The deep roots of economic inequality

May 23, 2014 by John German

A special issue of Science explores the origins of human inequality, drawing on research by SFI Professor Sam Bowles and collaborators.

The cover article, "The ancient roots of the 1%," traces the development of economic disparity back to Natufian hunter-gatherers in the Eastern Mediterranean more than 10,000 years ago, where—new evidence suggests—individuals and families might have begun taking "ownership" of choice fishing spots and plentiful forest patches, storing surpluses of food, and amassing the accoutrements of wealth. This predates previous estimates of the age of , which had been linked to the advent of agriculture, by a few thousand years.

Research by Bowles and collaborators, the article notes, have examined the origins of another piece of the rich-get-richer puzzle: wealth inheritance. "Using historical and ethnographic data on 21 populations around the world, the team examined three kinds of wealth: material riches such as real estate, embodied wealth such as physical strength, and relational riches such as the number of people in a person's social network…[They found] that just having domesticated crops wasn't enough to fuel enduring inequality. Farmers who practiced intensive agriculture and boosted yields in regions where arable land was scarce readily passed down their . These farmers could control access to their fields, protect them, and leave them to their heirs, Bowles says." The findings suggest it was the concentration of resources—edible grains, crops, fish—rather than agriculture itself that led to ownership.

Another article, "Our egalitarian Eden," explores how and why early egalitarian societies might have kept socioeconomic in check. In part, "cooperation is self-reinforcing: Sharing the spoils promotes further cooperation and self-sacrifice (Science, 4 September 2009, p. 1196). 'Inequality may be the enemy of cooperation,' Bowles says."

A review paper by Johannes Haushofer and Ernst Fehr, "On the psychology of poverty," also draws on findings by Bowles and on poverty traps.

Explore further: Human transition from foraging to farming was a gradual co-evolution, not a rapid innovation

More information: The special section on human inequality is available online: www.sciencemag.org/site/special/inequality/

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

'Technology' plays large role in wealth inheritance

Oct 30, 2009

A new study reveals the important role inherited wealth plays in sustaining economic inequality in small scale societies. A team of 26 anthropologists, statisticians, and economists based at the Santa Fe Institute in New ...

Inequality, 'silver spoon' effect found in ancient societies

Oct 29, 2009

The so-called "silver spoon" effect -- in which wealth is passed down from one generation to another -- is well established in some of the world's most ancient economies, according to an international study coordinated by ...

Wealth inequality can promote cooperation

Oct 03, 2013

Wealth inequality can encourage people to cooperate when they would otherwise have no incentive to do so, according to a new study published in Nature Communications.

Recommended for you

Local education politics 'far from dead'

13 hours ago

Teach for America, known for recruiting teachers, is also setting its sights on capturing school board seats across the nation. Surprisingly, however, political candidates from the program aren't just pushing ...

First grade reading suffers in segregated schools

13 hours ago

A groundbreaking study from the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) has found that African-American students in first grade experience smaller gains in reading when they attend segregated schools—but the ...

Why aren't consumers buying remanufactured products?

15 hours ago

Firms looking to increase market share of remanufactured consumer products will have to overcome a big barrier to do so, according to a recent study from the Penn State Smeal College of Business. Findings from faculty members ...

Expecting to teach enhances learning, recall

15 hours ago

People learn better and recall more when given the impression that they will soon have to teach newly acquired material to someone else, suggests new research from Washington University in St. Louis.

Understanding the economics of human trafficking

Jul 28, 2014

Although Europe is one of the strictest regions in the world when it comes to guaranteeing the respect of human rights, the number of people trafficked to or within the EU still amounts to several hundred ...

