Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Mutual Constraints of Identity and Social Fabric – Part 1

In the last post I finished with a quote by Stuart Kauffman, regarding the fundamental role of constraints that are fundamental to enabling complex and living systems to perform work.

The first surprise is that it takes constraints on the release of energy to perform work, but it takes work to create constraints. The second surprise is that constraints are information and information is constraint.
Stuart Kauffman – personal communication – quoted in Deacon (2012).

A basic definition of a constraint is a causal agent that restricts or confines a system or situation with boundaries. In “Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerges From Matter”, Terrence Deacon makes a very comprehensive case that often constraints are not perceivable as what is visible – but have to be conceived as ‘what is not there but could have been’. Constraints then are alternatives or choices that are unable to be undertaken. Furthermore constraints can arise inherently within a system or from its context. Generally dynamic systems are constrained within relevant degrees of freedom and tend to reflect attractor qualities.

The next series of posts I want to explore how information and identity are shaped by and shape fundamental social constraints. 

Ancient Ground of Constraint Shaping Social Fabric

According to David Graeber, no society has ever existed that depended primarily on barter, as a system of exchange. Barter did occur, but only rarely and generally only between strangers. What did exist, always and everywhere was accounting. Furthermore, systems of accounting are the foundation of written languages. 

Before the rise of currency, there was not systems of barter – rather it was was always credit & debt, and debt was transferable.
The question that arises is how were these early societies able to do such accounting?

Robin Dunbar has argued that group size is determined by a cognitive limit related to the number of stable social relationships that can be maintained. In essence, the Dunbar number is related to the number of close ties that any individual can sustain. Dunbar’s claim was based on a correlation between primate brain size and the size of the average social group. His theory holds that social group size is a direct function of the relative size of the neocortex which imposes a limit on processing capacity on social relationships.

By extrapolating from his studies of primates and adjusting for the size of the average human brain he proposed that human can only maintain stable relationships comfortably with between 100 to 250 people (commonly about 150). By stable relationships Dunbar meant the actual number of people a person was actively engaged with – he didn’t include people generally known or past relationship not actively sustained. The full range of people one could ‘know’ would be much higher and also dependent on long-term memory. Furthermore, others who agree with Dunbar have asserted that the maintenance of larger numbers of such ‘close ties’ in a stable cohesive group requires more restrictive rules, laws and norms.

One constraint inherent in the group’s small Dunbar number, is that specialization of ‘occupation’ was not possible – a very few natural divisions of labor is possible in such conditions. For example, elder, adult, child; man, woman; hunter, gatherer; shaman, healer. These ‘divisions’ were generalist roles where the idiosyncratic nature of individuals had to be contained in the statuses and roles established and sustained by groups dynamics. At best, individual talents and skills where acknowledge and nurtured as they could fit within the status and roles ascribed to each individual. A role is like a general purpose technology – a bundle of obligations-and-corresponding-tasks.

Accounting and Exchange

A very important consequence of the Dunbar number as a constraint on the size of early groups of humans, is that there could be no ‘private’ person, no experience of anonymity. This is a fundamental constraint (an absence of possibilities of anonymity and a modern sense of individuality) that enables the work of creating and sustaining the social fabric of the small group. The public transparency of behavior in the small group, enables the dynamic homeostatic-like ‘social computation’ of the status structure of the group as a form of ‘moral accounting’. In this way, I would argue that even the grooming behavior in primates is the homeostatic moral accounting to maintain group status structure and cohesion.

The correlation between group size and the relative size of the neo-cortex may have played an important role as a constraint in pre-human groups or at least before the invention of the technologies of language and culture. Marshall McLuhan quipped, “The most human thing about us is our technology.” And because language and culture are so inherently human, it can make accepting and understanding language and culture as technology, especially difficult. McLuhan also asserted that technologies were extension of ourselves – in this light we see that the discovery of the control of fire and the invention of clothes was an externalization of our capacity to regulate temperature and an extension of this regulation so that we could survive in a much wider variety of environmental conditions. With fire also came cooking which externalize our digestive function and extended our capacity to eat a wider variety of food and also extract much more nutrition from the food we ate.

The invention of the technologies of language and culture was an externalization of human memory. By externalizing memory – learning was no longer solely dependent on the need to be ‘encoded’ into DNA and experienced as instinct – learning could now be encoded in ‘memes’ enabling rapid transmittal and even more importantly – old learnings could be more rapidly displaced with new learning – again enabling adaptive acceleration to live in a wider variety of environmental (and changing) conditions.

With the technologies of culture and language and the rise of learning-as-meme, the behavioral platform that provided for the homeostatic maintenance/adaptation of group status structure and social cohesion could also be integrated into mechanisms of cultural homeostasis. This is another way of describing the ‘moral’ accounting that Graeber argues was the basis of social fabric before currency (this idea will be explored more deeply in part 2).

