Sandwiched in the middle of the Six Pillars, Fairness doesn’t always get to take center stage. But in a fascinating article in The New York Times, Natalie Angier traces the human desire for fairness back to our evolutionary roots.
Angier begins by looking at the equalizing habits of hunter-gatherers in Paraguay and bushmen and foragers in Africa. To keep things balanced, these societies have rituals in place, like casting insults at a hunter who is too full of himself, or requiring childless gatherers to share excess food with families with children. In the United States, by contrast, as of 2007 the top 1% owned almost 35% of the wealth, and the top 20% owned 85% of the wealth. It’s not fair, and it makes a lot of people’s blood boil.
That, Angier says, is no surprise. Brain scientists in Stockholm have found that the desire for fairness begins in the primitive amygdala, which means fairness has been with us throughout our evolution. According to biologists, Angier writes, “Homo sapiens have an innate distaste for hierarchical extremes, the legacy of our long nomadic prehistory as tightly knit bands living by veldt-ready team-building rules: the belief in fairness and reciprocity, a capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a willingness to work cooperatively in ways that even our smartest primate kin cannot match.”
The desire for fairness is one of the traits that makes humans human. Chimpanzees will allow the toughest member of the group to dominate, but humans can band together, place their trust in each other, and overcome that bully.
Angier makes sure to point out that we still tolerate hierarchy. Scientists from the University of Washington studied five hunter-gatherer groups, and found “the average degree of income inequality to be roughly half that seen in the United States.”
Are Americans just different from hunter-gatherers? Are we more tolerant of unfairness?
No. According to another survey, Americans – both Democrats and Republicans – imagine an optimal wealth gradient in the U.S.A. that in no way resembles our actual wealth gradient. Instead it looks a lot like Sweden.
*Read Angier’s New York Times story here.
*Visit our free Lesson Plan Bank for lessons on Fairness for students of all ages.