Verification of privileges in the animal kingdom
Some North American red squirrels are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. They live in pine forests where adults defend food caches. Without their own cache, many baby squirrels will not survive the winter. But each year, some squirrel mothers abandon their territory, bequeathing all their food to one or more babies left behind. These young squirrels are much more likely to survive until spring.
In the animal kingdom, there are other examples of species that share resources such as territory, tools and shelter between generations. In an article published last month in Behavioral Ecology, a trio of researchers argued that we should call this phenomenon the same thing we call it in humans: intergenerational wealth.
These young squirrels rich in pine cones, say scientists, are children of privilege. When George Orwell wrote in “Animal Farm” that some animals were more equal than others, he was trying to shed light on the human ideological conflicts of the time. The researchers hope to use the analogy in reverse. Applying a human lens, they say, can help us understand the roots of inequality in animals.
Jennifer Smith, a behavioral ecologist at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., Said the idea for the document arose early in the pandemic, in conversations she and her colleagues at the University of California at Los Angeles had had (of course) Zoom. They saw how Covid-19 highlights health disparities and other inequalities around the world. Scientists began to wonder if they could learn more about inequalities by studying them in animals.
“When we started looking for it, we found lots of examples,” Dr. Smith said.
Young black grouse are more likely to be successful in establishing their own territory when their fathers and other relatives are nearby. Hyena daughters born to high-ranking mothers inherit their status and are given fresh meat. Some chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys crack nuts using stone tools their parents used before them.
Animal wealth can also be passed on to unrelated people, such as paper wasps who steal shared nests or hermit crabs who seek better real estate.
To study the transfers of wealth between animals, scientists can ask themselves concrete questions: does a lizard that lives with its parents survive longer? Will a monkey with access to bigger rocks to crack nuts have more children and grandchildren? Biologists can explore animal privilege without going into all of the cultural complexities of the subject in humans.
By researching similarities between the privileges of humans and animals, Dr. Smith hopes to unlock a better understanding of inequalities in the natural world. “For me, it’s very exciting to study the rules of inequality in non-human animals,” she said. “Seeing this through so many different species was quite surprising. And we’re just touching the surface.
Next, she plans to expand her investigation, examining the wealth and privileges of thousands of other animal species.
“The use of terms like ‘privilege’ and ‘continuing the cycle of privilege’ is a bit unusual” in animal research, said Jenny Tung, an evolutionary anthropologist and geneticist at Duke University who focuses on how social factors affect the health of primates. “Partly because they are a bit loaded for us as humans to read.” But she thinks the idea of using a human lens to watch how animals transmit resources is promising.
“It is potentially extremely useful,” said Dr Tung. The idea “opens up a whole panoply of tools to understand” where the inequality between animals comes from, she said.
Siobhán Mattison, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of New Mexico who has studied inequalities in human societies, also believes that combining the anthropology of privilege with animal biology has potential. “Humans are animals,” she said. “We are undoubtedly influenced by some of the same things that cause inequality in other animals.”
This doesn’t mean that animals can answer all questions about how inequalities arise in humans, added Dr Mattison: “Humans are much more cooperative than most other species. Our cultural institutions can reinforce inequalities, she said, but they can also fight against it.
While Dr Smith primarily hopes that human knowledge can teach her more about inequalities in animals, she believes science might work in the opposite direction as well. Some of the rules scientists are finding in animals might apply to humans.
She stresses, however, that finding inequality in nature is not the same as justifying it. His research “could be misinterpreted as saying: “Well, it’s out there everywhere, so there’s nothing we can do about it,” Dr Smith said.
Unlike other animals, “We are able to understand this phenomenon,” said Dr. Smith, “and then act explicitly to choose how we use that knowledge to create social change. “