Federal brainboxes in New Mexico, analysing the many types of human society in terms of inequality between rich and poor, have suggested that the modern "internet age" of knowledge and technology-based economies may lead to substantially fairer wealth distribution - perhaps as fair as that seen in primitive hunter-gatherer groups.
The research was carried out by 26 anthropologists, statisticians and economists based at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico as part of the US National Science Foundation's Persistent Inequality project. The assembled thinkers examined the role of inherited wealth in various different societies group by the essential technologies used in people's livelihoods.
Hunter-gatherer peoples, according to the researchers, have quite equitable wealth distribution. There isn't much scope for such folk to pass on wealth to their children as their most valuable technologies are innate qualities such as wit and physical strength.
But in societies based primarily on farming - ie most of the human race for most of its history - the main "technologies" are things like land or livestock, easily inherited by the children of the wealthy. This tends to lead to a very unequal society.
"These societies exhibit levels of wealth inheritance and of inequality rivaling the most unequal national economies in the world today," says anthropologist Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, one of the study coordinators.
Even in the more right-on hunter gatherer milieu, though, it's well worth having successful parents. If you do, you're still three times as likely to do well in life yourself - though not 11 times more likely as in a farming setup, or 20 times as in a herding one.
But here's the good news from the NSF for us residents of the modern, Western knowledge/bullshit-based economies (or bad news if we happen to have wealthy, powerful parents):
The authors note that wealth in the emergent knowledge-based economy of today in some ways resembles that of hunter-gatherers in that its characteristic forms of wealth - skill and social connections - are less readily passed from parent to child than, say, a factory or plantation.
Though there is the customary caveat:
But this does not mean that the new information-driven Internet Age will necessarily assure less inequality.
The group's paper, Intergenerational Wealth Transmission and the Dynamics of Inequality in Small-Scale Societies, can be read here by subscribers to Science magazine. ®