Does it feel like we’re at war with ourselves? Like the world is split into two groups, and we can’t stop fighting? It might feel like this is getting worse and worse, despite the civil wars and world wars of the past. But what if the constant fighting across these great societal divides is not a bug in our genetic programming? What if it’s a feature?
It has been said that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. This was said, in fact, by an Eastern Orthodox Christian whose paper of the same title makes the case that God must’ve employed evolution, as all the evidence fits too neatly for anything else to make sense. Evolution is likely the most tested and most useful theory in all the sciences. Among its many surprises are that the things that appear broken to us from one perspective make complete sense from another. Altruism is one example. It might seem weird to expose yourself to a predator to save members of the tribe, except that members of the tribe share your DNA. The individual gene is the thing controlling the action. From its perspective, a warning to the group makes perfect sense.
What if the clash between political parties also makes a kind of sense? Across hundreds of cultures, and throughout time, groups of people have often divided into two camps. What’s striking to me is how often these camps are almost perfectly balanced. Numerous votes in the past decade have been decided by mere percentage points, whether it’s US elections, the vote to “Brexit,” the decision to deal with the FARC by Columbians, and dozens of others. These are issues often decided between Conservatives and Liberals, and the balance between the two is eerily maintained, akin to the way nature maintains a balance of sexes. Well what if our political predispositions are similarly determined? And what if these differences have their use?
The short version of my theory is this: The best way to make copies of a civilization are to have a group split in two, with one choosing to stay put and the other opting to embark to a different place to give something new a try. The former group is inherently conservative. The latter is more radical. The force between them is a repulsive one. It’s like the rooted palm tree that drops a coconut into the ebbing tide.
If this is correct, we might expect conservatives to admire an existing strong and central power. They would admire and attempt to emulate the tribe’s Alpha Male. They would look to the past and attempt to preserve existing institutions.
Liberals, on the other hand, would idealize a fractured social strata and attempt to undermine the Alpha. Their focus would be on an ephemeral future. They might follow a charismatic rebel in striking out on their own if there’s a welcoming niche nearby, or they might attempt to attack and drive out the existing power structure to replace it with something new. In either case, the repulsive force between the two sides is like similar magnetic poles, driving them apart. What we see as strife is just nature making copies of cultures with slight differences between them, minor “mutations,” if you will.
The legendary biologist E.O. Wilson coined the term “Eusocial” during his study of ants. Wilson noticed that a handful of extremely successful groups of species (ants, bees, termites) shared traits found almost nowhere else in the animal kingdom. These traits included caste structure, job specialization, and n0n-sexual group members. This combination of traits made eusocial organisms the most successful multicellular organisms on the planet. And Wilson thought he saw elements of eusociality in humans as well.
Humans are also radically successful organisms, having spread to almost every niche on the planet, including one small enclave off the planet. We have dreams of living beneath the seas and around other stars. Our advantages also lie largely in job specialization. Instead of each of us fending for our calories, we use trade to free up members of the group to do highly complex things extremely well. Our eusocial nature has been called into question, however, due to the perceived lack of asexual members. I’m not so sure that’s correct.
Eusocial animal species all have sexual roles, but perhaps humans do as well. I’ve blogged about this in the past, asking whether or not homosexuality needs to be seen as an aberration or an adaptation. Homosexuality is found in all cultures and throughout human history. As high as eight percent of the human population may be homosexual. Again, this is right across every culture surveyed all around the planet. Its consistency points to something other than social origins. In addition, some other percent of humans are asexual, perhaps a much smaller percent.
We don’t call worker bees “unnatural,” yet we mistakenly presume that all humans should desire the same roles in family creation and rearing as the majority. How many “natural” workers exist among humans who have never been allowed to live their lives completely free and unfettered? We know that homosexuals have to stay in the closet; could asexual people be living there as well? Raising kids they love but never felt compelled to have?
The number of people who are able to abandon their children (women and men) suggests this might be the case. Even more telling is the growing number of people who decide not to have kids as the social stigma of such a decision declines. In Japan, this decision is not merely one of having sex and taking precautions, it is a real lack of sexual desire to begin with. A new generation is emerging that would rather not bother. Perhaps this impulse has existed beneath the surface. We might be seeing the hidden worker class arise as the social pressure from the reproductive class diminishes.
