Irrespective of your values, if you’re listening to this, you live in a pecking order. Dominance hierarchies, as they’re called by animal behaviorists, define the lives of social creatures. The society itself is a kind of individual that gathers information and adapts to its surroundings by encoding stable environmental features in the power relationships between its members. But what works for the society at large often results in violence and inequity for its members; as the founder of this field of research put it, “A grave seriousness lies over the chicken yard.” Over the last hundred years, the science of dominance hierarchies has bloomed faster than a saloon brawl — branching out for deeper understanding of the lives of everything from fish to insects, apes to parakeets. Today, amidst clashing national and corporate titans, systemic economic inequality, and legitimacy crises in the institutions that once served to maintain (admittedly unfair) order, the time is ripe to turn to and learn from what science has discovered about the fundamental mechanisms that underly both human nature and the rest of it: who loses and who wins, and why, and at what cost?
Welcome to COMPLEXITY, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute. I’m your host, Michael Garfield, and every other week we’ll bring you with us for far-ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers developing new frameworks to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe.
This week on Complexity, we speak with former ASU-SFI Fellow Elizabeth Hobson (Website | Twitter), now an Assistant Professor at the University of Cincinnati, about the last century of pecking order research. Dobson just co-edited an issue of Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B devoted to this topic, and we unpack her and others’ contributions to this volume — including retrospectives, literature reviews, quantitative analysis, and a look at the current state and frontiers of the science of what we can colloquially call “punching up and down”…
If you value our research and communication efforts, please subscribe to Complexity Podcast wherever you prefer to listen, rate and review us at Apple Podcasts, and/or consider making a donation at santafe.edu/give.
Thank you for listening!
Join our Facebook discussion group to meet like minds and talk about each episode.
Podcast theme music by Mitch Mignano.
Follow us on social media:
Twitter • YouTube • Facebook • Instagram • LinkedIn
Papers & People Discussed Include:
• The centennial of the pecking order: current state and future prospects for the study of dominance hierarchies
Eli D. Strauss, James P. Curley, Daizaburo Shizuka and Elizabeth A. Hobson
• Quantifying the dynamics of nearly 100 years of dominance hierarchy research
Elizabeth A. Hobson
• DomArchive: a century of published dominance data
Eli D. Strauss, Alex R. DeCasien, Gabriela Galindo, Elizabeth A. Hobson, Daizaburo Shizuka and James P. Curley
• Social hierarchies and social networks in humans
Daniel Redhead and Eleanor A. Power
• Dominance in humans
Tian Chen Zeng, Joey T. Cheng and Joseph Henrich
• From equality to hierarchy
Simon DeDeo and Elizabeth A. Hobson
• More is Different
• Environmentally Mediated Social Dilemmas
Sylvie Estrela, Eric Libby, Jeremy Van Cleve, Florence Débarre, Maxime Deforet, William R. Harcombe, Jorge Peña, Sam P. Brown, Michael E. Hochberg
• Jessica Flack
• Michael Mauboussin
• Joshua Bell
• Robert Kegan
• Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe
Related Podcast Episodes Include:
• Sidney Redner on Statistics and Everyday Life
• Simon DeDeo on Good Explanations & Diseases of Epistemology
• Deborah Gordon on Ant Colonies as Distributed Computers
• Jonas Dalege on The Physics of Attitudes & Beliefs
• Fractal Conflicts & Swing Voters with Eddie Lee
• Fighting Hate Speech with AI & Social Science (with Joshua Garland, Mirta Galesic, and Keyan Ghazi-Zahedi)
• Matthew Jackson on Social & Economic Networks
• Rajiv Sethi on Stereotypes, Crime, and The Pursuit of Justice
Elizabeth Hobson (0s): When you take a bird out, top-ranked bird, you remove it and you put it back in, what happens is that everybody goes crazy with aggressing against the reintroduced bird. So what we're seeing is a bird that's top-ranked and we put it back in after a removal event, put it back in and it rejoins the hierarchy near the bottom or at the complete bottom rank of the entire group. So we're seeing this giant shift in where that individual is ranked in the group.
And so it's really nice because it really answers one of those foundational questions of, is it just something about that parakeet that causes it to be high ranked and the fact that it can't rejoin us group eight days later, this is not a huge amount of separation time. Eight days later, it can't come in, waltz back in and retake its rank, really for us suggests that there's not something fundamental about that particular individual that caused it to achieve its rank. It really seems like the sum total of all of the history of those interactions.
And if you're not there defending your rank, you probably lose it.
Michael Garfield: Publish or perish, right?
Elizabeth Hobson: Yeah, exactly.
Michael Garfield (1m 34s): Irrespective of your values, if you're listening to this, you live in a pecking order. Dominance hierarchies, as they're called by animal behaviorists define the lives of social creatures. The society itself is a kind of individual that gathers information and adapts to its surroundings by encoding stable environmental features in the power relationships between its members, but what works for the society at large often results in violence and inequity for its members.
As the founder of this field of research put it, “A grave seriousness lies over the chicken yard.” Over the last hundred years, the science of dominance hierarchies has bloomed faster than a saloon brawl branching out for deeper understanding of the lives of everything from fish to insects, apes, to parakeets. Today, amidst clashing national and corporate titans, systemic economic inequality and legitimacy crises, and the institutions that once served to maintain admittedly unfair order.
The time is ripe to turn and to learn from what science has discovered about the fundamental mechanisms that underlie both human nature and the rest of it, who loses and who wins and why, and at what cost. Welcome to Complexity, the official podcast of the Santa Fe Institute, I'm your host, Michael Garfield. And every other week, we bring you with us for far ranging conversations with our worldwide network of rigorous researchers, developing new frameworks, to explain the deepest mysteries of the universe. This week on complexity podcast, we speak with former ASU SFI Fellow Elizabeth Hobson.
Now an Assistant Professor at the University of Cincinnati about the last century of pecking order research Hobson just co-edited an issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society devoted to this topic. And we unpack her and others' contributions to this volume, including retrospectives literature reviews, quantitative analysis, and a look at the current state and frontiers of the science of what we can colloquially call punching up and down. If you value our research and communication efforts, please subscribe to complexity podcast or wherever you prefer to listen, rate and email@example.com give.
There are many other ways to engage with us at Santafe.edu/engage. Thank you for listening.
Elizabeth Hobson (4m 1s): Can't do these experiments ethically and humans. You got a group now we're going to take your leader. We're going to hold them hostage for eight days and see what happens. But you can go to a species like a parrot, these parakeets that we work with, and they've got these big brains and the complex social structures, and you can really manipulate them in ways that you couldn't ethically or feasibly do in humans. And then we can see like, well, what happens with them and does that tell us anything about how the humans would actually respond?
