By Mark W. Moffett, Basic Books, April 16, 2019, 0465055680
The Human Swarm is a long book, and I didn’t finish it. I just didn’t buy the thesis that we’re just like social insects.
I think this quote was did me in: “Surely, this must have given gatherings a significance in buttressing group practices and behavior, if just by circumstance.” The use of “Surely” bugged me, because it’s rhetorical, and the statement is heavy on conjecture.
If the book (story, really) were well written adn well-researched, I probably would have stuck with it.
[k2053] Individuals could compete, yet while modern towns and cities have rivalries, I’ve seen no evidence to suggest bands did (bands never, for
[k94] 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.
[k102] 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.
[k122] When convictions about what a society stands for or who belongs come into conflict, suspicion mounts and bonding fails.
[k142] 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?
[k180] The casual anonymity that characterizes contemporary human societies may seem unremarkable, but it is a big deal.
[k184] Being comfortable around unfamiliar members of our society gave humans advantages from the get-go and made nations possible.
[k186] 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.
[k189] 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.
[k214] 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.
[k253] 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.
[k324] My goal is to show that membership in a society is as essential for our well-being as finding a mate or loving a child.
[k329] Whatever your social views, I urge you to consider insights from fields beyond your usual interests to become aware of how your own, often subliminal, biases and those of people around you–writ large, across multitudes–might affect both the actions of your country and your daily conduct with others.
[k357] Our shared imaginings bind people with a mental force no less valid and real than the physical force that binds atoms to molecules, turning them both into concrete realities.
[k381] In considering cooperation, as contrasted to social identity, as an essential feature of societies and a basis for distinguishing one society from another, one place to start is with a hypothesis developed by anthropologists to explain the origin of intelligence.
[k409] The “cognitive constraints on group size” (Dunbar’s phrase) that puzzle some devotees of the social brain hypothesis do so because of the confusion of social networks (for which social ties vary in strength and depend on each person’s perspective–described, for example, by Dunbar’s number) and distinct groups (most notably the societies themselves). Both play a part in the lives of humans and other animals.
[k423] In general, however, societies will favor cooperation. How much selfishness or divisiveness it takes to rupture a society is likely much greater than intuition would suggest.
[k427] Likewise Venezuela remains intact despite repeated economic collapses and a murder rate in its capital city of Caracas that in some years exceeds that of a war zone.
[k434] The biggest problem with predicating life in a society on cooperation is it simply ignores much of what makes existence in a society a challenge.
[k503] Contemplate the two most basic social units: a mated pair, and a mother with offspring. Not all animals display even these sorts of social pairings. Salmon cast off eggs to be fertilized in the water column, and turtles abandon their clutches after hiding their eggs in the sand.
[k530] The important point is that my caterpillars–like schools of minnows, nesting robins, and flocking geese–cooperate but don’t have societies.
[k538] In short, those who equate societies with cooperation have it backward. A typical society encompasses all manner of relationship, positive and negative, amicable and embattled. Given that cooperation can flourish both within and between societies and where there are no societies at all, a society is better conceived not as an assembly of cooperators, but as a certain kind of group in which everyone has a clear sense of membership brought about by a lasting shared identity.
[k657] Bonds between male bottlenose dolphins, often childhood buddies of different moms, last a lifetime and serve the pair as they court females together and drive away adversarial males.
[k672] With its position worked out, a monkey of low standing can stop wasting time confronting much higher-ranking individuals and focus on improving its station among those at its own, perhaps miserable, level. Without reconciling in this way to their situation, members would wear themselves out. For people as well as other animals, societies would fall to pieces under the general, unrelenting struggle to get ahead.
[k708] In these fission-fusion species, society members temporarily cluster here and there in social groups that form, dissolve, and reform elsewhere.
[k714] The fission-fusion species include virtually all the brainy mammals that anthropologists studying the social brain hypothesis salivate over–most significantly, us, Homo sapiens.
[k854] In the mind of a savanna elephant or bottlenose dolphin, then, every Tom, Dick, and Jane in the society must be identified as Tom, Dick, or Jane.
[k864] A society, then, seldom includes everyone animals know. Rather, an animal sees its society as a particular set of individuals: an “us” versus “them” distinction.
[k867] Consider baboons: they recognize rank, family, and coalitions within their troop and use these categories to predict how others will behave.
[k911] However crowded their conditions, neither hamsters nor penguins have societies.
[k938] Anthropologists have designated our species as “released from proximity” because we not only remember others but also keep track of relationships with people we don’t see for lengthy periods of time (even maintaining them through intermediaries–friends of friends and the like).
[k971] The sky’s the limit for the red-billed quelea, which turn and wheel over Africa in flocks of a million, while equal-sized herds of wildebeest thunder below.