All this points to E.O. Wilson being right about our eusociality, and many other biologists and anthropologists being wrong. It raises an interesting question: Another trait of eusocial organisms is their limited colony size and the way they reproduce on a structural level. Ant and bee colonies do not persist by simply growing as large as they can. Rather, they divide and split up into duplicate colonies. Ant colonies might send out a new queen. Bee colonies have several strategies: they will send out mating queens, swarms that include queens and drones, or they’ll simply split the hive in half if it gets too big. It depends on environmental factors and pressures.
Human social groups also seem sensitive to size. Beyond a certain number, we can no longer keep up with the various relationships between tribe members. Robin Dunbar first researched this number and found it to be somewhere between 100 and 250 members. The most common number assigned to “Dunbar’s Number” is 150. But the science isn’t as exact as that. The hypothesis I raise here is that humans operate in the same fashion as other eusocial animal groups: We multiply on a social level, as well as on an individual and cellular level.
Think for a moment about the various levels of reproduction: Cells divide by building a wall right down their middle, dividing their components in half, then pinching apart and becoming two. For single-celled organisms, this means creating a viable competitor, another creature just like yourself that will search for the same limited stores of food. Creating competition and potential warfare might seem crazy, but attempting to survive without making copies is even less viable. It’s the individual genes attempting to persist, and they succeed by spreading as far and widely as they can. This means making copies, however painful the process.
On the level of the organism, we do the exact same thing. We make copies of ourselves that we will have to also compete with, perhaps even war against. My hypothesis is that we make copies on a societal level, that we undergo Eusocial Bifurcation just like ant and bee colonies. Our cultures get bloated, or we have enough members to form two tribes, and so we break in half. This increases the number and variety of our tribes, which increases the chances of survival as environmental pressures emerge. It also creates adaptability, as we mold our societies to fit a wide variety of environments (harsh deserts, mountaintops, plains, islands, etc).
Some confusing aspects of human nature make sense in light of this hypothesis, like our propensity to war with those we most resemble. It doesn’t make sense to make copies of cultures completely unlike our own. That would be the cultural equivalent to being cuckolded. It makes far more sense to divide among the most homogenous groups possible, to make copies most like each other. This would explain what Swift satirized in Gulliver’s Travels with his big-enders and little-enders (the former eat boiled eggs starting at the big end; the latter from the little end). These two groups of Lilliputians warred with and loathed each other, even though their main difference was simply how they ate their eggs. Swift was of course mocking Protestants and Catholics, whose main difference at the time was whether the communion was literally Jesus’ flesh and blood or simply a metaphor. For this, thousands of humans were slaughtered, tortured, and killed. The eusocial bifurcation hypothesis would see this as an attempt by the colony to duplicate itself, but the environment not allowing it due to space constraints.
The environment will hardly allow social bifurcation today. There aren’t many places left to move to! Millions of years of evolution did not plan for this endgame, as it was never in sight (evolution doesn’t work that way). The “plan,” as we like to anthropomorphize evolutionary forces, was to make as many copies as possible, never to actually stop. It’s up to the environment to make us stop, whether by lack of food, an explosion in the number of predators, or lack of space. Through science, we’ve eliminated the first two constraints. With science, some are working on the last.
Is it any wonder that people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are building arks with their steely bows pointed for the stars? We’ve been doing this for tens of thousands of years. I’m sitting in Tonga right now, which was populated by seafaring astronauts long ago. These would’ve been the progressives, who had a beef with the tribal authority and new ideas about how they would do things. They split off as neatly as a bee or ant colony and settled wherever they could find green purchase.
My travels through these islands have highlighted numerous examples. Take the island of Palmerston, where a man and his three wives absconded and started their own tribe, a tribe that persists today with the same triad structure of three families, with rules of mating between families but not among them.
Eusocial bifurcation among humans would explain in-grouping and out-grouping, especially among similar groups, as mentioned earlier. I wrote about this in my Wayfinding entry on tribalism. Motorcycle advocates split between those who ride choppers and those who ride sport bikes. Boaters split between those who like power boats vs. those on sailboats (and split further between sport fishers and cruisers, monohulls and catamarans). The more we have in common, the more tension we feel. The various sects of Islam, Protestants vs. Catholics, college football fans vs. pro football fans, boxing fans vs. MMA fans, attest to this. Even Muslims and Christians, which share much of the same history and legends, feel greater antipathy due to their similarities than either feels toward Hindus or the Hopi. The similarities make it more difficult for us to get along, not easier. Eusocial bifurcation explains this. It would predict this. Popular theories that rely on xenophobia predict the exact opposite of what we actually see. We may fear the “other,” but we loathe the similar.
