The Evolution of Unfairness

Originally published in Pacific Standard Magazine

By Alan Honick

In the upper Fraser Canyon, about 250 kilometers northeast of Vancouver, a rocky gorge cuts its way through the interior plateau of British Columbia.

Gordon Orians and I have come here to see evidence of the emergence of inequality in the archaeological record of fishing at a place called Keatley Creek.

Gordon is professor emeritus of biology at the University of Washington, and my science adviser on a multimedia project in which we’re investigating the evolution of the human sense of fairness, from its biological roots among the earliest social living animals through its manifestations in the social, economic, and political institutions of today.

Inequality, of course, is not necessarily unfair. Fairness has to do with the process through which it evolves.

Fairness is a term much bandied about in these economic hard times, though people argue vehemently over what is actually fair. We thought it would be helpful to explore the concept of fairness in greater depth, from a scientific perspective.

The growing body of research into the nature of fairness includes disciplines such as behavioral genetics, evolutionary and developmental psychology, neuroscience, animal behavior, experimental economics, and some intriguing cross-disciplinary collaborations.

One of the central topics we plan to investigate is how our sense of fairness may have changed during the last 10,000 years of cultural evolution, after having lived the previous 2,000,000 as nomadic hunter-gatherers, typically in groups of 25 to 50 who were closely interrelated.

A significant amount of evidence indicates that during those 2,000,000 years, we evolved a finely tuned set of social skills and preferences that enabled us to live successfully in groups. These behavioral and emotional characteristics are in part genetically encoded and are integral components of our sense of fairness today. But this has been only one of the influences on the fairness of societies since cultural evolution got underway.

Keatley Creek seemed like a good place to begin our investigation, since a cultural transition that took place there thousands of years ago marked a turning point in how the people who lived there may have thought about fairness. Similar cultural changes have been documented by archaeologists and ethnographers around the world.

Here, Brian Hayden, professor emeritus of archaeology at Simon Fraser University, showed us scores of circular bowl-like depressions of varying size, between 10 and 20 meters in diameter.

Each of the shallow depressions was the remnant of a pit house, a common style of primitive construction. There would have been a timber and earth structure above, though the pits are all that remain. However, beneath each pit and its surrounding rim is a trove of discarded material and artifacts that has lain buried for thousands of years. Brian began excavating the site in 1986, and in the last quarter century has developed a picture of what life was like for the people of Keatley Creek. One of his central discoveries is evidence of a simple class structure and an unequal distribution of wealth.

Nomadic hunter-gatherers were essentially egalitarian. They lived at a subsistence level, with starvation only the next drought away. Resources were shared, because sharing maximizes the chances of survival for the group as a whole. Hoarding—co-opting resources for private use—was socially unacceptable. Individual ambition was suppressed, because it would disrupt the group cohesion necessary for survival. Economic competition didn’t exist.

About 40,000 years ago humans began developing more complex tools and behaviors, and about 10,000 years ago, agriculture and animal domestication. For a long time researchers believed that these latter innovations, by greatly increasing the volume, reliability, and storability of food resources, were prerequisites for the development of socioeconomic inequality. However, the people of Keatley Creek still made their living by hunting, foraging, and most importantly for this story, fishing. They didn’t have agriculture or domesticated animals, except for dogs. What spurred the rise of inequality in that setting?

A key factor seems to have been salmon, which are abundant in the Fraser River. They are readily preserved by drying, and warm winds during the fishing season provide an ideal natural dehydrator. Salmon provided a reliable surplus of storable food that enabled the people of Keatley Creek to settle, eventually building a village where they could hunker down for the cold, dark winter of the British Columbia interior and still have enough to eat.

Brian’s work led him to a theory of how the people of Keatley Creek evolved strategies for sharing this bounty, and in the conclusion, we investigate its implications for the challenges of inequality today.

Fishing Rocks

little north of Lillooet the Fraser River narrows, forming a series of rapids that run between rocky shelves. Below each shelf is a quiet eddy, where the salmon rest before attempting to leap upstream. These shelves are known as fishing rocks, where the migrating fish can be efficiently harvested with dip nets, a simple technology that has changed little over thousands of years. The highly productive fishery found in this stretch of the canyon became the center of the ancient Lillooet culture.

There are 22 fishing rocks along that stretch of the river. Access to them is obviously desirable, and some form of ownership that enables individuals or groups to control that access clearly confers an economic advantage. We spent three days in the area, hosted by Brian along with Suzanne Villeneuve, a colleague of Brian Hayden’s who has taken over active supervision of the research program.

We were also graciously hosted by members of the Stl’atl’imx First Nations, whose ancestors built these ancient villages. They continue to fish from the traditional rocks next to the eddies, catching and preserving salmon in much the same way as their ancestors. Chief Arthur Adolph of the Xaxli’p First Nation took us to a spectacular overlook on the cliffs above the river. In this video, Chief Adolph explains how they manage access to the resource today.

