15 – #LOST

You leave home at the start of the day. Some time later, you reach into your pocket (or handbag). Your mobile is missing! You check your pockets, root around your bag: nothing. A brief flourish of panic: have you lost it? Left it behind somewhere? Then you remember: in your hurry to leave the house, you neglected to pick it up. It’s lying on your bed stand, where it always spends the nights, recharging while you sleep.

It’s too late to turn around, and you won’t be home for hours. You’re stuck. The panic fades, replaced with something else, a tug with a very specific quality, like the pulses of a phantom limb, coming in close succession as you realize you can’t tell your co-workers you’ll be late to a meeting, or arrange drinks with friends that evening, or be reached, if needed. You can not reach out, if needs be. You are alone – even in a crowd of people. If something should happen, no one you know would know. You have already disappeared.

Life flows on without you. People call and leave voice mails. Others send text messages. The impatient send petulant follow-ups, as their messages go ignored. You walk through the day in half a daze, continually feeling the absence of your mobile: as you wander up to a bus stop (what time is the next one?) – look at the skies (will it rain soon?) – or enter a supermarket (what should I bring home for dinner?). Everyone and everything within arm’s reach just a few hours ago has become almost impossible to manage. You muddle through – it’s not the end of the world, after all – but when you make it home, your mobile goes right back into your pocket, with a pat and a relieved sigh. Once again, you’re connected.

Something like this has happened to all of us, because we all have mobiles, and because mobiles have had the same profound effect on all of us. Seduced by the connected comforts they provide, we live in a world where every day it becomes more difficult to imagine life before we all had these magical, handheld lifelines bringing all of us exactly what we need, every single moment.

We can reach into our pockets and pull out a person, access millions of services, and gather more information than any of us could hope to digest. We do this all day, every day, an act so commonplace it solicits no reaction at all, except in its absence, when we lose track of our mobile, or when the network fails to work as we expect. The frustration we experience in those moments tells us this connection has become essential. We can live without it, but not as well.

The emergence of Homo Nexus – Connected Man – happened virtually overnight, like mushrooms springing up from a damp paddock. The ground had been well sown with the electric technologies of the 19th and 20th centuries: telegraph, landline telephone and radio all converged in 1980 within the first cellular telephone. Big, heavy and very expensive, the first mobiles became popular with the ultra-wealthy, who could afford both the mobiles themselves and the exorbitant usage fees they incurred. Wealth buys freedom, and the rich immediately understood the freedom afforded by the mobile, using the gadget to transact business and manage their own affairs, wherever they happened to be.

A similar transition happened with the introduction of landline telephony, during the last years of the 19th century. The wealthy brought landlines into their homes and businesses, using the telephone to extend their reach. The landline, however, connects to a place: an office, kitchen or bedroom. Ring a landline from a landline and you bring one place closer to another.

The mobile telephone dispensed with the importance of place. Where a landline connects to a place, a mobile connects directly to a person. There is no ‘where’ for the mobile. There is only ‘who’. When we ring someone on their mobile, and an unexpected voice answers, we experience a brief moment of displacement, as though we’d dialed Europe and gotten through to Mars instead. We suspect body-snatching: we’ve dialed a person, how could someone else answer? It’s as though the connection lost its way and connected to someone else.

What we lost in place we recovered in community, no longer suffering under the tyranny of distance. People who live far apart – or even just beyond a comfortable cooee – now enjoy as much intimacy as they care to allow. We live within each other’s pockets, available with a few pokes of a fingertip. We may not know where we are, but we know how we are related. Lost in space, but not alone, we are everywhere, even if we don’t quite know where.

It seems that place now matters less – and has always mattered less – than relation. We value our connection to others more than anything else, because that connection forms the foundation which brings us everything else. Don’t know where you are? It doesn’t matter: as long as you’re connected, you’re never truly lost.

14 – #WEB

With the wire, all of humanity collapsed into a single point. For those with radio and television, half a planet represented less distance, in lived experience, than the goings-on half a mile away. We began to know – and care about – things we had never seen, people we would never meet. With the wire, life began to assume a distinct quality of virtuality; some things became truly important to us, without ever touching us.This virtuality had been with us since the advent of language – when someone could place their ideas into our minds, continued with writing – which freed those ideas from bodies, preserving them against time, reaching a pinnacle with printing – which replicated ideas so broadly, everyone could be touched by them. With each advance, the boundaries of sharing extended, from a single person, to a city, to a culture. With the wire, those boundaries disappeared, and the planet assumed the dimensions of the city.

