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Thread by @yungneocon: "Jordan Peterson’s functionalist account of hierarchy is so risible that not only do anthros & socs not believe it, but economists, polit […]" #s

, 104 tweets, 15 min read
Jordan Peterson’s functionalist account of hierarchy is so risible that not only do anthros & socs not believe it, but economists, political scientists & evolutionary biologists consider it basically conclusively disproved.
Let’s look at the evolutionary evidence first. Hierarchy depends at least minimally on a social structure, so only social animals can display it. But how common is it among animals? It varies but it’s less common than is normally realized.
First, hierarchies rarely develop where there is:
a. an abundance of resources—among hierarchies that do exist, conflict occurs rarely under abundance or
b. free movement—absent some sort of enclosure, animals just leave hierarchies. This is incredibly common.
Second, among animals that do form hierarchies, they are:
a. not always particularly stable
b. often agonistic rather than antagonistic
c. serve a coordinating rather than command function
d. vary across sex, gender & location
e. often marked by physical accordances & scaffold
Third, hierarchy doesn’t obviously relate to fitness. Alphas & leaders have LOWER fitness than those in the middle, as do those at the bottom. Fitness & hierarchy form an inverted-U shape. It’s best in the middle.

Fourth, hierarchy induces stress & costs on those at the bottom.
Fifth, among animals like bonobos, however, which have a soft hierarchy based on proximity to alpha females, for example, position depends on providing resources to the group, isn’t violently maintained, and IS stable—i.e. egalitarian agonism is far more socio-ecologically stable
Sixth, even among Chimps, however, who are violent & stratified, inter group conflict rarely happens outside scarcity/captivity & in-group violence depends on age, scarcity, family structure & so on. But note it’s not the Malthusian picture people usually promote.
Seventh, observed as far flung among canines, felines, primates (including humans) and others. Hierarchy is decided through dominance rituals which are
a. simulated & not actual fighting
b. local
c. often lacking transitivity
d. often reciprocal
Eighth, while rituals of dominance are usually simulated (really fighting for dominance means you’d get injured and die even against weaker opponents), animals often kill group leaders which abuse the group or fail to provide resources & safety. Again in primates/felines/canines
In other words, hierarchy among animals:
is social
depends on scarcity
depends on enclosure
is temporary & local
is intransitive
is agonistic
is stressful
is dangerous for shitheads
varies across sex, age & location
is resource based
isn’t really hierarchy a lot of the time.
But the anthropological & archaeological data shows a lot of this too. without drawing too much parallels of humans to other primates & mammals (let alone lobsters), the key similarities that do exist are very important to these discussions.
For example, among the so called Headhunters, an evo psych favorite, it’s often claimed killing predicts fitness, but once age is accounted for, the violent actually have far *fewer* children bc they get attacked, injured and die.
MANY groups in the Amazon, Subsaharan Africa, South Asia & the Pacific display “big men” relations where leaders are self appointed but if they fuck up—abuse people, get into fights, fail to provide food—the tribe just kills them. Problem solved!
This is aside from the fact that in the sense we’re talking about hierarchies are pretty dependent on settlement. For the 190k years pre settlement we lived in nomadic h&g egalitarian bands, which persisted in large #s until 500 years ago & which still exist today
Now, while we can’t infer from modern h&gs to pleistocene tribes, we do have data on the latter. That said, one could claim okay who cares about Pleistocene as humans are plastic & we live in settled cities now and have for 0.5k-10k years
Fine, except settlement lead to a FALL in life expectancy for most people, including most elites for a long time. For the mass of people, settlement only surpassed the past conditions 125-250 years ago.
While many hierarchical societies practiced polygamy, let’s not forget the king was .0001% of a population. Everyone else, including other elites, were subject to normal child rearing rules. Thus they weren’t necessarily more ‘fit’ in the reproductive sense.
What’s more, elites always kill each other, they often inter marry, and they have to fight in wars. Often being a small farmer was better than being a noble in that the former, when left alone, lived better & longer than the latter.
Hierarchies of social, cultural, kinship, sex, gender, sexuality, age, prestige, combat, education, ‘intellect’, money, religion etc exist in many forms across hundreds of cultures & histories, but they are not inevitable, universal, standardizable, OR efficient.