Michael Garfield (4m 32s): Elizabeth Hobson, it is a pleasure to finally have you on complexity podcast.
Elizabeth Hobson (4m 41s): Michael, I'm so excited to be here. Thanks for having me.
Michael Garfield (4m 44s): It's not really appropriate to get sentimental on the show, but I miss you. I miss having you around on the SFI campus. It was always nice. You're a fabulous person in addition to being a fascinating researcher. So I'm glad we have this conversation. Can we start by humanizing you a little bit for the people who did not share a place of work? Talk a little bit about your background as a curious person and what got you into science and then how you ended up at SFI.
Elizabeth Hobson (5m 13s): I really appreciate the sentiment, too. I really miss hanging out with everybody at SFI and it's been a long two years, more than two years with a pandemic and it'd be great to get back at some point. So I think the thing that got me into science was just curiosity about the natural world. So I grew up in a really small town in upstate New York and spent most of my childhood out in the woods and the swamps catching things, catching frogs, catching turtles, catching toads, just seeing what they were doing.
I look back and it's really funny because my big summer adventures, we're like taking data on the temperature of different parts in a lake or something. It was always this very kind of like science-y kind of theme, but I didn't know that you could actually do that as a career. So it wasn't until I think at some point in high school, one of my teachers mentioned that they had done some research when they were in undergrad. And I was really surprised by that and that I think changed my career path.
So I started finding little ways that I could start to get into science and do internships during high school, even. And then in undergrad, I started doing field research every summer. So I did my undergrad in Montreal and it's super cold. And so I would try to go to the tropics in the summer. And so I went to the Caribbean for one summer and chased seabirds and endangered seabirds and live like a shipwreck pirate on one of the islands. I went to a Caribbean island of Bonaire.
I went to Peru for a summer, just like these really adventurous experiences that got me a lot of experience in the biology and the different systems in these places. Really getting to immerse yourself in a brand-new ecosystem is such a really fascinating experience. It's much different than dropping in and visiting a place for a week or two. You really get to know kind of the patterns and you get a good feel and an intuition for how the animals are going to be behaving, what the weather is going to be doing.
And so I think it's been this long-term fascination with the natural world. That's definitely led me into science. I think what led me into study and social structure is I realized I was bad at it. And I think that really kind of spurred me towards trying to understand, how do people social? I just don't get it. And so I think that initially I got really excited about understanding animals, social networks, how these networks were coming together, who was becoming friends with who, what the benefits were of forming those associations and those relationships.
And I translated that over into my academic networks, too. And I took a look at my academic network at some point and said, wow, I study networks now, but I don't have a network. I need to work on this, too. So, it's been this really interesting back and forth between how I structured my personal life and my relationships and how that's really affected the course of my research.
Michael Garfield (8m 25s): It is sort of one of those things not to get too philosophical about it, but it does seem like a lot of people's intellectual passions have some sort of root in a wound, that it's like, it's like a desperate desire to understand that which I do not understand. I hear you about all of that. And then how did you get from there to doing animal dominance hierarchy work at SFI?
Elizabeth Hobson (8m 55s): I did my grad work. So for my PhD, I was working on the social structure of parakeets species, the monk parakeet, which is this fascinating species of parrot. It's relatively small. They stand about eight inches tall or so, bright green with gray on the front and they're invasive. So that means that they're super common in their native range. And they've been imported all over the world as part of the pet trade and establish these new feral colonies in places like Southern Florida, Texas, Connecticut, they're in Brooklyn, they've lived in Chicago, they're all over the place and they're so adaptable.
So it's a really fascinating species. And the point of that early research was to just understand what does their social structure even look like? We had no idea and no information about anything, about what their networks and their social interactions might look like. So I really got interested into the social side of things and one of the things that I worked on with their dominance hierarchies. And so it's one thing to say, oh, they have a hierarchy. But what I got really interested in and what led me to SFI was trying to understand, take a step back and say, okay, well they have these interesting structures.
How did those emerge? And what did the individuals within those structures actually understand about the structures that they're participating in? So it's this really nice bridge then between the social side of things and the cognitive side of things for me, and bringing the sociality and the cognition closer together is just so exciting because then you can look at questions like, well, what do the animals have to know about their social worlds in order to act in the ways that they do?
And so we can step back and say for the dominance hierarchies, especially merging the aggression and the fights, this decision-making on a minute by minute basis with what the animal is actually know about their own ranks and the hierarchy, the ranks of others in their group and their past interactions with all of those individuals, can really give you insight into how they're making those fight by fight decisions. You asked me what led me to SFI. My research with the dominance hierarchies and trying to understand these connections between sociality and cognition, I really needed to understand the underlying social information.
And if you want to know something about what kind of information is flashing around in a complex system, you go to SFI. That's what across the board, a lot of people are interested in across different domains of science. And so it was just this fantastic opportunity to talk with people and to develop new ideas about what kind of information is in the system and how might the individuals as actors in that system be acting on that information.
And then once they act on the information, how does that perpetuate new social structures that then emerge from those actions? So you get this constant feedback loop between what the individuals are doing and how the social structure is being formed, and then how the future individual actions are constrained by the social structures that those individuals just made. So I think those back and forth, and this difference in the social scales and the information in the systems was just such a natural fit for a lot of the focus of the work at SFI.
Michael Garfield (12m 27s): I guess this would be a good time for us to dip into what we're really going to chew on today, which is that you just, co-edited this issue of the Philosophical Transactions of Royal Society,The Centennial of the Pecking Order: Current State and Future Prospects for the Study of Dominance Hierarchies. So this is like the sweeping overview of the whole history and frontier of this field. You did this in tandem with Strauss, Curly, and DaizaburoShizuka who deserve named credit here before we dive in.
But if you could just situate us now that we've talked about your personal history, if you could situate us a little bit in the history of this field, which as I am to understand from what you've written here together started with the research of a ten-year-old Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbeif I'm getting that right, who said, and I love this classic line “Anyone who thinks that the inhabitants of a chicken yard are thoughtless happy creatures with a daily life of undisturbed, pleasure is thoroughly mistaken, a grave seriousness lies over the chicken yard.”
So where are we in the beginning, I guess, of the 20th century. And where do we anchor this story?
Elizabeth Hobson (13m 44s): That's a good question. So this was really fun. So it came about, because I think all four of us were thinking along the same line. So to me, Eli Strauss, DaizaburoShizuka, James Curly, we all know each other from conferences and we'd all worked on dominance hierarchies quite a bit in the past. And so I think we just started sending around some emails, they'll be like, oh, it's the a hundred year anniversary of the pecking order, isn't that cool? And then at some point I think Eli suggested maybe we should do something to celebrate that.