If there’s anything to take from this, it’s that our annoyances, irks, and hatreds are signs of similarity rather than differences. Those we disagree with and wish to get away from are those we have the most shared history with. Just because evolutionary forces are attempting to drive us apart doesn’t mean we have to allow it. We can choose to overcome the repulsive effect and form attractive forces instead.
Evolution thought of this long before any poet did. When the environment threatens multiple colonies, or the colonies contract to the point of near-death, cooperation often ensues. We see this among humans. Environmental disasters and outside attacks bring embittered foes together. We drop our inner walls and link our outer ones. For a brief moment, the many cells become one again.
Perhaps this is a muscle we can flex, so that it becomes deliberate rather than autonomic. Maybe we can choose to come together more, despite the burgeoning size of our colony attempting to drive us apart. Or maybe the only way to true happiness is to give in to the desire and break into smaller and smaller groups so temperatures drop back down to normal.
If we settle planets around other stars, it will not stop this evolutionary process, not if my hypothesis is correct. Not long after landing, once the group reaches Dunbar’s number, it will find an excuse to divide. A splinter group – despite the wishes of the conservatives who say the landing zone is the only place fit for a village – will break off and progress elsewhere, ever curious, ever prodding, forging into a harsh environment for the thrill of it, or due to the desire for more freedom, perhaps the freedom to worship something as slight as which end of an egg to crack first.
Were the Pilgrims not astronauts? Were not the Tongans?
The other option is to reduce our knowledge and social contact with surrounding groups. Perhaps it isn’t global trade that is driving temperatures up; perhaps it’s global awareness. Imagine states and counties and cities with little knowledge of the outside world. Contained intranets. No global social media. No national news broadcasts. Within these enclaves, we zoom our awareness right down to the several hundred people closest to us, almost to Dunbar’s number. Create disparate tribes, but allow the edges of these tribes to exchange goods and ideas. Keep the distribution and trade networks, but with more ignorance of what lies beyond.
This goes against all liberal ideals, so it takes some imagination. There have been tribes who supposedly had limited trade with almost no contact with their trading partners. Food left on a flat rock was replaced with spear points. Imagine a science fiction world where a small community outside Detroit picks up resources and turns out electric cars, never seeing who is dropping off or picking up, and the other side not seeing anything either. Wealth is generated without knowledge of the trading partners. Perfect silos are formed.
Is this dystopia or utopia? I don’t have a clue. It would be utopia for conservatives, who want to retain existing structures and wall off the outside world. It would be dystopia for those who yearn to climb over walls rather than build them. In which structure are both sides happy? According to eusocial bifurcation, such a question is folly. Both sides are not meant to be happy. Both sides are meant to be miserable. Just like the pain of a cell pinching together and tearing in half; just like the agony of childbirth.
Knowing why we are miserable is the first step toward gaining a semblance of free will. Confusion about our misery compounds that misery. And our attempts to remedy our unhappiness just leads to frustration, as nothing gets better. We become like the doctors who bled George Washington to death, wondering why their ministrations weren’t making him better. They thought more bleeding would do the trick!
An example I use in my Wayfinding series is hormones. Menstruation is accompanied by hormonal surges that affect moods and desires. Some women feel a nesting urge and suddenly want to rearrange furniture, paint walls, or shop. Some become irritable. Men on hormone therapies, or who take testosterone and steroids for muscle-building, commonly fly into rages. That we are so susceptible to chemicals in our bloodstreams calls free will into question. What helps is understanding where these behavioral changes are coming from.
When a doctor prescribes hormone treatments, she cautions her patients to expect some behavioral changes. Later, when these changes take place, and moods feel bewildering and out of control, the patient is reassured and calmed by those earlier warnings. Without that warning, different reasons would be concocted for the change in mood. Now, we’re not irritable because of a pill we took, but because of our spouse or our boss. Disastrous consequences arise from these imprecise rationalizations of our behaviors.
