Please accept my apologies for any confusion or incoherence. This is a line of thought in the early stages of development.
Razib Khan, a geneticist, published an article in his blog which I’ve discussed before—see Mathematical Models of Human History: Are They Plausible?. Khan’s article, Modeling World History in Math Is Possible, is a commentary upon an article summarizing results of a research project, an effort to build a simple mathematical model of the development of complex societies: War, space, and the evolution of Old World complex societies. That simple model is very convincing in some ways, but I’m now going to provide the beginning of an argument that we need far better understandings of human nature, of individual and communal human being. I’ve been trying to make this argument and even trying to provide pointers to one possible better understanding over the previous 8 years but I’m now trying to put more energy and time into this general effort.
Khan’s article briefly discussed another idea which supplements the main theme that much of the pattern of civilization birth and growth on Eurasia and north Africa can be explained by the raids and invasions of nomadic, horse-borne warriors from the grasslands of central Asia. The sedentary, prosperous peoples under attack either developed their own complex, centralized societies or did so under the rule of those nomadic warriors. In addition, Khan tells us:
A second broader issue that Turchin has promoted is the idea of inter-group competition driving the rise of ultrasociality. In other words, cooperative societies stocked with highly social and altruistic individuals simply eliminated earlier forms of social organization which relied more on individual self interest. He is keen to not allow the argument to reduce down to `group selection,’ but rather to focus on the abstraction of multi-level selection more generally. Conflict and warfare are obviously key drivers of this culturally Darwinian process. But I wonder where that leaves us at the end of history? Perhaps without an external threat imposing cohesion and inducing norms to regulate and punish selfish strategies anomie will reign?
I’m not sure how to proceed; regular readers might have picked up that this is the primary goal of my efforts—trying to figure out how to develop proper and properly rich and properly complex ways of describing and analyzing human communities. All of this within the context of a worldview which is a response to both Christian revelation and modern empirical knowledge. See How a Christian Finds Metaphysical Truths in Empirical Reality for some discussion of this problem. I’m proposing that the concrete, thing-like being of this world is shaped from more abstract forms of being including that described in the formalisms of modern physics and mathematics. This wouldn’t end with one level of abstract being generating our concrete, thing-like stuff but would work level by level back to the truths God manifested as the raw stuff of this Creation. At various levels, some different sorts of created being become one in analogy to similar unifications in particle physics. The chart in the above referenced essay, How a Christian Finds Metaphysical Truths in Empirical Reality, displays in a very simple way what is involved in this way of thinking about created being.
So, let’s consider biological selection processes, including “multi-level selection” processes. In at least a trivial way, but I think a meaningful way, those processes take place in a space of some abstract sort, but not a space necessarily more abstract than those an engineer will assume when he designs a machine of complex motions nor more abstract than a space in which an economy operates. In the case of a space describing human nature, through which the factual path of human evolution has traveled, we would have the characteristics—cognitive power, hand-skills, language skills, social inclinations—of the individuals.
So we have perhaps something like an f(x1(t), x2(t),…) in which time perhaps plays the role of an independent parameter. This can be readily seen as—possibly—a manifold which may not have much in the way of fully quantifiable geometric properties but might be `solvable’ in terms of qualitative properties. I’m proposing such is true—see Adopting Mathematical Reasoning in Non-quantitative Fields of Thought. The current thinking, even among some of the founders of group-selection theory, is that the selection processes upon `ultrasocial’ creatures are not group processes but rather multi-level processes in which individuals are selected for their social inclinations and behaviors. Seen from my more abstract perspective, the distinction between `group’ and `multi-level’ might be more a matter of choosing how to state the problem.
Evolutionary biologists and geneticists have become experts in some very advanced statistical techniques but they might wish to think where physicists would be if they just analyzed the data of quantum events and gravitational events by statistics rather than moving to greater abstractions. All sciences have their own proper ways of exploring and analyzing the empirical world, but I suspect we’ll be finding that practitioners in many fields of study would be wise to treat their data in terms of state-spaces with the potential to borrow from the powerful, and often qualitative, techniques of modern geometry—many of those techniques being already well-developed in the physical sciences including engineering. This might be one way of dealing with evidence that individual entities in a grouping might be part of higher level entities with their own separate, if sometimes more abstract, existence. Looking at the geometric structure formed by all those functions mentioned above, the small regions formed around points would be the individuals and would be described by many of the quantitative and qualitative tools of basic differential geometry while the communities would be the global properties explored over the previous half-century or so by mathematicians.
