Altruism at human hive scale

In my last post, I fantasized off of a concept that human created large-scale organizations exhibit uniform characteristics that seem more characteristic to the species rather than the rational thinking abilities of its individuals.   To make these large-scale organizations work, each participating individual must be devoting some of his behavior to very primitive level instincts rather than rational thought.

In that post, I used the example of modern metropolises that are very similar across the globe despite emerging in different cultures, geographies, and economies.   The bigger the organization, the more similar competing organizations will be to each other.   There are similar observations to be made with large corporations, governments, legal systems, and any other human undertaking that have grown to similar sizes.

The metropolis stands apart because it has the potential to provide for all of the necessities and wants of particular individuals.   Many individuals may decide to emphasis individual autonomy, self-sufficiency, and focus on family and descendant legacies.   My point are the others who voluntarily give up large parts of their autonomy, self-sufficiency, and legacy.  In exchange for this forfeiture, the individual can focus more attention on specific goals and this at least offers the potential of achievement that may not otherwise be possible.   As our social organization gets larger and more sophisticated, it gets more crowded with intelligent, creative, and creative people.   Opportunities for these creative people to contribute are in increasingly narrow areas require extremely high specialization into one topic in order to deliver an valuable contribution.   Due the number and diversity of such pursuits, the contributions will be mostly anonymous even if they are very essential for the continued growth of society.

We are told that our natural behavior is one that emphasizes an extended family.  We are told that millions of years of evolution defined our basic behaviors.   For nearly the entirety of that evolutionary development of our behaviors, the natural best-fitting behavior for humans was one that was focused on tribal competencies.   These competencies involved a division of labor among a small extended family or a tribe of closely related families.   In particular, reproduction was a prerogative for all women and for the most eligible men.   While we often consider nuclear families of faithful partners to be the optimal, I think for most of our evolutionary history only a small subset of men reproduced while the majority of women did.   Even though some men may be left out of the opportunity to have their children, the tribe of available men to the women were generally closely related so that the children who were born were still very closely related to their barren uncles or cousins.

As an aside, I am very skeptical of evolutionary explanations of behaviors, but it is a point I am not able to argue against.  I don’t want to argue with it, but I point it out here because it may help to understand where my discussion may lead.

In the primitive hunter-gatherer  type tribal arrangement, there is bound to be some members, particularly men, who will not have direct offspring.   The genetic preservation of even these non-participants is largely preserved because close relatives are having children.   My guess is that in most cases, the men who do not become fathers may be prevented from the opportunity due to social rules: alpha males protecting their access to the women, or discerning women choosing who they prefer to father their children.   These are frustrated men, men who would like to have access to reproduction but are prevented from that opportunity.   I also suspect there may some subset who are content with their lot, especially as they gain their own respect for their specialization in skill or knowledge.

In either case, the men who are not fathers will end up benefiting the tribe, assuring its survival and they close relatives will pass the genes for producing such men to the next generations.   Participating at the tribal level allows evolution to preserve these beneficial traits even though the behaviors are altruistic in terms of becoming direct ancestors of the next generations.

Back to the behavioral evolution argument, the argument is that modern life is very stressful for urban dwellers who are often isolated individuals, or individuals who have just temporary pair bonding relationships that rarely end up in a life-long marriage, let alone the creation or perpetuation of an extended inter-dependent family.   For such individuals, evolutionary roots of behavior offers an explanation for stresses and unhappiness, and the illnesses that result from those conditions.

Evolution did not prepare us for the modern condition.  We are living far outside the niche we were evolved to be best suited for.   The evolutionary contradiction is that we are thriving despite the ill preparation from evolutionary history.

Perhaps all of modern civilization will soon collapse under the reality that humans were never evolved to sustain it, but that fate has been repeated predicted each generation for the past several generation.   Each following generation surprises the prior one by succeeding to an greater extent than thought possible, and certainly better than the doom predictions of their predecessor generations.

As a species, we seem to be extremely well prepared for exactly the kind of life we have in modern times.   Indeed, we seem to be well prepared for a future kind of life far more advanced than we can contemplate now.   How is this possible?   Evolution didn’t prepare us for that.

More specifically, human or hominid evolution did not prepare us for this result.  The evolution of patterns of behavior may have been worked out in much more primitive ancestral species.   Perhaps some ancestor species common to us and herding animals had worked out behaviors that work with large groups of unrelated individuals and that behavior laid unexpressed for millions of years until there was an opportunity to tap that evolutionary knowledge.   That common ancestor may go back to the point that relates us to birds, fishes, or even insects.   Hominid evolution may never had the need for large scale cooperative groups to exist, but it may be possible that inherited information for such behavior could have been preserved until was useful.