The Path to Keatley Creek

Our knowledge of early lifestyles comes from a combination of archaeological evidence and ethnographic studies of stone age cultures that have survived into modern times. Using these techniques we can infer what happened when people first entered the Fraser Canyon thousands of years ago, soon after the Cordilleran Ice Sheet retreated from the British Columbia interior. It’s likely that salmon had already re-established their runs in the Fraser. As people discovered the fishing rocks and the bounty that could be harvested each year, when, and why, did the changes in their culture begin?

Brian Hayden would eventually employ both archaeology and ethnography to answer these questions, but what sparked his curiosity in the first place? In this video, he discusses the influences that led him to Keatley Creek, and a central focus of his life’s work—the stage of cultural evolution called the transegalitarian, somewhere between the egalitarianism of nomadic hunter-gatherers and the complex, stratified societies that accompanied the rise of agriculture and technological innovation.

The Pit House

After studying stone tool fabrication and use with the aborigines in Australia, Brian Hayden returned to the University of Toronto to complete work on his doctorate. One summer he was given a contract for a dig where a new airport was planned. “There was basically an undisturbed village in the Pickering area in the way of the runway”, he said. “I got the contract to do the excavation before they put in the runway. At that location I became very interested in long houses as social and economic phenomena. We called them corporate groups at the time, residential corporate groups… There’s an interesting problem as to what kind of social forces could bring all these people together… It’s not universal, and archaeologically it’s very visible.”

A desire to understand the sort of corporate living arrangements he found at the Pickering site, which showed evidence of “owners” and “workers” living in a single longhouse, would prove to be a guiding force in his career. He wanted to investigate how these early instances of a rudimentary class system evolved, and how they functioned. What was life like in these transegalitarian societies, with large households encompassing two unequal classes?

Since the pits were all we could see at Keatley Creek, it took a leap of the imagination to visualize the houses that once stood there, and what life might have been like for the people who lived in them.

Luckily, we were provided an excellent visual aid. Our hosts arranged for us to visit another archaeological site, where we were taken on a tour of a reconstructed pit house by Chief Bradley Jack of the Xwisten Nation.

House Pit Seven

People began using the Keatley Creek site during the Middle Prehistoric, from about 5000 to 2800 B.C.E. They probably built shelters throughout that period, but the first clear evidence of pit houses is found after 2800 B.C.E. The height of the village’s development took place between 400 B.C.E and 1000 C.E. After that, the population dwindled. There is evidence of a major landslide on the river below Lillooet that may have blocked salmon migration around that time, possibly for decades.

Keatley Creek proved to be an ideal location for Brian Hayden to pursue his interests. The dry climate provided excellent preservation of material, even organic remains such as fish bones.

The location he chose for the first major excavation was designated as House Pit Seven, and in this video, he explains to Gordon Orians what he found, and where he found it.


There was clear evidence that there was food surplus, and that the surplus was not evenly shared. How did some members of the group end up owning a resource that everyone’s life depended on? Why did the poorer members accept this arrangement as fair?

Additional evidence of inequality came from the artifacts found at the site. In this video, Brian Hayden shows us a few of them, beginning with an explanation of the two broad classes of artifacts—those that are exclusively utilitarian, and those that are known as prestige goods.

Prestige goods play an important role in the growth of inequality. Possession of them is one of the primary signals that the owner is a person of prominence and wealth—a force to be reckoned with in the community. They were the status symbols and conspicuous consumption of their day.

Two Paths to Inequality

The initial excavation at House Pit Seven was finished by 1989. At that point Brian Hayden thought that a relatively benign process lay behind the simple class structure—that the wealthier and more powerful attained their rank because they provided valuable services that benefited the community at large.

For instance, they might have been adept at organizing the fishing and preservation process to create a bigger salmon pie for everyone in the community. Since everyone’s share is bigger, the community would not begrudge the benefactor a slightly larger slice.

Also, the high-status benefactors presumably would come to the aid of the community in times of need—to share their surplus as well as their managerial talents to get everyone through the hard times.

His quest to test this model of the development of inequality took Brian away from Keatley Creek, and back to ethnographic investigation. In this video, he relates the experience that became a turning point in his career, when he came to see the motivation of the wealthy and powerful in an entirely different way.

How Inequality Began

Under the title “Big Man, Big Heart?”, Brian Hayden published the results of the study with co-author Rob Gargett in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica. They state the central question in the introduction:

“The question of how socioeconomic inequality develops has been problematical in large measure because it is difficult to imagine conditions under which the majority of any community would give up communal access to important resources, not to mention control over decisions that affect their own lives… A major division exists among scholars dealing with this problem. On one side are those who view elites as adaptive or ‘system-serving.’ Elites are portrayed as providing some direct benefits to the community. In contrast to this position, other analysts view elites as entirely self-serving, exploitative groups that use opportunities and often unethical means to gain power, ‘Mafia’ style, at the expense of others.”

Brian came back to Keatley Creek, and re-evaluated his data from this new perspective. His experience in Central America and subsequent investigation of the ethnographic literature stood in stark contrast to the “system-serving” model of the managerial class.

