This morning we feature part twelve 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, 10) The Huddle and the Squabble, 11) Ice and Fire. Reposted from Telepolis.
The Dance of Attractors and Repulsors
In the first nanoseconds of the Big Bang two kinds of forces revealed themselves – attraction and repulsion. The repulser of explosion began a rush apart which hasn’t ended to this day. Its aftermath is an “expansionary universe” separating stars and galaxies at breakneck speed. Then there are the forces of attraction – those which pulled together quarks in threesomes, linked atomic shells to produce molecules, then sucked masses of these interlocks into the swirls we see as galaxies, stars, and human beings. Physicists are still debating whether attraction or repulsion will have the final word. But the fact is, repulsion and attraction are not battling to the death, but twining in continuous tango.
The success of a society depends on the dance between its repulsers and attractors, its huddle and its squabble, its elements of competition and of cooperation. One of our most powerful attractors is an instinct often overlooked in treatments of human history. It’s the principle of reciprocity.
The principle of reciprocity
Bacteria give each other information, and even change forms to eat what others find poisonous. To pay for this cleanup effort, the bacterium whose environment is cleansed turns more raw material into food for its decontaminator. An alga will live in the protective tendrils of a fungus, paying its “rent” by turning sunlight into fungus fare. Two lionesses will share food. If one is dying, the other will still bring her meat in token of past favors – repaying what looks very much like the gift of lasting friendship.Fair exchange holds together alliances of male baboons. A group of elite males frequently confronts a youth gang trying to woo and corner one of its most valuable assets – a female in heat. Another squad of male adults will come to the rescue and help chase the juvenile delinquents away. However the deliverers expect that the favor will be returned some day. And it is, or the winning coalition will not last1 . Male baboons are unexpectedly good hunters. When one comes home with a haunch of meat, he tends to keep it to himself. But a female can sometimes call on the bank of kindnesses she’s rendered to him in the past for the right to join his feast2 . Males hold babies or take care of youngsters, thus racking up the right to call on female help. But the coziest rule of repayment in chimp and baboon societies is “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.” One good grooming session deserves another…even among enemies. And it can be used as currency: a subordinate chimp can groom his “overlord” into ecstasy and be repaid with the right to mount one of the head honcho’s females3.
The rise of modern Homo sapiens seems to have enlarged the very genes for this social adhesion device. Animal behaviorist Franz De Waal feels that humans offer each other presents (and expect returns) much more often than other primates do. But de Waal fails to mention that humans engage in long distance forms of reciprocity far beyond that of other mammals. This is one of the areas where our genetic uniqueness seems to lie. Australian aborigines traditionally trekked a hundred miles or more to meet a rival band and swap sting ray spears, axes4 , grinding stones, necklaces, girdles, shells, hair belts, dillybags, boomerangs, and an early version of the news couched in the entertainment-format of stories and of songs5 . In Bougainville, the tribesmen of Petats exchanged women’s hoods to obtain pots. Then they traded their pots to the people of Lontis for taro. The clan leaders of Lontis in turn took the pots and swapped them elsewhere to acquire pigs. But even the pigs were just a step in a chain of barter. The Lontians had “purchased” the porkers to trade them further down the line for shell wedding jewelry6 . The Puyallup-Nisqually tribe of Northwest America’s Puget Sound had names for ten different forms of trade, including fgwis – a straight swap of one item for something of the same sort; obets·leg – putting down a payment for something which as yet didn’t exist; and ·baliq7– “when you take someone to somebody so you won’t be afraid of them any more.” Then there was the “silent trade” in which one people would leave its goods at a traditional drop-point and disappear, waiting overnight for another tribe whom they might never see to replace the offering with local specialties before they, too, disappeared into the forest again. This was going on in Herodotus’ day between the Carthaginians and the mysterious peoples on Africa’s far west coast, and was still a major way in which the olive-skinned citizens of North Africa obtained ivory and gold from the black denizens of the malarial jungles to their south as late as the 15th century.
The silent trade’s ubiquity hints that the practice’s roots may have gone far back into prehistory. The Siberian Chukchee used it to swap consumer items with the inhabitants of Alaska. Africa’s herding and farming Bantus used it to trade with their pygmy neighbors hidden in the bush. In New Caledonia shore dwellers would trudge to a pre-arranged rendezvous where they’d lay down piles of dry fish and seafood by the side of the path, then wait for their arm’s-length inland partners to take what was offered and leave in their turn a pleasing assortment of yam-like tubers8 . And 14th century Islamic traders who had ventured into Northern Asia’s “Land of Darkness” used the silent trade to obtain ermine and sable from furtive primitives. Despite the anonymity, haggling was part of the process. If a Moslem businessman felt that the pelts he’d been left weren’t worth the items he’d deposited on the ground the night before, he refused to accept them. The next night the invisible natives would either up the ante by adding to the pile of furs or would take their wares and walk9.
