DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2022.0307 ISSN: 0962-8436

Mechanisms of equality and inequality in mammalian societies

Jennifer E. Smith, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, Maddison M. Mueller, Michael E. Alfaro
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology

The extent of (in)equality is highly diverse across species of social mammals, but we have a poor understanding of the factors that produce or inhibit equitable social organizations. Here, we adopt a comparative evolutionary perspective to test whether the evolution of social dominance hierarchies, a measure of social inequality in animals, exhibits phylogenetic conservatism and whether interspecific variation in these traits can be explained by sex, age or captivity. We find that hierarchy steepness and directional consistency evolve rapidly without any apparent constraint from evolutionary history. Given this extraordinary variability, we next consider multiple factors that have evolved to mitigate social inequality. Social networks, coalitionary support and knowledge transfer advantage to privilege some individuals over others. Nutritional access and prenatal stressors can impact the development of offspring, generating health disparities with intergenerational consequences. Intergenerational transfer of material resources (e.g. stone tools, food stashes, territories) advantage those who receive. Nonetheless, many of the same social species that experience unequal access to food (survival) and mates (reproduction) engage in levelling mechanisms such as food sharing, adoption, revolutionary coalitions, forgiveness and inequity aversion. Taken together, mammals rely upon a suite of mechanisms of (in)equality to balance the costs and benefits of group living.

This article is part of the theme issue ‘Evolutionary ecology of inequality’.

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