And that really turned into this whole special issue. The pecking order paper was originally published in 1922. That paper is really widely considered to be the foundational paper that started a lot of the dominance hierarchy research in a quantifiable way. So Schjelderup-Ebbe, who I apologize to any Norwegians that I'm maybe butchering this name, but he's a really fascinating character. He did a lot of observation of chickens when he was a kid and he wrote down tons of detailed observations and really treated the chickens as individuals that were living within the society.
And that was a major breakthrough, just the way that he was taking the data and thinking about the social system and putting it into some sort of structured that made sense was really exciting for a lot of people. And it's really led to a huge amount of research in this field.
Michael Garfield (15m 20s): It's interesting just as an aside to think about where this sits in a sort of larger movement from the way that people used to think about animals, to the way that people think about animals now, and just how much has changed even over the course of your life and mine, in terms of the understanding of animal intelligence and animal psychology, animal communication. And, again, like it's not that history works in this kind of clean way, but it's easy to place a start point for some of these more contemporary ways of thinking about animals as you know, people, kind of, in his insistence that we're not just talking about an organism that has a kind of like Aristotelian essence or something, that there's this inter-individual variation.
That seems huge to me in being able to zoom back out again and then understand the social structures, both of human and non-human organisms.
Elizabeth Hobson (16m 21s): I think the other fascinating thing about his perspective in this 1922 paper is that we as the field, it started this huge amount of work on dominance hierarchies, but you can go back and every single time I reread this paper, I get new insight. It's almost like going back and reading like Darwin and the Origin of Species, it's this joke in evolutionary biology talks that everybody's got to put Darwin on slide number two and their talk and be like, well, this is important because Darwin said it was important.
And I kind of feel like this paper Schjelderup-Ebbeever has a similar kind of feel for dominance hierarchies. And the thing that I think is really exciting about it is that he had some of these foundational insights, but not everything got picked up into dominance hierarchy research. And so people got really fascinated with how these structures come together and what predicts which individuals are going to be high ranked or lower ranked and how do those change over time? But it's relatively modern that people started thinking of those individuals as individuals again, with their own individual personalities. And that the history of those relationships in a lot of groups are really fundamentally structuring the dominance hierarchies in ways that you can't predict from just knowing how big is that animal? How old is it? What kind of color patches does it have? And so the memory then becomes fundamentally important in those kinds of social systems, because it's not just how big you are, it's how did the fights yesterday go?
Who did you fight? Did you fight with that specific other individual or did you avoid that individual and all of those come together in a really complex way to build these social systems?
Michael Garfield (18m 15s): That's an interesting point in as much as what we're talking about here is a key concept in complex systems thinking in the Phil Anderson, more is different kind of way, talking about emergent structures. And one of the things that is touched on again and again in the special issue is the way that, like you just said, there's this fine grain or the short time horizon in which these interactions are occurring, that then lead to these like a longer, slower beat or a deeper structure on a longer space temporal scale and to put it in kind of more common parlance, the way that what you do becomes who you are, behavior becomes habit becomes like a personality trait, but before we get into that stuff, I'd like to back up a little bit.
And as you and your coauthors doing this introduction, just to establish some basic key terms here, like when we're talking about a dominance hierarchy, what do we actually mean? How is this understood formally in your field? And what other kind of gray, squishy things need to be more carefully defined before we can really dive in?
Elizabeth Hobson (19m 24s): So I think one thing that might be good to talk about is how do we know that a hierarchy is there and how do we know what the ranks of the individuals are? So in the case of older research, and actually I've done this myself, is you look at all the fight histories among individuals, and then you try to order them by hand. So when I tried to do this, it was a fun exercise, actually, I put all the individuals, these were parakeets in this case on index cards.
And then I had all their fight histories, who they won and lost against. And then I was trying to arrange them on the floor in this giant hierarchy. And it's really hard in some cases. A really clean hierarchy, there's an individual at the top that always wins against everybody else. And nobody beats it. The second ranked individual always wins against everybody except that top ranked guy. And there are no kind of like rule breakers or reversals in those patterns. But in real hierarchies, you often get these what we call cycles where a will be B, B will be C, but sometimes C will beat A. And so you get these kind of non-linearities in the organization of the system, but in general, with a dominance hierarchy, you're looking for an ordered system where in general, you can do this kind of ranking where all the individuals are kind of in order of how they're fighting. It could be the number of wins that they have, but usually in the hierarchies, we're looking not just at how many fights they win, but who they're winning against.
And so it is an example actually of really early applications, what we would now think of as network science, because these are networks of fights that are contributing to the ranks of the individuals. And so it's really interesting actually is one of the ways that these kinds of data were originally presented, we're in a matrix, where you've got all the individuals in the rows, all the individuals in columns and the number of fights that each individual, one against each other individual, which at the time was just a table.
It's the record of the wins. But now we look at it and we say, oh, that's a matrix that we can build a social network off of. And so that's actually allowed us in a lot of cases to go back to this historical data and use modern network approaches to understand new patterns about how these hierarchies are structured.
Michael Garfield (21m 58s): So a couple of things come up for me there. One being just the question, do you and your colleagues play like a parakeet fantasy football? Do you bracket these fights?
Elizabeth Hobson (22m 7s): So my field crew is actually in the field season right now. And the dominance hierarchy is of these parakeet groups are forming right at the second. And so the field crew, they watch how the fights are happening all day, how the relationships are forming, how these coalitions are coming together, and birds are trying to overtake certain parts of the hierarchy and they take data about it all day. And then that's the only thing that they talk about at night apparently is just the drama of the day of like who fought against who and how is it going? And try to guess who's ranked where in the hierarchy, because when you have one of these complex systems, often you can guess who the top ranked individual is and who the bottom ranked individual is because it's relatively obvious. Who's losing all the time and who's winning all the time, but it's a lot harder by eye to understand what's going on in the middle of the hierarchy. So that's when you have to come in with the quantitative methods and start to pick apart, you know, who's ranked where in this system
Michael Garfield (23m 8s): It's like in The Office or Prairie Dog Town, a lot of narrative drama centers on that, like the jostling for upper middle management, kind of.
Elizabeth Hobson (23m 18s): Exactly.
Michael Garfield (23m 20s): Another thing that comes up just listening to this, cause, part of, I guess my job or my obsession in these conversations is in linking them out to other conversations that we've had on the show. And so like to have them come up for me, one being the conversation I had with Sid Redner on his work, on winning streaks and like exactly, you said these infrequent overturnings of the established order, like the Red Sox win the World Series, but then maybe a little bit more ominously or whatever.
