* Book: The Human Swarm. How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall. by Mark W. Moffett. Basic Books, 2019
"The epic story and ultimate big history of how human society evolved from intimate chimp communities into the sprawling civilizations of a world-dominating species
If a chimpanzee ventures into the territory of a different group, it will almost certainly be killed. But a New Yorker can fly to Los Angeles–or Borneo–with very little fear. Psychologists have done little to explain this: for years, they have held that our biology puts a hard upper limit–about 150 people–on the size of our social groups. But human societies are in fact vastly larger. How do we manage–by and large–to get along with each other?
In this paradigm-shattering book, biologist Mark W. Moffett draws on findings in psychology, sociology and anthropology to explain the social adaptations that bind societies. He explores how the tension between identity and anonymity defines how societies develop, function, and fail. Surpassing Guns, Germs, and Steel and Sapiens, The Human Swarm reveals how mankind created sprawling civilizations of unrivaled complexity–and what it will take to sustain them."
"I have divided the book into nine sections. Section I, entitled “Affiliation and Recognition,” takes in the wide range of vertebrate societies.
Its opening chapter considers the role of cooperation in societies, which I endeavor to show is less essential than the matter of identity; societies consist of a distinct set of members in a rich tapestry of relationships, not all of which are harmonious.
Chapter 2 covers other vertebrate species, especially the mammals, to illuminate how societies, despite whatever imperfections in the system of partnership that exists within them, benefit the members by providing for their needs and protecting them.
The third chapter probes into how the movements of animals within and between societies are important to the success of the various groups. One versatile pattern of activity, fission-fusion, creates a dynamic that helps explain the evolution of intelligence in certain species, humans most obviously among them, and the subject will come up repeatedly in this book.
Chapter 4 investigates how much the members of most mammal societies must know about each other for their societies to stay together. Here, I reveal a limiting factor in the societies of many species: all their members are obliged to know each other as individuals, whether they like each other or not, restricting the societies to, at most, a few dozen individuals. This sets up a puzzle about how the human species broke free of such a constraint.
The second section, “Anonymous Societies,” addresses a group of organisms that readily crash through this population limit: social insects. One of my objectives is to break down any aversions you, the reader, may have about likening insects to “higher species,” especially humans, by making clear the value of these comparisons.
Chapter 5 reports on how social complexity generally climbs with an increase in the size of insect societies with features like infrastructure and division of labor becoming more complex, a trend paralleled in humans. Chapter 6 looks at how most social insects, and a few vertebrates such as the sperm whale, demonstrate affiliation with a society by using something that marks their identity: chemistry (a scent) in ants, and a sound in whales. These simple techniques are not constrained by the limitations of memory, and thus permit the societies of certain species to reach immense sizes, in a few cases without an upper bound.
The chapter after that, “Anonymous Humans,” spells out how humans employ the same approach: our species is attuned to markers that reflect what each society finds acceptable, including behaviors so subtle they may only be noticed subliminally. By this means people can connect with strangers in what I call an anonymous society, thereby breaking the glass ceiling in the size societies can achieve.
The three chapters included in Section III, “Hunter-Gatherers Until Recent Times,” ask what the societies of our species were like before the advent of agriculture. I cover people who existed as hunter-gatherers up to recent times, ranging from those who lived nomadically in small, spread-out groups, called bands, and others who settled down for much or all of the year. Although the nomads have gotten most of the attention and are treated as the gold standard for our ancestral condition, a readily defensible conclusion is that both options have been within the reach of human beings likely going back to the origins of our species. We can also conclude that hunter-gatherers were not archaic people living an archaic mode of existence. Their people must be recognized as essentially no different from us: humans, as it were, “in the present tense.” Despite traces of ongoing, even rapid human evolution in the past 10,000 years, the human brain clearly hasn’t been restructured in any fundamental way since the appearance of the first Homo sapiens . This implies that notwithstanding any human adjustments to modern life, we can look to the lifestyles of hunter-gatherers in recorded history and consider the nature of early human societies as the bedrock that underlies our own.
What concerns us most are the extraordinary differences between the nomadic hunter-gatherers—equality-minded jacks-of-all-trades, who solved issues by discussion—and settled hunter-gatherers, whose societies often became open to leaders, division of labor, and disparities in wealth. The former social structure points to a psychological versatility we still possess, even if most people today behave more like settled hunter-gatherers. Two conclusions of Section III are that hunter-gatherers had distinct societies and that those societies were distinguished, just as societies are now, by markers of identity.
