Sweeping Avian Diseases

Here's another tidbit emanating from Jordan Peterson's fulminant erudition:

If a contagious avian disease sweeps through a neighbourhood of well-stratified songbirds, it is the least dominant and most stressed birds, occupying the lowest rungs of the bird world, who are most likely to sicken and die.

It is from his Book 12 Rules for Life1. What he wants to say, I guess, is that you better kick ass so that you don't end up with the bottom filth of society. But I'm more interested in the birds.

If this bird species is territorial (in fact most songbirds are) then there would hardly be a need for a pecking order with rungs (as some social but not so much territorial birds like common chickens in fact have). So it seems to me, that Peterson confuses the concepts of social hierarchy and territoriality here.

Sure Peterson is a splendid scholar. And of course there is a citation at the end of the sentence. It leads us to Endnote 4, which refers to an article by Robert M. Sapolsky2. Let's see what Sapolsky can tell us about the birds:

To those oriented toward nonpsychosocial explanations of how SES influences health, the most obvious explanation is the fact that poverty limits access to health care. This is certainly the case in the United States, where poorer people have fewer preventative checkups, longer waits for medical procedures, less access to new experimental procedures, and so on.

Huh? Is that a goddam liberal commie? What about the birds?

Intrinsic to the idea that the SES/health gradient reflects feeling poorer than others is that there are societal mechanisms that make some feel poorer than others. Numerous studies have shown that poverty in a community is not as strong a predictor of crime as is poverty amid plenty, i. e., income inequality. In the United States, at both the state and metropolitan level, the higher the degree of income inequality, the worse the health, the higher the mortality rates, and the steeper the SES/health gradient (independent of the absolute level of wealth) (Wilkinson 2000). This relationship seems not to hold as strongly, if at all, in more economically egalitarian European countries (Lynch et al. 2004).

Aha, SES means socioeconomic status. I had to look that one up. Now would be a good time to flee the U. S. and emigrate to ... mhmm ... yes, Toronto would be nice. If you can afford it.

But no birds yet.

How do a subjective sense of low SES and living in an environment of income inequality adversely impact health? Amid the proposed routes, the most intriguing concerns the concept of "social capital." Although the term's definition is still evolving, it refers to salutary features of a community that transcend the level of individuals or individual networks. These features reflect trust, reciprocity, lack of hostility and cynicism, group participation, and a collective sense of efficacy. Thus, for example, social capital is high in a community with lots of volunteerism, in which doors rarely are locked, and in which people belong to effective unions and tenant organizations

Only good that we humans have a chance to wriggle out of our behaviour patterns, at least a better chance than the birds and lobsters. Trust, reciprocity, lack of hostility and cynicism. Would be real nice to have that.

But hey, where are my birds? Let's check Petersons citation again. Yeah: Robert M. Sapolsky, Social Status and Health in Humans and Other Animals. At least there are animals in the title. So maybe there gonna be birds?

A fascinating and robust literature has revealed two key findings: (a) As income inequality rises in a community, not only does crime increase, but levels of social capital also decline (Kawachi et al. 1999, Kawachi & Putnam 2001). This inverse relationship can be viewed as inevitable, in that social capital is, by definition, about reciprocity and symmetry of relationships, whereas income inequality, by definition, is about hierarchy and asymmetry (Wilkinson 2000). (b) Path analyses indicate that the links between income inequality, poor health, and high mortality rates are mediated predominately by the decline in social capital (Kawachi & Kennedy 2002).

Sigh. No birds.

Collectively, this literature makes some critical points: First, once basic needs are met, poverty alone is not as predictive of poor health as is poverty amid plenty. Second, when there is considerable poverty amid plenty (i. e., high income inequality), people tend to decrease their investment in (and expectations of) the community, thereby reducing everyone's quality of life. This decline results in more psychological stressors (because of a reduced collective sense of efficacy and control, greater need for vigilance amid increased crime, and so on) and less social support. Finally, amid the adverse community-wide consequences of income inequality and low social capital, the wealthy have disproportionate opportunities (both financial and otherwise) to obtain private means of stress-reduction, further decreasing their incentive to invest in public, community-wide means. An inevitable result of such a "secession of the wealthy" is the production of "private affluence and public squalor," which steepens the SES gradients of stress and poor health (Evans 2002).

At least I understand now what Peterson means, when he warns us about these vicious positive feedback cycles. This bird research has some benefit. Can't be long now, until the birds gonna show up ...

The developments of class, stratification, and poverty are fairly recent in hominid history. What these findings suggest is that nothing in the world of nonhuman sociality involves such an utterly, psychologically permeating sense of subordination as does the human invention of poverty.

In fact, recent. Much more recent than lobsters and birds, phylogenetically.

Alas, no birds. But a cool article to read. Thank's, Jordan, for the reference. :)


  1. Jordan B. Peterson: 12 Rules for Life. Allen Lane, 2018, chapter "Rule 1". 

  2. Robert M. Sapolsky: Social Status and Health in Humans and Other Animals. Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 33 2004, p. 393–418.