Suddenly, it has become unacceptable for powerful men to bully less powerful women and men into performing unwanted sexual acts. While president Trump, the Groper-in-Chief, might be immune, other captains of government, industry, entertainment, and even academia are being toppled from their pedestals. The offenders span all political and religious divides. Some deny the allegations, others employ the “boys will be boys” defense, and others such as Louis C.K. and Alex Baldwin plead guilty and express contrition, throwing themselves on the mercy of the court of public opinion.
What’s going on? Not the bullying behavior, which has taken place since time immemorial, but the reaction to bullying behavior. What previously was tolerated, if not actually approved, has become inadmissible, like imposing physical harm and theft of property. A norm is being created and enforced, much more strongly than before.
Evolutionary theory can tell us a lot about norms. In any animal or human society, social status can be achieved in two ways: by physical intimidation or by cultivating a reputation as a cooperator. Status is taken in the first case and bestowed in the second case. In most animal societies, status is mostly of the taken variety. If overt bullying is rare, it is because the hierarchy was previously established and is no longer challenged. In most hunter-gatherer societies and many other small-scale human groups, status is mostly of the bestowed variety. Bullying doesn’t work because those being bullied have the collective power to resist.1,2
Unsurprisingly, societies where status is bestowed work much better than societies where status is taken. In fact, the human ability to bestow status and resist having it taken is arguably our most distinctive quality as a species and a precursor to most of our other distinctive qualities, which are all forms of cooperation that are disrupted by bullying behaviors.
Norms establish what behaviors count as acceptable for any given group and therefore the deciding criteria for bestowing status. Any behavior can potentially qualify as a norm, giving groups tremendous flexibility in how they behave in any given environment. Also, norms dramatically constrain behavioral variation among individuals within groups while amplifying behavioral variation among groups, making groups the dominant unit of selection in cultural evolution.3-5
Norms operate most strongly and effortlessly in small human groups with a relatively equal balance of power among their members, which was the most common social environment for most of our evolutionary history. However, “effortless” does not mean “simple”. Seeing is effortless for us, but thanks only to an enormous amount of computational machinery that evolved by genetic evolution and operates beneath our conscious awareness. The same can be said for the psychological mechanisms required to suppress bullying behaviors, bestow status on cooperators, and establish norms that define what counts as cooperative behavior. The great French social theorist Alexis d’Toqueville got it right when he said “The village or township is the only association so perfectly natural that, wherever a number of men are collected, it seems to constitute itself.”6
Large human societies, such as 19th Century France and America that were Tocqueville’s main objects of interest, are different. They too function as largely cooperative units based on the establishment and enforcement of norms, but the underlying mechanisms are based on both the genetic psychological adaptations that evolved in the context of small-scale society and culturally evolved mechanisms that evolved over a period of roughly 10,000 years. When this history is examined in detail, it can be seen as an eternal contest between status of taken variety, benefitting the elites at the expense of the common good, and status of the bestowed variety, leading to the restraint of power and norms that benefit the common good.7
Let’s drop in on a previous era in human history where sexual bullying was even more rampant. Have you ever wondered why the early Christian church took a strong stand against homosexual behavior? It turns out that this was part of a broader cultural trend that had nothing to do with Christianity per se. Homosexuality back then was all about power and not gender. According to Craig A. Williams, author of “Roman Homosexuality”:
In other words, both heterosexuality and homosexuality were all about power taken and not power bestowed. Since the powerful segment of society dictated the norms, sex with men was openly accepted and compared to sex with women, like comparing the virtues of different types of wine.
What happened to cause a shift in these norms? The following lengthy passage from “Bisexuality in the Ancient World” by Eva Cantarella and Cormac O. Cuilleanain, based on the work of the French archeologist and historian Paul Veyne, is worth quoting in full:
In other words, the shift in sexual norms was part of a broader shift from status taken to status bestowed, which allowed cooperation to take place at a larger scale in Roman society than it did before.
What was normative for the Roman elites is still unthinkable today, although Milo Yiannopoulos tested the boundaries with his defense of pedophilia. Homosexuality has acquired a consensual form that would be unrecognizable to the Romans. Nevertheless, modern society is suffering from an excess of status taken, calling for norms that reestablish the primacy of status bestowed. I therefore regard the new norm prohibiting sexual bullying as a welcome development, with one important caveat. Allegations of sexual bullying can become a weapon in its own right unless they are validated. So far, the press seems to be exercising responsibility in this regard, drawing upon multiple sources, validating accounts, and so on. Insofar as sexual bullying has been an “open secret” in the past, based on the fact that strong norms against it were not in place, validation is often not a problem.
While we’re at it, why stop at sexual bullying? In Norway, a CEO who earned several hundred times the salary of the average employee would be regarded as reprehensible. Norms such as these are one reason why Norway functions so well at the national scale. Let’s work toward a worldwide consensus that obscene income disparities are cases of status taken and not status bestowed, therefore in need of normative control. It’s worth noting that orthodox economic theory is tone deaf about the very concept of norms. Don’t take my word for it. In 2007, Nobel prize laureate George Akerlof delivered his presidential address to the American Economic Association titled “The Missing Motivation of Macroeconomics 8”. The missing motivation was norms. This is yet another example of how “This View of Life”—a worldview informed by evolutionary theory—makes sense out of what other perspectives have obscured.
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- Boehm, C. (2011). Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. New York: Basic Books.
- Henrich, J., & Gil-White, F. J. (2001). The evolution of prestige: freely conferred deference as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22(3), 165–196. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1090-5138(00)00071-4
- Wilson, D. S. (2015). Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Richerson, P. J., & Boyd, R. (2005). Not by genes alone: how culture transformed human evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Henrich, J. (2015). The Secret of Our Success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Tocqueville, A. de. (1835). Democracy in America. New York: Penguin Classic.
- Turchin, P. (2015). Ultrasociety: How 10,000 years of war made humans the greatest cooperators on earth. Storrs, CT: Baresta Books.
- Akerlof, G. A. (2007). The missing motivation in macroeconomics. American Economics Review, 97, 3–36.