What that means is that at some point in the distant past, our ancestors must have taken the crucial but heretofore overlooked evolutionary step of making use of badges of membership that would, in time, permit our societies to grow large. For clues about how this happened, Section IV, with one chapter, transports us into the past and also scrutinizes the behavior of modern chimps and bonobos. I put forward the hypothesis that a simple shift in how the apes use one of their vocalizations, the pant-hoot, could make that sound essential for identifying each other as society members. Such a transformation, or something like it, could have easily occurred in our distant ancestors. Ever more markers would have been added to this initial “password,” many of them connected to our bodies, transforming them into flesh-and-blood bulletin boards for displaying human identity.
Having looked at how markers of identity originated, we are in a position to explore the psychology underlying those markers and society membership. The five chapters of Section V, “Functioning (or Not) in Societies,” review a fascinating range of recent findings about the human mind. Most of the research has focused on ethnicity and race, but should apply to societies as well. Among the topics are the following: how people see others as possessing an underlying essence that make societies (and ethnicities and races) so fundamental that they think of these groups as if they were separate biological species; how infants learn to recognize such groups; the role stereotypes play in streamlining our interactions with others, and how those stereotypes can become tied to prejudices; and how the prejudices are expressed automatically, and unavoidably, often leading us to perceive an outsider more as a member of his or her ethnicity or society than as a unique individual.
Our psychological assessments of others are many and varied, including our penchant for ranking outsiders as “below” our own people or in some cases as subhuman altogether. The fourth chapter of Section V elucidates how we apply these assessments of others to societies as a whole. People believe that the members of foreign groups (and their own people as well) can act as a united entity, with emotional responses and goals of its own. The final chapter steps back to draw from what we have discovered about the psychology of societies and the underlying biology to pose more sweeping questions about how family life fits in the picture—whether, for example, societies can be understood as a kind of extended family.
Section VI, entitled “Peace and Conflict,” takes on the issue of the relationships among societies. In its first chapter I document the evidence from nature, which shows that while animal societies need not be in conflict, peace between them is relatively rare, present in just a few species and supported by situations of minimal competition.
The second chapter then highlights hunter-gatherers to examine how not merely peace but active collaborations between societies became options for our species.
Section VII, “The Life and Death of Societies,” examines how societies come together and fall apart. Before writing about people, I survey the animal kingdom, concluding that all societies go through some sort of lifecycle. Although, as we shall see, other mechanisms for starting new societies exist, the pivotal event in most species is the division of an existing society. The evidence from chimpanzees and bonobos, bolstered by data on other primates, is that a division is preceded by the emergence, over months or years, of factions in the society, which increases discord and ultimately causes a split. The same formation of factions, usually over the passage of centuries, takes place with humans also, except for a key difference: the primary pressure that severed human factions was when the original uniting markers keeping a society together were no longer shared, leading people to see themselves as incompatible. This section lays plain how people’s perceptions of their own identities change over time in a way that could not be stopped in prehistory, mainly the result of poor communication across hunter-gatherer bands. For this reason, hunter-gatherer societies split apart when they were tiny by today’s standards.
The expansion of societies into states (nations) was made possible by the social changes I lay out in section VIII, “Tribes to Nations.” Some hunter-gatherer settlements and tribal villages with simple agriculture took the first tentative steps in this direction as leaders extended their power to take control of neighboring societies. I begin by describing how tribes were organized into multiple villages, each of which acted independently much of the time. What leaders these loosely connected villages had were not very proficient at sustaining social unity and curtailing social breakdowns, in part because they lacked the means of keeping their people on the same page with regards to identifying with the society—things such as roadways and ships that connected people with what their compatriots were doing elsewhere. Growth also required societies to expand their dominion over the territories of their neighbors. This didn’t occur peacefully: across the animal kingdom I find little evidence of societies freely merging. Human societies came to conquer each other, thereby bringing outsiders into their fold. Occasional transfers of membership take place in other species too, but in humans such exchange was taken to a new level with the advent of slavery, and finally, the subjugation of entire groups." (https://www.basicbooks.com/titles/mark-w-moffett/the-human-swarm/9781541617292/#module-whats-inside)
From the introduction, Mark Moffett:
"For as long as human societies have existed, people have found themselves changed, the members of those societies transformed in their mind’s eye into exalted Human Beings. Yet as powerful as belonging to a society can be in raising the citizens’ collective self-image, it’s not their fellow members that they see most differently—the foreign undergo the more radical, at times dreadful, transformation. In each person’s mind, entire groups of outsiders can turn into something less than human, a kind of vermin, even.
