32 – #SHARP

Two people meet. They do not know each other, but thrown together – perhaps in a taxi, or sitting next to each other on a long flight – they break an uncomfortable silence with conversation. Too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry – everyone always starts with the weather, climate being the one thing we all share in common.

Somewhere during this conversation something else comes up – a mention of a child, a visit to a faraway land, or a favored pastime, immediately seized upon as broader common ground, a platform for further conversation. This exploration of what each knows begins with a series of confirmations of knowledge shared (we both know these things) but as conversation deepens it sharpens, reassurance transforming into exploration: what do you know? What can you teach me? What can I share with you that will surprise, delight or amaze you?

Under the right conditions, all of this can happen in a minute or less. We are spectacularly good at detecting and zooming in on the things that unite us (and, unfortunately, those that divide us), prepared to go deep in order to display our own prowess (thereby gaining in social standing), and equally prepared to become the student, when we stumble upon a true master.

A behavior this immediate and casual forms a template we repeat throughout every corner of our lives. All of our relations have this quality of discovery, where we assume one of three postures: master; student; or exploring together. Where several people come together to share, we will assume all of these roles simultaneously, teaching some, learning from others, and joining in open-ended endeavors.

From tribe to megalopolis, every grouping of humanity has seen us mix and match ourselves into these human networks of sharing. The antecedents of our schools, we have always come together in numbers to learn from one another, to teach one another, and to delve into the unknown. Most of our relations can be characterized in these terms: elders teaching the young; young learning from the experience of the old; lovers and friends striking out together on life’s great journey.

This, more than anything else, might be humanity’s defining quality. A recent study compared young chimpanzees with human toddlers on a range of intelligence tests. The humans blew past the chimpanzees because they learned from one another, teaching one another, pooling their knowledge to solve the tasks set before them. Chimpanzees, although very much as bright as those toddlers, did not share what they knew, and so had to re-invent the solution, every single time.

We share, and so take the shortcut, leveraging all previous experience into the present moment, sharpening the blunt instrument of our intelligence against the whetstone of learning. For time beyond measure, human culture has been so rich that we need to become learned in its ways, and we sustain this complexity only because we have developed effective techniques to cram all of it into the heads of the young. If we learned nothing from one another, we would still be arboreal foragers in the Rift Valley of East Africa, like our chimpanzee cousins.

Instead, we have schools, where we gather together in formally acknowledged roles of student and master, codifications of relations that existed informally but pervasively within the tribe. Yet the previous patterns persist, innate, immediate, and natural. In or out of school, we can not help but learn, nor can we stop ourselves from teaching.

Schools have always required the proximity of the city, students gathering together with masters in the Academy. In the tribe we were all together all the time, always available for any moment when knowledge could be shared. In our new-found hyperconnectivity we have recovered that moment, amplified with all of the tools and techniques of ten thousand years of school. We are always available to learn or to teach, but now we can learn from four and a half billion, and be taught by any of them, freely associating ourselves in common pursuit.

We share and thereby ‘find the others’ who share our passions and our pursuits, associating with them online and in the flesh, forming communities of ‘gurus’ and ‘n00bs’, each with a role to play. The student must sit at the feet of the master and learn. If they refuse to endure the necessary rites of passage, they will be heckled and ridiculed and excluded until they accept their place within the hierarchy of relations which characterizes all such groups.

Prized to the degree they choose to commit to the teaching of those less advanced, the teacher must balance teaching with learning, lest they fall behind in their own expertise, losing their place of prominence within that hierarchy of relations. Withdraw too completely and be considered selfish; give too willingly and lose one’s position. Those who can must do and teach.

The number of peers-in-expertise decreases as one approaches the pinnacle of craft. The more expert one becomes, the greater the pressure to demonstrate that expertise. These demands slow forward progress, and where nearly everyone is less expert, those demands become onerous. The most expert withdraw behind a cloud of mystery, and a guild materializes, a barrier between initiates and the hoi polloi.

A thousand years ago, that withdrawal would have kept knowledge hidden away, locked securely within a community of experts, but that withholding – a form of censorship – can not be sustained in the age of omniscience. Experts can remove themselves, but they can not remove their expertise. You can no longer take your toys and go home. Even where someone stops playing the game, the game goes on.

With a constant pressure from beneath to improve, there is no escape into expertise, only an increasing acceleration into greater expertise. Association becomes the only way to maintain expertise; there’s simply too much for any one mind to absorb. Communities spontaneously differentiate, relying upon individuals to be reservoirs of particular expertise within a greater body of expertise, knowing that all can be called upon as required, providing collective capacities far greater than any of its individuals.

This book is a shared pursuit – not just of the two co-authors, but of all readers interested in the topics explored in these hundred chapters. For this reason, we are now making public all of our research links – collected over the last 12 months – so we can more broadly learn from one another, and explore this collective sharpening of our minds.

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.