Social thinkers long yearned for the kind of predictive power offered by universal laws of Galileo, Newton and Einstein -- reductionist rules that changed our relationship with the material world, from helplessness to manipulative skill.
If only similar patterns and laws were found for human nature! Might we construct an ideal society suited to decent living by all?
Or else... might technologized sociology anchor in the tyranny that almost all our ancestors knew? Tyrannies that were amateurish, by comparison to the coming All-State.
Deep thinkers about human nature start with assumptions. Freud focused on sexual trauma and repression, Marx on the notion that humans combine rational self-interest with inter-class predation. Machiavelli offered scenarios about power relationships. Ayn Rand postulates that the sole legitimate human stance is solipsism. All are a priori suppositions based on limited and personally biased observations rather than any verified fundamental. Each writer "proved" his point with copious anecdotes. But, as Ronald Reagan showed, anecdotes prove nothing about generalities, only about possibilities.
In fact, while the models of Freud, Marx, and Machiavelli (also Madison, Keynes, Hayek, Gandhi etc.) attracted followers, I think a stronger case can be made for tribalism as a driver of history.
Shouldn't any theory of our nature apply across the long span when that nature formed? Indeed, Freud, Marx and Rand shared cluelessness about Darwinian evolution, animal behavior, pre-agricultural anthropology, or ethology.
Heckfire, shouldn't we be seeking patterns that held across all continents and almost all pre-metal tribes? That are not artifacts of later cultural imposition by contrived societies? The long epoch, when humans were few, but when a vast majority of human generations suffered darwinnowing pressures, thriving or dying according to their fitness to meet challenges in a harsh world, unprotected by the houses and markets and coddling states of the last 5,000 years?
(And yes, I am qualified to speak here, as a peer-published author in the fields of evolution theory and sociobiology. And in psychology. Well, perhaps not a pro in these fields, but up one small notch. Though let me hurry to add that I will not be talking here about "sociobiology" in the sense that it has long been discussed -- e.g. sexual politics and such.)
THE RELEVANCE OF EVOLUTION
So, what might tribalism tell us about human nature, that was missed by Marx and Freud and Rand etc., in their post-literacy myopia? What traits seem to be shared both by tribal and “civilized” societies?
Over and over, we see how devotion to a group, clan, or nation overwhelms individual self-interest. Indeed, for most of the last million years, any man or woman who lost the faith and confidence of his or her tribe was in great danger. Often effectively dead.
Ask any kid between the ages of ten and nineteen -- how urgently you needed approval of a small group of friends, coincidentally about the same size as a prototypical Cro-Magnon tribal band. And if that group turned on you, remember the pain?
Sure, parents tell their kids -- "Don't worry, you'll make new friends." At one level, in the rational prefrontal lobes, we know this to be true. And yet, the gut still wrenches, as if life were on the line... which it would have been, back in olden days, if the tribe ejected you from its circle of comradeship.
Oh, but humans can be very flexible defining what is "my tribe." More often than not, the major determining factor is fear.
AND NOW THE KEY POINT: OUR HORIZONS OF WORRY AND HOPE
When the ambient fear level is high, as in civil war-riven Lebanon, loyalties are kept close to home. Me against my brother. My brother and me against our cousins. We and our cousins against the world. Alliances merge and are broken quickly, along a sliding scale that appears to be remarkably consistent.
The general trend seems to be this: the lower the ambient fear level declines, the more broadly a human being appears willing to define those tribal boundaries, and the more generous he or she is willing to be toward the stranger.
Anthropologically speaking, it is "murder" to kill that which is fellow tribesman or citizen (someone identified as inside the tribal horizon). In contrast, it is not murder to kill that which is inherently outside the tribal horizon. (For a cinematic allegory, recall the film "Little Big Man" in which the Cheyenne call themselves the "human beings". And that film was pro-Native American!)
My contention is simple, that there exists an inverse correlation between ambient fear levels and the distance -- in terms of space, time and kinship -- of the "horizons” maintained by average members of a given culture.
These horizons come in several varieties.
1) There is a "Worry Horizon"... what threats concern you and your neighbors. Here we see that worry is quite a different thing than Fear! The average modern American probably worries as much or more than tribal peoples did! Worry will never go away since it seems embedded into our nature. If immediate needs and threats are dissipated, that only shifts the locus of worry somewhere else, depending to some extent on individual personality.
But fear is another matter. Fear controls what it is that we are worrying about. And how far we'll look for it.
2) There is also a “Time Horizon” having to do with how far into the future you devote your attention – either in dealing with threats or seeking opportunities. If your children are starving, you are more concerned with the next meal than with the next harvest.
