Curse of the Pyramids

(Thoughts not yet fully formed follow. Like that’s anything new.)

When diagramming out some issue using a pyramid, we are invited (if not forced) to think hierarchically, in terms of a foundation, middle stories built on that foundation, and a crowning achievement/reward at the top:

We have food pyramids,

USDA Food Pyramid
If you carb-load, then eat your fruits and veggies and top them off with a cheese burger, you have proved your virtue and may then have sweets! 

Maslow’s Hierarchy,

Image result for maslow hierarchy of needs pyramid diagram
“Breathing, Food, Water, Sex, Sleep, Homeostasis, Excretion” – Hmmm – which one of these is not like the others? (Homeostasis in this context is a largely redundant catch-all for all the others – except one.) 

Management hierarchies:

CEO Pyramid
I think this is a joke. I hope it is a joke. At the very least, except for a few very highly specialized businesses, it should be way wider at the bottom, narrow rapidly and come to a pointy-point. 


Even hierarchies of disagreement:

Image result for disagreement  pyramid diagram
So, we’re to base our disagreements on name-calling, and then work our way up through ad hominem past gainsaying and then finally arrive at something like reasonable discussion? Seems an unlikely progression. 

A moment’s reflection should reveal, I think, that except when applied to construction of large monumental structures, such pyramid thinking is very unlikely to apply to anything in the real world. Imagine, for example, a pyramid describing a bee hive:

Bee Hive Hierarchy

Or maybe:

Bee Hive Hierarchy II

Does either one of these make any sense at all? Of course not. Placing these relationships in a pyramid all but forces us to assume a hierarchy that isn’t there. Even the names – queens, drones, workers – are blatant anthropomorphizing. The queen isn’t commanding the workers any more than the workers are enslaving the queen.

In a similar way, all the examples given are nonsense. Our food habits aren’t hierarchical – we don’t build upon a base of carbs to support an apex of sweets and fats. Maslow’s diagram hides an important truth: that it’s belief in and desire for the good that often motivates people to accept less fulfillment or show no concern for lower levels, sometimes, because we are not defined by them. There are many accounts of brilliantly happy saints who went hungry, voluntarily eschewed sex, lived in times of turmoil, did not have a place to lay their heads, were shunned and mistreated by their contemporaries – and achieved a level of ‘self-actualization’ beyond anything known to Maslow’s philosophy.

In the flat moral universe I’m often on about here, the temptation is to see the world as a series of pyramids, where there’s a bottom level of oppression and mistreatment to be escaped, upper levels holding lower levels down with bad intent, and a struggle to invert the pyramid, somehow.

In almost every case, such an understanding is poor. Relationships are both more complex and subject to much more variety than can be even roughly approximated by layer in a triangle.

Pyramid thinking: a bad idea.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

6 thoughts on “Curse of the Pyramids”

  1. For no reason other than that I’m in a mood to be picky and annoying, and perhaps to achieve the degree of self-actualization that can give to my otherwise meaningless existence, I am compelled to point out a facial error in your piece.
    The queen bee does not spend her entire life trapped in the hive, laying eggs until she dies. After a stint of egg production, a new queen is hatched, and takes over those duties. At this point, the old queen takes half of the workers, and revels in the thrill of the open sky. Well, at least as much open sky as there is between the hive and the next rotted tree, where she will settle and establish a new hive.
    Now excuse me while I, having achieved total fulfillment, return to my pitiful, mundane existence.

    1. You know, I was working with *little* text boxes in Miocrosoft Paint – that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

      More seriously, I knew about the whole queen-leaves-and-takes-half-the-workers-with-her thing because we had a beehive in a tree in our front yard for about a decade, until a skunk ate it. What I didn’t know was that it was the old queen who left – I thought, somehow, it was a young queen. So, 1 point, Gryffindor! It is quite a sight, a huge ball of bees hanging from a branch while the scouts look for a new place to build a hive. Freaked the neighbors out, but was fascinating to me, especially since the bees picked a short tree – the ball was about 4′ off the ground.

  2. At the bottom level of the pyramid are unrelated, atomic individual living lives that are solitary, nasty, brutish, and short, much like early modern philosophers or Russian intellectuals. Then, when there are enough of them or if one of them is named Rousseau, they will draw up a social contract and on the next level of the pyramid become Noble Savages. From there, they will progress to a pyramid structure, with a pharaoh or something at the top and the worker bees at the bottom. They spend their nasty, brutish and short lives building pyramids. This is followed by the next level, in which the worker bees elect the pharaoh, who then tries to redefine the pyramid and leave their legacy behind with a new, improve pyramid, perhaps with the point on the bottom. Finally, the worker bees wonder why things never get any better even though they keep electing new pharaohs who promise to make things better. Instead of wondering who died and made pharaohs experts in pyramid design, they topple the pyramid — recall, it’s standing in its tip at this point — and leave their Marx on history, thus returning to the aboriginal state of atomic indidualism.

  3. I believe the food pyramid, at least, is supposed to indicate recommended quantities, not a building of one thing upon another. It seems to me that the management pyramid does the same thing: There are lots of average Joes in a company, but fewer and fewer people at each level of management and one guy at the top; not that you get to the top by starting out as an average Joe.

    1. Oh, yea – but setting it up as a pyramid sends a certain message – that’s all this is about. When googling around for a food pyramid, found older ones (that one is from the 1980s or 90s). The older ones were much more like pie charts – which conveys proportion without suggesting importance. Seems better.

      My point, if I had one: pyramids suggest a way of thinking that is almost always wrong or at least seriously flawed.

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