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We Are All Apes Behaving Like Ants
Social constructions build operational frameworks for society scaling
This article was originally published on Medium May 22, 2018. It forms the backbone of most HWFO societal analysis in later articles.
Greetings Fellow Formicidae
There’s a prevailing opinion among some intellectuals that by virtue of our intelligence, the human species is now in a post-evolutionary state — that language, technology, and economics have separated us from the other organisms of the planet, allowing us to dominate the Earth. We are destined for grander, better things — enlightenment and space colonization — and we are off the evolutionary rails and can control our own destiny. This widely held view, in my estimation, is thoroughly and objectively wrong. To understand why, let’s first recap how we got here.
A Very Brief and Possibly Arguable History of History
· We begin as primates, which are social animals. We have familial units, clans, and such, which are omnivorous hunter gatherers who operate not too differently than other primates today.
· 30,000 years ago, we figure out the basics of bread, which allows us to turn bird food into people food by grinding it up and heating it before we eat it.
· 20,000 years ago, we invent accounting, via the tally stick, which also indicates the origination of barter and the very early inkling of the division of labor, possibly between social groups.
· 11,000 years ago, we begin cultivating the bird food. Enter agriculture.
· 7,000 years ago we invent pottery to keep the bird food dry and the plough to make more bird food. We also invent beer to make the bird food fun, preserve it, and stave off cholera. Now division of labor becomes much more effective because we can barter pots of bird food for things we need to make more bird food or things to keep us alive and comfortable while we’re not making bird food. We also invent written language, so we can mark our bird food pots and differentiate them from other people’s bird food pots.
· We invent slavery around 4000 years ago, which we use to push the ploughs to fill the pots with bird food. We also invent money around the same time frame, most popularly in the form of the shekel, which is a little metal widget that represents a pot of bird food. It’s not bird food; we can’t eat it, but we share a society-wide consensual hallucination that it represents bird food, out of convenience. Now we are literally off to the races with labor specialization because we can carry these shekels around much easier than pots full of grain. Praise Hammurabi.
At this point, someone can hoard shekels for use later, can accumulate them, and can loan them. Debt becomes a thing. All the seeds of our modern financial system are laid here. War becomes a thing. Nations become a thing. Taxes become a thing. Advanced social hierarchies become a thing — kings and pharaohs and such. Laws become a thing. Civil infrastructure becomes a thing. Roads. We have a totally new and unique way of behaving that no other animal species has ever conceived of, and it leads us to dominate the planet.
The Ants Beat Us to All of It
We don’t dominate the planet; the ants do. There are ten quadrillion ants on the planet earth, seen on every continent save Antarctica. The earliest ants probably originated around 90 million years ago, but they’d achieved their current level of unquestionable world dominance by 50 million years ago. Ants represent 15% to 20% of the entire terrestrial animal biomass of the planet.
How? They have unquestionable division of labor, which flows from a hierarchical society structure. They have agriculture. In the tropics, leaf cutter ants are responsible for harvesting over 15% of all fresh vegetation, which they in turn use to cultivate fungus to eat. Ants cultivate livestock, in the form of aphids. They keep aphid eggs safe during the winter. When an aphid farming ant colony moves or diverges, it even carries aphids with it to set up a new farm.
They have civil infrastructure, in the form of the colonies themselves, which are tremendous. Check out this video, where ant researchers poured ten tons of cement into an ant colony and excavated it:
In terms of scale, this would be the equivalent of a human building or city 5.7 miles across, and almost a mile deep. It has a complex architectural and civil infrastructure design, which includes ventilation, agricultural zones, movement of integral commodities, waste collection and storage, and child rearing.
Our most horrific wars look a bit like ant wars. Looting. Killing females and children. Tactics of deception. Complex troop movements. Attacks specifically intended to enact genocide on the defending colony. And they wage these wars to gain dominance over pieces of land and the resources available on that land. They even seize ant slaves and bring them back as a captive labor force.
Sounding familiar yet? From the viewpoint of an extrasolar alien anthropologist, observing the Earth from a hidden moon base to collect information for their impending invasion plan, the implication is extremely clear. Humans are primates acting like ants.
So how and why do the ants do it? When you ask an ant entomologist, the answer is obviously wide and complicated, but can best be summarized as, “uhh, well, pheromones.” In short, each ant is a complex bit of behavioral code, which acts on pheremonal communications from its adjacent ants. They’ve been doing this for fifty million years, and the results look about like what we’re doing today.
What Am I? Who are you? What is Money?
I don’t really know who you are, but I’m a civil engineer. I design and aid in the construction of land development projects. While I absolutely enjoy my work, I wouldn’t do it if there wasn’t a paycheck involved. I work with other humans in a complex professional web of communication, where I’m fed projects from other individuals in the web, which flow from investors, based on an analysis of demand. I do my bit and pass my information off to contractors, who construct the thing by passing more money off to other people. They then use the money to buy things they need, like food, which is passed to the grocery store, to the shipping company, to the farm. The farmer buys seeds. He buys tractors from the tractor manufacturer, who passes money on. Round we go.
These units of money, which we’ve already defined as, “barter tokens for which we have adopted a consensual hallucination of value,” act in an analogous way to the pheromone signals in the ants.
How do I know what to do with the money incentive? I have extensive professional education, installed at great expense in time and barter tokens. I have societal training in how to act with respect to my peers, such as ethics, which was installed in me from birth by my parents. I may have religious teachings which inform that training, possibly very deeply. I may have nationalistic tendencies, installed from pledges, anthems, and schooling, which become activated if the borders of my unit are threatened by a different human group. These constitute a nested layer of instructions, just like the behavioral code in the ants, which work the same way. They are all paths of ant-code indoctrination.
