatley Creek have been somewhat perturbed? How complacently did they accept their lot?

If you were part of an aggrandizer’s support group, you’d likely regard the unequal conditions as fair. You might over time even develop a sense of entitlement. But if you were a poor worker watching your housemates chewing succulent filets across the pit, while you boiled fish bones to get the scraps of flesh, it’s plausible that life would seem a little bit unfair.

Fairness Today

Today’s poor—worldwide—watch the rich and famous pursue their luxurious lifestyles on reality TV, rather than on the opposite side of the pit house. Nevertheless, evolutionary psychologists maintain that our fundamental perceptual, emotional and behavioral traits are largely unchanged from our hunting and gathering days. We fear now what we feared then, and seek the same basic satisfactions. But our world today is considerably changed from the world where these traits evolved, and as a result, our behaviors aren’t always appropriate to our current situations.

Economic competition coupled with technological innovation has led to the incredible accomplishments and opportunities of modern life. But the consequences of those activities also pose potential challenges to concepts of fairness, and to the sustainability of our civilization.

We are both cooperative and competitive, but it seems difficult for us to find the right balance between cooperation and competition in a truly global civilization—to come to agreement, as a worldwide species, on what really constitutes fairness in the early years of the 21st century. Our inability to adequately address the challenge of climate change is a striking example.

Climate change is driven by myriad actions of billions of people striving to improve their lives. Immediate needs—will there be food tomorrow?—overwhelm concerns about future and uncertain changes in climate. In such a causally complex, global scale problem, how can we design institutions that enable us to fairly share the costs and consequences of our activities on the environment?

The sustainability of hunter-gatherer groups was closely tied to their sense of fairness. In a world where scarcity was the primary challenge, sharing and cooperation were the norms that worked to ensure the group’s survival. What are the norms of fairness that will work in our situation today, when we again find ourselves confronting the potential of scarcity—of energy, clean water, fresh air, food, and the earth’s rich heritage of biological diversity that ultimately supports our civilization?

Alan Honick with Gordon Orians
Alan Honick is a documentary filmmaker who has focused on issues of ecology and human sustainability for most of his career. Gordon Orians, a behavioral ecologist, is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington. His most intensive research area has been behavioral ecology, primarily with problems of habitat selection, mate selection, and mating systems. Recently he has focused on human emotional responses to environments.

More From Alan Honick with Gordon Orians

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 26 • 4:00 PM

Marching in Sync May Increase Aggression

Another danger of militarizing the police: Marching in lock step doesn’t just intimidate opponents. It impacts the mindset of the marchers.


August 26 • 3:03 PM

The Best Reporting on the Federal Push to Militarize Local Police With Riot Gear, Armored Vehicles, and Assault Rifles

A few facts you might have missed about the flow of military equipment and tactics to local law enforcement.


August 26 • 2:00 PM

How the Other 23 Percent Live

Almost one-fourth of all children in the United States are now living in poverty, an increase of three million kids since 2005.


August 26 • 12:00 PM

Why Sports Need Randomness

Noah Davis talks to David Sally, one of the authors of The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, about how uncertainty affects and enhances the games we watch.


August 26 • 10:00 AM

Honor: The Cause of—and Solution to—All of Society’s Problems

Recent research on honor culture, associated with the American South and characterized by the need to retaliate against any perceived improper conduct, goes way beyond conventional situations involving disputes and aggression.



August 26 • 8:00 AM

The Transformative Effects of Bearing Witness

How witnessing inmate executions affects those who watch, and how having an audience present can also affect capital punishment process and policy.



August 26 • 7:15 AM

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.


August 26 • 6:00 AM

Redesigning Birth Control in the Developing World

How single-use injectable contraceptives could change family planning in Africa.


August 26 • 4:15 AM

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.


August 25 • 4:00 PM

What to Look for In Dueling Autopsies of Michael Brown

The postmortem by Michael Baden is only the beginning as teams of specialists study the body of an 18-year-old African American killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri.


August 25 • 2:00 PM

Thoughts That Can’t Be Thought and Ideas That Can’t Be Formed: The Promise of Smart Drugs

Are we asking the right questions about smart drugs? Marek Kohn looks at what they can do for us—and what they can’t.


August 25 • 12:00 PM

Does Randomness Actually Exist?

Our human minds are incapable of truly answering that question.


August 25 • 10:31 AM

Cesareans Are Still Best for Feet-First Babies

A new study confirms that surgery is the safest way to deliver a breech fetus.


August 25 • 10:00 AM

What Can Hurricanes Teach Us About Socioeconomic Mobility?

Hurricane Katrina wrought havoc on New Orleans but, nine years later, is there a silver lining to be found?


August 25 • 8:00 AM

How Low Voter Turnout Helps Public Employees

To a surprising degree, as voter turnout goes down, public employee compensation goes up.


August 25 • 6:00 AM

Beyoncé Isn’t an Anti-Feminist Terrorist

A new book called Staging the Blues shows she’s embracing a tradition of multi-dimensional stardom, rather than one racist trope.


August 25 • 4:00 AM

A Tale of Two Abortion Wars

While pro-life activists fight to rescue IVF embryos from the freezer, pregnant women in their third trimester with catastrophic fetal anomalies have nowhere to turn.


August 22 • 4:00 PM

The Invention of the Illegal Immigrant

It’s only fairly recently that we started to use the term that’s so popular right now.



August 22 • 2:00 PM

What Can U.S. Health Care Learn From the Ebola Outbreak?

A conversation with Jeanine Thomas, patient advocate, active member of ProPublica’s Patient Harm Facebook Community, and founder and president of the MRSA Survivors Network.


August 22 • 1:22 PM

Two Executions and the Unity of Mourning

The recent deaths of Michael Brown and James Foley, while worlds apart, are both emblematic of the necessity for all of us to fight to uphold the sanctity of human dignity and its enduring story.


August 22 • 10:00 AM

Turbo Paul: Art Thief Turned Art Crime Ombudsman

There’s art theft, there’s law enforcement, and, somewhere in between, there’s Turbo Paul.


August 22 • 8:00 AM

When Climate Change Denial Refutes Itself

The world is warming—and record-cold winters are just another symptom.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.

Cesareans Are Still Best for Feet-First Babies

A new study confirms that surgery is the safest way to deliver a breech fetus.

The Impossibility of the Night Shift

Many night workers get “shift-work sleep disorder.” And no one knows how to treat it.

How the Brains of Risk-Taking Teens Work

There's heightened functional connectivity between the brain's emotion regulator and reason center, according to a recent neuroscience paper.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.