Sarah Perry is a contributing editor of Ribbonfarm.

In Minimum Viable Superorganism, Kevin Simler posits a minimal structure by which an institution made up of self-interested participants can achieve its goals:

Individuals should grant social status to others for advancing the superorganism’s goals.

There are two definitive activities within the prestige economy:


In this model, prestige inequalities are not socially harmful, but a consequence of a system that harnesses self-interest to achieve the goal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

This bears only a vague resemblance to the system we currently find ourselves in. And that’s not a criticism of the model. Humans as a species are unimaginably richer now than in ancestral times, compared to how many of us there are. Why, given this ingenious mechanism for the distribution of talents and resources, is there still so much hunger, misery, and boredom?

The answer lies in modern innovations in the ancestrally interacting economies of subsistence, money, and prestige.

Three Ancestral Economies

In the most virtuous instantiation of the minimum viable superorganism, people are motivated to advance the goals of the group, using their abilities and property, in exchange for a terminal value (status or prestige), which was, in our evolutionary history, reliably correlated with cooperation and mating opportunities. (Similarly, we might say that sugar is a terminal value because its pursuit was reliably correlated with survival in our prehistory.)

For a biological organism, maximizing genetic fitness (survival and reproduction of viable offspring) seems like it would be the terminal value, and in the eyes of Nature, it is. But when other metrics are extremely reliably correlated with biological goals, organisms may in practice find it more efficient to focus on these proxy measures. This is what makes the phenomenon of a “supernormal stimulus” possible. Today, almost everyone could afford to raise a dozen children to reproductive maturity, yet almost no one does. An organism that sought to maximize fitness directly would certainly do so. But humans do not. (I certainly don’t.) Other proxy metrics of fitness, most importantly for this discussion prestige, are pursued instead.

In hunter-gatherer and agriculture societies, one of the most important goals of the superorganism is to maximize the number of subsisting people within the group or network. This is especially important for defense purposes: a group of high density can maintain its territory against the incursions of those of lower density. Defense requirements necessitated by the interaction of settled agrarian and raiding nomadic societies were probably historically important in the emergence of mega-empires, Peter Turchin argues, forcing societies to innovate ways to achieve higher density and complexity in order to defend themselves from (also innovating) hostile armies. Large-scale cooperation became an existential necessity.

So if the ancestral superorganism’s main goal was to maximize viable population density, then it would reward those who contributed to this goal.

Wayne Suttles (in Affinal Ties, Subsistence, and Prestige among the Coast Salish, American Anthropologist New Series 62:2:296-305, April 1960) defines three economies operating in some hunter-gatherer peoples of the American west coast: subsistence (food and other goods directly related to the survival of people), wealth (stores of value, such as baskets or blankets, produced, kept, and traded), and prestige (acquired though gifts of wealth via the potlatch system).

All layers interact; no economy is separate from the others. Suttles says:

Explanations of the potlatch have been only partial ones, finding its function in the expression of the individual’s drive for high status or in the fulfillment of society’s need for solidarity. Relating these functions to man’s other requirements for survival has often been inhibited by an assumption that the satisfaction of alimentary needs through the food quest and the satisfaction of psychological needs through the manipulation of wealth form two separate systems, the “subsistence economy” and the “prestige economy.” Or if a relationship between the two is hypothesized, the hypothesis usually makes the “prestige economy” dependent upon the “subsistence economy”; it is assumed that a rich habitat provides an abundance of food which in turn supports the prestige economy which in turn maintains social stratification. I believe, however, that it is more reasonable to assume that, for a population to have survived in a given environment for any length of time, its subsistence activities and prestige-gaining activities are likely to form a single integrated system by which that population has adapted to its environment.

[Suttles, p. 296, emphasis mine.]

The Pacific Northwestern environment provided diverse resources, each with an “owner” who maintained it and controlled its exploitation. These resources exhibited a characteristic common among human environments of evolutionary adaptation: seasonal and yearly variability. A group specializing in a single resource, without opportunities for trade with other specialists, would find its numbers greatly diminished in a bad year. On the other hand, many specialist groups would find themselves with a surplus beyond their subsistence needs in many years. It could not be stored for future consumption.

The systems solution to this problem is money.

Suttles refers to woven baskets, mountain goat blankets, and the like as wealth – good that took significant human effort to produce, that could be easily stored and transferred, and that were recognized as valuable by other groups. They display the most important characteristics of money: to act as a store of value and a medium of exchange. They allowed consumption to be smoothed across nearby groups over time, providing a mechanism of low cognitive cost to measure complex debts.

