Social Status: Down the Rabbit Hole

"After this," says Morpheus to Neo in The Matrix, "there is no turning back."

You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Today I'm offering a red pill (of sorts): an eye-opening account of social status. I won't say there's "no turning back" after reading this — but I've seen down the rabbit hole, and it's indeed as deep as advertised.

If you decide to join me (warning: long), by the end of this essay you'll know most of the important things I know about social status. There are wider and more practical perspectives we could take, but today we're going straight down, i.e., into the theoretical and evolutionary roots of the thing.

Allow me briefly to set the stage.

In seeking to understand particular forms of human behavior, especially social behavior, it often pays to look for analogues elsewhere in the animal kingdom. In a way, this makes perfect sense: humans are animals, after all, creatures sculpted by the same inexorable forces that have given rise to all other life forms. But we're also far and away the most intelligent species on the planet, which suggests that we're capable of many things no other animal can do. Why, then, is it so useful to study other species? Haven't we largely risen above our biology?

The problem is this: Even though we're capable of a seemingly-infinite variety of individual behaviors, our patterns of behavior are a lot more constrained — in particular, by the laws of economics and game theory. So although we're physically capable of moving around by cartwheel instead of by walking, for example, it's such an economically inefficient use of energy as to keep us from making a habit of it. Similarly, we could (in principle) agree never to use weapons against each other — except that's not a game-theoretic equilibrium, because the first rogue to threaten violence would quickly gain an advantage over everyone else. In a land of disarmed pacifists, the one-armed man is king.

So for a behavioral pattern to arise — and more importantly, to persist — within a population, it needs to be both economically productive and game-theoretically stable, i.e., viable. And the set of viable behavior patterns is much, much smaller than the set of all behaviors we're physically or intellectually capable of. It shouldn't surprise us, then, if Nature has already struck upon many of these viable patterns and decanted them, through natural selection, into the instincts of other species. The patterns are simply "out there," like timeless Platonic forms, just waiting to be discovered — or, in our case, rediscovered.

Now, where were we? Right, social status. Starting down the rabbit hole in 3... 2... 1...


The clearest non-human analogue to social status is the dominance hierarchy, found (most famously) in chickens, chimps, and wolves, but also in many other social species including fish and even insects. Sometimes these hierarchies are linear: alpha dominates beta, beta dominates gamma, and so on, as in the "pecking order" among chickens. Other times they're more despotic, i.e., when a lone alpha dominates all other members of the group.

Regardless, the logic of dominance is fairly straightforward. By bullying weaker individuals, stronger individuals secure for themselves more and better food, mates, territory, and other resources. Occasionally this leads to outright violence, but more often the weaker individual chooses to yield, preemptively, to the stronger one.

Where there's dominance, in other words, there's also submission.


Clearly we recognize dominance (and submission) in many of our own behaviors and social structures. Perhaps the most vivid example is the military, a strict dominance hierarchy where insubordination is met with swift punishment — anything from push-ups to imprisonment to being executed for desertion. But dominance in human communities isn't always so strict, and threats aren't always corporal. In a modern workplace, for example, bosses who dominate their employees rely on social threats (like public shaming) and financial threats (like termination) rather than violence.

Dominance alone, however, doesn't even begin to explain the full range of human status-related behavior. Among humans, it turns out that "social status" isn't a single phenomenon, but rather two.

Dominance vs. Prestige

The beginning of wisdom about social status is learning to distinguish its two (and only two) primary forms: dominance and prestige. These are, as one research paper puts it, the "two ways to the top."

If dominance is the kind of status we get from intimidating others, prestige is the kind of status we get from doing impressive things or having impressive traits or skills.

A schoolyard bully is an example of pure dominance. He's not impressive, only aggressive. Stephen Hawking and Malala Yousafzai (winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize), on the other hand, are examples of pure prestige. You're likely to treat them with deference and respect, though neither is threatening to stuff you in a locker. Both forms of status can, of course, exist simultaneously in the same person — e.g., Steve Jobs, who was brilliant, charismatic, and a notorious tyrant to his employees. The point is that dominance and prestige can be separated, and that they're analytically distinct. They're the two Platonic forms of social status.

