This interview was published in the June 2016 issue of Man and the Economy journal, founded by Nobel Prize winning economist Ronald Coase. For access to full text, subscription to the journal or payment for the individual article is required.
Geerat J. Vermeij is a Dutch-born professor of geology at the University of California at Davis. Blind from the age of three, he graduated from Princeton University in 1968 and received his Ph.D. in biology and geology from Yale University in 1971.
An evolutionary biologist and paleontologist, he studies marine mollusks both as fossils and as living creatures. He started writing about his Escalation hypothesis in the 1970s. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1992. In 2000 Vermeij was awarded the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal from the National Academy of Sciences.
His books include Evolution and Escalation: An Ecological History of Life, A Natural History of Shells, Privileged Hands, Nature: An Economic History, and The Evolutionary World: How Adaptation Explains Everything from Seashells to Civilization.
Grégoire Canlorbe: According to a predominant view in philosophy and in the social sciences, the social hierarchy is an ad hoc cultural construction and not a biological trait. Man is born equal in terms of wealth as well as in terms of social status. Nature spawns neither poor people nor rich people, neither servants nor masters, neither workers nor bosses. Hierarchical relationships are merely cultural, added onto our biological nature (rather than innate).
Is this popular view founded, at least in part, in your opinion?
Geerat J. Vermeij: It is true that the human hierarchy is cultural, but there is a substantial cultural inheritance. Although one’s origins can be overcome, the cultural heritability of phenomena such as poverty and status is nonetheless strong, reinforced by epigenetic effects.
Inequality and imperfection, however, appear to be universal and necessary accompaniments to life itself. Whenever organisms interact, one party will almost always gain more or lose less than the other as they compete or cooperate. Very rarely will the outcomes be identical for the participants. Although their fortunes may reverse in the long run, with the underdog persisting longer and ultimately gaining the upper hand, the short-term advantage during interactions tends to belong to the party with the greater power and reach.
This principle applies, for example, to the evolutionary relationship between predator and prey. As a rule, predators exert more intense selection on their prey than prey do on their attackers. Not only do they often kill their victims, but they restrict the times and places in which vulnerable prey can be active. Prey species become important as agents of selection on their attackers only if they are dangerous. Poisonous snakes, stinging wasps, biting crabs, and kicking moose can inflict significant injury on a would-be predator, and could therefore influence the predator’s behavior. Mobbing—large numbers of relatively innocuous prey ganging up on an attacker, as happens when songbirds mount a group defense against a hawk— may also diminish the evolutionary advantage that predators hold over their prey.
Grégoire Canlorbe, a journalist, has conducted several interviews for journals and reviews such as Man and the Economy, founded by Nobel-Prize winning economist Ronald Coase, Arguments, and Agefi Magazine; and think tanks such as Gatestone Institute. He’s also collaborating with sociologist and philosopher Howard Bloom on a conversations book. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org