Many a fight has been averted by a woman knowing her hormones are temporarily changing, and so not to assign too much credence on a fleeting mood. Or a spouse knowing their partner has had too many drinks. Awareness is the key to exerting free will. What if everyone in society was aware that in-grouping and out-grouping, tribalism and fear of those similar to us in most ways, was merely an attempt by evolution to make copies of our societies? Would understanding our discomforts cause us to behave more reasonably with one another? Would more power boaters exert the muscles required to wave at sailboaters (and vice versa)? Would motorcyclists wave to each other, and to those on Vespas, understanding that all enjoy the thrill of freedom and the joy of the open road?
Ignorance of these forces certainly doesn’t push us toward a resolution.
One last example highlights all of these points, and suggests that Eusocial Bifurcation may be stronger than a mere hypothesis: Primate groups in the wild remain small in number, so they need to employ genetic mixing by swapping members with adjoining tribes (just like on Palmerston). In some species, it is the male that moves out of the home tribe to the rival tribe, finding a mate and settling there. In other species, it is the female.
This is a very strong source of tension within the individual, as you might imagine. The bond of family must somehow be broken, and the desire to bond with strangers (which normally present a danger) must take its place. This is as bizarre a change as a caterpillar becoming a moth, or an organism changing its sex in adulthood. And yet it happens with regular frequency. The survival and health of the species depends on it.
Seeing this across all primates, it makes sense to look for the same adaption in humans. Our closest genetic primate relatives achieve genetic mixing by exchanging female offspring. In humans, it is so common as to become cliché that girls war with their mothers after puberty. It is usually a brief period of time, and thankfully not all mothers and daughters undergo the same severity of a break, but too many mothers have watched their little angels turn around one day and scream, “I hate you!”
Could it be that the same repulsive effect that drives primate offsprings to neighboring tribes also drives human offspring to date the wrong type of boy (or girl)? Another cliché that’s too often true: dating the very last partner your parents would want you to see. Someone from the “other” tribe. If there is truth to these ideas, it would not only explain a lot, it would offer the same solace our doctor provides when she prescribes a hormone pill. The same solace a woman finds from a menstruation calendar, or a man who knows he’s taking testosterone. Imagine a generation of mothers and daughters getting through puberty with warnings of what’s to come, explanations for why they might want to date someone who could be a terrible fit. Rebellion, the social psychologists today like to say. Genetic mixing, the anthropologist might explain. Which explanation is correct requires more research. Which answer defuses tensions and which one inflames them seems obvious to me.
So here’s the hope within this hypothesis: Knowing what eusocial bifurcation entails gives us the best chance of ignoring its poisonous effects. It gives us the best chance to overcome our primal instincts of division and replace them with the exercised muscles of compassion. Those we rail against are often those most like us. Perhaps we can learn to love ourselves more, see what we have in common with the “other,” and then reach out a hand to them as well.
For more of my thoughts along these lines, check out my Wayfinding series on Amazon.
6 replies to “Eusocial Bifurcation: Why Not Getting Along Makes Perfect Sense”
Great thoughts Hugh. Thanks. I wonder if this could also be thought of as survival of the fittest Meme organism. Need to re read the selfish Gene and think about what a meme multicellular creature equivalent would be… Maybe a civilization.
I found myself nodding in agreement throughout this article, really interesting and definitely plenty of food for thought.
Really interesting read. Back in my (much) younger days in college a friend of mine were talking one evening while shooting basketball. He was a Economics and History major, and somehow we got on the subject of politics. He stopped shooting and looking at me oddly and rather seriously told me that he really didn’t think the US would last another 50 years in it’s current state. That it would split apart based on political lines, and two new countries would form. I wonder in light of current events if he still holds those views… lost track of him years ago.
Future problems come when there is not enough food. India and China will war for fertile land. Probably Africa will endure great famine because of unchecked population growth. Pandemics are going to be horrible. But the smartphones are getting so much better! One part of the world will be completely unable to relate to another.
Hello Hugh. Good read! Nietzsche had some of your ponderings. Perhaps we have more in common than we can handle?! Hello to all! Brad
Food for thought. Linguists don’t seem to be able to explain why languages tend to diverge more than converge. You would think that social interaction would produce more convergence and over time languages would come to more and more resemble each other. In the global age, perhaps that is starting to happen with English, but more likely there will be many Englishes in the future becoming more and more unintelligible. Perhaps this is also part of a eusocial evolutionary signal dividing us ever since the Tower of Babel.