[k1003] You don’t have to like entomology to be a fan of ants.
[k1006] The leafcutter ants of the American tropics exemplify the ant’s potential for social complexity. Within their nest, the green leaf banners are broken down to a substrate on which the ants raise their food crop, a domesticated fungus they tend in globular gardens ranging from baseball to soccer-ball size.
[k1014] The bloody bites I sustained that week didn’t stop me from feeling like an archaeologist exhuming a citadel. Hundreds of gardens grew in chambers arrayed along meters upon meters of superbly arranged tunnels, some at least six meters below the surface. Scaled to human dimensions, their subway system would be kilometers deep.
[k1021] The leafcutters, for one, have societies decidedly more complicated than any other nonhuman animal, and carry out mass-scale agriculture to boot.
[k1077] People and ants reach different solutions to the same general problems, sometimes by using completely different approaches; but then again so can different human societies or different ant societies. In some parts of the world, we drive on the left side of the road, in others on the right. On busy routes in colonies of Asia’s marauder ants, incoming traffic streams down the highway center while outbound ants take to its flanks, a three-lane approach no human district has tried. Both patterns bespeak the importance of getting goods and services to the right places safely and efficiently when the populace depending on them is enormous and doesn’t, and possibly can’t, all go out foraging.
[k1114] No vertebrate other than humans, regardless of how smart or populous, has taken even a rudimentary step toward domesticating its food, something leafcutters, and a few other insects, have done many times.
[k1116] One problem with mass production is handling the waste. The matter wouldn’t occur to a chimpanzee, I assure you.
[k1118] But leafcutter nests need full-time disposal squads.
[k1119] After over 150 million years of colonial evolution, ants have come to invest much more of their GDP in public safety and recycling efforts than we do.
[k1131] A trap-jaw ant colony is simply so small that its workers have to be generalists.
[k1158] Yet a part of their triumph can be chalked up to something straightforward indeed: an efficient approach to distinguishing societies. No species illustrates this better than the Argentine ant.
[k1166] If, on the other hand, I had taken the same ant about 60 kilometers north of Mexico, to the outskirts of San Diego, and deposited her a centimeter or two beyond a border that means nothing to us but that ants mark off with their lives, things would have gone very differently for her. There, too minute and hidden in the grasses to be noticed by human suburbanites, she would have confronted the ants’ own border patrol and likely joined the tiny corpses heaped along a narrow line extending block after block beneath the grass of manicured lawns, where over a million ants die each month in what is arguably the largest battlefield of all time.
[k1170] To the west of that border lies the holdings of the Lake Hodges Colony, a kingdom of the same Argentine ant species spread over 50 square kilometers.
[k1171] The dominion to the east is claimed by what the experts dub the Large Colony, a single social entity whose territory stretches from the Mexican border to California’s Central Valley past San Francisco.
[k1175] Four supercolonies are known in California: the abovementioned two, and two others.
[k1178] The species, immediately recorded in the newspapers, arrived in California in 1907.
[k1183] Before they stumbled on the war zones near San Diego, everywhere scientists went they found Argentine ants living in bliss, an observation that led them to conclude the ants all belonged to one happy family.
[k1184] That is, until 2004, when researchers collected samples of ants from different neighborhoods that, by pure happenstance, fell within the territories of two different supercolonies. To the scientists’ shock, a fight raged the instant those ants were combined, killing many of them. The abrupt about-face this caused in the experts’ understanding of Argentine ants hints at how toilsome it can be to interpret societies in nature.
[k1196] Ant and honeybee workers don’t know anyone as an individual.
[k1202] To the ant, only the society, not the individual, matters.
[k1204] In fact, as far as experts know, an Argentine ant, lacking a central nest, wanders indiscriminately across her supercolony’s territory until the day she dies.
[k1212] Although ants don’t tell individuals apart by their personal aromas the way hamsters do, they do recognize each other as nest-mates–or as foreign–using an odor as a shared sign of identity.
[k1223] Species that mark their aggregate identity have what I call anonymous societies.
[k1238] Normally an ant emerges from the pupal state in the nest of her mother queen and quickly learns the scent of her own society, finding it agreeable for the rest of her life. But a kidnapped ant is duped, imprinting on her captors in much the way a hatchling chicken will imprint on you if you are the first thing it sees rather than its mother.
[k1240] Emerging in a slavemaker nest–and ignorant that anything is amiss–a stolen ant adopts the local colony scent as her “nationality” and dutifully sets to work unaffected by differences between slave and slavemaker in size or color that seem more important in our eyes.
[k1260] There’s at least one vertebrate that lives in anonymous societies, that in fact marks its societies with a scent much as ants do: the naked mole rat.
[k1264] Unlike worker ants, naked mole rats recognize each other as individuals, as well.
