Tag Archives: Theory

A Cybernetic Animism

“Animists are people who recognise that the world is full of people, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationships with others.” – Graham Harvey

(From Metascientist, which might be an interesting read in context.)

I like to explore my animistic ideals and beliefs through a lot of different perspectives and different philosophical lenses. I enjoy the intellectual exercise of it all, and it also provides a lot of new insights that I may have not considered before. Sometimes, it is important that we look at things from a different perspective. We might just see something in a a new way.

As such, I give you this presentation of some of the theoretical underpinnings I am exploring in relation to my animism.

In many ways, this piece is an expansion of what I wrote over at Pagan BloggersI think I hit on a few things there that I wanted to explore in more depth, and bring you all along for the ride.

Recently I have been exploring my animism through a much more systemic and holistic lenses; through topics such as cybernetics, systems theory, and actor-network theory. Most of these things deal with our relationships to humans and non-humans in a much more networked and systemic way. It has been really fascinating for me, and it has really reinforced the central animistic idea that we are part of our world; and not separate from it. So let’s start with what I said over at my other blog;

Agency is at its simplest the capacity to act. This is also the simplest definition of what it means to be an actor, a participant in an action or process. This is what I am talking about when I refer to spirits and persons; actors in the world. Beings with their own desires and agendas.

Now agency can run the gamut from a relatively simple actions, such as a bacterium, to the much more complex beings such as you and I. When we talk of spirits, we are talking about active agents in an environment. The world becomes a much more interesting place when we consider that it is full of actors. That means whatever we do, we are in a social environment, and not an inert one.”

The cosmos is absolutely full of active agents in relation to each other. The simplest forms of matter that we can see have their own elements of agency. The fundamental aspect of chemistry is that atoms and molecules often act in predictable ways when interacting with others. You can get water predicably from two hydrogen and one oxygen atom. Water is vital to all life on Earth. But we will come back to that.

Matter builds up, and enters into increasingly more complex systems and networks; and after billions of years of trial and error; I am here now to tell you about these things. But, in order to think about these things in systemic and holistic ways let’s first talk about systems.

Systems theory or systems science is the interdisciplinary study of systems. A system is an entity with interrelated and interdependent parts; it is defined by its boundaries and it is more than the sum of its parts (subsystem). Changing one part of the system affects other parts and the whole system, with predictable patterns of behavior. ” (Wikipedia)

There is a lot to digest here, but the really important part in that a system is basically a network; a whole comprised of numerous of interrelated “parts”. A system is often bounded in some way, though boundary here can be a fuzzy terms. Some boundaries are physical, some theoretical, some metaphysical. Some are open, some are closed. Some boundaries might be hard lines, and others more like fuzzy, porous, and nebulous clouds.

(From Wikipedia Commons)

While some systems are relatively (or theoretically) simple, some are very complex;

A complex system is a system composed of many components which may interact with each other. In many cases it is useful to represent such a system as a network where the nodes represent the components and the links their interactions. Examples of complex systems are Earth’s global climate, organisms, the human brain, social and economic organizations (like cities), an ecosystem, a living cell, and ultimately the entire universe.” (Wikipedia

Systems, especially complex ones, can be modeled in terms of networks. This will become very important here in a moment, but it is important here to dwell on the raw scope of this. The entire Cosmos is really one just big complex system, and this can be really difficult to comprehend. That would just make us a tiny network, on a tiny planet, in a vastly huge universe. That is definitely a little mind bending.

But many of these complex systems as wholes are greater than the sum of their parts. The characteristics of the human brain are not predicated on simply understanding the connections among neurons. The things we might call consciousness, self-awareness, and even the soul, those are not evident if we study just the parts of the brain. They are emergences, which brings us to the concept emergence.

In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is a phenomenon whereby larger entities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities such that the larger entities exhibit properties the smaller/simpler entities do not exhibit.

