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Inequality, 'silver spoon' effect found in ancient societies

The so-called "silver spoon" effect -- in which wealth is passed down from one generation to another -- is well established in some of the world's most ancient economies, according to an international study coordinated by a UC Davis anthropologist.

The study, to be reported in the Oct. 30 issue of Science, expands economists' conventional focus on material riches, and looks at various kinds of wealth, such as hunting success, food sharing partners, and kinship networks.

The team found that some kinds of wealth, like material possessions, are much more easily passed on than social networks or foraging abilities. Societies where material wealth is most valued are therefore the most unequal, said Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, the UC Davis anthropology professor who coordinated the study with economist Samuel Bowles of the Santa Fe Institute.

The researchers also showed that levels of inequality are influenced both by the types of wealth important to a society and the governing rules and regulations.

The study may offer some insight into the not-too-distant future.

"An interesting implication of this is that the Internet Age will not necessarily assure equality, despite the fact that its knowledge-based capital is quite difficult to restrict and less readily transmitted only from parents to offspring," Borgerhoff Mulder said.

"Whether the greater importance of networks and knowledge, together with the lesser importance of material wealth, will weaken the link between parental and next-generation wealth, and thus provide opportunities for a more egalitarian society, will depend on the institutions and norms prevailing in a society," she said.

For years, studies of economic inequality have been limited by a lack of data on all but contemporary, market-based societies. To broaden the scope of that knowledge, Borgerhoff Mulder, Bowles and 24 other anthropologists, economists and statisticians from more than a dozen institutions analyzed patterns of inherited wealth and economic inequality around the world.

The team included three others from UC Davis - economics professor Gregory Clark, anthropology professor Richard McElreath and Adrian Bell, a doctoral candidate in the Graduate Group in Ecology.

They focused not on nations, but on types of societies - hunter gatherers such as those found in Africa and South America; horticulturalists, or small, low-tech slash-and-burn farming communities typical of South America, Africa and Asia; pastoralists, the herders of East Africa and Central Asia; and land-owning farmers and peasants who use ploughs and were studied in India, pre-modern Europe and parts of Africa.

The research is part of the ongoing Persistent Inequality project of the Behavioral Sciences Program based at the Santa Fe Institute. The project has received funding from the institute's Cowan Endowment, the Russell Sage Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

About UC Davis

For 100 years, UC Davis has engaged in teaching, research and public service that matter to California and transform the world. Located close to the state capital, UC Davis has 31,000 students, an annual research budget that exceeds $500 million, a comprehensive health system and 13 specialized research centers. The university offers interdisciplinary graduate study and more than 100 undergraduate majors in four colleges — Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, Biological Sciences, Engineering, and Letters and Science — and advanced degrees from six professional schools — Education, Law, Management, Medicine, Veterinary Medicine and the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing.

Media contact(s):

Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, (530) 752-0659,
Samuel Bowles, (413) 548-9391,
Jim Sweeney, UC Davis News Service, (530) 752-6101,

Monique Borgerhoff Mulder | EurekAlert!
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