Among the Salish, Suttles says, a group that had a sudden abundance of food would give it to another group, and the recipient group would “thank” the donor group with blankets and other “wealth.” (This was not conceived of as payment.) The donor group could then use the accumulated wealth to increase its own consumption in times of need. In addition, wealthy families could afford to support more wives and husbands of their children on their property, who could engage not only in subsistence production but in direct production of wealth (e.g. weaving).

But what does one do with massive accumulations of wealth? Suttles says:

Since wealth is indirectly or directly obtainable through food, then inequalities in food production will be translated into inequalities in wealth. If one community over a period of several years were to produce more food than its neighbors, it might come to have a greater part of the society’s wealth. Under such circumstances the less productive communities might become unable to give wealth back in exchange for further gifts of food from the more productive one. If amassing wealth were an end in itself the process of sharing surplus food might thus break down. But wealth, in the native view, is only a means to high status achieved through the giving of it. And so the community that has converted its surplus food into wealth and now has a surplus of wealth gets rid of its wealth by giving it away at a potlatch. And this, though the participants need not be conscious of it, by “restoring the purchasing power” of the other communities, enables the whole process to continue. The potlatchers have converted their surplus wealth into high status. High status in turn enables the potlatchers to estab- lish wider ties, make better marriages with more distant villages, and thus extend the process farther.

[Suttles, p. 303, emphasis mine.]

In this system, the innate drive for prestige is directed toward achieving the goals of the superorganism, which in this case are probably highly correlated with the material well-being of its members. (The system of betting on cock fights in Bali is analogous, if not as progressively redistributive.) Here is an illustration of the workings of such a system:

a stylized integrated economy

This requires an intricate balance. Innovation and social change upset this balance, and the system must reorganize itself to accommodate changes. In our present economy, prestige is no longer so tightly harnessed to improve the well-being of members.

Modern Money and Prestige

We moderns think of prestige inequalities as a bad thing, undermining democratic ideals of egalitarianism. No one is better than anyone else. Within Suttles’ model (and Simler’s model), prestige is actually a mechanism for resource redistribution: a means of combatting inefficient forms of wealth inequality.

First, in our system, prestige is expected to be produced directly, for example through education, rather than through gifts of wealth or subsistence. Vast amounts of effort and resources are expended with the hopes of directly increasing one’s own prestige (or that of one’s children), rather than producing and acquiring resources to redistribute. Education is even seen as a means to acquiring subsistence or wealth (though its value as an investment may be on par with buying diamonds retail, especially for the poorest). And educational institutions are often the targets of potlatch-style donations from wealthy individuals. Consider Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to the Newark public school system. It was presumably Zuckerberg’s best option for trading wealth for prestige, but its results were vastly inferior to direct redistribution in terms of the well-being of the recipients. And let us not forget the plight of adjunct faculty.

Second, the myth or ideal of prestige equality reduces the ability of high-productivity individuals to purchase prestige in exchange for wealth. Randall Collins (in Interaction Ritual Chains) describes our flat status landscape:

Most individuals are known only inside local networks, and invisible outside of them no matter their fame inside….the status order is invisible, or visible only within specialized networks; occupation and wealth does not get deference, nor form visible status groups broadcasting categorical identities. Public interaction is an equality without much solidarity, an enactment of personal distance mitigated by a tinge of mutual politeness and shared casualness. [Erving Goffman] calls it the order of civil disattention….

Categorical identities have largely disappeared, replaced by pure local personal reputations in networks where one is known, and by anonymity outside.

[Collins, p. 276-284.]

Where do large concentrations of money go when they can’t be turned into prestige within a wide community? They may be exchanged within an isolated network of the very wealthy. Collins says (p. 264), “[t]he main attraction of having extremely large amounts of money may be the emotional energies and symbolic membership markers of being on the phone at all hours of the night and day engaging in exciting transactions.”

And money without a place to go may even distort the subsistence economy, turning what were previously subsistence goods into money (and thereby increasing their cost). Nick Szabo describes the monetization of oil and phosphates (the latter necessary for fertilizer): in the absence of a secure means for giant piles of money to be stored (or, I would add, turned into prestige), intermediate commodities become “partial money” and their cost (and volatility) no longer reflects only the costs of production.

Breakdowns, or discrepancies between our virtuous model and modern reality, are summarized in this illustration:

a modern economy

Our society directs gifts of wealth toward remedying prestige inequalities, a dubious endeavor, rather than toward remedying inequalities in material consumption and wealth.

Benevolent and Perverse Inequality

Subsistence has probably become more equal under our current system: life spans have drastically increased, especially for the poorest. Wealth, however, is very unequally distributed, with many holding wealth of a magnitude beyond any possibility of personal consumption. This wealth distorts subsistence economies when it renders subsistence goods (such as energy or houses) “partial money.”

Prestige inequalities persist (they are even on Donald Brown’s list of human universals), but they are minimized in everyday life and regarded as degrading and unfortunate. Celebrities are their main expression, and the quality of life of celebrities is questionable. Wealth may not reliably be turned into prestige, as experienced in everyday ritual interaction (see, e.g., Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign). However, a society that valued prestige inequalities, and encouraged the exchange of wealth for prestige through redistribution, would paradoxically find itself with much-ameliorated wealth inequality (and likely quality-of-life inequality).

Only a superorganism can accomplish this task.

About Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry is a ribbonfarm contributing editor and the author of Every Cradle is a Grave. She also blogs at The View from Hell.
Her primary interests are in the area of ritual and social behavior. Follow her on Twitter


  1. What happens to prestige if you factor out “flat” reciprocal altruism that’s merely a case of banking surpluses across time in a distributed way? Yes, transient wealth inequalities will exist in such a system, but I don’t see that it would necessarily lead to a prestige economy. Don’t bats and other animals create a reciprocal altruism economy without a complex prestige based status system?

    It is also unclear to me that the “purpose” of money must be limited to either trading it in for prestige via redistribution or become an end in itself. It can be spent in ways that don’t significantly increase prestige in proportion. Example: you could employ a fairly small workforce and plan Mars missions because you’re stimulated by the idea of going to Mars rather than by the prestige such a mission would bring to you. The money would then end up being stored in aluminum structures on Mars or burned up as rocket fuel, among other things. One can imagine a future hyperbillionaire doing such things in secret even.

  2. anonymous says:

    Once enough prestige is accumulated it can then be traded in for things that can’t be purchased with money such as behavioral modification. Consider what happens if Stephen Hawking says some activity occurring in the sciences is dumb vs someone trying to pay to reduce it.

  3. Evolution is an ongoing process. There is no preemptive correct solution based upon any intellectual exercise. What persists over a long time period is simply what works to enhance a species’ ability to survive and thrive. All short term variance is mutation or signal noise.

  4. I’ve never really considered direct payment for prestige, I can see how people could get a more consistent return of prestige for the payment. Trying to buy prestige indirectly, by buying something prestigious for yourself, will not gain prestige very consistently. I have a saying, “the people who are impressed by someone buying something are not worth impressing”. To me, it seems that the number of people who have this type of view is increasing. Maybe this increase is responsible for your claim that money can not be reliably turned into prestige. But this is only for indirect prestige purchase, direct prestige purchase seems to be reliable enough to me. I think if Jeb Bush gave his money away instead of trying to buy office he would have plenty of prestige.

    Maybe the reason that everyday people don’t seem to buy prestige directly, is the lack of a standard framework. Imagining that this framework exists: If a person wants to buy prestige, they would make a payment and receive a receipt that is accessible and verifiable by anyone with an internet connection. This collected money would then be evenly distributed to every intelligent being (don’t ask me how, such is the power of imagination :)). If something approximating this could be created I could see it as a more sane way to collect taxes, using social pressure through prestige ratings rather than government force as a motivator.

  5. How can this be true:

    We moderns think of prestige inequalities as a bad thing, undermining democratic ideals of egalitarianism.

    When just a few sentences later you write:

    <blockquote Vast amounts of effort and resources are expended with the hopes of directly increasing one’s own prestige…

    To me, our society seems saturated with prestige inequalities and pretty much everybody knows this and acknowledges it, from TV celebrity culture to corporate ladder-climbing to the TED talk circuit to academics angling to get into the right journals. We have a nice bit of mythology that all persons are of equal value, but it՚s got about the same status as belief in Santa Claus – a nice story for the children, but we all know where the presents and prestige really come from.

    Oh sure there are some elements of prestige flattening in our culture – Andy Warhol՚s remark that celebrities and ordinary people all drink the same Coca-cola comes to mind – but they are hardly the whole story. So, I՚m not sure what your point is. Can it really be that our society suffers from too flat a prestige hierarchy?

    And also, you seem to be arguing that we should make it easier to turn wealth into prestige, but what is Zuckerberg՚s donation (and every other lesser donor who gets his name on a plaque) doing if not exactly that?

  6. Look to the China economy for a good example, prestige is acquired through money or attempted.

  7. Very deep! comparing inequalities then and now.

  8. Prestige inequality is a sad reality especially in 3rd world countries.I have experiencing living in both 1st and 3rd world countries and I just can’t help to compare the massive disparity.