Genes for trading?
But where do genes come into these shenanigans?10Remember the Baldwin Effect? A newly invented form of behavior like the migration of spiny lobsters gives some beasts a leg up in the evolutionary race. The lobsters most able to fall into single file and make the trek away from the glacial edge before winter freezes everything in sight do best. Those hyperactive types who can’t stick with the departing parade end up snuffed in blocks of ice. Generation after generation, the killing cold chisels recalcitrant genes away until finally what began as innovation becomes instinct. Time’s lessons shape a genetic template which automates the actions of future generations.
Here are a few of the things our new generations do. Children who’ve been fighting give each other gifts to make up. Rhinehart Shopp also found that in a German kindergarten, children used gifts to become close to others with whom they hadn’t had ties before11 . Studies in social psychology show the same possible “trading instinct” at work in college students. For example, one experiment revealed that if a student brought a stranger a soda while the two were filling out a form, the one who’d received the coke bought twice as many raffle tickets from his benefactor when the paperwork was over as did similar experimental subjects not softened up with a gift. So strong was the need to pay back an unexpected kindness that the ticket buyers opened their wallets and coughed up the cash even when, as they admitted to researchers later, they could hardly stand the person who had bribed them with beverage.12
We might suspect that this attempt to balance the books through reciprocity was just the product of good parenting or of Western Culture … if it weren’t for the fact that every society that’s been studied has a principle of give and take. Aztec emperors, for example, used to slit their flesh and offer the gods their blood. They were paying for the glories they’d received and putting a down payment on triumphs yet to come. This was definitely not the result of western culture. The civilizations of the Americas had been out of contact with those of Europe for well over 11,000 years.13 The Indians of America’s Pacific Northwest, equally isolated from cross-cultural contamination, used to blow a pinch of tobacco off their palm as a gift to the spirits, and to request a gift in return. The Chibcha of Colombia were saddled with deities whose services came at a far higher rate, demanding everything from cotton cloth to gold.14The most expensive blessings came from the god of the sun, to whom the Chibcha offered up their children in sacrifice. (When the Conquistadors first marched into Chibcha territory, the Indians, convinced the alien beings were sons of the solar deity, literally threw a hail of children their way.) Far more than any other animals, we are the species who live by the rule of “to get you have to give.”
It would have been extremely easy for natural selection to braid together genes for long-range reciprocity. Imagine that you are a late stone-age farmer. How do you handle the fact that your soil in the lowlands only yields low-fat crops whose constant ingestion would either bore you to death or give you malnutrition while someone a thousand feet up the mountainside can raise fat-saturated treats you’d find exciting, but that are driving him nuts with their monotony?
How do you handle the fact that a tribe in the forest glories in hunting something both you and the mountain-dweller can’t get your hands on – meat, that folks living 200 miles away have the best stones for making tools which ease the job of hunting and harvesting, and that 150 miles in another direction live folks in a territory rich in the salt needed to keep your body running? According to economic anthropologist Melville Herskovitz and numerous others, you make networks of friends, and exchange gifts. Every gift you give obliges your friend to give you something back someday. You try to stay even so no one ever feels taken advantage of. Some of the friends you make are well beyond the boundaries of your tribe. The ultimate result: chains binding stone and iron miners in the highlands of Guatemala to food producers in the plains and shores near the Gulf of Mexico had linked together the architecturally magisterial Olmec Civilization by 650 b.c. They pulled together a canoe-based trading circle of Trobriand Island tribes spread over hundreds of nautical miles.15 And we’ll soon see the wonders they accomplished for the early Greeks. Societies with enough genetic attractors to become a part of such a mesh would give their participants a well-balanced diet. Societies and individuals genetically predisposed to shun goods-shuttling would be enfeebled by an insufficiently varied menu, weakened by reliance on weaponry made with whatever came to hand, and eventually find their territories snatched by folks more able to hopscotch commodities. Homo isolatus would be replaced by Homo commercialis.
