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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)


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.


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.


  • ?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.

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