Fable of the Squirrels: New Research on Wealth Inequality Among Animals Sparks Debate on Human Economies

Yves here. On the one hand, these comparisons of animal behaviors are entertaining but human societies have exhibited a range of behaviors about sharing versus hoarding wealth. And literature has presented some additional ideas, like the extreme anti-ownership society of Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed. On the other hand, anything that gets people to admit that wealth inequality is a problem and look at different ways of dealing with it is helpful.

By Lynn Parramore, Senior Research Analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking website

Can we live by values of mutual aid and the sharing of resources, or are we destined for heavily stratified inequality? As long as there have been economies – and one-percenters benefiting from their design — there have been arguments about the “naturalness” of unequal conditions. We’re selfish creatures, so the argument goes, and some of us will just naturally be better off. Suck it up.

A flurry of articles concerning a December 2021 study in the journal Behavioral Ecology featuring new insights into intergenerational wealth and inequality in the animal world has ignited a new round of debate on this ancient topic.

Researchers found that among beasts, it pays to be born into privilege. Certain squirrel mothers who hoard nuts and pine cones, for example, will end up bequeathing food stores to a few of their offspring, thus upping their chances of survival. “Red squirrels are born with a silver spoon in their mouths,” quips the New York Times. High-ranking hyenas are able to pass on status to daughters (they’re matriarchal, those clever hyenas), who inherit the right to the best meat, while some monkeys obtain tools to crack nuts from their parents, giving them extra advantage.

The Times article is quick to state that the researchers were prompted to study the topic out of concern about increasing inequality during the pandemic and simply wanted to see what humans could learn about the topic from nature rather than justify intergenerational wealth.

But it is kind of interesting that this particular bit of research has proven popular with the World Economic Forum (WEF), that august group of global elites which gathers annually in the tony ski resort of Davos (the physical gathering has been postponed this year due to Covid) to tell the world what’s what with the economy. An article sponsored by that body asks readers to consider the clownfish. The clownfish, it turns out, can inherit the right to hiding places from its parents, thus enabling it to avoid predators that snack on less privileged fellows.

Could it be that the clownfish teaches the wisdom of the proposition, “I am privileged, therefore nature must have intended it”? Let’s investigate.

Bees Do It. Or Do They?

Back in the early Enlightenment, when it was de rigueur for intellectuals to propose theories about the hows and whys of things, Anglo-Dutch philosopher and political economist Bernard Mandeville got to thinking about animals. He found himself in agreement with René Descartes’ (spectacularly wrong) view that animals were little more than physical machines: a cuckoo bird and a cuckoo clock were much the same, only one you don’t have to feed. They’re mindless automata.

Turning his attention to bees, Mandeville penned a satirical poem known as, “Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits,” in which he describes the breakdown of a bee community when its members suddenly stop acting in their greedy self-interest and become honest and virtuous. The moral lesson: personal vice translates into public good.

Mandeville advised people to hang up the effort to benefit others or control their passions because it just gets in the way of the state’s commercial and intellectual progress. After all, the circulation of capital demands that people keep buying stuff they don’t need, and it’s therefore critical for people to be greedy and self-absorbed if you want to have a thriving economy. “Luxury Employ’d a Million of the Poor,” asserted Mandeville, “And odious Pride a Million more.” Without vices, people just collapse into an apathetic stupor. Greed is good, the more vicious, the better.

Mandeville’s bee poem created quite a buzz. Revered ever since by the most extreme free-market fundamentalists, despite the fact that the author actually understood precious little about the species he touted as an example to humans. Turns out that bees are highly cooperative creatures, and their communities would collapse if they were unable or unwilling to help each other. The very opposite of what Mandeville argued.

Mandeville’s dim view of human beings as deceitful, mean-spirited hoarders drew its fair share of detractors. Even Adam Smith felt that the philosopher had gone rather too far. Smith declared in his Theory of Moral Sentiments that “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” Smith also argued that without regulation, corruption and vice would destroy economies rather than help them thrive.