It might help to think of these as different systems, each of which can be broken down into a high-status component and a low-status component. So Dominance & Submission are one complementary pair (of interlocking instincts, emotions, and behaviors), while Prestige & Admiration are a different complementary pair. They're the four sides of two coins:


You can also think of these as two different relationships: one between a dominant and a submissive, the other between a prestigious individual and an admirer.

The dominance system and the prestige system have at least one thing in common: There are perks to having high status (whichever form it takes). Other than that, the two systems are almost complete opposites:

  • Avoidance vs. approach. Dominance works by inspiring fear and other "avoidance" instincts, so that low-status people try to steer clear of dominant individuals. Prestige, on the other hand, inspires admiration and other "approach" instincts, so low-status people actively seek out prestigious individuals and enjoy spending time around them.
  • Taking vs. giving. The perks of dominance are taken by force by the high-status (dominant) individual. The perks of prestige, on the other hand, are given to the high-status (prestigious) individual, freely, by the low-status admirer.
  • Entitlement vs. gratitude. Dominant individuals expect deference from others and treat it as their natural right. Prestigious individuals, on the other hand, often make an elaborate show of humility when accepting the deference of others. Performers bow as they're being applauded. Oscar-winners profusely thank their supporters. Lay people often blush and smile awkwardly when they're being celebrated, e.g., at a birthday party. To do otherwise — to act entitled to admiration — would risk alienating one's supporters.


Dominance and prestige even produce different patterns of gaze and eye contact. If you've ever struggled to make sense of how eye behaviors are modified by social status — something that puzzled me for many years — wonder no further. Here's the answer:

  • In contexts governed by dominance, gazing at someone is considered a threat, an act of aggression. It's therefore the prerogative of the dominant to stare at whomever he pleases, while submissives must refrain from staring directly at the dominant. When a dominant and a submissive make eye contact, it's the submissive who must look away first; to continue staring would be a direct challenge. Now, submissives can't entirely avoid looking at the dominant — they need to monitor him to see what he's up to, e.g., in order to move out of his space — so instead they resort to "stealing" quick, furtive glances. You can think of personal information as the key resource that the dominant individual tries to monopolize for himself. He uses his eyes to soak up personal info about the other members of the group, but tries to prevent others from gleaning info about him.
  • In contexts governed by prestige, on the other hand, gaze is considered a gift; to look at someone is to elevate him. In prestige situations, high-status individuals bask in the limelight while low-status individuals are blithely ignored. In this case, attention (rather than information) is the key resource. Prestigious people compete for attention ("Look at me!"), and admirers oblige by "paying" attention, as freely and happily as they pay for any other good or service.

Most interactions, of course, involve a mixture of dominance and prestige, and eye behaviors must adapt on the fly. During a small staff meeting, for example, the CEO is likely to be both dominant and prestigious, so her employees need to use context to decide which patterns of gaze and eye contact are appropriate. While she's talking, she's implicitly asking for attention (prestige), and her employees oblige by looking directly at her. When she stops talking, however, her employees may revert to treating her as dominant, issuing the kind of furtive glances characteristic of submissives who hesitate to intrude on the leader's privacy, and yet still wish to gauge and monitor her reactions.

The evolution of prestige

At this point, I hope you have a feel for the difference between dominance and prestige. Now we're about to head further down the rabbit hole, to investigate the evolutionary origins of the prestige system. What purpose, in other words, did prestige serve for our ancestors? (And therefore, by extension, what purpose does it serve for us today?)

Unfortunately, the logic of prestige isn't nearly as simple and straightforward as the logic of dominance. In fact it's a bit tangled, and if we aren't careful, we're liable to miss the whole point.

With that in mind, what follows is the most important thing I hope you'll take away from this essay:

To understand dominance, we need to focus on the high-status behaviors. To understand prestige, however, we need to focus on the low-status behaviors.