If the harvest looks okay, you turn your thoughts to longer range matters. Storage, trade, capital improvements… or whether slow loss of topsoil may affect your heirs 200 years from now. The specific topic of your fretfulness may be so extended and abstract (e.g. climate change) that your starving ancestors would find it ludicrous...
...but they would well-understand the buckled brow and dour frowns of concern on your face. The better, more productive and secure civilization those ancestors bequeathed to you did not end all worrying. It simply empowers you to look farther, to more distant, dangerous horizons.
3) Another might be called the "Otherness Horizon” - where one looks not for danger but for opportunities, adventures, new allies, new mating partners. This is also, in anthropological circles, discussed under "exogamy". Clearly, this is one of the reasons early science fiction tales seemed so obsessed with sexy aliens! While the Threat Horizon has been filled with nasty ones. (See my book Otherness.)
This could also be called the “Horizon of Inclusion” since it is partly about deciding how many people you want to deal with as worthy fellow citizens and negotiating partners, and where you draw the line, calling others foes.
What seems clear, examining historical records and a broad range of cultures, is that all of these horizons expand and contract in the manner described above. The amount of worry may remain relatively inelastic -- a trait of personality, rather than conditions. But the topic of worry changes dramatically and flexibly. Yes, the horizon distance can be affected partly by cultural memes and personality. But overall, these horizons seem to depend most upon the ambient level of fear.
OUR FAVORED (OR WEIRD) MODERN PERSPECTIVE
By these lights, most contemporary Americans live in an unprecedented society, where the vast majority of families have not known starvation or even significant want for so many generations that those kinds of worry are almost abstractions.
This, in turn, has allowed traditional tribal bounds to relax and spread so far that "tolerance" and "diversity" and "otherness" are words of totemic power in this culture! Indeed, it is interesting to view the expanding circle of citizenship and inclusion as first the American colonies and then the Republic began experiencing unprecedented levels of prosperity and fear-reduction. The battles over inclusion that were fought in each generation (first against class division, then slavery, sexism, religious intolerance, racism…) tend to seem obvious to their children, who grow up within the newly-widened horizon set… then wrestle with the next stage. Continuing the process of widening the circle.
While horrific injustices remain, and substantial fractions of the population appear unwilling to let go of their prejudices, there is at least as large a portion of modern citizenry which seems eager to extend the trend of expanding inclusion and empowerment farther still.
I have some accompanying charts, showing a set of nested CYLINDERS, each holding the same volume of worry and optimistic hope. But some are tall and slim, representing societies in which fear levels are very high… and the resulting radius of horizons (threat, time, opportunity and inclusion) are therefore very short range.
Other cylinders are low and fat, representing cultures wherein fear has been so low, for so long that the horizons of worry stretch very far from the individual worrier, who now obsesses over matters that lie years, or thousands of miles away, and matters of inclusion that involve people (even animals and ecosystems) that his or her ancestors would have simply considered prey.
Ponder this allegory! You are in a crowd of people -- perhaps in a lecture hall or at a party -- and someone rushes in shouting that "there are whales stranded on the beach!" (Assume you live near a beach.)
What then is your reaction? While some might shrug at the news, I figure you and many of your friends would drop everything and hurry toward that beach, as fast as you can...
... which is exactly the same thing your ancestors would have done, upon hearing the same news.
Only consider. Your ancestors would be rushing to the beach with different intent. You are propelled by eagerness to help-the-included-other.
Your forebears' race to the shore would be propelled by one word, foremost in their minds.
== Fluctuating boundaries ==
Ponder that allegory of the beached whales. You know it to be true. So? Were your ancestors cruelly benighted folk? Implying that you are a tremendously more elevated being than they were?
Hm. Elevated, perhaps you are. But only because those ancestors strove to create conditions under which you cannot imagine needing whale meat to feed your starving kids. Instead -- more relaxed -- you assign whales within the circle of inclusion. To your eyes, they are fellow citizens meriting generosity, protection and respect.
Today we discuss threats and opportunities in terms of a century or more, with asteroids and Mars colonies and melting icecaps open for serious discussion. Inclusion arguments now extend to legal rights for animals. Indeed, the process of inclusion expansion has been reinforced! Not only with supportive propaganda (tolerance-diversity memes in every children's book and Hollywood flick), but also via the hard-won lesson of practical economics -- that it is simply stupid to waste talent. A waste that is the principal cost of prejudice.
Yes, fashionable horizon/inclusion issues can fluctuate at the boundaries. Note how nationalist patriotism was considered an archaic and rather quaint viewpoint in the 1990s, till an uptick in fear after 9/11 caused a partial contraction of horizons for many. Suddenly, flags were all the rage. (We'll get into how this process affects modern politics.)