Efficiency can be judged by:
1. Stability
2. Social reproduction
3. Biological reproduction
4. Resource acquisition
5. Production
6. Subjectively perceived benefits

On every count, hierarchies are by no means efficient, let alone ‘optimal’—many are down right disasters
Hierarchies of skill & competence exist and are in some sense obviously functional, but that begs the question. Hierarchies of skill & competence depend on good information, on enforcement, on stability, but also on change—when one improves their station must do so as well.
But balancing these—static enough to be stable but dynamic enough to improve, exogenous enough to be measurable but endogenous enough to be educative, reflective enough to work but revelatory enough to learn—is herculean in the long run
In fact, the incentive compatibility literature shows that in the presence of asymmetric/incomplete info—let alone endogenous skill learning—optimal hierarchies are impossible, only non convex relations functions exist
BUT, where info is perfect & skills totally exogenous it doesn’t matter what you choose—by definition, command, exchange & cooperation will all be equally efficient (that’s how perfection works lmao).
In other words, in a perfect world, hierarchy is irrelevant, and a social structures must be chosen with recourse to other criteria—justice, equity, stability, aesthetics even.
But in an imperfect & dynamic world, hierarchy is only ever locally efficient, is often unstable, often hypertrophies or reifies (and thus ceases to be resilient), is often wasteful, is costly to enforce & must satisfy several mandates at once. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
That said, some societies practice hierarchy for a paradoxical reason—namely, by elevating a group, and guaranteeing them success, they don’t have to jostle for position and thus it’s a self fulfilling prophecy. The hierarchy makes them skilled rather than the other way around
This is both due to pygmalion/expectation effects, but also bc it allows specialization, focus, and prevents costly waste & competition. This is the point of the Mandarin Meritocracy sustem for example.
Affirmative action, for example, increases efficiency, for the opposite reason—bc privilege induced complacency, the powerful coast & thus reduce efficiency—increasing representation always increases the talent pool
Even where it doesn’t select the “best”, by definition, replacing a shitty actor with one in the median is an improvement, so affirmative action is ALWAYS Pareto Improving, where one group dominates or is over represented
It also has dynamic effects, by increasing the confidence of the marginalized, causing less to be wasted on competition, and inducing the elites to actually have to improve themselves, all of which increase efficiency.
The efficiency of hierarchy thus has a static component—what does it cost to maintain & who does it elevate, and a dynamic one—how does it affect its participants & their skills, as well as the society’s at large
Distinct but related is its stability. Static stability is how strong the hierarchy is in the present, how well defined it and acknowledged it is. Dynamic stability is its capacity to reproduce itself in time & space.
What’s more, hierarchy can be judged as efficient/stable by its own criteria (how good the hierarchy is for itself or its members) or external ones (how good it is for its goals or for the society it’s in at large. But these all remain distinct.
This means a hierarchy has 8 possible metrics (Static/Dynamic X Efficiency/Stability X Internal/External) and optimizing them all is not only in fact but in principle impossible except in a very simple world.
That world is one where everyone agrees, preferences are homogenous, information is perfect, skills are static &!known in advance but differentially held across the population, where common institutions are stable & can be taken for granted.
However, as I pointed out, cooperation & exchange work just as well here too. Thus hierarchy is pointless unless coordination is costly (due to game theoretical reasons) and exchange isn’t the issue (such as in production or combat).
The world must therefore be simple & perfect enough to allow consistency across efficiency, stability, time & metrics, but imperfect & costly enough that it’s necessary & only in those domains for self interest isn’t adequate (such as where scale, scope, group level etc is nec)
That’s an incredibly thin rope to walk analytically, which is not to say it is impossible or uncommon—one can’t estimate empirical probs based on conceptual difficulty, but it so happens this is rare in practice as well.
The one domain where all these conditions are met obviously is in modern state militaries which wouldn’t function based on exchange or cooperation BUT even those provide a counter example to hierarchy in theory, why?
Bc militaries do NOT promote on talent—tney promote on seniority, background, connections, luck & engagements. And, experiments in true military meritocracy have usually been very brief, even where they were efficient.