Emergence is central in theories of integrative levels and of complex systems. For instance, the phenomenon of life as studied in biology is an emergent property of chemistry, and psychological phenomena emerge from the neurobiological phenomena of living things.” (Wikipedia)

Emergence is a really important aspect of complex systems, because it changes the nature of things. The idea that a certain level of integration, new properties and characteristics arise that are not predicted by the components. Cellular life is not predicated on simple physics alone, but if you get enough molecules, in the right integration, life emerges. If chemistry is an emergence of physics, and biology an emergence from chemistry…

Yeesh, it might just be turtles all the way down.

I hope you can see where I am going with this. As stated above, complex systems are more than the sum of their parts. I as a being am more than physics, more than just biology; I am a small part of the cosmos having a human experience.

But more than that, it asks us to think a lot bigger than the human scale. Emergence asks us to ask questions about our place in greater ecosystems, our place in our societies, and our place on the planet. It asks us to witness and engage with climate change, and recognize our being as part of a much greater whole.

It asks us to consider cities are more than just humans and concrete. It asks us to consider the possibility that cities might be something we might call superorganic. As beings of a type in their own right, in which we are just cells in a body.

Which brings me to a great article from NPR;

…But if you want to consider the problem from its most general point of view, then you might want to think about civilizations purely as a network.

A network is nothing more than a group of objects (called nodes) and the links between them. Everyone is familiar with social networks — your friends and their friends and their friends, and so on. The bigger a network is the more complex it becomes, with links blossoming into a rich, dense, spider web of connections between the nodes.

Any population of intelligent creatures on any planet would, by definition, form a network…. So the question then becomes: What exactly does it take to transform a bunch of intelligent social organisms, with more rudimentary forms of interaction, into something more complex and rich — like a city with its highly ordered interactions?” (NPR)

We are a population of intelligent creatures living on a planet, and we are networked in fascinating ways. The advent of the Internet has absolutely revolutionized how we relate to one another, how we network, as well as the raw potentials of those networks. In short, it has connected us to every other human on this planet in ways that we could have never imagined. It allows us to see one another, communicate instantaneously, share stores and information. Yeah, it also lets us be shitty human beings anomalously…

The crucial question the author asked in the article is; could civilization as we know it be an emergence of a complex system of networked humans?

I think it is certainly a possibility, and one well worth exploring.

However, I don’t want to get side tracked too much here, as there is so much more I want to talk about. The question about civilizations bring up an important point that isn’t necessarily spelled out when we just consider systems. The point that complex systems are also social systems; full of actors relating to one another in various ways. Which brings us to Actor-Network Theory.

Actor–network theory (ANT) is a theoretical and methodological approach to social theory where everything in the social and natural worlds exist in constantly shifting networks of relationship.

The fundamental aim of ANT is to explore how networks are built or assembled and maintained to achieve a specific objective. Although it is best known for its controversial insistence on the capacity of nonhumans to act or participate in systems or networks or both…“ (Wikipedia)

This fits in neatly with my Harverian (is that a thing? I’m using it) view of animism that is kind of mind blowing.

Actors in networks in constantly shifting relationships…

The world is full of persons (some of which are non-human), and life is lived in relation to one another.

Spiritual persons in a world full of other spiritual persons…

How exactly I frame it is kind of up to me. It is a way in which to look at ourselves, our cities, our technology, as just elements in larger and more complex systems (such as ecosystems, global systems.) But more than that, its also can include the stories and narratives we tell each other; our worldviews and beliefs.

…it (ANT) can more technically be described as a “material-semiotic” method. This means that it maps relations that are simultaneously material (between things) and semiotic (between concepts). It assumes that many relations are both material and semiotic.” (Wikipedia)

Added onto the top of that is my layer of “mythic” narratives, that I have kind of cobbled together from the various sources. Folklore, ancestry, mythology, my own experience of the world…

In my personal cosmology, non-humans are definitely considered to be active “people” in the social environment. This includes technological people as well, such as automobiles, and smartphones, and robots too.

But it seriously makes me wonder… All the time our technology is getting “smarter” and more connected. Vehicles newer than my own are much more intelligent, and they can network and interact in ways that they never could before.

Connectivity and integration is accelerating quickly in our time. Those emergences, those “greater spirits”; of cities, of ecosystems, of the techno-organic networks we are building. With AI research progressing everyday, and bots and “synthetic persons” constantly trolling us on the internet; the technological realm is hardly exempt from having its own actors.

