June 25th, 2003

This morning we feature part ten of our series on the global brain from an important book by Howard Bloom. See: 1) Biology, Evolution and the Global Brain, 2) Creative Nets in the Precambrian Age, 3) Networking in Paleontology’s “Dark Ages”, 4) The Embryonic Meme, 5) Why Birds and Humans Flock Together, 6) Mammals and the Further Rise of Mind, 7) Tools of Perception and the Construction of Reality, 8) Reality is a Shared Hallucination, 9) The Conformity Police. Reposted from Telepolis.


The Huddle and the Squabble

Howard Bloom

In previous episodes we’ve focussed on two kinds of conformity enforcers: ones which shape brains to work in harmony, sculpting our vision,hearing and attention so that we comprehend the world in a similar way; and others which goad individuals to tailor their behavior and appearance to the standards of the tribe. Conformity gives the complex adaptive system, the social group, its stability.But to adapt, the system needs a hefty dollop of something else: novelty. The ability to bend, stretch, and create comes not from the conformity enforcers but from their indispensable opposites: diversity generators.

Diversity generators show up in many forms. They snake through the inanimate universe, where physicist Paul Davies says there’s no telling “what new levels of variety or complexity may be in store.” Random fluctuations, explains Davies, “are nature’s way of exploring unforeseen possibilities.”

On the living level there’s that old phenomenon called sex. It is a time-consuming, energy-swallowing waste of an organism’s time. But the diversity it produces gives the ability to make gene repairs. This provides sexual organisms with an edge when they’re pummeled by high-energy particles able to snap vital twists of DNA. Some bacteria hang on to chromosomal uniformity – simply splitting in half and giving each daughter a replica of her mother’s genes. Others mix and match their genes with those of a chosen mate. The pay-off comes when the atmosphere fails to protect the micro-beasts against the sun’s toxic ultraviolet waves. Then sexually shuffled bacteria out-survive the neatly uniform non-sexual ones.

Microorganisms beneath the surface of the earth can eat a variety of seeming indigestibles that range from soil to stone … a result of their evolutionary ability to compose an awesome array of variations on the basic cellular theme.

Diversity generators also spin their ways among far larger beasts. Macaque females, like some men and women, can’t resist the appeal of tall, dark strangers from outside their group. The fruit of their seemingly disloyal lust is a gift to the band of the outsider’s genes, whose introduction to the reproductive pool prevents it from becoming stagnant and vulnerable to disease.

But diversity generators are particularly vivacious among human beings.

Bickering, Backstabbing, and the Hatred between Brothers


It is much easier to be friends with a member of the opposite party than a member of one’s own party — for one is not in direct personal competition for office with members of the opposition in the way that one is with one’s colleagues.
Jonathan Lynn, The complete Yes Minister

A powerful form of diversity generator prodded hominids roughly two million years ago. One wave of after another of human ancestors trekked from Africa to China, Southeast Asia and Europe, then as early as 176,000 years ago navigated huge expanses of sea and settled in Australia, where their wanderings began all over again. The forces behind this scatter are murky to us. But it is possible to deduce them from modern evidence.

One of the most powerful diversity generators in humans and animals is a force Freud called “the narcissism of minor difference.” Individuals extremely similar to one another find some petty distinction then bicker about it. To paraphrase Emile Durkheim, a community of saints will classify a bit of lint on the heavenly robes as intolerable and viciously hound those who aren’t lint free. Eventually the supposedly unkempt may seek out others with a casual bent, and wall themselves off as a separate entity free to pursue a messier destiny.

A primitive form of this impulse far precedes humanity. The closer insects are to each other in physical form and habits, the more likely they are to be enemies. The most dangerous foes of ants are other ants. The major adversaries of South American wasps are other South American wasps. And, in general, the greatest threat to each social insect group is not a marauding bird, lizard or mammal. It’s another cluster of social insects. I don’t mean to say that social insects are more ruthless than you and me. They greet each other politely, rush to each others’ rescue, bow meekly to superiors, and even carry each other around. But cannibalistic ants tend to pick their meals from those who most resemble themselves. And parasitic ants sup on hosts who seem their semi-duplicates. A major reason: insects with the same shape, size and tastes have a yen for the same nest sites, food and foraging space, so they’re willing to battle for these prizes … sometimes to the death.

