Timmy, a boy of fifth grade, was eating lunch at school, relishing his delectable dish in the peace and quiet of the school’s dining hall.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Jimmy and his friends pounded on him. They pushed him away and took all of his lunch.
When Timmy was in his early teens he was constantly bullied by Jimmy and the gang. They frequently beat him up and took his money and belongings.
Timmy was at a disadvantage. He was skinny and therefore thought himself not strong enough to defend himself. But one day, he decided that he’d had enough.
Next time Jimmy tried to harass him, he hit him back. Jimmy and his friends were all over Timmy, kicking and punching him. But Timmy’s courage to fight back impressed those who were witnessing the scene.
Later that day, few boys approached Timmy and asked for his friendship. A few months later, Timmy and his boys had overthrown Jimmy and his boys as the most feared gang in the school.
The concept of dominance hierarchies
All individuals in a group of organisms try to maximize their own reproductive success by gaining as much access to key resources as possible- key resources that contribute to survival and/or reproduction.
Because all individuals don’t have equal access to these key resources, a hierarchy is inevitable where those at the top have maximum access and those at the bottom have minimum access to these key resources.
In general, the more dominant the individual, the higher will it rank in the hierarchy and the greater will be its access to the key resources.
Dominance hierarchies have been observed in a variety of animals, from crayfish to chimpanzees.
Dominant male chimps, for example, strut around to make themselves look deceptively large and heavy. Chimps who rank lower in the hierarchy give ‘submissive greetings’ to the dominant male.
These submissive greetings are a short sequence of pant-grunts, accompanied by lowering the body or kissing the feet, neck, or chest of the dominant chimp.
Just like dominant male chimps typically have more access to resources and mates, so do dominant human males. There are two reasons for this…
First, dominant men are preferred as mates by women. This is because high-status men can offer women greater protection and increased access to resources that can be used to support them and their children. (see What do women find attractive in men)
Second, dominant men are more able to simply ‘poach’ the mates of low-ranking men who cannot retaliate. Kings, emperors, and despots throughout recorded history have routinely collected young, fertile and attractive women in harems.
Dominance hierarchies are not static
Since there is so much to gain reproductively by being near the top of a dominance hierarchy, individuals continually compete for an elevated position and sometimes usurp a dominant male.
When Timmy and his boys usurped Jimmy and his boys, they had greater access to resources (like food, money, and belongings of other children), not to mention numerous other benefits that can be gained by bullying others into doing what you want.
When they reached puberty, they were able to use their dominance to attract, retain and protect their potential mates.
In nature, deaths and injuries of a dominant animal can result in a period of instability in which others rush in to fill the void at the top of the hierarchy.
Interestingly, the same thing has happened on a much larger scale in many human societies of the past. They’ve flourished under the regime of a dominant, capable ruler and crumbled in the absence of such a ruler at the top, leading to periods of chaos and instability, till the next dominant ruler comes along and restores stability.
What are the qualities that can help an individual rise up the dominance hierarchy?
Although it may be tempting to think so, physical size is not the primary determinant of rank in primates.
Instead, it depends heavily on social skills, most importantly the ability to enlist allies on whom they can rely for support in contests with other individuals.
In other words, it depends on the ability to form gangs.
When Timmy was approached by those boys later that day for friendship, they were hoping to form a formidable alliance to usurp the current dominant alliance. And what do gangs do? Well, all the things that directly or indirectly boost their chances of survival and reproduction.
Gangs mug people (to gain resources), rob banks (to gain resources), rape (to gain reproductive success), and compete with other gangs (to rise up the dominance hierarchy so that they can gain resources and ensure reproductive success).
Check out this intriguing video showing dominance hierarchy and gang violence in chimps: