Anonymous Societies

What happens when you're surrounded by strangers.

Continuing in our discussion of The Human Swarm by Mark W. Moffett. Last time we talked about band societies.

Band societies are among the many forms of what Moffett refers to as anonymous societies. Anonymous societies are just that—the members of the society are by-and-large anonymous to one another; that is, they do not have direct, personal knowledge of one another on an ongoing daily basis.

Because we live in anonymous societies, we fail to see how remarkable this is. Everyday we are surrounded by—and interact with—people we have no direct personal knowledge of, or have ever encountered before (and will often never meet again). Such interactions occur dozens, or even hundreds, of times per day.

This simply does not happen with other mammals! The only other animals that display this sort of behavior (with a few notable exceptions) are the so-called social insects like ants and termites.

Ant societies have long fascinated biologists. Even though humans share something like 98 percent of our DNA with chimpanzees and bonobos, those animals are incapable of this sort of behavior. Zoologists attempting to introduce a new chimpanzee to a group in a zoo, for example, will take months to slowly acclimate the newcomer to the group, otherwise the newcomer is likely to be severely wounded or even killed. A slow and deliberate process of acclimation is required, and even then might not even work.

By contrast, many of our of our behaviors—living in colonies of tens of thousands; division of labor; fighting wars; taking slaves (the slavemaking ant, Temnothorax americanus); engaging in agriculture (the 'fungal gardens' of leaf-cutter ants) and domestication (aphid 'ant cows' used by herder ants) are behaviors that are only engaged in by social insects who diverged from mammals millions of years ago and with whom we share next to no significant DNA. How can this be? Moffett himself is an entomologist who was mentored by the famed biologist E.O. Wilson, and he spends a great deal of the early part of the book explaining the dynamics of insect societies.

The way insect societies are able to create anonymous societies is through the use of chemical messengers, i.e. pheromones (scent).

Most insect communication is based on chemicals known as pheromones, with specialized glands releasing compounds to signal emergencies or signpost a route to food. Colony membership is marked by chemistry as well. Although ants don't tell individuals apart by their personal aromas…they do recognize each other as nest mates—or as foreign—using an odor as a shared sign of identity. As long as an ant displays the correct emblem—as long as she smells right, which requires that she have the right combination of molecules known as hydrocarbons on her body—her colony-mates admit her as one of their own.

The scent (or taste, if you wish to call it that, since ants detect the emblem by touch) is like a flag pin, one that every ant must wear. An ant that shouldn't be there is quickly detected by her alien scent. Since ants have no white flag of surrender, more often than not the outsider is killed, like the unfortunate Argentine ant that snoops across a territorial border...

Those identifying markers are what enable social insects to transcend the widespread vertebrate requirement of having firsthand acquaintance with each other. Whether we are talking about several trap-jaw ants intimately clustered inside a twig or a billion Argentine ants spread far and wide, the members need never have met, nor even come close to each other, let along recall one another. Species that mark their aggregate identity have what I call anonymous societies. (69-70)

The use of pheromones allows millions of ants, termites, bees, and other insects to cooperate on a large-scale basis to form a superorganism. However, in social insects this is not at all based on individual recognition; instead, all ants are simply part of a collective. In other words, ants don't have "friends":

Ant and honeybee workers don't know anyone as an individual. Associations between ants—the team pinning down an enemy combatant, for example—are impersonal. The best a worker can do is discriminate among types of individuals—tell soldiers from worker ants of a larva from a pupa, for instance, and most essentially a queen from everybody else.

The ants do manifest personality differences, with certain workers putting in more effort that others, for example, but these do-gooders are unrecognized for their trouble. That means ants avoid ever having to confront a rival or build an alliance within their societies the way we vertebrates do—the queen aside, no ant picks favorites, and every other worker in the country is equally on the same side. To an ant, only the society, not the individual matters. (68)

Vertebrate mammals, however, do not have this ability (with a few notable exceptions*). Their societies are based on individual recognition—direct, personal knowledge of who is and who is not a member of the society. This process is very taxing on cognition—it's hard to keep track of who's who for everyone in the society. This, in turn, puts a hard limit on how large their societies are able to grow. For example, the societies of chimpanzees and bonobos are limited to how many individuals can be individually recognized; strangers are considered an enemy (although chimps can also use scent to identify members). This limitation prevents societies of most animals from growing beyond a certain maximum limit. Moffett calls these individual recognition societies.

