<As usual, a Soundtrack. Note that this was recorded in 1969.>
About a year and a half ago, I was listening to the Lewis and Clark diaries on tape in a beat up Nissan gunning it to a decommissioned firewatch in Nevada. In the midst of a megadrought, we heard voices from a well-kept, largely pre-European contact America. From the text, it seemed a harsh but negotiable land of rivers of salmon and plains of buffalo. Indeed, one of the most striking things about the diaries is just how many different groups of Natives were negotiating with that land, holding onto prosperity in variable contexts, organized into bands and nations skilled in adaptation to whatever context they found themselves in.
Despite the diversity of environments explored by Lewis and Clark in their trek across the Western expanse, one thing stands out to me in their documentation: Nobody ever spends time alone. Solitude is a sign of something being horribly wrong. This is true both of Lewis and Clark’s expedition, and of any of the populations they encounter along their way. The hunting parties are the smallest units of organization sent out into the wilderness, numbering four or so, a viable sum for carrying wounded back and pointing eyes in all directions. The smallest intentionally formed groups of Natives they encounter are pairs of riders serving as scouts, the only solitary individuals are lost and in danger.
I hesitate to call the landscape of America that Lewis and Clark visited natural, as the marks and stories of cultivation by the Natives are obvious in the diaries and all other reputable historical sources. Instead, it fits a sort of hybrid model: cultivated, yet in many cases the natural processes were used and bolstered as they were clearly more efficient than processes that could be directly controlled and legibilized. The “edible forest” methodology used by many native groups is of course a clear example of such practices. One must only go to the Field Museum in Chicago, and look at the massive volume of a Haida potlatch bowl on display there to see the possible bounty from such techniques.
Yet, the ability to travel through the untamed land in nearly any time before the advent of modern transit networks required a return to a sort of pre-agricultural nomadism. It is that state that determined the majority of the constraints of human biological, anatomical, and base-social systems. The popular assumptions of the various paleo-oriented schools of thought assume typically that our base wiring concerns a time when we were animalistic and prelinguistic. I would conjecture that while humanity is obviously a biological phenomenon, our cultural evolution is as strong, if not stronger a force than our biology. One must only look at the greying of Japan to see the defeat of reproductive impulse at the hand of technology’s rearchitecting of the human plan.
However, our psychological capacities do not evolve as fast as our cultural infrastructure. This leads to a scenario where an ancestral environment of our cultural evolution is just as determinant as our biological ancestral environment, despite the fact that they are different periods in human development. In fact, it seems fairly likely that one of the largest conflicts in human life is that between biology and physical force, and culture and abstract design. Both genetics and memetic inhabit separate, but interlinked, regions of the human system, but appear to have distinct motivations.
To look at human biology is to paint a dark picture. While the environmentalists of the world are right in that we should avoid the wholesale destruction of the ecosystems of the earth, they typically lack the bravery to question the experiential realities of natural life. While there is a fairly good line of reasoning suggesting that the world of the technologically inferior ape is not necessarily worse than that of humanity—look at the bonobo, don’t you want that many orgasms?! they say—I am disinclined to think that humanity’s base biological wiring is inherently benevolent, nor am I willing to accept that bonobos, gorillas, and chimpanzees are actually the idealized creatures we have painted them to be.
The most obvious examples of the biological drive of apes is patriarchy, the ruling silverback holding onto power as a gerontocrat, where other males maintain their position in hierarchies with the hope of eventually ascending, or engaging in various other beta strategies well documented by the skeezy-yet accurate pickup artistry subculture. While bonobos have used sexuality as their means of communication over violence and conspicuous production, I am not sure that these systems are akin to the unchained dreams of Rousseau. On the contrary, I think these are but methods of restricting production to maintain the once-earned yet not necessary status of individuals in them at the expense of the overall community. This assumption of intra-species relations as a zero-sum game is not only patently absurd, but introduces a corruption that destroys resources and maintains a Hobbesian scenario of life nasty, brutish, and short while a small number of elites maintain only comparative prosperity.
Perhaps it is odd that I judge the animal world by the same standards I judge the human, but to do anything else would be denial. This horror story of ape against ape is what truly lies behind the term rape culture, where the unintelligent impulses of untempered biology incentivize males act as agents and females to act as capital. This results in males attempting to explicitly own females, females’ response to implicitly control males, and all to engage in crude dominance battles of varying publicity leading to consistent, brutal, and meaningless violence. There are, of course, queer variations on this theme, but those variations rise out of a simplicity of asymmetric incentive in the meat-robots that carry our genes. I hope one day that we will be able to make a covenant with our biology, so that we are no longer at war with ourselves.
