The Enlightened Caveman


More Musings on Status – We Should All Be So Lucky
September 27, 2004, 3:39 pm
Filed under: Culture and Society, Enlightened Living

I continue to contemplate the importance of status in our caveman days. I think about the earliest days of man’s history, when humans lived nomadic lives, in small groups with close kin. In those days, there couldn’t have been much to build status hierarchies on but talents and skills related to survival. Being a good hunter would matter. Being good at making fancy clothes would not. Now fast forward several millennia.
Survival is no longer the struggle it was. Humans have learned to cooperate, which has led a more efficient use of resources and more insulation from environmental threats. But some things have not changed. It is still the case that those at the top of the hierarchy have access to the best food, shelter, and mates. Status still matters, a lot. However, one may ask, in those days, upon what would a hierarchy be based?

This is an interesting question. Being a good hunter would not necessarily be of interest in a community where the big shots have their food delivered to them. In other words, once a hierarchy was established whereby those at the top could coerce others into providing for their survival, the skills associated with procuring and preparing the necessities of survival would have instantly been commoditized. So what could a status hierarchy in those days be based upon?

Obviously, it could (and most likely would) be based upon warrior skills. One who does well in battle carries the threat of force, which easily translates into status. The hierarchy could also be based upon the possession of desired goods, such as money or land. Rich folks could trade their possessions for food, mates, and protection. What else?

It’s reasonable to suppose that religion could have emerged in these conditions as a new hierarchy. At a time when man’s understanding of his world was continuously daunted by the inexplicable, it isn’t a stretch to suppose that individuals who claimed access to a higher power would have been able to wield it for status. And the bigger and more elaborate the story, the better. The more ornate the ceremony, the better. As long as these individuals could offer some evidence of their connection to something larger than the physical world, the masses would defer. Once again, the bigger and more elaborate the story, the better. This would have been a virtual vacuum for the skilled grifters and con artists of yesteryear. Over time, as more and more of the people bought into their story, these religious figures would have attained more and more status, more and more power.

So, now we have a society with three central hierarchies – the warriors, the rich, and the religious leaders. Fast forward now to the 18th century in France, in the decades prior to the French Revolution. There are three groups who hold all the power – the Royalty, the Nobility, and the Clergy. The Royalty has taken the place of the warrior. In truth, however, the Royalty controls the military, so this hierarchy has merely become more discriminating – there is room for far fewer at the top. The point is that we can see a progression of hierarchies from our earliest days to not so long ago, and that they didn’t change a whole lot for of tens of thousands of years. This points to persistent influence on human behavior, which, of course, is our genes. We can also see that humans eventually came to realize that basing the concentration of power over all people upon these three hierarchies was barbaric and wholly unacceptable.

The philosophers of the Enlightenment codified the perniciousness of this practice, and from their words flowed both the American and French revolutions. So, it is clear that humans are willing and able to extricate the deleterious aspects of genetically-driven human discourse from society. They only need to be made aware of the fact that things can and should be better. And here we are, 200 plus years later, and we still have work to do.

Too many of us are still basing our opinions of ourselves and others upon notions of status, upon notions of in-groups versus out-groups (that is, preferring those we deem like us over those we deem unlike us). These assessments of our social world are largely genetically-driven – after all, we are still working off the mental blueprints of our cave-dwelling ancestors. We have constructed versions of reality that are littered with hierarchies that we deem important. Alas, in most cases, we have not done this rationally.

We have taken as truth what we have been taught from our youngest days. On questionable matters, we have given preference to explanations offered by those we know versus those we do not. We have emulated the beautiful people in our midst. We place emphasis on popularity over ethics, upon wealth over disposition, and upon looks over personality. This has ensured the persistence of erroneous ideas and the resistance to intellectual progress. In short, our genes are still having their way with us, big time. But this is not a bad news story. Some have shaken free of these genetic influences, and it is to these people that we should look for encouragement.

Some have learned to consider everything rationally, and to be aware of, and compensate for, known biases. These people have come to their own conclusions about life and how to live it. They have asserted their individuality upon reality, which has inevitably put them at odds with those who cling to their allegiances. But they stand upright, for they know that truth will never fail them. And some, some are even able to change minds en masse. They are agents of change. They are able to impose their conclusions upon the status quo, thus retiring it, and moving it forward at the same time. This is free thinking, and the possibilities are endless. We should all be so lucky.

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