Cities like Catal Huyuk may well have bred significant enhancements into this genetic social fastener. The currently dominant view in evolutionary psychology is that human “mental modules” were stamped into our DNA during the “EEA” – “The Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness” -, a roughly two and a half million year hunter-gatherer phase which ended before the climax of the last ice age. Since then, our pre-programmed heritage has supposedly been locked in stone (or in amino acids). However the facts don’t seem to bear out this contention. Behold the refinement of the LA gene which confers the ability to digest milk on adults. Some people, notably those of Northern Europe16 , have it. Others – like East Asians and Polynesians – don’t. It’s particularly handy in wintery climes, where the sun frequently refuses to reveal enough of its radiance to generate Vitamin D in human skin. This is a deficiency which cow’s milk neatly cancels out.17 However humans, as we’ve seen, probably didn’t domesticate animals from which they could derive dairy drinks until after the first cities were founded. Which means the gene for adult milkshake tolerance did not appear until well after the walls of Jericho were erected and Bos tauruswas taught to toe the line.
Other genes have arisen during this geological wink of time. One is the sickle cell anemia gene which protects black African peoples against malaria18 . Still more are found in the immune shields which defended the European conquerors of the Americas from scourges like measles and smallpox. This heritage of disease resistance seems to have begun in the last five thousand years or less and developed to its fullest just within the last millennium. One clue to the immunological recency: measles is thought to have jumped to humans from the rinderpest of domesticated cattle.19 It was the dense-packed urban environment which turned it to a killer. In the grisly manner evolution favors, the measles virus massacred those in European cities who had no genetic resistance and left only the fortunates whose genes were able to adjust themselves for an appropriate defense. These protective genes then grew robust within the following generations, making a profound mark on the face of history. As it has become popular to point out, the genetic acquisition of immunity was the greatest weapon of the Conquistadors and colonialists, who wiped out an estimated seventy million “native Americans” with the unseen weapons of their germs.20
Wars and epidemics
Trade, social organization, and combat apparently sorted genes with rigor, pampering those able to handle increasingly sophisticated human interactions, and punishing those unable to play the networking game. During the 10,000 years from the rise of Jericho to that of the welfare state, the form of disaster which favors the newly fit and winnows out genes not up to the challenges of “modernity” struck over and over again. It struck in the form of war – a variety of misfortune which would inspire human ingenuity to create offensive weapons and clever stratagems able to undo the invincibility of city walls. Jericho would fall and become a wasteland for thousands of years. So would the early cities of the Indus Valley’s Harappan civilization. To the best and most cleverly organized went the spoils – one of which included survival. Then there were the post-agricultural plagues, which continued to decimate populations from Biblical times through the glory days of Athens, the height of the Renaissance and the Age of Reason, up to the influenza pandemic of 1919 and the spread of antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis, staphylococcus, Hansen’s disease, AIDs and a host of others today. Humans were being outfoxed by a collective mind far older and nimbler than any they’d developed to that point – the 3.5 billion year old global bacterial brain.
During epidemics, the rich have nearly always outsurvived the poor. In some cases they’ve even benefitted, as did the founder of the Krupp fortune, a wealthy burgher during the Black Death who bought up scads of properties left vacant by plague-eradicated families for mere pennies, and whose legacy (and progeny) prosper off his callous canniness to this very day.21 Krupp’s windfall shows how those who master the art of social integration are privileged to protect themselves from the probability of death. Krupp had money, a bonus shoveled toward those who specialize in the perpetuation and regeneration of mass sociality. These virtuosos of large-scale connectivity include politicians (masters of conformity enforcement, even when their primary devices for cohesion are horse-trading, persuasion, coercion, corruption, and coalition building), warrior-heros-turned leaders (masters of survival in intergroup tournaments), merchants (welders of intergroup links), and priests (“spiritual” coagulators and keepers of the social norms).22 Experts in web-building are given larger, more hygienic, safer living spaces, more generous and nutritionally varied allotments of food, and servants to help them avoid such crippling daily chores as heavy lifting or grinding meal for beer and bread. (Kneeling over a grinding stone and dragging it back and forth against a slab beneath it was the method used by the low-scale women of nearly every early civilization until the invention of the water mill. It made good flour; but grinding destroyed the tissue in a woman’s joints and deformed her skeleton). The elite have nest-eggs and even extra homes to see them through hard times. (True in the days of Rome and of Europe’s great plagues – see Boccaccio’s Decameronto get a sense of how it worked.) This means if disaster strikes, those whose genes allow them mastery of integrative skills are (and were) the best placed to survive.
