Our Humpty Dumpty Communities

Key Questions:

-What are the energetics historically of a functional human community?

-Are/How are homicide rates lower than historical norms in the absence of functional communities?

-What are the markers of community’s death?

Scales and Energetics of Human Communities

Human interactions can range from an individual ostensibly fending for themselves to today’s extreme of a hyper-connected global system. The key to understanding the formation of these different states is that they reflect the self organization of people based on the size of incoming flows of energy. Looking at figure 1, the different scales of human interactions have been broken down into five states though more may exist. There is a hierarchical nature to the different stages. The smallest state, the individual, that requires the least amount of energy flow to exist can be found in different forms at all higher states of human organization, but the largest state, the nation state, cannot be found when there is only enough energy for the individual state. Though not exact, it appears that each state of human organization requires approximately a three fold increase in energy flow per capita.

energetics of communityFigure 1

societal heirarchyFigure 2

For most of human evolutionary history (1 million-12,000 years ago) flows of energy to individuals has been relatively modest compared to today’s levels. Humans evolved in an environment using about 5,000 calories in the form of food, clothing, and shelter. 5,000 calories is only enough energy to support a hierarchy consisting of the bottom two levels and to a lesser extent the third level of the societal hierarchy shown below. This means that from an evolutionary standpoint, humans are optimized to fit into a community consisting of individuals and centered around the extended family unit. As humans acquired more energy from their environments, higher levels of organization were added on top of the individual and family units. Each successive level of organization creates new controlling energies, known as control circuits, that take the form of governing bodies, laws, and religious doctrine. These control circuits self organize to modify the actions of the levels below to ensure a consistent energy flow necessary to maintain that particular level of organization though not always the mental health and well being of the individual that evolved in a different environment.

One of the best glimpses into what an original human community may have looked like during the first part of human evolutionary trajectory is the Yanomami people of South America. The Yanomami live in large families consisting of about 20-30 people that are for the most part very closely related. The Yanomami have a few communal buildings and for the most part do not have many personal possessions and sleep relatively close to one another. In a famous example, a US anthropology student lived in a Yanomami tribe and married a young Yanomami woman. Eventually, he brought her to live in the US. She would leave the US after staying a few years. One of her reasons (paraphrasing), “Here people wake up in boxes, never see each other, and live isolated lives. At home I woke up everyday and my whole world was around me. I could look around and see my whole family and children playing.” The only time someone from a rural or suburban area in a developed nation might have an analogous feeling is coming home the first time from living in a college dormitory. I personally remember the utter desolation of suburbia coming home the first time for Thanksgiving. The space between myself in bed and the next person seemed palpable. There was no roommate, no roommate’s girlfriend for the night, or even the guy sleeping on the other side of a cinder block wall. Just a lot of empty space. In such close proximity to others, the community can quickly recognize and act on pathological behavior. There is always someone around and up to see what individuals are doing and interact with them.

Siegfried, Roy, and a Tiger

Almost a decade ago there was an infamous case in which one of two trainer tiger act, known as Siegfried and Roy, was mauled by their tiger during a live performance. In interviews after the affair, the trainers’ representatives claimed that the tiger was not acting maliciously, but was trying to protect one of the trainers as they tripped on stage. Whether or not this explanation is true, it seems clear that the tiger was not acting out of the one reason tigers would normally maul a human, to get food. Wise trainers of undomesticated animals always follow the first rule of handling a potentially dangerous animal: Make sure thy animal is well fed. Beyond hunger, the tiger may not have been acting out of the normal repertoire of evolutionary reasons: to obtain food, to obtain a mate, protect itself or territory. This is the rise of a pathological behavior.

