selecting groups

Coalitions of simpler units forming different organizational layers is a phenomenon that has occurred at multiple levels again and again in the history of both life, as well as among other forms of matter. Organisms themselves are commonly comprised of multiple communities of flora, ancient cooperative and sometimes competitive cell communities, systems upon systems reflecting ancient brokered deals. Margulis's controversial theory that mitochondria themselves were once independent organisms before joining forces with other structures to become the first cell-like organisms is now orthodoxy. They still have their own DNA that's passed down through eggs in many creatures, a matryoshka doll hidden in every cell in our body.

Such geometries are so common that we see a fractal funhouse everywhere we look. One of the ways to account for the common feeling among humans of being so unique on our planet is that we are looking out from a visible precipice of organization as a species; a new dimension has evolved. Our traits of representation, imitation, coupled with our ability to model and manipulate with fine motor movements all form a constellation that has become a different level of complexity.

We should not be overly surprised then to see organisms themselves also form coalitions of competing organizations, coordinated structures that end up throwing their lot together, at least for a time. It's a calculated risk -- or an unconscious one, since once you become aware of it, you hear ancient echoes of humans forming iron-clad group identifications all the time. Religion is an obvious example, as a locus where humans form the closest of group ties. The presentation of martyrs is encouragement for altruism, propaganda of generalized and reflexive self-sacrifice. The lesson of Jesus snowballs just as it seemed to add layers with each gospel from Mark through John, a public service announcement that sacrifice for the group is honorable, and the sacrifice of Son to Father is the noblest of all: a good story to refer to for fathers sending sons to die during wartime.

The requirement of faith itself is most often a transparent strategy to form efficiently synchronized groupings. The prototype alpha male, the watcher, the listener, always everywhere, the sky computer that tracks all our missteps and tallies them for what they were worth to the group. This is an obvious rallying orchestration. And it's very evident it has worked very well, and many people have benefited.

Our only predators are invisible creatures and other humans (though as a reminder, thousands of people are eaten by other animals every year.) It's likely that groups of other humans (and for a time, perhaps our Neandertal cousins) represented the greatest threat we could face. Sports at the highest imaginable stakes, replete with instances of cannibalism and rape and infanticide and slavery. Nature doesn't care about what's right. Nature doesn't care about anything.

But nature does make beings that care about things, most obviously because if you care, you're liable to make the efforts that help you stick around more and reproduce. Morality is a public modulator of behavioral expectations, but people actually do what they can get away with a fair amount of the time. But what they can get away with is exactly what keeps changing, as arms races ramp up in every direction, layers upon layers of signals, like carrier waves riding in noise. But let's not get too cynical here. People create marvelous blossoms of cooperation daily, of course.

As anyone familiar with evolutionary psychology knows, a common basis for hypotheses we derive from our knowledge of how adaptation works is that there's a lagtime between the maneuverability of adaptation as constrained by development and what variation is available and the shifting sands of environment. This is obviously a big deal with humans, where the difference between the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs is... Epic. That means we're adapted in some ways to conditions that are no longer present. Sound familiar? And that means that questioning whether what we do is really in our best interests is a necessary process to create genuinely adaptive behavior in the modern world. And we sometimes will decide that it's the modern world that's not working for us and requires change.

Keith Stanovich's program for creating meaning in life in The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning the Age of Darwin is to examine your motivations and behavior as potential vehicles for genetic and memetic replication, and to assess rationally whether you want to continue doing them; to identify with your own organismic interests, your individual interests. Proper selfishness arises from a wise recognition of interdependency and how we are all intertwined. Long-term selfishness is kind, most of the time, in most situations and shouldn't be ruled out on a pretense of purity.

We may still want to identify with groups, and we may even rationally decide that religion or other forms of tribalist identifications are still useful to us, with modifications, of course. We may still want them; the key is to decide their format and structure consciously. Stanovich recommends that we never install a meme whose system requirements include non-scrunity -- a sensible rule. So much of our brains are non-conscious, it only makes sense to form social structures that require checks and balances and open dialogue and information, for better discovery of poorly selected choices heavily influenced by ancient adaptations; this includes personal adaptations from earlier in each of our lives that may not provide protection or wise counsel in the present.

So, there is a momentum that must be struggled against. And there's a rising throng of people waking up from ill-fitted adaptations from the past and making their own decisions using logic -- a mirror to the behavior of matter -- and friends to figure out what's best.

So let's keep talking!

No comments: