Saturday, May 1, 2010

Human Social Groups

Humans are social animals. We band together into family, social, and work groups. Our money societies allow us to see how dependent we are on these social groups. In most societies, roughly half the people earn the money to support everyone. The other half are either engaged in non-money activities, like taking care of children or the infirm, or they are children or infirm. If you are lucky, you will spend roughly a quarter of your life in the care of others. This includes your time as a child and time when age, illness or disability makes it difficult to earn. If you are unlucky, you may spend all of your life dependent on others.

While we have cities containing tens of millions of people, each individual has a much smaller social set. The average person probably has between one and two hundred people with whom they regularly interact. Humans have hierarchies of social identification and protection. Siblings will abuse each other within a family but band together to defend against people outside the family. People complain about intrusions of federal government in local affairs, but join a national army to defend the country. These nested social groups provide us with protection and purpose. We tend to be loyal to those with whom we identify. We will forgive and protect them, even when they do things we would condemn if done by outsiders.

The identification with social groups and antipathy toward outsiders seems to be a base human trait. I know of no social group without some degree of this. The positive part of this tendency is the ability to come together to work toward a common goal. On the negative side, the separation between us and them allows “us” to treat "them" without any consideration other than our own aim.

Separation of "us" from "them" is often justified because “they” are different from “us”. Biologically, this is hogwash. Each of us has parents and there are familial traits. Some of us are blonde and some have black hair. Some groups of people have lived with enough isolation to show adaptation to their surroundings. For example, groups living farther from the equator tend to have lighter skin. These differences are marked enough so that pathologists can identify human groups from these physical traits. That said, humans are also nomadic and relatively recent. This underlies a remarkable degree of genetic homogeneity. I liken the differences between humans to the differences between brown spotted and black spotted Dalmatian dogs. As a species, we have so little genetic diversity that some scientists postulate that the species was reduced to a very small number of individuals in the not so distant past.

Because there are physical differences between human groups, it is interesting to ask if there might be analogs in other areas. For example, some groups of humans might be more or less capable of mathematical reasoning or eye/hand coordination. I think this is unlikely. Variants like skin color give an advantage in a particular region. Mental and social advantages have no such geographic constraints. People with the advantage will quickly spread the genetics outside their own group. Only extreme geographic isolation could keep advantageous adaptations out of the general gene pool. Human history is filled with tales of travel, conquest, and stranger's babies. Unjustified claims of essential differences between groups of people have been used to justify genocide. To counter this tendency, the standard of proof for assertions of fundamental differences between groups must be extremely high. I know of no evidence that there are physical differences between human groups that elevate the fundamental capabilities of any group. This is especially clear when we look at genius. Genius is characterized by some capability, which is far greater than normal. Think Leonardo da Vinci, Mahatma Gandhi, or Michael Jordan. Genius springs up around the world and cannot be characterized by family, "race" or any other factor I know of. There are musical families, but to paraphrase Aaron Copeland "There was nothing to indicate that Leonard’s parents would produce a Bernstein."

Our upbringing affects who we are, not just emotionally, but physically. There is evidence, for example, that people brought up speaking a tonal language tend to respond differently to sound than those brought up speaking non-tonal languages. In those cultures, a higher percentage of people perceive absolute pitch. Our bodies change based on our environment, but are especially malleable before adulthood. There are some abilities, like language acquisition, that fall off as we grow older.

Humans are genetically pretty homogeneous, but in values, and hence behavior, we vary greatly. Because we learn behavior from each other, values and behavior tend to be cultural. The biggest influence is family followed peer groups and finally the culture as a whole. Some societies are monogamous, some have men with multiple wives and some have women with multiple husbands. In some societies butchers are respected and prosperous. In others they are outcasts. Food taboos are so strong that it is difficult to imagine violating them. Culturally forbidden foods include fish, insects, dogs, and pigs.