The city shares everything it knows about anything it finds interesting, from gossip to business to politics to natural philosophy. Some of what the city shares with itself speaks directly to the wire: it’s nature, design, and improvement. A culture wired together shares what it knows to improve its wiring. The point-to-point of the telegraph quickly mutated into the hand-switched fabric of the telephone exchange. The true innovation of the telephone is not the transmission of the voice, but the network which connects any two telephones together. The telegraph stitched the world into a cohesive whole, but the telephone connected any two points in space, bringing them together through the action of the network. More than simple connectivity, the telephone fostered collaboration, sharing between minds, across space, giving the individual voice global reach.

The fabric of the telephone network, first powered by vast numbers of human ‘switchboard operators’, yielded eventually to mechanization, wire working to improve wire. But these switches grew too big, too power hungry and complex, forcing a studied search for a solution. The scientific method – and the judicious application of funds – led to the hybridization of the wire with the digital capabilities of the computer. Just as the wire created the preconditions for the digital, so the digital later relieved the overburdened wire. These first ‘computers within the network’ (routers, as they’re known today) took signals from one part of the network and replicated these signals within another part of the network. The network is by definition a replicating machine, and a computer network is its amplification into a flexible, responsive and resilient replicator.

These digital networks, connecting computers – these newest telephone switchboards were actually computers – joined the discrete, two-way ‘holes in space’ into a larger unity. Every point now could simultaneously connect to every other point, recovering to the original unity of the wire. But this new unity needed no center, no master switchboard, through which all messages must pass. Every point could reach every other point, directly.

These points began to connect, and as they did, each point of the network explored its corresponding companion in connection, learning about it, recording that knowledge, and then sharing that knowledge when it connected to another point. The entire network began a process of self-discovery, an investigation of its shape, scope and capabilities. This sharing led to the improvement of the network. A culture networked together shares what it knows to improve its network. Some of these improvements concerned sharing – sharing about sharing – and with that, the World Wide Web was born. The Web created a platform for sharing, in an effort to provide the growing collection of documents within the network within a universal framework, making it as easy for people to share a book, photo, or song as they could share a conversation.

Once anything can be shared with everyone everywhere, the automatic next question is ‘with whom do we share?’. This layer of individual desire sits across the physical manifestation of the network, an intersection of relationship and capability. Once we can share, we become choosy in our sharing, and we begin to share about the ways that we can refine that sharing to suit our particular needs.

This is the core of the idea behind digital social networks – services such as Friendster, MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. These tools marry the capability of the network as a replicator to the relationships which we all carry within us. But these digital social networks, powered by computers and amplified by the reach of the network, carry us far beyond the limited set of connections we bear in our minds and bodies.

Just as the city took us beyond our biological limits, out of the tribe and into vast populations, so now digital social networks propel us beyond the comfortable boundaries of relationships, gathering us in new configurations of community. Facebook is a city of the mind; where we could not know everyone in the city, neither can we know everyone we connect to on Facebook – not in the same intimate way our tribal ancestors could. Yet we can now maintain relations with vast numbers of others, a different kind of knowing, neither intimate nor distant, but somewhere in between. This ground feels as new to us as the space within the city walls must have seemed to our ancestors.

Digital social networks amplify our social capabilities. Just as the telegraph, radio and television amplified our eyes and ears, giving them global reach, so now our web of relationships – the defining characteristic of our species – spans the planet. We connect and share with tools modeled from the contour of our minds, but which give us vastly more power. We are only in the first generation of these tools, using them to share what we know in an effort to make these tools better. A social network shares what it knows to improve its social network.

Humanity has always been a network of minds, connecting through the technology at hand. We have always put our minds to work to improve our connectivity. That has brought us to the threshold of universal hyperconnectivity.



13 – #WIRE

Writing created a collective memory for humanity, one which far outstripped the capability of any single mind, both in scope and duration. Clay, parchment and paper do not last forever – particularly before the advance of an invading army, launched by another city – but they do create a record that stands outside and beyond any single mind. Anyone who mastered the skill of writing – the high-technology of the fourth millennium BCE – could share in the wealth of information gathered by those who came before, or who lived in distant lands. The space for knowledge immediately transcended any particular place or time, becoming all places and all times.

