Authoritarianism, Bad Ideas, Citizenship, Class War, Community, Cultural Traits, Culture, Equality, Evolution, Freedom and Liberty, Human Nature, Hunter/Gatherers, Obligations to Society, Oppression, Political and Social Alienation, Political Issues, Politics, Psychology, Science, Sexuality, Society, Values

The Social Brain

(A 9 minute read)

“The trouble with practical jokes is that very often they get elected.”  ― Will Rogers

Politicians are not the only practical jokes that get elected.  A lot of bad ideas also “get elected”.  Get elected in the sense that they become as popular as cheap hamburgers, and more popular than much better ideas.

Social Darwinism is surely one of the worse ideas that humans have ever invented.   Humans are quite talented at inventing bad ideas, but talent alone lacks the necessary brilliance to have invented Social Darwinism.  No, Social Darwinism took genius.

There were actually several geniuses involved in the invention of Social Darwinism, a whole intellectual clusterfuck of them.  But perhaps William Graham Sumner was the most brilliant clusterfucker of that whole group.

In 1883, Sumner published a highly influential pamphlet entitled “What Social Classes Owe to Each Other”, in which he insisted that the social classes owe each other nothing, synthesizing Darwin’s findings with free enterprise Capitalism for his justification.  According to Sumner, those who feel an obligation to provide assistance to those unequipped or under-equipped to compete for resources, will lead to a country in which the weak and inferior are encouraged to breed more like them, eventually dragging the country down. Sumner also believed that the best equipped to win the struggle for existence was the American businessman, and concluded that taxes and regulations serve as dangers to his survival.  [Source]

To be able to take an idea as brilliant as Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and turn it into an idea as hard-packed with stupidity as Social Darwin is absolute genius.  Sumner might have been one of the people George Orwell had in mind when he said, “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them”.

Anti-intellectualism is just as American as apple pie or selling diabetic horse urine as beer.  That does not mean, however, that Americans skeptically refuse to  embrace the ideas of intellectuals.  No, in practice, it has meant only that Americans are so unfamiliar with intellectuals and their ideas that they can’t tell the good from the bad.  They are like those poor, sad folks who are so anti-sex they never develop whatever raw talent they might have for sex into becoming moderately decent lovers, let alone dynamos between the bed sheets.  There is no other way to explain the continuing popularity in America of Sumner’s ideas.

Social Darwinism is many things but so often at the core of it is the notion that human evolution has been predominantly driven by intraspecies competition.  As it turns out, however, to say that intraspecies competition predominantly drove human evolution is just as absurd as saying that a dozen minutes of start-to-finish jackhammering is mainly all there is to sex.  There is so much more!

For a long time, scientists have known that the human brain is exceptionally large relative to body size.

Early attempts to explain the fact tended to focus on environmental factors and  activities.  Thus, humans were thought to have evolved large brains to facilitate banging rocks together in order to make tools, hunt animals, avoid predators,  think abstractly, and outsmart competitors for vital resources like food, territory, mates, and rocks.  This was known as the “ecological brain theory”.

Then, in 1992, the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar published an article showing that, in primates, the ratio of the size of the neo-cortex to that of the rest of the brain consistently increases with increasing social group size.

This strongly suggested that primate brains — very much including human brains — grew big in order to allow them to cope with living in social groups.  As a consequence of that and other research, the new “social brain theory” started replacing the old “ecological brain theory” in the hearts and minds of scientists.

We don’t have the biggest teeth, the sharpest claws, the fleetest feet, the strongest muscles in nature.  But, as it happens, we are in most ways the single most cooperative species of all mammals, and in unity there is strength.  One human is usually no match for a lion even if he’s the most competitive human within a hundred miles. But through cooperation we are able to achieve more together than we can achieve through competition.

I once saw a film in which a band of two dozen or so men and women chased a huge male lion into a thicket and killed it in just a few seconds with nothing more than pointed sticks.   That is the bare minimal kind of cooperation that no doubt helped us to become the extraordinarily successful species we are today.

Even the fact we are able to (to some extent) reason abstractly might have much to do with our evolving as a social species.

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have come up with the fascinating theory that reasoning evolved — not to nobly discern truths — but to persuade our fellow apes to cooperate with us, and to help us figure out when someone is telling us the truth.

Thus Mercier and Sperber begin with an argument against the notion that reasoning evolved to deliver rational beliefs and rational decisions:

The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.

In other words, those of us who wish in at least some cases to arrive at rational beliefs and rational decisions are somewhat in the position of a person who must drive screws with a hammer — the tool we have available to us (reason) did not evolve for the purpose to which we wish to employ it, and only by taking the greatest care can we arrive safely at our goal.  But I digress.

Mercier and Sperber go on to ask, “Why does reasoning exist at all, given that it is a relatively high-cost mental activity with a relatively high failure rate?”

