A principle underlying the increasing complexity of the universe. At a critical point of joining constituent parts together, a new WHOLE pops into existence that isn’t like the parts. That may not sound THAT important, but this pattern built Physics, Chemistry, and Life itself; it shows no signs of stopping. More = Different.
Our Predicament, Ourselves: Culture
The most meaningful things in people’s lives are non-physical: Home, Love, Family, Country & Culture. It’s a common, clichéd thought that human cultural comfort zones mean nothing in raw nature, isolated on a desert island, etc. with the implicit idea that they never meant anything in the first place since they don’t function while clinging to a flotation ring mid-ocean. It simply means that without the context of other human beings, the abstract human operational matrix collapses. It only operates on the shoulders of the collective. This is no different than a tiger alone in a zoo, losing “the meaning” of his system, or an ant without her hive, having no role anywhere. Tigers, ants, and humans are all-natural and are all equally expressing nature from within their correct context.
Cultures start with small communities, deeply intermarried and inter-related. They aligned their behavioral styles as all people do, giving and taking cues, mirroring and mutually attuning their similarities and preferences into a group personal style. A culture grows up around them, a community “self-ness”, hard to pigeonhole but instantly recognizable to those who share it. Like all emergent things, it opens upward, from below. That culture then reinforces itself as the medium of reality itself for the next generation and the next and the next. Within any culture, sexual selection will reflect cultural styles, biologically reinforcing those traits and values. That culture becomes a nutritious growth medium for people who fit the template and a harsh desert for those that don’t. This is the way nature and nurture work seamlessly together, creating a people and their culture.
The cultural matrix actively weaves a future consistent with the past. Continuity is survival.
Culture is the identity and reality box around us. If you scooped up everybody in Mexico and Sweden and swapped them into each other’s countries, instantly the state called Mexico would be acting like Sweden and the one called Sweden would be acting like Mexico. Culture is the shared operating system of a discrete, particular population.
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. Just like beehives and cellular colonies, there is a Self/Non-Self border and things recognized as non-self are excluded and attacked.
Culture = Self.
Non-Self equals danger to self. Xenophobia, bigotry, is a natural if unpleasant, gear of the human-machine. 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.
Consider this immune system of cultural self:
- War: The “angried up”, activated cultural immune system in wartime, when the enemy is demonized. We use words and pictures that are comparable on our level to the chemical signals hive insects generate to become worked up and furious enough, so as to go to war. Words and symbols are the pheromones and chemical triggers of humanity.
- Authoritarian purity oppression: 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, like an allergy attacking normal tissue after 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 perennial favorites, Nazis.
- Racial and cultural outsiders: Individuals of disliked subgroups in a culture often create a more culturally acceptable facade though a kind of mimicry: think of “passing for white”, of homosexuals closeting themselves and Greenberg becoming “Green”. This is an attempt to elude the virtual “white blood cells” of the surrounding culture’s immune system.
This isn’t an attempt to justify “racism”, on the horrible off chance that it appears that way, it’s an attempt to understand it. It is an innate part of the human operating system, its roots are sunk irretrievably into the existence of culture itself. You don’t have a culture without it.
Sometimes a tautology is true: Cultures defend themselves because we are the kind of animal that builds cultures that defend themselves.
If I was philosophizing here, this big juicy tautology would make my ideas cancel each other out. But this isn’t philosophy, this is simply observing the species strategy of the human race, which has 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 of “Chinatown”, “little Italy” “the ex-pat community”,”the Jewish quarter” “the African American neighborhood”. Naturally, the surrounding culture plays a push-back part in this but its actions just mirror the drive in the hearts of every member of all of these communities to be HOME. To be in the comfort of their own. And if any of these cultures was suddenly the larger, surrounding one, it would be just as much the dominant filter against outsiders, against change.
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 “reverse” instance of the cultural mimicry way of blending in described above. Now some people who had never felt “outside” before had to “pass for nice” in order to stay inside. 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 descendants of earlier inhabitants. beyond that, the differences are about culture.
Not all culture exists as one homogeneous bubble enclosing all the members of a group. There are often building block sub-cultures cultures within the larger culture. At times they get along and work together at other times they fission and the bubble breaks, like the north-south civil war divide. Consider that poisonous split and how the repairs that followed made only a weak cobbled together join that today is very fragile. The big, ugly, and loose Frankenstein sutures holding that wound together seem to impede the natural 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 violent unification.
Each group of human beings together will self organize a social matrix within a cultural framework. This is the reason that worldwide “traditional family values” is a strong meme, it’s about strong building blocks making a strong whole. It’s about guaranteeing a stable, recognizably consistent culture in the future.
I heard someone talking about the enormous range of human cultures and I thought: Looked at from our level with our human brain, cultures can 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 structure and nature. If we are a hive species (and yes we are) you could expect to find 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 a 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 are almost thematic: A question of different dominant notes such as religion, money, or military; authority or autonomy. Since cultures are composite individuals, these themes are their individual strategies competing for power. It as if a hundred massive giants were encamped on the earth, uneasily watching their neighbors and negotiating with the subtlety of a playground mob.
