Like any primate species worthy of its opposable thumbs, we humans like our social hierarchies. Yet too much inequality wrecks our health, rocks our politics, and chafes our social ties, find scholars across the social sciences. These same scholars also hotly debate where inequality comes from, yet arrive at little consensus.

A new study of 21 modern small-scale societies around the world, however, finds a clear pattern in the disparities: “How much inequality there is in a society depends on...


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