Social cement

by Cord Riechelmann

Nonstop (Issue III/2019)

The members of any community take for granted the factors that hold their society together, as easily as they overlook each breath and heartbeat, writes Mark W. Moffett on the first pages of his new book, The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall. For human beings, society is just as necessary as the air we breathe or our circulatory system, he writes. For Moffett, living in a society is part of the minimum biological conditions that a human being needs to thrive. Without society, human life is impossible. 

With this theory, the U.S. tropical biologist, who is perhaps best known for his research into ants and other bugs, takes us on a surprising history, comprising recent behavioural science. This history could,  potentially, have protected him from the book’s main problem and could have also been politically interesting. For Moffett, a society is defined by its unity – a characteristic, which he does not define in any detail, that helps members view themselves as part of a homogeneous group, and that then allows the group to more or less separate itself from outsiders. And in this brief but oft-repeated premise for his argument – our society as a single unit – lies not only the problem but also the danger in Moffett’s book, and one which can slightly undermine his overall argument. 

In an era when everyday political interactions are rude and crude, Moffett gathers arguments from natural history showing peaceful cohabitation for “unity and freedom” for the global community. And indeed Moffett should be congratulated for not seeking out the source of his theory – his unique societal characteristics – in the human genome, or in other “natural” roots. 

For a scientist like Moffett, who traces the biological underpinnings of human behaviour in societies, the fact that he hasn’t looked into genetics is indeed progressive. Moffett is anything but a one-track specialist. Right at the beginning of this interdisciplinary book he concedes that there is no single field of study that brings all of the necessary aspects together. That is why he draws arguments and data from psychology, sociology, anthropology and, of course, biology too. 

The information that he gathers about primitive societies and the social behaviour of contemporary indigenous peoples is particularly impressive. Of course, there is also conflict and conciliation, murder assault, repression, punishment and war, among these groups – but in every situation, at the end of the day, it is society’s ability to cooperate that holds society together. 

This also occurs among animals, some of whom detest each other. For example, groundhogs are solitary animals and generally don’t like other groundhogs. Despite this, they still come together when there are predators to deal with, or to let their offspring to play with one another. From that we can draw the fairly sweeping conclusion that individuals in a society don’t necessarily need to like one another in order to build a community together. Moffett brings numerous accounts from the animal world together here. He goes to visit primatologist Richard Wrangham and his chimpanzees in Uganda. He describes the way these primates live together as though it was a kind of beachside techno party in the jungle, complete with caresses, devotion and mutual awareness of one another. 

Observing this, it’s hard for Moffett to reconcile the extremely violent attacks that some groups of chimpanzees inflict on other groups, some of which have ended in the total annihilation of the losers; primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall first wrote about this kind of violence in 1974. Moffett doesn’t just recount the extreme violence committed during group conflicts between chimpanzees and wolves, he also investigates the behaviour of generally more peaceful animals like elephants, spider monkeys and bonobos, close relatives to the chimpanzee. 

Moffett deduces that even the more open and peaceful animal communities will exclude unknown groups of their own kind, and remain cautious around strangers, even if the degree of exclusion and caution differs substantially. The marker of “otherness” is clear because the members of the group, pack or herd recognise one another on an individual basis. 

Moffett appears to have no doubt at all that this kind of recognition also applies to human society. Human societies primarily differ from those of monkeys, wolves and primitive mankind in terms of their size. These societies only rarely get so large that one cannot recognise the individuals belonging to it. According to Moffett’s markers, only ants and humans are able to build huge social groups that are still able to cooperate. For ants, it’s all about smell. Humans have all kinds of other ways of recognition. Racists, for example, focus on skin colour. Other people define their communities by what they eat, or what they believe in.  

Sociologists and behavioural researchers have come up with outstanding and often comparable results. Just as starlings can recognise their own flock by listening out for particular tones, so too can human youth cultures like goths or hard-core techno fans. They also recognise one another through certain signals, gestures and behaviours. 

As he progresses through his well-researched book, Moffett doesn’t lose the thread of his argument - but loses sight of his ultimate goal. This is mainly because he won’t let go of the idea that “identity” is the factor that binds a community. In the end, all societies are mortal – that is, they will fall apart at some stage and become extinct. When that does happen, it won’t be because they’ve fallen victim to an environmental catastrophe or because they’ve evolved to become part of another social group, as is thought to have happened to Neanderthal man. But, for Moffett, the demise will come because of a lack of a strong identity. This is what will eventually extinguish any form of community, he suggests, citing the example of the southern U.S states after the American civil war. 

One is almost touched by this mistaken argument because his critical concern is to heal societies and that is almost exactly contrary to his self-described position as a socio-biologist. The latter practice explicitly rejects any notion of group selection [an evolutionary theory that works like Darwinism but on a group level]. Socio-biologists believe that one cannot consider a life in any other way than that of being an individual and transient being, experiencing birth, life and death. This also means that a life cannot be considered via some simple, self-explanatory principle. Life is always divided and fragmented: Between the lively and the dying, the different beings and their variegations, between the powerful and the victims.

A great deal of modernity’s intellectualisation in the life sciences, and in arts and humanities, can be seen through this prism: Life cannot be described as anything other than the aforementioned tensions between divisions, so there is no substance and no simple value beyond those divisions and fragmentations. That is also why there are so many theories about the absolute biological minimum, without which there can be no life. 

The fact that socio-biologists have gone down the wrong track and ended up with genes as some kind of all-encompassing explanation should not be a problem for Moffett though, because he knows about attachment and attachment theory. Ever since British psychologist John Bowlby began publishing his work on attachment theory in the 1950s, this particular biological minimum, without which life isn’t possible, has been expanded upon. 

Attachment theory describes the phenomenon whereby within certain life forms – birds, mammals, humans – the new-born animals connect mostly to just one other creature, as they mature. Most of the time this is the animal’s mother. This need to connect is absolutely unique, and is necessary for these species. When the option to connect like this is taken away, the creature in question become spiritually and psychologically ill and dies. 

A connection can only exist when there is a long term, reciprocal interchange between individuals, that includes gestures of closeness and separation, shrieks and singing, as well as crying, laughing or a simple exchange of glances. The connection is nothing more than the creation of those who are undertaking it. Moffett knows this and could have shown it as a path toward the civilization of existing societies. When it’s about the common good, one must always remind politicians about the human needs of those who cannot care for themselves, because human connection and relationships are as vital as water and air. They won’t figure that out by themselves. 

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