Plus ca change?

I love it when serendipity brings me the answer to a question that hasn’t even been asked yet. It happens to me all the time. Yesterday Vegard sent me a great video about our lack of intuition about exponential functions and how that relates to the energy crisis and the population explosion. Then this morning John asked me a question in connection with an apparently unrelated but deeply shocking thing I posted on Facebook about the Spanish Catholic church having stolen 300,000 newborn babies, telling the parents they had died and then selling them into adoption. Serendipitously, I think the former nicely illustrates part of the answer to John’s question, which was stimulated by the latter, so I decided to write a post on it.

I hope John doesn’t mind if I quote his (partially rhetorical) question in full, because it’s interesting:

I also bring attention to the recent London riots – the English government finding it necessary to offer free “parenting lessons…” What are the root causes of such going on? Why would the planet’s most intelligent inhabitants happily stray from time-honoured behaviour that is widely known and demonstrated to be “good and sensible”, building nations and bringing progress, safety and wealth? Why do humans derail themselves when they know better? From where come the flies in the ointment? I would be interested in YOUR take! best John

First some caveats: John is a conservative and I’m a liberal – we don’t see eye to eye on a number of things, most notably religion. But we argue fairly and earnestly (not to mention heatedly!) and we both try with honesty to get to the bottom of things. So it’s a bit unfair of me to stand up on my soapbox like this alone. If John violently disagrees with me and opts to comment then please look for that below. Fair’s fair.

The other thing is, my answer isn’t really an answer to John’s specific question, more an answer to why I think questions of this sort understandably seem to many people to be worth asking. Such questions lie at the very heart of conservatism. The crux of the whole conservative world view is, “why break with tradition?” To a conservative, the fabric of modern society is crumbling – the old, sure ways are being lost, and radical, revolutionary changes are wrecking everything. Conservatism is a counter-revolutionary philosophy. That may not be everyone’s conscious, deliberate view of what it’s all about, but nevertheless it’s fundamental to the psychology and philosophy of conservatism – hence the name.

And a lot of other very influential philosophies then hang from this one. The “old, sure ways” in question were once those of the monarchic, top-down, stratified society that existed before the French Revolution. That’s where the terms “left wing” and “right wing” originated and that’s the legacy of debate and division that fueled the development of the United States constitution. Today’s conservatism (and indeed liberalism, although from the opposite wing) inherits much of the ideology that stemmed from those revolutionary days, and as a consequence, conservatism isn’t just about conserving the old ways whatever they may be; it’s about conserving certain deeply held beliefs about what is right and good for society, especially the concept of hierarchy. It’s why conservatives tend to be religious (in an Old Testament sort of way); because they feel that we need a moral compass from on high. Conservatives believe in the need for the rule of law, including moral law, and see rebellion and “mob rule” as a breakdown of society. They also tend to see inequality as a necessary factor in society, for various and rather subtle reasons. Egalitarianism is the province of liberals, not conservatives, and what we see as fairness and compassion, conservatives tend to see as encouraging laziness, removing hard-working people’s right to a reward, and so on. The two sides look at the same things in radically different ways. These feelings we each have are deeply, deeply ingrained in our respective psyches.

I’ve written before about the possibility that this is something really innate to the human mind; that perhaps we inherited both the chimapanzee-like dominance hierarchy, and the bonobo lassez faire, make-love-not-war behaviours from our common ancestor. But John’s excellent question is not so much about “why this, not that?”; it’s more about “why now?”. And here’s my suggestion for part of the answer to that. I appreciate it’s not the whole answer by any means, but I think it’s relevant.

I think the assumption that is innate to conservatism – indeed essential to it – is that things worked okay in the past, so what’s all this nonsense about revolution? The conventional liberal response to that would be “it was never alright in the past; only alright for some.” But that’s not the point I want to make. The point I want to make is that things are very often “alright in the past” and then cease to be alright, yet nothing has to change for that to happen.

