I’m an optimistic technologist; I know that the application of reason and knowledge is the best way to improve the world. This ethos is normally applied to tasks such as sorting out the universal remote control or un-jamming the cat flap but I believe that everything will improve with the march of progress.
But what if you could improve the world as a whole, rather than improving individual components (a cure for cancer, electric cars, un-jammable cat-flaps)?
That’s what The Spirit Level is about, and it’s well worth a read.
The premise of the book is intriguing; the authors advocate that inequality in a society is holding back progress. Progress in what areas? Well, almost all of them; health standards, longevity, happiness, child-pregnancy, crime rates etc. That was interesting enough, but an accompanying point that make is that past a certain average level increases have a smaller and smaller impact. They show that on most measures that a generally less wealthy, more equal country will perform better than a wealthier, less equal one.
The book has a lot of data backing up their point of view; they compare more equal countries with their less equal peers on a number of metrics. They also compare states within the USA.
Using this information they show that there is a correlation between well-being and equality; after that they demonstrate that inequality is one of the causes of the slow-down in progress.
Why inequality has this effect is what the latter part of the book is about.
The authors go into the social and biological roots of our behaviour over a number of chapters but a lot of it comes down to our evolutionary ancestors. Our schizophrenic inheritance is demonstrated by two of our close biological cousins.
On the one hand you have chimpanzees. They have a rigid social structure with the higher ranked chimps demonstrating their status in all sorts of ways to keep the lower chimps in line. The chimps lower down the pecking order scrabbled around desperately showing their status off to the higher orders while ruthlessly suppressing any others lower down the totem pole. So think mums at the school gate, with more poo-throwing.
On the other hand you have bonobos. Their social structure revolves around co-operation. And sex. They’re quite happy to help other members of the group out and there’s little social stratification. Any conflict is normally resolved by liberal application of bonking (irrespective of the genders of the monkeys involved). So pretty much not like school mums, unless you frequent very sordid areas of the Internet.
The book strikes an optimistic tone with lots of evidence showing that people generally want fairness and co-operation rather than struggle when they’re confronted by it explicitly. The authors themselves run a website to spread the word and try and get the issue of equality deal with as a political issue (the book itself is pretty agnostic about how to achieve equality; they show a few examples of how different countries approach it).
An eye-opening read and heartily recommended.