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games primates play

May 2, 2012

Probably 15 years ago now, I read a book about intergenerational family histories of famous people, and it introduced me to the concept of genograms. A genogram looks somewhat like a genealogical family tree chart, but is densely packed with symbols that convey information about relationships. (Genograms can also be used for family medical histories, or for groups of unrelated people in social organizations.) For visually-oriented people like me, a genogram can be extremely useful to quickly convey complex interactions because I find it much easier to ‘read’ a visual image than listen to someone explain everything in words. I have been drawing genograms of my family of origin (and occasionally Spouse’s family of origin) ever since.

The book I read talked about how people in the families represented often re-created certain patterns of behavior, generation after generation, even when they didn’t know those patterns existed. I decided I should try to discover or figure out as many problematic relationships as I could in my own family because maybe if I knew about them, I could find a way not to relive them myself. If eldest daughters always had difficult relationships with their fathers, for instance, I would try to foster a healthy relationship with my father.

Unfortunately for my idealism, of course, I read this book as an adult, so all of my primary relationships with family of origin members were well advanced. And seemingly set in concrete, despite my best efforts.

According to my counselors, if one person in a relationship drastically changes what they do/how they behave, the other person(s) will have to respond, which will likely change their behavior toward the first person. So while you can’t directly make people do things, you can act differently, and the rest of the system will accommodate that change accordingly. Supposedly.

Except that, for me, it didn’t. It became clear to me that there had to be more to the story, some ingredient(s) that were unaccounted for. Maybe something that everybody else understood, perhaps as ‘common sense ‘, but that I didn’t understand, or even perceive, for some reason.

That missing ingredient seems to be human hierarchies, the interplay of dominance and submission that is so common to primates.

I know human hierarchies exist, because I seem to be at, or near, the bottom of every one I’ve ever been in, which has had rather dire consequences for me. But I don’t understand them at a visceral level. So I’ve read a lot of books about them, and group dynamics, sibling birth order, sociology — anything that might help me not just understand the social problems I’ve always faced, but figure out how to have better outcomes.

The big problem is that most people who write books about this stuff do understand it at a visceral level, and they see the entire world through this lens. As far as they are concerned, ‘stability’, ‘harmony’, everything good in the world all follow from people being ranked, and living within a system where rank is all-important. Every social interaction not only does inevitably involve figuring out ‘who’s on top’, but it should. Because when that does happen, aggression and violence can be minimized if subordinates just ‘learn their place’, and resign themselves to always getting the shit sandwich. Yes, the dominant person(s) get not only the best of everything, but the most of everything — but that’s just the way the world works! It Has To Be That Way, and It’s Really For The Best. And anyone who isn’t at the top, then, should really aspire to being at the top. They should put most of their energies toward changing their position, relative to the top, because that’s the only thing that really matters. People can and should spend their entire lives jockeying for a higher position in any hierarchy they are part of; or resigning themselves to ‘not having what it takes’, and just being the resident loser/doormat.

These books will also mention the downside of such a system (but they don’t seem too concerned):.

“High-ranking animals survive longer, reproduce better, and generally live a healthier, more comfortable, and less stressful life than the low-ranking ones.” (Games Primates Play, by Dario Maestripieri, pp. 34-35)

Why would anyone want to argue with an evolutionary strategy so successful, it’s persisted for millions of years?

Well, if you were a low-ranked person who was living a high-stress life, you might have some ideas about that.

It’s bad enough reading all the stuff about social networks, and group dynamics, and seeing how thousands or millions of so-called ‘high quality’ individuals are encouraged to compete for the same 5 (or 100) slots of Real True Power. Statistics and probability make it very clear that, while 1 person (or 13 or 684) will win a lottery –being a billionaire, or being voted Sexiest Person in the World, or becoming  US President — most people have no chance at any of those things. If you have certain qualities, though, you can still be a big fish in a small pond. However there still aren’t enough ponds to go around for everybody who wants to think of themselves as a ‘big fish’ to actually out-rank all the other ‘little fish’. You can have the best ‘leadership’ skills in the world, but if nobody’s listening to you — if you have no ‘followers’ (aka ‘littler fish’) — by definition you are not a leader. I bet the stress levels of those people (would-be leaders with no followers) are sky high.