Humans like to be comfortable, both mentally and physically. Most of us are comfortable with our beliefs and day-to-day actions. Marked differences make us uncomfortable, so we avoid them. When we have a choice most of us only associate with people who share much of our own outlook and behavior. This tendency divides humanity into separate groups. In every U.S. high school there are the artists and the jocks. They may share classes, but they don't share much else. As adults, when the differences are solely those of belief, we sweep them under the carpet with admonitions about not discussing religion or politics at parties. When apparent differences are physical, the separation becomes stronger. Sometimes physical difference is innate, like skin color. Other times it is cultural, like dreadlocks, ear locks, or tattoos. We use these physically identifiable differences to announce the groups to which we belong. In a group of strangers it is always comforting and sometimes essential to find allies whose actions can be anticipated and whose help will be forthcoming.

In contemporary US society we have confused and conflated notions and enshrined two false concepts. The multifaceted nature of our current groupings is often reduced to false notions of race and ethnic group. Both of these are dependent on ancestry.

Our genetic homogeneity makes the notion of race pretty much absurd. The notion of ethnicity identifies groups of people based on cultural ancestry. This seems more reasonable because humans group first into families and families are a fundamental driver of values and behavior. In the US though, this has become hashed up as well. The cultural value of individualism and laws preventing discrimination based on obvious physical and cultural traits have caused some re-mixing of groups. This shift can be seen most clearly in people whose families have been in the US for several generations. Some of my great-grandparents were ethnically Irish-American. They were strongly Catholic and associated with others of Irish descent. They knew the history of their homeland and had views about their place in it. I am several generations removed from that. In totality, my ancestors came from a number of places. I do not identify with any of those places as a homeland and my customs and habits are only dimly related to that background. My ethnic group is "Middle Class Suburban". Social pressures have isolated some groups more than others in the US. This makes "African American" or "Hispanic" seem more reasonable as ethnic groups. However, there are a great many people classed in these groups who are culturally much closer to "Middle Class Suburban" than to the stereotypical "African American" or "Hispanic” ethnic groups.

It is demonstrably true that humans band together into trust groups. Innate traits like skin color or epicanthal folds are easy markers. As a regrettable consequence, each of us tends to exclude those with innate differences as not part of our group. This is natural, but not inevitable. For example, imagine a room with two black and two white men. If one white man and one black man both have gang tattoos and one black man and one white man are both wearing expensive business suits, they will initially pair up based on clothing rather than skin color.

None of us belong exclusively to a single group and all of us are capable of forming strong associations with almost anyone. Put a group of musicians from around the world in a single room and in short order they will be forming new associations based on their shared passion for sound.

Even in groups with strong cultural mores, there will be rogues. Every society has outcasts and criminals. Some people, gangs, clans, and governments are dangerous to outsiders. That is one of the reasons that we look for cultural allies. They may help protect us from the dangerous humans. But the tendency to bond in groups is more than a need for protection. We also have a need for acceptance by others in our group. The combination of fear and the need for acceptance and protection is very powerful. A social group can manipulate individual humans to do literally anything. They will rape, torture, and murder neighbors with whom they have lived peacefully for years. They will kill themselves and their own children. That is, the very groups we rely on for protection from the dangerous humans can also transform us into those dangerous humans.

Everyone thinks they have things they will do and things they will not do. However, the power of circumstance and persuasion move these lines. Totalitarian regimes recognize this so they create programs to make everyone complicit. Right now you would not think of killing the Jew/Black/Korean/Armenian shopkeeper on the corner, but in light of the past actions of people like him, would you be willing to keep an eye on him and report suspicious activity? Would you if there were a payment? One thing leads to another. Lines are drawn between us and them. They are clearly threatening. You are one of us. You have shown it by your actions – even accepting favors or money. But your status is provisional and must be earned by showing your commitment to us. You must show your commitment to us by acting more strongly against them.

2 comments:

hopalong said...

As adults, when the differences are solely those of belief, we sweep them under the carpet with admonitions about not discussing religion or politics at parties.

Interestingly, in France, discussions of politics (I'm not certain about religion) are perfectly acceptable, even with recent acquaintances -- but asking someone what they do for a living is considered rude. Maybe France just has a stronger cultural memory of the aristocracy before the revolution?

hopalong said...

What I mean by that is, maybe they're more wary of bringing up socioeconomic differences.