Nothing I’ve described is my philosophy or my politics, nothing is about how I want things to be. I am advocating understanding our natural behavior. Natural doesn’t mean good, it means demonstrably obvious: Factual. Our automatic behaviors are as natural as bird’s nests. They are evolution’s answer for preserving and maintaining our species and they are a deadly trap endangering our future. I believe the only way out is the way through and the only way through is the pathway of truth. Everything else dead ends in falsehood. Until we understand how our species works we will never pull the right handle when trying to correct our course.
If Human ethology is to do us any good it mustn’t be enslaved to the demands of any particular culture, it must throw light on all of us and consider standards of common accountability for human behavior. It must be a liberating perspective that holds on to compassion and humor. We must grow wise, sophisticated and patient. We must outgrow our weaknesses. We have long miles to go with everything at stake.
Stories are integral to humans, they are essential and innate.
Stories as fiction, of course, but also the way of saying anything where a subject once verbed a noun. A person born without innate language behavior, the talking and the understanding, would be as isolated from the rest of us as another species. “Talking and understanding” oversimplify the matter. Language is our medium of remembering long term, considering the future and artfully creating a new copy of that idea in those listening. Oh yes, and imagining the minds of the listeners so well, including personality, rank, bias, and weaknesses that a story can be tailored to precisely sway a single individual, then instantly repackaged in broad strokes to move a horde.
All of these complex abilities are grey matter functions. The neo-cortex REQUIRES stories to do business. Grey matter is the apartment in the human brain where “we” are allowed to live. There once was a princess, trapped in a high tower… and she is us. The neo-cortex comes supplied with libraries of story “legos”. Every hero’s journey and every fairy tale can be assembled from precursors that exist in every brain. To qualify as truly human you must be full of monsters and lost children.
What language and stories tell us is that humans are a madly, overwhelmingly social species, that nature “imagined” us as communities of extremely complex individuals. Any picture we hold of the role of stories is like imaging a little kit we take out when needed and find very useful. The reality is we are aquatic creatures in an ocean of endlessly replenished overlapping narratives. They are the enveloping atmosphere. Consider the individual and her story as the smallest discernible level, connecting to the family story, to the extended family story and the tribe story. In larger civilizations, in big cities, there are thousands of separate story communities we belong to. We have a work story, a church story, a political story, a sex and age story. And so does everyone else. A person can even be imprisoned by their own story, repeating grievances and hurts in a litany designed to preserve them perfectly.
Language is innate to humans because stories are innate to humans. Because we have to teach and apologize and convince and amuse and explain and plan, stories are innate. Because we have to imagine our own lives…Because we have to hold onto the past and anticipate the future… stories are innate. We could not be human without stories and stories do not exist without humans.
Stories are the currency of human exchange. Anything more complex than a “Hello” either IS a story or an invitation to one. These tiny proto-story beginnings: Beautiful day, isn’t it? | How are you? | Have you seen Bob?” are human equivalents to respect gestures, grooming, butt sniffing etc. and may be finished in a moment but each one can carry the participants far from the humble start and into laughter, tears, murder or sympathy.
Stories are the bridges we build to connect our lonely asteroids. At the end of a hard day of building story bridges, at last, you go to relax. What would you prefer, would you rather watch tv or read a book? Stories are food. They even open a door to escape the stories we’re fucking tired of.
Imagine campfires surrounded by the first modern humans. Humans just like us but without infrastructure or history. We know who these people are. They are us! We know the storytellers, the funny ones, the creative ones, the ones that just like attention or the sound of their own voice. And we can imagine the audience having their say, shaping and guiding the story with their responses. Imagine the comfort of safe adventures and harmless surprises. Imagine the comfort of the retold story, the listeners touching each landmark twist with pleasure.
It is also a natural process for stories to become so deeply a part of the people listening to them that they identify their stories as reality itself; the stories and life itself are one. This is an amazing jump but it is the foundation of group identity and group identity is where us versus them appears. A little tribe of humans could not exist for long without knitting a cozy story around themselves to keep out the chill. Stories are identity; I am a part of this story and this story is a part of me. What is religious fundamentalism really, but people fixated on the particular rightness of one story in opposition to all others? Think of the Islamic phrase grouping together themselves, Jews and Christians: People of the book.
Each of us began this way “You wake up and you have no idea where you are or how you got there”. In time people began filling you in on the details. You asked questions exactly as ancient children did and someone older said: “Let me tell you a story about that.”
This is a half-baked theory. It doesn’t suggest any particular role for neurons or other physical aspects of the brain. It is about the workings of the mind. It is primarily concerned with the things we learn how to do.
Imagine yourself…the mind you are as a volume of processing power: As an environment with a certain amount of ability to respond to the world. This software-like volume is a hierarchy made up of entities with different roles to play at different levels.
