The screen is filled with images of dollar bills.

Social Status

Despite variations in definitions, both dictionary-type and operational, the phenomenon of social status seems to be recognized across the globe. Though it is not hard to know what we mean by the term, it’s as mysterious as hiccups and love: Where does such a universal ordering come from?

Social status is a social and environmental condition. Achieving status or dominance is behavioral, comprising a number of strategies that is inconveniently large to count. A lack of status often appears as a deprivation syndrome confining people below what should be achievable.

Did it evolve as pecking orders, also known as dominance hierarchies?  Do we fear its loss more than we cherish its elevation?   

Social hierarchies not only gratify the needs of powerful individuals above others in a group, but—once established—serve the group as a whole. Individuals of high status exhibit larger body sizes and superior strength, greater aggressiveness, and often higher blood levels of testosterone and cortisol. They enjoy preferential access to food and mates. Hierarchical organization clarifies the roles of individuals in the group. In bees, for example, queens, workers and drones perform complementary roles that serve the entire colony. Work with ants has shown how this differentiation of roles depends on the interaction of genes and experience. If social learning has passed into germline transmission from one generation to the next, the mechanisms remain to be explained.

The larger environment may also influence the development of social hierarchies. Some researchers have argued that booming populations of humans and the invention of agriculture triggered the widespread change from egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies into more hierarchical cultures with stratified classes and different roles for rich and poor.

Social status is often apparent at birth among humans. Status may be conferred by wealth and the parents’s status, such as in the Pepys family of England (at 6:30 min.).

Two dissimilar mushrooms appear next to each other.

BIO: To make a point that may be obvious, evolutionary variation is not a hierarchy, despite an amazing diversity of animal skills. Furthermore, humans are closer relatives than you might suspect.

Not every genotype migrated out of Africa in prehistory with their phenotypes, so genetic diversity remains highest in Africa, where we began.

Furthermore, bottlenecks have shaped human evolution, and our most recent common ancestor seems hardly in her grave. (Not to mention statistical estimates that are even more startling.) As a result, we’re all much closer relatives than you might guess from the average TV reality show.

Oddly, European-Americans and a lot of other folks can pick almost any major royal figure before the Middle Ages, like Charlemagne or Genghis Khan, and find a link to their family. There was probably a lot of inbreeding in the early out-of-Africa generations and maybe for a long time afterward.

The economic gulf between low status and high status in the United States is amazing, considering our lack of genetic diversity as a species. Human genes interact in combination, making each individual almost certainly unique, but the extremes are apparently more limited than you would expect looking at the extremes in socioeconomic economic status.

Tiny genetic differences can have large effects, though while dogs have interesting lessons to tell, it is often not wise to compare human differences to dog breeds.

Even though each human individual and each human brain must be unique because of this variation, the rungs of the status ladder extend higher and lower than our genetic endowments because of the plasticity of our brains.

What we inherit is shaped by our environments because of neuroplasticity. The enrichment of development by environmental stimulation of the brain is now a well-told story. Its effects are great enough to treat developmental disorders and to tie children’s brain development and  academic achievements to their parents’s socioeconomic status.

PSYCHO: Social status manifests itself in a number of ways. It is presumably the generator of inequality, and there is a statistical argument that it is the parents’ wealth that is responsible for the correlation with heightened cognitive skills, rather than an extraneous third variable.

In other words, inequality that grows from social status is not inevitable, nor is it an aspect of human natural history.

It is misleading to regard human social status as a direct product of biological evolution. Though the roles of social insects like ants and bees are closely related to their phenotypes, they rely on environmental interaction as well.

The gulf between humans and invertebrates can lead to misleading conclusions. Consider Jordan Peterson’s angle on dominance hierarchies. He dispenses with social explanations of dominance hierarchies because they are found in lobsters, with whom we share an evolutionary ancestor! But this is not how to do comparative psychology, and it gives evolutionary psychologists, some of whom seem overenthusiastic anyway, a bad reputation. (Will that stop intelligent people from comparing kids and pets? Not in my lifetime.)

SOCIAL: One reason to reject biological evolution as directly responsible for social status is that inequality is a relationship, not a behavior or a physical condition. It may be fruitful to think of social status and inequality as emergent features of our social organization.

Human social status is not predictable from a person’s genotype unless you know the person’s family and culture in detail. Social status shows signs of self-organization when people live together. Deprivation of food and other resources limits development, while family wealth provides enrichment for the development of cognitive skills such as executive function.

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