Senseless Behaviour

If you don’t like hopeless messages it might be best to skip this post.

Cartoon by David Sipress from The New Yorker

When you put too many rats together in a confined space in conditions of scarcity for a prolonged period, you get what appears to be highly dysfunctional behaviour — a spike in extreme violence, obsessive hoarding, top-down abuse from throughout the group hierarchy, anomie and suicide at the bottom of the hierarchy, abandonment of family, and ultimately killing and eating of the (weaker) young. What had evolved as a mostly-peaceful, sensible and sustainable group culture crumbles and collapses.

Five years ago I argued that there is no reason to believe human cultures should be any different. What Dmitry Orlov describes as the five stages of cultural collapse resonates almost eerily with Edward Hall’s description of the collapse in overcrowded rat societies.

Since I wrote that, my worldview has changed considerably. As I’ve explained elsewhere, I no longer believe we have the free will or agency (individually or collectively) to change our innate and enculturated behaviours.

So how does one explain the phenomenon of collapse in light of evolutionary theory? And what does this mean for the future of our species and planet?

It seems to me that cultural collapse is essentially the collapse of order into chaos. It takes an enormous amount of energy (in every sense) to maintain order, so ultimately collapse back into unorder (entropy) is inevitable. The astonishing evolution of a staggeringly complex, highly-ordered, diverse, self-sustained balance of life and environment on Earth was, if you buy Gaia theory, equally inevitable. So at many, many different scales evolution is essentially a lovely, eternal succession of waves of increasing complexity and then falling away (collapse, or devolution) into unordered chaos.

What happens at the point of collapse? There is no longer energy (food, fitness, force etc) to sustain the highly-ordered complexity that has been built up. Behaviours that had evolved over millennia to fit with the rest of the ecosystem and the environment suddenly no longer ‘work’. Is the increased aggression and hoarding of the alphas, the eating of the young and the depression and suicide of the lower-downs in the hierarchy (of rats, or humans) an attempt to enable a small number of alphas to survive once it’s realized (at least subconsciously) that the culture as a whole cannot hold? That’s an interesting theory, but it seems more likely to me that what we’re witnessing is just chaotic behaviour — instincts that evolved for one situation being applied (largely inappropriately and dysfunctionally) in a situation the creature (and the group) had never experienced and were clueless to know how to deal with. It is, in essence, senseless behaviour.

The evidence of financial, commercial, political and social collapse (Dmitry’s first four stages) has never been more obvious or abundant than what we have seen in recent months. What we are seeing is the desperate theft by the rich from the poor on a massive scale (the alpha rats hoarding, using offshore tax havens and buying up land in Hawai’i and New Zealand to escape to when living in the cities is no longer viable).

Mostly what we are seeing, everywhere, from the streets to the centres of power, is unprecedented rage.

We see it in the butchery by machete of nearly a million Rwandans by their neighbours. We have seen it in the staggering and nearly-unquestioned (at the time) cruelty exhibited in concentration camps since the dawn of civilization but increasingly as our human population has soared toward eight billion. We see it in monstrous factory farms where acts of unspeakable confinement and cruelty are meted out on a massive scale away from public scrutiny. We saw it in the multi-millionaire Las Vegas gambling addict/real-estate speculator’s shooting frenzy. We continue to see it in the multi-millionaire New York gambling addict/real-estate speculator’s tauntings on Twitter, while we continue to believe, astonishingly and nonsensically, that neither he nor his equally-deranged Pyongyang counterpart, will actually push the button that will bring civilization to a close much quicker than either economic meltdown or climate change could. And we’re all deranged by this culture.

Meanwhile, the US has more guns than people, many of which are or quickly could be converted to instruments of mass destruction. Our civilization is built (with the best of intentions) on the concentration of wealth and power and the capacity to wield it over those lower in the hierarchy, to keep us civilized, domesticated, to keep us, like the lower-hierarchy rats in the overcrowded cages, obedient, cowering in fear, driven to do as we are told by anxiety and adrenaline, and addicted and medicated the rest of our lives with dopamine-fuelled escapes we call “entertainment”.

This is final-stage collapse. We are just so used to the fear, the oppression, the obscene inequality of wealth and power, the corruption, the incarceration, the constantly but scarcely suppressed rage, that we can’t see it; it’s the only life we have known.

I would suggest that this collapse actually began to occur with the invention (which was essential for our species’ survival during past sudden climate changes that created severe scarcity) of the arrowhead and (what Richard Manning has appropriately called “catastrophic”) agriculture — unnatural patches of monoculture crops and confined animals maintained by constant high-energy interventions (work drudgery). The next essential inventions were settlement and (complex, abstract) language, and voila! — civilization culture. In short, I would suggest that civilization is a fascinating but ultimately unsustainable experiment in managing scarcity. We are not ‘meant’ to be (not naturally adapted to) living that way. And while the span of civilization is only a few millennia (an instant in geological time), since we have known nothing else, we are as ill-equipped to deal with (or prevent) its collapse as the clueless rats faced with sudden unnatural scarcity in their hopeless cages. In Darwinian terms we are not ‘fit’ to cope with it.

When you believe, as I do, that we do not have ‘free will’ to do other than what these bodies we presume to inhabit were going to do anyway, given the circumstances of the moment, what do you tell all the rats scurrying around desperately in the cage, acting more and more dysfunctionally?

You don’t tell them anything. For me, and perhaps for some of you, it is better, and enough, to know, to have made some sense of what is, than to just be bewildered (or disappointed) by everything horrific that’s happening. This is only a theory of course. I’m still anxious about it, hopelessly hopeful about changing it, escaping it. But somehow I feel a bit better with this ghastly theory. This corner of the cage is a little more comfortable, a little quieter, than it might have been otherwise.

