It is time for common sense Human Ethology. We need to start learning more about ourselves as a species and develop an understanding of our ways and our place in nature. We need it to navigate the path ahead. Many people are frightened and offended by any serious discussion of it but it’s time for us to have a little “facts of life” talk. If a disease is misdiagnosed, the prescription won’t help: If you don’t understand the machine your hand is caught in how can you escape? A great deal is riding on us. And we begin, in the dark.
I suspect that our minds contain a built in blind spot against recognizing ourselves in this light.
Imagine being a bird in one of those huge dark clouds of starlings swarming; our perspective is constantly eyes forward, keeping up, and so involved in doing that we don’t look around and say: “What are we doing?” Henri Bergson, an early 20th century neurologist believed that the brain had as much to do with limiting and filtering out reality as with perceiving and understanding it.
It’s understandable for many good reasons. First, your dominant preoccupation here on earth is SUPPOSED to be your own life. If you aren’t going to mind that store, who will? It must be contra-survival for any creature to spend its time marveling at another level of existence, I know it is for ME. And many people are disturbed by the notion that they really are an animal and that some of their own motivations are unconscious. And when you place that animal that they are in the context of a huge hive where they are a speck in the background it’s understandable that it seems disturbing and diminishing. But you could make the case that seeing the larger story and blending it with your own reveals something stunning and elegant. The foreground AND the background. The story of our life as hive animals is not the truer story, it is simply a different true story at a different factor of magnification. We exist at several levels as radically different things.
From one perspective each of us is a gigantic amalgam of self organizing cells and microbes who go about their business with no idea how unhappy we are in our current job and how much we love cake and have always wanted to learn the cello. One level up from the bits and pieces that make us up, we are recognizably ourselves, the HUB: The eyes and ears of the universe. But one more level up and we are the “tiny” self organizing cells of a system that generally speaking, we have no conception of. What are we even doing?
The Basics: Culture
As I said a couple of posts back, speech is natural to human beings, not something we mysteriously invented and dutifully pass along to each generation. Story telling and abstract thought is natural to human beings and absolutely critical in building the invisible essentials of our lives. The most meaningful things in people’s lives are non-physical: Home, Love, Family, Country & Culture. It’s a common, even clichéd thought that such human niceties and abstractions mean nothing in raw nature, on a desert island, etc. But it simply means that deprived of the context of other human beings, the human economy of belief has no role. But this is no different than a tiger placed alone in a zoo losing the meaning of his system, or an ant without her hive, having no role anywhere. Tigers and ants and humans are all nature, and are all expressing nature.
Cultures start in the shadows of history. With people in a small community, deeply intermarried and inter-related. These people express traits and behavior based on their general similarity and preferences and personal style. A culture grows up around them, a community “self-ness”, hard to pigeonhole but utterly recognizable to those who share it. Like all emergent things it opens from below. The culture then reinforces itself further as the medium of reality itself for the next generation and the next and the next. People and their families and their cultures are mutually reinforcing. Within any culture sexual selection will reflect the culture and therefore biologically reinforce it. This is the place where nature and nurture work seamlessly together to create a people and a culture. What determines the cultural matrix? The individuals, en-masse. Culture is emergent from the individuals living in it. It is the exudate of all the participating souls. If you collected the entire populations of Mexico and Sweden and swapped them to the other country, instantly Mexico would be acting like Sweden and Sweden would be acting like Mexico. This is SO obvious on one level, but people generally do not absorb the lesson. Culture is identity, reality. Culture is a shared sense of SELF.
And this is where xenophobia arises. That culture, that community is a body. It is a self made of humans, as bee colonies are made of bees and as animal bodies are made of cells. And just like beehives and cellular colonies there is a Self/Non Self border and things recognized as non-self are attacked.
Culture = Self.
Non Self equals danger to self. Xenophobia, bigotry, is natural. It is about preserving self as understood by the agents present on the scene. And within every culture this “hackles up” response is in play and expressed as a range of “appropriate” levels of response. An individual who is an extreme bigot defines one end of the range, and a “celebrate diversity” person is at the other. The density and intensity of each type and the range in between is the immune system for that culture fighting against change from outside. Every occurrence of racism and bigotry is essentially an immune system response. But so are acts of acceptance and tolerance, both are aspects of one system. The system is amoral. It is neither right nor wrong. It simply is. It is a filtration system that is supposed to keep out bad things and allow through good things. And because this human trait is global we can say it is part of the Human Operating System.
- The “angried up” cultural immune system in wartime, when the enemy is demonized. We do it with words and pictures but these are comparable to the chemical signals hive insects generate to remain worked up and furious and redouble the attack.
- Cultural purges based on a scaled up sensitivity to how completely each individual reflects a “pure” image of the cultural ideal. Purity madness is like autoimmune disorders, attacking normal tissue and deciding it doesn’t pass the test for self. Familiar examples are America during McCarthyism, the Chinese “cultural revolution”, Cambodia under Pol Pot, the French revolution and of course the ever popular Nazis.
- Individuals of disliked sub groups in a culture often create a more culturally acceptable facade, think of “passing for white”, homosexuals closeting themselves and Greenberg becoming “Green”. This is an attempt to elude the virtual “white blood cells” of the surrounding culture.