Plagues came over and over. So did war. Each ran humanity through a selective sieve, culling out the socially unskilled from those who had mastered network maintenance and enrichment. In the end, those who became part of the massively integrated ecosystem of a metropolis – that knot of town and surrounding countryside tied to numerous other junctures of its kind – were the ones who triumphed and survived. Would some mental modules be favored and others suppressed by 500 generations of this sorting process? Five hundred generations were enough to create massive changes in Lake Nyas’ Cichlid fish. And fifty years were enough to alter the genes of soapberry bugs.23 It is unlikely that we are spared from rapid evolution by some sort of mystic dispensation.24
One of the genetic propensities which may have been fine-tuned by this process is on display in children. Toddlers and very young kids have been shown by numerous studies to gravitate toward and defer to those who are the best social organizers. Little nippers adept at turning rambunctious companions into an orderly team not only win the most popularity contests, but become the focal point of play groups and the leaders of gangs of friends.
A seemingly valid argument has been raised that city-centered peoples would be ill nourished and tremendously unfit. How, then, could they have ratcheted up our genetic heritage? Champions of this view cite the unequivocal truth that once mankind converted whole hog to agriculture, the archaeological record shows a spread of malnourishment and its attendant diseases, diseases unknown to hunter-gatherer societies.
There are two counter-arguments. Towns were the spawn of trade, not, as I’ve mentioned before, of agricultural surplus. The first cities were founded on gathering plant abundance and on hunting where the prey was so plentiful one didn’t need to move to follow it about. What’s more, it took a long time for wild game to disappear even from the menu of urban agriculturalists. Bones of undernourished grain eaters don’t show up until thousands of years later. Meanwhile, those in cities could spread like kudzu on a fertilized lawn. In battles they could outnumber and overwhelm hunter gatherers. Their only competitors were nomads who stressed animal herding and made plant gardening a modest trimming to their way of life: cattle-breeding predators like the Indo-Europeans or, later, the Huns and Gauls (otherwise known as Celts). Even nomadleaders like Genghis Khan were masters of social integration, leading peoples whose instincts made it possible to knit them into large-scale enterprise. But nomads eventually could no longer menace the meshworks of metropoli.
The proof is in the pudding. Urbanized, highly networked agricultural societies have taken over the world. Hunter-gatherers and wandering herders have long ago been forced to exist on the fringes, scrounging in lands so poor others were not interested in exploiting them. Now those who are a part of the megalopolitan webwork have found uses for even fringe lands, and “indigenous cultures” are in danger of final extinction. This would be a tremendous loss for our understanding of human diversity. But why are these low-integration cultures considered more “indigenous” to this earth than that other product of the planet’s evolution, cosmopolitan societies? Especially considering that the earth itself, in the form of evolution, seems to have awarded its prizes to the interwoven for at least ten thousand years?
Conquest as a data connector
Reciprocity was by no means the only human agglomerator and information exchanger. There was also an element we glimpsed at the beginning of this chapter – conquest. When the Indo-Europeans (more about them coming up) conquered from Western China to the Atlantic, they took lives and labor, subjugating the peoples in their path. What did they give? The chariot and their language – two of the most important staplers of human society for the next three thousand years. When, in the middle East, those who’d been born with the Indo-European gifts learned to use them, they stitched together empires – those of the Hittites, the Hyksos, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians. In the Far East, such warrior peoples as China’s Chou (1111-255 b.c.) and the horse-mounted Siberians we know as the Japanesequilted together the cities and lands of thousands of small tribes and city states as well. Invaders gave something no one wants and should ever have to accept – slaughter. And these warriors took, oh, how they took. But most subduers kept their subjects alive. The empire builders among them spread the tendrils pulling us together to this day. They broke the barriers separating mini-groups by standardizing languages, writing systems, laws, trade, weights and measures, and by building roadways over which their troops could travel and in which merchants, pilgrims and the curious could follow.
Like trade, the hunger of some societies for complex growth and for the subjugation of the less powerful is not uniquely human. Some ants are entrepreneurs, striking out on their own, finding an unexploited niche, laying eggs and raising their own employee pool.25Gradually, the new nest turns from a mom and pop operation (without pop) to a major corporation as the growing staff of underlings develops a caste structure and a division of responsibilities.
