I consider myself to be an observer of life. Sure, I participate in life but mostly observe, analyse and look to understand it. Like you and most people, I read the news and read what people put onto social media, I listen to people when they talk, I watch films and TV shows of all types bar soap operas.
Also, probably like you and many others, after gorging on entertainment, news and people’s activities, most of the time I am left wondering what the hell is this all about? Why do people live the lives they live? Why are people so awkward in their daily activities? Why do people pick on those who are different? How do we justify our actions, whether good or bad? How do we decide right and wrong, a concept that changes as society evolves?
Has taken me 42 years to understand the nature of human interaction and human life. Has been a gradual process. Being a man who has given much of himself and his time to others, this is a bitter pill to swallow.
The Great Lie: We are not a social species
We are piss poor at social. We try. Boy do we try but we get social so wrong because we are not a social species. We delude ourselves into believing we are social and, so by extensions, sociable. But, when we consider the origin (singular) of human societies and the origins (plural) of language and review human life within any developed society from that root and we can only come to one conclusion: We are not inherently social.
Side note: We should remember that in the human context social and sociable are not mutually tied to one and other. There are many sociable loners and often wars between recognisably true social animals.
The birds and the bees
Ants and bees are social animals. They live in colonies. A colony without its queen will perish quickly. Each member of the colony acts to benefit the queen and the whole of the colony. Few ants or bees act out of personal self interest. Drones have no sex life. The fate of the colony’s heritage rests with the child bearing queen and its chosen mate.
Any species that gives up personal gratification and the right to procreate must be a species that acts out of group interest so must be a social species, right?
Birds live in nests. Where we see one bird nest we usually see more bird nests in close proximity. Birds tend to congregate in groups. Birds mate, lay eggs, the eggs hatch, the parents teach their young to fly then send them on their way. Are these social animals or animals that just choose to group together for safety?
Domestic cats. Most people would say cats are not social animals. Cats do as they please, go where they want and usually hate seeing other cats in their territory. I have a cat, two cats if we include the stray I feed, de-flea and house on cold days & nights. Cats are sociable, patient and pleasant to humans. Few cats readily accept the presence of other cats treading the same patch of Earth but we do know cats will live in cat societies when it serves them to do so.
The origin of human society
We are born into these huge societies where people are socially connected by housing estates, phones, the Internet, TVs, radios and printed media. People rarely question the existence of schools, hospitals, shops and technology. We easily forget or never question that civilisation and society has not always been the way it is, the way it was when we were born into it.
To understand the nature of society we first need to reverse engineer society. To do this we need to strip away the trappings of modern life, to imagine land with no built houses or huts, to assume only pockets of spread out groups of humans with populations fewer than 50 people each, and to bring back predators that hunt humans.
Imagine you are a member of a tribe that numbers 25 people. You know every member of the group. You do your bit to help the tribe because if you don’t help your tribe you become a deadweight who endangers the tribe’s future and its unity. Huts have not been invented yet so you live in a cave and sometimes, when necessary to stay alive, you sleep high up in a tree.
Lucky for you, the tribe genius observed that fires start in woods when trees and plants are dry and the wind blows long and hard so he rubbed two sticks together and discovered how to make fire.
Armed with fire your tribe is less prone to being attacked by predators but attracts more attention from other human tribes who offer to trade wares in return for magic fire-sticks. You now have huts through trade and friendly relations with neighbouring tribes.
But then.. disaster! A member of another tribe drops his fire-stick in the woods while carrying it to his tribe. Animals perish, food plants burn (plant cultivation has yet to be invented) and other tribes lose members. Guess who gets the blame?
Jump a few hundred years forward and we see tribes at war over long forgotten magic spell cast by a witch several hundred years ago. Some tribes have formed strategic alliances to help them battle other tribes. Jump further centuries ahead and we see ever bigger societies and civilisations form as groups merge and expand outwards to cover more land with buildings and roads.
Go a few hundred years before your birth into the tribe and we see a smaller tribe. A few thousand years before and we see a small family hunt, forage and roam the land with occasional interaction with other small families. Humans are still too few to form tribes, land is plentiful, food is plentiful and no one worries about people eaten by predators because language has yet to develop to the stage where people can communicate enough of a life story to engage someone’s emotions. But there is sex and humans from different families can bond through it and there is art so people can draw pictures of animals with big teeth chasing cave people. Yes, that picture on the cave wall of the red haired woman with big boobs being chased by a sabre toothed tiger was the one you hooked up with when the trees had brown leaves. That second scene on the wall of the woman with one arm who is cradling a baby is her now.
