It is common wisdom to believe that humans, by and large, lack natural predators in their current environments. That is not true; what humans lack is predators outside our own species. Yes, there is the occasional psychopathic hunter of people who gets dolled up in camouflage, grabs a knife or gun, and makes some trouble. More common, however, is behavior that is predatory but not illegal.
The origin of the idea that we, as humans, lack predators can be traced from a combination of the Darwinian scientific concept of evolutionary adaptation, along with the pseudo-scientific idea of Social Darwinism. But if we trace the idea backwards, we find an underlying reliance on the Great Chain of Being, which dates back to Plato.
Usually when we talk about predation, we’re touching on the nature of relationships between species (or groups). “Natural” predation is a moral justification for violence: predators should not be judged as mean or cruel, they just are what they are.
The Great Chain of Being
The Great Chain of Being arrays all existence on a hierarchical continuum. From rock and stone at the bottom to God at the top, the Chain ascends from pure matter to pure spirit. On this continuum, humans occupy a position at the edge of spirit and animals. By holding this position, they are simply defined as being “above” all other animals.
Humans hold the right to have power over other creatures and the physical world. It is, effectively, a hunting license. But by the same token, people higher on the chain within the “human” category have a similar license regarding those below them. On the chain, there is always hierarchy.
The chain is infinitely hierarchical. Even within each category or subcategory (like “animals” or “dogs” or “members of this pride of lions”) there are ever finer subcategories, whether species or social class. Lions are over gazelles, and kings are over peasants. Leaders are over those they lead, and eaters are over their food.
Medieval scholars believed that within the category of humans, some were higher than others. Thus, a King was higher on the chain than a peasant, and naturally had power over the peasant. In the same way, a husband had power over a wife, and parents over children.
[As a side note, when people say that something, like gay marriage, goes against the “natural order” of things, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, this is exactly the idea that they are referencing!]
Predation, or preying on something or someone, is conceptualized in Western culture by referring to this same “natural order.” Humans get to eat animals and plants because they are lower on the food-chain (a biological reductionist version of the Great Chain) than the others. In a scientific and biological sense, this whole idea of predator/prey really is much more complex. We can add in (at least!) symbiotes and parasites, and not every relationship is wholly consistent. After all, the Chain says that humans rank above polar bears, but I don’t recommend telling a polar bear to his face! “Sometimes you eat the bear…”
In a cultural sense, the Great Chain of Being becomes the moral and ethical justification not only between humans and their prey, but also for unequal relationships between people. We move from an theoretically rule-free competition (as biology really dictates) to a justification of hierarchy. And part of that hierarchy is that people higher on the ladder get to use those lower on the ladder.
Human on Human!
Is there a difference between competing with other humans for resources and treating them as prey? When we think about it at all, we usually figure that we’re not hunting other humans, we’re just competing with them for resources—food, mates, and all the other biological and psychological necessities. And in most cases that is correct.
However, that distinction does not always hold true. The moment that someone, as a human competing for resources, begins to treat other people as resources rather than as fellow competitors, it begins to look more like predation than competition. Looking back at the idea of the Great Chain, we compete with those on the same level, but hold a different kind of relationship with those above or below us.
Above? Below? Americans have a love / hate relationship with the idea of social class. To look at fiction and literature, they also generally have a very poor idea of its basis. On the one hand, social class is not some inherent feature passed on by “blood,” but is also not some inherent evil.
Social stratification is a necessity when it comes to functioning in complex societies. At the same time, it goes against the democratic ideals of America, and at times can be used to cover all sorts of abuses.
Remember the idea of the “band“? The approximately 150 people that we can effectively link to socially for cognitive and evolutionary reasons? Any group of people that is larger than that requires social hierarchy. So, social hierarchy can’t be all bad, can it?
Democracy tries to counterbalance the tendency of humans, as primates, to hierarchy. It asserts that there is equality, knowing that this is an ideal to be striven for. American democracy doesn’t promote equality, but equality of opportunity. It does not cast aside social hierarchy, but makes a virtue of social mobility.
Yet that does not change the nature of these hierarchical relationships. It just means that, at best, we’re not stuck in the one we were born to.
There is some distinction that we, as humans, make: between socially acceptable forms of predation and those that are unacceptable. Further, some forms of predation are acceptable by those who are higher on the Chain against those who are lower.
It is almost entirely acceptable to behave in a predatory manner against other humans, as long as it is done so on a financial level rather than a mortal one. Western culture accepts that unequal relationships exist, that they are good, and that they drive “progress.”
Now, a lot of people may disagree that it should be legal, but that is a different matter from whether it is. Even where Western laws exist to prevent abuses, they are often either relatively toothless or poorly enforced. Human on human predation is “allowed” by society (whether legal or not) as long as it doesn’t threaten to collapse the culture as a whole.
As long as people in the West act in accordance with the Western tradition of the Great Chain (reinterpreted for local culture, assuredly) they will remain relatively free to behave however they like. By contrast, it is socially unacceptable, or “against the law,” to hunt other humans with a gun—at least without the specific permission of those higher up the Great Chain of Being / social hierarchy.