They answer that reasoning evolved to assess the reliability and quality of what someone is telling you (“Is Joe telling me the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about his beer cellar?”), and also to enable you to persuade someone to do (or not do) something (“How do I talk Joe into giving me all his beer?”).   That is, reasoning involved in a group context.  The implication is that we reason best and most reliably when we argue or debate with each other.

I have long thought that one of the reasons the sciences have demonstrated themselves to be all but the most reliable means of inquiry that we have ever invented — second only to getting baked on Colorado’s finest weed in order to ponder the “Big Questions” of life — is because the sciences rest on the principle of intersubjective verifiability.  Basically, you check my work, I’ll check yours, and together we might be able to get closer to the truth than either of us could get working alone.

When Thomas Hobbes was writing out his political philosophy in the 1600s, he embraced the sensible notion that any political system should be based on human nature, as opposed, say, to based on what we might think some god or king wants us to have.   Hobbes, who often cooked up brilliant ideas, now proceeded to burn his meal, for he envisioned that human nature is essentially solitary.  He thought if you go back far enough in human history you will come to a time when people did not live in social groups, but alone.  There was no cooperation between people and it was instead “a war of all against all”.

Hobbes was not only wrong about that, he was very wrong about that.  What evidence we have suggests our species always lived in groups, our ancestors always lived in groups, and their ancestors always lived in groups.  In fact you must go back at least 20 million years in evolutionary history before you find a likely ancestor of ours that might have been a loner.  Our brains have been evolving as specialized organs for dealing with we each other for at least 20 million years, which is almost long enough to listen to every last complaint my two ex wives have about me.  And hell, we’re only talking about their legitimate complaints!

Of course, the fact we are social animals does not mean we are hive animals.  We are very much individuals, so far as I can see.  But that means, among much else, that there is and always will be a tension or conflict between our social and our individual natures.

Before we started living in the first city-states about 6,500 years ago, we lived in relatively small hunting/gathering bands of 200 or so people at the most.  So far as we know today, the bands were mostly egalitarian.  Just about anyway you can measure it, there wasn’t much social, political, or economic difference between people.  And the individual and society were probably in a fairly well balanced relationship with each other. Then some killjoy invented the complex, hierarchical society of the city-states.   And the people of the time, instead of doing the rational thing, and hanging him on the spot, let him get away with it.

From that infamous day forward, there’s been very few times in history when the balance between the individual and society has favored the individual.  Most societies have been oppressive.  That needs to end.   Yet end in a way that restores a sane balance, not in a way that destroys societies through extreme individualism.

13 thoughts on “The Social Brain”

  1. I remember reading that the human brain evolved from social activity, but i had forgotten that fact. Thanks for reminding me! This is a fantastic theory, and so simple too! Since social interaction requires brain power, we were made to get lots of it! Woot!

    It is my personal believe that the smaller a society is, the less hierarchical it is, and the more egalitarian it becomes. (Wishing your rebuttal on this 😀 ) Because a group of 200 could easily know everyone, they all have an emotional bond, everyone therefore takes everyone’s opinions as a contribution to society, and, there isn’t a few ruling members with power, but in fact the whole society becomes involved, and is able to involve much easier than a pop of say 1 million. These are things i’ve gathered over the years, and i’m certainly still learning, so don’t deprive me of your opinions! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a very sharp insight you have there about small group size and egalitarianism, Teresums! I think you’re sniffing the right cabbage, barking into the right cave, slinging around the right dance pole, so to speak. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Yet end in a way that restores a sane balance, not in a way that destroys societies through extreme individualism.” So where are we at? What does our Report Card look like? Too far towards extreme individualism, or too far toward…. what? Extreme conformism? What does your perfect world look like, Paut? No, really, I’m serious. Has there been a society at any point in time which you picture as having hit the ideal ‘sane balance?’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those are excellent questions, Garnet! Really excellent!

      Garnet, to me, the ideal human is a strong individual, true to him or herself, who behaves in a socially and environmentally responsible manner. I would not impose that ideal on anyone, but I think it is a recipe for living a fulfilling, meaningful life. So, when I judge whether or not a society is a good one to live in, I judge it to some large extent in terms of how compatible it is with that ideal.

      The thing is, while most of the few remaining hunting/gathering and horticultural societies I know of are more or less compatible with that ideal, most — almost all — of the civilizations, past and present, that I know of have fallen short of it. That is, fallen too short of it for my tastes. It’s my impression that most civilizations have been far more repressive than was or is necessary to have a stable society. I believe the reason in so many cases is that the ruling elites have run things for their own benefit rather than for the benefit of the people.

      The very best exception to that would be the American civilization between the Revolution and the Civil War. Individualism flourished, but so too did social responsibility. People were quite civic minded in that era. Much more civic minded than we are today. At the same time, they were genuinely individualistic.