You may find this counter-intuitive (as I did when I heard it for the first time). The whole point of social status, it seemed to me, was striving to come out on top, in order to enjoy the perks. And that's indeed the right focus — from the perspective of an individual within the system. But it's entirely the wrong focus for those of us trying to understand, from the outside, how the system works.

Consider the two instincts/behaviors that make up the prestige system. On the high-status side, we have prestige-seeking: striving to impress others. On the low-status side, we have admiration: celebrating or fawning over a prestigious individual, i.e., paying respect. Note what we mean by "admiration" here is more than just passive respect from a distance. It requires active deference to the prestigious individual: giving them your seat, buying them drinks, offering to set them up with your brother or sister, etc.

Now which of these two behaviors — prestige-seeking or admiration — is primary? Put another way: which of the two behaviors makes sense on its own, without the other? Well, as Will Rogers said, "We can't all be heroes because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by." In other words, there's no point in seeking prestige unless others are ready and willing to celebrate you for it; prestige literally means nothing without admiration. On the other hand, it does make sense to admire impressive people, even if they aren't actively seeking it.

So admiration, rather than prestige-seeking, is the lynchpin of the prestige system. The central question we need to answer, then, is why people freely admire (defer and give respect to) prestigious individuals. In other words,

What's in it for the admirer?

I know of two answers to this question. The first is given by Joseph Henrich and Francisco Gil-White in their widely-cited paper on the evolutionary origins of prestige. This is a popular account, but I find it weak — not to mention a bit too flattering to our species. The second explanation is given by Amotz Zahavi in The Handicap Principle, and more recently by Jean-Louis Dessalles in the final chapter of his magnificent, underappreciated book Why We Talk. This account may be more cynical, perhaps, but it's one of the most powerful ideas I've ever encountered.

Admiration according to Henrich

Henrich and Gil-White begin with the observation that low-status admirers are attracted to their prestigious superiors and hope to spend more time around them, and that their admiration therefore acts as a bribe.

Admirers, in other words, are sycophants. (I realize this doesn't sound flattering, yet, but hang in there.) They pay respect to a prestigious individual in order to cultivate access to him. They may bring him gifts (large or small), run errands for him, support him in conflicts, defer to him in mating scenarios, or all of the above. Or they may simply flatter him and sing his praises to other members of the group. These, as we've seen, are the perks of high prestige.

But, again, what's in it for the admirer? Here Henrich and Gil-White hypothesize that admirers are hoping to learn from their superiors.

Prestigious people are above all impressive. They have skills that admirers may wish for themselves — skills like playing basketball, understanding math, or method acting. Or (in the ancestral environment) skills like hunting, cooking, tool-making, or distinguishing edible from poisonous foods. And since humans learn mostly by observation and imitation, they need to spend time, up close, observing the skills and behaviors they wish to copy.

This account harkens to the relationship between master and apprentice. The apprentice (admirer) needs to spend a lot of time watching the master in order to learn the desired trade. The master, for his part, is willing to tolerate and even teach the apprentice, but only if the apprentice makes it worth his while.

Now this account of admiration clearly fits the bill. It explains most features of the relationship between prestigious individuals and their lower-status admirers. And, critically, it provides a self-interested reason for an admirer to suck up to a prestigious individual.

And yet there are a number of puzzles that give me pause. For example:

  • We respect and admire people quite freely, even when we have little desire to learn from them. I admire Meryl Streep, for example, though I couldn't care less about learning how to act. I have similar respect for highly-accomplished sculptors, cellists, ballet dancers, mountain climbers, and war heroes — a respect that far outstrips my desire to learn in any of these domains.
  • We can respect and admire people even when they're less-skilled than we are, and when we're unlikely to learn from them. Magnus Carlsen (the reigning world chess champion), for example, has to admire anyone who's achieved grandmaster status. It's a legitimately impressive feat — even if his own feat and skill is more impressive. And his admiration will be reflected in his behavior: he'll be more polite and deferential to a grandmaster than to a random schmuck off the street.
  • We respect and admire people even for traits which aren't learnable skills — IQ, beauty, strength, or raw athletic prowess, for example.

