Equal Rights Libertarian

Home » Uncategorized » 20191020 – The Human Swarm

20191020 – The Human Swarm



Screen Shot 2019-10-20 at 10.35.57 AM


The main idea of this book is to look at formation, maintenance, and dissolution of all types of societies from ants to humans, their functioning and/or malfunctioning. The main points are:

  • Society membership based on various parameters, which define individuals that belong as separate and different from those who do not belong, creating support for the former and rejection and often hostility to latter.
  • Societies are tremendously different and it is questionable that there are ways to avoid clashes, even if interests are irreconcilable.
  • There is some logical commonality in origin, maintenance, and dissolution of societies that could be understood by methods of science including “biology, anthropology, and psychology, with some philosophy thrown in for good measure.”
  • The future depends on human ability to overcome limitations of struggle of one’s society against others and find accommodation and resolution of difference within societies and between them.


Author describes his objectives for each chapter in some detail, providing pretty good overview of the book.


This part “takes in the wide range of vertebrate societies”,
that author is familiar with as biologist

Chapter 1: What a Society Isn’t (and What It Is)

This is about the role of cooperation in societies, which author believes is less essential than the matter of identity; societies consist of a distinct set of members in a rich tapestry of relationships, not all of which are harmonious.

Chapter 2: What Vertebrates Get out of Being In

This chapter covers other vertebrate species, especially the mammals, to illuminate how societies, despite whatever imperfections in the system of partnership that exists within them, benefit the members by providing for their needs and protecting them.

Chapter 3: On the Move

“The third chapter probes into how the movements of animals within and between societies are important to the success of the various groups. One versatile pattern of activity, fission-fusion, creates a dynamic that helps explain the evolution of intelligence in certain species, humans most obviously among them, and the subject will come up repeatedly in this book. “

Chapter 4: Individual Recognition

“Chapter 4 investigates how much the members of most mammal societies must know about each other for their societies to stay together. Here, author reveals a limiting factor in the societies of many species: all their members are obliged to know each other as individuals, whether they like each other or not, restricting the societies to, at most, a few dozen individuals. This sets up a puzzle about how the human species broke free of such a constraint.


This section addresses a group of organisms that readily crash through the population limit of individual-to-individual familiarity: social insects. He states as one of his objectives to break down any aversions that the reader may have about likening insects to “higher species,” especially humans, by making clear the value of these comparisons.

Chapter 5: Ants and Humans, Apples and Oranges

Chapter 5 reports on how social complexity generally climbs with an increase in the size of insect societies with features like infrastructure and division of labor becoming more complex, a trend paralleled in humans.

Chapter 6: The Ultimate Nationalists

Chapter 6 looks at how most social insects, and a few vertebrates such as the sperm whale, demonstrate affiliation with a society by using something that marks their identity: chemistry (a scent) in ants, and a sound in whales. These simple techniques are not constrained by the limitations of memory, and thus permit the societies of certain species to reach immense sizes, in a few cases without an upper bound.

Chapter 7: Anonymous Humans

The chapter after that, “Anonymous Humans,” spells out how humans employ the same approach: our species is attuned to markers that reflect what each society finds acceptable, including behaviors so subtle they may only be noticed subliminally. By this means people can connect with strangers in what author calls an anonymous society, thereby breaking the glass ceiling in the size societies can achieve.


Chapter 8: Band Societies; Chapter 9: The Nomadic Lite; Chapter 10: Settling Down

This section asks what the societies of our species were like before the advent of agriculture. Authors covers people who existed as hunter-gatherers up to recent times, ranging from those who lived nomadically in small, spread-out groups, called bands, and others who settled down for much or all of the year. Although the nomads have gotten most of the attention and are treated as the gold standard for our ancestral condition, a readily defensible conclusion is that both options have been within the reach of human beings likely going back to the origins of our species. We can also conclude that hunter-gatherers were not archaic people living an archaic mode of existence. Their people must be recognized as essentially no different from us: humans, as it were, “in the present tense.” Despite traces of ongoing, even rapid human evolution in the past 10,000 years, the human brain clearly hasn’t been restructured in any fundamental way since the appearance of the first Homo sapiens. This implies that notwithstanding any human adjustments to modern life, we can look to the lifestyles of hunter-gatherers in recorded history and consider the nature of early human societies as the bedrock that underlies our own. What concerns author most are the extraordinary differences between the nomadic hunter-gatherers—equality-minded jacks-of-all-trades, who solved issues by discussion—and settled hunter-gatherers, whose societies often became open to leaders, division of labor, and disparities in wealth. The former social structure points to a psychological versatility we still possess, even if most people today behave more like settled hunter-gatherers. Two conclusions of Section III are that hunter-gatherers had distinct societies and that those societies were distinguished, just as societies are now, by markers of identity. What that means is that at some point in the distant past, our ancestors must have taken the crucial but heretofore overlooked evolutionary step of making use of badges of membership that would, in time, permit our societies to grow large.