The library is the visible manifestation of this cultural wormhole, where the works of all the sages, gathered together, provides a common mind unlike any previously known to humanity. Thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of volumes so extended the scope of knowing possible for any single person that a new creature – the scholar – came onto the scene. By definition well-read, the scholar assumed the roll of the ‘storyteller of the cities’, distilling the wisdom of the ancients into utility. Alexander the Great kept Aristotle close at hand, finding in Plato’s student a living encyclopedia of the known, knowledge Alexander put into practice to conquer the ancient world. As a king, Alexander could command scholars to serve him, and this, as much as any technology of war, gave him advantage.

One of Aristotle’s students founded the famed Library of Alexandria, the greatest collection of books in the ancient world. No one today knows how many texts the library housed – estimates range from several tens of thousands to half a million. By today’s standards, the most important library in history was no bigger than an average city or university library. Yet scholars spent entire lifetimes reading through the works, learning everything others had learned about the world. Much of this fell into history, poetry and rhetoric, but some works concerned themselves with observations of the ways of the world – natural philosophy.

The ancient Greeks knew of the peculiar properties of a substance they named electrum, which we today call amber. When rubbed against fabrics and furs, amber creates an electrostatic charge that can be literally hair-raising — and capable of mysterious attractions. Greek natural philosophers knew none of the whys, but knew how to make it happen, an observation passed down in their writings, and carried along in works which survived the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, the Fall of the Roman Empire, and the collapse of the Classical world. Within a few hundred years, Islamic scholars in Baghdad had recovered the thread, translating Ancient Greek texts into Arabic, which, as a result of the Crusades, soon made their way into Europe. (War spreads more knowledge than it tramples underfoot.)

These texts reached Europe in the years just before the technology of movable type turned a repurposed wine press into a replicating machine. Gutenberg’s printing technology automated the task of writing, making books reproducible in vast quantities, and, for the first time, easily affordable. Libraries, both institutional and personal, exploded, with an average gentleman’s library containing two hundred volumes. The printing press transformed every reader into a scholar. Readers with a thirst for natural philosophy quickly absorbed everything the ancients had written, moving on to the more recent Islamic scholars (who gave us Algebra and optics, among much else) using their writings as a springboard for their own investigations into the characteristics of the natural world.

These Europeans scholars used a common language (Latin) to communicate their results with one another, developing a methodology which demanded they share both the results and the process of their investigations, so that those results could be reproduced by others. Results that could not be reproduced would not be accepted as discoveries. This ‘scientific method’, a specific and refined form of sharing, made it possible for natural philosophers to quickly build upon the experimental results of their peers. Sharing across a common framework of scientific methodology amplified and accelerated the overall rate of discovery, improved the effectiveness of experiments, and lead to a huge growth of the amount known about the world, knowledge which would then be put to work in new experiments, leading to new discoveries, and so on, in an accelerating ‘virtuous cycle’ of reinforcement.

By the early eighteenth century, the ancients’ experiments with electrum had grown into a full investigation of the attractive and repulsive qualities of ‘electricity’. Benjamin Franklin identified lightning as electricity, while André-Marie Ampère established the relationship between electricity and magnetism, a relationship fully quantified, first by Michael Faraday, then by James Clerk Maxwell in his eponymous equations. In the years between Ampère and Maxwell enough had been learned that experimenters could create simple circuits, built from batteries, wires and magnets, circuits that could transmit a signal from one point to another, almost instantaneously.

In 1837, Samuel Morse conducted the first successful experiments in telegraphy, using the magnetic field created by a closed circuit to carry a signal. Suddenly, the field of human communication, no longer bounded by the reach of our voices or the speed of our horses, extended across the entire surface of the planet, bringing everyone, everywhere into a‘global village’. The whole planet united into a single city. This collapse of space and time transformed knowledge, enabling a sort of universal library, where information from anywhere could be delivered everywhere, immediately.

Until the modern era, human connectivity stopped at the city’s gates. Only a very few powerful individuals or institutions, able to afford their own messengers, could expect to have connectivity beyond the confines of a given urban area. The telegraph gave connectivity global reach, and collapsed the time for message transmission from months to moments. As distance collapsed, the amount of knowledge coming to each one of us increased: the telegraph led to the newspaper – which printed the articles ‘off the wires’ – then to radio and television.

All of this knowledge, continually presented to us, produced a corresponding pressure to preserve what had been learned. Just as the concentrated social sharing of the city heated the social crucible, and led to writing, so the electrification of communication created the preconditions necessary for digitization. We think of the first century of electrification as hopelessly ‘analog’, yet the dashes and dots of Morse code are the first binary encoding system. From the beginning, electrification has been essentially digital.