      If you were a free male citizen of some of the ancient Greek city states you were living in pretty good times, too — in terms, I mean, of my ideal. Not so much, though, if you were a woman or a slave, or lived in the wrong city state.

      Some indigenous peoples historically lived in what I would consider societies compatible with my ideal — the North American Hopi, Lakota, Iroquois, and, apparently, several Californian tribes especially.

      Have I answered your questions?

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Dang! I just realized I forgot what might actually be most important to you, Garnet. Forgot to say anything about contemporary American society.

      I see us as a mixed bag. Most of us have the freedom, technically, to live my ideal life. But too often not the means. And, again too often, many of us who do have both the freedom and the means to live authentic, socially and environmentally responsible lives, have not the interest in doing so. We’re more interested in consuming goods and services than in realizing our potentials. Add to that, individualism in America has largely shed social and environmental responsibilities and is now more selfishness than genuine individualism for so many of us. Last, American society, as the anthropologist Desmond Morris noted, has become too competitive and is now in danger of destroying itself from that.

      So I see us as something of an increasingly sick society that is headed towards becoming a much more repressive society.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. One more thing, Garnet, I would like to ask you how you see our society? Have we let individualism run rampant? Are we too repressive? And especially, what are our schools teaching kids about living good lives these days? I’m especially interested in your answer to that last question because, after all, you’ve served on school boards.


      1. Thank you, Paul, for your detailed and thoughtful response. Indeed, you have answered my questions. The reason that I was so curious as to your interpretation of our society is that I have such trouble interpreting it myself. It is a moving target. The minute I think I understand something with regard to our society I suddenly see it from a different point of view, or else that ‘something’ morphs in to something else.

        As to your questions, I see our society as repressive in that an increasing segment of our population has to really scramble to get by. The middle class is disappearing, and even those of us left in it have to use every ounce of our energy and enthusiasm to keep pace with our well-paying jobs, and with our duty to save, save, save for retirement, kids’ college costs, medical expenses resulting from high-deductible plans… It’s exhausting, and although you state that modern folks ‘have no interest’ in being socially and environmentally responsible, it is not just lack of interest. We’re exhausted.

        As far as ‘schools teaching kids’ to live good lives goes, they’re trying. The problem is, schools don’t start from zero. They exist in a culture, a culture which has more influence on the kids than the school could ever hope to have. The schools are more and more being relied upon to raise the kids, as their parents have to work so hard and long to make ends meet. There’s ‘before school’ care that’s offered, ‘after school’ care that’s offered, and the endless litany of ‘in this day and age you must teach the kids THIS’ and ‘now you must teach the kids THAT.’ I know you disagree with religious education, but as far as teaching kids civic and environmental responsibility, the Catholic school on which board I serve has much better freedom and resources (and I don’t mean financial resources) to do that than the public school board I served on.

        Thanks for making me think, Paul. I’m so glad I found your current Cafe!


        Liked by 1 person

      2. Now it’s my turn to thank you, Garnet, for such a detailed and thoughtful response!

        Truth be told, I agree with your notion our society is “a moving target”. On just about any issue! Add to that how it is sometimes harder for insiders like us to see the big picture than for intelligent and informed outsiders. It was, after all, Alexis Tocqueville, and not a native American, who wrote the most accurate account of what life was like in 1830’s America.

        I think one of the main reasons people are economically repressed today has to do with the distribution of income generated by gains in productivity. From roughly 1945 to 1975 — the Golden Age for the American Middle Class — unions and other factors insured that roughly half the gains in income generated by gains in worker productivity went to the workers. The rest went to the capitalists, of course. That half-share was enough, however, to create a flourishing, economically secure middle class. But beginning around 1975 or so, the share of gains that went to the workers began dwindling. Consequently, American workers today are more productive than they’ve ever been, but are struggling to make ends meet. We’re still the richest society in the history of the world, but the average person no longer feels it, so to speak, because the wealth is concentrated in the hands of so few people.

        That inequality of wealth is one reason I think we might be headed towards a more ideologically repressive society in the long term, Garnet. You cannot have a tiny minority of people holding most of the wealth and power in a society without that minority needing to find ways to keep the majority from rising up to change things. Not for long, at least.

        Actually, I don’t blanket disagree with religious education. I’ve noticed that Catholic schools usually provide excellent educations. I do, however, strongly disagree with the education provided by most of the Evangelical schools I’ve heard of since most of them lie — there’s no other word for it, really — to their students about such things as evolution. So with me, religious education is not a black and white issue.

        By the way, you are incredibly level-headed and insightful. I hope you know that.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you, Paul. It is a delight to take part in a discussion with you, because you are incredibly knowledgeable, and you have the gift to interpret that knowledge. Which is a rare thing.

    Liked by 1 person

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