Did you ever wonder why people love lists so much?
The top 100 songs since 2000. The 12 best basketball players of all time. The 50 most influential politicians.
And really, the topic doesn’t matter – we can’t get enough of rankings and standings. Who’s leading the league? Which celebrity is on the A List? Who won the Oscar?
The reason for that fascination with lists and rankings lies deep in our past, and is literally bred in the bone.
Primates, our mammalian family, emerged about 60 million years ago, give or take, and many of our cousins employ “dominance hierarchies” to determine access to mates. So do humans.
For men, our species values money and power, because money and power translate directly into enhanced opportunities for the next generation. And of course, that’s all that any individual or species wants: To pass on his or her genes to the next generation. (Or to flip the script, human beings are a gene’s path to survival.)
This pattern, of course, extends into many different species, not just primates. The most powerful lion has a harem; the toughest walrus gets his choice of mates. But every species has a different way of determining its dominance hierarchy, and the success of homo sapiens reflects the success of its dominance hierarchy.
But that hierarchy isn’t just for men. Women, too, have their own dominance hierarchy, and it reflects different values – but the result is the same. All living things are driven by the desire to reproduce, by the desire for their offspring to survive and thrive.
The logic is simple. Within an individual life, focusing on a long-term goal – doing the things necessary to achieve it – increases the chances of reaching that goal. For a species, the greater the focus on successfully reproducing, the more likely it is there will be more of that species in the next generation.
By that measure, humans are wildly successful. Since stumbling out of Africa some 300,000 years ago, we have ruthlessly exterminated our hominid rivals, radically changed the ecosystems around us and extracted millions of years of metals from an unwilling earth.
And we have done so because our hierarchical system has worked extremely well in terms of maximizing our ability to compete.
It’s an evolutionary given that success in the mating dance is the ultimate success. Next comes producing offspring that also can succeed in that same dance, thus extending our genetic legacy down through the centuries.
Of course, there are many different hierarchies in each of our lives, some benign, some cruel and heartless. They change over time – the brutally obvious hierarchy of middle school; the subtle hierarchy of the book club – and there are many of them. Every group has a hierarchy of one sort or another. Some are clearly numbered (first, second, third), while others are split into tiers, like the pyramid of a company org chart.
For some of us, rising to the top of the hierarchy in all of our groups is a priority. For others, settling into the middle is fine a lot of the time – but usually, we all have one or more hierarchies that matter to us, where we want to shine.
In those cases, it becomes important to move up the ladder, to advance to the next tier, and there basically two ways to do so. The first is to achieve; the second is to sabotage.
The achievement aspect is obvious. If you want to run the book club, you never miss a meeting, you offer to host, you bring great cookies, you make yourself agreeable to the rest of the group. Over time, you will rise in the hierarchy, and may eventually be the unacknowledged leader, who others defer to.
The sabotage aspect, though, is just as effective. If two people stand between you and the nomination for city council, and you a) steal away the financial donors of one, and b) dig up a scandal on the other, you have moved to the top of the list without any achievement at all.
(The ideal combination, as Machiavelli pointed out so clearly in “The Prince,” is to do both. And it’s important to note that people who believe only achievement matters are especially vulnerable to sabotage.)
So within any group, there is a dominance hierarchy – after tens and tens of millions of years of evolution, we can’t escape that drive, that imperative. Still, as members of a group, any group, we are sometimes baffled by certain behaviors, but using the lens of achievement or sabotage, what is hidden is often revealed.
The backstabber in the office may not be able to sell very well, but still might get promoted. The guy who works late and on weekends may not be very smart, but he’s focused on achievement. (The person to watch out for, of course, is the one who does both.) Examine any group closely enough, and you’ll see the strategies at work – and you’ll see motivations laid bare.
Human beings live in groups, in tribes, and evolved in groups and tribes. In the 21st century, we all belong to a multitude of tribes, many of them involving people we’ve never met, and we operate within each tribe’s dominance hierarchy. It is hard, very hard, not to get involved in status at all, as even the most disinterested of us cannot completely disengage from our evolutionary heritage. But in those groups that matter most to us, in those competitions for promotions, titles and yes, mates, we are all in on our ranking in the list, and we will do what it takes to climb up the ladder.
And we like nothing better than to see our name at the top.