New study finds that “privilege” exists in the animal kingdom too

A new study reveals how the intergenerational transfer of resources leads to inequality within animal species.

A new study has found that the concept of privilege – the intergenerational transfer of wealth and resources – very much exists in the animal kingdom, and significantly contributes to inequality among the members of a given species.

The authors present dozens of examples of how privilege leads to inequality in species ranging from wasps and wolves to chimps and squirrels.

The study was written by a team of researchers from UCLA and Mills College, and appeared in the journal Behavioral Ecology on December 7.

What is privilege?

The notion of privilege in this case refers to “differential access to inherited resources.” In other words, the intergenerational transfer of important resources such as land, food, and knowledge.

Some members of a group – the “privileged” ones – get more access to these resources than other members.

The consequences of this privilege are rather clear in the context of human society.

Wealthy parents, for example, tend to pass on that wealth to their children, and doing so confers clear advantages in terms of schooling, access to potential jobs and mates, etc.

And these practices give rise to many types of disparity throughout human society.

Intergenerational privilege among animal species

Perhaps less obvious is that, as the authors put it, “strikingly parallel phenomena exist in animal societies.”

Examples of resources that are transferred from one generation of animals to the next include nests, land, food, and more.

And these processes occur in many different types of animals, from insects and fish to birds and primates.

For example, some species of red squirrels transfer their stores of acorns or pinecones to their young.

This leads to “differential fitness outcomes” among the squirrels’ offspring, and these effects last for generations.

The haves vs. the have-nots among fish, birds, and beyond

The authors of the study present many more such examples.

For instance, some individual clownfish inherit the “right” to seek shelter in the largest (and thus the safest) sea anemones, and this access benefits future generations.

Likewise, the sons of some species of grouse (which is a large chicken-like bird) get preferred positions during competitive courtship rituals when their fathers are nearby.

This in turn leads to better mating opportunities for these privileged grouse, compared to their competitors whose fathers are no longer alive.

Similarly, the offspring of the spotted hyena inherit their social rank from their mothers, which gives them priority when it comes to access to food.

As a result, the authors write, the “privileged” hyena families grow larger over time, whereas the have-not families decrease in number, or even go extinct.

Similar patterns also exist in insects.

The authors mention, for example, how female wasps who inherit nests are more likely to produce offspring than less privileged “lone” females who do not enjoy such access.

Privileged familes that join forces grow even stronger

Much like in humans, this transfer of wealth to a select few leads to “compounding effects” over multiple generations.

And these effects privilege some family lineages over others, in very important and tangible ways.

With the red squirrels, for example, daughters who inherit the stores of food survive longer and reproduce earlier than those who do not.  

Likewise, different termite families sometimes “merge” to share the structures they inhabit.

This merging “increases opportunities for resource acquisition for future generations, benefiting some termite lineages over others to further perpetuate the cycle of privilege.”

And among the spotted hyenas referred to above, for instance, it is common for multiple families to defend territory together.

But the “high-born” females and their descendants have “privileged access” to the resources within those territories.

These disparities promote the extinction of “nonprivileged” family lineages, the authors write, while at the same time expanding the land rights of the privileged animals.

Monkey privilege: tools and skills

Among primates, the paper explains, some species of chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys inherit stone nut-cracking tools from their parents.

These privileged primates not only get an advantage in terms of their ability to gain access to key food resources; they are also given valuable “social information,” in this case the knowledge of how to use these tools, which is then passed on to their offspring across generations.

These examples, the authors write, illustrate “the direct and indirect role of wealth transfer in shaping legacies of inequality” within animal societies.

These and other effects, moreover, “can compound across multiple generations,” which accelerates these advantages even further.

And these advantages matter.

Recent research has shown that, much like in human societies, inequality within an animal species has negative effects on important outcomes such as health and survival, which illustrates “how wealth and access govern well-being across many social animals, humans included.”

Future directions: what can humans learn from these findings?

Studying privilege in various animal societies may help scientists better understand “the deep evolutionary roots of wealth inequality,” the authors write.

And down the road, perhaps knowing more about how these inherited advantages “create and sustain a landscape of inequality” may yield some valuable insights into human society as well.

“By elucidating these associations,” the authors write, “we might begin to understand the conditions producing more or less even playing fields in the natural world.”

After all, they continue,, “winning access to resources can increase the likelihood that an individual will win again and, thus, their ability to accumulate more wealth in the future; in contrast, losers become less likely to win and less likely to accumulate wealth.”

Learning more about why this is the case can help uncover “the fundamental principles underlying wealth inequality” in both human as well as animal societies.

Study:The nature of privilege: intergenerational wealth in animal societies
Authors: Jennifer E Smith, B Natterson-Horowitz, and Michael E Alfaro
Published in: Behavioral Ecology
Publication date: December 7, 2021
DOI: 10.1093/beheco/arab137
Photo: via DepositPhotos