When we had Eddie Lee on back in 2020, and he was talking about the work that he's done with David Krakauer and Jessica Flack on looking at the fractal structure of violent outbreaks, like conflict cascades, and avalanches. So again, it seems related to this sort of more fundamental statistical mechanics of revolution. Again, like you said, there's lots of motion in the middle, but these larger collapses in the structure seem relatively rare.
And so, again, that's something that other people here have done some interesting work on understanding the dynamics of these systems and I'll make sure to link to those, this isn't something that you directly explore in this particular piece. But I am curious again, to just link out to one more complexity podcast episode when we had Deborah Gordon on the show at Stanford, and she works on ant colonies as distributed computation. And she was talking about the relationship between the stability of the kinds of work that different ants do and the structure of the colony with the stability of its environment.
And, also Jessica Flack, who we haven't had on the show, but we bring up a lot in her work on primates, talking about the collective computation of dominance hierarchies as a way of encoding environmental details. So there is something about not to pull this too early, but I know again, Simon DeDeo has done a lot of work on the French Revolution and topic modeling on the parliamentary papers and so on. And there is something about there being times of revolution in which the key salient details about the environment change and then lead to these upsets in the order of society, be it human or non-human.
So I'm curious your thoughts on that and like the relationship between what you're seeing in this field and laboratory research and on the stability of the environment itself, especially as to spoil where I want to take this conversation. For me, there's this bigger question about the legitimacy crisis of our institutions right now, and of expertise and of what constitutes the measures by which we decide whom to trust and who to listen to in society and how all of that seems up for grabs right now in the digital media revolution.
So yeah, that's a lot to chew on, but I'd love to just hold our board and let you rip on that for awhile.
Elizabeth Hobson (26m 21s): There's so many ways that this can go, too. I think that thing that I would start with is this idea of perturbing the system is just so fascinating. So for animal systems, for a lot of the human systems that we study, a lot of the data that we're collecting is observational. And so we can say, oh, something changed. But it's really hard to draw that causative link and say, this is why that thing changed. So if you can find a system where you can go in and you can intentionally perturb it, then you can start to peel apart the social system and say, could we intentionally cause a change in the system?
And that allows you to understand the fundamentals of that system in just a completely different way than you can observationally. So a lot of Jessica Flack’s really early work was just foundational in really inspiring a lot of my interest in dominance hierarchies and how you could go into a system like these primate groups and you could pull out a specific individual and then say, does the social structure completely collapse in the absence of that individual?
And if so, then that individual is fundamentally important to that social group. And if not, maybe somebody else stepped into that role. And so that's actually structured some of the new experiments that we're doing in the lab now is to go in and start to perturb these systems and see what happens. Because when you do a perturbation like that, you can change the kind of information that individuals have about their social systems. Essentially taking out an actor in that social system changes the entire flavor of the information in the system.
Deleting that individual deletes its interactions with everybody else. And so if your system is one where everybody has their role and their rank in the hierarchy, and everybody's just waiting for that top ranked individual to die or to leave, and then everybody like in a very orderly fashion, bumps up one rank, then you have a very different social system than when you take out one individual who is a key player in that system and the whole system collapses and reforms in a completely different way.
That's a very different kind of historical pattern that you could see then. That's one thing that I can see potentially connecting with some of the stuff that you were talking about in your question of trying to understand these cascades of aggression or conflict, or trying to understand how societies are changing over time is once you start to jiggle things, does everything kind of fall back in place or do parts of it crumble?
And what does that say about the robustness, the social system and the adaptability of the agents, the individuals within those systems?
Michael Garfield (29m 22s): So I guess to kind of dance back and forth here, one of the things that I want to explore a little bit more deeply with you is why these even exist in the first place. And this is something that is explored with a lot of nuance in this issue about the benefits to status in one of these networks and also the costs. And so, in what ways does having a dominant role in an animal society confer an evolutionary fitness benefit, and an as I think about like Jack Nicholson in the Departed where he's talking about heavy hangs the crown.
If you are a mob boss, you got a target on your back, but that's not the only thing. That's not the only cost here. And there are interesting changes to both the physiology and the behavior of animals at the top of these hierarchies that in some cases seem to flout the more common understanding of what it means to be a quote unquote alpha. So, I'd love to hear you unpack this a little bit and to discuss the way that this varies in between different kinds of organisms.
And maybe this is also a good time to discuss one of the two pieces that you wrote here, which was actually an exploration of all of the different kinds of research and the different groups, the different taxa that dominance hierarchy work has been done on.
Elizabeth Hobson (30m 51s): That's also a very meaty what I'm trying to, where to start on that one.
Michael Garfield (30m 58s): Maybe what the history, maybe with the two pieces that the one you wrote in the, when you coauthored on just the history of this field, since, since it began a hundred years ago, and then we can kind of get into from the top down.
Elizabeth Hobson (31m 9s): Well, so people have been studying dominance hierarchies for awhile now so a hundred years and a lot has been written about dominance hierarchies in that time. And so one of the things that I was trying to do for this a hundred year anniversary was trying to understand from a kind of a bird's eye perspective, what does dominance hierarchy research look like and how has it changed over time? And so I actually used a science of science approach to try to understand some of the history of this field, because I went in on Google Scholar, you can use programs like there's one that I use called Publish or Perish, which is like a little bit too on the nose for me for, for a day like this.
I mean, academia can be pretty ruthless. So it's kind of funny to have to use a program named that. But so, and with that, it makes it easy to scrape Google Scholar for all of the publications that are published that come back with it hit on a certain kind of search terms. So when I went in and searched for dominance hierarchy, it returned in the a hundred year history over 26,000 publications. And so this is not a number of publications that you can print out and kind of read through and synthesize.
This is beyond human capabilities. And so what I wanted to do with this kind of this text mining approach and a science approach is to take a step back and say, well, let's not cherry pick what we want to summarize, and let's go away from literature review that's synthesizing the field. Let's just take the data and see what people were writing about and what terms people were using in the titles of their papers and how those have kind of shifted and changed over time. So it's really cool to look at the history of the field through this kind of perspective.
And it has changed. It looks like the study of dominance hierarchies is getting more integrated and less modular. And so there's potential that there's more crosstalk between disciplines than there was before. And there's potentially much more collaboration across disciplinary boundaries than there has historically been. So it's an exciting time for new insight into dominance hierarchies, because we need this kind of crosstalk across different systems. As an animal researcher it's really common to have your pet study species that you focus your whole career on. And so for me, I've done a lot of work on these parakeets. So it would be really easy to go in and say, oh, well this mountain goat system and this human system at this ants system, I mean, they're all like, I'll just treat them functionally as parakeets and understand their system from my perspective of studying parakeets for so long, but ants are not parakeets. Humans are not parakeets. Mountain goats are not parakeets. That's going to lead you pretty far astray if you can't switch your perspective and kind of broaden up in a really kind of synthetic way. And so I think that this kind of big science of science kind of approach and thinking about synthesizing lots of different datasets across many different species is a really nice way to break that perspective of, well, everything's a parakeet which will definitely lead you astray.
