Evolutionary Adaptation of Status Supports Individual, Defeats Society’s Well-being

Abstract

1) Evidence continues to increase that the most evolutionary adaptive advantage a human can acquire and maintain is “status.” The gravity of the implications of this are explored below, the most important of which is that in order to maintain a high level of status one does not actually need to contribute to the greater well-being of society. This enables many to accrue substantial wealth and societal support while maintaining a personal high level of well-being and longevity while not actually contributing to the well-being of society. In effect, this indicates that the “cheaters” which Evolutionary Psychology claims we are highly adapted to perceive and eliminate are not actually eliminated, but are, instead, enhanced.

2) Systemic solutions are the only solutions which can address the highly complex needs and challenges of complex modern human societies. If the actual needs of human complex societies are not actually represented or addressed in our systems of government which control the direction of discourse about our needs and the allocation of trillions of dollars, then our complex human societies and our environment will continue to deteriorate.

How these two challenging conditions have evolved and function are explored in more detail below.

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I believe that there are two most critical issues that we need to be aware of, understand, and accept the most grave implications of if we are to commit ourselves to an understanding of well-being and make significant efforts to maintain and improve our individual well-being and our society’s well-being. And by “grave” in this context, I mean it as a true analog of the physical law of gravity:

How many of us would presume to direct our lives believing that we could ignore Newton’s Laws of Gravity, and continue to live safely in our physical movements and in the many structures we build?

I suggest that there are social, political, and epidemiological analogs to the significance of gravity which are not greatly complex, but which do require our attention, understanding, and acceptance if our species and our planet are to continue to support the lives of our children and grandchildren.

Many find interest in the social activism work and the scholarly and scientific writing which many people devote significant contributions to, or even their whole lives, revealing in great detail how our many and diverse problems continue and often how they are actually much worse than we may presume until we look closer and evaluate the relevant texts.

It is without a doubt that we benefit from these insightful revelations, studies, and books left for posterity.

As someone who has also been involved in social change and has deep concerns about many of our political, social, cultural, educational, environmental, and spiritual/psychological challenges, I have come to a conclusion that there are two even larger challenges that embrace and include all of those major categories:

The first is that while many individuals and institutions are able to perpetuate careers and income, and long-term social support and recognition in their efforts to reveal and address the issues of our social or scientific challenges which they focus on, there is also growing evidence that those efforts may actually be hindering the actual kinds of changes which those individuals and institutions publicly proclaim or infer with their evidence and expertise.

This counter effect is a result of the evolutionary adaptive advantage that status has on well-being:

Evidence continues to grow that status is the fundamentally determinative factor for our well-being. I have mentioned this here before and I will reiterate and expand upon it with additional research recently released.

The first class of studies are known as Whitehall I and Whitehall II. These long-term studies, in the spirit of the Framingham longitudinal studies (although perhaps not quite as many years involved), focused on the lives of individuals who worked in what is known in England as “Whitehall,” the collective term for which in the U.S. we might refer to Capitol Hill and Foggy Bottom (State Dept., etc).

For Whitehall, the project has been so long-term (beginning in 1967) that many of the links, such as at Wikipedia, are now dead, but using Google Scholar one will likely be successful at obtaining a number of them.

One of the more recent pages collects various aspects of the work and the studies.

The individual who began to lead the Whitehall studies is Professor Michael Marmot.

A Wikipedia page, while it has some dead links at the bottom, gives a very good basic history of the issues and results.

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In the U.S. recently, work was reported in the New York Times, “It’s Easy Being King,” and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that reinforces the relationship between elevated status and well-being. I include the title, authors, abstract, and link below:

Leadership is associated with lower levels of stress

Gary D. Sherman, Jooa J. Lee, Amy J. C. Cuddy, Jonathan Renshon, Christopher Oveis, James J. Gross, and Jennifer S. Lerner

Abstract

As leaders ascend to more powerful positions in their groups, they face ever-increasing demands. As a result, there is a common perception that leaders have higher stress levels than non-leaders. However, if leaders also experience a heightened sense of control— a psychological factor known to have powerful stress-buffering effects—leadership should be associated with reduced stress levels. Using unique samples of real leaders, including military officers and government officials, we found that, compared with non-leaders, leaders had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and lower reports of anxiety (study 1). In study 2, leaders holding more powerful positions exhibited lower cortisol levels and less anxiety than leaders holding less powerful positions, a relationship explained significantly by their greater sense of control. Altogether, these findings reveal a clear relationship between leadership and stress, with leadership level being inversely related to stress.

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I believe that these two bodies of work reveal the most significant issues we need to understand as we commit ourselves to life-long learning and participate in any improvement of our individual lives and our social systems.

