Wealth inequality is a research topic usually reserved for humans. Now, research from the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln suggests that studying wealth inequality in animals can help shed light on social evolution. By adapting approaches to the study of wealth inequality in humans, researchers show how wealth – in the form of material goods, individual attributes or social ties – occurs widely among animal species and can be distributed equally or unequally. This framework offers the opportunity to unite different corners of evolutionary biology under the umbrella of wealth inequality, exploring the idea that the unequal distribution of value, whatever form that value may take, has important consequences for animal societies.
Inequality is one of the greatest challenges of modern society and plays a prominent role in social and political debate. In the fields of economics and sociology, researchers study inequality to understand where it comes from, what its consequences are, and how we might implement policies that produce more productive, healthy, and equitable societies. . One insight from this work is that inequality can have significant consequences for those of us who live in these societies.
It was this discovery that caught the attention of Eli Strauss of the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Germany (MPI-AB) and Daizaburo Shizuka of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, two behavioral ecologists who study social evolution in non-human animals. companies. “Reading these fascinating articles in sociology and economics, I was struck by the fact that this work shares a common goal with my work on animal behavior, namely that we both want to understand how inequality arises and affects outcomes for individuals and groups,” says Strauss, the paper’s first author and post-doctoral researcher at MPI-AB.
A new framework in the study of social evolution
It’s not that inequality hadn’t been studied in animals before. Animal researchers have long explored the differences among animals in their physical traits, the territory and resources they acquire, the structures they build, or the social power they wield. However, what was missing was the holistic view that these different dimensions of animal life are linked under the umbrella of inequality. “As we read, we wondered how research into the causes and consequences of inequality in humans could help biologists like us better understand animal societies,” says Daizaburo Shizuka, associate professor at the School of Science. biology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. .
In a review article published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Strauss and Shizuka bring together work from different academic fields to bridge the gap between research on inequalities in human and animal societies. They focused on what could be learned about animals by drawing on studies of inequality in humans. Their review is among the first studies to unite these different areas of research in order to understand how the unequal distribution of value, in whatever form, shapes animal societies.
Can animals have “wealth?” »
However, researchers first had to find common ground between humans and animals. In humans, “inequality” exists when something of value is distributed unequally among individuals. Usually this value is defined as their wealth.
“Animals don’t have bank accounts, so how can they be rich?” said Strauss. To answer this question, scientists have turned to evolutionary anthropology research that explores inequalities in hunter-gatherer, pastoralist, and other small-scale human societies. “These societies have varying degrees of wealth inequality, but wealth is not just about notes and coins,” he adds. Instead, anthropologists view wealth as more broadly made up of material goods, individual characteristics such as knowledge or the ability to hunt, and social connections. For example, a woman could be wealthy by owning many cows, being skilled in growing crops, or having influence in her society.
The review highlights how these same human dimensions of wealth operate very clearly in animals. Ownership of territory and access to food are widespread types of material wealth among animals. For example, squirrels and acorn woodpeckers build food caches and store them with hordes of nuts and seeds. In New Caledonian dolphins and ravens, tool-use techniques are valuable information that opens up new foraging opportunities.
Social relationships are also a key source of wealth for many species, such as spotted hyenas and crows, which form alliances with their group mates that help them climb the ladder of their societies. Interestingly, like wealth in humans, wealth in animals is sometimes transferred from parents to offspring. Just as money can vary in how unequally it is distributed between people, these types of wealth can be distributed fairly evenly among individual animals or can be concentrated in the hands of a wealthy few.
Shedding light on social evolution
Armed with this broad view of wealth inequality, the authors then explore the ways in which research on human inequality can help us better understand how animal societies work. They discuss theories about what makes some societies more unequal than others, the consequences of inequality on individual health and group success, and how individuals and lineages change in wealth over time through to social mobility.
Shizuka says, “The structure of a society has many different influences on all the individuals who live there. In many cases, the differences between individuals stem from the various ways in which unequal societies affect them. In turn, individuals try to exercise control or navigate these unequal systems in different ways. The biology of animal societies includes these kinds of dynamics, and we cannot understand the evolution of social animals without recognizing this feedback between the individual and society.
“Our hope is that this paper will guide future research on the inequality of richness between species, which will ultimately lead to a better understanding of the evolution of traits that help animals get the most out of social life,” adds Strauss.
The authors acknowledge that studying inequality in animals could also shed light on how inequality works in human societies, but advise caution when looking to animals for self-understanding. Humans are a special animal species with unique social and cognitive traits. While inequality is unlikely to work completely differently in humans than it does in other animals, there are also no other societies that operate on the scale of the modern human global economy.
“We can look to other species to understand the general evolutionary processes that produce all animals, including ourselves,” Strauss says, “but the question of what makes an ethical human society is fundamentally a moral question. where the social life of animals cannot guide us. This is something we have to figure out for ourselves.
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The ecology of wealth inequalities in animal societies, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2022). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2022.0500. rspb.royalsocietypublishing.or … .1098/rspb.2022.0500
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