Michael Garfield (34m 37s): So just to kind of loop out from that for a moment here, there's a couple of papers mentioned here that one is ___________examined hierarchical structures in wild and captive raven groups and find that wild wild groups have much more fluid group membership than the captive groups, linear dominance hierarchies emerged in both. This seems related to another piece in this in Lewis, who is arguing that focusing only on strength, aggression and fighting gives an incomplete picture of the social power dynamics of individuals and hierarchies.
The author calls for studies to expand from a focus on aggression based dominance to a multidimensional landscape of power. And then, I'm going to make like a tetrahedron here. One is a piece that I really liked that I don't think we're going to have time to dive into it with as much detail as I would like, but the one with Tian Cheng Zeng and Joseph Henrich, who a lot of people may recognize as having just published a popular book on the weird Western educated industrial, rich, and democratic, and his argument for how papal marital taboos changed the landscape of power in Western society and led to the sort of conquests of the world by Western civilization.
In this piece, they make a distinction between aggression dominance and prestige hierarchies. And they talk about the way that at least in humans, there's this sort of complex interplay between different kinds of power. And then the last thing I want to bring into this is actually one of the pieces I mentioned just a casually in conversation. It seems like more often than almost anything else, which was a piece that came out right after I started at SFI by Sylvia Estrela and Michael Hochberg and Jeremy Van Cleve and Eric Libby on the tragedy of the commons and how they looked at microbiological communities and found that when these communities were allowed to basically bail that the tragedy of the commons didn't occur.
So there's something that I'm curious about here, about your thoughts, about how in your quantitative look at the history of these fields it looks like a lot of these animals, the majority of the dominance hierarchy research has been done on captive populations. And when you think about the methodologically challenged, but nonetheless, very interesting work on the rat park and how addictive behavior in laboratory rats seems to be at least in part, the consequence of the structure of the environment of those animals.
Then, there is an interesting through line for me here that I'd love to hear you riff on about the way that the kind of research that's been done on dominance hierarchy is biasing our understanding of them and looking, for instance, as Tian Cheng Zeng and Henrich do on the difference between contemporary hunter gatherer groups and on like the Western industrial civilization, the differences between those two kinds of human being seem to bear heavily on the way that we're actually understanding how these things shake out in the world.
So, there's just lots of links in the show notes for people there, but what are your thoughts on all of that?
Elizabeth Hobson (37m 47s): So I think to pick it up with the raven study that you mentioned, so this one and the special issue is interesting because if you're stuck with the individuals in your group and you're in captivity and you're in a cage, maybe there's different levels of aggression that you would see because you're just stuck with those particular individuals. Maybe you have one food bull, and it's possible for a big raven to sit on that food bowl and just defend it against all the others. And so maybe because the constraints space, you're interacting more with other individuals than you would in the wild, you can't escape them.
And so maybe then captivity promotes higher levels of aggression. And we do see this sometimes. And so you do have to be careful of extrapolating from what you see in captivity for a particular species or a particular group or a group that's in a certain environment and certain conditions to go over to the human examples and extrapolating that into a very different kind of system. So you always have to be careful with that, for sure. I think the raven study is really interesting because they are showing evidence that captive ravens have dominance hierarchies that are pretty similar to what they're seeing in the wild.
And so this is a nice way that you can go in and you can say, well, we are seeing similarities in these two different situations. And so maybe that's indicative that dominance hierarchies aren't emerging as a by-product of the captive conditions. Maybe it's something about the social organization of that species that leads it to form hierarchies regardless of the conditions that they're in. So I think that another thing to think about with that is the environment cannot change what the social system does.
So is a social structure, the product of the environment, the product of evolution, or is it this complex interplay between the two? So in a lot of cases with social animals, we've gotten traditionally into this trap of saying, well, these one captive group of this species had a dominance hierarchy or did something. So that's characteristic then, a social characteristic, of the species in general. And what we're finding more and more is that when we really dig into this, there's potentially a lot of plasticity.
And so animals are changing how they're organizing their social worlds, depending on potentially the history of the interactions, the environment, a complex interaction between those two. And this is some fun work that I was working on actually with Simon DeDeo, who you mentioned in a different context earlier and Dan Munster and we looked at all these different animals species to see how they were structuring their hierarchies, who they're fighting with and what that said about the information in their systems.
And what we found is this really surprising mix of these kind of social strategies or these social dominance patterns that can occur even within the same species that are held in very, very similar conditions. So you can see one group will have one pattern and one will have a completely different pattern. And so at least in the case of sociality and dominance hierarchies, it's suggesting more and more that we can't think of a certain kind of structure as characteristic of the species.
It's more of this complex interplay with the history and the environment, and it gets tricky, which makes it hard to explain and to predict what kind of social system a particular group is going to have, but makes it really fascinating to see on kind of an interaction by interaction basis, how are those systems emerging? And if we step back and look at the information that's contained in those systems, can we then use that to predict what the group is going to do?
Michael Garfield (41m 48s): So this seems like a good time to pin back to a thread that we kind of dropped a moment ago in the flurry of possible threads referenced here is __________ broadly review the suite of behavioral neural and physiological phenotypic changes that occur as vertebrates attain, social dominance or subordinate status. These are plastic responses to the different demands of dominant and subordinate status. Although “both dominants and subordinates can suffer long-term costs as a result of these modifications.” And so this, and then other work by Anderson at all the effects of dominance rank on white blood cell, gene expression, and other things.
Again, they suggest that real physiological changes are occurring to animals as they move around in these hierarchies. So like sandwich that with the piece by Daniel Redhead and former SFI Fellow Eleanor Power on dominance hierarchy is as part of a multilayer fabric of overlapping social networks. And especially pointed and pronounced in humans is the fact that each of us occupies so many different social groups now, especially in the modern era, I'm thinking of Harvard psychologist, Robert Kegan's book On Over our Heads: TheMental Demands of Modern Life.
His argument is that a great deal of the neurosis of contemporary people is simply not knowing where you stand at any given time, like what norms to adopt and to enact in your persona in any given group. And so I'm thinking about just as pin, one more little piece on that, and then let you roll with it, the conversation I had with Jonas Dalege or this podcast on his work in using network models to understand cognitive dissonance, as like having a particular set of beliefs, carrying with it, an energetic cost and the cost of switching beliefs.
