Equality vs. Nature: How Hierarchy can Help us Save the Planet

Equality vs. Nature: How Hierarchy can Help us Save the Planet

In my article on climate change, my focus on hierarchy instead of equality generated a lot of shocked questions and sometimes downright consternation. It was bound to. The fetish of equality has been made such a benchmark of ‘humanity’ in modern times that any idea questioning it is immediately castigated as ‘fascist’. In this follow up article, I will try to explain some of those ideas further.

As most of the examples I give in this article are from the natural world, it is worthwhile to quote here the principle of ‘sociobiology’, coined by Edward O. Wilson. [1] This principle says that the same principles which govern the evolutionary processes in Nature also contribute to the evolution of human culture and society. It basically instates the idea that the ideas and dynamics of evolution can be used to explain and even structure human societies.

Concern 1: How can we practice hierarchy between individuals of a single species?

One of the shocked questioners put up a question: “In the food chain, the top predator is stronger than its prey and hence the chain works. But what decides one human stronger/more eligible to live than the other?”

A deeper study of evolution teaches us that hierarchy between species is not the only hierarchy that works in Nature. Hierarchy is a universal principle which works across species, families, genera and in some cases, even classes. Going downwards, hierarchy works within a single species. Going further down, even within an individual there is hierarchy among body parts. This is the primary reason why individuals fall into coma, where the brain keeps itself alive, shutting down the rest of the body.

But that’s another tangent. Let us get back to hierarchy within a single species. Among mammals, let us take the example of great apes. Any group is not more than twelve or so individuals. It is a harem. The dominant male is the one who has the first claim on resources. After him, his primary mate takes the share, and then other females. After them the less important members of the group, probably next of kin or earlier kids, take the share. The responsibility of the leader is to keep the group safe from external attacks, mark territory and defend it. There is no equality among individuals within a species. Hierarchy works, but not exclusively and not in isolation. It generally means who will have the first claim on resources.

Going across other species, let me stress the point here that there are four, and I stress, only four species on Earth which: create complex societies; use division of labour; and have more than three generations living together. This principle is called as ‘eusociality’ by Edward O. Wilson. [2] One of these species is obviously us, the Homo Sapiens. The other three are insects: ants, bees and termites.

These are the only four species which create complex societies and the only reason they are able to do that is because they practice division of labour; and the creation and practice of hierarchy between individuals was an important step in the creation of complex society.

Among the bees, the queen bee does pretty much nothing all her life except laying eggs and increase the population. Males are less important than females and their main function is to impregnate the queen bee and then die. The worker bees do all the hard work and consequently also experience life the most. They are the ones who fly around, delight and bite people. But they never get to reproduce. They die without ever having propagated their genes… individually. The point is, once again they practice hierarchy between individuals.

This is seen across the animal kingdom. Any species which lives in group practices hierarchy. Those that don’t use that principle simply live alone, hunt alone. But even they are ‘chosen’ or ‘preferred’ by nature in indirect ways. The weak ones find less food and thus have greater chances of dying of starvation; preyed on by other species; killed by heat, cold and other factors.

To make another very important point here: as I said above, there are only four species which lives together in millions, creating complex societies. But three of them are insects and obviously they don’t use technology to cushion themselves against the forces of nature. Mother Nature can bear their weight. A mammal our size should never have grown bigger than the sizes of the tribes. 20 to 30 is the maximum size of human group an eco-system can bear. And look at us now! We are living in conglomerations amounting to around 4 crore now! We are breeding like insects but living like human kings. Is it shocking that we are killing the planet?

So to answer the first part of the question: Hierarchy is a universal principle of Nature that works not only between the species, but also within the species, but not just in the framework of preying and getting preyed upon. Elimination and Selection do not just work through hunting. There are other forces of Nature, other reality checks and natural limitations and once again Nature ‘chooses’.

Concern 2: Are all Human Beings Meant to Survive?

Another questioner asked: “Even if we accept the idea that the nature wants four out of five children to die, those four children die because of human error than of nature.”

Absolutely not! This is a common misconception, ingrained by modern lifestyle divorced from the checks and balances of Nature. Living in megacities, living the ‘good life’ of fine dine and night clubs, we are led to believe that all of us (human beings) are not only meant to survive till adulthood, but are also meant to ‘have as much fun as possible’. Living this chimera, we forget that until just a few decades ago, at least half of the human beings were wiped out before they could reach adulthood and it was the same with all species. And it was no fault of human beings. It was no ‘fault’ of Nature either. It is just the way of the Nature. Nature progresses by Elimination as much as it does by Reproduction.

Nature is perfect not because it works by the grand design of God and gives birth to only perfect beings. It is perfect because it eliminates the imperfect and the majority of individuals in all species that are born are imperfect. They are eliminated by preying, by starvation, by other forces of nature. 99.99% of all insects never get to grow to adulthood and never get to reproduce. Even in higher mammals like dogs and cats the rate can be as high as 80%. Nature eliminates the imperfect. Human Technology, informed by Science and the ‘kind yet misguided notion of saving all’, saves everyone: the perfect and imperfect.  And believe it or not, this is what brings Mother Nature and Gaia to disaster.

Concern 3: Does this mean we have to practice Social Darwinism?

Does this mean that I am advocating Social Darwinism? Are the concepts of Hierarchy and Social Darwinism one and the same? Can hierarchy be practiced without the idea of Social Darwinism?

