January 25, 2022

Checking Privilege in the Animal Kingdom

Next, she’s planning to expand her survey, looking at wealth and privilege across thousands more animal species.

“The use of terms like ‘privilege’ and ‘perpetuating the cycle of privilege’ is a little bit unusual” in animal research, said Jenny Tung, an evolutionary anthropologist and geneticist at Duke University who focuses on how social factors affect health in primates. “In part because they’re a bit loaded for us as humans to read.” But she thinks the idea of using a human lens to look at how animals pass down resources has promise.

“That is potentially tremendously useful,” Dr. Tung said. The idea “opens up a whole tool chest of ways to understand” where inequality comes from among animals, she said.

Siobhán Mattison, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of New Mexico who has studied inequality in human societies, also thinks 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 drive inequality in other animals.”

That doesn’t mean animals can answer every question about how inequality arises in humans, Dr. Mattison added: “Humans are vastly more cooperative than most other species.” Our cultural institutions can reinforce inequality, she said, but they can also fight against it.

Although Dr. Smith is primarily hoping that insights from humans can teach her more about inequality in animals, she does think the science could work in the opposite direction too. Some of the rules scientists discover in animals might apply to humans.

She stresses, though, that finding inequality in nature isn’t the same as justifying it. Her research “could be misinterpreted as saying, ‘Well, it exists everywhere, so we can do nothing about it,’” Dr. Smith said.

Article source: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/11/science/inequality-intergenerational-wealth-animals.html

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