And so there's that cliche that it's expensive to believe contradictory things, that it's the mark of a sophisticated mind to be able to hold opposing positions. And yet this does seem like something that socially sophisticated animals are just stuck with and that humans are especially stuck with. And so the question of cognitive dissonance as being kind of the cost of being physiologically tuned to one hierarchy, but you're inside all of these different nested overlapping hierarchies and provide exposition on as much of that research as you like, synthesis on as much as you feel called to, that seems like a really juicy and intersection for me.
And I imagine for a lot of listeners.
Elizabeth Hobson (44m 35s): So I think maybe I'll start with Ellie's work first. So Ellie and I overlapped at SFI and it was just fascinating to hear about her work with her populations. And you're totally right. Humans occupy many different positions in many different types of networks. And it's how all of those networks and positions come together that really determines outcomes and kind of this holistic view of where people rank in certain different situations.
The interesting thing about when you think about the human system, is Ellie can go in and interview her participants in her study and say, oh, you know, who do you go and borrow money from? Who do you trust? You can even ask them point blank. Rank these people in order a power with animals. It's really hard to do that. You can't go in and give them a survey. You can give them cognitive tests, but those are often kind of disconnected from the social situation itself. So often can't give you direct information into what the animals think about themselves and others.
And so when the animals are updating their signals, that's an indication that, or they've changed their mind about where they think that they sit in the social system. So that can happen on different timescales. So you can have a system where let's say like a bird will have a certain color and a certain kind of size of a feathers signal that will signal that it's a high ranked individual in a group, but that bird may only molt its feathers and update that signal once, maybe twice a year.
And so the updating part is very slow compared to potentially how the rank is changing in the meantime. There are other species, for example, there's a very cool bird in New Zealand called the Pukeko. So this is some of Cody Day's work, which I just think is so fascinating and they have this fleshy bit on their forehead and they can change how red that bit is on the scale of days to weeks. And so that's an example of a signal that can be updatable on a much, much faster timescale than something like those feathers.
And then you can also go to an extreme and look at fish like cichlids. So some of in the special issue, Kelly Wallace had a great paper on perturbing the social systems of the cichlids and seeing how they respond. And a lot of the cichlid species will change their coloration on the scale of minutes. In 15 minutes, you can get a fish that will completely change its color pattern to display that now it's dominant or now it's subordinate.
So they can turn on and off the signal that they're giving to others. But it's also indicative that that individuals thinking about where it's place in the hierarchy is, has also changed. So it gets some insight then into what these links are between the actions, the fights or the aggression, or these power dynamics and how quickly the individuals in the system understand that something has changed.
Michael Garfield (47m 54s): So from there, because again like the updating pieces really fascinating. It reminds me of this, a story that's been circulating on social media for the last few years about world famous violinist, Joshua Bell, who plays in Carnegie Hall and millions of fans and how he slummed in the DC subway as a busker and was routinely ignored by everyone but the children passing by and just how in people, it's especially easy to just prince and pauper, like change your clothing, change your venue and how, the way that we to bring this one step closer to again, to the social epistemology piece is there's been a lot of good work that's come out of SFI on challenging the assumptions that we have about meritocracy. And again, like this relationship between updating the environment and then updating the sort of more granular details that we use for signaling as individuals and our understanding of our place in things. I'm thinking of former SFI Chair, Michael Mauboussinwork on skill versus luck. This is something we talked about in the episode 12 with Matthew Jackson also about how simply moving a poor family into a rich neighborhood improves the chances of their children in society, far more than giving them money to do anything else with, just relocating somebody in the network seems to matter more because we're using these proxies to navigate this environment.
And the proxies often fail. The proxies are not actually necessarily signifying the actual merit or skill of the animals involved. So there's a thread that runs through this entire issue on stochasticity rather, or, unlock and the role of luck in these environment, like David and Goliath where he gets a lucky shot and suddenly he's the one. And so I'm curious about your thoughts on this and on the role of just contingency and the play of happenstance on the actual structure of these networks and on the life circumstances of the beings involved in them.
Elizabeth Hobson (50m 11s): I think that's a fascinating angle. And I think it's really motivated a lot of my work on things like the parakeets, where it looks like that is really important in those social systems where we can't find a correlation between a characteristic of the parakeets themselves as individuals like size or, call characteristics or anything. We can't strongly predict what rank they're going to achieve in the hierarchy based on individual characteristics. So it does look like it's a product of how they're interacting with each other.
And so in a system like that, especially if other individuals are watching how each other interacting. You're not just remembering the outcome of your own fights or your fights that you have with particular other individuals, but you're watching the fights of others as they're happening. What you can get in those kinds of systems is exactly what you're describing. These stochastic events can be really powerful in structuring the initial dynamics of the system and that it's almost like it has momentum.
And once you get that ball rolling down the hill, maybe that one fight that you won initially, if you came out swinging and this new group, maybe that structure is how you join the social world and your place within it for quite a while. So we can actually see really interesting evidence of this kind of system. Do you know anything about the hyenas and their social systems? Well, some people say everything they learned, they got from Lion King, which is not a good reference people.
So just to summarize and get to the core of it. So this is something that Eli stress works on quite a bit. And he's one of the other special issue editors here. So in hyenas, what they do is they have this maternal hierarchy where the females are the most dominant in the group. And all the females have rank in a female based hierarchy. Then all the males are in a male hierarchy and all the females rank above all the males. And the way that these hierarchies persist is that the top ranked females, youngest female offspring, inherits her rank.
So you get these long-term dynasties that just persist, potentially across generations of hyenas, but you can get hyenas that come in and these systems are pretty predictable. You can say, oh, well, that's the rank inheritance system. And so probably this dynasty is going to persist for a certain amount of time, unless there's a perturbation to the system. And the way that the system sometimes can get perturbed is by rule breakers. And so if you get an individual, for example, in hyenas, that starts to form a strong coalition with other individuals, they can take down the entire hierarchy and reform it and essentially come in as a new dynasty.
And so I think that also really highlights kind of it's a mix of stochasticity. But also there's a lot of preparation and social dynamics that goes into it. It's not just that you happen to get a lucky shot one time. In a big group, how many individuals in that group are going to believe that you're now the top ranked individual because you got that lucky shot. Maybe you have to build it up quite a bit over time, to get the system to flip. And so I think this really highlights something that you referenced Jessica Flack work earlier, and she has this really nice perspective on what's happening in these individual actions and specific fights, for example, and how that's impacting the social information and the structures at a higher social level.