Among most vertebrates, permeability is restricted to rare and arduous transfers between societies of individuals seeking mates. These species keep outsiders out by forming individual recognition societies. Each animal must recognize every other member as an individual, regardless of whether that peer was born in the group or admitted from the outside. In the mind of a savanna elephant or bottlenose dolphin, then, every Tom, Dick, and Jane in the society must be identified as Tom, Dick or Jane. Not that they use personal names...(46)

A membership system based on individual recognition works because the members agree on who belongs. At times there can be differences of opinion, but across all society-forming species these are rare and temporary, limited to the transitional moments when an individual is being expelled from, or joining, a society. A stallion, excited at the prospect of another mate, may encourage a mare to join his band while the band's mares, still seeing her as an outsider, simultaneously try to drive her off. The endgame for the mare, as she works to wear down this female opposition, is not merely to be recognized, but to be recognized as one of the group. (47)

The way humans get around this limitation is through the use of markers. Moffatt uses the term marker and it synonyms to refer specifically to "…attributes people associate with their society" (79). Markers allow us to quickly identify who is and who is not a members of our social group, allowing us to form anonymous societies:

"Whereas ants and naked mole rats rely on odor to identify society-mates, and sperm whales rely exclusively on vocalizations, for Homo sapiens, just about anything will do (81)...Producing and perceiving markers, therefore, need not take much effort and, once learned, the markers can be applied to indefinite numbers of individuals with no additional mental demands and no obligation to maintain a relationship...Imagine if you felt obliged to introduce yourself to, and get to know, everyone you came across. The mental demand would be overwhelming. By comparison, markers are simplicity itself...Markers not only take the cap off the size of societies; they make social life less complex...So while most mammals treat each society member as an individual and from that personal knowledge build a collective identity, people enjoy the ant-like option of ignoring and even being ignorant of each other. Like the ants, we relate to strangers based on whether they share our identity." (91-93)

It is the flexibility of human social organization that gives human societies their extraordinary power. Individual recognition societies, as well as the pheromone-based systems of social insects, are fixed and based primarily on biology. Human societies, by contrast are malleable, facilitated by our large brains—particularly the neocortex—which allows flexible cooperation between almost unlimited numbers of people inside anonymous societies, as Yuval Noah Harari describes in his popular TED Talk:

"Humans control the world because we are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in large numbers, but they do so in a very rigid way. If a beehive is facing a new threat or a new opportunity, the bees cannot reinvent their social system overnight in order to cope better. They cannot, for example, execute the queen and establish a republic."

"Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of intimately known individuals. Among wolves and chimps, cooperation is based on personal acquaintance. If I am a chimp and I want to cooperate with you, I must know you personally: What kind of chimp are you? Are you a nice chimp? Are you an evil chimp? How can I cooperate with you if I don’t know you? Only Homo sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers..."

Such adaptive, flexible behavior is what allowed human societies to grow beyond the limitations of other higher-order animals very early on in our evolution. The evidence indicates that human social groups were already much larger than those of other animals even in our remote Pleistocene ancestors:

Based on estimates of brain volumes, two anthropologists concluded that the social networks of Homo erectus and early Homo sapiens individuals were already bigger than those of chimps. This would indicate their societies were already well in excess of 200. Another study based on archaeological evidence projected that societies had already reached populations for several hundred individuals by the time the genus Homo emerged 2.8 million yeas ago—when the human diet had first begun to include more flesh. Both results suggest markers are a venerable part of our heritage, having come into play long before the first complex artifacts like cave paintings, found their way to the fossil record. (151)

Some of these behaviors appear to be hard-wired into our basic fundamental psychology, like favoring people who look like us; that is, those who have similar physical features as our own. Even babies under one year old show this tendency, as Moffatt notes: "In short, before a baby can read, before it speaks or comprehends language, memberships such as race and ethnicity are distinctions it attends to effortlessly, without any input from elders." (166) Some markers are acquired through cultural imprinting like the language we speak, the way we walk and talk, or a taste for certain kinds of foods; while others are learned displays such as the clothes we wear, distinctive tattoos and body piercings, or waving a flag and singing a national anthem.