This is where the excellent lecture that Vegard sent me comes in. I recommend you watch it, because it’s beautifully presented and interesting from its own perspective as regards resources and population, but it’s an hour long, so here’s the meat of it:

The lecturer is Albert Bartlett, and his central thesis is that we humans are really, really crap at understanding exponential growth. He says, for example, that we don’t bat an eyelid at the news that something is growing by 7% per year – 7% seems like nothing. And then we read in the papers that “crime has doubled in a decade” and we freak out. But 7% per year is the same thing as doubling in a decade!

7% per year doesn’t mean something grows by 7% of the original value every year, of course; it means it grows by that much of the previous value. If you plot the curve of such steady growth, you find that it climbs really gently for ages but then starts to accelerate until it suddenly skyrockets heavenward. Face one way and it’s basically flat; face the other and you’re looking at a brick wall. And yet it’s just steady growth. A town that had 1,000 inhabitants in 1900 and grows at 7% per annum will have 2,000 inhabitants by 1910, 4,000 by 1920 and so on. By the year 2010 the population will be over a million. By 2050 it would be 16 million.

Bartlett then goes on to give us the shocking bottom line: during each doubling time (each decade, for 7% per annum growth), the change in any single decade is larger than all of the decades up to that point added together. You can see how counterintuitive that makes things when you think about a situation like this: Suppose we’ve been using coal for 150 years, at a growth rate of 7%. By the year 2010 we find we’ve only used up half of all the coal that exists. Half the coal is gone after 150 years but the other half remains, so we’re doing okay, right? The rest probably won’t last another 150 years but we needn’t worry for ages yet, surely? Except it will all be gone by 2020! It took us 150 years to use up half of it, but only ten more to use up the other half. That just doesn’t feel right, and so we don’t notice, or don’t believe what the figures tell us. By the time it starts to dawn on us, it’s one minute to midnight and we’re screwed. Who would have thought that starting to worry about energy conservation when we still have half of our resources left is potentially too late for us to do anything about it? But it’s true. Even if we find out there’s twice as much coal under the ground as we thought, it makes damn all difference.

And this, I think, has something to do with John’s question. At two levels.

If we’re tracking up an exponential curve, then sticking to our “good old ways” really doesn’t seem like a problem. Until the curve starts to skyrocket. When we look backwards we see everything has continued pretty much as normal and stayed pretty stable, but when we look forwards we see an explosion just ahead of us. I can see how that looks frightening (as it should) and why it seems like things were going great but now they’re going wrong. Yet nothing actually has to alter for this to be the case; it’s just a natural consequence of steady change. I think society has now reached such a point on a number of axes at once. It’s not that the natural world order is being threatened by Bolshevic revolutionaries who want to screw up the happy times of the past, despite what people like Glen Beck believe. It’s that the “happy times of the past” have led, inexorably and inevitably, to a time where those practices and mores have ceased to work. Nay, caused a disaster. Nothing has to go wrong or be destabilized for that to happen – it’s just exponential growth.

But what, exactly, is growing? Well, as Professor Bartlett points out, population is a major factor in this. The ways we used to live worked just fine when the human population was low, but it has been growing steadily since forever, and it’s now one minute to midnight. Our population is skyrocketing and such a growth is completely and utterly unsustainable. It will not be sustained, whether we like it or not, and we’ve left it too late to put it right gently. The old ways simply cannot and will not work. Revolutions of many kinds – political, military, social and technological – are absolutely inevitable, and in very short order. We live in interesting times, and the only thing we can say with certainty is that the “good old days” are useless to us now. We can never recover them and we’re fools to try to hang onto them. Do the math.

But there’s also another sense in which conservatism versus liberalism hits up against exponential change, and that’s capitalism. Conservatives are pretty uniformly advocates of capitalism, especially the resistance to regulation. Liberals tend to have mixed views on capitalism in general, but tend to favor regulation as a means towards egalitarian ideals.

The thing about capitalism is that it doesn’t follow the central theory of economics, as elucidated in the steady growth days of the early twentieth century. Back in those days, when the curves were still fairly flat, it was hard to distinguish between two contradictory models for how economic systems work, and we picked the wrong one.

