According to a recent study published in Science, you can take a female rhesus monkey (or “macaque”), put her in a terrarium, then gradually add more monkeys over time, the one who was there first will then generally have the highest social status while the newcomers will have lower status—much like in Norbert Elias’ and John L. Scotson’s 1965 classical sociological study of an English small-town community, The Established and the Outsiders. The established were often, quite simply, the people who had lived in the community the longest while the newly arrived were the outsiders.
The following is a slightly edited extract from Hanzi Freinacht’s book ‘Nordic Ideology: A Metamodern Guide to Politics, Book Two’. This is the second book in a series on metamodern thought, a work of popular philosophy that investigates the nature of psychological development and its political implications. This is the third post in a series on six forms of inequality. In the green box to the right, you can find the links to the full series.
The monkey researchers could reverse the social order of the rhesus monkeys by letting them into the terrarium in another sequence. The ethical issue of treating monkeys like this aside, the researchers made an interesting finding that was unavailable to the sociologists: that the quality of the immune system of the monkeys depended on their position in the social hierarchy. If you came in last, and hence had the lowest status, your immune system was much weaker. And this could be reversed if the researchers intervened to change the social order again.
In other words, the social hierarchy of the monkeys determined some of their biological characteristics, even down to the biochemical level—social stress affects the expression of almost 1,000 genes. Probably, the mechanism at play here is that lower ranking monkeys feel more stress and anxiety, which sets up their system for responses to more immediate threats (high cortisol levels and other stress responses), which then takes its toll on more long-term biological processes such as the immune system.[i] Oh, and it’s not just macaques by the way—the Stanford primatologist Robert Sapolsky has found the same pattern in ethological studies of freely roaming baboons in Africa.
So if you’re low status, you also get sick. Hey, I told you it’s a cruel world out there.
Point being, of course, that there is an inescapably physiological side to inequality. It really goes both ways—other forms of inequality, such as economic and social, can have negative physiological consequences, and disadvantageous physiological states or traits can in themselves be sources of other inequalities. There is any number of studies to show different aspects of this, not only within the animal realm but among humans as well.
For instance, taller people make more money. People in rich countries tend to grow taller than people in poor countries. Fat people are kept at farther physical distance by slim people during everyday interactions, and distance is spontaneously kept between people of different social status. Good-looking people have happier lives. Disabled people suffer from stigma, are discriminated against, and are thus limited beyond the inherent limitations caused by their disabilities. Poor people have worse health and worse medical care, in turn affecting economic success. People with higher status are touched more, which protects from stress, which boosts health and long-term performance. People in higher social classes eat better and do more effective workout and have less physically strenuous jobs. It even seems that women’s menstruation cycles fall into sync, where the dominant woman of the group leads the others (there’s not quite consensus on that one). And more dominant men smell better to ovulating women, especially if the women are young, fertile and already in a stable relationship (likely because natural selection has favored moderate amounts of infidelity).
Okay, that last one gets a reference, just because.[ii] You can look all of this stuff up if you like. There’s lots of it.
Again, there is a physiological, deeply embodied, side to inequality—and it reaches all the way down to the biochemical level, affecting long-term processes that steer our lives and shape society. As biological creatures, we are not equals. Inequality, your position in the social hierarchies, sticks in your body: victories, successes and social validation are embedded in your spine, into your body posture, into your very DNA. And so are losses, failures and rejections, real or imagined. Dominance hierarchies go far back in evolutionary psychology; we can see that animals of all kinds have confrontations, and hormones change depending on who wins, with changed ensuing behaviors as a result.
Your entire habitus scents of dominance or submission, of confidence or insecurity, of power, pride and prestige or of tense frustration, shame and the accumulated disdain of others. Inequality lives in and through human and animal bodies. And society’s institutions can work to exacerbate or combat this inequality.
The sociologist Catherine Hakim has even proposed that there may be such a thing as “sexual” or “erotic” capital, which suggests a corresponding form of inequality in society.[iii] There is good reason to take Hakim’s idea seriously as it is well known and proven that richer men end up with women of greater fecundity, and that sex and sexuality certainly play a part in the stratifications of human relations.
I do, however, feel that the categories of social, physiological and—as we shall see—emotional inequality together may give a fuller and more comprehensive account of these dynamics. In other words, I view sexual capital as an emergent subcategory of these three. But certainly, it deserves attention: How held back and beaten down are we by sexual and romantic rejections?
So both economic and social inequality leave deep physiological traces; and these in turn reproduce inequalities in any number of ways. The mechanisms and causal feedback loops of physiological inequality can be many different ones, epigenetics (the ongoing activation and deactivation of genes) only being one frontier to explore.
The different forms interact. At the most basic level, malnourishment hinders optimal physical and cognitive growth, and thus perpetuates powerlessness, submission and poverty. This has been common knowledge for decades and is part and parcel of studies of economic development and foreign aid.
There are, however, also studies of affluent countries that reveal the deeply seated inherited physiological inequalities that reproduce themselves over generations. I would like to mention two such bodies of work: the so-called Whitehall studies and the Canadian studies of (epi-)genetic degeneration due to childhood adversities.