The issue which motivated this essay is the importance or even the basic role of conflict in the evolution and development of human social traits and of specific forms of community. Do we need conflict between communities or between communities and individual outsiders, war?, to draw our communities into more tightly bound forms? If so, can we divert our aggressive tendencies in more fruitful directions? Wars might be more a cancer than a healthy part of the evolutionary and development processes, but that is a very uncertain line of thought. Wars, violent behavior in general, might also be indications of an underlying need not being otherwise met; in other words, we might be able to overcome our `need’ for war by proper understandings of our own human nature, individual and communal, and by proper responses to the world in light of that better understanding of our own selves. Currently, we have no satisfactory ways of discussing this or related issues which allows much in the way of convincing descriptions of the situation. We certainly have little clue about how to replace war by better behaviors.
I’m producing no more than suggestions, not even well-formed potential answers to the question raised in Turchin’s research and Khan’s article and I don’t plan to provide an answer anytime soon. There’s too much basic work to be done in understanding the nature of this concrete world and its relationships to the abstract realms of being from which it was shaped. As I’ve already mentioned, the most successful works of this sort already in a mature form are the mathematical formalisms of quantum mechanics and general relativity and little work has been done in even speculating on other realms of abstract being which generate the other aspects and traits of this concrete realm of created being. See one of my older essays which I often link to, Shaping Our Minds to Reality, for my responses to the difficulties a Cambridge professor had in convincing elite physics majors that a vector isn’t an arrow, at least not to a theoretical physicist, but rather a mathematical object with certain transformation properties. John Polkinghorne, who was an Anglican priest when he wrote about that problem, also noted that physicists still don’t `understand’ quantum mechanics and won’t until it becomes a part of their basic thought processes. I claim physicists will understand quantum mechanics when they accept it rather than trying to `explain’ it in terms of a less adequate understanding of physical reality. I’d suggest that many similar `bits’ of understanding will occur when empirical scientists in many fields accept the reality of the abstract being from which concrete, thing-like being is shaped. Our abstract thoughts are no more and no less than approximations to that abstract being.
Communal human being is built upon genetic family lines and individual human being is a particularization of such genetic family lines. Communal human being culminates in the Body of Christ but there are a multitude of communal structures between the individual and the Body of Christ. It’s not even a simple building process since an individual will be a part of a multitude of communities which play the role of organs in a living creature. The Body of Christ is a complex entity though it might have some aspects which can be modeled well without considering its complex make-up, especially in early stages of human social evolution when we deal with very simple egalitarian hunter-forager societies or tribes/kingdoms with well-defined hierarchies. Simpler sorts of mathematical models—simple in the sense of non-complex though they might be complicated—might work well for looking at the global or communal aspects of early human being. Looking at human being in this more sophisticated way won’t even shoot down any ideas of hierarchies being adequate for organizing and running human communities, it will simply render hierarchies irrelevant—in the Catholic Church as well as in political communities. This isn’t to say there won’t be any authority, but it will be the authority of a smaller-scale community which has a particular role to play in a larger-scale community.
We need more sophisticated models of human nature, richer and more complex, to understand such complex communities as the nation-states of the United States and Russia and China in 2014. Such models are also needed for the other various communities, inside and cutting across nation-states, such as the religious communities of Christianity and Judaism and Islam and others. Even such ephemeral communities as those of physicists or musical composers could be better understood. Political scientists and economists and historians and other social scientists have done some good and convincing work in understanding aspects of these various communities but no one can really speak intelligently of what it is that forms when human beings gather, in some way if only through journals or over the Internet, to some purpose general or specific. I suspect we are seeing the concretization of abstract being of a certain type but this becomes more plausible if some more sophisticated model, of the type I’m advocating, is shown to work in modeling the evolutionary and developmental processes of something which can be labeled `human being’.
