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Meditation 593
The Natural Distribution of Status and Power

by: Gordon Wayne

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Some religions assert they worship the creative forces that are responsible for creating everything within the universe, which includes the issue power. The crucial theological question concerns the spirituality of power and authority, and the best strategy for answering this issue is by examining social power in other species. We will examine how other species organize their social power and examine factors such as lifestyles that probably contribute to way in which they distribute social status and power.

Social insects such as bees, termites, and ants are social creatures that live in large colonies that can number between several thousand members and several million members. Some people envy these creatures because they are very productive, extremely cooperative, and they are never rebellious, an idea that appeals to dictators and authoritarians. Obviously, these insects have no cognitive appreciation of status and power but this does not diminish the quality of their social activities. Entomologists tell us that the colony’s queen excretes chemicals that regulate the behavior of colony members, making colony members cooperative, productive, and extremely loyal. In other words, for social insects, social behavior is primarily the consequence of genetic programming rather than the intrinsic urge to congregate with other animals.

Many cold-blooded species such as crocodiles, Komodo dragons, sharks, and assorted fish species frequently congregate in large groups and they usually organize their social power according to size. Anatomical proportions usually translate into raw physical power, and one of the most elementary biological truths is that larger animals can inflict more damage onto smaller animals than the inverse. Even the most primitive brain can understand this elementary truth, so creatures such as crocodiles and barracudas predictably measure social status and power according to size.

Testosterone reinforces the distribution of social power due to brute force because it increases the growth of muscle mass and it increases aggressive behavior. Males of many species including elephants, lions, elk, and seals will battle each other for breeding rights and the largest, strongest, most aggressive males win the right to breed. Thus, males establish their reproductive status by virtue of brute strength, part of which is the consequence of testosterone. In other words, testosterone influences social power partly because it increases muscle growth during immaturity and partly because it increases aggressiveness during maturity.

We could then argue that estrogen has the opposite affect, promoting nonaggressive behavior and less concern with social status. Before diving into this premise, we must acknowledge this premise is speculative because no scientific evidence shows a direct correlation between estrogen and social behavior. Nevertheless, estrogen is an important hormone in female reproduction, preparing the female body for reproduction. Although this does not suggest a direct connection between estrogen and behavior, it allow for the possibility of an indirect connection.

After all, the primary concern of females is raising their offspring and aggressive behavior is not conducive to raising vulnerable progeny unless one is protecting them. Although estrogen may not increase the potential for peaceful behavior, it definitely does not increase the potential for aggressive behavior, which would endanger defenseless babies. Thus, we can argue that estrogen indirectly increases the potential for nonaggressive behavior and less concern with social status and power.

Therefore, while testosterone increases the probability that social power follows from strength, size, and aggression, estrogen increases the likelihood that status is more peaceful and equitable. We can see this in seal colonies where mothers congregate in tight groups, primarily to counter the threat of predation. Still, nursing mothers tolerate each other’s proximity and each other’s pups, only displaying aggressive behavior to defend themselves and their pups. While the females and their pups coexist peacefully, the biggest, strongest, most aggressive males usually establish territories and will not tolerate the intrusion of other males. In other words, while estrogen increases the potential for nurturing behavior, testosterone increases the potential for aggressive social behavior. While males concentrate on building their social status and power, females typically focus on raising their offspring, placing status and power as secondary.

A species’ lifestyles may also influence the way in which it organizes and distributes social status and power. Carnivores and herbivores have contrasting lifestyles because carnivores have violent lifestyles due to their food’s habit of fighting back while grazers do not have this problem. As a result, carnivores are usually very territorial, vigorously defending their food supplies from rivals, while herbivores are more nomadic, constantly pursuing the greenest pastures. Many carnivores have solitary lifestyles while herbivores frequently congregate in vast herds because many eyes and ears can spot danger faster than one set. These differences can influence the social behavior and status of the respective species.

Although most carnivores are solitary creatures, some species such as wolves and hyenas live in packs with strict social hierarchies and territories that they vigorously defend against neighboring packs. Strict social hierarchies are ideal for organizing risky events because an uncontested leader can take full responsibility for leading the violent activities. In contrast, their prey like caribous, buffalo, and wildebeest do not have territories and their social organization is much more egalitarian than wolves and hyenas. After all, these herbivores need to migrate to fresh pastures because their food supply will run out even if it never fights back. Also, traveling in herds has the distinct advantage of having many eyes and ears to detect predators, which is more reliable than a single pair. In other words, the carnivore’s violent lifestyle increases the potential for a strict hierarchal social order while the herbivore’s less violence lifestyle increases the potential for looser social orders.

Brain size, which refers to the ratio of brain mass to body mass, is another factor that influences a species’ distribution of social power. Reptiles and fish have small, unsophisticated brains that cannot comprehend complex social arrangements so these species usually organize social status and power according to the simplest strategies, namely brute force. Although the cerebellums of sociable canines and smaller primates are larger and more evolved than reptiles and fish, these mammals still organize their social groups according to physical power. With that said, we should recognize that their warm-blooded relationships are usually more enduring than the relationships of their cold-blooded counterparts. As for species with comparatively large brains such as elephants, chimpanzees, dolphins, and orcas, they can have more looser social hierarchies rather than strict social hierarchies. Consequently, we can argue that brain size and cognitive complexity can influence the organization and distribution of social status and power.

To sum up, we can argue that genetics, size, hormones, lifestyle, and intelligence influence the way a species’ organizes the distribution of social power and authority. Testosterone, size, violent lifestyles, and small brains increase the potential for strict hierarchies while estrogen, nonviolent lifestyles, and large brains increase the probability of more flexible social relationships.

Considering these details, any religion that purports to worship the creative forces that created these social arrangements should consider these factors while arranging their institutional authority. In other words, if they truly value nonviolent living, nurturing behavior, and intelligence, then they should seriously consider establishing egalitarian power structures. Conversely, if they honestly value violent living, physical domination, and outright stupidity, they should organize their institutional power according to strict social hierarchies.