It makes me wonder a lot. What just might be emerging? Maybe that is the sci-fi buff in me.

Which is a great segway into animism through the lens of cybernetics.

Now we have to keep in mind that the study of cybernetics is really complex, but inevitably when people think about it, they think of cyborgs. Of some kind of fusion of human and machine, or some other such form. This is in fact partially true, but also partially misleading. In truth, cybernetics can be applied to any system that happens to be regulated in some way. In short;

Cybernetics is a transdisciplinary approach for exploring regulatory systems—their structures, constraints, and possibilities. “ (Wikipedia)

But cybernetics is more than that too, and includes a whole range of elements that range from the human, to the animal, to the machine. Cybernetics is a wide view, and can used to study systems such as social and ecosystems, but also biological as well as technological systems and how these all interact. It is an approach with multiple meanings, such as;

“The study of systems and processes that interact with themselves and produce themselves from themselves.”—Louis Kauffman, President of the American Society for Cybernetics” (Wikipedia)

In this way, it sounds almost biological. And, when combined with other ideas I have presented here, it gives us one more tool in which to explore animism and animistic systems. It gives us a form of cybernetic animism;

Concepts studied by cyberneticists include, but are not limited to: learning, cognition, adaptation, social control, emergence, convergence, communication, efficiency, efficacy, and connectivity. “ (Wikipedia)

We have already talked about emergence, and relationships between people, communication, social systems… All of this and more is included in how I view animism and how it asks us to contemplate our relations with ourselves, our environment, and our technology.

Technology, and our relationship to it is something that we need to consider.

Some time ago, I picked up Kevin Kelly’s book “What Technology Wants.” Overall, I thought it was a great read and a good reflection on our relationship on technology. This is not to say it was without it faults, but I won’t go into those critiques here.

That being said, I think his idea of the “Technium”; a kind of egregoric whole of human-tech relations, has a lot of value here. It intersects with many things that are of interest to animism; such as the idea of the superorganic;

When Kevin Kelly looked up the definition of “superorganism” on Wikipedia, he found this: “A collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective.”…. “ (Technium Unbound)

I feel that is self sufficient, but there is a few points that I think deserve emphasis. Collective agents and superorganisms is in many ways what I have been talking about all through this piece. In many ways I consider ecosystems, cities, civilizations, and the planet as a whole as a kind of superorganism.

The technological numbers keep powering up and connecting with each other. Their aggregate is becoming formidable, rich with emergent behavior, and yet it is still so new to us that it remains unnamed and scarcely considered.” (Technium Unbound)

This is what I was talking about in my last section; how quickly things are “coming online.” Our smart technologies are getting smarter all the time, we are networking and connecting to the world around us in ways we never have before. We are already tackling questions about the nature and limits of Artificial Intellegences, and whether or not the machines are going to kill us all…

Okay, that last bit might be a little hyperbolic.

All the same, Kline is on point if you ask me. These kind of connections are rich in emergences. But this is all new territory for us as a species, so there are still plenty of questions to ask.

It reminds me of this scene from the recent I, Robot movie.

Or this from the video game franchise Mass Effect.

(Legion, from Mass Effect)

Which brings us back to Kline’s quote;

The Technium may best be considered a new organism with which we are symbiotic, as we are symbiotic with the aggregate of Earth’s life, sometimes called “Gaia.”… They are not replacing each other but building on each other, and the meta-organism of their combining is so far nameless. Kelly shrugged, “Call it ‘Holos.’ “ (Technium Unbound)

It is really strange to think about all this in those kind of terms. When you consider the whole of the planet from a holistic view it includes the human, the natural, and the technological. It reinforces the idea that our role on the planet is related and intergrated into everything else around us. At no point are we divorced from that.

It really makes me wonder what that cybernetic Gaia, this meta-organic Holos might look like…

Maybe my particular form of animism gives me some tool in which to explore that question.

Thanks for reading! (I know it was a long one!)