Human beings are not at all closely related to sharks, and yet I commonly describe my post-age-6 childhood as growing up with sharks.

Shark fetuses fight for dominance in utero: the winners kill and eat their siblings, and only the survivors live long enough to be born.

I have also described my upbringing as The Sopranos without the guns. People at the top were ruthless, cruel, and often capricious. Choices were to ‘submit’ to their authority, in exchange for protection or small perks, knowing they might turn on you at any time, when not only your place in the family but also your continued existence would become very precarious; or you might bide your time, so you could succeed them as their heir, or you could overthrow them.

I was not born into the above system. I think it developed when I was 6 when my last sibling was born, and when I think my mother had a nervous breakdown. Almost overnight, my life changed from being more or less idyllic to being a hellish nightmare that I could not make any sense of.

Which eerily echoes the transition my mother lived through in her own childhood, with the birth of her younger brother when she was 7.


What other patterns have I been a part of?

Firstborn daughters are fairly common in both sides of my family.  My father’s only sister was a firstborn daughter. I don’t know how she got along with her parents, but I have heard that my grandfather didn’t like any of her boyfriends. She never married, but we now know that she had three children she gave up for adoption. She was a matriarchal figure for the older cousins, all of which seem to have been fond of her. I admired her and looked up to her, but she wouldn’t give me the time of day. Possibly because my father had a very rocky relationship with her, and my mother disliked her.

Looking at the dynamics of my father’s family of origin is interesting. My father is the youngest of seven children. Two of his brothers were identical twins, but one of the twins died as a toddler before my father was born. So his siblings were one sister, 12 years older; and 4 older brothers, ranging from 9 years to 1.5 years older. As a group, my father hero worshiped his brothers; but he was fondest of the second oldest, and the one closest to his own age. His sister tried to help him out materially, but whenever he talked about it to me, he was still very angry that she didn’t do more. Even though he ended up much better off than he would’ve been without her intervention. On the other hand, he never mentioned his brothers doing anything for him, but he never held that against them.

I think my father is profoundly uncomfortable with the idea of women holding power over men. He is very deferential to male authority, but a woman in authority better be much older, preferably of  a different generation, and have other reasons to be respected. My father did seem to respect his mother-in-law, I think because she was not only smart (although in different ways from him, and less-educated, and therefore not a threat), but savvy, and perhaps because she didn’t seem very interested in being a matriarch.

As far as I could ever tell, my father loved his mother, but he didn’t respect her. He loved and respected one of her sisters, a very strong-willed and acerbic force in his life until her death some 14 years ago. She was the matriarch of her family of three children, but she retained fondness for her nephews.

My father’s mother died when I was 4, so my memories of her are few, but she seemed to be kind and gentle, and I think of her fondly. I wanted to like her sister (that my father was so fond of, and who was at least nominally part of my life for almost 30 more years than my grandmother), but I just couldn’t manage it.


In my mother’s family, the atriarch progression is a little complicated. My mother’s father was the firstborn child of two parents who were each firstborns. My great-grandfather was murdered at 38. My almost-14 year old grandfather became so-called ‘man of the family’ over his 4 remaining younger siblings; his favorite brother had drowned earlier that year. Although my great-grandmother remarried fairly quickly, I think she became matriarch upon her first husband’s death.

My grandfather was close to his mother all her life; I think she relied up on him for emotional support. I do wonder if he wanted to be her heir, or enjoyed the reality of it.

Despite favoring my grandfather, my great-grandmother did not like his wife, and she doesn’t seem to have liked any of her son’s children.

My mother’s mother (the grandmother I was close to) was a second-generation middle daughter. After my grandfather died, following his parents’ example, we might expect that my grandmother, his widow, would take over as atriarch. Instead, I think she was seen by everybody as kind of a placeholder – like a regent — waiting for the next generation. By birth order, it should have been my aunt. By patriarchy/(male) primogeniture, it should have been my uncle. But somehow, it was my mother.

And yet I don’t think my mother defeated her siblings in a shark-like way. Now that I think about it, I wonder how she did do it.

