Of ants and humans: Some principles of social organization

by Bill Benzon

Mark Moffett’s The Human Swarm: : How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall (Basic Books 2019) is nothing less than a comprehensive review and synthesis of the academic literature on social life in humans and a wide variety of animals, including, among many others, ants, whales, jays, wolves, and chimpanzees. While written for general readers, this book will repay academic specialists of various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.

It is at heart a work of natural philosophy, an old term not in much use anymore. Moffett is interested in what constitutes society: how do we differentiate between insiders and outsiders? To do so he surveys the animal world and follows the distinction in the evolution of human societies from hunter-gatherer groups to the current day. Though Moffett has the skills and credentials of an academic specialist (he has a Harvard Ph. D.), he has written the kind of book specialists are discouraged from writing. That is all the more reason why those specialists must join interested “civilians” in reading The Human Swarm. For it is in books like this that many narrow specialized understandings are combined and synthesized into a more comprehensive understanding, in this case, understanding of the critically important issue of social identity.

On a lava plain in Australia

Let’s plunge right in by examining what was, for me, the most eye-opening passage in the book (122-23):

Between Mount Eccles and the sea in Victoria, Australia, on a lava plain laid down by a volcano eruption about 30,000 years ago, are the archaeological remains of hundreds of dwellings. The structures cluster in groups of a dozen or so, some so large they are partitioned into apartments. People by the thousands settled across that expanse in these small villages, members of settled tribes that jostled, fought, and forged lasting alliances.

The region around the villages was transformed into a vast, managed landscape, with streams and rivers variously dammed and diverted to create a labyrinthine yet integrated drainage system. The waterways, which extend for kilometers, are ancient, many dating back 8,000 years, with the system reaching its full glory 600 to 800 years ago. The canals were used to harvest wild game–a species of eel–with traps reaching a hundred meters long and constructed in some places of stone walls up to a meter high. The people also carved out artificial wetlands in which the young eels could thrive until they were large enough to eat, and caught the fish in such abundance that the excess could be preserved and stored for the off-season.

Like all the Aborigines elsewhere in Australia, the people at Mount Eccles lacked domesticated food. This entire elaborate infrastructure was the brainchild of hunter-gatherers. And yet the homes look to have been permanent, and some may have been occupied year-round–the descendants of the original residents claim this was so. Indeed, the lesson of the Mount Eccles Aborigines is that, even before societies took up farming, people had the option to reside in what I call a settled hunter-gather society.

There’s the shock, the notion of a settled hunter-gatherer society. It may be familiar enough in certain academic circles, but so far as I know it hasn’t entered the general discourse on the evolution of social organization.

In that discourse the simplest societies are hunter-gather societies where people live a small mobile bands consisting of, say 30 to 150 individuals. Then we have small village chiefdoms based on small scale horticulture and then on up to empires based on large scale agriculture. This Mount Eccles society doesn’t fit that pattern.

It is in fact an extreme example of a fission-fusion society. In such societies individuals spend most of their time in small groups where they recognize and are known by every other member in the group. But those groups will gather together on various occasions for various purposes. I’m thinking, for example, of the large bison hunts of the plains Indians of North America. It would be impossible for a single band to stampede a large herd of bison over a cliff, but a dozen of so bands working together could do it.

And so on and so forth, example by example, Moffett builds his argument.

And handful of propositions about society

As I worked my way through the book, various ideas would return time and again. This is an informal reckoning of them. I’m imagining, however, is a more mature science of society this informal reckoning would be replaced by and handful of quasi-mathematical propositions about social existence. We could then use those propositions to construct models of whatever social phenomena interested us. Note that I make no special claim that these, and only these, ten ideas underlie Moffett’s argument. I offer them, rather, and analytical pointers into the argument, as guides through the rich and complex tissue of mini-narratives that Moffett has gathered for our delectation.

1. Scale matters: Taken one by one, handful by handful, humans and ants are very different. Taken by the million, we are alike. Ants are so very different from us that one can reasonably wonder what they have to teach us. Moffet’s point is that, yes, individual humans are very different from individual ants, but when the numbers grow, to thousands, tens of thousands or millions or more, large groups of humans face problems similar to those faced by large groups of ants, and arrive at similar solutions: specialization and division of labor, even the use of slaves.

Whatever the spatial spread of an ant society, which can be miles and miles, their world is limited in scope. In that world, for example, the proximal sense of smell is HUGE, for that is how ants mark their trails and tell whether or not another ant is of their society. The world of even the smallest hunter gatherer band is, by contrast, much wider and more differentiated, with the distance senses of sight and hearing being very important.

Scale will come into play as human societies become larger and larger, necessitating social invention of various kinds.

2. Group vs. Society: Group members recognize one another as individuals. Mammals live in such groups; ants do not. But ants do recognize society, which divides the world in to US and THEM, as do all animals and humans. Ants demark social boundaries by scent: do you smell like us or not? Humans develop various ways of distinguishing between us and them. As societies grow in size, the variety of markers (see below) increases.

3. Identity: Think of it as the reflex of group and society. An individual’s identity links them to a group and a society, though through different mechanisms.

4. Fission/fusion: This is a big one. Various animal societies, including humans societies, are of a fission fusion type. Individuals spend most of their time living in groups where each individual recognizes each other individual. The groups in a society, in both animals and humans, will however gather together on a occasion for whatever reason – hang out, find mates, a collective hunt. There is relatively little aggression between members of different groups within the same society. Where individuals are in different societies, that’s a different and more dangerous matter.

