Notes on Social Dominance Theory


I initially intended on producing some sort of groundbreaking philosophical revelation about an obvious fallacy in human social interaction, but have since decided my ideas are too fetal and would crumble under any real effort to debunk them. So I’m hoping this post will lead to the germination of a more robust thesis sometime in the future. With that out of the way, let’s go!

Humans are 98% chimpanzee. But instead of living in the wild, we live in a highly ordered and complex society. Most animals occupy their entire lives simply trying to survive but humans, on the other hand, can survive easily and instead spend their lives focused mostly on other agendas. Today I’m asking whether the human species is better off abandoning some of our primordial instincts that we’ve kept with us for hundreds of thousands of years.

More accurately, we’ll be referring to “drives” as opposed to “instincts” here. The word “drive” actually refers to the resultant psychological response to biological stimuli whereas an instinct is simply a biological reaction to stimuli. Anyway, this is a trivial matter and things will become clear by the end of the article if they aren’t already.

Let’s start with an example. In animals, social dominance can come in many different forms. In a despotic hierarchy, one animal in the group is dominant over all other subordinates. In a linear system, each animal is dominant towards some but also submissive to others in the group. Now, this is very efficient in the animal kingdom because survival is key and being a subordinate might be the most efficient way of getting through the day (i.e. avoiding conflict and thus injury).

When we look at humans, however, things are very different. We have a justice system that treats all individuals as equals (for the most part). If you’re not the dominant type, you’re protected from violence by the law and so brawn becomes less of a virtue. Animals don’t have the luxury of a supreme court. In comparison to other animals, humans have a highly evolved ethics system that mostly prevents tyranny, at least in Western culture. But more importantly than any of this, survival for humans is really a very simple task. Food and water is abundant and very easy to attain for the vast majority of humankind. We have slaughter houses and supermarkets and farms. For most of us in the West, survival is so simple that we don’t even think about it.

But I think there’s a problem here. Our primate ancestors relied on social dominance for survival but in today’s human society, this system has become somewhat benign, yet it is still prevalent. It is of no benefit to us and may in fact only exist now as a hindrance to social progress. So my thesis, if you will, is specifically that humans should abandon our obsolete social dominance system.

Dominance is a characteristic of highly social animals, such as humans, in which individuals of the same species compete intensely with one another for food, mates, territory, or any other resource, including money.

Does anyone else see the flaw here? Today in the West, we do not compete against each other for food. We’ve eaten ourselves into a global obesity epidemic so this surely cannot be true. Do we compete with one another for territory? If we exclude street gangs, who’s priority really isn’t even territory, the answer is definitely no. Territory is an ape-like term. The human equivalent is property which is something we do not compete for, except perhaps for some hotly contested auctions. Certainly, we don’t compete with each other for territory in the same way wild dogs might. Do we compete against each other for money? Once again, not quite in the sense the same sense this definition is referring to.

Competing with one another for “mates” however may well be true. However, human society has made this much more complicated. In the animal kingdom, it’s simple. The alpha male  in a band of gorillas is usually the biggest and uses intimidation to maintain his position in the social hierarchy. This simply wouldn’t cut it in the human world where physical attraction is much more complicated. In fact, if we take two male individuals, one who is larger than the other and capable of intimidating him, in many cases we’ll find him not to be the mating preference when females are surveyed. So I would argue that “mating purposes” is a pretty weak justification for the acceptance of social dominance in humans as well.

A good question might be whether it is ethical for us to repress these benign carnal drives and motives in order to advance the human condition. We should consider just how deeply involved social dominance theory is in our lives already. Is the desire to improve as a track athlete, thus surpassing your competitors in ability and revealing dominance in this fashion, pulling at the same strings our ancestors did thousands of years ago in order to survive? It’s actually somewhat indicative of the linear dominance structure one would find in spotted hyenas: the second best athlete on the track team is submissive/inferior to the best player while he or she is dominant over the third best player. This seems a preposterous statement but I think it’s a reasonable example of how humans continue to compete with one another without any evident reason.

The whole concept of competition is to highlight the dominant competitor as well as the inferior one. But in a society where survival isn’t a worry, what reason do we have to compete anymore?

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