Hyenas are us

A hyena bitch and two cubs/ Steve Jurvetson, Wikimedia Commons


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.

“This view is at odds with the popular ethos that we are makers of our own fortune,” Alexander confessed to John Hopkins reporter Jill Rosen at the time. 

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. 

In the first half of 2020, the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 had already killed enough Americans to take about a year off the average life expectancy, the CDC reported in February.

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.

Human successes

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.

Since it began, studies conducted in the U.S., Chile, Sweden, and elsewhere have found people of lower SES much harder hit by COVID-19.

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.

As B.J. Campbell, a number cruncher who writes well and posts at Handwaving Freakoutery postulated a few years ago, “We Are All Apes Behaving Like Ants.”

“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.



















10 replies »

  1. It is funny, Affirmative Action ran it’s worthless course for 60 yrs.. The courts rightfully shotdown that racist entitlement. Now we have another 60 year guilt rodden boggy-man in development.
    I just laugh because all I hear are excuses from the lazy.

  2. I guess I must be one of the young hyenas who outperformed his socioeconomic status birthright. I lived in a single parent household with my other similarly disadvantaged siblings for the vast majority of my youth and our mother made just enough over poverty level wages that we didn’t qualify for government assistance so we didn’t rely on government handouts, but occasionally on the charity of others. Toys-for-tots provided more presents during many a Christmas for my siblings and myself than our mother could, since she was busy putting food in our mouths. Hand me down second hand clothes were the norm, making them third, fourth, or fifth hand clothes by the time their usefulness was gone. The only new clothes we knew were furnished by the aforementioned charity of others and usually around Christmas time.

    My low SES birthright taught me a few things, mainly that if you are poor you can still be informed, intelligent, knowledgeable, hardworking, disciplined, respectful, healthy, friendly, clean, and determined to outperform your supposed birthright. I make more than five years worth of my mothers annual income in one year, year in and year out. I don’t use my low SES birthright as an anchor but as a springboard.

    I wonder if these studies of SES ever look at those who aren’t residents of the inner city or if they instead choose to study only in places where the confirmation bias will provide the results they are looking for?

    • the data out of rural locations is the same as in urban ones. but what these studies don’t look at is parenting.

      it might be one of the most overlooked issues in the country, and it would explain how a lot of Asians who arrived here with very low SES now have children who, like you, appear to have broken through the barrier, and same for a lot of Hispanics.

      as Penn State sociologist Xi Song, who tracked the start of this problem back to the ’40s, has observed:

      “I think the patterns for ethnic minorities might be different than what we see here.”

      and you could be old enough to be part of a generation born in the ’40s and ’50s that was still upwardly mobile. there’s less and less of that every generation since. we have a poverty class that has become conditioned to being a poverty class. i grew up in lower-middle income family, but my parents (two of them, luckily) pushed me to succeed as I’m guessing your mother did you.

      • the ability to support oneself and be happy, which tends to minimize the social problems that invariably arise in any society filled with unhappy people unable to support themselves.

      • Craig,

        No doubt my mom pushed me to succeed. Once, while on her lunch break, she caught me ditching school. I still don’t know how she knew it was me, a mother’s intuition I suppose, while driving she saw a group of people walking from well over a half mile away and knew that one of them was her son. She turned me in to the school, I was punished by both her and by the school.

        I was born in the late 70’s. Maybe it’s just my own confirmation bias or the industry I am in and the people I befriend, but most of the people I talk about such things with share a similar SES background and are of a similar age +/-10 years. I have plenty of friends who choose to remain in the SES that they were born into and I know of a few that choose knowingly and willingly to step into a SES that was “below” their SES birthright.

        I don’t doubt that “most” people or hyenas fit the social or economic norm, but that’s the thing about the norm…if it wasn’t for outliers then everyone would be the norm and we would all be the same.

        For the record I do not think I am in anyway superior or in any way more special to anyone else.

      • A report from the Pew Charitable Trust titled Pursuing the American Dream:
        Economic Mobility Across Generations says the following

        Eighty-four percent of Americans have higher family incomes than their parents had at the same age, and across all levels of the income distribution, this generation is doing better than the one that came before it.

        Ninety-three percent of Americans whose parents were in the bottom fifth of the income ladder and 88 percent of those whose parents were in the middle quintile exceed their parents’ family income as adults.

        4 percent of those raised in the bottom quintile make it all the way to the top as adults

        8 percent of those raised in the top quintile fall all the way to the bottom

        Seventy-two percent of Americans whose parents were in the bottom fifth of the wealth ladder and 55 percent of those whose parents were in the middle quintile exceed their parents’ family wealth as adults.

        There is stickiness at the ends of the wealth ladder.

        Forty-three percent of Americans raised in the bottom quintile remain stuck in the bottom as adults

        Forty percent raised in the top quintile remain at the top as adults

        Of course numbers being numbers we can all look at them differently, instead of saying 43% raised in the bottom quintile remain stuck there we could say 57% moved up into a higher quintile, or instead of saying 40% in the top quintile remain there we could say 60% dropped out of the top quintile. Most people only move a quintile or two, with most moving up. Twice as many fall from the top quintile to the bottom quintile as rise from the bottom to the top.

      • Re: “What is success?”

        A “generalized” answer to that question would fail to give the question an adequate response since success is in the consciousness of the individual. To some, obviously, financial success would be the response, while others may feel living a life of honor without remorse would be more rewarding……

    • Steve o , I agree 100% . I also agree with Mr. Medreds mention of parenting or serious mentors having a large effect. Granted, rich moms almost gaurenttee rich kids. More so than average poor parents due to resources and knowledge . So on a percentage basis ratio – of course socially well off parents more often create well off kids but our nation moderates that . Food stamps , free school, free child medical care in Alaska, college grants ect . I liked what you said though steve .

  3. During the crash, I was fortunate to pick up a couple duplexes; one in North Mt. View and one in South Anchorage. At the time I was living in a duplex near Russian Jack. Fast forward 8 years. I decided to sell the Mt. View duplex and was in the title company office to arrange the sale as I wasn’t using an agent. The young lady asked for my phone number and I replied with a 333 prefix. One of the 3 other young ladies in the office said , “Ewww, Mt. View…..” in a seriously demeaning manner. I replied that I actually live in College Village. Immediately, that young lady and the other two came over and started enthusiastically chatting with me. From my perspective, it had everything to do with my residence and the fact that earlier I had been asked if I owed anything on the duplex(I did not)….

    Even a phone number can be fodder for judgement.

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