A fundamental assumption in many economic models is that of the law of decreasing returns. Things tend to balance themselves out. Negative feedback rules. If you own a mine and do really well at first, you’ll eventually mine out the lode and profits will start to fall again as extraction becomes more difficult and expensive. Decreasing returns. If people don’t like your product or your corporate practices, or workers don’t like their work environment, the customers will fade away and finding workers will get harder. Or so it was claimed.

But that was pretty naive, because the universe is stuffed full of both negative AND positive feedback. Indeed the universe IS the effects of combining negative and positive feedback (but that’s a long story!). Positive feedback follows the law of increasing returns: To he that hath is given more. And the law of increasing returns is fundamental to capitalism, whether we like it or not.

Back in the days when people went west in search of gold, diminishing returns tended to hold sway. You’d stake your claim, work hard, extract your glinting reward and feel good. But gradually the cost and effort of extraction would make that reward smaller and smaller, and eventually the claim would be worked out. Those who didn’t see that coming often ended up destitute. But although that seems like negative feedback – a resistance to change that brings things back towards the status quo - it’s actually positive feedback. And like all positive feedback loops, there’s a null point. If you remain below the null point, all the forces pull you down and down. If you don’t have enough gold to make ends meet, you can’t hire labor or buy decent tools and your ability to capitalize on your claim falters and fades. But you just have to be lucky enough to get over the hump; over the null point; to find things change very rapidly in the other direction. If your gold seam is just good enough, you can make a profit and invest that profit in workers to do the digging. And then maybe buy a second mine, which, if you’re still lucky, doubles your profits. So then you can buy a fourth, and an eighth, and a sixteenth…

The people who get rich in an unrestrained capitalist system need skill and hard work as well as luck, but the reward is not proportionate to skill or effort. A billionaire is not a million times more industrious than someone whose entire assets run to a thousand dollars. It’s simply that the billionaire managed to cross to the positive side of the null point, while the pauper didn’t make it. In such a system, all other factors being equal, two people who start out almost but not quite identically, can experience radically different outcomes. Capitalism, due to positive feedback, is a watershed. If I stand on a hill a few miles from here and pee towards the west, it’ll end up in the Pacific; if I pee to the right, it’ll end up in the Atlantic. Massive change from tiny differences.

Unrestrained capitalism is inherently like this. Those that hath, get given more, while those that hath not, lose everything. There’s actually a well of negative feedback in the middle of the curve, which keeps many of us relatively stable and stuck in the middle, but that’s getting too complex for this post. The thing is, everyone is entitled to a reward for their hard work and diligence, but because of positive feedback both the reward and the punishment tend to be way out of proportion. In fact it’s very, very easy, due to nothing more than random noise, for someone who’s more industrious and skilled, especially if they also happen to have scruples, decency and compassion for their fellows, to end up in the gutter through no fault of their own, while people who hardly deserve it go on to garner enormous wealth.

Without negative feedback, for instance in the form of a welfare safety net at the lower end and progressive taxation to damp out spiralling wealth at the higher end, such an explosion of inequity is ABSOLUTELY inevitable. But it won’t seem like a problem at first. Not even for a long time. The curve rises only gently for most of its history. But one day it will start to take off and skyrocket, and we passed that day some time ago. When over a third of the wealth belongs to only 1% of the population, and the bottom 40% of the people have to make do with less than 1% of the total wealth spread between them, we know we’ve stepped over the edge. At that point – the point we have reached now – massive change to the fundamental fabric is inevitable, because the present rate of change from “business as usual” is unsustainable.