The sheer growth of the community produces advantages. As colony size increases, so does the safety (and the expendability) of the individual. The group can shift resources from a frantic fecundity to other forms of production … or of usurpation. The bigger the group, the more the rate of offspring per adult falls off.26Large insect colonies benefit from improved defense. Small colonies have to live in vulnerable lean-tos. Large colonies manage to construct fortresses. (Shades of Jericho!) What’s more, large colonies evolved the luxury of defending their ramparts with castes of biologically remodeled soldiers – huge, well armored and well armed. Small colonies, where everybody has to do a little bit of everything, cannot afford to produce six-legged battle tanks. Large groups can also spare foot-soldiers aplenty. If challenged, they can mount massed counterattacks. Should a small colony throw all of its members into a last-ditch squadron, it would risk losing its entire population in minutes. For a large colony, the loss of such a troop is just a minor bagatelle.
Megahives provide other useful comforts. The air conditioning systems of bee hives control for temperature and humidity, increasing worker health, productivity and hive survivability. Teams of carefully coordinated bees bring water from distant parts, relay it to indoor workers who slap it on the roofs of cells, their ceilings, walls, and floors, while others at the hive entrance fan outside air into the corridors with their wings, producing a pleasant cooling effect. In winter, large hives can form a cluster of bees clinging solidly to each other, providing insulation and warming the hive with the muscles of their wings.27 Inhabitants of smaller groups are forced to endure the freeze of winter and the summer heat, a serious threat to their mortality. Larger groups can also capture bigger, meatier prey. Because of the enormous numbers in their platoons, army ants the size of a match can bring down pigs. No wonder celebrated entomologist E.O. Wilson feels there’s been an evolutionary progression in the insect world from primitive groups whose members had to do almost everything on their own to insect empires controlling huge territories, monopolizing food-rich trees, and hunting down and eliminating rival nests or turning them into slaves.28
Among humans, information-synapsing often makes this sort of conquest a two-way swap; and it’s sometimes hard to tell whose memes will come out on top. One horse people, the Mongols, took China, conquered its landmass, and killed off as much as a third of its population in the process.29 Then the vanquished peoples’ culture conquered the conquerors, who learned to live in cities, to use Chinese firearms and navies, to rule through a semi-Chinese-style administration, and to tax peasants instead of turning farmland into pasture for their horses. In exchange the Mongols expanded the use of paper money (a financial web-enhancer the Chinese had used sporadically), encouraged private enterprise, opened free road passage throughout the empire, extended use of the system of official post roads and rapid long-distance communications, and introduced new ways of easing trade which made domestic commerce and international export and import a relative breeze30 . They also popularized a dish previously almost unknown in China, yoghurt.31
Conquest made it possible to extend the mesh in yet more peaceful ways. India was a largely tribal culture until roughly the 6th century BC. Then the improvement of the plow led to agricultural surplus, a cash economy, and the rise of businessmen. A new breed of ruler discovered it could tax the commercial classes, use the money to build a professional army, and set out to conquer every neighboring territory in sight. Expansion was built into the system. Kautalya, Indian analyst of statecraft and teacher to kings, argued in roughly 300 BC that it is the duty of a ruler to make war “whenever a king has at his disposal instruments of force adequate enough to ensure victory.” Kautalya stated the goal unabashedly: “to make acquisitions” of territory.32 The result was the Mauryan Empire, which launched a far more peaceful march: that of Buddhist emissaries who followed trade routes into China, Southeast Asia, and eventually most of the Far East. A bloodless overthrow performed by Indian ideas wove half a continent into commonality.33
Conquest is the needle which stitched together virtually all of the “great nations” which we know today – allowing such multi-tribal hodgepodges of peoples as Germans, Russians, Arabs, Japanese, English, and French34 to convince themselves that they have always been “ein Volk” – one folk with a unique bloodline and history. In fact, before their conquerors arrived, each of these patchworks had consisted of thousands of squabbling “folks” of different histories and different genes–their bloodlines sometimes almost as far apart as could be.35 In this, the imperialists of history followed another animal pattern, that of the dominance hierarchy – the strangely unjust principle which sometimes uses brutality to bring individuals or (in the human case) collections of groups together in a stable and ultimately peaceful form.36It’s ironic that one of our strongest forces of attraction should be something so unpleasant as our will to lord it over others and that this ace-attractor should be egged on by repulsers – our animosities and our savageries. But that’s the way the Big Bang tango goes.
Genes of reciprocity and conquest would slowly reweave something nucleated cells had lost a billion years ago – the ability to swift-swap information across continents and seas. For 3.5 billion years, the bacterial brain had been upgrading its worldwide web, and frequently showed how its collective “wits” could turn befuddled herds of humans into livestock for its feasts. But we were making progress. Next we’ll see how genes of reciprocity and conquest knitted a culture known as ancient Greece.
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Verlag Heinz Heise
At Amazon: Howard Bloom’s The Global Brain