Scaling from the Band
We often scale from a simple level to a more complex level without taking into account the set of tools, skills, and organization at the simple level may not exactly fit the new, more complex set of circumstances. It is in our ability to test, analyze and adapt that makes all of the difference. Sacred cows that don’t adapt don’t last over the long run. The Neanderthal made the same tools for 5,000 generations. Around 29,000 to 30,000 years ago the last Neanderthals departed for that great cave in the sky.
By all accounts, our first level of organization for our species was the band. Bands were pre-history groups of 10 to 50 members who lived, hunted, socialized, and mated together. Hunter gathers lived in bands. With agriculture around 12,000 years ago, permanent settlements allowed for the expansion of people living in close proximity. Bands expanded to form a tribe, but the new units still remained relatively small kin-related groups. When a group is small enough, most people have kinship connection and it possible that everyone knows more or less everyone else. There is a personal connection that is an overlay of the relationship. The degree of organization and structure required in a band is less than required for a tribe. Though both still rely on the glue of kinship to bond people. It is at the point where tribes combine together that kinship is no longer sufficient as the center point of action.
Among the first techniques to provide legitimacy to groups larger than a tribe was religion or proto-religious rituals and ceremonies. If people shared the same set of gods and foundation myths, and later a belief in one god, the shared beliefs became a platform for building larger political, social and economic entities. Religion was an effective means to scale from one tribe to multiple tribe organizations. Intolerance on the band level was one thing, but intolerance enforced over large geographical areas with correspondingly large populations has proved a bloody affair. Throw in the lit match of Reason and watch nightly the flame that ignites and burns.
Most of the early kings were worshipped as representative of the god looking over and protecting the tribes. Loyalty and allegiance could be slowly transferred from kin relationships to a father-like symbol acting in gods name. The Romans adopted Christianity to scale up a political unit expansive enough to encompass many different tribes. Islam also was widely adopted among the tribes of the Middle East. This was far removed from faith based on reason; it was faith unhinged from evidence, blurred by emotional, irrational needs to substitute for kinship arrangements.
The problem with religion is that it conflicts with the story told by modern science. Religion is closer to the template the Neanderthals used to make the same tools for 5,000 years. The inherent limitation of religion as a scaling device is that the main founding story is fixed in time. Most tribes have founding stories. Modern science undercuts these stories, turning them into fairy tales. The earth was created 4,000 years ago. God created Adam from clay, and Eve emerged from Adam’s rib. People rose from the dead. Water was turned into wine. Many people literally believe these things happened. Action inevitably follows belief as day follows night. Religion can be used to scale huge organizations of many tribes so long as science is an offshoot of religion. As soon as science divides into a separate field of study, religion is in Neanderthals type trouble.
Modern science (contrasted with its medieval cousin) is critical, analytical, doubtful, and uses these (anti-religious) tools to probe, test, question, reject, revise, amend and throw out opinions and conclusions based on superstition, inaccurate data, misconstrued test results. Science rests on facts that can be falsified. If it can’t be falsified, then it isn’t science, and slips back to the religious side of the belief that is beyond testing.
Part of the contemporary struggle or conflicts between tribes is a crash between religious systems based on different founding stories. People kill each other to promote or advance the story that elevates their tribe above others. Science creates a community of tribes of a qualitative different kind. Members of this tribe are like early modern human beings in a land of Neanderthals. They ask why the same tools have been used for all of many generations. The answer is surely is that Neanderthals no more questioned their tools than religious man questions his. Religion worked well to scale larger political organizations at a time when technology was relatively slow moving.
When the machinery of the modern world crossed a threshold about the time Darwin wrote the Origin of the Species, there has been a crisis as to what combination of symbols such as flags or kings and religion could continue as the substitute for the kinship of the band. All founding stories came under pressure. Our brains still are wired for tribal arrangements. The sleight of hand that converts those feelings into a larger sense of kin is fragile, made of the stuff of belief, and subject to the same fate as all systems that are incapable of evolving. They fossilize. Once that happens the instincts of our ancestors who left Africa 65,000 years ago appear everywhere, in the newspapers, online, on TV. And when we see ourselves, what is it that we see about our nature? We find our true nature is one we often turn away from. It is too brutal to stare at very long. At our core, we are predatory, aggressive, opportunistic, and violent. Our behavior in a band is one thing; outside the band, among strangers, it is another. They are a target for slavery, repression, and death squads. Scaling from the band to the tribe moves the stranger to another set of fields beyond the horizon. When bands raided other bands, or tribes other tribes, the damage was local. Stephen Pinker has written that in prehistory our homicide rate was not just high; it was huge, with around one-third of all males killed by acts of violence.