We are now tapping into a long unexpressed behavioral instinct that evolution somehow worked out a very long time ago.

Here’s where I have a problem with applying the rules of evolution to behavior.

I admit my mind is too feeble to imagine how behavior or instinct can be encoded in genes.  I realize that it has been demonstrated, but I still can’t imagine how the DNA encoding for RNA that encodes for protein genesis will somehow instruct a being how it should behave.  Despite that, I have no problem granting that it is possible.  There are reasons why I never became a scientist, after all.

The problem I have is with the notion evolution-learned behaviors can persist across many ancestral species that gained no benefit from this learning.  Part of what makes survival of the fittest work, is the gradual degradation or loss of unnecessary or vestigial organs.   It takes energy to continue to copy useless information, so each event that prunes this information will benefit the species.  At best the retained instruction for that behavior would be a very degraded version of the original version that managed to excel for some long-lost species.

It is possible that the degradation of old behavior just happened to be extremely well suited for the current environment.   I suspect the probability of that happening may be comparable the probability that more recent hominid history managed somehow to stumble on something the turned out to be well suited to modern life despite the fact that this innate behavior virtually nothing to benefit humans for for 99% of human.

If that is possible, then anything is possible, including that none of our modern behaviors are determined by early human history.   I tend to believe this.  Although people of the Greek and Roman ages lived in large complex urban-centric societies, I understand their individual behaviors were very different from our own.   The people who lived in similarly large complex urban-centric societies of the Bronze age were equally dissimilar to both us and the Classic era.   There may be some basic behaviors, especially with regard to reproduction, that are common to all human history, but I tend to think that these are overwhelmed by contemporary customs and world views.

Getting back to my point about altruism.  I wanted to compare the altruism of the tribal men who did not have children with the similarly fated men in modern urban life.   Like in the tribal scenario, at least some of these unpaired men are benefiting society with some form of innovation made possible by the time freed up by their condition.   Unlike the tribal situation, their individual benefits does very little to guarantee that their beneficial genes will pass on to later generations.

If such men have close relatives who do reproduce, the resulting children may reach fertile adulthood before their innovations have had a chance to positively benefit the survival of the species.  Even if the key genes are passed on, they would be far outnumbered by the others who may be far more distantly related to innovators.

A counter argument to that may be the characteristic of modern urban society is the sheer abundance of intelligent and capable individuals.   The necessary good genes are sufficiently abundant in the population that we can afford to lose genetic information from even a substantial fraction of these contributors.

Abundance of highly intelligent and creative people eliminates the need to be careful about passing the good genes to the next generation.   I’ve read also that evolutionary innovation can only occur in very small and isolated groups.

With the global scale of interconnected metropolises, human evolution by natural selection will stop.  Yet our behaviors continue to evolve, or previously unexpressed behaviors are now being expressed, like nearly everyone not allowing themselves to be more than 5 seconds from their smart phones.

Within this very new condition, a condition arising too quickly to allow evolutionary survival-of-fittest selection to take place, there emerges a new form of altruism.  This is the altruism or both men and women, but men in particular.  This altruism is to forfeit the evolutionary psychological instinct to be a part of some tribal unit, taking on gender-specific roles, particularly in the context of procreation.   Though they may be a small portion of the population, there is a significant portion of the population who are not participating in the economy, pursuing careers and income to support the pursuit of traditional roles in extended families of genetically close relatives.

These non-participants are seeking less remunerative or at least much more financially risky bets compared to the consumer culture of the previous generation.   These people are scaling back, seeking lifestyles that minimize need for income or wealth yet are still adequately comfortable.   As a result, they rely less on steady employment and thus are able to pursue their private interests even those that have no promise of ever being rewarded financially.   These participants are not striving to impress others.  The men in this group are not using their potential for income for the pursuit of women nor for the elevation of status of their immediate family.   Their presence in culture slows down or ever reverses the consumer economy.

These non-participants in traditional roles are altruistic, but for society as a whole instead of for the “selfish gene” that evolution supposes.   Like the description above of the risk or forfeiture taken at an individual level, the trend as a whole may be very risky from an evolutionary perspective.   From that evolutionary perspective, this might be a behavior mutation that is attempting to find a niche that will survive into future generations, if only these non-participants would breed.  These non-participants are not breeding and any benefits of their selective fitness will bring advantage to a next generation that is more likely than not to share their genes.   The trend should dissipate within a generation.

Despite the absence of genetic inheritance path, I see a continuity of this social phenomena continue across generations.   If anything, the trend is accelerating.   There is a instinctual motivation to take advantage of the benefits of the metropolis and super state.   This is not merely the instinct to be lazy or to take advantage of a patron.  This is a new kind of instinct that recognizes a new reality, one that had no analog to any historical period.