Imagine yourself a tiger trainer stepping into a tiger’s cage . The likelihood of survival would depend on many of the factors listed earlier, but for simplicity sake will be termed calorie intake. These calories can be looked at much like today we survive on 250,000 calories but most are not in the form of food consumption. Once basic needs of the tiger are met, the chance of becoming tiger food decrease greatly (figure 3 left); however, while normal evolutionary drives for becoming tiger food drop, new pathological reasons develop. There are many ways to prevent the tiger carrying out pathological behavior. The tiger could be put through rigorous training sessions, could be physically restrained, made physically incapable of carrying out a lethal attack by removing teeth and claws, or chained and caged. The problem with Siegfried and Roy’s show was that its economic utility for spectators depended on the fact that the tiger could act out in a dangerous fashion, so the only control circuit available to them was training.Calories of dangerFigure 3

Stepping into the Human Cage

Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature, have spent a lot of time writing books on the decline of violence because of modern day civilization. The crux of their argument is that humans are safer from human on human violence than ever. While their books sell well to people who wish to be told how great they are, their lack of evidence falls flat. There actually exists very little evidence for human on human violence for the first 1 million years of human existence. In their books, they try to extrapolate people like the Yanomami as being non-state and therefore representative of human history. The Yanomami represent impoverished people on the edge of states instead of some primordial human state. Further, Diamond and Pinker fail to use the latest anthropological/archeological evidence to make their cases of high non-state human violence (see this for more in depth argument). They are correct that starting 12,000 years ago, humans became very violent towards one another. This time period coincides with the rise of agriculture, higher human organizational levels, disruption of human scaled communities, and pathological behaviors, ie human on human violence (figure 3 right).

There are two particular points in long-term human caloric intake where human on human violence is relatively low. The first is at 5000 calories, where human communities work out their evolutionary optimized functions. The second starts to occur at about 75,000 calories, which is the blossoming of large nation states. The nation state is much like the tiger trainer above. The amazing energetic flow of fossil fuels has essentially allowed the state to create an amazing array of control circuits. Depending on which nation state you live in, you can expect some of the following: massive prison populations, weapons control laws, massive individual monitoring programs carried out by camera, DNA and digital information collection, state sponsored schooling/education, religious sponsored schooling/education, and social transfer payment programs. These all work to control pathological human behaviors in the absence of functioning communities, but are unable to fix the underlying pathological mental states. However, much like the horror of a trained tiger acting out pathologically, modern day civilization is still struck with tremendous shock when a human acts out pathological behavior, like Columbine, Chinese school stabbing, Norway Island Massacre, and Sandy Hook. It may not be coincidence that the greater number of control circuits, the greater though less frequent the pathological outburst.

The Birth of a Child, the Death of a Community

Today there seems to be little in the way of anything recognizable as communities, because of the way control circuits at levels above the familial unit have altered its functions (see figure 4). If a neighbor develops an illness, it is often asked, “Is there anything I can do without offending them?”, instead of “What can I do to help them?” Looking at the landscape of modern day society, there remain a few stories of a time of a weakened but still persistent community. These stories seem to come to a dead-end at the construction of car passable roadways. Nothing is more telling of the persistence of a community than where children are born and sick are cared for and is instructive of when the community died. In the US, the death of the community has been a boon for pathology (figure 5). In 2000, 2.5 million people were diagnosed with serious mental illness (about 1% of the population), while in 1880, there were about 2500 diagnosed with serious mental illness (about .004% of the population). The nation state utilizing 250,000 calories per person has made us the safest individuals in the past 12,000 years, while leaving us listless in broken communities.

community comparisonFigure 4Birth and death of the communityFigure 5

All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men

There are no good answers to the problems faced by our lack of community. Not many would want to willingly go back to a world with less energy and therefore: less mobility, less medicine, and less longevity. More importantly with a world population of 7 billion, it is not possible to get a 5,000 human calorie diet with the proper population densities of the distant past. Everyone is on their own to try to create their own communities. This is going to take a lot of mental, physical, and probably fossil fuel energy until limits to growth come into full view. Once we hit these limits, we might find ourselves once again in more fulfilling, yet more dangerous communities.