All of these conflicts exist inside of humanity as a species, but humanity was not only in conflict with itself, but also with other species and the hostile environment. While biology optimizes for the survival of genes within the constraints of the environment, culture optimizes for the survival of memes. The memes that increase the fitness of genes appear to be ones that increase the propensity of the individual genes to survive by either gaining informational advantage or enhancing the will to live. Memetic evolution reaches a point of equilibrium when it is capable of meeting the material needs of its population to the extent that it can explain why it cannot totally meet the material desires of its population, in conflict with the material reality of any member of the population. 1
Provided this cultural system can explain the conditions of the world, it is capable of unifying a population into a superorganism: a symbiotic cluster capable of engaging in non-zero sum behaviors within itself, for it is capable of identifying as a coherent unit. This identification either comes from self-similarity—members of the unit see other members as “backups” of themselves, either for genetic or memetic reasons—or symbiotic need—members of the unit see other members as useful or valuable, lending themselves to an overall collaboration. 2
In a pre-technological state, our informational advantages came out of our coordination capacity. In a slightly perverse way we may think of the invention of protolanguage as a realization of the old general’s adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. We are social for mutual benefit. Like other animals, our pre-linguistic recognition of the self-similarity of other members of our species was the beginning of this process of organization, a precursor to symbiotic differentiation of behavior. We sought to conquer hunger, escape the teeth of the predator, and keep the fires lit through the winter. Such tasks are close to impossible without a tribe, and through the creations of tribe we conquered the entropic tendencies of the environment and the other species that hoped to digest us into calories for the same purpose.
Somehow, we won, and were left with the jackpot of the Earth. We are a bizarre hybrid of the physiology of the ape with the systemic organizational capacity of the apocrita, coupled with a tough healing factor unmatched by most other large fauna. The base unit of nomadic humanity is not the individual, but the pack, ready to take on a mammoth in pursuit predation with stone-tip spears or scour fields for tiny fruit before we had time to enlarge it through selective breeding. Our advantages came from communication. To lead, to follow, to see, to speak, to listen, how else could an unarmored ape survive in a world of ice and saber-teeth?
This is where I want to leave our pseudo-historical narrative for a moment. Humanity has built the cradle for civilization, but not civilization itself. We may picture the classic cromagnon here, standing tall on upon the corpse of some great mammal, perhaps having mastered the basics of taming fire, living in caves and camping, likely predating the adaptations of the land that lead to sedentary behavior. As with all archaeological and paleontological questions, the veracity of this narrative is unclear, but the two basic forces, the zero-sum baseline of biology and the positive-sum force of communicative culture are apparent.
This pseudo-history will of course continue with part two, a piece addressing a base taxonomy of technological methods by which humanity has repeatedly re-architected itself.
1: This taxonomy is, of course, derived from Max Weber’s terms of “organic” and “mechanical” solidarity, but “symbiotic” and “self-identifying” seem far less misleading. It is also worth noticing that self-identifying solidarity is often frequently coercive and gameable, and in more advanced societies simply results in implicit possession of other humans as capital, rather than explicit. From what I can tell, Rene Girard has said a lot of accurate things about this, but I haven’t really gotten to reading primary sources yet.
2: Thought this physiosocial technology level, we are taking about classes like women and non-alpha males, this is effectively what Marx meant when he said that history was the history of class struggles. I object to the linearity of Hegel’s successors, nonlinear dialectical materialism seems to basically just be social evolutionary dynamics. I have a feeling that in this series, I’m likely going to be writing a lot about how Marx’s forensic technique was basically spot on, and that the problems of Marxism come from Marxists, not the approach that Marx took doing archaeology on his present. Though I’m sure I will revisit this topic, it seems as though the failures of Communism came mostly from the assumption that, in order to have a Communist society, you had to remove strategic asymmetry by the force of a totalitarian singleton, rather than rendering strategic asymmetry irrelevant through the creation of real or possibly within-reach abundance, thus rendering zero-sum strategies obsolete. Capitalism has been a lot better at rendering zero-sum obsolete.
I think I’m feeling brave enough to post something this grandiose because on Friday I went on a date to go see Arrival. While these words were already mostly written, had I not seen the movie they would have likely not ended up on this blog for much longer out of fear of ridicule. Yet, Arrival is a story about what it actually takes for the non-zero sum and positive sum interaction models to start to take hold in a strategic environment: communication and information abundance, leading to rational trust between peers. I highly recommend all of you go see it as soon as you can. The fact that a movie with such a message was not only made, but was made as a high budget, mainstream blockbuster is astounding to me, an signals a slightly different zeitgeist than I’ve been experiencing recently. I want to engender that zeitgeist further, so I'm giving sharing information, When things are immediate, they do not have to be perfect, and as best I can tell, this is what blogs are for: the chronological documentation of an individual's attentions.