Physiological Inequality in a Nutshell

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).