Much the same is true when it comes to raping the earth of its resources. Capitalism is a system of increasing returns, but those increasing returns come at an increasing cost. The more successful a company becomes or the more successful an economy becomes, the faster it extracts resources. Yes, diminishing returns will set in eventually, when all the resources have gone or become too diffuse to extract. But the “to him that hath is given more” property of unregulated commerce ensures that this rate of change takes us by surprise. We might think we were doing great with the “old ways” up to now and with a bit of diligence we still have a long way to go, but in reality it’s one minute to midnight. Watch Albert Bartlett’s lecture to see how giant corporations (via naive journalists and crooked politicians) contrived to capitalize on their success by lobbying and marketing the idea that we have more than enough coal and oil to last us hundreds of years. And then remember that we only believe such things because we’re so easily fooled by exponential growth. 150 years to use up half the coal; 10 years to use up the other half…

So it seems to me that “the good old ways” that conservatives wish we could hang on to or return to are what created the coming revolution. It’s inevitable that looking backwards gives us the view that we were comfortable and doing just fine, while looking forwards fills us with fear. It’s a natural consequence of our human inability to understand exponential change. But when you add to this the fact that the rate of change itself is accelerating, in large part because of the positive feedback and spiralling of inequity inherent in the very worldview that seems to those of a reactionary bent to have worked so well for us up to now, then an explosion is not just inevitable but imminent.

How that explosion plays out is an unknown, but the reasons behind it are pretty clear. The kids occupying Wall Street and other cities seem to be pissed off about any number of different things and it’s easy to say they’re unfocused and just into rebellion and demonstrations for the hell of it. But it doesn’t really matter what they actually say; it doesn’t even help to feel smug if they lose their current admirable level of cool and end up being violent; the truth is, their existence was inevitable and the underlying reasons for their disenchantment with the good old days were an event just waiting to happen. It’s written in the curve. Disenchanted people do bad things sometimes, and revolutions do fracture society. But at the same time, there never was a golden age, and the “tried and trusted” ways of the past are at least in need of rethinking from the ground up. The rule of law can only go so far, so I hope people don’t rely on it for so long that it needs to hold back a tidal wave.

And the old ways caused this, albeit unintentionally; they cannot possibly be the solution to it. We have to have change in the fabric of society, and we can either opt for managed change or we can wait until one second to midnight and suffer the consequences (if that time has not already passed). It’s not only wrong that so much wealth is locked up in so few coffers while the number of poor and suffering is increasing exponentially; it’s totally unsustainable.

My thanks to John and Vegard for the stimulation!

Are you a chimpanzee or a bonobo?

This interesting article points out that the hominid branch of the evolutionary tree has split several times. The earliest side-shoot led to orangutans (bless their hearts!) and a slightly later one led to gorillas. A short time after this, a third split gave rise eventually to humans, while the final division (so far) separated the other bloodline into bonobos and chimpanzees. To put it another way, bonobos and chimps are more closely related to each other than either of them is to humans, but all three of us share an older common ancestor.

Chimpanzee (Click for photo source)

The article then goes on to ask what this common ancestor was like. Was it more Pan-like (chimp/bonobo) or more Homo-like (human)?

In answer to the question, the author points out that there are actually large differences in social behavior between chimps and bonobos, despite them having a recent common ancestor. Furthermore, she suggests, we humans show both types of behavior, so perhaps the common ancestor of all three species showed this variety too. Perhaps humans retained the more generalized or variable social structure of our common ancestor, while chimps and bonobos represent specializations.

But this intriguing speculation about the distant past rather glosses over something important about our modern selves, I think. Humans are not some kind of vague mush of chimp and bonobo features. Individual people and individual cultures have a marked tendency to gravitate towards one camp or the other, and they tend to show a good deal of antipathy towards the opposing camp. Collectively, we show characteristics of both species, but individually we tend to be either chimpanzee-like or bonobo-like, as I hope to explain.

Presumably chimpanzees live in an environment in which adopting only one particular mode of life has proved perfectly stable and useful, while bonobos occupy a different niche and went the other way. Meanwhile, the environment the human line found itself in might have fallen into one of two categories: 1) neither the chimp nor bonobo extremes were ideal, and some kind of less polarized social structure worked best, as it may have done for the common ancestor; 2) the environment kept changing, so our gene pool retained the capacity for both options because it paid to be able to adopt whichever mode best suited the times. At different periods, the proportions of “chimp” and “bonobo” phenotypes would have fluctuated, perhaps through epigenetic means.

