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How Inequality Began

• August 31, 2012 • 9:08 AM

Our multimedia presentation on the evolution of fairness continues as archaeologist Brian Hayden settles on an ‘aggrandizing’ theory for the shift in how we define egalitarianism.

Previous: Two Paths to Inequality

Under the title “Big Man, Big Heart?”, Brian Hayden published the results of the study with co-author Rob Gargett in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica. They state the central question in the introduction:

“The question of how socioeconomic inequality develops has been problematical in large measure because it is difficult to imagine conditions under which the majority of any community would give up communal access to important resources, not to mention control over decisions that affect their own lives… A major division exists among scholars dealing with this problem. On one side are those who view elites as adaptive or ‘system-serving.’ Elites are portrayed as providing some direct benefits to the community. In contrast to this position, other analysts view elites as entirely self-serving, exploitative groups that use opportunities and often unethical means to gain power, ‘Mafia’ style, at the expense of others.”

Brian came back to Keatley Creek, and re-evaluated his data from this new perspective. His experience in Central America and subsequent investigation of the ethnographic literature stood in stark contrast to the “system-serving” model of the managerial class.

Instead, he began to think that the availability of surplus created new opportunities for the more self-serving individuals, whose aggressive and acquisitive personalities had up until then been held in check by scarcity and the social norms of egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups. These individuals, called “aggrandizers,” exploited the surplus to their own advantage, and in so doing, raised the survival odds for themselves and their offspring, becoming winners in this most basic of evolutionary games.

In this video, Brian explains how long-established egalitarian norms of fairness might have subtly shifted under conditions of surplus, and how this enabled aggrandizers to begin accumulating wealth and power in societies such as the one at Keatley Creek.

Next: Seeing Fairness Evolve

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.

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