In observing the world today, it is often easy to get lost in the narrative of whichever side you happen to be on, or whatever society you happened to be born into. We’re usually stuck in a forest and the nearest tree blocks half of our view.
I’d like to take this opportunity to take a few (or more than a few) steps back (or up) and look at the entirety of the political debate that is unfolding in front of our eyes.
First, let me start with a non-trivial premise. There’s a species of ape, which possesses unique intelligence, consciousness, and free will. This ape has learned how to apply these talents to its environment, causing the environment to adapt to the ape — all other species only adapt to their environment, but for this one species of ape, the adaptation is bidirectional.
This process of environmental adaptation has been unfolding for approximately 2,000,000 years. For the majority of this time, the ape in question lived in small groups of somewhere between 50 and 150 individuals, in a hunting-and-gathering environment that could not support larger groups.
Approximately 10,000 years ago, some individuals within this ape species have development a new technology (agriculture) that allowed large surpluses to occur and accumulate in particular locations. This caused larger numbers of individuals to settle in proximity to one another and form larger social groups, which further necessitated some adaptation in the way individuals of this ape species interact with one another.
During these last 10,000 years, there have been further adaptations of the same variety, i.e.
New technology -> Surplus -> Increase in group size -> New social features.
What I’d like to explore in this article is how some of these transitions, from an older form of social interaction to a newer form of social interaction, have left a “bug” in our minds that still manifests itself in our politics every day.
Xenophobia / Racism / Patriotism / Nationalism
Let’s start with the easiest one to tackle. For 1,990,000 of the 2,000,000 years of our existence as a distinct “branch” of evolution, we’ve lived in small tribes where everyone was related to one another. Any member of our own tribe was our kin; our flesh and blood. Any member of another tribe was automatically our mortal enemy — unless we could somehow find a way in which we are related. This is still true today in hunter-gatherer societies across the world (Papua New Guinea, Amazonas, etc).
It appears that as humans transitioned from bands and tribes to larger groups, this feature was never fully adjusted to fit the new environment. The “belonging” that we all felt to our tribe of relatives has been misappropriated by city-states, and then by nation-states, and finally by “races” of people from a particular continent — even though the others members of these larger groups are not only unrelated, but mostly unfamiliar to us.
This division of the world into “our kin” and “our enemies” is a feature we’ve been carrying with us from hunter-gatherer times, when the group we belonged to actually corresponded to something meaningful. Today we still have actual kin and actual relatives, but most of us apply the dividing line between “our kin” and “our enemies” much farther from ourselves — i.e. at the race or nation or city level.
Rappers sing about their city and area code; not their extended family. UFC fighters shout about their country after big victories, not the tight-knit group of friends they live and train with every day.
A mental feature became a mental bug.
Socialism / Communism
Another peculiar feature that became a bug is the longing for some utopian time in which private property is abolished and people simply share their bounty with their brethren.
From each according to his abilities; to each according to his needs.
Note how perfect the mapping is. Private property was invented as a direct consequence of the agricultural revolution and the surpluses it created. Perfect sharing is practiced by every hunter-gatherer tribe we have ever observed, now or in the past; it is obviously an efficient and successful mechanism for social interaction within a tribe. But the same mechanism’s track record in any city-sized or state-sized societies have all been catastrophic.
What the socialists attempt to do is to follow their natural instinct for intra-tribe sharing, in spite of the obvious fact that the group they live in is much larger than a tribe.
Once again, the feature becomes a bug.
This topic is perhaps more ironic, since I started this blog to talk about the rational way to derive religious principles from a minimal set of assumptions about reality.
But this is not the way religions have historically evolved.
The traditional tribal religion has always been an evolutionary feature whose primary purpose is to unify the group around common ideas. We are the tribe of the lion; they are the tribe of the wolf. We tattoo our faces with ink; they wear the skulls of their enemies as ornaments. We pray facing the earth; they pray facing the sky. When we fight for our tribe’s survival, we are not afraid of death, because our spirit will go up to join our ancestors in the great night sky.
The more sophisticated iron-age religions have substantially more features — Judaism, for instance, has 613 rules — but most of these features are just as arbitrary as the fictitious examples above. Only a small fraction of Judaism’s rules denote things that are objectively good (don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t covet, etc); most denote things that are unique to Jews and make it easier for a Jew to tell who else around them is Jewish (don’t shave your sideburns, don’t work on Sabbath, don’t eat pork, etc).
What happens, then, when people start spending their time trying to decipher the “true message” of a particular religion? Or when they start arguing with those who believe in some other (perhaps similar) religion about which of their religions is true? Or when they fight wars over whether or not the “spark of God” has transitioned from one possibly-fictitious individual to another possibly-fictitious individual 1400 years ago?
Once again, the feature becomes a bug.
This takes us to what appears to be the major religious movement of our current times — Wokism.
In previous years, we’ve often viewed socialist movements as antithetical to racist or religious movement. Socialism was universal — it viewed all workers of the world as a single family of sorts. Moreover, socialism was inherently anti-religious.
But in some magical way, Wokism managed to combine the primary features of a racist movement (viewing some racial groups as inherently sinful and evil), the primary features of a socialist movement (advocating for redistribution of wealth and abolition of property rights for anyone who accumulated property in times past — because of the “sinfulness” of those times), and the primary features of a religious movement (sacred rites, sacraments, atonement for sin, indulgences, etc). All in one.
Couple this magnificent combination with the most effective meme-distribution mechanism we’ve ever had (the internet), and.. it’s no wonder this bug is spreading.