That may put an interesting spin on your thoughts about “free will,” while you’re stuck in your morning commute. You think you’re making all the decisions, but are you really? You could technically quit your job, but you don’t because you need the money. The virtual ant program pheromones compel you. If someone invades the borders of your country, you go sign up for the Army. The nationalist ant programming compels you. You could kick that cat over there or push the old lady down the stairs, but you don’t. Your ethical ant program compels you. Most of what we actually do in our lives isn’t free at all, we are simply acting out the programs. Some programs work better than others, at a society level, and most of the ones we have left on the Earth work very well because the ones that didn’t work well already died out.
In this way, we do not behave at all as a collection of individual organisms. Most of what we do expressly mirrors the behavior of a superorganism, which is the term etymologists assigned to the ants. We do it without ever thinking about why we do it.
Game Theory and Terrible Things
All our laments about the human condition, be they war, genocide, slavery, economics, work, materialism, and similar, are reflected in the ants for an important reason. They work, evolutionarily speaking. Consider two adjacent ant colonies in the Serengeti Plain, one warlike, the other an ant-level conscientious objector to war. The second colony is doomed to death by the first one, and its peaceful tendencies are rubbed out and do not get passed on. We may argue that if both colonies were simply able to cooperate, they could both benefit more than either did in the war state, but the fact that a war state may erupt prevents this. Both ant colonies are forced by the rules of the game to be “warlike,” even though war sucks. This is known as a Nash Equilibrium in game theory, and the analogy extends straight up the ladder to mankind. Each player of the game (at this scale, a nationality) selects a potentially suboptimal solution to hedge against an even more suboptimal one. Bret Weinstein argues a version of this point regarding Hitler, in a dialog with Jordan Peterson and some guy nobody’s heard of who narrates MMA fights:
(forward to 2:21:47 if necessary)
What Hitler did was ethically monstrous by any conceivable measure. But viewed through the lens of evolutionary biology, it was completely rational. Things we may find insane are rational from the ant’s point of view. It was the correct move in the gene propagation game because it was the correct move in the ant game. On a daily personal interaction basis, we may make people moves, but these ant moves crop up in colony-scale interactions.
And that’s bad. And we should avoid that. Somehow. But to avoid those things, we must first understand where these things come from. They may be biological, and they are certainly systemic. We, as a species, have been tuned by natural selection to play this ant game, since at least the time of Hammurabi, and our subconscious awareness of the ant game leaks into modern discourse in ways we might not fully fathom at a conscious level.
Slightly Less Terrible Things
Conservatives and liberals, very broadly defined, break along their predilections of certain ant-game solutions. Liberals want to tinker with the colony-level ant programming with things like “emancipation,” or “the sexual revolution,” or “communism” because they don’t like the ramifications of the overall ant program on themselves. Sometimes these program adjustments have great merit and work beautifully, and sometimes they fail historically.
Conservatives, in their role as traditionalists, don’t want to tinker with the ant programming because the existing programing is proven to be effective. Their fears are twofold. One, wholesale changes to the programming may break the colony and cause it to quit functioning well, or at all. Two, programming that weakens the colony may leave it subject to attack, particularly from a competing colony running a traditionalist program.
In my view, this is the best way to understand the underlying meanings buried inside political rhetoric. Conservatives oppose communism, for instance, because it’s a verifiably broken ant program. They’re concerned about the rise of Fundamentalist Islam to world prominence because Fundamentalist Islam is a traditionalist program, while the west has abandoned many of its traditionalist views in favor of running what amount to a bundle of liberal ant-program experiments. Liberals increasingly oppose capitalism and hierarchical societal structures because they either don’t understand the ant game, or they do understand it and don’t like being ants. They don’t fear the collapse of the colony or that the colony may be attacked by another one running a traditional, well-established program.
Evaluating Ant-Game Moves: Safety, Progress, a Third Option?
The safest thing for a colony (society) to do over a short to intermediate time span is stick rigorously to traditional programs, which have tested efficacy. We might see these sorts of programs manifest in the social sphere under the “family values” umbrella, in the economic sphere under the “capitalist” umbrella, and the nationalist sphere under the “military” umbrella. The danger in traditional moves, as a whole, is when you stop evolving socially, you eventually lose the game of evolution to some other society which discovers a better ant program, such as The Enlightenment.
The most progressive thing for a colony (society) to do is abandon traditions, throw all preconceptions out, and try new things. This manifests as the “sexual revolution,” “socialism,” and “world peace.” Hippie stuff. The danger in progressive moves is this: If you stumble into a suboptimal ant program, you either descend into anarchy or some other society rubs yours out, and they do it on a much shorter time scale than your traditional program might lose its evolutionary battle. The Soviet Union only lasted 69 years and killed a tremendous number of their own ants during this span. “Progress” can be a very high-risk play.
The tension we see between progressives and traditionalists manifests largely as arguments over which danger they view as more dangerous. The smart way to navigate between these two viewpoints is to cede certain victories to the progressives, but analyze them critically for specific failures and seek ways to repair the colony damage where it’s identified. Further, new progressive programming should be evaluated carefully for its impact on the colony before it’s rolled out. Blind adherence to traditionalism concedes defeat in the long game, and blind progressivism plays roulette with the near future.
The third option is to quit playing the ant game. If you can figure out how we can do that, let us ants know.
You’ll be the next Hammurabi.