The digital is the response to the electric, just as writing was the response to the city.

12 – #WALL

Language allows us to share what we observe within the world: the passing of the seasons, the behaviors of animals, the stars in the skies above. Over thousands of years, a study of grasses led to an understanding of the relationship between seed and plant. Seeds could be sown, multiplying the number of plants. The Agricultural Revolution has its roots in language and the ability it confers upon us to transmit our experience and experiments.

Agriculture provides the caloric foundation populations far denser than the widely-disbursed hunter-gatherer tribes roaming the continents. People could be fed, but could they live together in vast groups? We have fixed physical limits for the number of individuals we can hold within our minds; for nearly two hundred thousand years, this kept the upper boundary of human groupings below the critical value of one hundred and fifty. Beyond that, you weren’t in one another’s heads – and this, for any primate, is an unacceptable state of affairs. We instinctively distrust strangers. Xenophobia may be shameful, but it is also perfectly natural, the visible echo of the limits of our ability to know others.

How could cities ever come to be? We find it nearly impossible and literally inconceivable to tolerate the presence of unknown others. There must have been an internal, psychological conflict, as we confronted our fear of the other. Yet we inexorably drew together, compelled by something so powerful it overwhelmed our innate reticence.

Before language we knew only what we carried within ourselves. Once we acquired the ability to talk, we knew everything worth telling to anyone within the tribe. Language gave us a weak group-mind, broadening of our knowing, producing an amplification of capabilities, propelling us into an understanding of the world wrought in stories and myths. The linguistic tribe triumphed, and established a precedent: coming together in a shared mindspace conferred obvious benefits.

These benefits acted as the lure to draw us out of our tribal selves and into the new social configuration of the city. The division of labour that is a defining characteristic of urbanization trades intimacy for capability, a bargain that leaves us vastly more powerful and consequently more isolated. The city has always been anonymous, precisely because it transcends our ability to know everyone within it. In reaction, we withdraw within ourselves and draw together within tight groupings of consanguinity. We put up a wall, both within ourselves, and around our families.

The city is defined by the wall. Both defensive technology and psychological boundary, the city wall separates the elect from the exiled, echoing of the close familiarity of the tribe, but at a greater scale. People gathered within the wall share an identity as residents of the polis, and the wall stands as the visible marker of their affiliation. Within those walls, overwhelmed individuals found sanctuary and meaning as they turned to something outside the province of their personal and intimate experience. The city-dweller defines himself in relation to the culture of the city.

This culture brings with it capacities impossible for and inconceivable to the tribe. Tribes can wage war, but cities raise armies – vast and highly organized – to raze other cities. The properties of the army portray, in miniature, the defining characteristics of the city, with its faceless anonymity, division of labor and amplification of individual capability.

With thousands of inhabitants, the city represented a wealth of human experience too great for any single person to apprehend. Each member of the tribe can know the important stories of their tribe, but there are a million stories in the city. Our capacious memories can not contain them. Where stories are lost, or forgotten, some of the meaning of – and justification for – the city disappears. In order to preserve itself, and maximize its own advantage, the city had to create its own form of language, one that could facilitate the sharing of minds beyond our individual capacity to encompass the stories told by others.

From this pressure to cohere, language concretized into writing. Although the earliest texts from Sumer are scribes’ accounts (here accuracy perfectly maps onto success) the first narrative work – the oldest written story – the Epic of Gilgamesh, both begins and ends with a meditation on the walls of the city of Uruk:

Go up on the wall of Uruk and walk around,
examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly.
Is not even the core of the structure made of kiln-fired brick,
and did not the Seven Sages themselves lay out its plans?
One league city, one league palm gardens,
one league lowlands, the open area of the Ishtar Temple,
three leagues and the open area of Uruk the wall encloses.

The story of an urbanized humanity is the story of walls, and a walled-in humanity, stewing in its own stories and experiences, people who need writing to make the experience of the city something commonly accessible. Writing becomes the speech of the city, the mechanism through which each generation passes along what it has learned. Writing is the vehicle of city culture, defining the psychological walls which separate residents from foreigners. Without writing, there can be no law. Tribes function on lines of custom and tradition, but cities have edicts, ukases, and commandments. The Decalogue are specifically indicated to have been written by the hand of God. The law may be ‘written on men’s hearts’, but it is always written.