Christopher Boehm (among other) has been instrumental in establishing the concept of Darwinian selection on a group level as a foundation for cooperation. Simply put if competition is only between individuals then selfishness will always trump. But if competition arises between groups – then the group of cooperative or altruistic members will trump the group of aggregate selfish individuals.

Boehm further argues that nonhuman primate groups and early human social structures tended to be shaped by practical egalitarianism, which he defined as form of hierarchy in which the weak combine to hold the strong in control. Although ‘alphas’ individuals had power (and were more often a sort of bullies than they were group leaders) they did not make decisions for the group. This makes sense if such groups were to maintain a practical egalitarianism.

Graeber argues that governance within such groups tended toward what he calls anarchism, which he defines as forms of practices that enables both cohesion and relative autonomy by avoiding authoritarian means. Group governance had to embody in all its relations both the broad principles related to the unity and purposes of the group and the reality that many people the group can’t be converted to other points of view. Group decisioning therefore had to emphasize issues of concrete action, which everyone could accept without a feeling of fundamental violation of principles. Where everyone could walk away feeling that they had been heard and felt no loss of ‘face’.

Graeber argues that this pragmatic by small groups to focus on figuring out what most want to do and/or can live with is easier than effort to convince those group members who might not agree with a majority approach since they had no way to compel the minority and still hope to maintain necessary group cohesion. Even attempts to hold a vote transform pragmatic inclusive efforts into a type of public contest that will create ‘winners and losers’ – generating public humiliation, resentments, aggravated feelings likely to damage the community. As Graeber (2004, p. 89) notes: “What is seen as an elaborate and difficult process of finding consensus is, in fact, a long process of making sure no one walks away feeling that their views have been totally ignored”.

Colin Tudge (1999), has made the argument that human were proto-farmers for about 30,000 years before we were able to enable the phase transition into agrarian societies. What this means is that we knew for a very long time how to protect food sources (so that they could shift energy away from ‘self-defence’ and into producing bigger/better roots, fruit and seed). We also know about planting food sources. Tim Ingold (2011) argues in his seminal work The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, that human relationships with the animal world were often perceived as an intimate relationship where many animals, plants and even landmarks were considered to be persons.

If Tudge is right – the question that arises is: What kept early humans from making the shift to agricultural societies? I think the answer is not because of a lack of human knowledge about growing food and establishing relationships with animals that would lead to their domestication – but rather in another constraint. That constraint relates to the capacity for keeping accounts of social exchange and of surplus production. But this concept of accounting may seem to ‘modern’ to be appropriate to small hunter-gatherer groups, unless we reconsider the Dunbar number and it’s explanation.

As I’ve already noted, Dunbar’s claim is that group size is limited by a corresponding relative size of the neo-cortex which limits the number of ‘close-ties’ any individual can process. However, let’s consider the more fundamentally established (but inextricably related) concept of ‘peeking order’ – a group behavior that is easily observed in all sort of mammalian groups and even in many modern situations with human groups. Establishing a peeking order is a cognitively complex and demanding social process – whereby every individual assesses the place of every other individual in relation to themselves to establish a dynamic group status structure. This is a sort of parallel processing social computation carried out largely unconsciously whose result is a very conscious social experience. 

The real challenge is the behavioral ‘accounting’ necessary to homeostatically maintain and adjust this structure of social statuses. In primates, one could argue that the many acts of grooming are simply the embodied social accounting necessary to sustain the ‘statuses’ of the social fabric. For example, a hunter brings in a large animal to the group – the division of the animal tends to be already predetermined by the social structure – everyone knows the portions and parts and order of eating (of the animal) that the elders, mothers, children and others will get. In this way the pecking order is not simply applicable to ‘who’s Alpha and who’s not,’ but is rather, a much more comprehensive dynamic structure of statuses and roles that forms the ‘attractor’ of the homeostatic moral accounting maintaining group cohesion.

With this view we can argue that very similar accounting processes are necessary to maintain Boehm’s reverse hierarchy whereby the group sustains its practical egalitarianism as well as Graeber’s processes of anarchic self-governance. George Lakoff provides evidence of how deeply human language and thinking is imbued with accounting metaphors. He argues that just as financial bookkeeping is vital to a functioning economy so a ‘moral bookkeeping’ is vital to the function of social fabric. For example, Lakoff establishes that the general metaphor of moral accounting is revealed with some basic moral schemes such as – reciprocation, retribution, restitution, revenge, altruism and fairness (for a more substantive elaboration see the link to the reference below).