Like many forms of turmoil, this conflict between clones has a creative side. If a passel of nearly identical animals is cooped up on a common turf, it frequently splinters into opposing groups which scramble determinedly down opposite evolutionary paths. E. O. Wilson, who brought attention to this phenomenon forty years ago, called it character displacement. The battle over food and lebensraum compels each coterie to chisel its needs from a separate slot in the shared environment. For example a small number of lookalike cichlid fish seems to have found its way to Lake Nyas in Eastern Africa roughly 12,400 years ago. It didn’t take long for the finny explorers to overpopulate the place. As food grew harder to find, squabbles and serious fights probably pushed the population to square off in spatting cliques. The further the groups grew apart, the more different they became. The details of this process are somewhat speculative, but the result is incontestable. Each subgroup developed a crowbar to pry open opportunities others had missed. Some evolved mouths wide enough to swallow armored snails. Others generated thick lips to yank worms from rocks. One diabolical coven acquired teeth like spears, then snatched its rivals’ eyes and swallowed them like cocktail onions. In a geological blink of time what had begun as a small group of semi-carbon copies became 200 separate species – a carnival of variety.

This is probably how the wandering of Homo erectus got its start. Pre-human clans, like cichlids, hit the carrying-capacity of their environment, then budded off in search of untapped openings. For example, the Yanomamo tribes of northwestern Brazil and southern Venezuela swell until they reach 300 members or so, then break into arguments between blood relatives. The quarrels often end in violence, convincing a fed-up group of malcontents to start a new life somewhere else.

The tendency of those alike to fight when times get tough defies a cardinal rule of conventional evolutionary theory – that the closer creatures are in the composition of their genes, the more they will help each other. The violation is particularly strong in the battle of brother against brother. Species of genetically related ants are, in E.O. Wilson’s words, “the least likely to tolerate each other’s presence.” The same sometimes applies to human beings. On his way through the Alps to spring his surprise attack on Rome, Hannibal ran across two groups of Gauls on the verge of battle. The problem? A pair of brothers were fighting over who would head the tribe. Among Yanomamo, the biggest battles are between family members – and between the groups they head. A fine example of the narcissism of minor difference.

Fission’s Frying Pans

When the going gets tough, the diversity generators get going. At the beginning of this series we described bacterial colonies whose members found a food bonanza then signalled for companion and stranger alike to gather ’round. But as the food ran out, the bacteria’s chemical communiquÇs spat a less gregarious message: “keep your distance – get away.” The bacterial principle winds throughout the chain of life.

Cues that a once-cozy environment is no longer working out make humans chafe and urge to separate. Some people become hostile when jostled from their comfortable routine and hit with the sort of high anxiety task which crops up as the sledding gets rough. Others simply slide into a foul state of mind. Research shows that folks in good moods are generally quite genial. But when their moods turn sour, they snarl and pout, convincing their acquaintances to get the heck away. Show modern men and women a depressing film, and when it’s over, they’ll avoid each other. But these are not just individual propensities. Law and order break down in a society whose social bonds are sawed apart by stress.

Starvation and despair are clues that a group has burned out its niche in a major way. But smaller signs that a community’s grip is slipping can also shatter social unity. The hotter it gets the more the violence between humans goes up. When experimenters slid the thermometer regulating a test room from balmy to unbearable, the sweating inhabitants grew increasingly eager to torment each other with electrical shocks. Unfortunately when some modern humans feel the heat, they vent their frustration with guns or knives. For example, the American race riots of the 60s took place on extremely hot days.

Air pollutionnoise, and broadcasts of bad news also ratchet up the level of animosity. Disappearance of essentials which maintain our quality of life impacts not only on the way we act, but the way we see and hear each other too. If a couple is having problems and one member attempts to do something nice, his mate is likely to interpret the soothing gesture as a veiled attack. What’s more, people are generally friendly when their energy is high and cantankerous when their internal fuel runs low. So it’s easy to imagine that the putrid odor, lack of food, and constant bad news at an overused Homo erectus campsite could have had all of these rancorous effects two million years ago.

