Christopher von Rueden, University of Richmond – Why Men Care About Status

Was status always important to men?

Christopher von Rueden, assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond, details whether hunter-gatherers also cared as much as modern men about their status among the tribe.

Dr. Christopher von Rueden looks at leadership through the lens of anthropology.

An anthropologist with expertise in small-scale societies, his research focuses on status hierarchy, including how status is acquired, the reproductive and health consequences of status, how status differences and leader-follower dynamics contribute to group performance, and the effects of demographic and ecological change on status hierarchy.

At the Jepson School, he teaches courses such as Leadership in Cultural and Historical Contexts and Leadership and the Social Sciences.

In addition to his work on status, Dr. von Rueden has published journal articles and presented on topics such as why humans differ in personality traits, and why we have such unique life histories among primates.

Dr. von Rueden conducts ethnographic fieldwork with the Tsimane’ forager-horticulturalists of lowland Bolivia. His work with the Tsimane’ is part of a larger project (the Tsimane’ Health and Life History Project) that investigates aging, health, and social behavior in a small-scale human population.

He is affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute and the Culture and the Mind Project.  He is investigating social networks in traditional human societies with the Santa Fe Institute and studying the effects of culture on moral cognition with the Culture and the Mind Project.

Dr. von Rueden received a doctorate in anthropology, with an emphasis in cognitive science, from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from Harvard University.

Why Men Care About Status

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The pursuit of social status underlies much of human behavior – from aggression to choice of employment to the goods we consume to generosity. My research focuses on why status motivates these behaviors, from an evolutionary anthropology perspective. In my recent paper with Adrian Jaeggi, we analyzed 33 non-industrial societies from around the globe, to test whether men’s status is associated with greater reproductive success.      

What we found is that men’s status has a modest association with reproduction, and the effect is as strong for hunter-gatherers as for horticulturalists, pastoralists, and agriculturalists. That was surprising. Our findings challenge the idea that status was of less concern for men over humans’ evolutionary history as hunter-gatherers. Even though hunter-gatherer societies tend to lack wealth and actively resist individuals who overtly seek power, men who are skilled, generous, or signal other valued attributes can be reproductively successful. Our results support the view that status pursuit was shaped and maintained by natural selection over hundreds of thousands of years in hunter-gatherer societies.

Adrian and I also find that the reproductive benefits of men’s status are more a result of men’s fertility than their children’s survival. Either status pursuit evolved to enhance offspring production more than offspring well-being, or offspring well-being has many more determinants that make its association with status weaker.

We did not include industrial societies in our analysis, where access to contraception and the economics of child-rearing can weaken associations between status and reproduction. Nor did we analyze women’s status hierarchy. Men’s and women’s hierarchies are not independent, and in societies where women have more power we expect women alter how men pursue status and how status affects men’s reproduction.”

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