HOW HARD IT IS TO BE DIFFERENT

musesWe are social animals. It is our nature to want to belong. It is Darwinian: We learn from each other and we survive by working in teams. We help each other out. Our community, our tribe, adopts us, accepts us, and teaches us what we need to know. Our very existence is in many ways indistinguishable from that of the groups we belong to. For most of humanity, life has enduring meaning only with others of our own kind.

In light of that incredible imperative — physical, social, emotional, intellectual, moral, rational, instinctive — to belong, it is amazing that we are different from each other at all. What reason is there to be different? Especially since, as ee cummings tells us, it’s so much easier to be the same?:

to be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day,
to make you everybody else
means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight,
and never stop fighting


Linguists now believe that all human languages descend from a single proto-language, and that (following something called the Chomsky-Lenneberg Critical Period Hypothesis) the neural structures of our brains are actually formed to reflect the languages we learn in early childhood (which is why ‘wild children’ not taught languages until after puberty are believed unable to learn languages at all, and despite sometimes remarkable intelligence think in ways that the rest of us cannot begin to fathom). So the language and culture we are taught literally programs our brains, instructs and forms the tool by which we think and make decisions and which governs how we behave and what we believe.

Similar arguments have been made, by Daniel Quinn and others, that a single human ‘taker’ culture with a remarkably, perhaps dangerously, homogeneous value and belief system began to squeeze out all other human cultures about thirty centuries ago, and is now virtually ubiquitous on Earth.

Some recent scientific studies have suggested that evolution on Earth has largely ground to a halt, a consequence of the massive loss of biodiversity as our monolithic species and culture squeezes out all other life forms on the planet, as medical advances allow the weak-gened to proliferate as well as the strong, and as continued intermixing narrows the diversity of the human gene pool. We are in fact both ‘punier and smaller-brained‘ than our Cro-Magnon ancestors, for reasons not well known. Perhaps our culture and homogeneity have lowered the barriers to human survival, or perhaps our ancestors were just too strong and too smart for their own good.

So with all of these forces working to make us more the same, what is it that drives us to be different? What is it that has made individuality, individual rights, personal freedoms, and diversity not only acceptable but admirable, desirable, even worth dying for? Why are Roddenberry’s Borg Collective the ultimate alien bad guys and not the model of human perfection?

Despite all our chemical and social programming we are not all alike, and with the possible exception of American neocons (I’m being sarcastic) we don’t want everyone to be and think alike. Is this Darwinian as well? Is the need for incessant evolution, the constant trying out of minor (and sometimes major) differences in the makeup of species to see if the survival result is a little better, even more ingrained in humans, and in fact in all life, than the need to belong and conform?

I think our reverence for individuality and ‘different-ness’ can be explained in a single Darwinian word: competition. We compete with other species, and with others of our own species, by using our competitive advantages. These competitive differences determine our success at choosing a mate and our role and rank in our community. If all ganders in a flock were identical, the process by which the geese selected their mates would be chaotic, and the process of determining the rank in the migration pattern would be anarchic. We celebrate our differences because they determine our life partners and our roles, what we do in our communities, and, as I’ve said before, what we do defines who we are. So all of life is a continuous tension between the imperative to belong, to conform, and the imperative to be different. Too far in one direction and we’re a nondescript drone, a non-breeder. Too far in the other and we’re a lone wolf, an outcast.

Ultimately, however, we are not much different from each other. I believe humanity would be more resilient, smarter, and perhaps living a utopian existence if there were much more diversity of human cultures, values, beliefs and behaviours than there is in the brave new world of 21st century Earth.

And that raises yet another question, one that is perhaps more important than the question of why we tolerate and even celebrate difference between individuals. And that question is: What can we do to encourage even more difference, more diversity, more distinctions that could re-jump-start the process of evolution and perhaps at the same time save us from pandemics like AIDS (which thrive on our homogeneity) by increasing our species’ genetic resilience?

The book I’m now writing, or which more accurately is writing itself, is a future utopia with a much reduced human population and an absence of physical suffering and deprivation, achieved by simply re-channeling human energy and ingenuity from trying to sustain unlimited growth to trying to optimize well-being of all life on the planet at an eminently sustainable level.

What is interesting is that this utopian world also produces rapidly increasing human diversity, as a byproduct of (i) a radically decentralized politic and economy, and (ii) the freeing up of time from the struggle to survive, allowing serendipitous, highly focused human activities towards new scientific and artistic goals that were previously unimaginable (or at least unimagined).

When I was younger, I was a great believer in centralization. One world government, I was sure, would lead to global peace and prosperity and quick solutions to global problems. It seemed to me to be more efficient, to allow greater interchange of different cultures and hence to produce pragmatic, innovative solutions that would probably not occur to more parochial local authorities. The problem, as I’ve learned since, is that centralization just doesn’t work. What it accomplishes is to isolate decision-makers from both the source of the issues and problems their decisions are about, and the impact of those decisions. Any efficiency achieved by reducing functional duplication is more than offset by the cost of insensitive, undifferentiated and ill-informed decisions and actions that the isolated central authority takes.