Additional Resources;

The Digital-Industrial Revolution (TED Radio Hour)– Covers a lot of topics that I discussed here. Machine intelligence, AI, automation, human-machine interaction.

Hard Wired (TED Radio Hour)This covers some really cool topics, and the segment with Moshe Syzf is really relevant to the topics here.

Start with the Animals and the World will Appear, By LupaA great article by Lupa, exploring some of the more systemic aspects to her own practice. Also a great example of how to look at “all this” in a much more holistic and systemic way.

Agential Realism – A theory by Karren Barrad; deserves a knowing hat tip here. This piece was already too long to include this.














End of Nations? Part 3

Here, we diverge from the idea of the Nation-State, and into what a Post-Nation world might look like. The article points to the European Union as a potential model, a federation of smaller units.

Even so, the EU may point the way to what a post-nation-state world will look like.

Zielonka agrees that further integration of Europe’s governing systems is needed as economies become more interdependent. But he says Europe’s often-paralysed hierarchy cannot achieve this. Instead he sees the replacement of hierarchy by networks of cities, regions and even non-governmental organisations. Sound familiar? Proponents call it neo-medievalism.“

This brings up some interesting points, which I would like to explore more in later works. However, I did come across some thoughts recently that highlight a little more what this kind of world might look like. Here are a few excerpts from An Anarchist FAQ

“The social and political structure of anarchy is similar to that of the economic structure, i.e., it is based on a voluntary federation of decentralized, directly democratic policy-making bodies. These are the neighborhood and community assemblies and their confederations. In these grassroots political units, the concept of “self-management” becomes that of “self-government”, a form of municipal organisation in which people take back control of their living places from the bureaucratic state and the capitalist class whose interests it serves.


The key to that change, from the anarchist standpoint, is the creation of a network of participatory communities based on self-government through direct, face-to-face democracy in grassroots neighborhood and community assemblies [meetings for discussion, debate, and decision making].


Since not all issues are local, the neighborhood and community assemblies will also elect mandated and re-callable delegates to the larger-scale units of self-government in order to address issues affecting larger areas, such as urban districts, the city or town as a whole, the county, the bio-region, and ultimately the entire planet. Thus the assemblies will confederate at several levels in order to develop and co-ordinate common policies to deal with common problems. “

Now, I don’t consider myself an anarchist by any sense of the word, but that does not mean there are not interesting ideas to be found in the context of a post-Nation world. We are in fact talking about here the greater integration and networking of numerous scales of organization. Self-government is definitely one of the ideas I support with democracy, and it is curious that there are interesting parallels between this think and several democratic Nations throughout the world, notably the European Union and the United States.

I am not saying that these democratic structures are anarchic in any way, and I am sympathetic to many of the critiques of those systems. For example, especially in the United States I do feel the governmental structure has become quite self-serving and top heavy as hierarchical institutions. I for one would love to see it reworked to allow for not only greater direct democracy, such as has been outlined above, but also better representation. The idea of “mandated and re-callable” delegations has a certain appeal to it. My own representative government here in Michigan has flouted the will of the people in many important issues, and made no attempt to hide that. And yet, we the people have little recourse to deal with something like that.

I return here to the idea of better intergrated and interdependent networks; in the NewScientist article;

Ian Goldin, head of the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, which analyses global problems, thinks such networks must emerge. He believes existing institutions such as UN agencies and the World Bank are structurally unable to deal with problems that emerge from global interrelatedness, such as economic instability, pandemics, climate change and cybersecurity – partly because they are hierarchies of member states which themselves cannot deal with these global problems. He quotes Slaughter: “Networked problems require a networked response.” “

I cannot stress that last part enough. Networked problems require a networked response. As we face more and more problems on a global scale top-down institutions lack the flexibility and adaptability to deal with really complex problems. As the article points out, hierarchy requires the person at the top to get their head around the whole of the complexity. That is nearly impossible as the world grows entirely more complex. Things such as climate change and habitat loss require a much more adaptable and integrated response.

I return to the article here to further expand on this point;

Moreover, says Dani Rodrik of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, the very globalised economy that is allowing these networks to emerge needs something or somebody to write and enforce the rules. Nation states are currently the only entities powerful enough to do this.