Finally, if admiration were motivated by a desire to learn, teachers would be among the most prestigious members of society. But this just isn't the case. Research professors are more respected than teaching professors, for example, and we (the lay public) care a lot more about who wins the Fields Medal or the various Nobel Prizes than who wins Teacher of the Year.

It might be argued that we're designed to admire others not just to learn from them today, but for the potential to learn from them someday in the future. I suppose this is possible, but it seems awfully sloppy of natural selection. We pay respect too freely, without regard for whether we end up learning or not. If our instincts were a little more targeted — if we kissed up only to people capable of teaching us particular skills in particular moments — we could achieve similar learning advantages at a fraction of the cost.

All of this strongly suggests that admiration has its roots in something other than learning.

Admiration according to Zahavi and Dessalles

Unlike Henrich, whose account of prestige is unique to our species, Zahavi and Dessalles find analogues among non-human animals — most vividly, in the Arabian babbler.


The Arabian babbler is a small brown bird found in the arid brush of the Sinai Desert and (you guessed it) the Arabian Peninsula. It spends most of its life in small groups of three to 20 members. These groups lay their eggs in a communal nest and defend a small territory of trees and shrubs that provide much-needed safety from predators.

When it's living as part of a group, a babbler does fairly well for itself. But babblers who get kicked out of a group have much bleaker prospects. These "non-territorials" are typically badgered away from other territories and forced out into the open, where they often fall prey to hawks, falcons, and other raptors. So it really pays to be part of a group. (Keep this in mind; it'll be crucial in a moment.)

Within a group, babblers assort themselves into a linear and fairly rigid dominance hierarchy, i.e., a pecking order. When push comes to shove, adult males always dominate adult females — but mostly males compete with males and females with females. Very occasionally, an intense "all-out" fight will erupt between two babblers of adjacent rank, typically the two highest-ranked males or the two highest-ranked females. This is the babblers' version of a Wild West showdown, as if one babbler suddenly turns to the other and says, "This town ain't big enough for the both of us." A showdown always results in death or permanent exile for one of the combatants.

Most of the time, however, babblers get along pretty well with each other. In fact, they spend a lot of effort actively helping one another and taking risks for the benefit of the group. They'll often donate food to other group members, for example, or to the communal nestlings. They'll also attack foreign babblers and predators who have intruded on the group's territory, assuming personal risk in an effort to keep others safe. One particularly helpful activity is "guard duty," in which one babbler stands sentinel at the top of a tree, watching for predators while the rest of the group scrounges for food. The babbler on guard duty not only foregoes food, but also assumes a greater risk of being preyed upon, e.g., by a hawk or falcon.

Helpfulness, bravery, heroism: these birds seem like regular Boy Scouts. At least on the surface.

But here's where things take a turn for the weird. Babblers don't just passively or occasionally offer to help each other. Instead they compete intensely for the privilege of doing so.

Unlike chickens, who compete to secure more food and better roosting sites for themselves, babblers compete to give food away and to take the worst roosting sites. Each tries to be more helpful than the next. And because it's a competition, higher-ranked (more dominant) babblers typically win, i.e., by using their dominance to interfere with the helpful activities of lower-ranked babblers. This competition is fiercest between babblers of adjacent rank. So the alpha male, for example, is especially eager to be more helpful than the beta male, but doesn't compete nearly as much with the gamma male. Similar dynamics occur within the female ranks.

