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LETTERS TO THE EDITORS

Fishy Succession

To the Editors:

I enjoyed reading Peter Buston and Marian Wong’s fascinating article “Why Some Animals Forgo Reproduction in Complex Societies” (July–August). I particularly appreciated that the authors carried out such challenging experimental proofs of their theories.

In a more subjective realm, I wondered whether the authors have thought about how some of their ideas might apply to human social organizations. The ranks of dominant and subordinate clownfish got me thinking about bureaucracies in which managers line up and wait for a shot at the top spot—or abandon and seek a spot in a new organization. I was especially struck by the equilibrium mechanism suggested by the authors: that the size distribution of fish tends toward a kind of step function because if a smaller fish (underling bureaucrat) gets too big, then it will either be expelled or will expel its superior.

John Freidenfelds, PhD
Chester Township, NJ

Drs. Buston and Wong respond:

Even though we work on coral reef fishes because they are tractable, we think about the implications of our findings for human societies all the time. The system that you are thinking about, a bureaucracy or any hierarchical management structure, is the one that seems to most closely parallel the fish that we have studied. The difference between the social systems is that humans aren’t likely to make decisions that directly maximize their reproductive success; rather, they are likely to make decisions that maximize their economic gains or happiness and well-being (all of which might indirectly influence reproductive success). However, once we bear that in mind, the systems are strikingly similar.

We envisage that lower-ranking managers will peacefully cooperate in their current position if they are doing reasonably well in the present, if they stand a good chance of moving up in the future, and if their outside options are poor—in other words, if there are few other well-paying job opportunities locally. These same individuals will consider leaving and should threaten to leave if conditions deteriorate inside their own company, or if the job market improves outside. What happens next depends on their higher-ranking managers. If the higher-ranking manager wants to keep the individual, then they must offer a higher salary, better working conditions, or greater potential for promotion. If this doesn’t happen, then the lower-ranking manager should pursue his or her outside option.

We are not the first to think about social behavior in a human context (see, for example, Abhinay Muthoo’s “Non-technical Introduction to Bargaining Theory” in the journal World Economics ), but we do think the parallels between cooperative-breeding theory and bargaining theory are striking and worthy of deeper exploration by both economists and behavioral ecologists.


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