Smith intuited that reducing all human motivation down to egotistical drives ignores our complexity – and much of what makes us thrive, like empathy toward our fellows. Modern researchers have noted that as early as infancy, humans show empathy towards others in distress. A six-month-old baby will get upset to see someone being bullied — and it’s clearly not due to receiving an egotistical hit from exhibiting concern, as some cynics have argued is the only reason we demonstrate care for our neighbor.

Researchers have also found ample evidence of the advantages humans enjoy living in communities that feature mutual support and shared resources. A recent book by the late anthropologist David Graeber, The Dawn of Everything, presents a plethora of examples of such societies going all the way back to the Stone Age.

Nature is brimming with diverse strategies for survival – some we might wish to imitate, and some we would not. The famous ichneumon fly, for example, has hit upon an ingenious way to ensure the survival of its offspring. It lays eggs on another creature’s body and paralyzes it so it can’t move while slowly being eaten alive. Hey, no judgment on the ichneumon, but we probably don’t want to follow its example.

Researchers have also found lots of cases in nature of animals other than bees that survive by cooperating and sharing. Certain parrots, for example, share knowledge about available food with other parrots. Vampire bats will share food with a hungry fellow bat by barfing into its mouth (gross, but effective) and bonobos, those monkeys beloved for their hippie penchant of preferring sex to violence — and also matriarchal — will happily share their chow with friends.

Some animals will even die to protect members of the group, like honeybees. On the other hand, the female praying mantis dines on her mate’s head after copulation, so again, you have to be careful about choosing your examples!

Even if you pick out a hundred cases of animals hoarding resources to privilege themselves and their own offspring, you still have to be mindful of extrapolating the behavior to human societies. That’s because alone among animals, we actually have choices about how we organize ourselves. We get to decide what way of living suits us best.

Here’s something you’re not going to find in the animal world no matter how hard you search – communities that destroy themselves altogether through hoarding. Researchers have yet to identify a Squirrel Gilded Age with gold-encrusted pinecones and fluffy-tailed robber barons. That’s because squirrels don’t have access to two things that humans have: armies and legally protected engines for unlimited capital accumulation.

In the human world, the wealthy are often able to seize control of political systems and use force to protect their privileges, resulting in economies so grotesquely unequal that they threaten the survival of everyone. In the human Gilded Age, we didn’t just have a few parents passing down advantages to some of their kids. We had a sweeping, systemic foul-up of wretched tenements and children huddling in dirt right next to luxury castles built by industrial gazillionaires. The result? The Great Crash followed by the misery of the Great Depression, which even took down quite a few of these gazillionaires. It was the reverse of Mandeville’s bee model.

The fact is that when humans operate on the principle that greed is good, they usually end up creating extremely unstable economies vulnerable to disruption and collapse. As Thomas Piketty has shown, when the rich are able to fatten endlessly through unregulated capitalism, they will drive inequality higher and higher until finally either some bloody catastrophe happens to blow the whole thing up, or a sane government steps in to create more equal and stable conditions. We are currently in the midst of figuring out which way we would like to go this time around: a violent or peaceful transition to something more equitable. (Check out Institute for New Economic Thinking Research Director Thomas Ferguson’s coauthored recent paper to see how this is going).

Fortunately, there’s good news: Unlike squirrels, humans can, and often have, built societies in which there are limits to how much one can hoard and curbs on how badly one can treat one’s neighbor. We have altered our world so that we can overcome diseases, and we can arrange it so that none goes without access to a doctor, too. Humans are a piece of work worthy of Shakespeare’s praise: noble in reason, infinite in faculty. We don’t crap in public, and we don’t need to throw each other to the wolves. Mandeville’s bees are far from the be-all and end-all that free-market fundamentalists thought they were. Beasts make a few choices; humans can make many more.