This population I am describing is adapting to a fundamental change in the natural definition of survival.   In the natural world, survival is defined in terms of shelter, food, and procreation.   In the modern urban world, survival is defined in terms of finding some niche within the metropolis itself.

The survival of the individual is a challenge that humans are well adapted to meet.   But now, we are seeing the emergence of a new challenge of survival of the notion of a modern metropolis.    In this new world, the individual matters very little, with the trend toward mattering as little to the metropolis as an individual ant matters to the colony.   Many people are adapting to this by adjusting their expectations to never matter that much as an individual.   People are accepting that the odds of being individually recognized to a wide population are similar to the odds of becoming a celebrity or of winning a lottery.

This acceptance of being dispensable is largely subconscious.   For the most part, people are making a rational decision to disregard egotistic ambitions.   I suspect if many of them would rationally think it through, they will be motivated to pursue those ambitions.   If they do, they will probably revert back to being unambitious at a personal level as soon as they stop thinking about it.

This is the emerging hive-mind of humans when presented with the opportunities of the modern metropolis.   Absent conscious rational thought about their behaviors, they will tend to adapt the behaviors more consistent with hive membership.   They will super-specialize to find a niche that is adequately comfortable and sustainable.  Their personal fame of success or legacy of offspring is irrelevant.

From an evolutionary survival perspective, this hive-behavior among humans appears to be some type of novel mutation with usual low survival odds given to novel mutations.  But is this really a novel mutation?

My impression that we inherit more of our human condition from history independent of genes.   The discussion about the emerging mono-culture of large cities supports this idea.  Despite arising from vastly different locations with differences in gene pools, the same pattern of living emerges and is found comfortable by most inhabitants despite the fact that this mono-culture emerged just recently and originating largely from North America.  There may be some innate genetic predisposition to accept this type of behavior across nearly all of the human population.   If so, this may be tapping into set of genetic behavior traits common to all humans, but only just now being expressed.

History has more influence on our behavior than our genes.   Looking at my own person, I see ample evidence of history being more significant than genetics.   Many of my physical characteristics such as height, health, and lack of scars from hardship are more directly related to the benefits of living in this modern time than to my inherited genes.   Certainly genes would have played more of a role if I had inherited rarer conditions of disability or more prone to illness, but those with similar genes as what I have but living in more difficult times or places would be far more aged by the time they had reached my age.   This is the result of current conditions and these conditions are a result of history, with a lot of it having to do with very old history made by people who were almost certainly extremely distant cousins from my ancestors.

Similarly, the geopolitical, economic, and cultural conflicts defining our current age trace back to events that occurred thousands of years ago.   Those events are much more relevant to us now than any genetic information passed down from my ancestors at the time.

Much of my physical being and even far more of my behavior and culture I am responding to has much more to do with the consequences of the actions of Alexander the Great, who had no surviving descendants, than to the genes of whoever my ancestors were who were living at the same time.   It is more relevant to consider myself him being my direct ancestor than it is to consider the my Celtic, Germanic, or Norse ancestors at that time.

I present this analogy to describe behavior as something that evolve faster than genetic evolution.   We sometimes divide behavioral influences between two causes: nature and nurture, or genetics and culture.  I think we should consider history as a separate influence.   Culture and history are distinct.   Culture develops my personality.  History determines the constraints of how I can live my life in a way that suits my personality.   That constraint of the cumulative effects of both ancient and recent history controls how I can express my personality and that in turn further shapes my personality.   Given the same genes and the same culture but within an alternative history, I am certain that the resulting creature would not be writing this blog post.

Likewise, the adaptation to live comfortable with myself even as I realize that a good portion of my behavior is more analogous to a worker ant in an ant colony than of an independent self-reliant head of household living in more rural conditions and in more primitive conditions.

I often imagine how I would have been like had I were born a half century earlier.   I would almost certainly have started a family and more passionately pursued my career for the ambition of being well recognized and widely respected.  I am not saying I would have succeeded, only that I would have tried.   Instead, living in the current times convinced me that such ambitions are unnecessary and unproductive.   I am better off doing what I have been doing, come up with some idea, work on it until it begins to get traction, but then leave it to others long before it could benefit me directly with wealth or fame.   I am better off because I recognize that such achievement has little to do with my effort or talent.

Success or fame in the current environment is a lottery prize given to great and weak with equal probability.  In such an environment, it makes sense to put as little effort into success as one would put into buying a lottery ticket.   A weekly effort, perhaps, but one that takes only a few minutes, leaving the rest of the week free.

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One thought on “Altruism at human hive scale

  1. Pingback: Incompleteness of MGTOW or MRM | kenneumeister

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