The Monkey Roots Of Inequality

The evolutionary origins of not sharing

To really understand human inequality, watch Monkey Kingdom. In that Disney documentary, some monkeys sit on top of the tree, eating the best fruit. The rest get trickle-down fruitanomics. I judged them for being dicks, but then it hit me. Human beings are so much worse. If human wealth inequality was a tree, the top would be in outer space (precisely where billionaires are trying to go).

In truth, human governance is not significantly different from a troop of toque macaques, a species we last shared a common ancestor with maybe 30 million years ago. We’re both male-dominated, violent societes that fight over resources. We dress it up in Parliaments and philosophies, but it’s the same shit at a different scale. If an alien anthropologist showed up they’d look at Boris Johnson and say “yeah, that’s your alpha monkey,” and move on.

Social animals have been dividing resources unequally ever since there were resources to divide. Hence the root of our inequality is not capitalism, or feudalism, or any of these branches we keep pruning. The root is somewhere in the tree of evolution, wedged millions of years deep into the soil.

Governance In The Jungle

In Monkey Kingdom, there are battles within troops for access to the resources, and also attacks from without. The monkeys cultivate relationships through grooming, feint, fuss, and ultimately fight. They make a lot of noise, but God knows what they’re saying. All we see is that the social order changes members, but the ordering itself never changes.

Monkeys split from the hominid line maybe 30 million years ago, which means that our political behaviors are at leastthat old. We split more recently from chimpanzees, maybe 10 million years ago. In all of these cousins we can see both similar and different politics, but it’s all definitely political.

Common chimpanzees are more like us. They live in male-dominated, violent troops and are kinda dicks. Bonobos, however, live in more matriarchial groups and seem to solve a lot of conflicts sexually. Both are tiny populations and live essentially in WhatsApp groups (10–20 individuals), but they show you what proto-politics could have been like among early humans.

For most of our existence as ‘modern’ humans we would have lived like this. In small groups, largely nomadic, our population limited in balance with the land. What kind of politics did early humans have? We don’t know, and it was likely very diverse (each troop can do what it wants). What seems to have won out today is something close to ‘common’ chimpanzee. Only 11% of governments are headed by women, only 25% of Parliaments, and we’re generally male-dominated and violent AF.

Ape Philosophy

Humans are obviously different because our population sizes have grown so big, but we’re still talking about differences in political scale, not fundamentals. A king standing atop a ziggurat saying ‘give me your grain’ is not fundamentally different from a monkey saying ‘gimme that fruit’; the former just says it to more primates. As Charles Darwin said, “the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, certainly is one of degree and not of kind.”

We have come up with unique (and uniquely violent) ways to divide resources among a troop, but we’re still doing the same thing. For anthropological purposes, the Declaration of Independence was just monkeys flinging shit, trying to get another monkey (King George) off the top of a tree. The words were actually meaningless. America didn’t even have vaguely universal suffrage till the 1960s, and still denies it to migrants and people it keeps or even kept in cages.

If an alien anthropologist came down they would see very big primate troops, but nonetheless just apes in troops. If they had been watching, they would see that it’s the same politics we’ve been following for millions of years.

The problem with apes philosophizing is that they forget that they’re apes and thus have no idea where they came from. Jefferson talked about ‘endowed by our creator’ but we were literally created from other apes, then primates, then mammals, and so on. If we had a creator it would be bacterial and it’s unclear what ‘rights’ they gave us.

I’m not saying these are bad ideas, I like political (and religious) philosophy. I am deeply moved by these ideas and believe in some of them. These ideas, however, only tell us where we’re going. They consistently fail to get us there, because they have no idea from whence we came.

Hence whenever a philosophy is overthrown, it’s usually because people scream about it being unequal and unfair, which it is. But then it invariably gets replaced by something also unequal and unfair, just in different ways. Western history tells this as a linear progression towards the best-ever system of liberal democracy, but that’s not true. America is an oligarchy where 50 people own as much wealth as the bottom 50%. The United Kingdom still has a fucking Queen.

Americans will talk about voting and Brits will say “no, it’s a constitutional monarchy” but our alien anthropologist would say “What is this gibbering, monkeys, I have to get to Andromeda.” We’re bigger, but our politics is still dudes taking resources and beating the shit out of anybody that complains, hardly novel behavior for the animal world. The bonobos have more political ingenuity than us, aliens are probably talking to them.

Uprooting Inequality

I like our ape philosophy, but the more I read it the more futile it all seems.

We overthrew slavery, great, but now we’ve got wage slavery, shit. We got rid of the divine right of kings and ended up with the economic rights of billionaires. We tried ditching capitalism, but that went back to (diet) capitalism again. It’s like we have a deep sense of what’s wrong, but we keep fucking it up because it goes much deeper than our feeble imaginations.

We really are standing on a twig of the tree of life, bending leaves, thinking that we’re moving mountains. We need to forget going forward for a minute. We need to figure out where the fuck we are.

It reminds me of another Monkey King, Sun Wukong.

Sun thought he was equal to the gods and made a bet with the Buddha. All he had to do was jump out of the Buddha’s hand and he’d become Emperor of Heaven. Laughing the Monkey King leaped up high, flew as far as he could fly (he could fly) and found five pillars at the end of the universe. That was easy, he thought, and wrote GREAT SAGE EQUAL TO HEAVEN on pillar and took a piss on another. Coming back he asked for his kingdom.

The Buddha smiled and pointed to his hand. GREAT SAGE EQUAL TO HEAVEN was written on his pinky, and warm piss was pooled in his palm. Then he trapped the Monkey King under a mountain for five hundred years, to teach him a lesson This is the hubris of humanity. We’re a bunch of monkeys, calling ourselves kings.

That’s why I find Monkey Kingdom so instructive. It’s not about the kingdom of heaven or kingdoms of men, it’s about the ancient politics of life on Earth. It knocks us off our pedestal, which is the first step towards equality. How are you going to reduce inequality when you think you’re better than anyone? When you’ve forgotten where you came from?

The problem with every political philosophy is that it’s ultimately implemented by monkeys. The sooner we realize that fact, the sooner we can work out a philosophy that actually works for the not-so-great apes we are.

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Indi Samarajiva is a writer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Sign up for my newsletter at www.indi.ca, and you can reach me at indi@indi.ca.

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