Instead, he began to think that the availability of surplus created new opportunities for the more self-serving individuals, whose aggressive and acquisitive personalities had up until then been held in check by scarcity and the social norms of egalitarian hunter-gatherer groups. These individuals, called “aggrandizers,” exploited the surplus to their own advantage, and in so doing, raised the survival odds for themselves and their offspring, becoming winners in this most basic of evolutionary games.

In this video, Brian explains how long-established egalitarian norms of fairness might have subtly shifted under conditions of surplus, and how this enabled aggrandizers to begin accumulating wealth and power in societies such as the one at Keatley Creek.

The Evolution of Fairness

According to Brian Hayden, the game changing factor is surplus. While there must have been “aggrandizer” personalities in egalitarian groups, conditions of scarcity kept their greedier inclinations in check. If anyone’s behavior violated the group’s norms of fairness, they were booted out. Excommunication from the group was a virtual death sentence—for the crime of failing to cooperate with friends and family. While this may seem harsh from today’s perspective, it was necessary for the group to survive.

As scarcity transitioned to plenty, the aggrandizers were freed to pursue their goals. Their selfish behavior was no longer grounds for excommunication, because everyone was able to get enough to eat—if they were willing to work. Slowly, through a variety of strategies such as bride prices and competitive feasts, aggrandizers consolidated their power. They developed new sorts of relationships based on debt and obligation. Eventually these strategies led to establishment of private property rights over valuable resources, such as the fishing rocks in the Fraser Canyon.

In the final video of this series, Brian explains how these strategies might have been instituted gradually, but eventually changed the nature of their society. He also addresses the question central to our own investigation—how did the aggrandizers manage to convince the others in the group that this new arrangement was fair?

The Judgment of Fairness

Brian Hayden’s phrase at the end of the last video—”the judgment of fairness”—captures an important implication of his theory. Whereas the norms of fairness among hunter-gatherers are common to all members of the group, in transegalitarian societies fairness is essentially an agreement among a sufficient number of the wealthy and well-connected, who are able to enforce their version of fairness on the society as a whole.

If Brian’s theory is correct, the process is a slippery slope. What begins as favoritism within a small circle of friends becomes cronyism among the members of an in-group. It’s a system that tends to concentrate power in the hands of a few, but it’s simply a consequence of the natural variability in human personality evolving in conditions of surplus.

A compelling argument for his ideas is that there are parallels in contemporary life—for example, campaign finance in the United States, particularly in the age of Citizens United. Current laws and regulations allow a small group of the wealthy and well-connected to exert a powerful influence over both the perception and the legal definitions of fairness, including tax fairness and acceptable concentrations of wealth.

There is growing sentiment that U.S. campaign finance is unfair, which begs the question we asked earlier—how much has cultural evolution actually changed our human sense of fairness? Does it function differently today than it did in our hunting and gathering days? And how did it really function among the transegalitarians? If our ancestors had in fact developed an innate sense of fairness, wouldn’t the poor at Keatley Creek have been somewhat perturbed? How complacently did they accept their lot?

If you were part of an aggrandizer’s support group, you’d likely regard the unequal conditions as fair. You might over time even develop a sense of entitlement. But if you were a poor worker watching your housemates chewing succulent filets across the pit, while you boiled fish bones to get the scraps of flesh, it’s plausible that life would seem a little bit unfair.

Fairness Today

Today’s poor—worldwide—watch the rich and famous pursue their luxurious lifestyles on reality TV, rather than on the opposite side of the pit house. Nevertheless, evolutionary psychologists maintain that our fundamental perceptual, emotional and behavioral traits are largely unchanged from our hunting and gathering days. We fear now what we feared then, and seek the same basic satisfactions. But our world today is considerably changed from the world where these traits evolved, and as a result, our behaviors aren’t always appropriate to our current situations.

Economic competition coupled with technological innovation has led to the incredible accomplishments and opportunities of modern life. But the consequences of those activities also pose potential challenges to concepts of fairness, and to the sustainability of our civilization.

We are both cooperative and competitive, but it seems difficult for us to find the right balance between cooperation and competition in a truly global civilization—to come to agreement, as a worldwide species, on what really constitutes fairness in the early years of the 21st century. Our inability to adequately address the challenge of climate change is a striking example.

Climate change is driven by myriad actions of billions of people striving to improve their lives. Immediate needs—will there be food tomorrow?—overwhelm concerns about future and uncertain changes in climate. In such a causally complex, global scale problem, how can we design institutions that enable us to fairly share the costs and consequences of our activities on the environment?

The sustainability of hunter-gatherer groups was closely tied to their sense of fairness. In a world where scarcity was the primary challenge, sharing and cooperation were the norms that worked to ensure the group’s survival. What are the norms of fairness that will work in our situation today, when we again find ourselves confronting the potential of scarcity—of energy, clean water, fresh air, food, and the earth’s rich heritage of biological diversity that ultimately supports our civilization?