The markers of a society can appear trivial or just plain weird to outsiders. For example, the custom of eating with the hands in India; or, in Thailand, primarily with a spoon, never chopsticks...Silly and arbitrary or not, some of the differences can have life-or-death consequences, such as the practice of driving on either the left of right side of the road. Still other markers are icons that bear a relationship with something out there in the world, such as many Egyptian hieroglyphs that are instantly recognizable for what they stand for. Even the oddest markers can seem logical to those who use them. The bald eagle and the bear, mighty predators, respectively represent the strength of the United States and Russia, and ties to such markers can be a powerful social glue.

Markers can be reinforced, or outright determined by biology. Certain mutations spread among people with the advent of animal domestication several thousand years ago that allowed adults to digest the lactose found in milk. In Tanzania, the cattle-herding Barabaig, who find milk delicious, live near Hadza hunter-gatherers, who are nauseated by dairy products...(81-82)

For example, even something like alphabetical order is actually a random order that we all agree is in order.

Stereotypes allow us to make snap judgements about individuals so that we can avoid the cognitive burden of having to know each member of a society on an individual, personal basis; tantamount to an "instantaneous and unthinking categorization of people" (171). This means that we automatically sort the social world—unconsciously—into various categories, with strangers automatically sorted into a different category than foreigners, and with appropriate behaviors for each: "The fact is human minds have likely evolved to respond to strangers and foreigners differently, and foreign strangers most strongly of all." (171)

Even a three-month-old hones in on faces of its own race. By five months this preference extends to those speaking the parents' language, and with their dialect; a child grows up finding strange accents exhausting to comprehend and is sensitive to differences in speech. Between six and nine months of age, babies become good at categorizing people of other races based on facial cues, but after that they become worse at distinguishing individuals of other races other than their own. This precedes the loss of adeptness at learning foreign languages after the age of five. I anticipate a baby's response to equally striking markers of identity such as hairstyle or dress will show a similar decline. (165)

Members of a people or culture would have shared language, stories, behaviors, art, bodily ornamentation, clothing styles, and other distinct markers that identified each other as part of the shared culture. For example, headdresses, and hairstyles identified tribal membership among many Woodland Native American groups, while labrets (lip plugs) identified both the membership and the social status of Pacific Northwest coast Indians. Tattoos identified membership in Aleut tribes, along with the species of animal pelts worn in their clothing. Markers meant that social ties could be maintained even over long distances. Seasonal and ceremonial gatherings would have also reinforced the sense of belonging to a wider shared culture, along with informal contacts and frequent visitations.

We allow...anonymity by recognizing certain signs in others that fit our expectations--characteristics that act as markers of identity...The recognition of markers is a human aptitude that most animals lack, with the exception of a few vertebrates such as the naked mole rats and sperm whales and most social insects...Most mammals, indeed most vertebrates, lack anything they could reliably use to mark their society. The horses in a band never have the same gait or style of whinnying, for example.

In most situations the lack of markers keeps vertebrates focused on managing individual relationships, in contrast to ants, for which such familiarity is non-existent. People fall in the middle, with selective focus on cultivating key social connections without taking on the obligation of keeping track of everyone in the society. We form variable relationships based on our social histories with others, treating only some people as function as a society, chimpanzees need to know everybody, ants need to know nobody humans only need to know somebody. (79-80)

Because markers permit individuals to forget others while retaining their societal connection to them, and even to be comfortable around outright strangers, they allowed societies to expand not only in space but in population. Chimpanzee communities top out at a couple hundred, those of bonobos at somewhat less...With people at ease for the first time with complete strangers, I would describe our species as "released from familiarity." (151)

Moffett speculates as to how such behaviors might have emerged in the deep history of our species. Chimpanzees use a distinctive call when they come into contact with apes from the same group called a pant-hoot. Chimpanzees can also recognize the pant-hoots of rival groups, and behave accordingly, seeing them as potentially threatening. Moffatt speculates that these types of sounds may have gradually evolved into something like passwords, and that such passwords would have been used to identify friend from foe early on. Even today, many hunter-gatherers will shout the word for "friend" to identify themselves to other tribe members.