Language developed complexity as the need arose and as societies formed. A small family of early humans had little need to use many verbal words to convey information. We have touch, gestures and drawings. Who needs a name for a mammoth if there are none to encounter? Who needs a name if there is no reason to tell it to someone and when a grunted “oi!” in various tones will effect the required response?
This still leaves open the ‘why’ questions. Why did we form groups? Why do we bother to help others? Why do we call ourselves a social species when we are so epically bad at social. If there were a competition to find the least social animals in the Universe we humans would be among the frontrunners to win it.
Side Note: Much of the above is my own conjecture of a plausible evolutionary route taken by human societies as they grew from small family bands to large cities and nations that use complex language. Poke holes where you will. I’m strong enough to take it. As I wrote it imagery of a pride of lions came to mind.
We are a transactional species
We do what we do because we decide the outcome of any action performed yields a transactional benefit. When there is no benefit offered we find excuses to get out of activities; this leaves us free to waste time doing nothing of any importance to life or society. For instance, people prefer to sleep than do to something that offers no transactional benefit.
Ask any child above toddler age to help with chores and you will nearly always get back a cry of ‘What’s in it for me?’ Parents invariably find themselves bribing and manipulating their children to help with chores once children realize their own value and develop a sense of individuality.
The cities and towns we live in are a happy by-product of people building houses close together so they can be near amenities and others who they can trade with. Few people say to themselves ‘I will build my home here so I can give all my time to others for free even though my new neighbours can offer me nothing in return’. People live where they live because they have either no choice but to be where they are or because it benefits them in some way.
We went from small family groups to multifamily groups, to small villages which grew into small towns which grew into small cities. We went from tree and cave dwellings to mud and wooden huts to stone and brick huts. Brick houses in cities did not magic out of thin air though it might seem this way because we were born into them and rarely consider their evolution. Few connect tribes in the Amazon who live in wooden huts with tribes in England who live in brick houses.
People frequently go outside of home to go to work, to visit relatives or to shop, for example, but they do as much as they can to avoid conversation with anyone they pass along the journey. Sure, we nod to acknowledge people we pass but we prefer to duck ‘n’ dive when we see someone we know unless there is a need to speak. We all do this. Every. Single. One. Of. Us.
We avoid people who might delay us. We avoid people who might ask us favours when they can offer us nothing in return. We avoid people who provide no benefit to us. We try every trick in the book to keep ourselves from anyone else’s attention. We walk the paths of our towns with selectively blinkered eyes and with ears alert to the voices owned by those we know so that we can decide whether to hide or approach. We pretend to be act different but when we look at ourselves for honest answers for the motives of our behaviour we realise we act in self interest.
Whether it is an emotion, a physical object, the improvement of our status, sex or some different prize, self interest is the reason for all our actions: there is always a benefit to any action we consciously choose to perform.
The only selfless act we perform is to look after our own children. Even then we do so in knowledge they are our future and they hold our genetic material with them and will continue our genetic line.
Whichever way we look at the individual self, our species and our actions, we come off as a Transactional Species that only acts in self interest.
During the course of a person’s life he or she develops mannerisms, personal rituals, preferences, interests, tolerances, sense of worth to others, and stances on what is negotiable in trades with others. Through internal dialogue we develop a Culture of Self complete with personal mythology and personal history. When we look into the world we view it with reference to this self context.
The self grows as we journey through life. The ‘self’ will grow from the individual ‘me’ to include other individuals and objects. The self will shrink at different stages in life as objects and other people lose their value to to The Self or as The Self’s value to other people and groups lessens.
We identify and de-identify both animate and inanimate Others as extensions of the individual me, The Self. We group with others when there is a benefit and disband when that benefit is gone. Even loyalty to others is in the loyal individual’s self-interest; after all, who wants to be branded as an outcast who runs from friendships, commitments and responsibilities as soon as their benefits are lost to us.
Something is either Me or Not Me. Me and Not Me are among the most basic of concepts along with ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. By extension, the things around us are either ‘mine’, ‘part of my…’ and ‘members of my…’ or ‘not mine’, ‘not part of my…’ or ‘not members of my…’.
Congregations of people develop a sense of group identity. These groups develop their own personality through the interactions of the self-interests of the individual members of the group. This personality is a reflection of the group’s culture.
People form sub-groups within groups. These sub-groups have their own cultures that interact with the parent group’s culture. Each feeding the other’s personality and sense of self. But always, the life and death of the group depends on the self interests of its members and how they present their self interests to trade for benefits.
