On a social level, some new research suggests hyenas have a lot in common with humans:
Who you know turns out to matter as much, or often more, than what you know.
Scientists using 27 years of observations from a long-running Michigan State University (MSU) study of spotted hyenas in Africa have concluded the social status of the mother to which a young hyena is born plays a huge role in the young animals future success.
All those years of observational data, they said, show that young hyenas born to mothers with higher social status have far greater odds of survival, and their favored status continues long into their lives.
“…The process of social inheritance determines how offspring relationships are formed and maintained,” they wrote in a peer-reviewed paper published in Science. “Relationships between offspring and other hyenas bear resemblance to those of their mothers for as long as six years, and the degree of similarity increases with maternal social rank. Mother-offspring relationship strength affects social inheritance and is positively correlated with offspring longevity.”
Hyenas, like humans, are social animals. They survive in matriarchal clans that can sometimes number in the dozens of animals, and there is among them a pecking order as with us.
The “inheritance of social status and its associated costs and benefits, is well demonstrated in humans,” the hyena researchers noted.
Among humans, anthropologists have been studying the consequences of this socioeconomic status, or SES as they call it, for decades.
Costs and benefits
All humans might be created equal, as Americans like to believe, but it is now well documented that the families into which they are born play a huge role in determining their futures.
After following the lives of 800 Baltimore children for 25 years, John Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander in 2004 authored a book concluding their fates were substantially determined by the families into which they were born.
Alexander titled his book “The Long Shadow: Family Background, Disadvantaged Urban Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood.” It documented what a difficult struggle it is to pull oneself up by the proverbial bootstraps.
“The implication is where you start in life is where you end up in life,” Alexander told Rosen. “It’s very sobering to see how this all unfolds.”
The hyena study would indicate this order of things might also be quite natural, no matter how hard that might be to accept in Western countries where people believe they have in many ways moved beyond the bounds of nature.
That is an idea that has been driven both by the economic successes of the masses, and the wonders of modern medicine and public health initiatives that sent the human lifespan skyrocketing in modern times.
According to Centers for Disease Control (CDC) data, the human length of life in the U.S. nearly doubled from an average of 39.1 years in 1918 – the height of the Spanish flu pandemic – to 78.7 in 2018.
And then along came a new pandemic to remind us we are still subject to “natural selection” as Charles Darwin called it.
Still, the decrease was small when compared to the Spanish flu pandemic which reduced U.S. life expectancy by a staggering 15.4 years from a 1915 peak of 54.5. The recovery from the Spanish flu was, however, quick.
U.S. life expectancy was back up to 54.1 by 1920 and again on a rocket ride to 70, which was first hit in 1964, and above, according to the CDC. This for a species that for most of its existence had a lifespan of about 30 years.
Despite the many well-known and much-discussed flaws in homo sapiens, humans have done a stellar job of pushing back against nature, and the rising tides of medicine and improved sanitation that brought longer lifespans have lifted all people.
In rural Alaska, for instance – where the 20th century arrived late – life expectancy increased from less than 49 years in 1950 to about 69 by 2008, according to the CDC, and it has continued to rise.
But in humans as in hyenas, the inequities caused by low-SES cannot be ignored. In Alaska, though it is seldom mentioned by mainstream media more interested in sowing moral panic than discussing complicated issues, low SES has helped drive the state’s struggle to reduce the number of children born with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD).
As researchers at the University of Alberta School of Public Health and the Canadian Institute of Health Economics observed in 2013, “the association between poverty or low socioeconomic status (SES) and mothers of children with FASD is well documented….The risk of bearing a child with FAS is about 16 times higher for women of lower SES even with comparable drinking levels.”
In Alaska, as with the children Alexander tracked in Baltimore, those who are born to mothers low in the pecking order can start off with big disadvantages from the moment of conception.
But low SES is not just a problem for children; it is a problem that stays with many people their whole lives as the pandemic is again illustrating.
The latest such study comes from Switzerland and was published in The Lancet, a British medical journal, only about a week ago.
“People living in neighborhoods of low socioeconomic position (SEP) were less likely to be tested but more likely to test positive, be admitted to hospital, or die, compared with those in areas of high SEP,” researchers concluded after examining more than 4.1 million tests for SARS-CoV-2 which found almost 610,000 infected people.
More than 26,000 of them ended up in hospital and near 9,400 died. People in the lowest SEP (a statistic tracked by the Swiss federal census) were more than twice as likely to die as those in the highest SEP.
The Swiss researchers described a “pandemic of inequality” compounding the suffering associated with COVID-19. But the question is how to change this if animals are hardwired to create hierarchies.
And all social animals appear to do this from the insects on up.
“There’s a prevailing opinion among some intellectuals that by virtue of our intelligence, the human species is now in a post-evolutionary state ,” he wrote, that “we are destined for grander, better things – enlightenment and space colonization – and we are off the evolutionary rails and can control our own destiny.”
He didn’t buy it. The problem with that thinking, he argued, is that the ants reached our evolutionary position long ago:
“The earliest ants probably originated around 90 million years ago, but they’d achieved their current level of unquestionable world dominance by 50 million years ago. Ants represent 15 to 20 percent of the entire terrestrial animal biomass of the planet.
“How? They have unquestionable division of labor, which flows from a hierarchical society structure. They have agriculture. In the tropics, leaf cutter ants are responsible for harvesting over 15 percent of all fresh vegetation, which they in turn use to cultivate fungus to eat. Ants cultivate livestock, in the form of aphids. They keep aphid eggs safe during the winter. When an aphid farming ant colony moves or diverges, it even carries aphids with it to set up a new farm.”
Ants build vast ant cities. They organize ant child care. They fight ant wars. They take hostages and seize real estate and care for their own, doing all the bad and good things humans do.
“An extrasolar, alien anthropologist observing the Earth from a hidden moon,” Campbell wrote, might quickly conclude that humans are merely primate ants.
But Campbell might have come up short in this observation. It might be that all social animals are ants, and that part of being an ant is carrying the baggage of antdom.
If that is the case, fixing the inherent inequalities of human societies is destined to be a lot harder than we would like to think, and we haven’t been all that successful in fixing them to date.