Although he doesn't mention it, there is some evidence for Moffat's suggestion with a species of baboon known as geladas. Geladas produce the most complex verbal sounds of any primate. Unlike the relatively basic calls issued by other primates, geladas are able to use a technique called lip smacking, in which they rapidly move their jaws, lips and tongues in much the same way that humans do as they speak. This allows them to produce a wider range of noises including a "wobble" that vaguely mimics human speech patterns. At the same time, geladas also happen to live in some of the largest and most complex societies of any primate species, as this Wired article points out:

...vocal complexity is likely intertwined with social complexity. Baboons are closely related to geladas, but use fewer vocalizations and don’t smack their lips. Perhaps not coincidentally, baboons live in relatively small, short-lived groups.

Gelada groups stay together for many years, with females having especially long-lived relationships. Often groups come together in bands of several hundred individuals. “It’s a very complex social system. They have some of the largest groups of any primate,” Bergman said. “These very large group structures may be linked to vocal complexity. There’s some evidence across primate that bigger groups make more sounds.”

Language and social complexity are clearly intertwined. I would argue that language is the tool that allowed human societies to achieve the complexity that they have.

From there, Moffett speculates that bodily decoration and ornamentation would have been the next logical step to signal one's membership in a tribe or band. Our hairless bodies provide a ready canvas for us to prominently display our group affiliation (many sports fans still commonly do this!). We could also adopt distinctive hair styles as so many Native American groups did (most famously, the Mohawk people). And we could wear personal adornment like jewelry or headdresses to distinguish our culture from others. These are cultural universals—all human cultures engage in this type of behavior in some way.

As cultures became more and more complex over time, the number of ways to differentiate one society from another became greater and greater; a process Moffett calls cultural ratcheting. The greater the number of cultures there are, the greater the need for new and distinctive markers to differentiate one's own group from all the others. Eventually this expanded to material culture as well:

Depending on their "band cluster"—their society—the !Xõ Bushmen spoke different dialects and made arrows that differed in shape. People from one !Xõ band cluster recognized the arrows from another such group of bands "as coming from !Xõ who are not our people,'" according to [Anthropologist Polly] Wiessner. Meanwhile she found that another group of Bushmen, the !Kung, numbering 1,500 to 2,000, had an arrow style of their own...Weissner had described certain goods--such as oracle discs used to divine the future, wood forks for puberty ceremonies, and aprons worn by women--as identifying them as part of a group of bands regardless of how little their people interacted... (109)

Among the Andaman Islanders, who for the most part fiercely avoided outsiders until early in the last century, were the Onges who painted their bodies, while the Jawaras tattooed themselves by puncturing their skin with slivers of quartz. African pygmies differed in the quality and cadence of their music, the dances accompanying their performances, and the instruments they played (and mostly still play).

Markers take a bewildering number of forms across different societies—everything from bodily ornamentation to hairstyles, to material culture, to the way we walk and the way we talk. Even the smallest cues can have significance. One famous experiment showed volunteers a picture of Japanese people born in both Japan and the United States. The participants were able to differentiate the Japanese from the Japanese-Americans simply from the photos, even though they were all from the exact same ethnic group. Another experiment demonstrated that Americans and Australians—obviously very similar culturally—could tell each other apart simply by how they walked. [1] Settlers in the American West could identify which tribes Indians belonged to simply by noting the pattern of beads sewn into their moccasins. Historian Richard Broome wrote of Australian Aborigines that "even gestures can be misinterpreted, as winks and handshakes in one group are mere twitches of touches to the other." Even personality traits can be customary, such as the classical British reserve as opposed to the typicial brashness of Americans and Australians. Every culture has a unique set of behaviors to identify who is and is not part of their in-group. Taking a page from anthropology, such behavior is commonly referred to as “tribal” behavior.

The process of demonstrating markers to signify one's group membership status is known as signaling. However, signals can be easy to fake. It's easy, after all to style one's hair in a certain fashion, or to paint one's body with a specific color and pattern of pigment, or to don a certain type of costume. These are called fake signals.