Chapter 11: Pant-Hoots and Passwords

For clues about how this happened, Section IV transports us into the past and also scrutinizes the behavior of modern chimps and bonobos. Author puts forward the hypothesis that a simple shift in how the apes use one of their vocalizations, the pant-hoot, could make that sound essential for identifying each other as society members. Such a transformation, or something like it, could have easily occurred in our distant ancestors. Ever more markers would have been added to this initial “password,” many of them connected to our bodies, transforming them into flesh-and-blood bulletin boards for displaying human identity. Having looked at how markers of identity originated, we are in a position to explore the psychology underlying those markers and society membership.


Chapter 12: Sensing Others; Chapter 13: Stereotypes and Stories; Chapter 14: The Great Chain; Chapter 15: Grand Unions; Chapter 16: Putting Kin in Their Place

The five chapters of Section V, “Functioning (or Not) in Societies,” review a fascinating range of recent findings about the human mind. Most of the research has focused on ethnicity and race, but should apply to societies as well. Among the topics are the following: how people see others as possessing an underlying essence that make societies (and ethnicities and races) so fundamental that they think of these groups as if they were separate biological species; how infants learn to recognize such groups; the role stereotypes play in streamlining our interactions with others, and how those stereotypes can become tied to prejudices; and how the prejudices are expressed automatically, and unavoidably, often leading us to perceive an outsider more as a member of his or her ethnicity or society than as a unique individual. Our psychological assessments of others are many and varied, including our penchant for ranking outsiders as “below” our own people or in some cases as subhuman altogether. The fourth chapter of Section V elucidates how we apply these assessments of others to societies as a whole. People believe that the members of foreign groups (and their own people as well) can act as a united entity, with emotional responses and goals of its own. The final chapter steps back to draw from what we have discovered about the psychology of societies and the underlying biology to pose more sweeping questions about how family life fits in the picture—whether, for example, societies can be understood as a kind of extended family.


Section VI, entitled “Peace and Conflict,” takes on the issue of the relationships among societies.

Chapter 17: Is Conflict Necessary?

In this chapter author documents the evidence from nature, which shows that while animal societies need not be in conflict, peace between them is relatively rare, present in just a few species and supported by situations of minimal competition.

Chapter 18: Playing Well with Others

The second chapter then highlights hunter-gatherers to examine how not merely peace but active collaborations between societies provided additional options for our species.


Chapter 19: The Lifecycle of Societies; Chapter 20: The Dynamic “Us”; Chapter 21: Inventing Foreigners and the Death of Societies

Section VII, “The Life and Death of Societies,” examines how societies come together and fall apart. Before writing about people, author surveys the animal kingdom, concluding that all societies go through some sort of lifecycle. Although, other mechanisms for starting new societies exist, the pivotal event in most species is the division of an existing society. The evidence from chimpanzees and bonobos, bolstered by data on other primates, is that a division is preceded by the emergence, over months or years, of factions in the society, which increases discord and ultimately causes a split. The same formation of factions, usually over the passage of centuries, takes place with humans also, except for a key difference: the primary pressure that severed human factions was when the original uniting markers keeping a society together were no longer shared, leading people to see themselves as incompatible. This section lays plain how people’s perceptions of their own identities change over time in a way that could not be stopped in prehistory, mainly the result of poor communication across hunter-gatherer bands. For this reason, hunter-gatherer societies split apart when they were tiny by today’s standards.


Chapter 22: Turning a Village into a Conquering Society; Chapter 23: Building and Breaking a Nation

The expansion of societies into states (nations) was made possible by the social changes author lays out in section VIII, “Tribes to Nations.” Some hunter-gatherer settlements and tribal villages with simple agriculture took the first tentative steps in this direction as leaders extended their power to take control of neighboring societies. Author begins by describing how tribes were organized into multiple villages, each of which acted independently much of the time. The leaders of these loosely connected villages were not very proficient at sustaining social unity and curtailing social breakdowns, in part because they lacked the means of keeping their people on the same page with regards to identifying with the society—things such as roadways and ships that connected people with what their compatriots were doing elsewhere. Growth also required societies to expand their dominion over the territories of their neighbors. This didn’t occur peacefully: across the animal kingdom author finds little evidence of societies freely merging. Human societies came to conquer each other, thereby bringing outsiders into their fold. Occasional transfers of membership take place in other species too, but in humans such exchange was taken to a new level with the advent of slavery, and finally, the subjugation of entire groups. Now that we understand the forces that can cause small societies to scale up to large ones, including the nations of today, the final chapter of Section VIII evaluates how these societies tend to meet their end. What’s typical of societies put together by conquest isn’t division between factions, as we saw earlier for hunter-gatherers, nor utter collapse, though it can happen, but rather a fracturing that almost always occurs roughly along the ancient territorial lines of the peoples that have come to make up the society. Large societies may be no more durable than small ones, fragmenting on average once every few centuries.


