What The Animal Kingdom Can Teach Us About Stress And Inequality


Photo: Wikipedia

Robert Sapolsky’s book Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers focuses on how stress increases serum glucocorticoids (eg, cortisol) and these lead to higher mortality from many dimensions, but primarily arterial sclerosis. He did original work examining baboon troops and found glucocorticoid levels inversely correlated with status, mainly because when you are low status you are often randomly slapped by a higher ranking baboon venting frustration, or have your hard earned meals swiped. 

Interestingly, if you are navigating a baboon hierarchy, it actually is good therapy to take out a recent slight by smacking some random lower ranking baboon, as he measured their stress levels before and after (Sapolsky notes that, with some exceptions, he doesn’t really like baboons; they’re mean). Further, another thing that raises stress is fighting for position in the hierarchy, so when a new alpha male comes into the troop and everyone has to compete again for position, this is stressful. Think of a baboon leadership change as a recession, in that the creative destruction from new leadership may help the troop in the long run, but in the short run everyone feels worse. 

This stress-hormone-mortality connection has a direct analogue in humans, as evidenced by the famous Whitehall study, which did a lengthy longitudinal study and found that a British civil servant’s level was inversely correlated with mortality rates, primarily from stress-related arterial sclerosis. 

Yet, Sapolsky’s explanation of why status matters to humans is rather weak. He argues that, like low status baboons, poor Americans are physically hungry, and pushed around by their betters (eg, no bathroom breaks for factor workers). In fact, the lowest SES individuals are both fatter and commit more assaults than those in higher socioeconomic status levels. Stress isn’t mainly caused by objective insults, but rather subjective ones, primarily feeling under appreciated. This is highlighted by Sapolsky’s own work, which noted that human subjects glucocorticoid levels increased when faced with stressful social evaluations, not when faced with merely difficult logic puzzles. He can’t escape his Marxist instincts and goes for dialectical materialism, where the structure of production implies classes, alienation, and angst.  I see it more like in Aaron Beck’s cognitive therapy, where dysfunctional thinking, behaviour, and emotional responses lead to lower income and poor appreciation from others in general. 

If you like science and lean libertarian as I do, you have to get used to gratuitous asides about how inequality or ignorance is merely a choice of an indifferent society, and that obviously if we wanted to, we could spend more on the poor and look just like Sweden. After spending trillions of dollars on Third World aid, and on the War on Poverty here in America, this is clearly not true. Americans have not chosen more inequality out of indifference to the poor, rather, it’s an emergent response to our naive attempts to directly rectify these inequalities: SES indicators of all sorts stopped improving right around the time welfare and civil rights started exploding in the 1960s. 

It is somewhat sad to think that so many humans suffer angst thinking about things like mortgage payments or how our children will fare, while Zebras are pretty stress-free as long as lions or dominant males are not messing with them.  Thus, they don’t get ulcers because if the stressor isn’t right in front of them, it isn’t there.  It gets back to Socrates’ question as to whether you would prefer being a happy pig or an unhappy human.  Surely, once you’ve take the blue pill you can’t go back, but it’s not obvious to me that many unhappy humans would have had a better life as a happy pig.

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