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Rich, modern city-dwellers, surrounded by hot, baking concrete, imagine the environment as something pristine and paradisal, like a French impressionist landscape. Eco-activists, even more idealistic in 29 their viewpoint, envision nature as harmoniously balanced and perfect, absent the disruptions and depredations of mankind.
It is because of the existence of such things, of course, that we attempt to modify our surroundings, protecting our children, building cities and transportation systems and growing food and generating power. And this brings us to a third erroneous concept: that nature is something strictly segregated from the cultural constructs that have emerged within it. It does not matter whether that feature is physical and biological, or social and cultural.
All that matters, from a Darwinian perspective, is permanence—and the dominance hierarchy, however social or cultural it might appear, has been around for some half a billion years. The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism. It is instead a near-eternal aspect of the environment, and much of what is blamed on these more ephemeral manifestations is a consequence of its unchanging existence. We the sovereign we, the we that has been around since the beginning of life have lived in a dominance hierarchy for a long, long time. We were struggling for position before we had skin, or hands, or lungs, or bones.
There is little more natural than culture. Dominance hierarchies are older than trees. The part of our brain that keeps track of our position in the dominance hierarchy is therefore exceptionally ancient and fundamental. It is a master control system, modulating our perceptions, values, emotions, thoughts and actions.
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It powerfully affects every aspect of our Being, conscious and unconscious alike. This is why, when we are defeated, we act very much like lobsters who have lost a fight. Our posture droops. We face the ground. We feel threatened, hurt, anxious and weak. If things do not improve, we become chronically depressed. And it is not only the behavioural and experiential similarities that are striking. Much of the basic neurochemistry is the same. Consider serotonin, the chemical that governs posture and escape in the lobster.
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Low- ranking lobsters produce comparatively low levels of serotonin. This is also true of low- ranking human beings and those low levels decrease more with each defeat. Low serotonin means decreased confidence. Low serotonin means more response to stress and costlier physical preparedness for emergency—as anything whatsoever may happen, at any time, at the bottom of the dominance hierarchy and rarely something good.
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Low serotonin means less happiness, more pain and anxiety, more illness, and a shorter lifespan—among humans, just as among crustaceans. Higher spots in the dominance hierarchy, and the higher serotonin levels typical of those who inhabit them, are characterized by less illness, misery and death, even when factors such as absolute income —or number of decaying food scraps—are held constant. The importance of this can hardly be overstated.
Top and Bottom 30 There is an unspeakably primordial calculator, deep within you, at the very foundation of your brain, far below your thoughts and feelings. It monitors exactly where you are positioned in society—on a scale of one to ten, for the sake of argument.
People compete to do you favours.
You have limitless opportunity for romantic and sexual contact. You are a successful lobster, and the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention. And, like your dominant male counterpart, you will compete ferociously, even pitilessly, to maintain or improve your position in the equally competitive female mating hierarchy. Although you are less likely to use physical aggression to do so, there are many effective verbal tricks and strategies at your disposal, including the disparaging of opponents, and you may well be expert at their use.
If you are a low-status ten, by contrast, male or female, you have nowhere to live or nowhere good. You are more likely to fall ill, age rapidly, and die young, with few, if any, to mourn you.
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Even money itself may prove of little use. Money will make you liable to the dangerous temptations of drugs and alcohol, which are much more rewarding if you have been deprived of pleasure for a long period. Money will also make you a target for predators and psychopaths, who thrive on exploiting those who exist on the lower rungs of society.
The bottom of the dominance hierarchy is a terrible, dangerous place to be.
The ancient part of your brain specialized for assessing dominance watches how you are treated by other people. On that evidence, it renders a determination of your value and assigns you a status. If you are judged by your peers as of little worth, the counter restricts serotonin availability. That makes you much more physically and psychologically reactive to any circumstance or event that might produce emotion, particularly if it is negative.
You need that reactivity. Emergencies are common at the bottom, and you must be ready to survive.
Unfortunately, that physical hyper-response, that constant alertness, burns up a lot of precious energy and physical resources. This response is really what everyone calls stress, and it is by no means only or even primarily psychological. You will therefore continually sacrifice what you could otherwise physically store for the future, using it up on heightened readiness and the possibility of immediate panicked action in the present.
Too much of that and everything falls apart. The ancient counter will even shut down your immune system, expending the energy and resources required for future health now, during the crises of the present. It will render you impulsive,— 1 so that you will jump, for example, at any short-term mating opportunities, or any possibilities of pleasure, no matter how sub-par, disgraceful or illegal. It will leave you far more likely to live, or die, carelessly, for a rare opportunity at pleasure, when it manifests itself.
The physical demands of emergency preparedness will wear you down in every way. It thinks the chance that something will damage you is low and can be safely discounted. Change might be opportunity, instead of disaster. The serotonin flows plentifully. This renders you confident and calm, standing tall and straight, and much less on constant alert.
Because your position is secure, the future is likely to be good for you. You can delay gratification, without forgoing it forever. You can afford to be a reliable and thoughtful citizen. Malfunction Sometimes, however, the counter mechanism can go wrong. Erratic habits of sleeping and eating can interfere with its function. Uncertainty can throw it for a loop. The body, with its various parts, needs to function like a well-rehearsed orchestra. Every system must play its role properly, and at exactly the right time, or noise and chaos ensue.
It is for this reason that routine is so necessary. The acts of life we repeat every day need to be automatized.
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They must be turned into stable and reliable habits, so they lose their complexity and gain predictability and simplicity.