JULY 1994

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ISSN: 0929-0206. Published by Origin Press, Groningen, The Netherlands


Lee Ellis, ed.: Social Stratification and Socioeconomic Inequality. Vol. 1: A Comparative Biosocial Analysis. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993, ISBN 0-275- 93262-1, pp. xvi+238, $55)

by JOSEPH LOPREATO, Dept. of Sociology, University of Texas at Austin, Austin TX 78712, U.S.A.

Lee Ellis has put together an excellent collection of original essays. In chapters 1 and 2 he provides a distinction between social class and social status, a conceptualization of dominance and nonplentiful resources, and a brief discussion of various indicators of social status. The author convincingly concludes that "human social status and nonhuman dominance are essentially the same phenomenon," although they require different operationalizations (p.27). However, the subsequent chapter on "a biosocial theory of stratification" will have nothing to do with nonhuman societies, and some readers might, thus, wonder about the point of these initial two chapters. The author himself asserts that they are in tended to offer "a detailed review of the issues surrounding how social stratification is defined and subdivided" (p.xv). Unfortunately, this is so exaggerated a claim that ethologists and primatologists as well as social scientists will wish that greater modesty had been practiced.
    Greater modesty would also have prevented the claim of "a general theory of social stratification" (xvi), to which chapter 8 is allegedly de voted. Such a theory is also intended as an "alternative to functional theory and conflict theory," and these are represented as follows (p.159):
    Basically, functional theorists explain social stratification as an unavoidable by-product of the organization of any complex society, whereas conflict theorists see stratification as reflecting the calculated exploitation of the poor and powerless by those with wealth and power.
Such vacuous hastiness will not strengthen the evolutionist's case among sociologists, whose work in social stratification is massive and to a large extent productive. Superficiality aside, K. Marx does not even appear in the References, and Ellis shows little or no awareness of Max Weber and, among others, of Jonathan Turner (1984) who, like Gerhard Lenski (1966) and Kingsley Davis (1948), may be credited with a major attempt at a formalization of stratification theory.
    Although not Darwinian in construction, such efforts have much to teach. For instance, the Davis theory, an emendation of a famous theory by K. Davis and W.E. Moore, is the most formal "functional" theory of stratification, and may briefly be represented as follows:
    1. The functional importance (roughly, group-adaptation value) of social positions, which is assessable in terms of how many other positions are subsumed under them, varies in any given society.
    2. Variable also is the skill required, and thus too the investment in time and personal or family resources, for an adequate performance in given social positions.
    3. Viable societies motivate their members toward such investment with differential rewards of various types.
    4. Social stratification inevitably ensues from a system of differential rewards.
    5. It may be predicted that the greater the functional importance of a position, the greater the rewards accruing to it, on condition that supply does not exceed demand.