One of the few surviving fragments attributed to the Presocratic philospher Heraclitus goes, “The people should fight for the Law as if for their city-wall.” The law of the city is the culture of the city, the internal representation of belonging. Just as the walls protect from invasion, the law protects against a cultural disintegration. Laws hold our innate xenophobia in check, bound by cultural prohibitions, compelling us to accept those we do not know, so long as they adhere to the same rules.

We wage a constant war within ourselves. Our oldest parts want to be clannish, insular, and intensely xenophobic. That’s what we’re adapted to. That’s what natural selection fitted us for. The newest parts of us realize real benefits from accumulations of humanity too big to get our heads around. The division of labor associated with cities allows for intensive human productivity, hence larger and more successful human populations.

The city is the real hub of human progress; more than any technology, it is our ability to congregate together in vast numbers, sharing what we know, that has propelled us into modernity.




11- #WORD

In the beginning is the word.

Impossible to conceive of a time before language, because to conceive thoughts requires the articulation of language, we can not project ourselves backward into the minds of forbears before speech. Even where we can not talk, every gesture we make and every grunt we sound has been shaped by a mind that thinks in words.

Creatures of language, we both master and become captive to the flow of ideas that spring forth from our mouths. The fish swims, the bird flies, and the human speaks. We do not know how this happened, nor when, though perhaps we now know where — on the plains of southern Africa. We have never asked why we speak. The answer has always been obvious.

The pressures of survival drive all living things to explore the full range of their innate capabilities. For human beings, survival has always been a social skill, thriving by working together. Across tens of millions of years we watched one another closely, and used that observation to get into each other’s heads. That was powerful – because we were smart. As we grew more social, we learned to wage war and raise children far more effectively.

We had always grunted, signaling with our voices – just as all primates do. Within the depths of our minds, already hypertrophied from managing our social relationships, we expanded this repertoire, modulating and clarifying these sounds. Each refinement made it possible to share our own mental state more concisely and completely than ever before. The drive to speech is its own reward: the more clearly you can make yourself understood, the more closely you can work together, and the more successful you will be as a group. Even a little bit of speech improves things so much that the advantages of a fully-developed language follow along immediately.

Ontogeny recapitulates philology.” The transition from simple words – perhaps something close to ‘baby talk’ – into the full, and infinitely flexible creative tool we use as our principal means of communication, likely took less than a billion seconds.

Within a few generations we had become inseparable from our linguistic skills. Speech had become synonymous with being human, because it conferred upon us far greater depth in our social relations, now populated not just with feelings and actions, but with the thoughts of others. Speech allows us to know the minds of those around us; though we don’t equate speech with telepathy, those very first linguistic humans wouldn’t have recognized any difference. Speech is the first technology of connection, bringing minds together, and improving the performance of both the individual and the tribe.

With language comes the capability for a distributed coordination: “Go there and do that.” Working together no longer necessitates working in close quarters. There is safety in numbers, but there is another kind of strength in the distributed intelligence of a tribe verbally coordinating their activities in pursuit of a specific goal. Much of that strategic capability would have been applied to martial pursuits, crafting a battle plan wrought in words. The endless chatter of women, seemingly so casual and frivolous, serves to continuously reinforce the web of social relationships, and thereby ensuring that these women and their children will have resources to draw upon.

It is impossible to imagine a wordless myth. Chimpanzees may dance about in a thunderstorm, but without words, this act remains a reflection of the present, and can never be a frame around the past, nor a presentiment of the future. Words are the vehicles for myth. “In the beginning was the word.” As soon as we learned to speak, we began to tell stories of origin, of great deeds, of the eventual and the eternal. We learned these stories, passing them down the generations.

Most of these stories contained within them some information which helped those who heard the story to understand their world. This useful bit of knowledge made life somewhat easier for those who knew these stories, each story distilling hard-won human experience into a digestible and memorable form. Those who knew many stories had more experience to draw upon, and act upon. “All doing is knowing, all knowing and doing.”

The stories we tell ourselves act as encyclopedias, telling us everything about how the world works. Those who know more will do better and will be more successful, on the whole. Language increases capability, and stories – memorized language – further amplifies those capabilities. Just as we are driven to speak, so we are driven to learn and tell stories.

From the Paleolithic through to the present, every culture comes with its own set of stories, carefully conserved and passed down through the generations, inviolable and immutable because the words themselves hold the culture together. The ‘dreamings’ – mythologies – of Australian aboriginals have been preserved, coherently and without significant change, for fifty thousand years. These stories present a specific, cultural map of the known world, an encyclopedia of facts framing a landscape that did not change in any significant way until the arrival of British settlers in 1788.