That's why many human behaviors can be understood as forms of what is known as costly signaling. Signaling theory argues that in order to determine “honest" signals from “false" ones, the signal has to be somehow costly to the person making the signal. This prevents "free riders" from taking advantage of the benefits of group membership at no cost to themselves, which would undermine the very purpose of the group.

All sorts of human behaviors can be seen as forms of costly signaling. Such behaviors include dyadic gift exchanges, public displays of generosity, food sharing, and competitive feasting. In many societies, courtship between men and women occurs over long periods of time and involves the exchange of wealth between families in the form of dowries and brideprice, depending on the culture. Hazing and initiation rites can also be seen as types of costly signaling in order to gain membership into a group—even subgroups within the society itself.

One way of reaffirming group identity is through engaging in rituals. Rituals are repeated behaviors that signal ones membership in a group. Often they serve no other purpose than being impenetrable to outsiders, making it easier to indetify who is and who is not part of our shared culture. This can be anything from a secret handshake to some of the most painful experiences imaginable. Some groups have initiations rites so painful that not all of the initiates survive. For example, the warrior initiation ceremony performed on the young boys of the Satere-Mawe of the Amazon consists of being stung by dozens of bullet ants voer five straight minutes—a single sting is enough of a shock to knock over a grown man. Such rituals are preserved and passed own over time with very little change, which preserves the integrity of the society as distinct from others.

Rituals consist of replicated sequences of actions that have no obvious practical utility in and of themselves. The rallies of some mammal species are the behaviors closest to rituals that we see in nature. Gray wolves leap on each other and yip, while spotted hyenas go through bouts of rubbing one another, tails bristling. The act of rallying animates the participants to take risks they would avoid when alone—attack another clan, perhaps…

Humans follow ritualized patterns more than we may imagine, going far beyond simply mirroring each other’s speech and emotions. As children we become clever at duplicating the complex actions of others, typically to no obvious end other than to demonstrate commitment to a group…those who participate in intense rituals achieve a heightened solidarity that rises above the identity-affirming power of ordinary social markers by making participants very cohesive indeed…When formal expressions of devotion are repeated regularly, people can be driven to so align their fates that they may commit to perilous concerted actions. (198-199)

For preliterate peoples many ingredients of identity, from spiritual beliefs to dances, were preserved through the ages with surprising accuracy. Repetition and ritualization served to “compromise almost unbreakable ‘codes’ for the uninitiated,” according to anthropologists at the University of Connecticut, all but guaranteeing that minutiae stuck. You don’t have to turn to hunter-gatherer ceremonies and storytelling to be convinced of this point: early Greeks orally transmitted the Iliad and the Odyssey before inventing an alphabet. (252)

When looking at various groups in the far distant past, archaeologists look for similar styles in material culture that can be detected as signs that their makers came from a common shared culture. Similar styles of stone tool manufacture, for example, have allowed archaeologists to sort people from the Upper Paleolithic into distinctive "cultures" like the Aurignacian, Magdellanian or Soultrean. And similar styles of pottery—which tend to be preserved in the archaeological record—have led to the classification of Neolithic cultures like the Linear Pottery (LBK) culture, the Pitted Ware culture or the Corded Ware culture. Methods of burial, and the objects found in burials, are another way to differentiate ancient cultures, as with the Pit-Grave (Yamnaya) culture of the Russian/Ukrainian steppe. It's not an exact science, however, but in the absence of cultural markers that we can observe first-hand like language and behavior, it is the best way we can reconstruct past societies that no longer exist in their original form.

We can see the see the beginnings of this behavior very far back in the archaeological record. Even before 100,000 years ago in the Paleolithic era, different groups of Homo sapiens made tools in distinctive fashions depending on which group they were a part of: "[F]or instance, in Central Africa, people made heavy axes, bifacial lanceolates, blades and picks. In the grasslands and savannah of north Africa, there were tanged implements." [2] Shells of the snail Nassarius gibbosulus have been found in caves at Skhul in Israel and Oued Djebbana in Algeria dating from 90,000 to 100,000 years ago pieced with holes, indicating that they were probably strung together like beads and worn as jewelry. At caves in South Africa paleoanthropologists have found the earliest "factories" for the production of ocher, a pigment used for symbolic art and decoration of the body, complete with seashell "palettes" that appear to have been chosen primarily for their aesthetic value rather than mere utility.

