Screaming their way to the top

review of The Natural History of the Rich by Richard Conniff, publisher: W.W. Norton & Co.

by Moe Berg, Edmonton Journal, December 15, 2002

Award-winning journalist Richard Conniff has put his experience writing for National Geographic and Worth to unique use with this funny and provocative book. The Natural History of the Rich reads like a brainy version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous crossed with a Discovery Channel special.

As it is with our closest cousin, the chimpanzee, aggression is celebrated amongst the rich. Large animals tell the world how big they are by roaring. Conniff notes that "Great fortune-builders are also often great screamers, and the diatribe has been a favourite tool of David Geffen, Ted Turner and Intel's Andy Grove. Humans who tend to rise above the pack are typically what anthropologists call 'Triple A sorts'; 'acquisitive, aggressive and accumulative.' "

Conniff asserts that the first wealthy humans came from agriculture. However, he quotes Canadian archeologist Brian Hayden, who says that agriculture didn't invent the rich but that "the rich invented agriculture, to find that extra little something for a memorable feast." You see, Conniff maintains that the rich seek status and status is tied to how good a party you can throw. In a later chapter, Conniff has Hayden theorizing that conspicuous consumption by the rich has a trickle-down effect on the rest of us: "Triple-A aggrandizers were the first to introduce the use of textiles, metals, open ocean boats, leather shoes ... plumbing."

These display signals need to be regularly changed. When lace, previously a gaudy gauge of wealth, became mass-produced, it ceased to be a meaningful representation of prosperity. This is called "signal inflation." In what seems like a contradiction, the rich also use "inconspicuous consumption" so as not to appear vulgar. The most important signals are the ones that only other rich people can identify.

Conniff finds examples of attention-seeking behaviour such as showing off, philanthropy and consumption. These actions increase the status and mating possibilities of the (mostly) males who exhibit them. Coniff then offers reports of Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner duking it out with philanthropic gestures and millionaires Richard Branson and Steve Fossett risking their lives in balloons.

Where wealthy humans and their animal counterparts curiously differ is in the production of offspring. One assumes that the behaviour and trappings of the rich provide ample opportunities and resources for them to spread their seed. However, the rich tend to have fewer children so that the wealth can stay concentrated, avoiding the dreaded "shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves" syndrome. While in the past, concubines or servants helped the powerful distribute their DNA, these days, Coniff argues, that sort of behaviour will land you in court or worse with a hefty paternity bill. Family dynasties remain insular and inbreeding insures that blood stays pure and money stays put.

This review barely touches on the vast amount of fascinating information Conniff uncovers. His style is spare, leaving each page packed with theories, factoids and anecdotes. He also has a dry humour that is perfect for his subject. The photo section in the middle of the book is especially hilarious, with pictures of the rich and famous and their doppelgangers in the animal kingdom. Though some will feel he doesn't prove his thesis, he shows that, clearly, the rich are different in almost every way from the rest of us. The Natural History of the Rich is more about the journey than the destination and should be read as one assumes it was written, with tongue placed firmly in cheek.

Copyright © 2002 CanWest Communications Corp.

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