Stories alter the people who hear them, changing behaviour, forming expectations, and setting limits. Just as language has become both a liberation and a prison, stories release and constrain us. As the generations pass, these stories accrue, usually quite slowly, reflecting a mostly-unchanging world. In times of threat or disaster, these stories might grow by leaps and bounds, as traumatic events faded into a past of mythological dimensions. At other times the stories themselves might even transform the storytellers, taking them outside of themselves, and into a different world.

10 – #WOMB

Enter the world of women, who have been here, all along, gathering food, giving birth and raising children, and mourning the dead lost to wars. As women have done for millions of years. Somewhere in the past two million years, something changed for women, as the perfectly natural became utterly dangerous. All because of our drive to socialize.

Human birth is a singular thing in the animal world. Among the primates, human babies are the only ones born facing downward and away from the mother. They’re also the only ones who seriously threaten the lives of their mothers as they come down the birth canal. That’s because our heads are big. Very big. Freakishly big. One of the very recent evolutionary adaptations in Homo Sapiens is a pelvic gap in women that creates a larger birth canal, at the expense of a woman’s ability to walk. Women walk differently from men – much less efficiently – because they give birth to such large-headed children.

There’s two notable side-effects of this big-headed-ness. The first is well-known: women used to die in childbirth, regularly. Until the first decade of the 20th century, about one in one hundred pregnancies ended with the death of the mother. That’s an extraordinarily high rate, particularly given that a women might give birth to ten children over their lifetime. Now that we have survivable caesarian sections and all sorts of other medical interventions, death in childbirth is a hundred times rarer – perhaps 1 in 10,000 births. Nowhere else among the mammals can you find this kind of danger surrounding the delivery of offspring. This is the real high price we pay for being big-brained: we very nearly kill our mothers.

The second side-effect is less well-known, but so pervasive we simply accept it as a part of reality: humans need other humans to assist in childbirth. This isn’t true for any other mammal species – or any other species, period. But there are very few examples of cultures where women give childbirth by themselves (even in these cultures, solitary childbirth is considered aspirational). Until the 20th-century medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth, this was ‘women’s work’, and a thriving culture of midwives managed the hard work of delivery. (The image of the chain-smoking father, waiting nervously outside the maternity ward for news of his newborn child, is far older than the 20th century.)

For at least a few hundred thousand years – and probably a great deal longer than that – the act of childbirth has been intensely social. Women come together to help their sisters, cousins, and daughters pass through the dangers of labor and into motherhood. If you can’t rally your sisters together when you need them, childbirth will be a lonely and possibly lethal experience. This is what it means to be human: we entered the world because of the social capabilities of our mothers. Women who had strong social capabilities, women who could bring her sisters to her aid, would have an easier time in childbirth, and would be more likely to live through the experience, as would their children.

After the child has been born, mothers need even more help from their female peers; in the first few hours, when the mother is weak, other women must provide food and shelter. As that child grows, the mother will periodically need help with childcare, particularly if she’s just delivered another child. Mothers who can use their social capabilities to deliver these resources will thrive. Their children will thrive. This means that these capabilities tended to be passed down, through the generations. Just as men had their social skills honed by generations upon generations of resource warfare, women had their social skills sharpened by generations upon generations of childbirth and child raising.

All of this sounds very much as though it’s Not Politically Correct. Today, men raise children while women go to war. But our liberation from our biologically determined sex roles is a very recent thing. Yet behind this lies hundreds of thousands of generations of our ancestors who did use their skills along gender-specific lines. That’s left a mark; men tend to favor coordination in groups – whether that’s a war or a football match – while women tend to concentrate on building and maintaining a closely-linked web of social connections. Women seem to have a far greater sensitivity to these social connections than men do, but men can work together in a team – to slaughter the opponent (on the battlefield or the playing field).

The prefrontal cortex, that part of our brain sitting immediately behind our foreheads, and freakishly large in human beings when compared to chimpanzees, seems to be where this magic happens, where we keep these models of one another. Socialization has limits, because our brains can’t effectively grow much bigger. Big brains already nearly kill our mothers. Big brains consume about 25% of the energy in the food we eat, and our big brains aren’t even done growing until five years after we’re born – leaving us defenseless and helpless far longer than any other mammals. That’s another price we pay for being so social.