The smallest increment or unit is a “Mindon” (see: Making up crap, H. Miller). Metaphorically it is like a cell in the body, an atom in matter or a byte of computer memory. It is there not because of evidence pointing to it but simply because it belongs logically within the structure of this theory as the smallest unit of work. For our purposes, it creates the image of a tiny individual operator with a bit of processing power.
A new and unknown task is encountered. For example, learning a musical instrument, casting a fishing line or properly cutting an onion. The brain experiences it as if with a kind of touch in the processing centers naturally assigned to the sense data involved in the task (Motor, optical, etc).
Executive function does a kind of “importance triage” focusing on the sense data and relevant memories. Mindons begin to swarm and cluster around the task creating a complex imaginative prototype or map of the skill and begins measuring and comparing the experience of trying the skill against the map, making edits in the map as more information comes in and also making edits in DOING the task. Heuristics are noted and retained. With time and practice the map, measurements, and comparisons become more accurate, detailed and nuanced. Plateaus and benchmarks are hit and become a bit like a saved version of a game or a file, the starting point next time. Essentially this is a matured and organized group of mindons forming a stable repeatable task.
These coherent, informed collections of mindons I would call “Agents”. Something like playing the guitar wouldn’t involve a single agent but many. I imagine agents in this example being like proper holding, finger pressure, picking and strumming, volume and tuning, etc. Each of these areas would be an agent.
The whole coordinated group functioning together would be an Agency. I could use other names, I could call the agency a program and the agents, modules. The terminology isn’t very important but I’d like to not be completely bound by computer metaphors.
This system is far more fluid and flexible than any computer system. The agents are not limited to one specific agency, once established, I believe they can flow on demand into new situations that call for them. Somewhere in the mental map mentioned above would be a process of looking for existing “off the shelf” agents that could hit the ground running on the new task. For example, if you have an agency for driving a car or playing the guitar then when picking up a Ukulele or sitting in a go-cart the agency isn’t fully applicable but many useful agents flow instantly into the task.
So, mindons group at the behest of executive function, and form educated agents which group as a whole agency; “playing the guitar”. Singing would be an agency too so when playing the guitar AND singing there must exist a kind of Meta-agency that allows parallel processing and two-way feedback. All of this is playing out in a larger framework where the musician is also processing things like audience reaction, etc.
This suggests an overall environment or community of mindons, agents, agencies and…departments? I’m not crazy about the bureaucratic feel of this metaphor but the hierarchical structure is needed.
“I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Hamlet, scene ii
An Odd Revelation
When I was a college boy many, many years ago I saw a cat.
I saw a cat and the cat was acting like a cat.
The cat was catlike and there was nothing about it that was anything BUT catlike.
This was a revelation and like most revelations it loses practically everything in the translation from shimmering vision to paragraph in black and white.
He was stalking and playing and being curious and easily startled and all sorts of catty things that anyone could predict. What filled me with awe was the fact that this cat had a nature and that he could do nothing that was not of a piece with that nature. The word nature comes from the Greek natura meaning “essential qualities, innate disposition” and that is the sense in which I mean this. I saw that cat as an expression of the essence of “catness” but not as some platonic ideal, I saw it as an instance of a running program. The program “Cat” existed in millions of instances all over the surface of the earth and I was watching a single instance of it having a nice moment in the Florida sunshine. Continue reading
- Mice were trained to be afraid of the smell of cherry blossoms (I don’t even want to know HOW).
- These mice later had litters which had never been exposed to cherry blossom and when they were, they were afraid of it.
- These second generation mice later had litters and their children…were afraid of the same smell.
This is obviously not direct alteration of the genetic code, it’s a methylation change called epigenetics. What it amounts to though is a much more powerful means of shaping evolution than sheer randomness, but one that doesn’t rely on some variety of intelligent design.
The next level of complexity is something you are a part of and something you can’t see.
- Visual and hearing processes
- Knowledge of physics
- Fine motor control
- Risk analysis
- Awareness of Traffic laws
There is no “idea” or blueprint of a hive. No ant works or dies “for the hive” No ant is sentient though there is a localized being with some flexibility of response. Scientists have observed a range of “personality” types or at least behavioral types. Some ants are lazy. Some are even by ant standards, dumb. No ant thinks of the past or future.
In 100 million years no ant has ever imagined or thought of a hive. There is no hive except through the combined actions of essentially unconscious operators. And yet, operational responses to various situations flow naturally with seemingly coordinated group efforts to collect food, care for larva, fight off enemies and rebuild walls. What the hell is the model in the brain of a worker ant rebuilding a broken wall that says: “OK, I’m done.” ?
The hive is the emergent whole of its tiny individual parts. It doesn’t exist without them and they don’t exist without it.
What are you a tiny constituent of? What emerges from variations of YOU multiplied a million times? Can you see it? Can you think of it?