Even Adam Smith acknowledged the fundamental role played by a form of ‘moral accounting’ in shaping the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. His first book “A Theory of Moral Sentiments” where he used the term for the first time made the claim that all people fundamentally want to be ‘praiseworthy’ and ‘blameless’.

In this way I would argue that the Dunbar number represents the upper limit on the capacity of a group to ‘manage the books’ on exchanges that are necessary to sustain the social/moral fabric of the hunter-gatherer group. This is the fundamental constraint on group size and identity (as shaped by the pecking-order, status, role, etc.). It is also the fundamental constraint on identity as necessarily a publicly defined relation to group history (lineage, geography, etc.)

As I noted above with the technologies of language and culture, human learnings could now be encoded as meme – enabling faster more adaptive learning, sharing and unlearning as needed. Despite the advantages of the technologies of language and culture – small groups remain vulnerable to a sort of ‘genetic drift’ where specialized skills and learning embodied in one or a very few individuals can be suddenly lost to the group if/when those individuals are lost to disease of unexpected death. The meme as learning-exchange platform provided a better form of ‘insurance’ against loss of group knowledge through ‘genetic drift’ (the easy loss of beneficial genetic advantage in small populations because of contingencies cause death in those with the genetic endowment).

Denise Schmandt-Besserat (2010 – a wonderfully illustrated and accessible book), establishes that the origins of writing arose from systems of accounting. In fact, people didn’t need to be able to count as we think of numeracy today, in order to develop simple systems of one-for-one representations that enable accounting. For example, one round clay artifact per sheep, one scratch on a stack of bamboo per bushel of rice, enables representations of ‘things’ that can be exchanged on credit. Once these simple systems of accounting were developed human could begin the shift into agricultural societies and manage surpluses in ways that enabled exchange and social fabric.

Graeber, talks of how debt was a means of maintaining social fabric in small groups and even before currency. For example, people tended to either return a bit less or a bit more of something borrowed – this enabled a sort of ongoing social obligation of relationships. In this context – returning an exact equivalent of what was exchanged was a signal of wanting to sever (divorce from) the relationship.

The ground of this accounting was a rich network of close ties (Dunbar number). People knew each other and everyone knew them. The ground for this original accounting economy was the social fabric of status order of close ties – of personalized exchange networks. This was the major information constraint – that a person’s identity was constrained within a status structure of close-ties, which was the basis of the requisite trust that enabled the systems of accounting based on human memory and later simple pre-writing technologies of accounting.

What this means is that a person’s identity was constrained within the sort of status-role-character determined through the close-knit social fabric of the group. To frame this constrain in modern experience we can recall challenges of high school when one tries to change oneself – it’s like asking everyone in the ‘tribe’ to change themselves as well.

These constraints around identity, enabled getting the work of distributing and allocating resources to be accomplished by trust inherent in social fabric and accounting methods without currency. The sense of ‘private identity’ is unknown in these conditions, thus there was no concrete use for ‘privacy’ as we know it today. 

As McLuhan’s pointed out – whenever a ground becomes the figure in social awareness, it is always perceived as a monster. In the case of the ground of ancient identity – when it becomes the figure, we see it as the intractable black-hole of the ‘blood feud’, or the ‘Scarlet Letter’ or the sentence of death through group ostracism and exile.

In Summary

The conditions of small hunter-gatherer groups could be described as an attractor which creates constraints on identity limiting group members to embody individual within a small number of roles, status structures and division-of-labor – which in turn enables the pre-literate group to conduct the moral accounting of the work of maintaining social fabric. This work includes the enhanced memory of learnings arising from the technologies of language and culture. This constraint meant that there could be no sense of the ‘private’ and certainly no concept or experience of anonymity. The ‘self’ was by definition public, defined by and bound to group history.

The next post will explore the arising of a new attractor – as a result of a phase transition (change in the conditions of change) from the ground of hunter-gatherer to the new ground of agricultural (and later industrial) societies. This new ground is a condition of higher population numbers and density that enables proliferations of diversity of divisions-of-labor, specializations, ways of being, domains of knowledge and correspondingly complex forms of exchange. The new attractor of agricultural-to-industrial trajectories creates new conditions for the construction and boundaries of identity.

Boehm, Christopher. 2001. Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior. Harvard University Press. http://www.amazon.com/Hierarchy-Forest-Evolution-Egalitarian-Behavior/dp/0674006917/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1420701789&sr=1-1&keywords=hierarchy+in+the+forest

Ingold, Tim. 2011. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. Routledge; Reissue edition. http://www.amazon.com/Perception-Environment-Essays-Livelihood-Dwelling/dp/0415617472/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1420971819&sr=1-3&keywords=tim+ingold

Lakoff, George. 1995. Metaphor, Morality, and Politics. http://www.wwcd.org/issues/Lakoff.html


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