Moffett has various remarks indicating that fission/fusion dynamics are likely very important in the emergence of societies of proto humans from societies of very clever apes. We know that apes, and other animals as well, have some form of culture. The idea is that fission/fusion dynamics pushes cultural invention over a tipping point so that apes become human, more or less. What’s being invented are markers.

5. Markers delimit societies: Markers delimit societies. Each society has it own marker or set of markers. Markers are almost exclusively human, though Moffett argues that certain pant-hoot cries among chimpanzees seem to serve this sort of function, as does some bird song. Humans, on the other hand, develop a wide variety of markers, not the least of which is language. Tattoos, hair styles, clothing, all can assume marker status. Among hunter gatherers the markers may be society-wide. In larger and more complex human societies one set of markers delimit sub-societies and groups within the larger society while another set of markers delimits the larger society from other such societies.

6. Drift: As societies become larger, the relative scope of individual contacts becomes smaller and smaller. This makes cohesion among groups within a society more and more difficult. Factions develop. At first they’re amicable, but as the society grows tension builds and the society begins to fracture.

7. Othering: At some point in the growth of a society factions drift too far apart. Conflicts multiply and factions will no longer consider one another as part of the same society. They have become Othered. At this point the society will fission into two (or more) separate societies. This can be a violent process.

Perhaps 6 and 7 should be subordinated to a more comprehensive concept.

8. No merging of societies: In both animals and humans it is not at all unusual for growing societies to splinter, giving birth to new societies (in the sense of the term that Moffett had developed). But it is very rare for separate societies in the same species to merge into a larger society. For the most part we’re concerned with human societies here.

On the one hand, this seems obvious. For separate societies to merge on equal terms they have to negotiate a common language and a common set of values, attitudes, etc. That’s very difficult. It’s much easier for a more powerful society to annex a less powerful one (conquest) in a subordinate role. Thus empires are born. Etc.

This needs to be explicated at the neural level. This is not the place for me to even sketch it out. I note that Beethoven’s Anvil, my book on music, has conceptual equipment that would be useful here, and that this matter is closely related to the evolution of humans that I alluded to in my remarks about fission/fusion societies in 4 above.

9. Chiefdoms and conquest: We’re now exclusively focused on human societies. The issue concerns the governance of ever larger societies. The emergence of chiefdoms, where particularly powerful individuals have influence over several villages within a society, allows for conquest. It’s one thing to engage in war with another society which you then obliterate. It’s another thing to conquer a society and assimilate it’s people into your own society. The emergence of chiefdoms allows for this.

10. Delegation: For a society to expand beyond the scope afforded by chiefdoms requires means of delegating authority. In a chiefdom the paramount chief has direct authority over the chiefs that rule other villages. It is very difficult to extend that authority beyond the distance one can travel in a day or so. To do so requires means of delegation: laws, hierarchy, taxes, bureaucracy, long distance communication, and so forth.

I apologize for the dry almost telegraphic exposition; most of the book is more like those Mount Eccles paragraphs. But I think it is important to realize that, in covering a wide range of social phenomena, Moffett has begun the process of sifting through a large body of knowledge to expose the underlying principles of social organization. For it is those principles that we most need to understand; our best chance of creating a better and more just world as we confront the accelerating reality of global climate change even as the world order that had existed in, say, the middle of the previous century, with its Cold War, crumbles amid rising tides of nationalist sentiment.

What about all of humankind uniting in a single harmonious society?

Here’s the opening of Moffett’s final chapter, “The Inevitability of Societies” (344):

Can we discard our societies, combine them into one, or at least make them secondary to a more universal union of humanity?

Here is a snippet of history that reads like a parable. For centuries, the Pacific island of Futurna, a low chunk of volcanic rock, at 46 square kilometers in size, offered space and resources for just two chiefdoms–Sigave and Alo. These societies, claiming opposite ends of the island, were in almost constant conflict, pausing only briefly now and then for island-wide ceremonies featuring a psychoactive drink made from a shrub native to the western Pacific. One wonders if this enabled their people to tolerate each other for the day. I can only imagine their spear-throwing clashes were a primary motivator in their lives, the Arab-Israeli conflict in a microcosm. One might expect that in such a confined space, and over the course of so much time, one chiefdom would have conquered the other. That this never happened might bear on the human craving for an outgroup, if not an outright opponent. Could Alo have continued on without Sigave–a society in a vacuum? Would it, alone in the world, even be what we could call a society?

Is Moffett correct, that we need to define ourselves against an outgroup? I don’t know. And, if so, does that condemn us to perpetual war? I hope not.

I am reminded of an essay written in 1947, written by the great Talcott Parsons, “Certain Primary Sources and Patterns of Aggression in the Social Structure of the Western World” (Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes, Vol. 2, 171-181). Parsons argued that Western societies generate many aggressive impulses in their citizens that cannot be expressed. What, then, happens with those impulses? They become directed against at external Other. And, in time that will lead to war – I note that Parsons wrote that essay in the wake of the Second World War. While Moffett shows no interest in the psychoanalytic framework that Parsons used, he is lead to a similar conclusion, ”Our misfortune has been, and will be always, that societies don’t eliminate discontent; they simply redirect it toward outsiders–which paradoxically can include the ethnic groups within them” (362).

Can we do better?

* * * * * *

Note: While working my way through the book I have written a serious of blog posts about it. You may read those posts here. I also intend to gather this review and those posts into a single document which you can download. That will take a day or two.