That foreigners might be considered contemptible enough to crush underfoot, like insects, is the stuff of history. Think back to the year 1854, Washington Territory. Seattle, chief of the Suquamish Tribe and namesake of the newly founded city, had just heard Isaac Stevens, the territory’s recently appointed governor, speak before the tribal elders. Stevens had explained that the Suquamish were to be relocated to a reservation. Standing to respond, Seattle towered over the slight governor. Speaking in his native Duwamish, he bemoaned the abyss between their societies and recognized that the days of the Suquamish were numbered. Yet he was stoical about the news: “Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless.”1
As a field biologist I make a living thinking about the order of nature. I’ve spent years contemplating the concept we call “society” while exploring human tribes and nations. I find myself endlessly captivated by the phenomenon of foreignness: the way it turns what objectively are minor differences into gulfs between people that have ramifications reaching into every corner of life, from ecology to politics. The goal of The Human Swarm is to take in as much of this broad sweep as possible by investigating the nature of the societies of Homo sapiens as well as those of other animals. A principle thesis of the book is that, uncomfortable as it may sound, human societies and the societies of insects are more similar than we might like to believe.
For humans, any little thing can signal foreignness, as I have experienced many times. Mortified souls looked on in India when I picked up my food with the incorrect hand. In Iran I tried to nod yes when to the locals a nod meant no. Sitting on moss in the New Guinea highlands, I watched The Muppet Show with an entire village on an ancient television run off a car battery. Knowing I came from America, and that The Muppet Show was American, every man and woman looked at me quizzically when a pig, a species they revere, waltzed on the screen in a dress and high heels. I talked myself past machine guns during the Tamil ethnic uprising in Sri Lanka and sweated as wary Bolivian bureaucrats sorted out who this very strange person was and what I was doing—or should be allowed to do—in their country. At home I have seen my fellow Americans behave with equal discomfort, bewilderment, and, at times, anger toward outsiders. In a primordial reaction, both sides think how strange that person is despite their profound similarities as human beings with two arms, two legs, and a desire for love, home, and family.
In The Human Swarm I examine society membership as a particular component of our sense of self, which should be considered (as I do in the final chapters especially) in tandem with race and ethnicity—identifications that can exert the same primacy and emotional draw. The elevated significance of our societies—and ethnicities and races—compared with other aspects of our identity can seem preposterous. Nobel-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen, for one, struggles to make sense of why people collapse their identities into groups that override everything else. Using the deadly conflicts in Rwanda as a case in point, Sen rues the fact that “a Hutu laborer from [the capital city of] Kigali may be pressured to see himself only as a Hutu and incited to kill Tutsis, and yet he is not only a Hutu, but also a Kigalian, a Rwandan, an African, a laborer and a human being.”2 These and other sorts of breakdowns are one theme of the chapters ahead. When convictions about what a society stands for or who belongs come into conflict, suspicion mounts and bonding fails.
The word “tribalism” comes to mind, denoting people drawn together by anything from a love of car racing to the denial of global warming.3 The idea of tribe, used loosely in this way, is a common subject for bestseller lists. However, when we speak of the tribe of a New Guinea highlander, or of tribalism with respect to our own connections to a society, we have in mind how a lifelong sense of belonging elicits love and loyalty—yet also, expressed in relation to outsiders, how it can promote hatred, devastation, and despair.
Before we get to these subjects we will attend to the most basic of questions, namely: what is a society? As we shall see, there’s a major difference between being social—connecting positively with others—and the situation, far less common in nature, wherein a species supports the separate groups we call societies that endure over generations. Being part of a society is not open to choice; the individuals who count among its members are normally clear to all. Outsiders, with their foreignness unmistakable from their appearance and accents, gestures, and attitudes about everything from pigs to whether tipping is seen as an insult, are admitted with difficulty. And then, in many cases, they are fully embraced only after the passage of time—decades or centuries, even.
Aside from our families, our societies are the affiliations we most often pledge allegiance to, fight for, and die for.4 But in day-to-day life the primacy of societies is seldom obvious, forming only a portion of our sense of self and our recognition of how others are different. As part of our daily experience, we join up with political parties, book clubs, poker groups, teen cliques. Those of us on the same tour bus may even bond together, thinking more highly of our travel companions than those on other buses for a time, and as a result perhaps working fruitfully as a group through the problems of the day.5 A predisposition to join groups shapes us as individuals and has been a subject of extensive research. Meanwhile our society hums along, as easily overlooked as our heartbeat and breath. It comes to the fore, of course, in times of group hardship or pride. A war, terrorist attack, or the death of a leader can shape a generation. Yet even in uneventful times our society sets the tone of our days, influences our beliefs, and informs our experiences.
