Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The Natural History of The Rich

I was contemplating buying THE APE IN THE CORNER OFFICE, also by Richard Conniff. Of course, Amazon tempts you with similar wares...including this OTHER book that he's written. If the everyman REVIEWS are this interesting, then I'll have to check out BOTH books...GaP ------------------------------------------------------------------------- Reviewer: Christopher H---- ( NJ United States) - See all my reviews Conniff, in writing this light, well researched book of comic sociology, makes interesting links between his observations in the natural world for National Geographic and his observations of the rich while working for Architectural Digest. Although I think Conniff, on balance, focuses more on the rich than on the parallels between the animal kingdom and the richs' behavior, this isn't a big flaw, at least to me -- I'd rather know a little more about billionaires' lives than a little more about the sex lives of the bonobos. Overall, I'd recommend this book. Throughout the book, Conniff traces the behaviour of the rich and of various animal species, he shows that territoriality, social hierarchy, pecking orders, and competition for mates aren't just confined to the animal kingdom. Indeed, the natural laws of power and association are two major areas we have in common with our animal brethren. He notes that the rich, as well as animals, know that power, control of resources and social dominance is what it's all about, despite any of their claims to the contrary. One must be confident, have good posture, walk straight, look people right in the eye, go directly after what one wants, and remember it's all about winning-winning-winning. The richs' influential friends, big houses, glamorous hobbies are all signs of dominance, as is a single-minded determination to impose one's vision on the world. Conniff also points out that the softer side of domination is that of association. The rich know that "you are who you know." One must make friends shrewdly, cultivate allies, go to the right schools, live in the right neighborhoods, give to socially desirable charities, throw parties and invite all the right people. For humans, social intelligence is as important for survival as navigational skills are for arctic turns. Knowing the right people, places, pleasures - the sorts of things a rich person should know - is the only reliable badge of admission among the rich. And realize that the rich aren't out to impress the masses - the rich want to impress other rich people, not those far down the pecking order. Wanting to impress the masses is like a peacock wanting to impress a dog. Finally, Conniff explores the age old question, "Is the world inhabited by the rich different?" Of course there are more comforts; the rich enjoy what the world has to offer, and family dynasties give heirs a sense of continuity and tradition. But the downside is that although wealth might not change you, it most surely changes the way people treat you. The rich are used to people sucking up to them, and expect but are suspicious of being flattered by their servants, friends, and potential allies. Also, the rich tend to socialize amongst themselves, and experience a sort of social isolation, going to the same restaurants, vacationing in the same spots, dating other "suitable" rich people, intermarrying amongst themselves. Through all these behaviors, they slowly dissolve anything they have in common with most other people, so being rich can be lonely. They live as birds in gilded cages. Overall, this was a good light read. Recommended. Was this review helpful to you? (Report this) 11 of 11 people found the following review helpful: Animals All, March 5, 2004 Reviewer: R" ( Mississippi USA) - See all my reviews We are interested in what rich people do. They make the big homes, and the big deals, and have the fanciest clothes and the best choice in dates. We enjoy it when they do things that are silly, stupid, or mistaken. In doing so, we are really doing nothing more than our hominid ancestors did in paying close attention to the chiefs of their tribes; they may not have had money back then, but they had the status and they were carefully watched because of it. Interest in the rich is programmed in our genes. Thus it is a delight to find that the rich can be studied as objects of natural curiosity. Richard Conniff usually writes about other species, but has taken the techniques of the naturalist to study the habits of _homo sapiens peconiosus_ (rich people) in _The Natural History of the Rich: A Field Guide_ (Norton). He writes that instead of animals in the field, he "... had found a new quarry, and they were possibly the most dangerous and elusive animals on earth." Throughout his witty and informative book, he shows a great sense of fun with his evaluation of this extraordinary species. Conniff gives us many views of rich people acting like animals. The analogies are often easily drawn and obvious. This should not be surprising. Successful tribal animals from all species are driven by "the quest for control, dominance, mating opportunities, and, above all, status." The rich are predatory like jungle cats, or busy with penile displays, like monkeys. It seems that many rich men are addicted to peeing in relatively public places as a show of domination. Ted Turner, who shows up often in this book, gave away a billion dollars to the UN, and disdained his fellow rich people who weren't, in his opinion, doing their share, as he quite ostentatiously was. A virtue is more of a virtue if it is performed privately and not for show, but the rich don't play the game that way any more than other primates do; what he had done was make a "bid for status, as plain as the chest-thumping of rival silverback gorillas." The rich maintain that they already have it made and they don't have any need to impress anyone, but that's not the way they behave: "...they usually mean only that they have drastically narrowed down the list of people they are interested in impressing." Other rich people, or ghosts of doubting fathers or teachers. Part of the fun of the book is that Conniff knows a wealth of examples to draw upon, and there is lots to learn about what we usually take to be animals as well as rich people. For instance, in discussing the way rich men have arranged for other men not to make attempts on their wives ("mate guarding"), he informs us about dragon flies. Anyone who has seen dragonflies knows that they spend some of their time flying in tandem, with the male locked onto the female. It is wrong to assume they are enjoying in-flight coitus; probably they already got that out of the way, but the male is sticking to his mate until she lays her eggs so that other males don't get to her beforehand. So various behaviors of the rich (kin selection, altruism, status symbols, territoriality, scent marking, hoarding) amusingly can be found in some much lower species. The ease of the analogies is partially due to the baroque variations of behavior found all over the animal kingdom; one can find some species somewhere doing almost anything, and another doing the opposite. In fact, when analogizing the way rich grooms give presents to brides, Conniff tells about the male hangingfly who presents an edible morsel to a prospective mate, but warns, "The leap from hangingflies to humans is of course perilous." Just so, but such leaps are entertaining as well. Conniff's examination of the rich is not a scientific study as much as it is a bunch of funny stories about how odd those rich people are, stories made funnier by finding that they behave in ways just like other animals do.


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