A community of bacteria react to the insults of harsh circumstance by fragmenting in groups whose flight from each other leads to unexplored horizons. A similar irritability was almost certainly among the blows that splintered pre-humans into offshoots which finally spread across three continents.

Culture’s Centrifuge

The ancient wanderers remained connected in a rough communal mind. But conformity enforcers kept that group brain rather slow. Hand scrapers, choppers, cleavers and other stone basics stayed pretty much alike during the two million years when upright walkers fanned out toward distant coasts. Though clans were now separated by nearly ten thousand miles, habit, tradition and inter-group communication kept them flaking their weapons and household utensils in very much the same way. Only a scattering of isolated groups like the Homo erectus of Java and the archaic Homo sapiens of Southern England managed to lose synch with an occasional new sensation like the Acheulean hand axe.

Then 130,000 years ago diversity generators rumbled with hints of future change as proto-humans in Africa collected color pigments and rhinestones apparently to use in ceremony. One hundred and twenty thousand years ago, the ante went up. At Terra Amata in France inhabitants gathered a palette of 75 tints spanning the spectrum from yellow to red and brown. Between 77,000 and 60,000 bc early humans in Australia were engraving rows of symbolic circles in the local stone. By roughly 40,000 bc, fresh inventions began to shower onto the scene: among them the spear thrower, which more than doubled a spear’s range, plus the barbed harpoon and an early form of hook and tackle known as the fish gorge which together opened the food lockers of the rivers and the seas. New equipment made it easy to follow animal herds and enjoy meat meals whenever you had a Big Mac attack.

There were social breakthroughs too. Scattered families came together for large scale projects suddenly made possible by the rain of new hardware. Slaughtering an entire herd of reindeer could be done … if you could coordinate enough men to pull it off. Shared rites and festivals knit micro-groups together, unlocking a cornucopia of previously untouchable abundance.

One result was a population explosion. The size of base camps mushroomed. In France, some reached seven acres in size. Encampments had 45-foot huts with a profusion of hearths, true multifamily apartment dwellings. And these huge structures were no longer temporary settlements of perpetual wanderers. They were permanent. Presumably even then, the most dangerous animals in the vicinity were not lions and tigers but, as in the case of ants and wasps, other human beings. This may explain why the Czechoslovakian communities of those days were already fortified with the first palisades.

The narcissism of individual differences slid to warp speed as the ingenuity of humans picked up from crawl to hyperdrive. A host of new creations highlighted the differences between human beings. Decorated clothing, jewelry, body ornaments galore, and splendid hide-covered homes held up by mammoth tusks and bones distinguished the loftier members of a tribe from the low. Archaeologist A. Gilman suspects that each newly-gathered populace wanted to monopolize its own herd or favorite hunting spot – like a narrow pass through which masses of migrating mastodon or reindeer might trot each season.

Humans needed ways to proclaim their monopoly of such valuable property.Other hunting animals could use urine and musk glands to spray their territories with specialized scents. This was an ability our ancestors no longer possessed. So they found a host of crude but clever substitutes. As early as 70,00 years ago, some recontoured the skulls of their young with tight bindings and objects that pressed the head into a bizarre and permanent profile. Later on, others filed their teeth into unnatural shapes. All this demonstrated that our group is not like yours so if you value your life it would be wise to keep away.

Forty thousand years later symbolic representation reached a breakneck pace. Primordial writing showed up as early as 27,000 bc. Sculpture and cave painting drove home the differences between one group and another. In all probability, humans used the growing swiftness of their tongues to paint word pictures too – trading stories of the day’s exploits, exchanging opinions about which step to take next in the hunting and gathering of food, and manufacturing myths with which to grasp the mysteries of an often uncontrollable natural world. Our concepts, our words, and our ritual techniques were joined by our style of mural making, our style of carving, and our way of decorating tools as insignia to show who belonged to our group and who belonged to yours.

