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DESOR RATS: Are We Doomed to Inequality

DESOR RATS: Are We Doomed to Inequality
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Illustration: Banksy «Rat Bathroom Installation»


Since the French Revolution, «Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity» have firmly entered the list of humanity’s fundamental values.

Unfortunately, history constantly questions the possibility of realizing these ideas in practice. Recently, science has joined in this skepticism, adding a layer of complexity to the debate. To answer the question, «Does equality contradict the laws of biology?» science, as always, turned to our lesser brethren.


In 1994, French scientist Didier Desor from the University of Nancy published a study titled «Investigation of Social Hierarchy in Rats Through Water Immersion Experiments».

Desor placed six laboratory rats in a glass box that could only be exited through a tunnel staircase leading to an opening at the bottom of a tank half-filled with water.

A feeder was placed on the tank’s wall. After surfacing from the tunnel at the bottom, a rat could swim to the feeder and grab food. However, to eat it, the rat had to return to the glass box.

During the experiment, Desor discovered that the rats formed a clear hierarchy. Only three «worker» rats consistently swam for food. Two rats became «exploiters»: they preferred not to exert themselves and snatched food from the hardworking trio.

The sixth rat chose the role of an independent loner. It dived for food itself but categorically refused to share it with the «exploiters». To maintain its independence, it fought fiercely if necessary.

Desor concluded that this role distribution within the group happens automatically, and their ratios do not change. For instance, when the scientist placed six «exploiters» from different groups in the glass box, the hierarchy reestablished itself with 1 «independent», 2 «exploiters», and 3 «workers».

The same occurred when the group was composed entirely of workers or independents—the familiar hierarchy inevitably reestablished itself.




Desor decided to test this «hierarchical law» on a larger population. He placed 200 white laboratory rats in a glass enclosure.

To his surprise, the researcher found that the hierarchy did not disappear but instead became more complex. In the larger community, new roles emerged among the rats.

«Vassals» formed a layer between the «exploiters» and the «workers», a role that did not exist in the group of six rats. They did not swim for food themselves but took it from the swimmers and brought it to the «exploiters».

In other words, they acted as tax collectors or customs officers. The «exploiters» in this larger setting preferred not to be directly involved in food confiscation – it was beneath them!


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In addition to the «vassals», another new class emerged among the 200 rats, which was absent in the smaller group. These were the «beggars». They did not dive for food nor engage in conflicts, preferring to survive on whatever scraps they could find on the floor.

Thus, four basic types were identified among the rats, and the temptation to correlate them with social roles in human society was too strong to resist.

Exploiters – dominant type individuals. Exploited – normative type individuals. Independent – creative type individuals. Non-confrontational «beggars» – harmonizing type individuals.




Although Desor’s experiments are somewhat forgotten today, they had a huge impact in the 1990s. They suggested that humans are doomed to hierarchies and that inequality in human societies has a universal biological basis.

No matter how hard one tries to build a «society of equal opportunities», stratification is inevitable. Social revolutions also seem entirely pointless because they cannot change the hierarchical nature of society.

However, while people are not equal, they are significantly different from animals. In human societies, social mobility can elevate the best individuals to the top of the social pyramid without necessarily destroying established hierarchies.

History is full of examples, from Lomonosov to Napoleon, of people from humble beginnings achieving outstanding results in science, art, business, and government.

This is likely possible because the parameters of personality are not set once and for all by animal instinct alone. Humans are not solely defined by hierarchy, but also by what constitutes the super-biological foundation of personality.


Original research: Behavioural differentiation of rats confronted to a complex diving-for-food situation


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