And yet, it is a sign of this culture’s deeper confidence that our horizons of inclusion have not appreciably contracted. Today -- especially in certain western nations -- we give a kind of culturally-based honorary citizenship to dolphins and consider it murder to kill as alien a creature as a whale.
Science fiction thrives in such a culture, since it brashly extends horizons in both time and space as far as human imagination can take us.
The threat horizon is occupied by vicious invader-aliens and the exogamy horizon by beautiful ones... and the inclusion horizon finger-wags that non-murderous aliens merit nurturing protection from our own, freely-elected government! Heck, did you see District 9? They don't even have to be attractive anymore, to merit protective inclusion.
Of course the macro topic here could be oversimplified as “altruism,” since that, too, is about extending beneficence to the other. Altruism is receiving a fair amount of attention, of-late; see three new books on the topic reviewed here by Scientific American. And the cogent volume Pathological Altruism, edited by Barbara Oakley et al., containing two papers by yours truly. Though our topic here -- horizon expansion -- is about much more, since altruism is just one of many zones across which we stare at the other.
It is important to note, of course, that our cylinder-charts only depict a rough average. Within any culture there will be many individuals whose fear levels - or personal ways of responding to fear - are quite different from the surrounding norm. Indeed, these variations are what we tend to notice from day to day. Certainly Timothy McVeigh had very different concepts of "inclusion horizons" than many of the fellow citizens he slew.
Indeed, might one diagnose some recent phenomena in these terms? Why is it that citizens of New York and Washington DC – direct victims of 9/11 terrorism – remain utterly “blue” in their fealty to expanded horizons – in time, threat and inclusion – while “red state” attitudes seem to draw closer in: e.g. higher enmity toward non-natives and immigrants, less concern about environmental degradation, more hostile ruminations over “war” on terror, less interest in science and more in a pending, biblically-ordained end of the world?
Is this model the best one, yet, at explaining such differences? Certainly it is far better than any insipid “left-right political axis” or words such as “conservatism” and “liberalism.”
Also, different cultures will react to prosperity and peace in markedly different ways. I believe it will take many generations of tranquility and progress before the deeply ingrained Russian proclivity toward paranoia and pessimistic gloom will be forced to give way to a cheerier mien. Likewise, so long as most children in the Middle East are raised with fairy tales that preach revenge as a high human value, horizon-widening will at best be a jerky process. Skim 1001 Arabian Nights and tally the few tales that don't involve revenge. Indeed, much the same can be said of older western myths, collected in Grimm's Fairy Tales. The counter-push by tolerance messages - e.g. Hiawatha and Sesame Street - is recent!
Indeed, cultural variation can be seen even within the U.S., as those with more "confederate" upbringing react with hackles toward diversity preachers. They deem those who push relentless horizon expansion to be sick persons... and vice-versa. Or else, look at the divide within the SF community, with fantasy writers and readers much more willing to dive into old-fashioned romanticism, in which whole classes of beings (orcs, zombies, clone-stormtroopers) deserve - by their very nature - to be annihilated. Are the relentlessly feudal settings, featuring states of bone-chilling fear, tools to resurrect that delicious us-versus-them feeling, letting fans enjoy intolerant slaughter guilt-free?
Peering in the opposite direction: what happens when fear goes to zero? Do we get infinite horizons? I suspect that there is more than a little religious writing on this subject. Indeed, might this be the purely detached compassion that is written about in Buddhism? Is it one of many traits we must achieve, before deserving to become members of an interstellar federation?
Or else apprentices in the Workshop of Creation?
CAN WE KEEP WIDENING HORIZONS?
No mistake, I approve of this trend toward ever-widening horizons. (Which may be the deep underpinning of science fiction, by the way. Watch this TED talk where I explore in-depth.)
Indeed, like millions of others, I am impatient for it to go much farther. It is ironic, though, how few seem to realize that the new era of Omni-Inclusion is based upon prosperity and lack of fear brought on by prosperity, and that our morality of universal tolerance would have been considered terminally sappy and dangerous by every other culture in human history.
This is – in my view – the deepest smug insanity of the "left."
Yes, the “right” obviously suffers from shorter horizons. That is their dire craziness. But the doctrinaire left is just as loopy. Because they take expanded horizons as a deeply fundamental ‘given’ of human morality. Like Rousseau, they simply assume, as something basic, a value system that is actually extremely recent and entirely contingent. One that is based upon unprecedented levels of wealth and satiation.
Indeed, were they to preach this doctrine of hyper-tolerance to any of the ancient “wise tribes” that they so revere, they would have been laughed out of camp!