We’ve sketched in an earlier episode how every culture wires infant and toddler brains in slightly different ways. As groups paraded their uniqueness with distinct dialects, methods, and beliefs, they were likely to have manufactured youngsters who saw the world from starkly different points of view. A ferment of resulting insights and ideas would have enriched the pan-human repertoire. For the intercontinental mind of Pleistocene times was seemingly laced together by a steady growth of trade.

Other differences were likely to have appeared, including one it is currently unfashionable to contemplate – a minor retooling of each band’s genes. Erik Erikson coined the term pseudospeciation to describe the growing sense that group outsiders are subhuman. But pseudospeciation seems to go further than Erikson imagined. Notes David Smillie: “The initial split creates a large genetic difference between the daughter and parent groups.”

It’s easy to see how this could happen. Separating tribes of closely related Yanomamo rapidly set themselves apart by generating new dialects and rituals. In the same way, archaeological remains show that fissioning groups of the Pleistocene generated very different artistry and fashion.

Our previous installment cited the vast evidence that women are captivated by their own culture’s model of the flawless man, and the same women shun the weirdos who can’t seem to get the group norms right. Thus females would have selected mates based on their splinter group’s aesthetic of magnificence, which was likely to have differed defiantly from the ideal exalted by those who had stayed at home two valleys away. The result would have been a Pleistocene sexual resource shift. Men who resembled the new culture’s picture of perfection would have lured more fertile females to their beds and sired more children than the schlubbier members of the tribe.

The resource shifters of status and popularity would have funneled the best food, tools, homes, fanciest clothing and most enviable accessories on the new group’s paragons. Meanwhile pre-human impulses would have tossed group deviants to the periphery. As a consequence, the children of each Pleistocene group’s “beautiful people” would have been healthier, better looking, more popular, and destined for greater adult success (this is true even of the offspring of high ranking apes and monkeys. By contrast, the fewer youngsters birthed by oddball parents would have been bullied, shunned and occasionally killed (also true among our primate cousins).

Let’s hop back to modern times to get an idea of the probable result. The Yanomamo prize fierce killers. Men who slaughter the largest tally of humans from competing tribes are rewarded with the greatest number of wives and father far more children than any other villagers. Timid Yanomamo men or those who loathe bloodshed have very few kids at all. Experience with laboratory animals and domesticated standbys like pit bulls show that aggression is a highly cultivatable trait. So it wouldn’t be surprising if the Yanomamo’s selective breeding produced a violent disposition which exceeds even the fairly high human norm.

Among some eskimo, on the other hand, aggression is frowned on. Men who can’t hold their temper are given the cold shoulder. As outcasts, they have a hard time finding a mate. And when it comes time for the traditional method of demonstrating friendship, swapping wives, these wrathful types are sidelined. Just as the Yanomamo breed aggression in, the eskimo breed it out. One result, the Yanomamo are constantly at war. Eskimo experience a very different fate: they are blessed with relative peace (though war is such a human universal that even Eskimo, until recently, periodically indulged in the grisly sport. Anthropologists have noted how a splinter culture’s choice of sexual fixations makes some groups tall, some short, and even alters breast and penis shape. These principles were certainly at work long before the arrival of glacial sheets and sabertooths. So language, culture and differing tools would have done for humans what simpler forms of evolution accomplished for Lake Nyas’ cichlid fish – generated an outburst of diversity.

The quibbling, rivalry and rebellion sparked by the narcissism of minor difference two million years ago eventually energized men and women whose ancestry was in a warm and pleasant clime to conquer the ice floes of the Arctic, the frigid plains of Siberia, the malarial wetlands of Southern China, and the bewilderingly varied environments of today’s France, Spain, and Germany. Fissioning groups devised ingenious ways to haul abundance from the grasp of unknown lands and seas. A swarm of new diversity generators radically accelerated these innovations during the age of symbols. Trade made many by-products of these adaptations common human property. Since then the result – cultural evolution – has leaped to dizzying speeds, throwing a spume of ever-increasing options into the communal brain.

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Verlag Heinz Heise


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