The Whitehall studies (there are two of them) looked at over 18,000 British male civil servants for a period of ten years. The first studies were conducted from the 1960s to the 1980s, but they have had follow-ups to this day, and they look especially at factors that could explain cardiovascular diseases and mortality rates. And lo and behold, these studies heralded an entry of social science into medicine and vice versa: Men of lower rank died off more quickly than those of higher rank. Lower ranking grade was associated with a number of risk factors, including obesity, smoking, reduced leisure time, lower levels of physical activity, higher blood pressure and higher prevalence of underlying illness.
“Whitehall II” found that additional factors affect health across a lifespan: the way work is organized, work climate, social influences from outside of work, influences from early life, and health behaviors.
There is no escape from the marriage between social and natural or clinical science, for one thing. And there is, moreover, no escape from the physiological dimension of inequality.
The second body of work is the Canadian studies of epigenetics and population epigenomics (how genes are affected by demographic and social factors). The global leadership of this field consists of a rather wide research community of senior medical scientists, more than I can name here. This wide network has been doing truly groundbreaking and profoundly relevant work when it comes to understanding physiological inequality. The studies suggests, among other things, that “DNA methylation” (basically, our genetic aging) increases in kids whose parents were stressed out during pregnancy and/or their children’s early childhoods.[iv] You can look at a fifteen-year-old and see their gene expressions are different from more privileged peers—and more like those of older people—if their parents went through some rough times when they were little. You get scarred at the molecular level for things that happened before you can remember.[v]
This is true not only at the individual level, but also at the level of whole schools and larger communities. And we have already seen that lower social status can stress people out, as can economic insecurity. What we may be looking at here is thus a very intricate and intimate form of inequality reproducing itself. But more research is needed—and the Canadians are providing it.
All of this points us towards a discussion about which measures could reasonably be taken to reduce physiological inequality. Whereas this issue is not generally on the political agenda, there have been some interesting developments during the 20th century. One simple such is that dental care was offered to many more citizens, especially in social democracies like Sweden. Social-democratic leaders took to heart the struggle to improve the teeth of poor children, and while their reforms perhaps did less to improve and equalize oral health than the simple proliferation of toothbrushes and tooth paste, they did let all school kids flush their teeth with fluorine and largely managed to decouple shiny white teeth from distinctions of class. To this day, it is even a common measure for municipalities in Sweden to pay for entire sets of synthetic teeth for the homeless so as to improve their overall health and decrease their physiological stigma. Such measures generally get thumbs up in social work scholarship, but they are of course expensive and thus have difficulties securing sustained public funding.
The question is to which extent physiological inequalities are caused by other inequalities—of wealth and status—and to which extent the opposite is true, i.e. that physiological differences cause other inequalities. And the question is which physical inequalities can be changed through political and social measures and which ones remain largely immutable. We cannot, of course, make a person with Down syndrome score high on IQ tests or make a person who lost her legs in an accident suddenly grow her limbs back. But many measures are, indisputably, possible to take, many physiological factors and developments can be affected by conscious design, both on a day-to-day basis, and over the course of a lifespan—with profound implications for public health, physical and mental. And such physiological or bio-social factors hint at a wide canopy of measures that can affect and reduce the complex reproduction of inequality throughout society.
Without delving deeper into the discussion, let us simply name a few possible such measures: widespread training in posture and physiotherapeutic practices such as “basic body awareness” as proposed by Jacques Dropsy and Gertrud Roxendal; training in uses of body language (which has been shown to affect emotions and degrees of confidence and assertiveness); the facilitation of making healthy food choices that favor slow metabolism, stress tolerance and resilient bodies; the cultivation of a non-judgmental and non-competitive “gym culture”; the transformation of public spaces with more available outdoor facilities for physical exercise; combating stress and ergonomic strains of office life and work life in general; the expansion of physical and bodily labor rights to protect from physical harm; the increase of leisure time to pursue physical and mental training—and so forth.
All of these things can and do interact with other forms of inequality and empower millions of perpetually disempowered human bodies. And as human bodies are strengthened, so are human dignities salvaged and human potentials released.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on his facebook profile here, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.
[i]. Snyder-Mackler N. et al., 2016. Social status alters immune regulation and response to infection in macaques. Science. 354 (6315):1041-1045.
[ii]. Havlicek, J. S., Roberts, C., Flegr, J., 2005. Women’s preference for dominant male odour: effects of menstrual cycle and relationship status. Biology Letters. April 4, 2005.
[iii]. Hakim, C., 2011. Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital. London: Penguin Press.
[iv]. O’Donnell, K. J., Chen, L., MacIsaac, J.L., McEwen, L. M., Nguyen, T., Beckmann, K. et al, 2018. DNA methylome variation in a perinatal nurse-visitation program that reduces child maltreatment: a 27-year follow-up. Transl Psychiatry, vol. 8(1).
[v]. Gonzalez, A., Catherine, N., Boyle, M., Jack, S. M., Atkinson, L., Kobor, M. et al. 2018. Healthy Foundations Study: a randomised controlled trial to evaluate boilogical embedding of early-life experiences. BMJ Open, vol. 8(1).