And so there should be this lag between the two were just getting one lucky shot does not mean that the whole social system crumbles. There should be a lag where you have to really prove yourself. And you can, you can eventually prove yourself and say, okay, well fine, everybody in the social system says, okay, fine. You can take over now. But usually there's this in a lot of cases, the information at the social level being more stable than what's happening at this fight by fight basis.
So sometimes you can have a flip. There's a stochastic event. And then your social system crumbles. If it's a very fragile system that can totally happen. But generally, because of all the costs and benefits of living in these systems, they're generally more robust than that. They're not as easy to crumble as that.
Michael Garfield (54m 54s): We've kind of come to a fork in the road here. And I hope that we can touch on both of these points. Well, let's start with this one, the Tian Ching Zeng and Henrich piece talks about how observational studies suggest that dominance can be complicated by the fact that subordinates benefit dominance by provisioning services, such as grooming food sharing, et cetera, or by mutualism through predator detection or cooperation in hunting or warfare. This means that they continue that subordinates can punish dominance by withholding or threatening to withhold these benefits.
And that pervasive leverage weakens the unit directionality of aggression or intimidation increases affiliative and reconciliation behaviors, reduces rank based inequality, making dominance, hierarchies, less despotic and more egalitarian or less steep. So obviously I'm thinking about unions strikes, Lysistrata, these instances where like you were saying, coalitions form and the balance is reset in important ways. And so, I mean, that's interesting in that I don't know what the minimal viable animal is for this kind of thing, cognitively, like it can happen in hyenas.
It certainly happens in chimpanzees. It's been well-documented it happens all over the place with human beings. But again, like to not sort of succumb to an essentialist idea of animals and to pay respects to what you'd said earlier in this conversation about how even in a given species see very different kind of structures between different societies. I'm just curious your thoughts on this particular phenomenon and what it requires as far as like brain power in an animal and what kind of pressures facilitate or inhibit this particular kind of dynamic.
And then I think that actually carries us nicely into the last question that I have for you.
Elizabeth Hobson (56m 48s): It's an interesting question. And I think as one of the reasons that I'm really fascinated by these hierarchies, because I do think that they're potentially a window into the cognition of these species that are using them. If you get a system where one fight occurs and it crumbles the entire hierarchy, maybe that can happen if their memory is terrible and they only respond to fights that have happened in the near past.
So I think that systems which have more memory can have a lot more momentum potentially because those individuals could remember all the past interactions and how those have all potentially contributed to the current social system. And so then one weird thing happening wouldn't necessarily have enough momentum itself to kind of crumble the entire social system. So thinking about the memory is really key in there, but also thinking about attention.
What are these individuals paying attention to? Are they only paying attention to the fights that they themselves are winning? Or is it the fights that they're observing others win? Because if they're watching what everybody else is doing and they see something weird happen, that information then can echo through the entire social network much, much quicker potentially than if you had to wait to challenge that individual, every individual in the group had to challenge this rule breaker, for example, thinking about it, the fragility of these systems when they're robust, when they're fragile and the interaction of memory and attention and the perceptive abilities of the species and how this information is really processed, can really give you some neat insight into the cognitive side.
Michael Garfield (58m 42s): So it's funny, I'm glad I have an opportunity to bring this up that you mentioned in the intro, the original Norwegian term for pecking order is hack list. Perfect. Everybody's keeping their little ledger of everyone's historical transactions, which I guess to tie this into something we were talking about just a little while ago, brings me to this piece that I'm really glad that we get to sort of land this on, which is not in this issue, but we will link to it. It's a commentary that you wrote with Simon DeDeo on another piece by Callicott Soo (?) on the emergence of hierarchy and network endorsement dynamics.
And he wrote this piece called From Equality to Hierarchy, which explore is why it is that some societies are egalitarian and others are more steeply stratified. And the tie in here, or what I took away from this, I hope rightly was that the main reason that an egalitarian society sort of changes phase into something more despotic is fixation on prestige, at least among human beings. And so you see again to sort of lean on this question about merit and expertise and what it means in the 21st century.
There is this thing about scale and economies of scale and the way that we measure value, the way that we create proxies for whatever it is that we think we are trying to understand about ourselves and about other people in society. And in light of this, it's at least understandable in a kind of impassionate scientific way why our attempts to interact with one another at the scale of global civilization have resulted in these imperfect systems where people are starting to realize that the proxies that we've been using are not actually accurate.
And also that in the James C. Scott, seeing like a state kind of sense, the course view of us as people at the level of our states and our economic systems really does reduce us dimensionally down to a level that looks a lot like the pre-modern understanding of chickens in the yard. They're just people. It's the pushback that so many people feel compelled to exert against socio physics. The idea that like you can look at a crowd as just like fluid dynamics.
Those are people making decisions. So I'd love to hear you talk a little bit about this particular piece and then just how it plugs into everything else here and the sort of broader question about the distance to call on the conversation they had with Stephanie Crabtree and Devin White about when it makes sense to view these systems from orbit as it were. And when it makes sense to view them at street level and like understand these societies in the way that the animals themselves understand them and how those two ways are kind of clashing in our century.
Elizabeth Hobson (1h 1m 40s): Well, so you were asking about the proxies that we use to try to see who's ranked high in this category or this situation or the society. And I think that one thing that you're highlighting here is that we can change our mind about which proxies we're using. We can say that proxy that we've been using for awhile, we don't like it anymore. That's not a good proxy of the current social environment. And so we're going to change it and we're going to look at something else now. Money is a good example.
For the bulk of human history, we did not have things like money, but now you can say, oh, what's your salary, how much you have in the bank, and can be a good proxy in some situations for power in a social environment, but not always. And sometimes that's a bad proxy for who has the power. So I don't know if that gets at some of the societal change type thinking that you were bringing up there. But I think it's really important, especially for humans, because we do have so much of our social culture built up in how we perceive others and how we're organizing systems that it's important to realize that things can change over time, as culture is changing. So can the ways that we perceive each other and the way that we rank each other and who we give prestige to is also something that can change, like giving a prestige is something that, it's not aggression. You're not going to going around and like punching people in most human social interactions. But that giving a prestige is also something that can flow through the network of interactions in a population and can contribute to the power of an individual in that social network.
Michael Garfield (1h 3m 26s): I'm thinking about potlatch or like my dad likes to say, you never look bad making someone else look good. There's definitely, I think a lot of lessons in your work in terms of office politics, obviously, and dog whispering and these kinds of things.