User comments : 26

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

orti
1.9 / 5 (9) May 24, 2014
Amazing how every aspect of the leftist political agenda is perfectly reflected at phys.org. Can you say groupthink?
ryggesogn2
1.4 / 5 (9) May 24, 2014
The ancient root of socialism is envy.
Socialists use violence to promote and perpetuate that envy for power and control.
When it is easier to plunder wealth than to earn wealth, the immoral and immature will plunder.
ryggesogn2
1.5 / 5 (8) May 24, 2014
" "Liberalism has spent the better part of the past century attempting to prove that it could competently and responsibly extend the state into new reaches of American life. With the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, the administration has badly injured that cause." One could say also that for the better part of the past century intellectual liberals had been attempting to prove they had superior judgment, and that hadn't gone too well, either. But to note that it was a setback for their belief in themselves and their wisdom might have been a little too much to expect."
http://www.weekly...l?page=3

An outgrowth of that envy becomes arrogance and hubris on the part of the narcissistic 'intellectual', who 'just know' they are so much smarter than the 99% and must do whatever it takes to 'save humanity' from themselves.
They call themselves 'progressives'.
ryggesogn2
1.4 / 5 (9) May 24, 2014
""The central theme of Prof. Piketty's work," FT concludes, "is that wealth inequalities are heading back up to levels last seen before the first world war. The investigation undercuts this claim, indicating there is little evidence in Prof. Piketty's original sources to bear out the thesis that an increasing share of total wealth is held by the richest few." "
"One NYT columnist seemed too decided that even if Piketty is wrong, it doesn't matter because the Frenchman highlighted income inequality, something that every liberal just feels in his bones is the real problem in this world today. "
"So, for the Times, even if everything Piketty wrote is wrong, it's okay because the seriousness of the issue is bigger than the mere facts. "
{AGWites say the SAME thing!}
http://www.breitb...ics-Book
zaxxon451
5 / 5 (7) May 25, 2014
The ancient root of socialism is envy.


Wrong. The root of socialism lies in the recognition of the many forms of privilege and an understanding that equality of opportunity is a myth.
Pejico
May 25, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Pejico
May 25, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
ryggesogn2
1.6 / 5 (7) May 25, 2014
The ancient root of socialism is envy.


Wrong. The root of socialism lies in the recognition of the many forms of privilege and an understanding that equality of opportunity is a myth.

"Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.

Winston Churchill

Read more at http://www.brainy...2BJxj.99
ryggesogn2
1.6 / 5 (7) May 25, 2014
"For time immemorial, there have been rich and poor in all societies. No system has been able to change that - neither socialism, fascism, communism nor capitalism. One thing that capitalism has done that the other three collectivist systems have not been able to do is raise the levels of both rich and poor. The poor, for example, in wealthy countries live better than the middle class in developing countries. "
"since the beginning of time, there has been envy. We see it at all times, but especially when times are tough. It is not for economic reasons or for reasons of "fairness" that people cry out to "tax the rich;" it is to satisfy the envy of those less rich. "
"If you've ever read the poetry of adolescent teenagers, you can see why they are drawn to socialist ideas. Everything is miserable and unfair and they wish to share it with everyone. Evidently there are a lot of adults that have never outgrown that sentiment. "
http://www.cavema...oranceAn
ryggesogn2
1.6 / 5 (7) May 25, 2014
"Socialism is based on the idea that people cannot succeed. Capitalism is based on the idea that anyone can succeed. Socialism is based on the assumption that one who does not work for whatever reason is owed the support of those who struggle all their lives to make ends meet. It tells people that they don't have to do anything, and that those more fortunate were "lucky." This is not only ignorant, but it is also "a philosophy of failure." "
"Socialists put themselves on a pedestal saying how wonderful they are to support the "little man" while taxing the hard-working of society into poverty."
http://www.cavema...Envy.htm
"As a nation, we need to work on individual self esteem, and rid ourselves of envy. "
'Liberals' say they promote self-esteem in school, but do so by preventing anyone from succeeding.
Little leagues don't keep score and everyone gets a trophy, for example.
Rewarding mediocrity does not promote self esteem.

ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (5) May 25, 2014
"Within your ideological stupidity - If there is no differentiation between the assimilated drone mind that must be just as good as, but no better than, the standard deviation, then why even grade the kids? Might as well just pass out collective distribution diplomas."
http://theconserv...clusive/
Will the socialist 'intellectual' ever apply their socialism to academia? If they did it must destroy academia as no one can be better than anyone else. There must be no grades and no degrees, no rewards or recognition for success.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (5) May 25, 2014
"History is rife with examples of politicians inducing envy in order to attempt to justify redistribution. Those who fomented the Russian revolution in the early twentieth century tempted the proletariat with the property of the affluent. Hitler enticed the populace toward envy of the Jews, many of whom were economically successful in Europe, to help construct his national socialist empire. Miguel Faria, in his book, Cuba in Revolution: Escape from a Lost Paradise, states, "As in all socialist systems, Castro uses envy, class hatred, and class warfare." Much the same has been true of Peronist Argentina. "
http://www.fee.or...ing-envy
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (5) May 25, 2014
"This process was diagnosed some time ago by Helmut Schoeck, in his 1966 book Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior. According to Schoeck, "The revolutionary movements in South American republics, Bolshevism in Russia, the resentful Populists in the United States (today the Progressives), all were supported by those circles who would clearly be the first to take a malicious delight in the leveling of society. But without exception, and sometimes in the course of a few decades, the new ruling caste has become a bourgeoisie or a plutocracy." (Emphasis added.) Inevitably, those promulgating envy as a means to leveling will, in the end, become the same class they earlier despised."

"It has been shown that, in whatever way one envisages the equalization of incomes this must always and necessarily lead to a very considerable reduction of the total national income and, thus, also, of the average income. "
http://www.fee.or...ing-envy
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (5) May 25, 2014
"A society that encourages envy in order to "level the playing field" for its citizens is a society that will implode from within. Oppressive government spending programs requiring high taxation and controls on individuals can lead to economic stagnation or even collapse. There is something particularly sordid about politicians who play on our envy. It is a game of power and contro,l and it can lead people to justify using violence to take the property of others. Citizens of every country should learn to recognize whether politicians are manipulating them by playing on their envy. Only when we learn to aspire and admire those that are economically successful, and not be envious of them, will we see our economies flourish."
http://www.fee.or...ing-envy
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (5) May 25, 2014
"a Soviet friend of the author – Anton Borishenko – recently argued that envy flourishes in an administrative command (that is, socialist) economy. The topic of discussion was the transition in the USSR from an administrative command economy to an economy largely or totally coordinated by free markets. "
"In a capitalist economy an individual can earn funds sufficient to purchase a car. By so doing, he or she can "innocently" acquire a car. At the worst, such a purchase might be criticized by others as foolishly extravagant or (given, say, family commitments) irresponsible. In a socialist state such a purchase invites very different reactions. "Whom does he know that I do not? How did he manage to jump the queue? Why should he be granted a privilege denied me? What has he done to deserve a car when I do not?" "
http://www.acton....r-2/envy
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (5) May 25, 2014
"The market economy generates unprecedented material abundance. Such abundance makes possible the existence of a "class" of people far removed from the processes whereby such abundance is created. Essentially, this "class" of people – the intelligentsia – lives by ideas. It numbers many academics, teachers, journalists, and indeed clergy. "
"he intelligentsia uses its power base – ideas – drastically to reform or utterly to destroy the market economy. Ironically, by so doing the intelligentsia is undermining the very economic system that makes their own existence possible. "
http://www.acton....r-2/envy
'Intelligentsia' that support and promote socialism are destroying themselves.
I guess they are not as intelligent as they believe themselves to be.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4 / 5 (5) May 25, 2014
The ancient root of socialism is envy.
Socialists use violence to promote and perpetuate that envy for power and control.
When it is easier to plunder wealth than to earn wealth, the immoral and immature will plunder.
There are real disparities among individuals ryggy and in today's world it is unfair for the intelligent and privileged to take advantage of those not so blessed.

Jane Goodall related a story about a young ape mother who had just given birth. The dominent females came over to see the newborn, and began to give the mother a hard time.