Can this process be pathological at some level? Jason Cawley wrote: "There is such a thing, comical as it sounds, as a Gaia Liberation Front. They have decided that mankind is dangerous to life on Earth. They have given up on warnings preventing eco-catastrophe, have passed the stage of welcoming die-backs to hunter-gatherer existence, have realized that capitalistic assaults on nature are a programmed possibility of man, revealing therefore man as a form of cancer within life, and have decided this applies even to "indigenous peoples" because they might develop technology someday. Because of that whole chain, they have decided that mankind must be wiped out before life is. They only debate how to do it. The public relations position is voluntary mass suicide, but among themselves they are more direct and pin their hopes on an engineered virus, airborne and lethal to humans, which they propose to make before anyone else learns and uses enough biotech to screw up the planet." (See this point of view garishly illustrated in a very silly and occasionally outright offensive flick: "Kingsman.")
Summarizing: Today's political camps might be typified by how they feel about the process of ongoing horizon expansion.
"Leftists" give the process itself their utter and devoted loyalty. The next inclusion push is the be-all of obsession, and to hell with older loyalties.
People on the "right" react with hackles: "I like my old loyalties, so stop nagging me!"
Liberals, the sole group who think positive-sum, like the horizon expansion process... but liberals also like many of their older loyalties, and see no reason why they should have to choose.
Again, this has nothing to do with classic, Marxian "left-right". Rather, it posits that today's tussles are matters of personality! A suggestion borne out by the research of Jonathan Haidt.
FORGET ROUSSEAU. FORGET HOBBES.
And forget Marx, Freud and Rand, for that matter. If one takes history into account and cheerfully accepts the incremental progress that it portrays, then the Modernist Agenda of pragmatic improvement makes a great deal of sense. Face it. Rousseau was a sap and Hobbes was a suck-up grouch. All of this is about Locke. The sooner the “wide-horizons” people realize it, the more effective they will be at pursuing their agenda, of expanding inclusion ever farther!
In fact, this process of horizon-widening is not intrinsically a feature of the left… though it is intrinsic to liberalism in the older and truer meaning of the word. It is utterly compatible with the four accountability arenas, for example (science, markets, democracy, courts… and the candidate for becoming a fifth arena – the internet. (And a sixth -- Sports.)
For example, markets work best when competition is both encouraged and well-regulated… when it operates under rules of fair play that maximize creativity and minimize blood-on-the-floor. This can only happen when market participants must treat each other as competing teams, not deadly foes.
Indeed, one of the major outgrowths of our unprecedented experiment in universal citizenship has been a fundamental change in the shape of the modern social structure. Society as diamond, and not pyramid, is partly a product of technology (making a new class of slaves called "machines", to occupy the lowermost tier), but also a result of having trained several generations of children to think in terms of non-zero sum games. But more on that anon.
Hence, once again, we see that this is not a matter best handled on a 'left-right' basis. Both dogmatic extremes ignore history and are effectively quite mad! One side resists the widening of horizons while the other would force it with a patronizing, oversimplifying sledge hammer.
Rather, this is about the true “liberal” notion of ever-increasing inclusion within the tent of human decency - motivated in part by the pragmatic need to stop wasting talent through prejudice - while allowing a lot of give and negotiation and bickering and creative competition inside the tent!
There are many questions. For example - can the long process of expanding human horizons be studied in order to determine crucial narrow points and bottlenecks that inhibit horizon broadening, among both individuals and cultures?
If such bottlenecks can be found and diagnosed, might a judicious application of philanthropic funding help unblock the process, here and overseas, so that both tolerance and far-seeing investment practices take greater hold?
Some societies on Earth have had plenty to eat for a while, yet have not taken as readily to horizon expansion... especially the horizon of inclusion. Hence, to what degree does culture play a significant role? Might it be that humans only become satiated enough to extend those horizons, when they have been taught first to be at least somewhat satiable?
Is science fiction an artifact of horizon expansion? Certainly what you and I call the real stuff has to be. But recall that there were always tales of the fantastic, all the way back to tribal eras, and these helped reinforce horizon walls. Indeed, nothing could be more romantic and more savagely non-inclusive than most modern fantasy tales, in which the slaughter of every orc, or imperial clone trooper, is just fine, under the presumption that their type has no mothers to mourn them.
Do I deem my "horizons" model of human nature to be as valid as Marx and Freud and Rand declared theirs to be? Of course not. It is a model. Models are only memes and tools, not the things that they emulate! I can only say that those other social theorists made no effort to span the tribal era that made us, nor to explain the pervasiveness of feudalism.
But the tradeoff between FEAR and the distance toward which we peer... that seems to be eternal.
There is no end to questions. That's a good thing! A feature of our process of horizon examination, not a flaw.
And with that, I will now back away. Maybe put some of this into a story.
Though in fact, the core issues of "otherness" have been the central focus of my life.