But here’s the thing: these two lifestyles are mutually incompatible. You can’t have a dominance hierarchy that is flat; you can’t have a patriarchy that is also a matriarchy; you can’t have an alpha male if everyone is going around having sex all the time. But humans seem to have inherited a choice, and it seems to me that the fight for which choice is best is still very much being fought. What I’m wondering is whether this is the very fight that is today being fought at the ballot box and the altar…

Let’s compare Pan troglodyte and Pan paniscus a little to see what I mean. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll just quote from the article:

“If we start with modern chimps and bonobos, they manifest some striking behavioral differences. 1) Chimp societies are characterized by strong male dominance hierarchies, whereas bonobo societies have strong female dominance hierarchies. 2) Chimp males have been documented to engage in warfare with neighboring troops and kill troop members, whereas such behavior has not been observed in bonobos. 3) Chimp males are known to engage in infanticide, again a behavior unreported in bonobos. 4) Chimps engage in sex only when females are in estrus (“heat”), at which times males make great efforts to monopolize females and hence guarantee paternity. By contrast, bonobos engage in sex often (ten times per day has been reported) and throughout the estrus cycle, and seem quite disinterested in keeping track of paternity. 5) Homosexual sex has not been observed with chimps, whereas it occurs frequently between female and often between male bonobos.”

Mention of infanticide was what first caught my eye, because I’d just read this disturbing article about how men in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) not-infrequently waterboard their babies (yes, really) in order to instill in them a fear and respect for authority. Another sentence also caught my eye: “it’s unlikely that FLDS leaders such as her ex-husband (who is now a bishop) would follow [such new laws], much less extend legal rights to women or stop the practice of abandoning boys who are surplus in a community where the older, powerful men arrange the marriages and take multiple wives.”

Polygamy? Aggressive male dominance hierarchies? Alpha males? So what is the FLDS church, then, if not a bunch of chimpanzees? I don’t know about infanticide, specifically, only the waterboarding, but it’s not uncommon in other masculine monotheisms such as fundamentalist Islam.

The FLDS is admittedly a pretty freaky organization, but the chimpanzee qualities clearly extend to all the monotheistic religions to some degree, and the more fundamentalist they are, the more this is true. Aggressive in-group/out-group antipathy is fundamental to all, whether it be the ancient Tribes of Israel, modern Islamic or Christian antisemitism, or the Saved versus the Damned. An aggressive dominance hierarchy is a fundamental aspect of these religions too: The Judeo-Christian-Muslim god is unquestionably the alpha-male of all alpha-males, and Right-wing Christianity in the US is very much about doing what you’re told. Take this video, for instance – I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone actually argue for a dictatorship before, but the more you think about it, the more obvious it becomes that this rather extreme video is only saying out loud something that is implicit in fundamentalist monotheistic religions today.

What about homophobia? And what about the repressive puritanical attitude towards sex generally? Fundamentalist Christianity is very much a patriarchal dominance hierarchy with aggressive and sexually repressive features. It is exactly what an alien anthropologist would expect if we were closely related to chimpanzees.

Bonobo (Click for photo source)

And yet we’re also closely related to bonobos. These are the hippies of the primate world: laid back, “make love not war” creatures who opt for a flatter, or at least less aggressive, hierarchy. Their matriarchal societies seem to have more in common with our older, polytheistic or animistic religions, filled as these are with goddesses and a virtual supernatural soap-opera of social interactions. Bonobos, I might point out, are also the hominids with the most upright gait and sophisticated tool use, if not also the most language ability. If you were to meet one of our ancient Homo ancestors, he or she would probably look more like a bonobo than a chimpanzee. Bonobos are the hippie intellectuals of the forest. This doesn’t make them better than chimpanzees – each is best adapted to a certain environment, but when we humans try to describe our species, we tend to do so in a way that emphasizes our bonobo characteristics over our chimpanzee ones. Although, to be fair, perhaps that’s simply because it’s the bonobos amongst us that tend to write the history books!

Human hippie intellectuals tend to be political liberals. Is this mere coincidence? Perhaps not. Perhaps the political Left and Right are modern-day equivalents of the dichotomy that pushed chimpanzees and bonobos into separate niches?