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6 Responses to Senseless Behaviour

  1. Paul Heft says:

    Oh, rats! We should expect ongoing chaotic behavior. Yes, that seems about right. And much of the outlandish behavior (and mental and physical illness) is probably fueled by rage. Whether rage is increasing or not is hard to tell, though. Civilization has been rife with war, genocide, pogroms, inquisitions, rape, torture, murder, slavery, and other cruelties.

    I want to quibble with you slightly on the role of rage. I don’t think rage explains factory farms, or economic behavior in general. Rather, I think civilization has made us fairly sense-less — unable to sense how we might be interacting cruelly or disrespectfully — because a diminishment of compassion enables power to work through the hierarchy much more effectively (quickly and thoroughly, requiring less active control). Factory farms (and sweat shops, armaments manufacture, pimping, enslavement, and other “immoral” economic activities) are just one more way that some people become wealthier while they can, while the general population remains fairly docile and limited in compassion.

    Are we already seeing final-stage collapse? In the long history of civilization, we may very well be in the final stage, but from an individual’s point of view it appears immanent rather than immediate. We are on the precipice of financial collapse (probably a severe disruption, anyway, with a lot of damage before the rulers pick up the pieces), and political collapse is possibly looming (with the legitimacy of national and international institutions being increasingly questioned). Either could lead to commercial collapse–a severe depression accompanied by famine. A worldwide war using nuclear weapons is possible. But civilization will be tenacious. The powerful few will seek to retain power until Earth is so despoiled that it can no longer sustain large concentrations of humans.

    You clearly desire knowledge (understanding) even after giving up any sense of control or hope. (I too.) But remember that people have more alternative attitudes (mental strategies) than just bewilderment and disappointment. There is faith in one’s ability to escape (e.g., by acquiring property in Hawai’i, or changing one’s life practices), or faith in humanity’s ability to better manage its existence (e.g., through more (or less) radical political changes, or technological breakthroughs, or education), or faith in divine guidance/intervention (our absurd world must make sense to an all-knowing, all-powerful being), or devotion to something much greater than ourselves, or devotion to family or others very close to us, or even devotion to one’s own self (e.g., focusing on career, or competence, or finding a life partner).

    Our brains seem to crave resolution, such as understanding or hope or faith or some version of control (however illusory), even in the face of chaos. And somehow many of us feel the need to express ourselves, whether or not it makes any difference in the world. What a fascinating species we are!

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Paul. I substantially agree with your assessment and love the word “immanent” to describe collapse (works even if there is no such thing as time ;)

    And yes, rage didn’t create factory farms, but it surely sustains them. Safran Foer pointed out how communities with factory farms and slaughterhouses nearby have many times the instance of family violence and psychological illness of others — you have to have be heartless to work in such places, and animal cruelty in them by workers is epidemic (hence the pressure to ban photographers from accessing them). I could probably have come up better examples of the upswing of rage across our society; I can think of dozens. I think what inspired me to write this is the uncomfortable feeling that everything is about to go off the rails, and with the current “leaders” in power there is no one even vaguely capable of applying the brakes.

  3. Paul Heft says:

    Don’t you have hope for mass movements? If half the train’s passengers rise up and all run at the same time toward the rear …

  4. Philip says:

    Here in NZ many are too distracted by the matrix and manipulated by political correctness to “fully realise” the theft and destruction going on around us. Many are beguiled by the certainty of MONEY. Your thoughts remind me of my darker imaginings…when we are conscious of Dr. Albert Bartlett The Exponential Function kicking us hard. We are ‘close’ based on present growth rates.To make some sense makes the corner of the cage slightly more comfortable. At least purpose can be found in seeing and not doing anything more. said it before….action is consolatory……

  5. Joy Hertz says:

    I thank you for your continuing blogs. Have you given any thought to how life could be greatly improved with the legalization of agricultural – and food-quality Hemp production – as well as Cannabis legalization – AND home-growing for food and personal medicinal uses? New Jersey’s newly elected Governor has suggested his willingness to legalize Cannabis – and that opens the prospect for distribution of clean (unadulterated) seeds for growing plants.

    Engaging in that campaign – and the education of physicians who are interested in understanding how to prescribe it – could direct useful energy towards what could be a revolutionary improvement in our domestic and international affairs.

  6. Brutus says:

    We share a desire to understand (personally, not globally) our moment in history best we can, though I doubt much can be done to steer the culture. We subscribe to different interpretations, of course, which is fine. I won’t challenge further your contentions about lack of free will or self as we’ve been over that ground previously.

    The idea of population pressure driving us bonkers is good, much like the rats, but I wouldn’t agree we’re currently struggling against scarcity, at least in the First World. The roughly 200-year energy binge associated with using fossil fuels to produce foods, goods, and services has resulted in a temporary period of extraordinary comfort and excess. I would agree, however, that many are behaving like crazed rats due to both perceived and anticipated scarcity. So the effect is the same. Your citation of entropy is sloppy, as it’s not as all synonymous with disorder or chaos in social systems.

    What strikes home for me is treating human society and/or civilization as a superorganism, not unlike even larger world systems that can be understood either literally or metaphorically as wholes. If inchoate rage is being felt and acted upon, perhaps it stems from frustrations that human institutions are no longer providing stabilizing social cohesion but are instead being swept along on disorienting rivers of technological innovation, widespread social and economic injustice, and disruption of the information environment so that few know what to believe or expect any longer with much confidence. Whether it’s financial bubbles, fake news, secularization, climate change, ecological disasters, or confused psyches (e.g., gender dysphoria), many are in an unrelenting flux and so grasp for fixity and certainty.

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