Yet their limitations are clear, both in solving global problems and resolving local conflicts. One solution may be to pay more attention to the scale of government. Known as subsidiarity, this is a basic principle of the EU: the idea that government should act at the level where it is most effective, with local government for local problems and higher powers at higher scales. There is empirical evidence that it works: social and ecological systems can be better governed when their users self-organise than when they are run by outside leaders.”

A government should act at the level it is most effective. I think there is a fair bit of truth in that. Yet, it comes to the point that we have to admit that most of this is just future speculation. It is an idea for one possible way forward for our societies. I for one think it is a decent idea, as I want to see us become a more globalized and integrated people. I want us to continue to push ourselves to become a planetary society (Type I on the Kardashev Scale), and that will require more networking and integration. Yet, as the article points out; how we get there (if we get there) is anyone’s best guess;

However, it is hard to see how our political system can evolve coherently in that direction. Nation states could get in the way of both devolution to local control and networking to achieve global goals. With climate change, it is arguable that they already have.”

Now, this article was written in 2014, back before the Paris Climate Agreement. Still, Nation-States consistently create problems and obstacles to further integration. Here I give the article the last word;

Like it or not, our societies may already be undergoing this transition. We cannot yet imagine there are no countries. But recognising that they were temporary solutions to specific historical situations can only help us manage a transition to whatever we need next. Whether or not our nations endure, the structures through which we govern our affairs are due for a change. Time to start imagining.”

Yes, time to start imagining.


NewScientist – “The End of Nations”


Futurism – “The Kardashev Scale”



Anarchist FAQ


End of Nations? Part 2

We begin today where we left off last time, the article from NewScientist has this to say about complexity;

Complexity was limited by the energy a society could harness. For most of history that essentially meant human and animal labour. In the late Middle Ages, Europe harnessed more, especially water power. This boosted social complexity – trade increased, for example– requiring more government. A decentralised feudal system gave way to centralised monarchies with more power.

But these were still not nation states.“

Are you at all familiar with the Kardashev scale? This scale was developed back in the 1960’s, and ranks a civilization based on the energy at its disposal. Currently there are five classes on the scale, and currently our society doesn’t even register. A decent overview is at Futurism. We are still a type 0 civilization, and have a long way to go before we are even type I. For reference, a Type I civilization is able to harness all the energy of a neighboring star. Can you imagine solar power on that kind of scale? Here is just an excerpt from Futurism;

Essentially, to measure a civilization’s advancement (awesomeness), the Kardashev scale focuses on the amount of energy that a civilization is able to utilize. Notably, the amount of power available to a civilization is linked to how widespread the civilization is (whether it populates a planet, galaxy, or an entire universe)…

Type 0: Subglobal Culture—This civilization extracts its energy and raw-materials from crude organic-based sources such as wood, coal, and oil. Any rockets utilized by such a civilization would necessarily depend on chemical propulsion. Since such travel is so pitifully slow, a civilization at this level would be (for the most part) confined to its home planet. Unfortunately, this is about where we are. We haven’t quite made it to Type I yet.”

Moving back to the article, as was pointed out through most of history, there was a relatively low amount of energy available to us. That started to change as the world industrialized.

By then Europe had hit the tipping point of the industrial revolution. Harnessing vastly more energy from coal meant that complex behaviours performed by individuals, such as weaving, could be amplified, says Bar-Yam, producing much more complex collective behaviours.

This demanded a different kind of government. In 1776 and 1789, revolutions in the US and France created the first nation states, defined by the national identity of their citizens rather than the bloodlines of their rulers. According to one landmark history of the period, says Breuilly, “in 1800 almost nobody in France thought of themselves as French. By 1900 they all did.” For various reasons, people in England had an earlier sense of “Englishness”, he says, but it was not expressed as a nationalist ideology.”

As the industrial revolution took hold, it brought more energy into the equation, and this brought with it the need for more complex systems to regulate the new reality. There were a lot of different reasons for this.