Elizabeth Hobson (1h 3m 45s): Well, you see it on Twitter too. We've seen a lot of recent cases where people with lots of perceived power will respond very aggressively towards tweets to people that have very few followers or are new to Twitter or are young. And that's an interesting case of punching way down a hierarchy. So in the animal literature, what I've been working on there is we call that social dominance pattern, a bullying pattern because it's a high ranked individual being aggressive and using their cloud to make a lower ranked individual, either, fighting with them explicitly or bringing the force of their network against that particular person. So you see a lot of this on things like Twitter, with all the social media accounts and stuff, you can see this happening all the time which is really fascinating, is like, what's the benefit then of doing this kind of thing. So if you're a high ranked individual and you get a benefit from being aggressive towards a very, very low ranked individual, that doesn't actually give you a whole lot of information about how that individual is ranked in the system.
If they're fighting and they're defeating their close competitors, so they're potential challengers for their own rank, it would be a much stronger signal of where they sit within that hierarchy. But in the cases where you see this bullying pattern, I wonder if that's just the kind of the power gone wrong where you've got this power dynamic, where then you've almost transitioned into a more despotic state where I just don't like what you said.
And so I'll be aggressive regardless of the benefits that I actually get from doing this action. So I think that it's a really interesting kind of potential mismatch between how you should be interacting in a certain situation to maximize your benefits and minimize the costs, but people get drawn into these things. And so it's a really interesting kind of dynamic that I see with the social media these days,
Michael Garfield (1h 6m 3s): I'm thinking of, get that baby out of here? Well, not to get too Lucy about this, but it seems like people tend to respond to that kind of behavior as, oh, that person has an inferiority complex. And so I wonder to the degree that you think that this is again, like to put it in machine learning language like that, person's algorithm for how to understand themselves in a dominance hierarchy has been over fit to the training data of whatever was going on for them as children, in like an abusive family or whatever.
And so they grow up with a chip on their shoulder and they never learned update their map of the social landscape, even when they assume power. And so, I mean, not to play too much sympathy for the devil here, but I do wonder in what ways that kind of phenomenon can be understood through a complex system lens and then perhaps provide some leverage points for intervention so that we can perhaps help people update their algorithm or at least their data about the world around them.
And I think you're right to point out that it is a phenomenon in social media because when I had Rajiv Sethi the, on the show, we talked about how so much of the nonverbal cues that we use to navigate our complex social spaces, especially in fast paced, urban environments are stripped online. And so essentially we're meeting everyone in a dark alley and having to make these flash decisions about them. And we're not actually inhabiting this rich landscape of information about this stranger with like a hundred pixel wide avatar.
And so it's very easy to punch the wrong person in that kind of a setting. Thoughts on that.
Elizabeth Hobson (1h 7m 49s): It could be, I mean, I think it also connects into, you know, you had Josh Garland and Mirta Galesic on your show too, and talking about all their work on hate speech on Twitter. And I think that that's another kind of interesting situation where there may be a mismatch between what's beneficial for an individual in a larger social environment, then what's beneficial to that individual in the environment that they've constructed in their mind. I mean, trying to break that it's really hard.
And trying to say, here's your bubble, that's just the bubble. That's not the whole world. And here's the whole world, and this is the social situation in which you actually find yourself is a really tricky thing to get across to people. I mean, if I knew how to do it, I probably wouldn't be studying animals still. But yeah, I think it's an important thing to think about for sure.
Michael Garfield (1h 8m 44s): Well, I feel like I've kept you far longer than I intended to, and I really appreciate the time and the attention that you've given us. Liz, thank you. Before we go. I just want to give you an opportunity because you were talking about this rather enthusiastically, before we started recording to tell people a little bit about where you are with your research right now, the projects that you're working on and about to start where you see the frontier of this work and what kind of questions are out there unanswered that other people interested in this field might decide that they want to pursue.
Elizabeth Hobson (1h 9m 19s): I'd be happy to. So I started my lab here at the University of Cincinnati in Fall of 2019, which is interesting timing to start a new lab with the whole pandemic and things happening afterwards. But the new lab we grew really quickly. So I've got a whole bunch of PhD students now and post-docs who are working on various questions, mostly focusing on how these social systems and different species come together and what animals know about their systems that they find themselves in.
And so we're doing a lot of work with dominance hierarchies. He is both in the monk parakeets, but also in brand new experiments with bobwhite quail, which we are actually starting tomorrow. My PhD student Sanjay Prassure is leading that as we're very excited, we were prepping all day today, but the parakeet crew is doing new experiments where we're going in and we're not just seeing how these social systems form with novel groups. You take a bunch of parakeets that have never interacted with each other.
You throw them all in a big flight pen and you see what, what happens? How do they build their social systems, but we're letting them do that. And then we're going in and we're essentially kicking the system. I always say, okay, let's trap the top ranked bird and let's take it out of that group. And then let's see, does the whole group, does everybody just kind of in an orderly fashion, everybody bumps up a rank or does the whole system crumble. And those are two ends of the continuum on what could happen to those social systems.
So with that kind of approach, then we can kind of take a step back and say, okay, well, how are these social systems constructed? And what kinds of things are they paying attention to and responding to in order to form these social systems. And then the really fascinating thing that we do is we take that removed bird and we put it back in and then we see, does that bird retake his rank? Does everybody fall back in line? Or is there this massive fight then about how individuals are trying to hold onto the status that they've just gained?
The removed bird is trying to claw its way back up the hierarchy. It's a really fascinating social drama and what we're seeing that last year, and this is work led by my postdoc Anna-Marie Vonder Morrow is that when you take a bird out top-ranked bird, he removed it and you put it back in. What happens is that everybody goes crazy with aggressing against the reintroduced bird. So what we're seeing is a bird that's top-ranked and we put it back in after a removal event, put it back in and it rejoins the hierarchy near the bottom or at the complete bottom rank of the entire group.
So we're seeing this giant shift in where that individual is ranked in the group. And so it's really nice because it really answers one of those foundational questions of, is it just something about that parakeet that causes it to be high ranked and the fact that it can't rejoin us group eight days later. This is not a huge amount of separation time. Eight days later, it can't come in, waltz back in and retake its rank really for us suggests that there's not something fundamental about that particular individual that caused it to achieve its rank.
It really seems like the sum total of all of the history of those interactions. And if you're not there defending your rank, you probably lose it in these systems.
Michael Garfield: Publish or perish.
Elizabeth Hobson: There's some pun there that we can do with parrot instead, but yeah, I died publish or cared. I don't know.
Michael Garfield (1h 13m 1s): Well, Liz, this was awesome. Thank you so much. I'm really excited to share this episode and your work with everyone. And I really appreciate you taking the time. Thank you for listening. Complexity is produced by the Santa Fe Institute, a nonprofit hub for complex systems science located in the high desert of New Mexico. For more information, including transcripts research links and educational resources, or to support our science and communication efforts. Visit Santafe.edu/podcast.