We congregate in groups of like-minded people who are useful to us. The member who can repair cars. The member who can fix computers. The member who can keep pace with our drinking habits. Our choices are utilitarian based: if someone is useful to the group he or she is welcomed into the group; if someone is not, he or she is either accepted until an excuse can be found to expel the person or until the unwelcome member tires of being the butt of the group’s jokes.
Each cult has its own standard model of correct behaviour and ‘correct ways to think’ that its members must abide. Cults give adherents excuse for their behaviour, agency to lord over others and validation of their self worth.
Members of one cult can look at external cults and poke fun at any differences that are at odds with an onlooker’s own model cult. When two cults have similar standards or when the benefits are great enough they form affiliations with each other until both cults either merge into one cult, their members split into new separate groups or one dominates and subsumes the other.
The standard cult
We are a transactional species that forms micro cults that form bigger cults that form ever bigger cults. The Standard Cult is the one with the most influence — enough influence to make people feel awkward about not abiding the standard cult’s model of correct behaviour and rightful thinking. The Standard Cult is not necessarily the one with the most members.
We use psychology and religion to validate the standard cult’s model of right and wrong.
Right and wrong activity within the standard cult’s model for correct behaviour evolves as the influences on the cult change. The standard cult’s members adjust their self interest based preferences as their environment changes with time. That environment change could be an altered physical state of the Earth or it could be the introduction of new technologies or a meeting with another (influencer) cult.
We see the evolution of human cults through the whole of history and of the now. Consider wars between tribes, the swaying power of entertainment, the influence of the news media, the often unearned credence given to those people we are told are important, regardless the importance of those who do the telling.
We all know how poor we are as a social species but we push it deep down into our subconscious because we are told we are a social species and that being sociable is good. We are born into societies that are fully built. It is easy to assume society developed through our social nature and not through individual self interest.
We are educated to work for pay. We use our wage to buy the things we need. So ingrained is the idea of money that we are largely oblivious to the reasons we use money and not rocks, shells, salt or other objects when we trade for the items we buy. We forget that money represents effort and time. We spend 8 hours worth of our weekly wage in single Friday night drink with friends or a date. We forget that those 8 hours will never come back to us. Ask someone to work 8 hours for entirely free and most people asked would say ‘Piss off’.
When we consider the human species to be a transactional species that is a poor social animal but that develops socially oriented cults as a by-product of self-interest, we begin to understand more easily the nature of human ‘social’ evolution and social interaction: the nature of wars, the nature of group mentality, the nature of religion, the nature of human interaction with the world, the nature of personality, and the nature of interpersonal relationships.
Everyone wants something in return for their time, their effort, their knowledge, their skills and their possessions. They might not know it, but ignorance is not evidence of the contrary position that people are intrinsically altruistic.
Those who prefer socialism to capitalism do so because they feel socialism benefits them. Those who prefer capitalism over socialism do so because they feel capitalism offers greater benefit. Ditto for any other ideology. Even democracy is only preferred because our Western cultural influencers tell us democracy is better than any form of dictatorship, an idea which has not always held true through history.
Without a doubt, on average it benefits us to be sociable: to help others where we can, to live in harmony with one’n’other, to work together toward a better end. But being sociable is not the same as being a social species.
We are selfish by nature. Human life is much easier to live when we accept that our interactions are transactional. I’m not saying we should all go out and act selfishly. I am saying that we can more easily see through the bullshit of behaviour and we can more easily progress our societies when we acknowledge that self-interest is the primary driving force behind human decision making and, therefore, human activity and group mentality.
We do as individual people whatever validates our actions and thoughts, whatever excuses our actions and thoughts, whatever makes us happy and whatever actions ultimately benefit our own life.
There was a time I was altruistic. I thought people were genuinely kind for kindness’ sake. I am happy to admit my error of judgement.
You can look at the world and pretend you bond with others for selfless reasons, and you may convince yourself that you are motivated by kindness but, although your trade stance is different to the stance held by those who you consider to be selfish people users, you will always be trading some of your time and effort in return for a self oriented benefit of some kind. It might be a warm feeling, a chance to get to speak someone who can further your career or the opportunity to have another experience to talk about. There is always a self oriented personal benefit to any action performed.
Self oriented behaviour is the cornerstone of human interaction with the world and is the flagstone of human societies, which themselves are motivated by self interest.
For the H2G2 fans reading this, is it just a quirk of improbability that The Answer came to me at age 42? Maybe the meaning of the Ultimate question to Life, The Universe and Everything is ‘At what age do we understand the answer to life, the Universe and everything?’. Oh well, it’s something to ponder.