Here are some of the activities that babblers compete to perform:

  • Feeding each other. The alpha male, for example, may bring an insect and try to shove it down the beta's mouth. The beta, meanwhile, will often protest and refuse, even when he's hungry. And if a lower-ranked babbler tries to feed a higher-ranked babbler, it's liable to get beaten up for the "offense."
  • Bringing food for the communal nestlings. Competition here means that babblers will occasionally try to prevent others from feeding the babies.
  • Harassing or "mobbing" predators or attacking foreign babblers. Again, higher-ranked babblers compete to do more than their "fair share" of these defensive activities. Notably, however, in groups with only a single male, he typically kicks back and lets the females do most of the mobbing. It's as if, not having any rivals to impress, he has no desire to be helpful.
  • Guard duty. When a beta male is standing guard duty, the alpha will often fly up and muscle the beta off his perch. When roles are reversed and the beta wants to take over from the alpha, he can't use force; instead he'll stand insistently nearby, offering to take over if the alpha male allows it.
  • Sleeping in the most vulnerable place. Babblers sleep together lined up along a single branch, and the two exposed ends of the line are the most dangerous, the most vulnerable to predators. And these two spots are almost always held by the alpha and beta males.

(I hope this is starting to sound familiar. We see the same kind of jockeying in our own species, e.g., when two friends squabble to pick up the check at dinner.)

Now: what in Darwin's name is going on here? Why are babblers so eager to help each other?

The naive answer is that they're simply doing what's best for the group — because when the group succeeds, everyone ends up better off. But this kind of straightforward altruism simply isn't found in nature.[1] It's not game-theoretically stable, thanks to the free-rider problem. Also note that babblers actively interfere with the helpful behavior of their rivals. If their ultimate goal were the success of the group, interfering with others would be entirely counter-productive.

So the logic of natural selection compels us to ask, "What selfish motive does an individual babbler have to help others?"

The answer, in a word, is prestige. A second form of social status that lives alongside the babblers' dominance hierarchy — a kind of "credit" reflecting the amount of good each individual has done for others. So when two babblers compete to stand guard duty, for example, they're actually jockeying, selfishly, for prestige within the group.

And suddenly the intense competition makes sense.

But as in our species, so too in babblers: prestige means nothing without admiration. If other babblers weren't willing to defer and pay respect to prestigious individuals, there'd be no incentive to compete for prestige.

But other babblers are willing to pay respect to prestigious individuals, in two main ways. The first is mating opportunities.[2] Babblers are constantly trying to interfere with their rivals' mating attempts — but when a babbler has high prestige, his or her rivals interfere less. Among males, this translates to more mating opportunities; among females, it translates to earlier mating opportunities (giving one's offspring a head start in the communal nest)

The other perk of high prestige is a reduced risk of being challenged to an all-out showdown. The higher a babbler's prestige, the less likely its rivals are to pick a fight — even if they stand a good chance of winning.

All of which brings us, finally, to the point. Why do other babblers voluntarily defer to prestigious ones? The answer is simply(!) that babblers with lots of prestige are useful to the group, and therefore useful to keep around.[3] This is how it ends up being in the selfish interest of other babblers to defer to those with high prestige.

Consider these two scenarios:

  • Should an upstart beta male challenge the alpha to a showdown? If the alpha has high prestige, the beta might reason as follows: "I actually stand a good chance of being able to win this fight. On the other hand, this guy has been a pretty good leader. He brings me food, helps defend a great territory, and always takes guard duty, even when we haven't eaten in a long time. Maybe I'll hold off challenging him until next year. In the meantime, it's not so bad being number two in such a solid group." If the alpha in question were less prestigious (less helpful), the beta would be considerably more eager to try his luck in a showdown.
  • Should the alpha male allow the beta to mate? If the beta has high prestige, the alpha might reason as follows: "This guy is pretty useful to me. He helps feed the nestlings, most of which are my offspring, and he's a strong, brave fighter. If I don't keep him happy, he's likely to leave the group — or else challenge me, in desperation, to a fight (which he'll probably lose). Better to throw him some concessions than risk losing him as a valuable member of the group." If the beta in question were less prestigious, the alpha would be more willing to risk losing him than allow him to share in the group's reproductive success.