Pondering the sometimes insurmountable differences between societies—be they the swarming populations of continent-wide nations like the United States or local tribes in New Guinea—raises questions of utmost importance. Are societies, and the labeling of others as foreign, part of the “order of nature” and therefore unavoidable? Bound by a sense of superiority and vulnerable to the enmity of other groups, is each society doomed to flounder and fall as Seattle supposed, as a consequence of either skirmishes with other societies or a sense of alienation that percolates up among the members of the society itself?
The Human Swarm is my attempt to answer these questions. The argument moves from natural history to prehistory and the fickle course of civilizations—from the mud walls of Sumer to the electronic vastness of Facebook. Behavioral scientists tease apart human interactions in narrow contextual frames, for example by using games of strategy to illuminate how we treat each other. But I endeavor to take a broader approach. Understanding the origin, maintenance, and dissolution of societies—how necessary they are, how they come about, and why they matter—will take us through recent findings in biology, anthropology, and psychology, with some philosophy thrown in for good measure.
History plays into the narrative too, albeit more for the patterns it reveals than for its specifics. Each society has its own saga, yet I propose that there can be common underlying forces that both keep societies together and cause them to crash and burn. The fact is, whether through conquest, transmutation, assimilation, division, or death, all societies—animal or human, low-key hunter-gatherer or industrial powerhouse—reach an end. This impermanence is easily overlooked given their longevity is measured in human lifespans. Obsolescence is assured not by hostile neighbors or environmental ruin (though such factors have played a memorable role in the decline of some societies), nor by the fleeting lives of the people themselves, but rather by the transience of the identities the members present to each other and the world. Differences between people carry great weight, with changes slowly turning what was once the familiar into the foreign.
The human connection with societies has deep origins that extend into our animal past. However, the idea of describing societies in terms of membership, with its implications of ingroup and outgroup, which I adopt from psychology, is unconventional in biology. My colleagues routinely have an aversion, rarely mentioned explicitly, to talking about societies. As an example, even though the English vernacular offers words for the societies of many species (take, for instance, “troop” for monkeys and gorillas; “pack” for wolves and African wild, or painted, dogs; “clan” for spotted hyenas and meerkats; or “band” for horses), researchers often shun those terms and simply assign the term “group,” with a consequent loss in clarity and understanding. Imagine sitting through a lecture, as I once did, in which an ecologist spoke about a group of monkeys that “separated into two groups” and later “one of the groups clashed with yet another group.” It took feverish concentration to decipher those sentences: what he meant was that the members of a single monkey troop had headed in two directions, with half that troop coming upon and vigorously defending themselves against another troop. While a troop is undeniably a group, it is a group of a very special sort, being set off from all other monkeys by a closed and stable membership that makes it not just worth fighting over, but worthy of being labeled by a term of its own.
Once a group—a pack, clan, troop, pride, and so on—forges this sort of singular identity that extends beyond the workaday ties of parents rearing offspring, being part of that society can offer a lot. What characteristics do we share with those animals? How do we differ—and more importantly, does it matter?
While animal models are helpful in illuminating the value of societies, they are insufficient to explain how humans got to where we are today. As natural as our great nations seem to most of the world’s population, they are not necessary. Before the flowering of civilizations (by which I mean societies with cities and monumental architecture), we humans ranged across the habitable surface of Earth in societies as well, though far smaller ones: in tribes reliant on simple gardens and domesticated animals, or as hunter-gatherers taking every meal from the wild. Those societies were the nations of the day. The forebears of every living person were once affiliated with them, going back eons to a time when humans were all hunter-gatherers. Indeed, many of the peoples of New Guinea, Borneo, South American rainforests, sub-Saharan Africa, and other parts of the world retain their primary connections to the few hundred or thousand individuals in a tribe that carries on for the most part independently of their national government.