Part of the reason was a pragmatic adaptation of the scale of political control required to run an industrial economy. Unlike farming, industry needs steel, coal and other resources which are not uniformly distributed, so many micro-states were no longer viable. Meanwhile, empires became unwieldy as they industrialised and needed more actual governing.

That meant hierarchical control structures ballooned, with more layers of middle management. Such bureaucracy was what really brought people together in nation-sized units, argues Maleševic. But not by design: it emerged out of the behaviour of complex hierarchical systems. As people do more kinds of activities, says Bar-Yam, the control structure of their society inevitably becomes denser.”

And as the article points out, this lead to a whole host of new processes that brought the nation-state to the forefront of modern politics. The number of beurocrats per capita expanded, and numerous processes of nation building, which bring the people to identify with their nation. the identity of the people went into play. In addition, through governmental forms such as democracy, the nation granted its citizens a stake in the nation, and they started to feel it was “theirs.”

Yet, even nationalism has it’s limits. Nationalism and Globalism and both two edged swords in many respects. As the world grows increasingly global, this brings with it a tribal tendency to dwell into isolation in one’s nation. Returning to the article helps expand this point.

According to Brian Slattery of York University in Toronto, Canada, nation states still thrive on a widely held belief that “the world is naturally made of distinct, homogeneous national or tribal groups which occupy separate portions of the globe, and claim most people’s primary allegiance”. But anthropological research does not bear that out, he says. Even in tribal societies, ethnic and cultural pluralism has always been widespread. Multilingualism is common, cultures shade into each other, and language and cultural groups are not congruent. “

I do not think I need to belabor this point too much, as I think the point has been pretty clearly stated. Nation-States create within themselves a “national identity”, which often ignores the reality of multiculturalism in pretty much every Nation in the world. As this article has clearly shown, the Nation-State is a fairly recent phenomenon.

This is where we are going to leave this part of the series, and next time we explore more of what a Post-Nation world might look like.

Thanks for reading!


NewScientist – “The End of Nations”


Futurism – “The Kardashev Scale”



End of Nations? Part 1

There was an article I came across some time ago by NewScientist that really struck a cord with me. As a science fiction writer, I spend a great deal of time doing though experiments and engaging in creative speculation. To put this another way, I wonder a great deal of the future looks like.

In some respect, trying to predict the future is really a futile endeavor. To make predictions about the future, often we resort to historical analogy or the extrapolation of current trends. There are big problems with both of these approaches, which makes me question how useful they really are. For historical analogy, the big problem is historical particularity. At no time in history did our civilization look exactly like it does today, we have industry, computers, and a far bit of other things that don’t have precedents in things like the Roman Empire or Ancient Egypt. That means, after a point, historical analogies fail.

The problem with extrapolation of current trends is the inherent assumption that current trends will continue. For example, I could speculate that our hunger for oil will destroy the planet. There is plenty of good sci-fi out there that does just that. The problem of course arises, when we assume our habit of oil consumption will continue. It may, or it may not. I cannot say for sure.

As another example, I could write a story about a prosperous and brighter future, based on the current trends in science and the gains we have made in environmental protection. That assumes these trends will continue. In real life, we may just get an administration that destroys all those glimmers of hope. Not only does that make the future a lot dimmer, but it also breaks my future predictions.

At the same time, I find creative speculation to be a lot of fun, if not all that productive. No, it is unlikely that I can make sound predictions about the future (though some author’s certainly have been real close), I find the process behind it to be a lot of fun. In other words, it is really fun to imagine what the future might look like.

As such, when I came across End of Nations: Is there an Alternative to Countries? Over at NewScientist, it got my imaginative circuits firing. I hope you indulge me while I talk a little about the article.

Begins with this little number;

Nation states cause some of our biggest problems, from civil war to climate inaction. Science suggests there are better ways to run a planet “

The world is a pretty complex place these days, and the major players on the world state are in fact nation-states. As the article points out, there are about 193 of them these days. However, it was not always that way. In fact, the idea of a nation-state is actually fairly new on a relative time scale. Civilization as we think about it, mostly centered on cities, has been around at least 10,000 years. Nation-states have generally only been around for the last 500. A lot of people have started to wonder if nation-states are the best way to organize our world and confront the challenges ahead.