As it is, we’re stuck in a rut where we try to understand even very large-scale human communities by way of phenomenological models or by way of reasoning which pretty much assumes a community is some simple additive function of its individual members. I claim that a community is neither separate from its members nor is it just the sum of those members. It is more like the physical universe which is both what it contains and also has its own properties—see A Universe is More than it Contains for a discussion of PJE Peebles’ point that straightforward applications of physical laws show that, in a universe governed by general relativity, the law of the conservation of energy doesn’t hold for the universe as a whole even if it holds at all regions in that universe. (Or read Peebles entire book, Principles of Physical Cosmology if you wish.) Even more to my point, spacetime at the level of the universe (and in some sorts of fairly small regions, such as black-holes) is non-Euclidean though it is Euclidean in most small regions. This is one sign of a manifold in the sense of differential geometry. To stay with physics for a moment: physics can be Newtonian at small regions while Einsteinian at larger regions because what happens in the small happens, so to speak, on a Euclidean plane tangent to the manifold which has the properties described by the general theory of relativity. Something analogous would be true under the very vague model I’m proposing the human nature, individual and communal.
Let me discuss briefly a particular problem which shows the difficulties of taking a community as a straightforward sum of individuals. A people can be nonviolent and well-meaning in the small but, in the large, as a people, can be murderous and thieving war-mongerers. In recent centuries, some of the most violent nations have been those with populations made up of individuals who are law-abiding and even somewhat gentle by historical standards: Germany in 1914-1945, Japan in the 1920s through the 1940s, Great Britain during the years of Empire and a bit beyond, the United States through much of its existence as loosely connected colonies up to now and still going strong though maybe about to run out of gas. We Americans tend to be generous and even somewhat self-sacrificing as individuals or as small communities such as church or synagogue congregations, fraternal organizations or professional societies. We are quite likable much of the time, genial, and inclined to get along with others. As a nation, we have proven ourselves from at least King Phillip’s War to be a people not only violent but self-righteous in our violence. See The Need for Abstractions in Moral Self-understanding for a discussion of this issue in a way important to the general effort to understand how communities are formed and deformed.
As I noted above, there is not complete separation of individual and communal human being nor is communal human being just a sum of individual human being. The evil done by the American state in such places as Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Ukraine is generally supported by majorities of the American people at least until they are personally hurt in some way, though those American citizens are rarely full of hatred. Yet, we Americans are often self-righteous and morally irresponsible in forming viewpoints—see Dumber Every Day, With Beer in Hand and War on TV. I also had discussed this general issue of American moral irresponsibility (and failure to develop the character traits important for life in complex communities) recently in the essay The Interior Richness Which Lies in a Civilized Man. The brutality of Americans as a people certainly draws upon moral weaknesses, including cowardice, of individual Americans but it seems to be the trait of an entity which is not just a sum of those individual Americans taught by war-profiteers and morally-twisted ideologists to fear anyone they wish to attack. Our predatory economy and polity seem to be as much the cause than the effect; they are global properties of an ill-formed human community.
We Americans have utterly failed to shape a morally good national community but we really can’t even describe such a community in a plausible way—nor can the best of social scientists. Sometimes we can see somewhat firm outlines of such a community in history but no one has succeeded in abstracting from this historical knowledge much in the way of useful knowledge. We can’t identify with certainty aspects of communities subject to study in numerical terms nor in more general mathematical terms—see Adopting Mathematical Reasoning in Non-quantitative Fields of Thought. Models such as that of Turchin and his colleagues would show the growth of the historically unique American Empire as colors on the globe and would probably have trouble dealing with the premature ending of this Empire because this mismatch between a parochial population with local virtues and a nation-state with great, worldly power isn’t something that such models could deal with. There is nothing in models such as those used by Turchin and his colleagues which indicates how a people well-behaved as individuals engage systematically in brutal warfare. Communal human being is completely separated from individual human being. It’s as if the universe not only had its own properties but worked in such a way as to have nothing to do with stars and galaxies and gas clouds and so forth. In fact, simple physical cosmological models can be built upon such a basis and provide some serious insights but ultimately they don’t depict the universe in its completeness: an entity on its own and also made up of all those stars and so forth. Even more to the point, it’s as if we were to treat an human being as a freestanding entity having nothing to do with all those genes and metabolic processes.
I suggest that this is a clear case where our conceptual and mathematical understandings and related tools in social sciences are grossly inadequate, not at all capable of dealing with our human world grown so immensely complex and so immensely massive in terms of a `mass’ which bends our human spaces; neither I nor anyone else can currently define that mass. We need new understandings and tools and we need specifically to have understandings and tools which recognize the existence of local (individuals and—maybe—small communities) and global (larger human communities) aspects to the totality of human being.