Studying wealth opportunities in animals can reveal clues to the evolution of their society

Inequality in wealth is a research topic that is usually reserved for people. Now, research from the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln suggests that studying wealth inequality in animals may help shed light on social development. By adapting approaches to the study of inequality in wealth in humans, the researchers show how wealth – in the form of material goods, individual characteristics or social ties – occurs widely among animal species and can be distributed equally or unequally. This framework provides an opportunity to unite different corners of evolutionary biology under the umbrella of inequality in wealth and to explore the idea that the unequal distribution of value, whatever form it may take, has important implications for animal communities.

Inequality is one of the greatest challenges of modern society and plays a prominent role in social and political debate. In economics and sociology, researchers study inequality to understand where it comes from, what its implications are, and how we can implement policies that produce more productive, healthy, and just societies. One insight from this work is that inequality can have significant consequences for us who live in these societies.

It was this discovery that caught the attention of Eli Strauss of the Max Planck Institute for Animal Behavior in Germany (MPI-AB) and Daizaburo Shizuka of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, two behavioral ecologists studying social evolution in human societies. “As I read these fascinating sociology and economics articles, I was struck by the fact that this work shares a common goal with my work on animal behavior, namely that we both want to understand how inequality arises and affect outcomes for individuals and groups,” says Strauss. , first author of the paper and post-doc researcher at MPI-AB.

A new framework in the study of social evolution

It is not that inequality had not been studied in animals before. Animal scientists have long studied the differences between animals in their physical characteristics, the territory and the resources they acquire, the structures they build, or the social power they exercise. But what was missing was the holistic view that these different dimensions of wildlife are connected under the umbrella of inequality. “As we read, we wondered how research into the causes and consequences of inequality in humans could help biologists like us better understand animal communities,” said Daizaburo Shizuka, an associate professor at the School of Science. biology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. .

In a review article published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Strauss and Shizuka bring together work from different academic fields to bridge the gap between research into inequalities in human and animal communities. They focused on what one could learn about animals by drawing on studies of inequality in humans. Their review is among the first studies to unite these different areas of research to understand how the unequal distribution of value – whatever form it takes – shapes animal communities.

Can animals have “wealth”?

However, the researchers first had to find common ground between humans and animals. In humans, “inequality” exists when something of value is distributed unequally between individuals. Usually this value is defined as their wealth.

“Animals do not have bank accounts, so how can they be rich? explains Strauss. To answer this question, scientists have turned to evolutionary anthropological research that explores inequalities in hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and other small human communities. “These societies have varying degrees of wealth inequality, but wealth is not limited to banknotes and coins,” he adds. Instead, anthropologists regard wealth as more broadly composed of material goods, individual qualities such as knowledge or the ability to hunt and social connections. For example, a woman may be wealthy by owning many cows, being able to grow crops, or having an impact on her community.

The review highlights how these same human dimensions of wealth work very clearly in animals. Ownership of territory and access to food are widespread types of material wealth among animals. For example, squirrels and plaice build food stores and store them with hordes of nuts and seeds. In New Caledonian dolphins and ravens, techniques for using tools are valuable information that opens up new foraging possibilities.

Social relationships are also an important source of wealth for many species, such as spotted hyenas and crows, which form alliances with their group mates that help them climb the ladder of their community. Interestingly, like wealth in humans, wealth in animals is sometimes transmitted from parents to offspring. Just as money can vary in how unequally they are distributed among humans, these forms of wealth can be distributed fairly evenly between individual animals or can be concentrated in the hands of a few wealthy people.

To shed light on social development

Armed with this broad view of inequality in wealth, the authors then explore the ways in which research into human inequality can help us better understand how animal communities work. They discuss theories about what makes some societies more unequal than others, the consequences of inequality on individual health and group success, and how individuals and genera change in wealth over time leading up to social mobility.

According to Shizuka: “The structure of a society has many different influences on all the individuals who live there. In many cases, the differences between individuals stem from the different ways in which unequal societies influence them. In return, individuals try to exercise control or navigate these unequal systems in different ways.Biology of animal society embraces these kinds of dynamics and we cannot understand the evolution of social animals without recognizing this feedback between the individual and society.

“Our hope is that this paper will guide future research into the inequality of species richness, which will ultimately lead to a better understanding of the evolution of traits that help animals make the most of social life. “adds Strauss.

The authors recognize that the study of inequality in animals may also shed light on how inequality works in human societies, but advise caution when looking at animals for self-understanding. Humans are a special animal species with unique social and cognitive traits. While inequality will hardly work quite differently in humans than it does in other animals, there are no other societies operating on the scale of the modern human global economy either.

“We can look to other species to understand the general evolutionary processes that produce all animals, including ourselves,” says Strauss, “but the question of what makes an ethical human society is fundamentally a moral question. life can not lead us.It’s something we have to find out for ourselves.

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