We’ve always been in need of political and social institutions to harass our violent nature. At the band level of no more than fifty people, they could have been basic, unwritten and consensual. Violence was local, unorganized, and dispersed. By the time of a tribe, more specific, concrete instructions would be required to form a society civil. Violence became regional, more organized and controlled. Scaling up to multiple tribes, the monopoly of force and violence was organized, sanctioned and monitored by the State. With this transfer of violence out of individual bands, the domestication of the species was assured. And the result is not unlike the transition from wolf to Golden retriever. At least this argument holds in effective States (though the UK football hooligans and Los Angeles street gangs suggest there is an irreducible core of the ancient violence based rituals which is difficult to control). In failed States where the violence falls back into locally organized tribes, the wolf-like nature is seen in the streets or Baghdad, Beirut, and Kabul.
We trust the State to be prudent in the use of violence in our name. But it doesn’t always work out that way. The people in these institutions have the same impulse as the rest of us and once they decide they are above the law, then we have the worse of all worlds. We have scale to a level of play where the playing field is no longer fair. We are asked to believe in our leaders. This is the new secular religion. It may be in our ancient minds. Our ancestors no doubt bestowed all kinds of magical powers to shamans, warriors, and leaders. Again it is a scaling problem: we scale the band shaman to the pope, the best warrior of the band to Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, and the leader to a president or prime minister. It as if our minds shaped by the demands of the band or tribe assumes this scaling is in our best interest.
Most of the time we are disappointed. The center doesn’t always hold. There is dissent and dissatisfaction and questioning. In order for the any system of governance to be effective (though highly repressive systems can and have worked) there needs to be a shared belief by the members about the community. No shared belief and legitimacy fails. The bonfires of history burn with the bodies of dissenters.
What we discover is that by 2006 there is a growing consensus that the old beliefs in religion, the founding myths and stories and related beliefs (faith healing, fortune telling, palm reading) no longer scale effectively to bring a kinship substitute system to unrelated tribes which happen to find themselves in the same geographical area. There is now dissent between tribe members. Over guns, drugs, abortion, gay rights and a person’s belief system places him or her on one or other side of these debates. How do we rescale the political system of nation states that depend on institutions with their legitimacy locked into a medieval landscape?
The experiment in recent years of tying religion and democracy as a new scaling system has failed. Democracy doesn’t scale well for many ancient tribal regions. A good example is Lebanon where the Shiites, leaving Sunni, Christian and Druse are unable to find a common religion or, an alternative, a strong leader who unifies through the force of personality, repression and aggressive actions against perceived enemies. Without some consensual symbol, icon, or religious belief, the component parts of a nation state reassemble into tribes whose identity draws from religion dogma. Religion is based on a set of fundamental beliefs that glues the tribe together. Democracy in such circumstances fails to override the competing claims that are faith based.
There is no science of democracy. Like Intelligent Design it is a backdoor way to find a new way to support huge tribal structures but without the magic, mysticism and promise of salvation. It promises iPods and shopping centers as a way to bond the tribes into a mass consumer audience. Unlike religion, any system that seeks to substitute for kinship bonds requires more than a conversation over Wal-Mart sale.
If we are in between explanations that satisfy the core emotional and intellectual requirements that we carry in our brains and DNA from the band, then it is no surprise to find conflict, chaos, and violence increasing. Authority is under assault. The old ways of using kinship connection fueled with religious zeal mean the concept band and tribe are reasserting themselves. The modern bands and tribes are far more lethal. Smaller, unorganized units (that was what a band was) can easily sponsor attacks against the larger communities, filled with dissent and doubt, questioning legitimacy, and this is their advantage. They are scaling back to the original unit from where we all came, and they are finding a new energy, commitment, and dedication.
Gatekeepers have come and gone over the long haul since we settled into the first agricultural based societies 12,000 years ago. They are now huddling together, watching as bands and tribes remerge with modern weapons, wondering how to find a common ground to convince them that we are all kin. If we are going to last 5,000 generations we need to work on inventing some new tools other than weapons for battle. Intolerance has taken our species as far as it can. Reason is the next step up the ladder. We have a long climb ahead.
Christopher G. Moore © 2006