One of the Nazis most brutal innovations was creating a meritocratic military—local leaders had complete control but received no direct commands & people surpassed their officers after proving talent or error of superiors. What happened?
While this allowed them to take over France , Poland & the Sudatenland, it was much less equipped for an actual war. What’s more, the generals & politicians got sick of people surpassing them and re instituted the old system.
Lucky for the rest of us, at the exact moment the Nazis got rid of this, the Soviets instituted a similar policy (due to lack of personnel) & geniuses like Zhukov utilized it to allow for his theory of deep penetration, absolutely destroying the Nazis in battle.
But, even there the same thing happened and by the end of the war, the army was back under political command, as Stalin had very specific diplomatic & geogrshic goals, while his officers wanted the war to go a certain way. I do not mean this moralistically but neutrally.
Had the war been fought the generals way, the Warsaw uprising would’ve lasted longer & war ended a bit quicker but much of eastern europe & east asia would still have been under enemy control at the end of the war. Anyway, I digress.
The point is that the clearest example of where hierarchy is efficient it is unstable & what’s more conflicts between inside & outside goals & metrics! and that’s the best case scenario for hierarchy.
Now, the separate question of whether hierarchies can be internally efficient & stable is obviously yes. That’s why so many of them have persisted so long even where they hurt their members interests in a real way.
Research shows that hierarchy position/status is inversely related to stress, illness & mental illness & positively related to life expectancy & satisfaction, WITH some big buts
It’s easy to mock, but it is true that being an elite that’s insecure in ones position is immensely anxious & stressful & what’s more power blinds one to competence, skill, empathy & common knowledge. Furthermore the very top usually doesn’t have time to exploit their fruits.
We’re all familiar with the issue of a heavy hand, namely over use can lead to collapse. Thus much status depends on never actually being able to use it for individual purposes, an irony of hierarchies and one well memorialized in culture.
Now, note i’m not making some poor little rich guy argument, as obviously it’s better to be st the top than the bottom. Instead I’m pointing out that in every society, being st the very top is not as good as being just below it, as it’s less secure & less effectual.
Furthermore, information & control always inversely relate, as do self awareness & empathy. Thus elites fatal weakness is their blindness, hubris, self confidence & largeness. This inheres in hierarchy’s basic structure as a key feature.
and like the above, this is not just a result of economic theory or a theme of mythology but is an empirical result documented in psychology, sociology, economics & history. Empathy/knowledge flow up, control flows down.
Now we have to add a key element, bc everything I’ve just said only applies to a single well defined hierarchy. What about where there are multiple hierarchies? What if they reinforce or conflict? What if there’s hierarchy overlaid w cooperation and exchange? These all change it
The problems of indeterminacy WITHIN hierarchies also applies to them, almost fractally, between them. This issue compounds the problems listed above.
Consider classic examples, such as where ones cultural status conflicts w economic one (as in starving artists or clergy) or where poor white people enforce racism at an economic or social cost to themselves.
Plenty of examples can be constructed—for example kin hierarchies can contradict gender ones, military political, etc—and as we all know, hierarchies can & very often do reinforce each other (bc this is one is more obvious is why I saved it).
Additionally, multiple social types can coexist. A corporation is a strict socio economic slotted hierarchy but within each level there’s cooperation & between the corporation & the world outside there’s exchange. This is a dual labor market w command & sociocultural embeddedness
Conversely one could use a hierarchy within which there’d be exchange (such as NEP or China), or ones family can operate as a hierarchy, but cooperate as an extended kin network & trade as a tribe. These are all possibilities.
Additionally, while i’m using hierarchy as a close synonym to command, this is only true for the economic & sociopolitical instance—a hierarchy could theoretically be based on a non command principle like consent or affiliation or affection or fraud etc. These are all possible.
Social contract theory, for example, tried to cement hierarchy in mutual self interest & reason. Universities claim to do it based on expertise. The Mandarin system did it based on certification & accession to cultural tradition.
But suffice it to say, it should be clear that trying to understand hierarchy as efficient is fraught conceptually, often contradictory, and rarely true in practice. Especially where stability, endogeneity, conflict etc are all accounted for.