The next day Goodall returned, and the newborn had disappeared. She looked all over for a body but could find no evidence of what had happened. Finally she checked the stool of the dominent female and found the bones of the baby in it.

This is how disparity is handled in the wild. Humans should be beyond the act of feeding off the weak and the intellectually challenged. Don't you agree?
Maggnus
5 / 5 (7) May 25, 2014
Hahaha as soon as I saw that title I knew the resident loon would be quote mining like mad in the comment thread! Such a loon lol!!!
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (5) May 25, 2014
Humans should be beyond the act of feeding off the weak and the intellectually challenged.

Plato admired the Spartans who murdered unwanted children.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (5) May 25, 2014
Hahaha as soon as I saw that title I knew the resident loon would be quote mining like mad in the comment thread! Such a loon lol!!!

Of course Mangy and the other socialists won't defend their position, because they can't.
Maggnus
5 / 5 (5) May 25, 2014
Hahaha as soon as I saw that title I knew the resident loon would be quote mining like mad in the comment thread! Such a loon lol!!!

Of course Mangy and the other socialists won't defend their position, because they can't.
How does one defend against mental illness? You aren't here to debate loon, you are here to preach.

"And I shall stand upon my pulpit of deceit and give lecture to the unlearned masses, sharing of my light and understanding, that they may wonder in amazement, and despair."

ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (4) May 25, 2014
How does one defend against mental illness?

I understand.
'Liberalism' is a mental disorder.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.7 / 5 (3) May 25, 2014
Plato admired the Spartans who murdered unwanted children
You xians admire a chosen people who cleansed the holy land because god told them to, gleefully bashing Canaanite babies against rocks. They would still be doing such things if secularists had not forced them out of govt. Ever hear of the cathars?

Where religionists still reign, people still suffer and die. Joseph kony is a man of god who conscripts children as soldiers. But how else can they feed themselves? Religion forces their mothers to keep bearing children until it kills them.

So the children have nothing to do but fight for their food. Gideon is their hero. How else do you outgrow and overrun neighbors who are trying to do the same to you? It is no accident that Constantine and Muhammad and Joshua were military men.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (4) May 25, 2014
Auto, why talk about people you don't believe existed?

Plato existed. Spartans existed.
'Liberals' likely admire Plato for his version of Utopia.
Caliban
5 / 5 (2) May 25, 2014
The ancient root of socialism is envy.
Socialists use violence to promote and perpetuate that envy for power and control.
When it is easier to plunder wealth than to earn wealth, the immoral and immature will plunder.


Even more to the point, rygsuckn':

The ancient root of your evil stupidity is that your female parent had the misfortune to birth a nasty, squalling, little spotty-bottomed troll, which then was indecent enough to refuse to die, even after repeated droppings upon its filthy, lying, little troll head.

I certainly miss the old and honored Spartan practice of leaving the malformed infants upon an exposed hilltop for the wolves to devour.

If this method were still practiced in the modern era, your mother could have relieved us all of the burden of your existence.

Hey --wasn't it the hunchbacked, deformed trollchild, whose parents failed to leave for the wolves, that betrayed the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae?

We expect no less from you, moron troll.

Dr_toad
3.7 / 5 (3) May 25, 2014
Yea, verily!
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (4) May 25, 2014
As predicted, the socialist can't support their position.
TheGhostofOtto1923
3.7 / 5 (3) May 25, 2014
Auto, why talk about people you don't believe existed?
Its the thought that counts yes? The victims of religion DO exist.
Plato existed. Spartans existed
Actually many people think Plato is a fabrication, like your jebus from Nazareth (a town which actually didn't exist back then.)
'Liberals' likely admire Plato for his version of Utopia.
Plato (or someone with the same name) described in 'Republic' a society ruled by a hidden Elite which operated safely beyond the gaze of public scrutiny. A Tribe of Leaders who were free to resolve those issues which endangered society as a whole, and which could never be left up to the people to decide.

You know, like the way the world is actually Run.

There is a Chosen People ryggy and They is not you. But as a consolation They gave you a little godman Puppe to sleep with at night.