The Pinnacle Point artifacts offer plenty of hints that early people might have taken an interest in the stylistic flourishes commonly associated with more recent human societies. Starting 160,000 years ago, ocher (iron oxide) was carried into the caverns to char in fires. Heating is an almost certain sign the intent was adornment: it turns ocher the vibrant red of blood. Hunter-gatherers the world over, including North American Indians like the Chumash, painted their bodies with ocher designs that bespoke their identity. Many Africans, Bushmen included, still do.

One hundred kilometers down the coast from Pinnacle Point, researchers have excavated a 100,000-year-old ocher workshop complete with grindstones, hammerstones, and pigment stored in abalone shells. Also in Blombos cave there were 71,000-year old hunks of ocher scratched with geometric patterns and snail shells with holes drilled in them so they could be strung like beads. (145)

The ability to recognize markers is not unique to humans. Elephants in Kenya, for example, can differentiate between Masai youth—who spear elephants as a rite of passage—from other tribes based on the distinctive red cloth worn by the Masai. Consequently they will attack Masai wearing red while refraining from attacking the Kamba people who are not a threat. At the same time, chimpanzee groups do indeed have various behaviors that are distinct to them compared to other groups; that is, they do indeed possess culture in a rudimentary sense. Chimps and bonobos do have the capability to recognize abstract symbols, as shown by those who have been taught to communicate with humans using such symbols in laboratories. Yet there is no evidence that such behavior signifies any sort of group membership, nor has any larger significance:

Compared with human conventions...variations in chimpanzee cultures are simple and few, and as far as anyone can tell, they don't matter for social acceptance. Chimps don't register leaf-sponging techniques to keep track of who belongs where; nor do dolphins monitor differences in fishing strategies. (148)

Chimpanzees have socially learned traditions, yet don’t discriminate against those who act strangely. Furthermore, there's no reason to think they come up with customs that some members take on and others spurn, bringing about a severing of community. For humans, however, being part of a society comes with obligations of acting properly and abiding by its roles and expectations. (271)

Part-and-parcel of our ability to use markers is the ability to read what they signify; that is, the ability to read meaning into them. Humans have a distinctive ability and incessant need to read meaning into things, even ordinary things. Markers are things which, after all, are rather unremarkable on their own. Feathers, flags, beads strung together—all these things are unremarkable by themselves; they are only made special by human's ability to attach meaning to them. A totem pole is just a carved tree trunk. And yet the shapes carved into the tree have great meaning to the culture which carved them. Humans are hard-wired, then, to seek meaning in things **. Because we are so innately driven to find meaning, we tend to seek it out in everything around us—including things for which the very premise makes no sense, such as life itself (i.e. "what is the meaning of life?"). The very question is nonsensical. What is the meaning of a mountain? Or bedbugs? Or the Milky Way galaxy? They are all just there. Yet our brains still seek it out—an instinct we can't seem to turn off. Such thinking is also at the heart of many religions.

A shared spoken language may be the the ultimate marker of in-group status. In fact, the reason we have so many different languages today might be precisely because we needed them in order to identify members of the same shared culture.

For years, linguists have wondered why are there so many human languages? Why don't we all just speak the same language, or at least mutually intelligible ones? After all, the express purpose of language is to communicate! But languages have a distinct tendency to mutate and branch into mutually unintelligible dialects all the time. Today there are thousands of human languages. New Guinea, with a population of less than four million, has over 860 languages. Tiny Vanuatu has a population of 150,000 but 105 identifiable languages—one language for every 1,500 speakers! [3] This unfortunate tendency would seem to negate the very purpose of human language in the first place.

But other linguists have argued that language is designed expressly to mutate in order to serve as a badge of membership. When languages mutate, they can be used as a sort of "password" writ large to distinguish insiders from outsiders. In other words, mutation is a fundamental purpose of language, which is why it is built into human speech (similar to how genes mutate over time). Seen from this perspective, language is a tool to prevent communication as much as to facilitate it, as Robin Dunbar writes:

...[L]anguages have one very odd quality for a faculty that is supposed to function as a mechanism tor facilitating the exchange of instrumental information: they constantly fractionate [sic] into dialects which very quickly give rise to new, mutually incomprehensible languages...If language is designed to facilitate cooperation, why would the language faculty be so ineffective as to make it difficult for neighbouring groups of individuals to understand each other? In short, why should dialects provide such obvious markers of where you come from?