Answer: Social Darwinism was a flawed idea, a racist creation of Eurocentric minds. I advocate no such thing. But not because it is cruel, but because it is unscientific, and does not exist in Nature. Let me explain why. Social Darwinism posited that human beings were not one race but many and thus the whites had the right to exploit, enslave and mass massacre the rest. That is simply not true. Homo Sapiens is one species, with a gene pool which has very little diversity.

This is so because at one point of time in our evolutionary history, it is posited that only about a few thousands of human beings had survived, shortening the gene pool. And to add more injury to that, only about hundred or so crossed the Strait of Djibouti and every human being outside Africa is descended from that small group. So not only are there no races among human beings, we have very little genetic diversity within us and thus it nullifies all ideas of Social Darwinism.

Moreover, in Nature, elimination and selection does not happen between species, otherwise food chains would collapse all the time. It does happen in difficult times, when only one species survives, out of a family of ten, or only one family survives out of a genus of five. Even in these emergencies, one out of many similar species survive, the species that is best suited for the new normal. But commonly, the process of elimination and selection happens between individuals and not groups. And Social Darwinism depends on ideas of groups as in race. Hence it is wrong.

Concern 4: Can we play God?

Does this mean that we can choose who gets to live and who does not? Does it mean that we can play God?

I am afraid that train has already departed the station. We chose to play God when we intervened in the process of nature and started saving kids and adults who should have been eliminated by Nature. Thus, while we usurped the ‘right’ of Nature, we should also have usurped its ‘responsibility’. It means that when it was Nature which decided who got to live, it also maintained and controlled population demographics. Since, man has decided to break the chain of Nature and play the role of Nature instead, I am afraid, it also falls upon us and not Nature, to limit our populations.

That is where I say that we will have to let the principle of hierarchy govern us once again, and thus control our population and unstoppable growth and Vikas!

If not race, then what is the criterion of implementing hierarchy among human beings? Well… we are familiar with one civilization on earth which created a great chain of hierarchy. Sanatana Dharma did create a society based upon hierarchy and before you recoil in horror, no, they were no Nazis trying to keep Dalits as a ‘slave race’, and that system got too ossified in the medieval ages due to external disturbances like Islamic invasions and also internal atrophy.

Food in India was abundant and Nature still kept killing at least half of children even in India and so the population was kept in control and basic resources were never a problem in India until the Middle Ages. But the hierarchy could easily be seen in power and decision making, albeit the same system also made sure that none of the four great groups could dominate the other three.

The bitterness between different groups became severe during the Middle Ages when resources became scarce and the fight for them became ugly. That system cannot continue as it is and is already dying, but it is a significant fact that the most ecologically sensitive culture and civilization on Earth was also the one which also coincidentally created the most hierarchical of all societies.

Concern 5: Can Hierarchy be Practiced outside Race or even Caste?

To make the final point: if race is a false idea, and if the old system of Sanatana Dharma can no longer work then how to create hierarchy? To begin with, this idea is not mine and every great scientist who is working on climate change openly accepts that hierarchy and ‘right of first claim on resources’ is something which we will have to implement very soon. James Lovelock talks about this in The Vanishing Face of Gaia, his latest in the Gaia series. [3] Lynn Margulis, the great scientist also concurs and talks about it, along with almost every other climate scientist.

To give answer to the question of hierarchy within a species in modern times and to steer clear of racism and even Jati and Varna, we can create carbon credits for individuals. Right now there are carbon credits for countries. We can create them for individuals too. For example, you can link the Aadhaar number or SSN of all individuals to their lifestyle choices. For buying products harmful for environment and for using resources wastefully can ‘subtract’ carbon credits from their account. Making healthy choices, using organic products, creating zero waste can ‘add’ carbon credits. To sum up, the more they release CO2 in the atmosphere the less carbon credits they have. The less they do, the more the credits they have!

Based on these credits we can create hierarchy chains and first claims on resources in times of crises. This will also be a way of ensuring smoother functioning of society and lessening the chaos. For a start, these credits can start and end with the individual. But later on, laws could be implemented so that these ‘carbon credits’ could be transferred as ‘heritage’ through generations. This will, on one hand, make family as a close unit once again, and will force small groups to be responsible towards their environment. And this is just one model. The scientists have created many.

One questioner accused my case of being ‘negative’ and ‘fatalistic’. I am afraid that the state of Nature and Gaia has reached such a tipping point that such Bohemian niceties as those of ‘being positive’ and ‘motivational’ is no longer affordable and sustainable for us. What we need to do now, is to take action. What we need now is to save Gaia.

We started to play God and started to decide who gets to live and die when we first got out of the food chain, when we first became the hunters and not being hunted. It’s already high time that we take the responsibility of limiting populations, rationing resources and saving Gaia.


[1] Wilson, Edward O. Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Harvard University Press, 2010.

[2] Wilson, Edward O. The Social Conquest of Earth. Liveright: 2013.

[3] Lovelock, James. The Vanishing Face of Gaia. Penguin: 2010.

Featured Image: Forbes

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Pankaj Saxena

Pankaj Saxena is a scholar of History, Hindu Architecture and Literature. He has visited more than 400 sites of ancient Hindu temples and photographed the evidence. He has been writing articles, research papers and reviews in various print and online newspapers and magazines. He currently works as the Asst. Professor, Centre for Indic Studies, Indus University, Ahmedabad. He has authored three books so far. He maintains a blog at