• Altmetrics
  • Science Sessions: The PNAS Podcast Program

Inequality in nature and society

  1. Egbert H. van Nesa
  1. aEnvironmental Science Department, Wageningen University, 6700 HB Wageningen, The Netherlands
  2. bDepartment of History, Utrecht University, 3508 TC Utrecht, The Netherlands
  1. Edited by Simon A. Levin, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, and approved November 3, 2017 (received for review April 18, 2017)

Significance

Inequality is one of the main drivers of social tension. We show striking similarities between patterns of inequality between species abundances in nature and wealth in society. We demonstrate that in the absence of equalizing forces, such large inequality will arise from chance alone. While natural enemies have an equalizing effect in nature, inequality in societies can be suppressed by wealth-equalizing institutions. However, over the past millennium, such institutions have been weakened during periods of societal upscaling. Our analysis suggests that due to the very same mathematical principle that rules natural communities (indeed, a “law of nature”) extreme wealth inequality is inevitable in a globalizing world unless effective wealth-equalizing institutions are installed on a global scale.

Abstract

Most societies are economically dominated by a small elite, and similarly, natural communities are typically dominated by a small fraction of the species. Here we reveal a strong similarity between patterns of inequality in nature and society, hinting at fundamental unifying mechanisms. We show that chance alone will drive 1% or less of the community to dominate 50% of all resources in situations where gains and losses are multiplicative, as in returns on assets or growth rates of populations. Key mechanisms that counteract such hyperdominance include natural enemies in nature and wealth-equalizing institutions in society. However, historical research of European developments over the past millennium suggests that such institutions become ineffective in times of societal upscaling. A corollary is that in a globalizing world, wealth will inevitably be appropriated by a very small fraction of the population unless effective wealth-equalizing institutions emerge at the global level.

Footnotes

  • ?1To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email: Marten.Scheffer{at}wur.nl.
  • Author contributions: M.S. designed research; B.v.B., I.A.v.d.L., and E.H.v.N. performed research; I.A.v.d.L. and E.H.v.N. analyzed data; and M.S. and B.v.B. wrote the paper.

  • Conflict of interest statement: Simon A. Levin coauthored a review article published in Critical Care Medicine in 2016 with M.S., I.A.v.d.L., and E.H.v.N.

  • This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.

  • This article contains supporting information online at www.danielhellerman.com/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1073/pnas.1706412114/-/DCSupplemental.

Online Impact

    <tr id="UPyyYwe"><optgroup id="UPyyYwe"></optgroup></tr>
    <acronym id="UPyyYwe"></acronym>
    <acronym id="UPyyYwe"></acronym><acronym id="UPyyYwe"><optgroup id="UPyyYwe"></optgroup></acronym><rt id="UPyyYwe"><small id="UPyyYwe"></small></rt>
    <acronym id="UPyyYwe"></acronym>
    <acronym id="UPyyYwe"></acronym>
    <acronym id="UPyyYwe"><optgroup id="UPyyYwe"></optgroup></acronym>
    <acronym id="UPyyYwe"></acronym>
    <tr id="UPyyYwe"></tr>
    <rt id="UPyyYwe"><small id="UPyyYwe"></small></rt><acronym id="UPyyYwe"><optgroup id="UPyyYwe"></optgroup></acronym>
  • 595505886 2018-01-24
  • 26570885 2018-01-24
  • 724358884 2018-01-24
  • 649756883 2018-01-24
  • 550841882 2018-01-24
  • 436793881 2018-01-24
  • 99132880 2018-01-23
  • 802899879 2018-01-23
  • 295573878 2018-01-23
  • 352668877 2018-01-23
  • 984633876 2018-01-23
  • 545928875 2018-01-23
  • 976569874 2018-01-23
  • 871324873 2018-01-23
  • 263462872 2018-01-23
  • 577161871 2018-01-23
  • 255603870 2018-01-23
  • 117346869 2018-01-23
  • 90982868 2018-01-23
  • 663415867 2018-01-23