Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 18, No. 7, July 2022
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Cultural Division as a Selective Advantage:
Bottom-up Thinking

Christopher Bystroff

July 2022

CRISPR Cas9 system by Marius Walter. Source: CRISPR/CAS9, Wikipedia. Click the image to enlarge.

You can start an argument from the top, down, or the bottom, up. Today I am going to start from the bottom. For today's argument, scarcity is at the bottom. As population increases we are pushing against Earth's limits. We are feeling scarcity, some more than others. We are feeling it increasingly over time.

What happens when we push against the limits of the planet? Do the limits back up and give us room? No. It is we who must back up. We have always done that. It has always been true that the Earth bats last. Limits are limits. They're not just a good idea, they are natural law. So we back off. For millions of years we have reached limits and were forced to back off. Even as genetic mutations diversified us, we reached limits and backed off, some more nimbly than others. Natural selection kicked in when we backed off. When there was not enough food for all, then the number of mouths would have to decrease. But how that happened mattered. The ones with the genes for survival in times of stress, in times of mass dying, were the dominant species in its aftermath. Those genes would be passed from one crisis to the next, cruising through the periods of plenty in between without changing, because in the periods of plenty everybody ate. No one was selected for better survival during periods of plenty. But genes diversified then, under the lack of selection pressure. And when the selection pressure raised its ugly head full of war and famine, the genetic mutations that randomly gave some people an advantage survived, and the others died out.

That's my case. It's genetic. It's a bottom-up case. We scientists that practice bottom-up logic depend on solid logical foundations and historical facts. It is true that people die during crises, and it is true that the death is not random. People better suited for crises survive more often. The historical facts support this and give us clues about those genetic modifications that worked best. What were they?

Once we big-brained primates discovered language and made tools, the rest was a foregone conclusion. It was easier to make a weapon to kill other humans and eat their lunch than it was to hunt a fast moving and increasingly hard to find antelope. So if your neighbor was lucky enough to catch one and you had a longer and sharper spear, and if your genes drove you to kill rather than starve, then you had just successfully evolved a crises-beating gene set. Timidity or humility in the face of famine didn't survive the crisis. Those who took food where it could be found did survive. And the winner in those intra-specific contests were the ones with better weapons, or better strategy, be it defensive or offensive.

Besides weapons, it was teamwork that succeeded. A single hunter could not hold off a gang, and a single attacker could not beat multiple hunters. Both ways of getting food benefitted from numbers. Once the power of group action exerted itself, then genetic advantage of the individual was quickly overmatched by the genetics of tribe formation and group action.

So tribes did form. The first victims of tribality were the lone actors, the small hunters and gatherers, family units. When they were gone it was the small tribes who were victims of the larger tribes, and that continued until tribes became cities became empires. It has been written by archeologists that tribes were of a certain size, 150 individuals, plus or minus, for millennia. Tribes broke apart spontaneously when they got too big. The invention of government (is there a gene for trust?) led to the advent of cities and city states, with armies. Cities eliminated tribes, subsuming them, or driving them to the hills.

Even empires could get too big. Eventually distances were too great and communication networks were too slow to keep factions from breaking away when they felt wronged. And when the numbers were large, there was always a faction that felt wronged. So it was tribalism at empire scale, stable only for up to a certain size and only stable for a time. No longer did genetics rule natural selection when the crisis was at the empire level. Here the genetic code was replaced by the code of laws. An empire with a stronger system of government could survive longer. Random changes in the political and economic systems randomly took place, just like genetic mutations, and the winning empires were the ones who built the better weapons, bigger ships, bigger cannons, bigger bombs, and bigger alliances that eliminated the smaller empires.

Here we are, today, living in a world with almost 200 sovereign countries, each the winner in a crisis, either a revolution, a war of secession, or a conquest. Are we finished with the process? Have we attained a stable set of countries of stable size? Probably not. Stability can only happen in the absence of scarcity. Even if human population stopped growing today, our food supply per capita would continue decreasing because fresh water resources are drying up, and climate change is changing the game for the agriculturists. We trust farmers to feed us. We are very dependent on them, and on the system of distribution, and the system of laws, and the education system that makes all these other systems work. Here we are, many countries, heavily dependent on trust, both within and between countries, and locked by social inertia into a failing ecological economy. It is an unfinished story.