So what can we say in sum? What’s the bottom line on hierarchy? Well the first answer is that there isn’t one, as the question itself is only ever contextually & locally meaningful.
Peterson is not known for his clarity or consistency but the sense he means it is
Hierarchy is:
1. Simple
2. Common
3. Inevitable
4. Typological
5. Stable
6. Internally fulfilling
7. Good for reproductive fitness
8. Reflective of ability
9. Good for society
10. Isomorphic
All ten of those couldn’t be more wrong—from ecology & ethology, to cognition & emotion, to kinship & gender, to economics & politics, to war & peace—hierarchy is distinctly NOT straightforward, stable, inevitable, efficient or socially beneficial, let alone universally so.
Hierarchies only exist under specific conditions and do so in intransitive temporary ways. Among primates, canines, felines & many social animals (incl. lobsters!) It’s winners & losers do not benefit, only those in the middle get reproductive, health & satisfaction advantages.
Competition is costly & threatens hierarchy. Hierarchies only reward skill & merit at their founding or during exceptional periods (if even then)—otherwise they quickly devolve & become rigid & self perpetuating to everybody’s detriment. This is intrinsic to its structure.
The one example is where hierarchy is distinctly not based on skill but instead on seniority & specialization where it serves as a self fulfilling prophecy thru expectation & resource effects —i.e. where hierarchy is explicitly not reflective but creative of skills
Even there, though, as soon as hierarchies over represent from a set group (i.e. where hierarchies select based on other hierarchies) they ossify & reward mediocrity & complacency—ppl rise to their incompetence while those outside suffer.
Why persist if inefficient? Well, hierarchy’s internal reproduction efficiency is not the same as external—i.e. profit & control need not coincide, as long as the base conditions of survival & reproduction are met, where hierarchies satisfice rather than optimize.
But that’s not all. So, even tho gender & racial discrimination clearly & demonstrably leads to a loss in skill, talent & efficiency, it also serves to divide the marginalized & create super exploitable persons.
As such profits fall but rents rise, and tho profit & output are not being maximized, the system remains stable & self reproducing. Thus multiple hierarchies & goals paradoxically are strengthened reproductively & instability due to conflict in efficiency! A key dynamic.
Thus it turns out the key claims made by hierarchies proponents—that it’s ‘natural’, that it rewards talent, that it benefits everyone, that it is fulfilling—are not only false but contradict the conditions of possibility for hierarchy in practice!!!
A hierarchy based in ‘nature’ would be one w pseudo competition & agonism, but then would be more like a big man society, an outcome those at the top of hierarchy would find unacceptable—they’d be out of a job, or we’d tear them to shreds & eat them!
A hierarchy based totally on talent would be incredibly unstable & either collapse or ossify & change into one based on position. What’s more it runs the risk of being dynamically less efficient by neglecting dynamic skill formation & learning!
Thus I will confidently say this, of ALL hierarchies seen in animals & humans:
1. they do not reflect merit & talent bc they’d collapse but instead
2. are based in their benefit to its elites or to serve solely its own reproduction or
3. is probably not really a hierarchy at all
Even boosters of hierarchy like economists or some political scientists & ethologists do not see hierarchy as universal, isomorphic, universally efficient & stable, inevitable or optimal but as local, contextual & subject to very specific conflicting constraints
While those econs, political scientists & ethologists/ecologists critical of hierarchy as well as sociologists, anthropologists & psychologists who study it go even further and see hierarchy as contingent, inefficient, self destructive, arbitrary & problematic.
Notice, I have sidestepped entirely questions of morality, of justice & of equity—I did so on purpose, but will briefly address those now as they’re obviously everyone’s main concern.
One lesson I’ve aimed to show is that even where hierarchies are just (consensual & based on merit) & beneficial or ‘necessary’, they are either irrelevant (any system would work), non existent (not rly a hierarchy) or unstable (ossifies or collapses) & contradictory.
But let’s take the case where any system would do, where hierarchy, cooperation & exchange all do. Then how do we pick a system? Obviously by recourse to justice or equity or any other number of concerns.