Despite examples to the contrary (the DMV and megalomanic condominium councils come to mind) I now believe that governance of communities, nations and corporations is best when it is as decentralized as humanly possible, where the people making the decisions are personally affected by them and face to face with others affected by them. My novel is leading me to believe that decentralized organizations are also likely to be more diverse, in fact astonishingly so. You’ve seen some of the isolated New Guinea tribes on National Geographic. You’ve seen the strange proclivities of inner city subcultures. Be prepared for some surprisingly unusual characters, events and innovations in The World That Could Be. This book is turning out to be a lot more fun than I’d expected, and an amazing mental exercise.

(Artwork above: Hummingbird Muses by Saskatoon artist Jonathon Earl Bowser)

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4 Responses to HOW HARD IT IS TO BE DIFFERENT

  1. Stentor says:

    1) We need to be careful about the difference between intra-group and inter-group diversity. I don’t think the members of any one of those New Guinea tribes are especially diverse. It’s just that there are so many of them that we have a bunch of different standards of conformity.2) Belonging, in the sense that you describe it in your first paragraph, need not be based on conformity. It can be, and some degree of conformity is usually necessary. But groups also thrive when they bring together people who are different, in complementary ways. The marching band would stink if everyone in it played trumpet — indeed, in this case the need for group belonging drives the search for diversity, as players of overrepresented instruments are often encouraged to take up underrepresented instruments in order to preserve the musical balance of the band. (See Durkheim’s idea of organic versus mechanical solidarity.)3) At one point you seem to be arguing that the struggle to survive is a driver of diversity. But in describing your book, you state that the post-scarcity world you envision would also lead to more diversity. Am I missing something here?

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Stentor:1) Of course there is much more inter-group diversity than intra-group diversity. I would guess, however, that if you took a group of 150 members of a Papuan tribe you would find less conformity, less homogenization of beliefs and behaviours than in most of Western society. In fact I understand that in most tribal cultures there is great effort to appear different, unique, as a means of attracting a mate. Contrast that with our culture’s more mundane differentiation — blue jeans with a swish vs those without.2) Belonging need not be based on conformity, I agree — my argument is that all too often it is, and people who want to belong frequently conform to an unhealthy and dehumanizing degree, and in the process sacrifice much of their individuality. The typical 21st century business for example has far too many people emulating and conforming to others in an almost militaristic fashion, to the great detriment of these businesses.3) My very Gouldian argument (I must have been tired when I wrote the article) was that diversity helps make a culture resilient which improves its ability to survive. Scarcity imposes stress on the culture and tends to reduce diversity (culling out the elements that can’t adapt to the stress, and leaving those that can). Once the stress is relieved and the scarcity passes (as in my book) diversity ‘naturally’ increases again.I really appreciate your comments — thanks for keeping me honest. I’ll try to be more coherent, and do a bit more re-editing and wordsmithing before I post this kind of article in future. I really need to catch up on my sleep.

  3. Indigo Ocean says:

    I have a cold right now so my brain isn’t working that well, but let me take a stab at this important issue. I think that a dominant movement of humankind is towards greater complexity while maintaining harmony. The greater the complexity, the stronger the systems maintaining harmony must be. We see again and again systems that worked at lower levels of complexity falling apart as they stretch themselves beyond their limits. This blooming, then collapsing, than redeveloping with a stronger, more integrated structure to bloom just a bit more fully, only to collapse again, is how I would describe the process of societal evolution.And I think we may need to make some distinctions between biological v. societal evolution, or at least not just assume that the same process governs each. I will speak only of societaly evolution, as marked by the advancement of civilization and our ability to not kill off our own species.So when it comes to evolution I think we are best to focus on ways of relating that prioritize harmony above all else. So long as harmony needs are not comprimised, next we decide based on what feeds diversity. In this way we can develop in sync with the force of nature rather than going up against a current far more powerful than any human culture will ever be.

  4. Rayne says:

    Awful lot to chew on in one post, Dave. The one point that catches me is the Cro-Magnon brain size; we assume that a larger brain means more smarts and therefore a greater chance for survival. What if brain size was a detriment? in the case of modern humans, a prenate with a potential brain capacity larger than its mother (and its mother’s pelvis) might not survive birth and might actually take the mother with it. We accommodate that today with C-sections, but in pre-history this could have been a halt to the species.It will be important for a critical mass of a population to have similar traits if we are to reduce human population as you’ve suggested we must in the course of your work. There will either need to be a genetic trait — like brain size, which might have worked to the detriment of Cro-Magnon — or of like-mindedness, in order to get a critical mass to change its behaviors.That same critical mass will have to be balanced against a diversity which works to keep the entirety of a species alive. For instance, as pointed out by Jared Diamond in “Guns, Germs and Steel”, an infectious disease reaching pandemic proportions typically kills off all but 10% of a population. Any more than that and the infectious agent is actually working against itself by killing off all its own food and propagation resources. Look at the number of gays/lesbians in human population; that number typically approaches 10% across most cultures and conditions. A coincidence? I think not; were there to be a heterosexually-transmitted pandemic, homosexuals would be the stop-gap to our complete obliteration as a species. We should be extremely concerned about AIDS not just because this affects all humans, but that it affects those persons disproportionately that may well be our genetic buffer zone. There are probably other genetic conditions and/or infectious agents which act in the same way; they appear to be a problem, but in truth they are our protection against extinction. It will take diverse minds to see this, though, balanced with like-mindedness.

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