Does knowing how we got here help? Does it explain anything? Yes, it does. The key is to understand the relative speed of genetic versus cultural evolution. Genetic evolution takes millennia. Cultural changes are much more rapid, taking decades to centuries. But it is genetics that controls our instinctive behaviors, our underlying tribal nature. It is genetics that makes us murder and steal when there is not enough to eat. Those feeling sit inside of us, dormant in times of plenty, but as prices rise, so do the emotions from our limbic system. Those emotions drive our behavior, as illogical as it may be to do so in these modern times where the possibility of attacking the folks on the next block and taking their freshly killed antelope only serves the purpose of a metaphor for what we really do. Our actual actions are channeled and modified by the rational thinking of the higher brain. Instead of attacking the folks down the street and taking their food, we engage is less lethal actions of aggression -- moves that might have been the precursors of a tribe-on-tribe attack back when the genes for these instincts were a selective advantage. Most of us have put away the physical spears, but we wield words as weapons. Our battles are waged in the channels of mass communication. We foment the ugly feelings that you have to foment to start a war, to overcome the even deeper instinct against killing. We foment these feeling instinctively, because that's what we did when prices went through the roof of our thatched huts way back in the day, when we couldn't catch an antelope because the tribe across the river had wiped them out (well, that's what we claimed). So we got mad and began to give ugly names and adjectives to those despicable, rotten, foul smelling, big-nosed, back-water bastards from across the river. And since the back-water folks were just as hungry and blamed us for taking the last prey, they returned the favor with different ugly names, names that distinguished them from us. It was all in the name of surviving the food crisis. Today it no longer has that purpose, but we are stuck with the genes we have. Our conduct, learned when tribal behavior determined tribal survival, remains the same deep down inside.

So we Democrats ask ourselves, instinctively, how can the Republicans sleep at night knowing their actions are leading to the deaths of innocents. And the Republicans ask themselves, instinctively, how can the Democrats sleep at night, complicit as they are to the deaths of millions of unborn fetuses. And we lock ourselves into our mutual instinctive otherness with these unresolvable differences, these ideological features of tribal identity. And there are many differences. Greater tribal cohesion is gained by othering every possible feature of the enemy, and cohesion back then was power when it came to the physical attack. So multifaceted tribal distinction is and always has been the instinctual goal. We strive for it. If the others drive pickup trucks, then pickup trucks are the mark of the others. If the others wear sandals, or certain kinds of beads, or use the word "a'ight", or belong to the Unitarian church, then those are the marks of the others. People have become hyperaware of the secondary and tertiary tribal characteristics of their own tribes and the tribes of the others. Battles for tribal membership are the new form of pre-warfare. In an instinctive preparation for some kind of imaginary future battle, alliances have formed between Black Lives Matter and, between southern Baptists and the NRA, larger ideological tribes pulling the smaller ideological tribes into the growing ideological empire. Because if they don't join up, their ideological message will not carry over the din of the emerging majority duality.

The mass media are an echo chamber of messages proclaiming and reinforcing tribal identities and ridiculing the other side. I say side because there are just two. Depending on which echo chamber you subscribe to, you fall to one side of the other. To stay in the middle of the road is to be run over by both sides.

History teaches us that one side or the other eventually wins in a conflict over scarce resources. But history has not experienced global scarcity. It has always been possible to survive by defeating a weaker enemy and taking their land or by moving on and domesticating virgin land. Today all the virgin land has been defiled. Nothing of agricultural value is left. Barring crazy sci-fi futures in which humanity evolves into space or builds vertical high-rise farms, humanity will resolve the crisis differently this time. But how?

In a hopeful scenario, the global cerebral cortex wins out over the global amygdala by realizing that enemy is the Earth itself, that we have been fighting the enemy for a long time, that the enemy is stronger than our tribes combined, and that the enemy would therefore win and destroy both of our tribes if we chose to continue fighting. If the higher brain centers of our collective conscious could win over the irrational othering brain, then we would surrender to the Earth, we would meekly submit to the will of the winning power. If so, we would survive. We would become Earth's slaves, doing what it asks without the option to disagree and without pay except for food and a roof over our heads.

In the more pessimistic scenario, we never attain a global enlightenment and never recognize the truth of our situation and the true strength of the superpower enemy that is Nature. In the face of increasing natural pressure we would stubbornly continue doing what our genes were originally programmed to do on the abundant planet of our past. We would fight each other and take each others' land. We would divide tribally, again and again as scarcity chases our numbers down. We would die off. The Earth would lay siege on the tribes of humanity and starve us into extinction. And we would blame each other to the very end.

If that happens, there will be no do-over, no chance to learn from our mistakes. We would be gone. So it behooves us to strive for the optimistic first scenario. Now that we know the origins of our bad behavior, what drug could we employ to tamp down our tribal nature and heighten awareness of the big picture? What genes could be installed in our brains using CRISPR/CAS9 technology to empower logic over emotions and to value our new identity as servant to the Earth?

Bottom-up arguments reveal emergent properties of a system given fundamental starting assumptions. Assuming the Earth is finite, humanity will either die off or shift to a non-tribal culture, a culture of Natural servitude.


Chris Bystroff, PhD, is Professor of Biological Science and Computer Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He has published over 70 peer-reviewed papers in biochemistry and bioinformatics. When not designing a contraceptive vaccine, he teaches a course called Human Population. For more information about Professor Bystroff and his research, see his website.

"A mind at peace does not engender wars."

Sophocles (497-406 BCE)


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