Individual Action:

-Charles Hugh Smith has some great ideas about ways to physically get started in your community

John Greer (the archdruid report) has been posting recently about the community. While I agree with his assessment of what we should/will do, I disagree with the reasons that brought us here and the previous health of our communities and the costs they imposed.

-Take a hard look at donations to assist people in developing countries to build roads and airstrips. Not that we shouldn’t, but there are true costs to these peoples lives and communities.

Next Time: I take out my macroscope and stare down some chickens and geese living in my yard.

Altruism is Dead, Long Live Altruism

Key Questions:

-What was the standard theory for social behavior and altruism taught at a well respected US public institution circa 2001?

-How can a shared information system be a driver of social behavior and altruism?

At the end of last weeks post, I developed a bit of wordlust (writings version of bloodlust). I meant to end the post something like, “At least the biosphere does not grieve pulsing.” Instead, that sentence pushed me into a rant on altruism and grief. I decided to move back the Burning of Rome and instead refine my thoughts on altruism, social behavior, and community.

Darwin Travels 65,000 km (40,000 miles) and Forgets to Bring a Single Macroscope

Alturism is a central paradox of Darwinism. It would seem impossible for natural selection to favor an allele that results in behavior benefiting other individuals at the expense of the individual bearing the allele. For Darwin (1859:236), the apparent existence of alturism presented a “special difficulty, which at first appeared to me insuperable, and actually fatal to my whole theory.” Fortunately he was able to hint at a resolution to the paradox: Selection could favor traits that result in decreased personal fitness if they increase the survival and reproductive success of close relatives Over a hundred years passed, however, before this result was formalized and widely applied.” (Evolutionary Analysis, Prentice Hall, pg 332)

The answer to Darwin’s problem as taught to Biology majors in 2001 was kin selection. The main idea of kin selection is that altruistic behavior arises because individuals will most likely act in an altruistic manor towards those that are most related to the altruistic actor.  An altruistic actor can benefit kin from either slow geographical dispersion, ie an animal will be closest to those it was born to or with, or from some intrinsic signal to help identify kin, eg pheromones. An actual test question and answer taken straight from the power point presentation from that class went something like this: Explain how altruistic behavior can arise in a population? (You may use a diagram to help explain)

kin selection

In the figure above one can see that populations often splinter based on geographical and environmental reasons. Initially, the population was made up of 15% altruistic individuals. Due to some factor the populations split and to dramatize all the altruistic individuals fall into one sub-population and none in the other. The altruistic sub-population grows by 20% due to the presence of the altruistic allele, while the other population has limited population growth. Further, altruistic acts are most likely to affect closely related kin in the sub-populations thus perpetuating the altruistic allele. The sub-populations again merge and now the altruistic allele makes up 16% of the total population. Rinse, wash and repeat until altruism is widespread.

Beekeepers Have Names for Sociopaths: Queens and Drones

In the textbook Evolutionary Analysis, the authors spend about three pages trying to use kin selection as the explanatory basis for eusocial behavior in bees. They show how a queen who mates with a single drone will produce non-mating sisters that are more closely related to each other than to queens or drones so this is why they cooperate, however, in the end conclude that this actually isn’t true for most eusocial insects. The queens mate with multiple drones, which results in non-mating eusocial sisters who may not be more closely related to each other than to the queens.

The above explanation glosses over the advantages of the hive and social behavior. The advantage is the ability to utilize the efficiencies of information when it is shared between individuals. Traditionally, most organisms on Earth rely on the information stored in DNA and RNA or pay a high cost to create information de novo every generation to survive (Figure 2 bottom right). If one were to dissect a hive, it is easy to see that most of the individuals in the hive are involved at one time or another in the collecting and sharing of information to exploit resources like nectar, pollen, hive building materials, and locating new hive locations. This allows bees to focus more energy on resource exploitation than high cost information collection. Hives using shared information have lower costs than if each individual were responsible for finding/creating information (Figure 2 top left). This is particularly advantageous when pollen and nectar sources are constantly changing by the day, so the costs of each individual acquiring information on their own could quickly mount. Queens and drones on the other hand must be kept to a minimum because they neither collect nor share real time information (Figure 2 top right and bottom left). In a hive, there must be enough workers bees sharing information to reap the rewards of low cost communication of information and utilizing a resource versus the costs of finding new information and supporting a colony’s queens and drones.