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  1. upstater

    I love red squirrels, they are very entertaining! We have both red and gray squirrels. The grays eat my gooseberries, strawberries, corn and sometimes tomatoes. Reds only eat wild foods – our abundant acorns, walnuts, hickory nuts and conifer seeds, which is wonderful behavior. But the best part of red squirrels, while only 1/3 the size, they run off any grays that enter their turf. Even better, the reds will castrate the male gray squirrels when caught!

    If only humans could do this with rentiers that extract from our labors.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      That is interesting – here in Ireland the greys (and invasive foreign species) have driven all the reds away, except for very remote conifer forests. Nobody is quite sure the mechanism (i.e. they don’t actively attack them, but reds vanish when greys move in).

      Reds are making a comeback because as the pine marten recovers from years of hunting, it is preferentially making a meal of greys. The presence of pine martens forces greys into the trees ,where they can’t find as much food, so their reproductive rate is falling. Reds can cling to the smallest twigs that martens can’t access, so they are usually safe.

    2. TimH

      I feed my local crows by throwing bread pieces on the roof. A lookout crow will caw loudly alerting the rest before flying down.

      The funniest thing is going to the back door and seeing a crow perched on the gutter a few feet away bending down to look in, with a ‘where’s my food’ look on its beak…

    3. MT_Wild

      Growing up in PA, I heard the same story about red squirrels. They don’t actually castrate other squirrels though.

    4. drumlin woodchuckles

      The red squirrels who are stockpiling more nuts than other red squirrels are not trying to stockpile so many nuts as to leave starvation nut rations behind for all the other squirrels. So while they may get “ahead” of less stockpiley red squirrels, they are not forcing them down and behind.

  2. philnc

    Both _The Dispossessed_ and _The Dawn of Everything_ at a minimum belong in every college curriculum (the former might be hard to get by American high school censors, and the latter weighs in alongside _War and Peace_ as a book that would require more commitment than most teens could muster: maybe Wengrow can be recruited to help develop a young adult anthropology series based on it).

    1. SnIt3

      “The Dawn of Everything” is biased disingenuous account of human history (www.persuasion.community/p/a-flawed-history-of-humanity ) that spreads fake hope (the authors of “The Dawn” claim human history has not “progressed” in stages, or linearly, and must not end in inequality and hierarchy as with our current system… so there’s hope for us now that it could get different/better again). As a result of this fake hope porn it has been widely praised. It conveniently serves the profoundly sick industrialized world of fakes and criminals. The book’s dishonest fake grandiose title shows already that this work is a FOR-PROFIT, instead a FOR-TRUTH, endeavor geared at the (ignorant gullible) masses.

      Fact is human history has “progressed” by and large in linear stages, especially since the dawn of agriculture (www.focaalblog.com/2021/12/22/chris-knight-wrong-about-almost-everything ). This “progress” has been fundamentally destructive and is driven and dominated by “The 2 Married Pink Elephants In The Historical Room” (www.rolf-hefti.com/covid-19-coronavirus.html ) which the fake hope-giving authors of “The Dawn” entirely ignore, naturally (no one can write a legitimate human history without understanding the nature of humans). And these two married pink elephants are the reason why we’ve been “stuck” in a destructive hierarchy and unequal class system (the “stuck” question is the major question in “The Dawn” its authors never answer, predictably), and will be far into the foreseeable future.

      A good example that one of the authors, Graeber, has no real idea what world we’ve been living in and about the nature of humans is his last brief article on Covid where his ignorance shines bright already at the title of his article, “After the Pandemic, We Can’t Go Back to Sleep.” Apparently he doesn’t know that most people WANT to be asleep, and that they’ve been wanting that for thousands of years (and that’s not the only ignorant notion in the title). Yet he (and his partner) is the sort of person who thinks he can teach you something authentically truthful about human history and whom you should be trusting along those terms. Ridiculous!