Note that the most "important" positions are also the most powerful ones, and these receive the greatest rewards or resources. In this respect, whatever the deficiencies and gaucheries of Davis's theory (e.g., a strong flavor of group selectionism), it can be reconciled, for example, with Laura Betzig's findings on despots (e.g., 1986 this volume). Social scien tists will have to be challenged with modestly intended integrative efforts.
    The core of Ellis's theory is a model that depicts "two conceptual continuums - pro/antisociality and r/K selection - at right angles to one another... The theory postulates that the space created by the right- angle intersection of these two concepts has caused social stratification in humans (and probably similar phenomena in other species) to evolve" (p.160). Further, a basic assumption of the theory is that "genetic factors contribute to variations in social stratification" (p.160).
    The author makes a reasonable case, through a review of literature, in favor of the assumed genetic influence on social status. Moreover, the graphic part of the model fits fairly well certain well-known facts from the demography and social stratification of highly industrialized societies, the author's actual focus. It shows that, as people approach what might be called an average point on the sociality continuum from the antisocial ity extreme of the continuum, their occupational prestige increases in association with an increasingly K-selected reproductive strategy. The same, roughly, applies to educational achievement, which is farthest toward the prosociality extreme, and earnings, which not surprisingly are farthest toward the antisociality extreme of the continuum (p.165).
    Ellis proceeds to make a number of predictions. For example, "blacks will be of lower average social status than either whites or Orientals" - a prediction that is confirmed with current findings from the United States (pp.170-72). Proponents of the alternative theories are then challenged to "surpass the biosocial theory in predictive power and scope" (pp.173-74).
    Unfortunately, social scientists will not be impressed by the prediction of findings they have long known and "explained." They will also be troubled by the assertion that "much of [the variation in status by race] can be explained in terms of racial variability in r/K selection and in pro/antisociality" (p.166). They will raise a number of questions. For example: (1) Were blacks, say, in 1844 United States more antisocial and r-selected than whites? If not, was their social status higher? And if not, why not? (2) How does Ellis's theory account for L. Betzig's findings that despots (HIGH status) have been r-selected and antisocial? (3) Do blacks who resemble whites in terms of r/K selection and prosociality also resemble them in social status? If not, why not? Who is r-selected/antisocial - the individual or the group; and on which is social status bestowed on that basis?)
    In chapter 3, the ever sharp and thorough Laura Betzig shows how "powerful men" in "the first six civilizations" "reproduced, passed power on to their sons, and used power to defend their wealth, women, and children." I have underscored a sentence to indicate that, while genetic dominance may well be a determining factor in social dominance (or status) at the formative stage of a dominance order, this may subsequently take on a sort of autocatalytic momentum of its own whose energy flows no longer from the realm of genes but from what nowadays we some times term "a state police."
    Betzig shows for Mesopotamia, Egypt, Aztec Mexico, Inca Peru, and Imperial India and China that despots practiced polygyny, sometimes with harems of 10,000 women or more, though they tended to marry monogamously, attempting thereby to reduce the complications of succession.
    How have powerful men provided for all of their women, children, and even grandchildren?... The most likely answer is exploitation (Betzig 1986... 1982). They have used other women's and especially other men's surplus production to raise their own reproduction. And greater force has been their greatest sanction... (p.38).
In Imperial China, for example, the despot's agents would scout the empire for desirable women, and would take them wherever they found them (p.41). Nor was it merely emperors and kings who appropriated the women and the wealth of the masses. In Imperial China, as in Inca Peru, and probably in other civilizations, despotic polygyny was the variable privilege of varying levels of stratified society. Little wonder that, as late as 1890, castration in Beijing was sometimes voluntary, in the hope of later obtaining a position as a eunuch at the Palace (p.50).
    "As far as we know, human societies have always been polygynous societies," and polygyny is possible only if men keep from other men the resources that men need - through economic exploitation, enslavement, torture, castration, and murder, among other means. The extent to which, we may add, polygyny is today a de facto reproductive and social-status strategy is not well-known. It is, however, known that the effects of phenomena do not disappear upon the cessation of the recognizable phenomena themselves.