benefit of shared informationFigure 2

An additional key feature of social behavior and the reason altruism exists is that all stores of information and capital need protection. This protection can be from factors such as random depreciation or resource competitors. In the case of DNA, there are certain parts of the DNA polymerase complex involved in excising improper base pairing that naturally occurs during DNA replication (Figure 3 left). Odum in EPS talks about how police in modern society act to stop the depreciation of physical capital from thieves or vandals (Figure 3 middle). For bees, they defend the hive to the death in order to ensure there are enough individuals and stores of honey to maintain a healthy population to benefit from shared information (Figure 3 right).


Figure 3

Promiscuous Monkeys and Altruism

Altruism presents another evolutionary conundrum: why is altruism so promiscuous? There are examples of gorrillas saving little boys or recently divers saving dolphins. If you have not seen these videos, watch them. When you are a social animal, there is an underlying urge to feel something when confronted by acts of altruism. All social animals want to perform an altruistic act.  Try not to feel something while watching, if you can.

To explain this phenomena, you would need to take an extended five year vacation to the Amazonian Rainforest with a notebook and pair of binoculars. There you will sit with your notebook recording the mating rituals of all sorts of species of monkeys. You note the size, color, and noise patterns of the males and females, known as sexual dimorphism, in relation to how many times a species of monkey makes an attempted mating with either the opposite or same sex of monkey. Your findings will be as follows: the less the sexual dimorphism (males and females look the same), the more times a monkey will mate with its own sex and conversely the greater the sexual dimorphism, the fewer times a monkey will mate with its own sex (Figure 4). There are two good explanations for the ways that these monkeys mate. The first is that when a body plan is under high selection due to predation which reduces sexual dimorphism, it makes sense to mate first and ask questions later. Secondly, mating with everyone can be a great strategy to promote social behavior and not being able to distinguish potential mating partners increases social behavior.


Figure 4

No matter which explanation for the monkeys’ behaviors is true, it is informative to why altruism is so promiscuous. When social animals look at each other, it is hard to tell who holds what information that might be important for survival. If you look at the back cover of EPS in the 21st Century, there is a picture of HT Odum (Figure 5). It might be easy to guess from the picture he is good at tending a small garden, but to surmise that he is the father of Emergy theory, no way. There is no red or green light on our foreheads to inform each other who knows what and so who should be saved. Importantly, would Odum be more likely to help my long term survival as an amazing creator of humus or a great thinker of Emergy Theory?  Social animals have an evolutionary mandate to: preserve information first and ask questions later.  The greater the importance of shared information for survival, the greater the amount of social behavior and altruism (Figure 6).

HT OdumFigure 5

Importance of shared information for survivalFigure 6

Darwin Peers through the Macroscope

Why does the hand feed the mouth? Why does the gene DNA polymerase copy other unrelated genes? Why does social behavior and altruism exist to benefit others? The answer to all of these questions is that: they are parts of a whole system. In each case a seemingly selfless action increases the fitness of itself. The hand feeds the mouth and gains nutrition. DNA polymerase copies other genes and those other genes help DNA polymerase function. Social behavior and altruism exist to help others maintain, collect, process, and share information and benefit the social altruistic actor.

Individual Action:

-Share information. Do it freely and free whenever possible.

-Sharing information includes genetic information. Preferably rare plant seeds, scion wood, and livestock. Not through the swapping of more human DNA, we are not rare and bizarrely closely related.

-Be weary of sociopaths that hoard information.

Next time: Our Humpty Dumpty Communities