Yet there is a growing feeling among economists, political scientists and even national governments that the nation state is not necessarily the best scale on which to run our affairs. We must manage vital matters like food supply and climate on a global scale, yet national agendas repeatedly trump the global good. At a smaller scale, city and regional administrations often seem to serve people better than national governments.

How, then, should we organise ourselves? Is the nation state a natural, inevitable institution? Or is it a dangerous anachronism in a globalised world?”

At this point, the article asks us to imagine what another way of organization. But before we can approach that question, the article launches into a little bit of the history behind nation-states. It details how the nation-state is really a recent invention, and that this method of structuring our societies didn’t really exist before circa the 18th century.

The article rightly points out that for a long span of human history, we did not organize ourselves in this way;

That goes back to the anthropology, and psychology, of humanity’s earliest politics. We started as wandering, extended families, then formed larger bands of hunter-gatherers, and then, around 10,000 years ago, settled in farming villages. Such alliances had adaptive advantages, as people cooperated to feed and defend themselves.”

Yet, there were limits to what people could do as roaming bands, or even larger organizations such as villages. According to the article, Robin Dunbar suggests that an individual person can keep track of their relationship’s with about 150 people or so. That means, say in a world of 7 billion some odd people, individually most of us are going to be able to have decent social relationships with a very small number of people. Call it your “inner circle” if you like.

But, aside from cooperation for food supplies, there was also another important reason for a lot of friends.

But there was one important reason to have more friends than that: war. “In small-scale societies, between 10 and 60 per cent of male deaths are attributable to warfare,” says Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut at Storrs. More allies meant a higher chance of survival.”

As long as there has been humans, there have been human deaths because of violence. I really wish I could feed the quint romance that there was some mythical “peaceful” time in our past, but there wasn’t. Some societies and tribes were more peaceful than others, sure, but as long as we have been around we can point to evidence of violence. But there is another thing that needs to be said here. Humans are also social by nature, our best chances of survival are when we work together, not when we are alone. So we found ways to organize ourselves, and these larger alliances helped us to survive. This in turn, gave rise to hierarchies.

How did they get past Dunbar’s number? Humanity’s universal answer was the invention of hierarchy. Several villages allied themselves under a chief; several chiefdoms banded together under a higher chief. To grow, these alliances added more villages, and if necessary more layers of hierarchy.

Larger hierarchies not only won more wars but also fed more people through economies of scale, which enabled technical and social innovations such as irrigation, food storage, record-keeping and a unifying religion. Cities, kingdoms and empires followed.”

As I have already pointed out, this was hardly a linear process. The transition from hunter-gatherers to empires and monarchies was an up-down-and all around process. Cities rose and fell, empires did the same. What was the reason for this? There are several factors involved to be sure, but one of the keep points, as pointed out in the article, was that most pre-industrial societies were relatively not all that complex.

One key point is that agrarian societies required little actual governing. Nine people in 10 were peasants who had to farm or starve, so were largely self-organising. Government intervened to take its cut, enforce basic criminal law and keep the peace within its undisputed territories. Otherwise its main role was to fight to keep those territories, or acquire more. “

As such, even the largest empires such as Rome, didn’t have to do very much in terms of governing. The individual communities did most of that themselves, though Rome itself provided the organizing structure behind the society, which granted them with a fairly consistent supply of manpower and food production. Back to the article to expand on this point.

Such loose control, says Bar-Yam, meant pre-modern political units were only capable of scaling up a few simple actions such as growing food, fighting battles, collecting tribute and keeping order. Some, like the Roman Empire, did this on a very large scale. But complexity – the different actions society could collectively perform – was relatively low.

We are getting towards what I think is the real heart of the matter. In the case of most pre-industrial societies, the relative complexity was pretty low. The article here defines complexity as the “different actions a society could preform”, and as has already been pointed out, most of these activities were either food production, war or keeping order. But then the question that follows is why was that relative complexity so low?

We will explore that question more in the next part of this series.

Thanks for reading!


NewScientist – “The End of Nations”