    The chapter by Felicia Pratto, Jim Sidanius, and Lisa Stallworth, closely related to the one by Betzig, moves very effectively toward an elementary general theory of dominance orders, or "social hierarchy." The ultimate etiological focus is, rightly in my opinion (and in view of Betzig's data, inter alia, on sexual selection (e.g., pp.115, 119-132). "Our explanation for the ubiquitousness of social hierarchy is that humans exhibit an evolved feature, which we call social dominance orientation (SDO), that predisposes them to favor group-based dominance hierarchies and that this feature is more exaggerated in men than women" (p.111). The authors proceed to show how competition and mating strategies may have acted to produce SDO in humans. Their social dominance theory is then used to test specific hypotheses and to explain "some of the most common patterns of human mating and how these contribute to ethnic- and sex- based stratification" (p.112). These, then, are the basic virtues of these authors' theory: an emphasis on sexual selection and a focus on what are probably the most stable forms of dominance orders, namely, ethnic stratification and sex stratification - to which may be added the ideological aspects of stratification, what they, perhaps unknowingly following such scholars as G. Sorel, and V. Pareto, term "legitimizing myths."
    There are a number of other attractive features in this essay, among which is the testing of a number of well-derived hypotheses with survey data. A possible problem may lie in some of the specifics of the theory. "We believe," the authors write for example, "that cooperating men acquired prestige (and mates) in groups, by controlling precious resources, such as proteins or shelters" (p.117). This statement makes sense in connection with sex stratification and ethnic stratification. But group living seems to have also facilitated male-male exploitation, including polygyny. Thus, "because the social structure was hierarchical, females should have had the mating strategy of seeking a high-status mate with good cultural capacity" (p.118). How many such men could there have been in any given group?
    Glenn E. Weisfeld's article on "traditional Arab culture," focused mostly on intra-family relations, will be especially welcome to students of "cultural universals." The author views "the values of a particular culture, such as that of the Arabs, as representing one ecological variant on a general, specieswide system of values" (p.76).
    Some findings and explanations may be surprising to some readers. Others are especially interesting. For instance, one would not expect to read that "family status among Arabs was earned more than ascribed" (p.89). But consider the question of male preference. A common explanation of this phenomenon underscores the greater fitness potential of sons. But given the intensity of sexual selection, this view assumes that human beings are very reckless gamblers. Weisfeld's own explanation emphasizes the greater martial and economic value of sons as compared to daughters. Indeed, this author's findings reveal that sons were favored over daughters even among the poor (pp.78-79).
    Jere R. Behrman and Paul Taubman review studies of intergenerational correlations on earnings, income, and wealth and find fairly weak correlations along with suggestions that "the genetic linkages are stronger than the environmental linkages" (p.107). Their own data on fraternal and identical twins question the stress on the genetic influence, though they suggest that both genetic and environmental factors are objective. Furthermore, "using longer-run measures of income, earnings, and wealth, the correlations are fairly strong (perhaps in the .5 to .7 range)" (p.107).
    This type of research is closely related to an old question, first formally raised by the economist-sociologist Vilfredo Pareto (1897), and more recently reexamined by Maurice Allais (1973) among others. Is a redistribution of income possible in any given society without an increase in real wealth concomitant with a stabilization of population? Pareto, and to a lesser extent Allais, showed data indicating that income distributions tend to remain constant in time. The increasing body of facts on the issue do not speak clearly, but neither do they engender much optimism.
    In the remaining essay, Katharine Blick Hoyenga applies a biosocial approach to sex differences in human stratification and finds that, while socialization undoubtedly plays a major role in sex differences, "the evidence for hormonal covariates is too strong to overlook" (p.156). A number of specific findings are especially noteworthy. Males, for in stance, score higher than females on "egoistic dominance" (self-enhance ment), whereas females outscore males on "prosocial dominance" (persuasion, nurturance). Moreover, these differences appear in young children, in self-report measures of dominance, in laboratory research, and in studies of competitive behavior. For instance, research shows that males appear to cope with, even value, competition more than females (p.143). Again there are considerable sex differences in occupational choices, so that, for example, women more than men are inclined toward interrupt ible careers, which allow for child rearing (p.144).
    Hoyenga's findings strongly suggest that in today's society, where kin groups typically are widely scattered and narrow self-interest is antithetical to an orderly social life, women are by nature as well as by nurture better prepared for the newly evolving social contracts. One can only hope that they will be rewarded accordingly.
    In conclusion, this book is must reading for all students of human behavior.


Allais, M. (1973). "Inequality and civilizations." Social Science Quarterly 54: 508-24.
Betzig, L. L. (1986). Despotism and Differential Reproduction: A Darwinian View of History. New York: Aldine.
Betzig, L. L. (1992). "Of human bonding: Cooperation or exploitation?" Social Science Information 31: 611-42.
Davis, K. (1948) Human Society. New York: Macmillan.
Lenski, G.E. (1966) Power and Privilege. New York: McGraw-Hill. Pareto, V. (1897) Cours d'Economie Politique. Lausanne: Rouge, Vol. 2.
Turner, J. H. (1984). Societal Stratification: A Theoretical Analysis. New York: Columbia University Press.

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