But we’re maxed out. We’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. If our heads get any bigger, there won’t be any mothers left living to raise us. So here we are, caught between war and womb, power and affection, coordination and affiliation. Ten thousand years ago, human tribes covered the planet, with each tribe circumscribed within population boundaries determined by the limits of our minds to know the minds of those around us. Caged by our capacity, it might have seemed as though humanity had reached a steady-state. The generations passed, but the social order never changed.

Then someone built a city.

9 – #WAR

A warm late afternoon, hanging out in the trees in Africa’s Rift Valley. Just you and your friends – probably ten or twenty of them. You’re all males; the females are elsewhere, mothering and gathering. At a signal from the chief, all of you drop out of the trees, fall into line, and begin a trek that takes you throughout the little bit of land you call your own, with your own trees and plants and bugs that keep you well fed. You go all the way to the edge of your territory, to the border of the territory of a neighboring tribe. That tribe – about the same size as your own – is dozing in the heat of the afternoon, all over the place, but basically within sight of one another.

Suddenly – and silently – you all cross the border. You fan out, still silent, looking for the adolescent males in this tribe. When you find them, you kill them. As for the rest, you scare them off with your screams and your charges, and, at the end, they’ve lost some of their own territory – and trees and plants and delicious grubs – while you’ve got just a little bit more. And you return, triumphant, with the bodies of your enemies, which you eat, with your tribe, in a victory dinner.

This all sounds horrid and nasty and mean and just not cricket. The scourge of war, as familiar to us today as it would have been to our most distant human ancestors. But war begins before we did, an inheritance which came to us from those species which came before us.

How do we know that ‘war’ stretches this far back into our past? A paper published in Current Biology and reported in THE ECONOMIST described how primatologists have seen this precise, coordinated, warlike behavior among chimpanzees, in their natural habitats in the rain forests of central African. The scene I just described isn’t ten million years old, or even ten thousand, but current. Chimpanzees wage war. This kind of tribal warfare is exactly what was commonplace in New Guinea and the upper reaches of Amazonia until relatively recently – certainly within the last few billion seconds. War is a behavior common to both chimpanzees and humans – so why wouldn’t it be something we inherited from our common ancestor?

War. What’s it good for? If you win your tiny tribal war for a tiny bit more territory, you’ll gain all of the resources in that territory. Which means your tribe will be that much better fed. You’ll have stronger immune systems when you get sick, you’ll have healthier children. And you’ll have more children. As you acquire more resources, more of your genes will get passed along, down the generations. Which makes you even stronger, and better able to wage your little wars. If you’re good at war, natural selection will shine upon you.

What qualities make you good at war? You’re good at war if you and your tribe can function effectively as a unit. To do that, you must be able to coordinate your activities to attack (or defend) territory. We know language skills don’t go back millions of years, so our pre-human ancestors did this the old-fashioned way, with gestures and grunts and an ability to get into the heads of the other members of the tribe. That’s the key skill: if you can get into one another’s heads, you can think as a group. The better you can do that, the better you will do in war. The better you do in war, the more offspring you’ll have. That skill, reinforced by natural selection, transforms, over thousands of generations, into evolution. With every generation you get better at knowing what your tribe is thinking.

This is the beginning of the social revolution.

All the way back here, before we looked anything like human, we grasped the heart of the matter: we must know one another to survive. If we want to succeed, we must know each other well. There are limits to this knowing, particularly with our small-brained ancestors. Knowing someone well takes a lot of brain capacity, and soon that fills up. When it does, you can’t know everyone around you intimately. As that happens the tribe grows increasingly argumentative, confrontational, eventually fracturing into two independent tribes. All because of a communication breakdown.

There’s strength in numbers; if I can manage a tribe of thirty while all you can manage is twenty, I’ll defeat you in war. There’s pressure, year after year, to grow the tribe, and, quite literally, to stuff more people into the space between your ears. For many generations that pressure leads nowhere; then there’s a baby born with just a small genetic difference, one which allows just a bit more brain capacity, so it can manage one or two or three more people — a small difference with a big impact. Genes that lead to success in war get passed along very rapidly; soon everyone holds a few more people inside their heads. But that capability comes with a price. Those pre-humans have slightly bigger brains, within slightly bigger heads. They need to eat more to keep those bigger brains well-fed. And those big heads would eventually prove very problematic.


Mammals are social beings. Reptiles spawn, bury their eggs, and crawl away; mammals give birth, and mother their offspring. This isn’t a quality unique to mammals – many birds do a fine job of raising their egg-hatched young – but it is completely pervasive among the mammals. The mother-child bond sits as the center of all social relationships, the foundation for all future behavior.

