From: An Anonymous Reader [Email him]
F. Roger Devlin's excellent article on envy made me start thinking: are there environmental presses or circumstances which would make envy a factor in enhancing survival of the group?
I notice Devlin's examples of envy in tribes all concern tribes at or close to the status of hunter-gatherers.
We are used to thinking of productivity and wealth in a positive sum–game manner. That is, in a society where wealth is created through effort and skill, the wealth of one individual may very well result in greater wealth in others of his group.
The hunter-gatherer group does, in fact, have a set resource. There are only a certain number of animals or plants in the vicinity. In that circumstance, the success of one hunter may very well deplete the hunting opportunities of the other hunters. In fact, if one hunter is too successful, he'll deplete the stock of available animals or plants. In that case, envy serves as a brake upon the most successful hunters, which keeps the animals from being hunted to extinction.
This notion also transfers to life history models. The r population is adapted to an environment rich enough in food and shelter materials that violence rather than starvation is the main threat. In that case, the survival of the group is more dependent on preventing conflict than on gathering individual wealth.
The consequence of this is that envy is a mediating survival factor more or less hardwired into groups or races evolutionarily close to the hunter-gatherer existence.
Black schools used to be far more successful in maintaining discipline and promoting learning and academic success in black students than schools are today. Black schools used to be run by black principals who used their own methods, including corporal punishment, to enforce good behavior. Vandalism and dysfunctional behavior can be controlled, but white students, as a group, probably need a different environment than black students, as a group. Probably the most successful system would be a permeable de facto segregation, where most black students would attend black schools, but black students with personality factors more suited to white schools would attend white schools. In a well-disciplined black school, there would be little danger for the few white students whose learning style was more suited for black schools.
To sum up, I'm positing a model where envy is a survival adaptation functional to certain environments. It is more or less hardwired, and becomes dysfunctional once the individuals are taken from a negative-sum or zero-sum environment and placed in a positive sum–game environment. An environment where more effort and skill actually produces more wealth.