To characterize the earliest societies we can draw on evidence from hunter-gatherers of recent centuries and the archaeological record. The vast countries that now cause hearts to swell with pride would have been unfathomable to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. We will explore what made this transformation possible, leading to societies that continue to discriminate against outsiders even though they have become so numerous that most members are unknown to each other. The casual anonymity that characterizes contemporary human societies may seem unremarkable, but it is a big deal. The seemingly trivial act of entering a café full of strangers without a care in the world is one of our species’ most underappreciated accomplishments, and it separates humankind from most other vertebrates with societies. The fact that the animals of those species must be able to recognize each individual in their society is a constraint most scientists have overlooked, but it explains why no lions or prairie dogs will ever erect cross-continental kingdoms. Being comfortable around unfamiliar members of our society gave humans advantages from the get-go and made nations possible.
The united multitudes that compose modern human societies are unique in the chronicle of life for species larger than a fingernail. However, my training has been with creatures smaller than that: the social insects, exemplified (from a personal bias) by the ants. The idea behind this book entered my head when I encountered a battlefield kilometers long in a town near San Diego, where two supercolonies of the Argentine ant, each billions strong, defended their turfs. These Lilliputians initially led me, back in 2007, to the question of how a vast number of individuals, ant or human, can truly be a society. This book will address how, much like humans, ants respond to each other in such a way that their societies can be anonymous: we—and they—have no need to be familiar with one another as individuals to keep our societies distinct. This ability opened up the possibility for humans to transcend the size limitations of most other mammal societies, as was first seen in hunter-gatherer societies that grew into the many hundreds and in the end paved the way to history’s grand republics.
How are anonymous societies realized? Our ant-like approach to identifying each other depends on shared characteristics that mark individuals as fellow members. But these markers—which in ants are simple chemicals and in humans can range from clothing to gestures and language—are insufficient to completely explain what holds civilizations together. The conditions favorable to expanding human societies, compared to those of small-brained ants, have been stringent and fragile. People draw from other epoch-tested skills in their mental toolset to make life tolerable in response to growing numbers of fellow members. The enhancement of differences between individuals by way of jobs and other distinctions (our groupiness) is part of the package. Perhaps more surprisingly, the emergence of inequalities, which I shall discuss especially as manifested in the rise of leaders, is likewise important to building a society’s population. We take such phenomena for granted, but they varied remarkably among hunter-gatherers, some of whom lived in roving societies of equals.
The coexistence of various races and ethnicities within a society has largely come about since agriculture, an extension of the willingness, previously mentioned, to accept distinctions between individuals, including the authority of others. Such a union of formerly independent groups was unheard of among hunter-gatherer bands, and indeed is found in no other species. Nations would not have taken hold without people repurposing their cognitive survival tools to take in, and adjust to, different ethnic groups. This allowance for diversity comes with stressors that can ultimately strengthen a society, but may also tear it apart. So while the success of the melting pot is good news, only so much melting goes on, with the issue of we-ness at the root of riots, ethnic cleansings, and holocausts.
Throughout, my aim is to intrigue you with mysteries, some of consequence, others odd but enlightening. For a preview, elephants of the African savannas have societies while Asian elephants lack them. We will tackle the curious issue of why, given that humans are so closely related to two other species of ape, the chimpanzee and the bonobo, ants should do all manner of “human” things like build roads, create traffic rules, have public hygiene workers, and work on assembly lines while those apes don’t. We will consider whether a primal-sounding scream called the pant-hoot could have been our remote ancestors’ first small step toward patriotic flag waving, and in a sense the foundation of our continent-wide kingdoms. How can I, a foreigner, manage to look past human differences and carry on in other societies when most animals, ants decidedly among them, are unable to do so? Or, a question for the history buff: might the outcome of the US Civil War have been influenced by the fact that most Southerners of the time still thought of themselves as American?
George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it.”6 So what does it mean if an inherent component of the human condition is to hold tight to a society, idolizing it while so often slighting, distrusting, demeaning, or even hating foreigners? That fact is a wonder of our species, and one of my reasons for writing this book. While we have gone from small societies to vast ones, we have retained an uncanny awareness of who fits in and who doesn’t. Yes, we build friendships with foreigners, yet they remain foreign. For good or bad, the distinctions remain—along with equally pronounced and often disruptive distinctions mounting within the societies themselves, for reasons I hope to make clear. How we approach the similarities and differences determines the nature and future of societies.
Our inquiries will lead us down not one long road but along many interconnected paths. From time to time we will circle back to look at subjects like biology and psychology from new angles. Our course won’t always be chronological as we draw not just from human history but from our own evolution in order to come to grips with what we do and how we think. Given what can seem like a journey that meanders through multiple and varied disembarkation points." (https://www.basicbooks.com/titles/mark-w-moffett/the-human-swarm/9781541617292/#module-whats-inside)