The terms Left and Right originated in the French Revolution. On the right of the president sat the supporters of the king – those in favor of a very strong (male or honorary-male) dominance hierarchy. These were people who preferred the old feudal system, in which all men are not equal. They thought that social capital should be unevenly distributed, so that kings and dukes held most of the wealth. They were the ones “loyal to religion.” Today, they fear God, they fear the government and they would like others to fear them. These are the people who most support aggression as a means to solve problems (e.g. by preventing gun control, supporting high military spending and condoning wars). Their lack of empathic, egalitarian tendencies makes them oppose social care programs such as healthcare. They tend to be sexually repressive, homophobic and often somewhat misogynistic. They are concerned about in-group/out-group (e.g. the Birthers, who believe against all the evidence that Obama is not American). (Oh, and who is it that is most scared that we evolved from apes? Few people know much about bonobos but everyone knows about chimpanzees, so I’m not surprised the Far Right are uncomfortable about their past; they perhaps recognize themselves in it.)

If chimpanzees ever develop really complex social organizations, this is what they will be like. Remember Planet of the Apes?

Of course, such a simplistic characterization has its difficulties. For instance, an ardent Republican might accuse the Left of chimpanzee-like infanticide, given their respective stances on abortion. But perhaps even this has its explanation. The anti-abortion lobby is driven more by emotion than reason. Witness a billboard I saw in Florida recently that said “at 18 days after conception a baby’s heart is already beating”, which it then misleadingly illustrated with a picture of a six month-old foetus, not a tiny fish-like embryo as it should have been. What difference does it make that its heart is working (rather than, say, its kidneys)? It’s a meaningless observation designed to appeal to our basic instincts, and who is it that cares most about kin? Who is programmed to appeal to the alpha-male (i.e. God) to decide what’s right? Who has the least to gain from female choice?  Hint: it’s not our inner bonobo.

Similarly it’s not simply a matter of Left and Right, because the extreme Left is just as totalitarian and “daddy knows best” as the extreme right. It’s more like the extreme right versus the center (which in the US is generally called the Left).

And why are leftists progressives and the Right conservative? Aside from a possibly greater tendency for bonobos to use tools I don’t know of anything in principle that would make one social system more progressive than the other. Presumably it’s an historical accident: we’ve just been through a couple of thousand years during which the chimpanzee model dominated, thanks in large part to Christianity and Islam. An earlier Age of the Bonobo may or may not have existed in the evolutionarily recent past (the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, say), but from the perspective of our era it seems quite new, not really gathering momentum until the 1960′s. So we would expect it to represent the progressive stance, and to make the chimpanzees amongst us feel under threat and act more conservatively.

Either way, it seems possible to me that the bonobo and chimpanzee lifestyles might offer hints about the deep, primitive impetuses that drive us humans. Mere logic sure as hell doesn’t. It might explain why our political system has two quite persistent ideologies. It may have something to say about the emotional and instinctive factors that underly the current desperate attempts of the religious right to regain their hold, and why right-wing politics and fundamentalist Christianity go together at all (despite much of the message of the New Testament). It may tell us what really lies underneath the present startling and troubling attempts in US politics to reinstate an oligarchy, if not a theocracy. It may explain why some people are willing to lie and deceive in order to get what they want, because cognitive dissonance is less painful than suppressing our primitive urges (which we don’t consciously understand). It may even explain why it’s virtually impossible for liberals and conservatives to understand each other at the most fundamental level. Perhaps all of this is because some of us are chimpanzees and some of us are bonobos; perhaps we are born or raised with fundamentally different assumptions.

You may have guessed that I’m biased towards the Bonobo Way of life. Perhaps the Day of the Chimpanzee is now an anachronism – an inappropriate adaptation to our new niche. I hope so. Perhaps, with luck, it will soon be over.

<fade up Imagine, by John Lennon>

Postscript: Aha! I just found this, which looks really promising: Our Inner Ape, by Frans de Waal. It seems that somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about may have explored this topic already. I guess I could have saved myself an afternoon’s work! I’ll read it and report back.


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