In the upper Fraser Canyon, about 250 kilometers northeast of Vancouver, a rocky gorge cuts its way through the interior plateau of British Columbia.

Gordon Orians, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Washington, and I have come here to see evidence of the emergence of inequality in the archaeological record of fishing at a place called Keatley Creek.

Gordon is my science adviser and co-producer on a multimedia project in which we’re investigating the evolution of the human sense of fairness, from its biological roots among the earliest social living animals through its manifestations in the social, economic, and political institutions of today.

Inequality, of course, is not necessarily unfair. Fairness has to do with the process through which it evolves.

Fairness is a term much bandied about in these economic hard times, though people argue vehemently over what is actually fair. We thought it would be helpful to explore the concept of fairness in greater depth, from a scientific perspective.

The growing body of research into the nature of fairness includes disciplines such as behavioral genetics, evolutionary and developmental psychology, neuroscience, animal behavior, experimental economics, and some intriguing cross-disciplinary collaborations.

Read more here (originally published at Pacific Standard Magazine).

Published On: August 31, 2012

One Comment

  • Helga Vieirch says:

    Huh. “…disciplines such as behavioral genetics, evolutionary and developmental psychology, neuroscience, animal behavior, experimental economics, and some intriguing cross-disciplinary collaborations.”I think cultural anthropology and archaeology added to that list. Especially since much of what the article talks about here is the research done by a guy I know, Brian Hayden. I see I am going to have to write to him, to learn if the views of hunter-gatherers being one drought away form starvation are his own or the result of an ignorant misinterpretation. It was not a big man type self- aggrandizement system that led to social inequality. I worked in West Africa with groups of subsistence farmers and pastoralists that all had lineage based systems of hierarchy and political leadership. These turned out to be positions of very heavy responsibility for storing communal food surpluses a giant the danger of famine. In other words, chiefs and senior lineage heads were charged with the production and management of surplus precisely because becoming dependent on stored harvest (whether fish or grain) made the people MORE vulnerable to drought, not less. If they ever tried to use that surplus for personal gain, they got ousted and often assassinated by irate villagers.
    The role of the political leaders, then, was to ensure generation of surpluses over and above subsistence requirements… and this is not down by mobile foragers because THEY DO NOT NEED IT. They are not usually one drought away from starvation – they are one wee walk away from the next productive ecosystem.. and this is because they maintain tied of friendship and intermarriage with a network that cross cuts linguistic and local ecosystems. In the Kalahari I found individuals with networks to people as far as 250 miles away and in a completely different language group.. this is WHY THEY DO NOT MAKE WAR ON NEIGHBORING GROUPS – because it is smarter to have friends in far places. And the foragers I lived with routinely gathered far more food than they arts.. often planting uneaten bulbs, corms and tubers in the ground around their temporary huts. They never reoccupied the same campsite – but they often went by these places when again in the area, since they would find great flourishing plantations of these wild foods there. They joked about how this was their form of “farming”.

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