[k1267] The only cold-blooded mammals, they shiver together on cold nights, as honeybees do.
[k1269] Naked mole rats, like Damaraland mole rats, another African species, employ a division of labor with a bulky reproductive queen. In this they resemble termite more than ant: The queen selects two or three males to serve as kings, her exclusive mates.
[k1347] Give a colony all the food and space in the world and it won’t last longer than its queen.
[k1345] The original mother queen stays with her colony, which survives as long as she does. That can be long indeed: a quarter century in leafcutters. With her demise the workers go into a funk and expire soon after.
[k1371] doesn’t completely intermingle,
[k1399] There is little in the history of life more remarkable than a human strolling through a coffee shop. The patrons can be utterly unknown to us, and–nothing happens. We do fine, stay calm encountering those we have never met. This tells us something unique about our species–opposable thumbs, upright stance, and smarts aside–because most other society-dwelling vertebrates cannot do this. A chimp bumping into an unknown individual, never mind a cafe full of them, would fight or flee like the damned.
[k1419] Distilling the differences to fewer words, we return, at last, to the formula given at the end of chapter four: to function as a society, chimpanzees need to know everybody; ants need to know nobody; humans only need to know somebody.
[k1489] Humans evolved markers of identity for the same reason: our safety and well-being can depend on them. The psychologist Gordon Allport, who founded the study of personality, has explained that “the human mind must think with the aid of categories… orderly living depends on it.”
[k1578] Ultraconservatives, for example, have little tolerance for the archliberal and vice versa, even though each grudgingly recognizes that the other belongs to their society.
[k1597] While disgruntled people can leave their society, even defect to another, an ant worker, linked for all time to nest-mates sharing her scent, can be stressed to death and still not abandon her nestmates.
[k1643] Among ants, brain size actually declines in species that have large societies.
[k1662] Markers not only take the cap off the size of societies; they make social life less complex.
[k1698] I call such nomadic hunter-gatherers band societies, which, as this and the next chapter will address, typically consisted of a few bands. I distinguish band societies from tribes, a word typically used, as I do in this book, to describe simple settled societies, most of which were dependent on horticulture, where plants are cultivated in gardens rather than plowed fields; as well as more mobile pastoralists who tend domesticated herds.
[k1753] What most set them apart was the pattern of movement of their members: nomadic hunter-gatherers spread out by fission-fusion, with people roaming with considerable freedom.
[k1761] This protracted commitment to a band, with each band having a home base that changed frequently, is unique to our species.
[k1764] The ecologist Edward O. Wilson has argued that having a well-protected home base is at the heart of our humanity.
[k1838] Like nations, and in fact all other human societies, band societies identified with an expanse of ground that they exclusively occupied. They were territorial–wary of, and often hostile to, outsiders entering this area. Nomadic they may have been, but the overall movements of band-dwellers could be just as confined as those of the people who came to depend on agriculture.
[k1903] Commonalities with chimpanzees and other fission-fusion mammals notwithstanding, the societies of hunter-gatherer bands were anonymous–they were dependent on markers of identity rather than the members’ personal knowledge of each other. Individuals were regularly spread out to such a degree that not all the strangers they came across belonged to other societies.
[k2030] Recognizing expertise is in the blood of our species–even a three-year-old realizes that individuals differ in skill and knowledge, and children seek out the appropriate person to solve a problem by the time they are four or five. This inclination likely originated deep in our evolutionary past.
[k2032] The societies of many species benefit from the varied talents of their members, and some animals gravitate to individuals proficient at the task, as chimpanzees do when learning to crack open nuts.
[k2053] Individuals could compete, yet while modern towns and cities have rivalries, I’ve seen no evidence to suggest bands did (bands never, for instance, went head to head at group sports).
[k2056] Overall, the lack of groupiness within a band society is another reason to suspect that the society would have been of inordinate consequence to its people.
[k2084] Anthropologists like to say that hunter-gatherers could vote with their feet. When tribulations were rife, they left for another band. With no way to seize political control across all the bands, bullies could be safely avoided.
[k2172] Most of us gladly follow a leader we respect and some of us strive to be leaders ourselves. Nomadic hunter-gatherers regarded both choices with disdain.
[k2211] In some fundamentals, life during a band get-together was little changed from normal, with each band often keeping its status as a “neighborhood” by camping a bit apart. Yet the throngs were the reunions of the day, enlivened by gossiping, gifts, songs and dances, and, much as occurs when elephants aggregate, with males on the prowl for conquests. While the most common instances of socializing between bands were visits by lone travelers or families to those they knew personally, these assemblages were greased by the people’s shared identity. Surely, this must have given gatherings a significance in buttressing group practices and behavior, if just by circumstance. I’ve seen no evidence decisions were made that affected the collective. Still, the activities must have conveyed a sense of common purpose.