Clearly these decisions are complex and multifaceted, but the prestige of one's rival is an important factor, and it will often tip decisions (at the margin) in ways that favor those with high prestige.

When a babbler is useful enough, in other words, it's in the self-interest of others to "suck up" or pay respect to that babbler (by backing down from fights and interfering less in its mating attempts) in order to keep it happily in the group.

Bottom line: Prestige-seeking and admiration (deference) are complementary teaming instincts. They help babblers stay attached to a group, keep groupmates happy, and secure a larger share of the group's reproductive "spoils."

Prestige in humans

I hope this account of the babbler prestige system sounds familiar, because it's more or less equivalent to the prestige system found in our own species; both are derived from the same Platonic form.

Once you know how to look for prestige — and, just as important, to stop conflating it with dominance — you'll find it everywhere. To give just a few examples:

  • Celebrities being doted on by their fans and entourage.
  • The patronage system in ancient Rome, i.e., the relationship between a high-status patron and his various fawning clients.
  • Kings of yore who literally led their troops in battle. More generally: noblesse oblige.
  • Servant leadership. Actually almost all forms of leadership rely on prestige. In fact, leadership isn't even the primary phenomenon; instead it's followership that comes first, analytically speaking, just as admiration is logically prior to prestige-seeking. We voluntarily follow our leaders (and otherwise defer to them) because good things tend to happen when we do; it pays to be on their team. A leader who tries to command entirely with dominance — all stick, no carrot — will find his efforts thwarted at every turn, his orders disobeyed whenever he isn't looking. This may work on well-defined, easily-measured tasks, but it's entirely useless for pursuing open-ended goals. C.f. the culture at a call center vs. software engineering culture.

The point is, we want to be friends, allies, and teammates with people who do good things for their friends, allies, and teammates. It's in our self-interest to cultivate access to such people — which we do, in part, by paying them respect and granting them the perks of prestige.

More generally, however, we admire not only those who actually do good things for their teammates, but also those who show the potential to do good things, i.e., by demonstrating useful skills. The student who gets straight As from a good college, for example, is advertising her value to future employers, and her prestige makes her highly sought-after on the job market. She'll be actively courted by hiring managers and given various perks (a better starting salary, more time to make her decision) that aren't accorded to her less-impressive classmates.

As always, Pinker offers a crisp definition. Prestige status, he says, is "the public knowledge that you possess assets that would allow you to help others if you wished to." In other words, prestige reflects your value as a teammate, whether actual or potential.

This account of prestige explains all of the puzzles that Henrich's account (learning-by-imitation) has trouble with. It explains why we admire and defer (to some extent) even to people with skills strictly inferior to our own — like the hiring manager courting the straight-A student. It explains why we admire others even when we aren't trying to learn from them — i.e., because we want them on our team. And finally, it explains why we admire others even for skills that can't be taught or learned. It pays to be friends with strong, beautiful people, for example, even if those traits are unlikely to rub off on us.

Admiration and prestige-seeking, then, are teaming instincts (in babblers as well as our own species). Both are ways of currying favor among actual or potential allies. The admirer tries to ingratiate himself with a specific individual, whereas the prestige-seeker tries to make himself attractive to a larger, wider audience. But both are ultimately after the same thing: more spoils from cooperative (team) efforts.

This is it. This is the magic, the special sauce — the juice that fuels the engine of cooperation.

The Golden Rule of ethics says,

Do unto others as you would have done unto you.

But the Golden Rule of politics, which has arguably created more prosperity for our species, goes something like this:

Admire those who would make good allies.

Unlike the ethical rule, which has to be hammered into us (because it cuts slightly against the grain of our nature), the political rule comes to us quite naturally. It's deeply embedded in our instincts, and we follow it, without effort, because it's to our advantage to admire potential teammates, especially when they're impressive or likely to be helpful. We're sycophants, one and all — and (for those of you trying to keep score) that's a very good thing.