The answer seems to be that a dialect identifies a small community of people who come from the same place- and, hence, at least in small-scale societies, are likely to be related to each other...This doesn't make any sense at all if language exists to allow the exchange of instrumental information, but it makes perfect sense if language evolved to create and bond small, exclusive communities. [4]

Part of the power of spoken languages may be that they are hard to fake. The existence of foreign accents indicates that fluency and proper pronunciation of languages is acquired fairly early on in life and is difficult to fake as an adult. In a vivid and harrowing passage from the Bible, the Israelites use the pronunciation of the Hebrew word shibboleth (the head of a stalk of grain) to distinguish between the Israelites and the Ephraimites, with those who cannot pronounce the word correctly being found out as enemies and immediately executed. Today the term shibboleth refers to any kind of behavior that signals one's membership in a social group to other members.

With markers and signaling in place, we became liberated from relying on individual personal recognition as the sole basis of social organization. This allowed human societies to spread out in space and time, and to grow exponentially.

[T]he markers our societies use would have evolved by gradual steps from behaviors that perhaps, as I've imagined here, were originally similar to those still seen in chimpanzees and bonobos today.

First there would have been a password. Subsequent markers would have involved the use of the whole body as a canvas for expressing membership in a society, but these would have left little trace in the archaeological record.

Several tens of thousands of years ago more complex societies prospered when human populations swelled and interacted sufficiently for people to collectively remember, produce, and improvise on far more complicated social traits, partly to set themselves off from their neighbors.

The path leading from the individual recognition societies of other primates to the fully human anonymous societies, with all of their cultural extravagances...was a long one. It vastly predated civilizations...Much of the necessary neural circuitry grew out of what would initially have been a rudimentary interplay of stimulus and response to markers and the groups sharing them. Since then our revamped brains have come to associate our representations of individuals and societies with an unruly republic of emotions and meanings that animates our conduct form one moment to the next, and across the years. (158)

Another critical feature to form large societies is the unique ability of humans to create "imagined communities," as Benedict Anderson’s descibed in the book of the same name. There is no such tangible thing as a people, a country, or a nation—it is something that exists solely in the minds of its members. Concepts like the !Xõ, the Aché, the Xavante, the Hadza, the French, Russia, or The United States of America are all shared fictions that humans are able to create in our minds that allow us to cooperate on a massive basis. No other animal can conceive of things like these, meaning that no other animal is capable of forming societies in exactly the way we do. This human ability to collectively believe in such shared fictions is a critical insight of Yuval Noah Harari's bestselling book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind: “The real difference between us and chimpanzees is the mythical glue that binds together large numbers of individuals, families and groups.”

Although Moffatt doesn't go into as much depth as Harari concerning this topic, he does reference its core concept:

I've asserted that every society is a community that has to be socially constructed in the imaginations of its people. This applies to the details of how the society operates too. Humans turn everything they do into a kind of story, and interpret their lives in light of what it says. Further, that story expands through people's constant interactions into a society-wide narrative in which everyone plays a part. From the moment of birth we enter the web of expectations this larger story presents, with rules and expectations about work, money, marriage, and on and on.

The full narrative brings life to a society's most beloved social markers and imposes structure and meaning to the world by creating an integrated framework in which people function. Passed down through history and slightly reshaped by every generation, the narrative affects how we conceive our society and the line we draw to divide ourselves from outsiders. It isn't the specifics of how we are governed so much as the psychology that underlies this narrative, and how it affects our identification with others, that sets the line. The formation of human identities, and our reactions to those identities, guide our lives in ways scientists are trying to understand. (162)

I would take great pains to point out the critical role that human language plays here. While Moffett discusses language as a marker for signaling ones' membership in a society, he does not really discuss the way that language shapes human thought. Without the ability to have a shared language, we would have no way of constructing the kind of imagined communities that Harari pinpoints as so critical to our success as a species. We would lack the ability to pass cultural concepts down through time the way we can now, including concepts such as a people or a nation.