In case anyone thinks so, this isn’t an attempt to justify “racism”, it’s an attempt to understand it. It is an innate part of the human operating system, its roots sunk into the existence of culture itself. It is a gear in the mechanism of how culture works. Sometimes a tautology is true: Cultures defend themselves because we are the kind of animal that builds cultures that defend themselves.
This big juicy tautology should make my ideas cancel out. Except this isn’t a philosophy. This isn’t building blocks of syllogisms, this is observing the species strategy of the human race, which happens to have many, many parallels throughout nature. Is this scientific? No, not really, because it can’t be tested. Among other things, because you could not find a control group that would behave DIFFERENTLY.
Consider the profound NEED of people to fit within the “old shoe”comfort of their own culture: That every individual of an immigrant group to the United States lands here like a molecule of water and instantly seeks to be absorbed into the larger droplet of its own kind. There is a “surface tension” around a culture, a membrane of likeness that filters out strangers and limits blending. We often blame the larger culture for its hostility to strangers as the force that drives the creation “Chinatown”, “little Italy” “the ex-pat community”,”the Jewish quarter” “the African American neighborhood” and of course the surrounding culture plays a part in this but its actions are just a large mirror image of the drive in the hearts of every member of all of these communities be in the comfort of their own. And if any one of these cultures was the larger, surrounding one, it would be just as much the dominant filter against outsiders.
Racism was a useful term during the historical civil rights era as a large part of the cultural body demanded a kinder and fairer system. And it worked in several ways, forcing more fairness at large and shaming the most virulent racists into watching their language in public and the less obvious ones into an unusual instance of the cultural mimicry described above. Now some people who had never felt “outside” before had to “pass for nice”. But I really think we need to examine the word racism and decide whether it serves our purposes and fits a hole in the puzzle. Scientists agree that race is a concept without foundation. There is no race, just various densities of genes being expressed by the descendents of earlier inhabitants.
Not all culture exists as one homogeneous bubble enclosing all the members of a group. There are often building block cultures within the larger culture. At times they get along and work together at other times they fission and the bubble breaks, collapsing in two like the north south civil war divide. Consider that split and how the repair that followed made only a weak cobbled together join that today looks very fragile. The big ugly, loose Frankenstein sutures holding that wound together seem to impede the motion of both northern and southern cultures. It’s more like two prisoners cuffed together.
Consider the carving up of tribes and nation states in ways that lead to perpetual wars because an artificial border was drawn through a culture cutting in half or forcing it to mix with another. When European leaders drew those famous “lines in the sand” for their own convenience a hundred years ago forcing middle eastern tribal communities into artificial states filled with tribes they hated, I doubt they would expect to find that the entire world would be suffering from that decision today. But that is how important this is.
In different places, people naturally express different degrees of aggressiveness concerning what constitutes not-self. And as the world grows more populated and complex and mobile this question grows likewise, more complex. We have to become more intelligent about what constitutes important non-self danger and what is something different, yet acceptable. Within a culture, each edge of the non-self sensitivity scale thinks it is correct but at the macro level it’s simply the outside edge of the algorithm: “How open is this hive to outsiders?”
And to different degrees, cultures behave competitively, seeking to establish dominance over the other corporate beings. As usual, Nazism raises its hand to answer as an example. This was a truly virulent culture, acting as a body to literally erase all not-self from existence. Genghis Khan was another kind of virulence, a fast moving cultural plague of unification.
Each group of human beings together will self organize a social matrix with a cultural framework. This is the reason that world wide “traditional family values” is a strong meme, it’s about strong building blocks making a strong whole. It’s about guaranteeing a stable, recognizable culture in the years ahead.
I heard someone talking about the enormous range of human cultures and I thought: Looked at from our level with our human brain, cultures seem very different. In fact the differences are almost all that we DO notice. From the Macroscopic level all these different cultures display a relatively similar nature. If we are a hive species (and yes we are) one would expect to find some meaningful correspondences between us and other creatures who live in hives. For example, ants have absolutely predictable castes: “Queen”(ovary), soldiers, workers (including sub-types like building and repair, larva care, food gathering, etc.) and princesses and drones.
There are corresponding roles found in all human cultures of comparable scale.
- Leader & Senators
- Aristocracy/captains of industry
- Warrior caste: Generals & Soldiers
- Workers/ peasants/ serfs
- Age extremes – the elderly and the young and their caregivers
The intensity and size of these roles can be turned up or down in importance and sometimes the leader may be a Pope or General and the senators can be soldiers or clergy (or captains of industry). Or the leader may be virtually all powerful with a rubber stamp senate or the leader may be a simple counterbalance to the senate. But these core elements are in the DNA of all comparably leveled cultures. The fact that past a certain population density these structures ALWAYS occur is a red flag. This is part of who humans are. This is something we create without even seeing our personal role.
The differences between cultures then are almost thematic: A question of dominant notes, religion, money, military. Since cultures are in a sense individuals, these are individual strategies competing for dominance. There is not a bit of this that I am waving the flag for. Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it is good. But I believe the way out, is the way through. Until we understand how our species works we will never be pulling the right handle when trying to correct our course.
This tiny investigation of our species can hardly even be called scratching the surface. If Human ethology is to do us any good it mustn’t be slaved to the demands of any culture: It must be a liberating perspective and one that holds onto compassion and humor. We must be wise and sophisticated and patient. We have miles to go.