The final section carries us along the circuitous route that led to the rise of ethnicities and races and the at times muddy waters of current national identities.

Chapter 24: The Rise of Ethnicities

To become an interlocking whole, a conquering society had to make the shift from controlling what had been independent groups to accepting them as members. This requires an adjustment in people’s identities, in which ethnic minority groups adjust to the majority people—the dominant group that most often, founded the society and controls not only its identity, but also most of the resources and power. This assimilation would be accomplished only to a degree, for this reason: ethnicities and races—as demonstrated earlier in the book for individual persons and for societies as well—will be most comfortable together if they share some commonalities and yet differ enough to feel distinct. Status differences emerge among the various minorities too, and may change over the course of generations—though the majority almost always stays firmly in control. Bringing the minorities into the fold as society members entails allowing them to intermix with the majority people, a geographical integration of populations that not all past societies have permitted.

Chapter 25: Divided We Stand

This chapter tackles how modern societies have made the friendlier incorporation of large numbers of outsiders possible through immigration. Such movements have seldom occurred easily, and, as in the past, have assigned lower power and status to the immigrants, who may face the least resistance when they take on social roles that minimize competition with other members while giving them a sense of value and esteem. The identity immigrants had once treasured in their ethnic homeland is often recast into broader racial groups. The shift in perception may initially be pushed on the newcomers, but they can accept the changes because of the advantages of having a more extensive base of social support in the adopted society. The chapter closes by describing how criteria for citizenship have come to deviate from the psychology of how people register who has a rightful place in a society. The latter is heavily influenced by people’s attitudes about how important a society should be in providing for different individuals or groups versus protecting themselves—attitudes relating to patriotism and nationalism, respectively. Variation among the members in these points of view may well be required for a healthy society, even though it also compounds the social conflicts that make headlines today.

Chapter 26: The Inevitability of Societies

This raises the issue of whether societies are necessary. In making what inferences author can in this book, he admits up front that a unified field of study of societies is a distant dream. All too often, academic disciplines foster a habitual concentration on certain modes of thought and a disdain for the unfamiliar by dividing the intellectual world into mutually alien fields known as biology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and history, thus leaving much room in the nooks and crannies between for debate. For instance, “modernist” scholars of history view nations as a purely recent phenomenon. Author’s contention will be that the national pedigree has ancient roots. Some anthropologists and sociologists go a step further and see societies as entirely optional, with people forming such unions when it serves their interests. Author’s goal is to show that membership in a society is as essential for our well being as finding a mate or loving a child. Author frustrates somewhat in his own discipline of biology. He has listened to biologists adamantly oppose the idea that societies ought to be examined as groups of distinct identity and membership when their study species don’t quite match with this criterion—a passionate reaction that more than anything makes plain the cachet of the word “society.” Disputes among the specialists aside, readers of every political persuasion will find both good and bad news in the current science. Whatever readers’ social views, author urges them to consider insights from fields beyond their usual interests to become aware of how one’s own, often subliminal, biases and those of people around – writ large, across multitudes – might affect both the actions of a country and individual’s daily conduct with others.

Conclusion: Identities Shift and Societies Shatter

Here author summarizes his views on human relations within society and between societies. This includes absolute necessity of society for human existence, expansion of societies beyond limitations of individual recognition, with necessity of market to support such expansion. He then discusses treatment of aliens, and consequently relations between societies as based on levels of maturity of individuals and their society with more mature societies being more tolerant. Author also discusses issues of individual freedom and group freedom and how they relate to others using American experiment to make major points of his views. Finally he expresses caution for future developments that he believes currently moves away from pursuit of diversity to pursuit of national prosperity and fear that any discontent will be directed at outsiders. His hope is that human trend to cooperate to mutual benefit would be more powerful than trend to blame and attack others for any arising problems.


I think author provides pretty good narrative of history, formation, functioning, and/or dis-functioning of societies in animal world including humans. I think that we are in process of formation of one global society covering all individuals on this planet. Only I do not believe that it would be easy and fast process and I also do not believe that it would be done with kind of salad plate when different cultures remain mixed and separate at the same time. I think that it would be rather melting pot of formation of the one united society with one language and one culture formed on the bases of previously existing cultures providing very different input: some cultures huge and some very small. The process of such formation is unpredictable and may or may not include massive violence and forced accommodation to some norms. It also may or may not be very benign with individuals’ voluntary accepting features of preferred culture they think to be more beneficent for them. One thing I am pretty sure about is that it all depends on triumph of failure of ongoing American experiment, which is now endangered by uncontrollable cancerous growth of bureaucracy and administrative state that are suppressing individual freedoms, making peaceful accommodation all but impossible. Actually I hope that existing American society is strong enough to overcome this disease and consequently open the way to universal truly democratic society, but it is just a hope.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: