A primatologist explains why humans react to Wall Street bonuses

Frans de Waal,

I think the sense of fairness in humans is very strongly developed and that’s why we react so strongly to all the bonuses received by Wall Street executives. We want to know why they deserve these benefits. The anger we have towards Wall Street is probably a very old primate reaction that relates to cooperation. If you are a cooperative animal you need to watch what you get. If you, or even a whole community, invest in something but then a few individuals receive a much larger return, it’s not a good arrangement. If it happens consistently, it’s time to look for an arrangement that is more beneficial. That’s why we’re so sensitive to how rewards are being divided.

Here is another interesting quote,

The second problem is the assumption that nature is purely driven by competitive processes. Darwin himself understood that this was not the case when he wrote that “struggle for existence” needed to be taken in a very broad sense. It may mean that an individual has a better immune system than another and that’s why they survived to leave more offspring. Instead of direct combat, which is the terminology that Spencer and Huxley used, it is more about who is smarter, who detects the predator earlier, who has better ears and eyes, etc. All of these things play a role, it is not necessarily combat between individuals. The conservative view of how nature operates and how we need to apply that to society is extremely distorted. It is a very deficient ideology in my opinion.

First published Jul 21, 2011