As Scott Adams recently wrote,

I'm a big fan of being admired, assuming I did something worthy. I find the goodwill of others to be one of several sources of personal motivation, and a legitimate one. Am I allowed to make the world a better place and enjoy the fact that others appreciate the effort? That seems like a reasonable deal for everyone. If you do something good for the world, I promise to admire you, and I hope you enjoy the feeling. Maybe it will encourage you to do more good stuff.

Money, in this view, is a reified, tangible, industrial-strength form of prestige status. It's something we earn for doing valuable things for others, for example, and both money and status are processed in the same regions of the brain (for whatever that's worth). And the fact that money is staggeringly successful at facilitating cooperation testifies to prestige status's latent potential in this regard.

Further down the rabbit hole

In case you were hoping we'd bottomed out, I regret to report that there are further, deeper recesses to this rabbit hole. These may not be interesting to everyone, however, so I promise to keep it brief.

The main question to ask at this point is: Why did prestige status take off so spectacularly in our own species (rather than, say, any of the other great apes)?

Here again I know of two answers:

  1. According to E. O. Wilson, it was the fact that our ancestors lived in a semi-permanent "home base" that needed to be guarded collectively. All eusocial species, like ants, bees, termites, and even mole rats, have a fixed structure they call home — some kind of colony, hive, or nest. This, says Wilson, is a prerequisite for the evolution of radical group-level cooperation. In other words, due to ecological factors, our ancestors simply had more of an incentive to team up and work together.
  2. According to Dessalles (following Christopher Boehm), our ancestors gravitated toward prestige status because, once we learned to use tools as weapons, the dominance system completely collapsed. The problem with being a bully is that you make a lot of enemies. If you're a chimp, you merely have to fend off the hands and teeth of lower-ranked rivals. But if you're a dominant Homo habilis, say, you have to defend yourself against sharp rocks and pointy sticks, even in your sleep. Among our ancestors, then, bullies quickly got their comeuppance — unless they offset their dominance with a lot of prestige, creating many friends and allies in the process.

These accounts aren't incompatible, of course, so perhaps it was a bit of both — but more likely one factor outweighed the other. My money's on Dessalles' story, which emphasizes intra-group competition, but your mileage may vary.



Further reading:

  • I've compiled some follow-up thoughts to this essay — "table scraps" that didn't make the cut.
  • Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest. Great anthropological account of dominance (specifically, the prohibition against it) in forager societies.
  • Jean-Louis Dessalles, Why We Talk. Specifically chapter 17 on the political origins of language — the single most highlighted, earmarked chapter of any book I've ever read.
  • Amotz Zahavi, The Handicap Principle. Zahavi has been studying the Arabian babbler since 1970 (along with a team of ornithologists at Tel Aviv University). He's perhaps most famous for the handicap principle, which underlies almost every interesting animal behavior. But I think he's also the first scholar to propose the idea of prestige status. I drew most of the information about the babbler from chapter 12, most of which you can read online. It's very accessible.


[1] no straightforward altruism. The eusocial insects are a notable exception. But they have different genetic incentives than birds and mammals.

[2] mating opportunities. Note that the opportunity to mate is not one of the resources that babblers compete to give away to others. Food? Sure. Time and energy? No problem. Safety? OK. But sex is far too precious. Here, more vividly than perhaps anywhere else, the logic of natural selection is laid bare.

[3] reasons for deference among babblers. There's another reason babblers defer to those with high prestige. Prestige acts as fitness display, a demonstration of one's health, vigor, and strength, and therefore one's potential for dominance. (It's not easy to forego food and fight off snakes all day.) By this logic, then, prestige acts as an indirect form of intimidation. But — importantly — this doesn't explain why babblers undertake helpful, prosocial activities to prove their fitness, instead of merely puffing themselves up and making loud noises. And it definitely doesn't explain why they feed their rivals. Prestige-seeking must therefore have as its goal something more than proving one's capacity for dominance.

Photo credits: Drill sergeant by John Kennicutt. Arabian babbler by Shah Jahan. Other photos stolen without permission.

Originally published October 13, 2015.