Overview: The Inheritance of Inequality in Pre-Modern Societies

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In order to better understand the long term dynamics of inequality, we have estimated the extent of intergenerational transmission of land ownership, network ties, livestock, household wealth, health status, knowledge and other types of wealth in a sample of 21 hunter-gatherer, horticultural, pastoralist and small-scale, agricultural, pre-modern societies. The same data allow estimates of the degree of wealth inequality for distinct types of wealth. Our analysis of 43 such estimates shows that differences in wealth inheritance and wealth inequality among these populations depend not only on whether the main form of wealth is material (as among farmers and herders as opposed to embodied or relational (as among hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists)), but also on institutions that characterize these populations. We are publishing these results both in Science (30 October 2009) and in a special edition of Current Anthropology (2010) .In Phase II we are expanding our sample, and planning to use our comparative data to examine further questions relating to the evolution of human social systems.

Human societies differ enormously in the extent of inequality, a topic that has engaged generations of historians and behavioral scientists. A key aspect of the emergence of persistent inequality in small scale societies is the perpetuation of political and economic status within families across generations (Hayden 2001, Wiessner and Tumu 1998). Building on an understanding of how inter-generational transmission produces inequality in status in each generation (Bowles 2006), we are combining theoretical and empirical approaches to explore how differences in capital (material, relational and embodied) translate into the persistent differences that characterize social hierarchies. This is part of the bigger question of explaining changes in the degree of social hierarchy over time.

The perpetuation across generations of a family’s social standing is generally thought to reflect the combined effects of the genetic and cultural transmission of traits such as cognitive functioning and health status that contribute to economic success, as well as the inheritance of network connections and property rights in land, cattle, capital and other form of wealth (Bowles and Gintis 2002). Recent research has explored elements of this process in the U.S. and other high-income nations (Bowles, Gintis, and Groves 2005). Studies of the economic and social correlates of reproductive success in small-scale societies have uncovered important aspects of the inter-generational transmission process (Smith 2004, Borgerhoff Mulder 1986). Yet prior to the data collected by our team we have had little quantitative information about the inter-generational transmission of embodied capital, material wealth, network connections and other determinants of economic success in small scale societies or even in large-scale agrarian societies.

We are engaged in a on-going comparative study of inter-generational transmission of wealth and other aspects of inequality and social hierarchy in small scale and other pre modern societies. Like the 15 small scale societies cross cultural behavioral experiments project (Henrich, Boyd, Bowles, et al. 2005), this study combines quantitative measures that are readily compared across societies with rich ethnographic information about the social structures and practices of the peoples under study. In this respect our study may support insights unavailable in the literature thus far, which has relied on large nationally representative samples devoid of the rich thick description available from ethnographic study.

The interdisciplinary working group continues the research of the 'Persistent Inequality' project at the Institute It is funded by the Behavioral Sciences Program at the Institute supplemented by support from the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Russell Sage Foundation.

Works cited

Borgerhoff Mulder, Monique. 1986. "On cultural and reproductive success: Kipsigis evidence." American Anthropologist, 89, pp. 617-634.

Bowles, Samuel. 2006. "Equality's fate: A natural history."

Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis. 2002. "The Inheritance of Inequality." Journal of Economic Perspectives, 16:3, pp. 3-30.

Bowles, Samuel, Herbert Gintis, and Melissa Osborne Groves eds. 2005. Unequal Chances: Family Background and Economic Success. Princeton: Princeton University Press and Russell Sage Foundation.

Hayden, Brian. 2001. "Richman, Poorman, Beggarman, Chief: The Dynamics of Social Inequality," in Archaelogy at the Millenium. G. Feinman and T. Price eds. New York: Kluwer/Plenum, pp. 231-272.

Henrich, Joe, Robert Boyd, Samuel Bowles, Colin Camerer, Ernst Fehr, Herbert Gintis, Richard McElreath, Michael Alvard, Abigail Barr, Jean Ensminger, Natalie Smith Henrich, Kim Hill, Francisco Gil-White, Michael Gurven, Frank Marlowe, John Patton, and David Tracer. 2005. "'Economic Man' in Cross-Cultural Perspective: Behavioral experiments in 15 small-scale societies." Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28.

Smith, Eric A. 2004. "Why do good hunters have higher reproductive success." Human Nature 15:4, pp. 343-364.

Wiessner, Polly and Akii Tumu. 1998. Historical Vines: Enga Networks of Exchange, Ritual, and Warfare in Papua New Guinea. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.