Thus, symbolic thought—a capacity shaped by language—is also needed along with markers for anonymous societies to form. Humans are uniquely at ease with things that don't exist as much as with things that do. As Harari writes:

“How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.

Thus Moffett emphasizes markers, while Harari emphasizes imaginary constructs. Yet both of these things together are necessary to create the kinds of large, complex societies modern humans exclusively inhabit.

Other mammal species live in small enough societies where operating on the level of individual recognition is sufficient ensure group cohesion. The price they pay for this is that their groups forever remain small, and they are unable to cooperate on very large-scales the way that humans can. However, this presents a dichotomy: human societies are unique in that they have aspects of both individual recognition and anonymity at the same time, which leads to an inevitable tension between what is best for the individual (selfishness) versus what is best for the group (altruism).

Because human societies are also are multi-layered, there is also an inherent tension between the various groups that comprise a multi-level society, which if left unchecked can eventually cause the society to disintegrate or split. Some groups will inevitably do what's best for themselves and their closely genetically-related offspring to the detriment of society as a whole; something that never occurs among the social insects. Queen bees do not practice nepotism; for example, nor do worker ants go on strike if they do not get a large enough share of the colony's resources. The paradox is that the "selfish gene" compels us to maximize benefits for our close genetic relatives, yet left unchecked this tendency will bring about the destruction of the very society that those offspring rely upon to survive. Without our "natural" form of fission-fusion behavior, this tension becomes more pronounced. Conflicts arise, conflicts with which we are still dealing with to this day. For the last several thousand years, a large amount of humans on the planet have had to live in such profoundly "unnatural" settings, replete with constant intergroup conflict and chaos. Compared to ant and chimp societies, recent human societies are an evolutionary "mistake."

I would say that probably by at least 50,000 years ago, and probably earlier, the fundamental cognitive tools were in place for human societies to grow to something like their present scale, but not the opportunity. That had to wait until conditions changed. That's exactly what happened when the last Ice Age came to an end. The end of the Pleistocene and more stable climate of the Holocene is what finally lifted the cap on human populations. Moffatt makes an analogy between humans and Argentine ants, both of which can be classified as highly effective invasive species. Argentine ant colonies accidentally transplanted to areas of the globe where there is no existing competition from other ant colonies quickly became super-sized, without any qualitative change in the behavior of the ants themselves. A similar process happened with Homo sapiens:

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the transcontinental societies is how much larger the are than those of the Argentine ants in their original homeland. The societies of this species in Argentina are positively petite: at most a kilometer wide, certainly jaw-dropping for an ant but not much to look at by California standards. The difference appears so radical that one might conjecture that a major evolutionary change must underlie it. I imagine that aliens might have assumed much the same for humans if they had landed on earth 20,000 years ago to find societies of a few hunter-gatherers, then returned centuries later to discover China with its billion souls.

A far simpler explanation for the superlarge societies of modern humans and Argentine ants alike is that no dramatic transformation was required: in both species the expansion of societies became certain when the conditions were right. This extravagant capacity for indefinite growth, not size as such, is what sets supercolonies apart from the societies of other species. Even several dozen Argentine ants in a shipment of plants are, then, a supercolony (or at least a fragment of one). The capacity for societies to grow indefinitely is a true rarity, characteristic of just a few ant species, possibly the clans of sperm whales, and human beings.

The conditions that triggers the explosive expansion of a supercolony abroad is the lack of competition. The supercolonies that got to California had nothing to stop them from conquering the state--until their growth came to a halt when they met and started fighting each other. In the upcoming chapters I will argue that humans likewise did not need to change in any essential way for the small unions of prehistory to grow, given the opportunity. All the elements needed for the success of empires were already built into the Paleolithic mind, right down to a very human fixation with markers of identity. (78)


* Moffett cites pinyon jays, naked mole rates and sperm whales among them.

** Meaning is also tied to a sense of self. LSD alters both the perception of meaning and the sense of self. See:



[3] The Atlas of Languages, Quarto Publishing, 1997.

[4] Robin Dunbar; Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behavior, pp. 271-272