To me it’s plainly obvious that where two systems are equally efficient, the more equitable one is better. Indeed one MUST assume this unless one thinks equity is intrinsically bad which is either question begging or reactionary nonsense.
le Maistre, sort of Burke, Nietzsche, Rand, fascists & maybe Peterson might say equity is intrinsically bad,but MOST people feel that hierarchy is bad but a necessary evil. I’ve shown the latter to be false—one must assume the former to justify hierarchies from an equity stand pt
Thus unless 1 is a fascist, under conditions where the world is perfect enough, ceteris paribus, for hierarchy it is also perfect enough for cooperation, in which case we must choose cooperation bc it is prima facie more equitable than hierarchy (I mean duh).
This is also the case for much justice. The q is moot under utilitarian justice, but under a virtue ethics, a Kantian system, distributive justice, original position, emancipatory justice & even the NAP clearly cooperation trumps hierarchy, all else being equal.
But what about where not all else is equal, and the world isn’t perfect? Well remember, in that case, the conditions for hierarchy to be efficient & stable, let alone consensual, are incredibly strict & basically their probability falls to zero in practice most of the time.
I perhaps differ from many anarchists in that I think that where a hierarchy exists for a specific task, is temporary, is consensually formed & reflects competences (while being educative) it is not intrinsically bad, but these conditions are incredibly rare to almost nonexistent
What are some instances? Well, for example, we almost certainly wouldn’t win a revolutionary war without some hierarchy, bc tactics, strategy & logistics need to be coherent in order to actually work, but even this has some key qualifications.
Anarchist army units are actually rly good at several things—guerilla tactics, insurrection, sabotage, supply lines attacks, asymmetric fighting, and being resilient in response to infiltration & conventional suppression by enemy forces.
The other thing is that, being freely chosen & egalitarian, they integrate intelligence better and are far better at killing enemies than other groups (this has been true in Spain, Mexico, Rojava, Ukraine & other places btw, something even military theorists acknowledge).
But the same features that make them good shock troops & soldiers make them bad warriors. Anarchist military tactics are therefore good at offense & at unconventional war, but they’re bad at grand strategy, stable logistics & political defense all of which are necessary.
The central worry tho is that if anarchist armies are too unstable, not anarchist ones are TOO stable, that a formal military structure will ossify & take on a life of its own after the war. I grant this & do not pretend to have a solution—I leave that to the military theorists
What’s another situation? Well, for me, the paradigmatic case of a just & even semi-persistent & non consensus hierarchy are for existential human level events—a giant asteroid, an alien invasion, a mass pandemic, a climate collapse or a nuclear or zombie apocalypse.
Luckily, I do not expect an alien invasion or zombie apocalypse anytime soon, so, as such, we do not need to base our every day life on said unlikely events 😏
I’ll leave the ethical question of whether or not we could justly coerce a hierarchy to stop an asteroid or alien invasion in an anarchist society, even if people, for ex., didn’t put a premium on their survival, to the philosophers—but suffice it to say, imagined cases r j that
Nonetheless, personally, those said human level existential events are prime candidates for when a consensually formed, talent & seniority based hierarchy even a semi enduring one would be justified if it meant our survival, if the aim were to dismantle it afterward
Mind you even in said instances the case for hierarchy is over stated by its proponents—bc as I said, while logistics & strategy need be hierarchical for example, actual units & aims are better when egalitarian & so it goes.
What about for grand projects like space exploration & Mars colonization? Personally I think our attachment to hierarchy in these areas is more myth & sci fi than necessity. What would an anarchist space program look like?
Suffice it to say, internal to each component, hierarchy is not only unnecessary but often detrimental—there’s no reason space agencies, lunar colonies & even space ships can’t run in an egalitarian fashion 99% of the time
What’s more, we actually know this—when it comes to scientific research, technological innovation, and even small scale production, worker owned & managed democracy is vastly more efficient than hierarchy, on the order of 40-50%— for large enterprises its more like 7-10%
There’s no reason to think that global information & technology sharing would somehow make science, technology & production less efficient & a lot of evidence to suggest it would make it substantially more so.
Indeed the costs of logistical & info hierarchy is something like 50% of global trade costs, which is to say nothing of the costs of IP or of borders & restricted movement. At that’s only static costs, not dynamic ones like effort, learning, skill formation & so on.
I didn't even finish this but if you guys want me to I will
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