There is also a great irony with this second study: It does not refer at all to the Whitehall Studies, despite that fact that it does make significant references to the work of Robert Sapolsky, who almost always includes Whitehall references in his work because they are the seminal studies in his field. This PNAS paper does make one brief 1984 reference to a paper by Michael Marmot.

It seems both ironic to me that this PNAS publication does not refer to Whitehall, but then it also makes sense, if evaluated under the light of “status”:

If status is the most important evolutionary adaptive advantage, then we must have also evolved mechanisms to maintain it which are not necessarily conscious. In publishing a paper such as the PNAS paper above, to include and cite more relevant work than is necessary to meet the conventions of modern scholarly publishing would mean to reduce, by sharing, the level of status which the subject paper could potentially achieve for its authors with its publication.

I have, for many years now, been considering these issues and considering them under the light of the many, many excellent books, journal and newspaper articles published which present resounding and clear evidence of the many “grave” issues our society and planet faces.

However, virtually none of these excellent publications and authors are proposing the radical (i.e., original meaning, focused on the central issue) solutions which are necessary to alleviate our ever-increasing social, political, economic, educational, and environmental challenges.

And it occurs to me that one possible, but perhaps even more likely, reason is that it would be to the individuals and institutions disadvantage to potentially threaten their achieved status by either consciously considering the root nature of our problems or making those insights publicly associated with their work.

Consider the simple facts: Persons A, B, and C, etc., are living lives of great economic and social success while publishing work, which is virtually without challenge, yet also revealing with great detail and insight our many great problems — but not systemic solutions.

One recent concrete example is glaringly made by how the recent book by two major authors in the Washington, D.C. milieu have suddenly become pariahs is portrayed by Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein’s It’s Even Worse Than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism.

These two long-time members of the Washington, D.C. system, offering bi-partisan reviews and analyses, have suddenly realized that even their “reasonable” level of critique is now no longer acceptable, that virtually all discourse approaching substance will not be tolerated for long.

I offer a simple analogy to how we are all challenged by this:

Consider a fair sized dining table, with perhaps 12 to 15 chairs around it, and all present are enjoying a substantial meal and interesting discourse, and achieving greatly important maintenance of their social status. The experience is central to human adaptive needs and enjoyment (unless, perhaps if it is our “family” table, but that presents a separate issue).

Now consider that you have no place at the table, and are literally left to crawl along the floor hoping for some nurturing scraps to fall or to overhear some useful information that you might not otherwise have access to.

I suggest that the above analogy is an accurate analogy for the problems that face the 99%: We do not have a “seat” at the table, and until we do, we are contributing to the perpetuation of an evolutionary adaptive system which only steadily increases the benefits of those with elevated status.

The National Academy recently released a report, “US Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health-Prepublication.”

The report (uncorrected proof) is available here, after registering:

In brief, the report concludes that “Deaths before age 50 accounted for about two-thirds of the difference in life expectancy between males in the United States and their counterparts in 16 other developed countries, and about one-third of the difference for females. The countries in the analysis included Canada, Japan, Australia, France, Germany and Spain.”

The National Academy report I offered here last week on how our adult health is the lowest of 16 other developed countries is simply further conclusive evidence that we are not doing what we need to do in order to even maintain our _current_ level of societal well-being: Left as things are, it will only continue to decline.

The only solution is to make a clear and concerted effort that we gain a “seat” at the table, or more accurately, gain a seat at the table for someone who will actively and truly _represent_ what we need.

Many might perhaps say, “well, I don’t know if I know enough about politics in order to know what to do.” I suggest that the resolution of that is simple: Do you believe you have a “seat at the table” or not?

Also, I suggest that we also need to consider that we are still fighting the U.S. Civil War, that our country’s “ancient history,” including our so-called “revolution” (which I will leave for another time) continues to have a major impact on our social and political well-being:

Pew Research: “Civil War at 150: Still Relevant, Still Divisive

and a CNN poll with “Questions about the Civil War“:

In addition, if you follow the petitions at this link you can see how many people in many southern states are actively petitioning to secede from the United States.

In conclusion, I suggest that our current system is maladaptive in the most ironic way:

While we often read scholarly and scientific publications with great interest, almost all of the people who gain and maintain elevated status by maintaining and promoting scholarly work and recognition detailing our many problems are actually harming us because, while their well-being is maintained and increased, the well-being of the 99% continues to decline because we do not “have a seat at the table,” because most of those in the well-maintained levels of upper status are not offering or including systemic solutions for change to help us:

They are only providing descriptions of our never-ending number of problems, which at best only adds to our awareness of issues that are harming us, which increases our potential for feeling shame, disconnected, and powerless, and ultimately adds no benefit to the well-being of the 99%, instead, only maintaining or increasing the status of the author.

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