In any case, my mother’s relationship with her sister is, to me, one of the wonders of the world. The way my mother describes her childhood, I can’t see how they ever became friends. But somehow they forged an extremely strong and durable relationship. My mother actually respects and defers to my aunt’s knowledge and experiences of various issues. My mother aspires to certain aspects of my aunt’s life, even though, as far as I can tell, my mother’s life has been much more successful than my aunt’s life. Yet my mother is always trying to ‘catch up’.

Even though my mother is the matriarch. I’ve often thought that, if I could somehow gain a comprehensive understanding of the relationship between the two sisters, almost everything in our family would suddenly make sense. But there is no chance of that happening.

My sister is the fourth-generation middle daughter. Since our mother is matriarch, I’m sure my sister expected to be her heir, but it hasn’t worked out like that. If we were elephants, we would have separate hierarchies for females and males, but the matriarch would be at the top of everyone. So if we were elephants, my brother could be at the top of the male hierarchy, assuming he defeated all my other male cousins (which I don’t think I would bet on). But on some things he would still have to defer to whichever female was in charge.

He’s another one who can’t seem to wrap his brain around the idea that a woman would have power over men (at least, if he’s one of those men). When we were young, I was bigger and taller than he was for many years. And of course I was older. Somehow I had picked up the idea from my parents that older people, sheerly by virtue of their age, should be respected – that is, I thought authority came from age. So if I was babysitting my siblings, I expected them to listen to and do what I said, because I was in charge. But they didn’t. And my parents didn’t back me up either. They literally suggested we fight it out. Except that I’m a pacifist. So that didn’t go very well. And then my brother got much bigger and much taller than me, and things went a lot less well.

Don’t laugh, but I just wanted to get along with everybody. I have a role-informative personality, so it’s (almost?) impossible for me to order people around. I’m much more comfortable offering suggestions, or emotional support for whatever you want to do.

Power, in the sense of power to make people do what you want them to do, is not something I have any interest in. I don’t want to have it; I don’t want to wield it. And if you have it, you’re going to have an uphill battle convincing me I should do anything you say. Unless I was going to do it anyway, for my own reasons.

I just don’t like hierarchies.


This did not go in the directions I intended to write about. And I can’t find an ending that feels right. Maybe there will be a companion piece after I’ve thought things through further.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Sixwing permalink
    May 3, 2012 13:19

    This is an interesting parallel to my own experience, albeit from a different angle. I don’t “get” human hierarchy that way either, and it’s cost me on many an occasion, when I received retaliation for an offense I didn’t know I’d committed.

    I can tell people what to do but don’t enjoy it, and don’t generally think it should be necessary, so fighting over the #1 spot is boring at very best (and it is rarely at best). I don’t like being told what to do, so being in my usual low spot in any given hierarchy is annoying and frustrating (I am doing what I need to do, so just trust me to do it, mmkay?) But I always seem to run afoul of some kind of monkey pecking-order nonsense when I think I’m doing a good job, and then have to sort out someone’s ruffled feelings because I was apparently not deferential enough about doing my thing.

    I may possibly feel a little bit bitter about that.

    One of the things that has contributed in a big way to my exploration of spiritual matters beyond the dogma in which I was raised was an exploration of the idea of love without hierarchy. I ended up by concluding that it is possible to have (that is, it’s possible to love someone without being in either a dominant or a submissive posture toward them) but most people don’t seem to be comfortable doing it. It involves this uneasy thing of letting go of control, and trusting that the other person or people involved are going to do it too – sort of a prisoner’s dilemma of the heart.

    Also, following up from an earlier conversation: I actually do have a blog! You are most welcome to follow my adventures; if you’ve got a DW login or an OpenID, I’ll add you to some filters if you like.

    • May 3, 2012 17:29

      Yeah, I can’t really do deferential, which can be problematic. So I empathize.

      I added you to my Progressives blogroll. I’m not sure how stuff works in DW; I have a friend who’s been on LJ for years, and I think I can see most of her posts.

      • Sixwing permalink
        May 4, 2012 09:44

        I’d kind of gotten that impression. *s*

        Thanks! DW works with a couple different layers of privacy; right now you should be able to see all my public posts.

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