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Inequality, “silver spoon” effect found in ancient societies

Nov. 2, 2009
Courtesy University of California - Davis 
and World Science staff

The so-called “sil­ver spoon” ef­fec­t—in which wealth is passed from one genera­t­ion to an­oth­er—is well es­tab­lished in some of the world’s most an­cient economies, a study has found.

Re­ported in the Oct. 30 is­sue of the jour­nal Sci­ence, the anal­y­sis ex­am­ined var­i­ous kinds of wealth in sim­ple economies, such as hunt­ing suc­cess, food shar­ing part­ners, and kin­ship net­works.

In­e­qual­ity lev­els are in­flu­enced both by the types of wealth im­por­tant to a so­ci­e­ty and its rules, said Mo­n­ique Borg­er­hoff Mul­der, a Un­ivers­ity of Cal­i­for­nia Da­vis an­thro­po­l­o­gist who co­or­di­nated the study with econ­o­mist Sam­u­el Bowles of the San­ta Fe In­sti­tute.

They found that so­ci­eties where ma­te­ri­al wealth is most val­ued are the least equal. That’s be­cause ma­te­ri­al goods are much more easily passed on than oth­er kinds of “wealth,” such as so­cial net­works or for­ag­ing abil­i­ties, Borg­er­hoff Mul­der ex­plained.

“An in­ter­est­ing im­plica­t­ion of this is that the In­ter­net Age will not nec­es­sarily as­sure equal­ity, de­spite the fact that its knowl­edge-based cap­i­tal is quite dif­fi­cult to re­strict and less readily trans­mit­ted only from par­ents to off­spring,” Borg­er­hoff Mul­der said.

“Whether the great­er im­por­tance of net­works and knowl­edge—to­geth­er with the less­er im­por­tance of ma­te­ri­al wealth—will weak­en the link be­tween pa­ren­tal and next-genera­t­ion wealth, and thus pro­vide op­por­tun­i­ties for a more egal­i­tar­ian so­ci­e­ty, will de­pend on the in­sti­tu­tions and norms pre­vail­ing,” she added.

For years, stud­ies of eco­nom­ic ine­qual­ity have been lim­it­ed by a lack of da­ta on all but con­tem­po­rary, market-based so­ci­eties, she went on. To broad­en that knowl­edge, Borg­er­hoff Mul­der, Bowles and 24 oth­er an­thro­po­l­o­gists, econ­o­mists and statis­ti­cians an­a­lyzed pat­terns of in­her­it­ed wealth and eco­nom­ic ine­qual­ity around the world.

They fo­cused not on na­tions, but on types of so­ci­eties: hunter-gath­er­ers such as those found in Af­ri­ca and South Amer­i­ca; hor­ti­cul­tur­ists, or small, low-tech slash-and-burn farm­ing com­mun­i­ties typ­i­cal of South Amer­i­ca, Af­ri­ca and Asia; pas­toral­ists, the herders of East Af­ri­ca and Cen­tral Asia; and land-owning farm­ers and peas­ants who use ploughs and were stud­ied in In­dia, pre-modern Eu­rope and parts of Af­ri­ca.


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The so-called “silver spoon” effect—in which wealth is passed down from one generation to another—is well established in some of the world’s most ancient economies, a study has found. Reported in the Oct. 30 issue of the journal Science, the analysis examined various kinds of wealth in simple economies, such as hunting success, food sharing partners, and kinship networks. Inequality levels are influenced both by the types of wealth important to a society and its rules, said Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, a University of California Davis anthropologist who coordinated the study with economist Samuel Bowles of the Santa Fe Institute. The researchers found that societies where material wealth is most valued are the least equal. That’s because material goods are much more easily passed on than other kinds of “wealth,” such as social networks or foraging abilities, Borgerhoff Mulder explained. “An interesting implication of this is that the Internet Age will not necessarily assure equality, despite the fact that its knowledge-based capital is quite difficult to restrict and less readily transmitted only from parents to offspring,” Borgerhoff Mulder said. “Whether the greater importance of networks and knowledge, together with the lesser importance of material wealth, will weaken the link between parental and next-generation wealth, and thus provide opportunities for a more egalitarian society, will depend on the institutions and norms prevailing in a society,” she said. For years, studies of economic inequality have been limited by a lack of data on all but contemporary, market-based societies, she added. To broaden that knowledge, Borgerhoff Mulder, Bowles and 24 other anthropologists, economists and statisticians from more than a dozen institutions analyzed patterns of inherited wealth and economic inequality around the world. They focused not on nations, but on types of societies—hunter gatherers such as those found in Africa and South America; horticulturalists, or small, low-tech slash-and-burn farming communities typical of South America, Africa and Asia; pastoralists, the herders of East Africa and Central Asia; and land-owning farmers and peasants who use ploughs and were studied in India, pre-modern Europe and parts of Africa.