One aspect of human nature where we can clearly witness the intellectualisation and exploitation of our instinctive drives is in our fascination with ‘status’. Systems of status and hierarchy have evolved within animal species to ensure the fitter, stronger and more determined individuals will dominate the breeding, or become the leaders of the group. For such systems to function successfully, three key elements need to be present:
Firstly, qualities which signify the health, power and vitality of the animals will need to be displayed among the group, such as large antlers, booming voices, and the physical contests of a ‘rut’. Although humans also tend to be drawn to healthy looks and power, from the dawn of history, people been fashioning status symbols of their own invention; from primitive jewellery and headdresses, to Swiss watches, sports cars, and even artistic and intellectual prowess.
The second key element required is a common appreciation of the established status symbols of that particular species, which can be aquired or ‘socialised’.
Thirdly, these displays of status must provoke appropriate emotional reactions within the minds of the animals concerned; to maintain the processes of competition, submission and deference, our minds are fed insatiable desires and insecurities, necessary to motivate our behaviours in accordance with the workings of the system. The strutting and roaring of a dominant male gorilla may induce a sense of awe or respect in other members of the group, but – in some, lesser males – it must also excite a strong desire to aggressively compete for the superior role (envy) as to become that which they admire. Of course, the beneficial function of a ‘rut’ will be lost unless the dominant role is vigorously defended (aggressive pride), and likewise, in our own society, these aggressive responses can easily be demonstrated by belittling a man’s achievements.
From the following list we can see that what we call ‘envy’ is indeed an evolved, motivational mechanism:
‘Envy’ is universal among human societies
‘Envy’ is both excitable and compulsive
The focus of ‘envy’ is generally a perceived rival of the same sex
We observe other animal species to act in ways which in humans we would regard as ‘envious’ behaviour
‘Envious’ behaviour in humans directly corresponds with ways in which animal systems of competition and hierarchy operate