In a recent interview on NPR, Shankar Vedanta explained that what we learn early in life is embedded in our brains, and cited as examples acquiring a language or learning to ski. He described new research by Laura van Berkel at the University
of Kansas that applies this rationale to our attitudes toward fairness. Most of our early relationships are hierarchical, eg. parent/child, or teacher/student, but as we grow older many of us learn to think of relationships in more egalitarian terms,
eg. a marriage as a partnership between equals.
For most of us childhood was not a democracy; the traits of self-responsibility and self-reliance had to be learned with increasing maturity. And it is not an easy transition.
As Shelley Berman observed, we teach reading, writing and math by having children do them; we teach democracy by lecture.
But if the things we learn first are entrenched in the brain, then hierarchical ways of thinking underly most
of our thought processes.
Shankar continued by applying this to public policy. For example, someone who wants a more egalitarian world will find income inequality bothersome, whereas others might be more satisfied with a stratified
society divided into high-status and low-status people based on income.
Van Berkel's theory is that for many of us, hierarchical thinking comes more easily and automatically, whereas egalitarian thinking requires more effort, just
as speaking one’s first language comes more naturally than speaking a second language.
To test this hypothesis, and under the assumption that when people are drunk they are less inhibited and tend to reveal hidden attitudes, Laura
stood outside bars in downtown Lawrence, Kansas, inviting people to answer survey questions designed that would reveal leanings toward hierarchy or equality, and then asked them to blow into a breathalyzer.
The findings we're
twofold. The first, not surprisingly, was that the higher people's blood alcohol content, the more they gravitated towards hierarchy and power; the second was that ideology did not affect the outcome. Both liberals and conservatives endorsed hierarchies
when they were drunk, and the drunker they got, the more they stepped away from egalitarianism.
A follow-up experiment involved a game in which people were asked to divide resources. The finding? - when people are distracted
or under time pressure, they also tend to fall back on primary ways of thinking and support hierarchical systems. In the instance of this game, people given less time to think were more likely to divide the resources unfairly and to endorse existing
Most of the on-line comments on this report were acrimonious and hostile, in that despite the finding about ideology most respondents immediately saw the story in political terms, not least public radio’s supposedly
For me, there were two different conclusions, one of which (surprise, surprise!) involved honey bees. The first is that we live in stressful times, so it is very tempting to forego equality in favor of hierarchy,
not least in the belief that the powerful and the strong will provide leadership and protection. As a civilization we’ve experienced this kind of social Darwinism many times before. For example, in 1795 the French accepted Napoleon Bonaparte
as a proven strong and ruthless man who would rescue them from the hardship and chaos of six years of revolution. And in the stressful times of the First World War and the depression that followed it, not least in Russia and Germany, the electorate was prepared
to exchange liberty for security. The public voted for men (and they were all men) who promised to keep them safe even if it meant infringing on their freedoms. An intriguing question is how and why 19th century Germany, the country of Mozart and
Beethoven and Goethe and Schubert and Mendelssohn and Brahms, became the twentieth century country of Hitler, Himmler, Goering and Goebbels.
Because of the prevailing cultural norms a colony of honey bees was initially seen
as a hierarchy ruled by a king. Only in 1586 was it recognized that the head of the honey bee colony is a female. Shortly after Queen Elizabeth I died, her beekeeper, Charles Butler, published The Feminine Monarchie (1609) in which the bees
are described as loyal to the queen, refusing any type of anarchy or oligarchy, and laboring incessantly for the good of the commonwealth. It was a description of the ideal Elizabethan society, assuming an all-powerful feminine ruler, and with hindsight was
an interesting precursor to the turmoil of the English Civil War.
Perhaps the 19th and 20th century struggles for a more egalitarian society, as expressed in realms such as gender, civil and sexual rights, and democratic participation,
were necessary before we could see the queen bee not as a matriarch but as a superb ovipositor without maternal or controlling instincts. We realize increasingly that a colony is a complex decision-making organism with much of the initiative coming from
the workers, and the queen responding to the environment they create.
So the question becomes, do the bees revert to a more hierarchical behavior as stress in the colony increases? I’m not certain there is a definitive
answer to this but surveillance of an observation hive suggests not. The workers seem to understand that the survival of the queen is critical for the continuation of the colony and, in my observation, right until the last minute the queen is protected,
groomed and fed. No one bee, worker or queen, seems to be acting for her own particular survival, none seems to assume that she is superior to any other. The workers are not making decisions for their own self-benefit but for the long term survival
of the colony.
Similarly the decision to swarm is high stress for a colony. Their future depends on it, they only have one chance at getting it right, and they have to do so within a definitive and restrictive timeline.
There is no leader, no arbitrary decision maker; rather an egalitarian process that has been honed over millions of years is honored despite the immense pressure.
I have yet to hear a researcher say, “The more I study
honey bees the more I realize how dumb they really are.” On the contrary, we are invariably amazed at the intricacy of their lives, not least the sensitive relationship between the individual and the community, and as such they remain to me at least,
a source of wonder and inspiration.