      “The Dawn” is just another fantasy, or ideology, cloaked in a hue of cherry-picked “science,” served lucratively to the gullible ignorant underclasses who crave myths and fairy tales.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        What was fundamentally destructive about how the Amazon Indian Nations terraformed the Amazon Basin before the Great Explorer Germocaust of the Indigenous Nations?

        What fundamentally destructive management practices by the Indians led the explorers and etc. all over North America to remark on what a nice place it was?

  3. Jake

    I have some pictures that I will not post a link to here that prove the “We don’t crap in public” point absolutely false. Now, this just started happening in Central Texas within the past 8 years or so, but it is definitely a thing. And not just “someone pooped on the sidewalk again,” it’s more like “how did they get it all over and so high up on the wall like that?” “We don’t need to crap in public” is correct. “We don’t crap in public” is not correct.

    1. Tom Miles

      Within the past 8 years, eh. That’s January 2014, Just after Rick Perry finished serving 14 years and was replaced by Greg Abbot. Interesting?

  4. SittingStill

    I have to quibble with a pet peeve of mine. In debates such as this, there is a near universal tendency to attribute the outcomes of collective behaviors to “human nature”, while in reality, what is really being debated is the results of collective behaviors of humankind operating out of western norms and values. At least some, and perhaps many non-western (I’m only an armchair anthropologist) cultures have norms and values that are better designed to blunt or beneficially re-direct ego centered acquisitive (materials and power) behaviors. Thinking specifically of the potlatch in an indigenous culture, where status and prestige is acquired by those who give away the most material goods. I’m sure there are many other examples.

    My basic hypothesis is that technology, coupled with western norms and values, accentuates and encourages the pathological expression of universal human foibles, and that our collective crises largely stems from this reality.

    Conflating “human nature” with “human nature under western norms and values” reinforces this oversight, whichever position in this debate you are inclined to take.

  5. LowellHighlander

    I believe that Ms. Parramore’s superb analysis of economic motivation here can be extended specifically to the organization of entities designed to engage in economic activity, the firm. In other words, we can (because we know how) build economic entities to produce stuff we need, like alternative energies and health care, on the co-operative model, which is based on an ethic completely different from Mandeville’s or the free-marketeers’. [For two quick references, see ICA in Boston, or the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives.]

  6. Carolinian

    No mention of Harvard’s E.O. Wilson, who was surely the king of this topic?

    To this non biologist an obvious flaw from many of the early discussants is the assumption that species are the same in their social behavior. If you want to model humans you need a social species. Dogs and other larger brain mammals might be examples.

    Whereas bees perhaps do conduct societies that are more instinctive and mechannical but still illustrate why social animals exist. Perhaps the biggest barrier is to admit that we are animals in the first place. Religion was long against it.

    1. Susan the other

      Wilson, iirc, claimed it (empathy/altruism) was an evolutionary advantage. And it is true that humans have evolved like no other species. In spite of our massive and destructive wars. But we can see it in action – that as resources get scarcer we turn in on ourselves – as they say “slowly at first and then all of a sudden.” Neoliberalism is the religion of the half-baked Survival of the Fittest crowd. What happens to all the raging Fittests when there’s nothing left to eat? I think perhaps they eat each other. So ideals must evolve too – the once innocent enlightened idea “personal freedom to pursue happiness” pits those personal freedoms against each other – and if we want to continue to survive we need to go back and edit a few unsubstantiated claims about our wonderful individual selves. Because in some places we are no longer free to burn wood in the fireplace, water the lawn, or buy cheap hamburger. Etc.

      1. Carolinian

        I don’t think they are as raging as they pretend to be or the ‘liberals’ as social as they pretend to be. Somehow humanity has survived so far and perhaps all will come to their senses. When a man is to be hanged in a fortnight etc

  7. Fred

    These sort of studies remind me of the old and now discredited “African Genesis” We are violent because it’s in our nature. I’d like to think we are a little better than monkeys and squirrels and at least learned to live in a community where everyone benefits, making each of better than we could of been on our own.

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