Pecking Order and Flight Leadership

Link post

It was re­cently pointed out to me that hu­mans are weird, com­pared to other so­cial an­i­mals, in that we con­flate the peck­ing or­der with the group de­ci­sion-mak­ing pro­cess.

The peck­ing or­der, for in­stance in birds, is liter­ally the rank­ing of who gets to eat first when food is scarce.

We can also call it a “dom­i­nance hi­er­ar­chy”, but the words “dom­i­nance” and “hi­er­ar­chy” call up as­so­ci­a­tions with hu­man gov­er­nance sys­tems like aris­toc­racy and monar­chy, where the king or chief is both the de­ci­sion­maker for the group and the per­son en­ti­tled to the most abun­dant re­sources.

In birds, it’s not like that. Be­ing top chicken doesn’t come with the job of “lead­ing” the other chick­ens any­where; it just en­ti­tles you to eat bet­ter (or have bet­ter ac­cess to other de­sir­able re­sources). In fact, group de­ci­sion­mak­ing (like de­cid­ing when and where to mi­grate) does oc­cur in birds, but not nec­es­sar­ily ac­cord­ing to the “peck­ing or­der”. Lead­er­ship (set­ting the di­rec­tion of the group) and dom­i­nance (be­ing high in the peck­ing or­der) are com­pletely in­de­pen­dent in pi­geons, for in­stance. Pi­geons have sta­ble, tran­si­tive hi­er­ar­chies of flight lead­er­ship, and they have sta­ble peck­ing or­der hi­er­ar­chies, and these hi­er­ar­chies do not cor­re­late.

Log­i­cally, it isn’t nec­es­sary for the in­di­vi­d­ual who de­cides what oth­ers shall do to also be the in­di­vi­d­ual who gets the most good­ies. They can be re­lated — one of the things you can do with the power to give in­struc­tions is to in­struct oth­ers to give you more good­ies. But you can, at least with non­hu­man an­i­mals, sep­a­rate peck­ing-or­der hi­er­ar­chies from de­ci­sion-mak­ing hi­er­ar­chies.

You can even set this up as a 2×2:

High rank in peck­ing or­der, high de­ci­sion-mak­ing power: Lord

High rank in peck­ing or­der, low de­ci­sion-mak­ing power: Eloi

Low rank in peck­ing or­der, high de­ci­sion-mak­ing power: Morlock

Low rank in peck­ing or­der, low de­ci­sion-mak­ing power: Vassal

“Eloi” and “Mor­locks” are, of course, bor­rowed from H.G. Wells’ The Time Ma­chine, which de­picted a hu­man species di­vided be­tween the priv­ileged, childlike Eloi, and the mon­strous un­der­ground Mor­locks, who farm them for food. Eloi en­joy but don’t de­cide; Mor­locks de­cide but don’t en­joy.

The other archety­pal ex­am­ple of some­one with low rank in the peck­ing or­der but high de­ci­sion-mak­ing power is the prophet. Bibli­cal prophets told peo­ple what to do — they could even give in­struc­tions to the king — but they did not en­joy po­si­tions of priv­ilege, palaces, many wives, hered­i­tary lands, or any­thing like that. They did some­times have the power to threaten or pun­ish, which is a sort of “ex­ec­u­tive” power, but not the power to per­son­ally en­joy more re­sources than oth­ers.

In Amer­i­can com­mon par­lance, “lead­er­ship” or “dom­i­nance” gen­er­ally means both be­ing at the top of a peck­ing or­der and be­ing a de­ci­sion-maker for the group. My in­tu­ition and ex­pe­rience says that if some­body wants to be the de­ci­sion-maker for the group but doesn’t seem to be con­spicu­ously seek­ing & en­joy­ing good­ies in zero-sum con­texts — in other words, if some­body be­haves like a Mor­lock or prophet — they will read as not be­hav­ing like a “leader”, and will fail to get a cer­tain kind of emo­tional trust and buy-in and ac­tive par­ti­ci­pa­tion from oth­ers.

My pre­vi­ous post on hi­er­ar­chy con­flated peck­ing-or­der hi­er­ar­chies with de­ci­sion-mak­ing hi­er­ar­chies. I said that peo­ple-tel­ling-oth­ers-what-to-do (de­ci­sion-mak­ing hi­er­ar­chy) “usu­ally goes along with” spe­cial priv­ileges or lux­u­ries for the su­pe­ri­ors (peck­ing-or­der hi­er­ar­chy.) But, in fact, they are differ­ent things, and the dis­tinc­tion mat­ters.

Most of the prac­ti­cal ad­van­tages of hi­er­ar­chy in or­ga­ni­za­tions come from de­ci­sion-mak­ing hi­er­ar­chy. A tree struc­ture, or chain of com­mand, helps get de­ci­sions made more effi­ciently than many-to-many de­liber­a­tive as­sem­blies. Many of the in­effi­cien­cies of hi­er­ar­chy in or­ga­ni­za­tions (ex­pen­sive dis­plays of defer­ence, poor com­mu­ni­ca­tion across power dis­tance) are more about peck­ing-or­der hi­er­ar­chy. “So just have de­ci­sion-mak­ing hi­er­ar­chy with­out peck­ing-or­der hi­er­ar­chy!” But that’s rule-by-prophets, and in prac­tice peo­ple seem to HATE prophets.

The other model for lead­er­ship is the “good king”, of the kind that Siderea writes about in this se­ries of posts on Water­ship Down. The good king is not just sit­ting on top of the peck­ing or­der en­joy­ing lux­ury at the ex­pense of his peo­ple. He listens to his peo­ple and em­pow­ers them to do their best; he shares their pri­va­tions; he is gen­uinely com­mit­ted to the com­mon good. But he’s still a king, not a prophet. (In Water­ship Down, there ac­tu­ally is a prophet — Fiver — and Hazel, the king, is no­table for listen­ing to Fiver, while bad lead­ers ig­nore their prophets.)

My guess is that the “good king” does sit on top of a peck­ing-or­der hi­er­ar­chy, but a very mild and pub­lic-spir­ited one. He’s gen­er­ous, as op­posed to greedy; but gen­eros­ity im­plies that he could be greedy if he wanted to. He shares credit with oth­ers who do good work, in­stead of hog­ging all the credit for him­self; but be­ing the one to give credit it­self makes him seem cen­tral and pow­er­ful.

A “good king” seems more emo­tion­ally sus­tain­able for hu­mans than just hav­ing a “prophet”, but it could be that there’s a way to im­ple­ment pi­geon-like par­allel hi­er­ar­chies for re­source-en­joy­ment and de­ci­sion-mak­ing, or other struc­tures I haven’t thought of yet.