Some mammals – lions, for example – share the child-raising burden. A pride of lions generally includes a creche wherein the females collaboratively and collectively preserve the welfare of all of the lion cubs. This pooling of labor frees the mother for the hunt: a lion with a new-born cub and without a creche faces the unenviable choice between starvation and leaving her cubs undefended among all of the dangers of the veld.

Other mammals, such as wolves, use highly practiced social skills to function as a single and highly effective unit. Wolves were once the top predators within many ecosystems, their focused sociability making them fierce, relentless, and very dangerous. This ‘pack behavior’ – which we harnessed as a tool when we domesticated wolves as dogs, thirty thousand years ago – emerges from a deep social awareness: wolves are always conscious of their peers.

Bats live in crowded colonies that can number in the millions. Elephants have “families” that live together throughout their decades-long lives. Dolphins frolic in “pods”, using play both to teach and to reinforce social bonds. The bison of the American Great Plains once gathered in numbers to great to be counted, making the annual migration as a single, vast body. The wildebeest of Africa and reindeer of the Arctic still do so today.

There is strength in numbers, and safety.

A few insects – most notably, ants and bees – exhibit highly social behavior. But rather than a quality of their behavior, their social nature has become the whole of the thing. Bees exist to serve the hive, ants to provide for the nest. Everything characteristic of the social insects, from metabolism to reproduction to communication, subordinates itself the social order. This social organization has made both species impressively resilient; ridding your house of an ant infestation is no easy task, nor can you simply scare away a hive of bees. A more holistic approach must be taken, considering all the ants, and all the bees. Move the hive carefully and the bees won’t mind — much. Upset those bees, and you’ll find yourself the target of a distributed yet coordinated, painful and possibly life-threatening attack. Social animals – whether insects or mammals – have a peculiar ferocity that their non-social cousins lack.

Our particular branch of the mammal tree – the primates, and within them, the smaller and more familiar group of hominids – has social qualities utterly familiar to all of us. The family forms the basic unit, and a group of families form a troupe (or tribe). The specific social dynamics of these families and tribes differ from species to species: chimpanzees are all about power and dominance; bonobos use affection and sex to maintain their relationships; gorillas sit somewhere between the two. We humans get the full menu, using power and love in equal measure as we make our way in the social world. A good parent tempers the use of power with a larger dose of affection. Both are indispensable, both parts of the behavioral ‘kit’ that came down from our ancestors.

Looking back down tree of life to the last common ancestor of the hominids, long before Homo Sapiens, or the proto-human Australopithecus, before we evolved away from the chimpanzees, (five million years ago), or the the gorillas (ten million years ago), we find a creature known as Pierolapithecus, a true ‘missing link’ connecting us to our nearest cousins. We know very little about the species – just a few bone fragments found in Spain. Smaller than us, certainly, and not yet walking upright – that comes along much later. If you squint and imagine some sort of mash-up of the characteristics of humans, chimpanzees and gorillas, you might be able to get a glimmer of what Pierolapithecus looked like.

We can say with certainty that Pierolapithecus was a profoundly social species, because all of the species descended from Pierolapithecus – including humans – live in communities rich with social signalling. Pierolapithecus lived in family units, just as gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and humans do. Pierolapithecus explored the same boundaries between power and affection which frame our own family lives.

While Pierolapithecus could not speak, if transported back across the ages to observe their behavior, we would understand it – because that behavior has been retained within us. Whether human or Pierolapithecus, we don’t do well on our own. Alone, we make an easy meal for a lion or wolf. A troupe, on the other hand, can mount a common defense, keeping watch, alerting others, protecting the women and children. Pierolapithecus’ social skills helped them survive in a hostile environment, filled with big and toothy predators. The troupes with the best social skills had the best chance to survive long enough to raise children to adulthood, children who learned and practiced the same social skills.

In this way, natural selection pressures have consistently honed our social nature. Long before we were human, we were social. From the moment we first expressed any social capability, those skills were put to the test, refined, applied, tested again, refined again, and reapplied endlessly, a sort of Groundhog Day of repetition which leads inevitably to gradual improvement – or extinction.

Since we’re still here, we can rest assured we learned our lessons well. The line of mammals, perhaps 200 millions years long, provided ample opportunity for trial-and-error, extinction and success. When we recognize familiar social behavior in a meerkat, we are reflecting upon that shared evolutionary process. Our social nature, beaten into us by time and testing, has fashioned all mammals into creatures capable of succeeding through cooperative effort.