“How many Centauri does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Just one, but in the great old days of the Republic,
hundreds of slaves would change a thousand light bulbs
at our slightest whim!”
- Ambassador Londo Molari, Babylon 5
“The American dream is dead.”
- Donald J. Trump, 45th President of the United States
In my January column,
I made a pun, which the editor changed on the website version to
“imagined notions,” which makes just as much sense,
grammatically and contextually, but loses the joke. I am not
complaining about this. When I finally noticed the change, months
later, it led me to do a search for that phrase, “imagined
nations,” to see if it was a cliché or something. Was I
being ignorant, when I had thought I was being clever (not an
uncommon occurrence, really)?
What I found was the
concept of imagined
communities, based on a thirty-year-old book of the
same title by Benedict Anderson. He said that nationalism is
socially constructed, based on shared media, especially media in a
shared language. Those activists
who want to make English the official
language of the US are trying to strengthen the ties
between English speakers by excluding speakers of Spanish and
Vietnamese and Klingon.
The two effects are sides of the same coin. In order to define an
inside, there must be a boundary, and anything or anyone beyond that
boundary must be defined as outside. This is true at the cellular
level, at the level of an individual body, and at the level of a
Science fiction, from
5 all the way back to Gulliver's Travels,
has looked at nationalism
as an inherently bad and dangerous thing, a fake and false thing, a
grand delusion that prevents rational, universal cooperation. The
war between the two tiny-people nations of Lilliput and Blefuscu grew
from the most trivial disagreement Swift could come up with:
however, is thought to be a meer Strain upon the Text: For the Words
are these: That all true Believers shall break their Eggs at the
convenient End: and which is the convenient End, seems, in my humble
Opinion, to be left to every Man's Conscience, or at least in the
power of the Chief Magistrate to determine.”
Anderson, on the other
hand, emphasized the creative aspect of “imagined,” as in
creating a real new thing rather than lying about something that
never existed and never will. He wrote about the “utopian
elements” of nationalism, which encourage good
behavior among the members of that nation. Later, evolutionary
biologists like DS Wilson would agree that the point of religion
is also to increase cooperation inside the group; writing off those
outside the group is a regrettable but unavoidable cost of the
increased cohesion. Alan Moore, trickster magician
that he is, merged these arguments in Watchmen,
saying that the only viable way to get human beings to
cooperate is to define an external enemy, even if that enemy has to
be a made-up interdimensional monster, and even if some of your own
people have to die to sell the lie.
now a great deal of research implying that the humanist
dream of universal community is not realistic when
actual humans are involved. We can only carry a limited number of
profiles in our tribal primate brains (ironically,
dictators often seem to carry a lot more). According
to this research, it's very difficult for us to generate the same
level of concern for people we don't personally know. While a photo
of an individual child can fool
us into feeling as though we know that individual, photos of groups
as small as two are less effective at provoking charity (yes, they
would disagree, saying that compassion is like a muscle that requires
practice to activate and strengthen the neural circuits responsible,
which they do in meditations on metta,
or loving-kindness. The rituals and founding myths
of nation-states are another way of trying to hijack our emotions to
allow us to cooperate with people we don't know and trust (often for
the purpose of screwing over other
people), to give us an illusion
of control over the rising and falling tides
of history. Economics is yet another
attempt, but targeting instead our calculating, selfish egos. All of
them work to some extent.
supposedly some of the most objective people around, group themselves
into little feuding tribes. I do an exercise with my Governor's
School students where I put the following list on the whiteboard and
then give them dry-erase markers and ask them to label it with the
names of sciences that study these levels of structure (physics,
The list could be
extended on either end; I just run out of vertical room on the board.
It serves as a starting point for the students to discuss the limits
of various scientific fields while they're drawing. What we end up
with is a fantastically colored Venn diagram, illustrating that
there's only one physical reality, described in many different ways
at different levels. All of our various scientific communities
of practice are just that—social communities
based on shared vocabulary. Each group is studying some subset of
the same integrated system. That's why we call it a
One of the things that
comes out of the exercise is the realization that the same scientist
can belong to multiple communities. As a neuroscientist, I get to
study bits of chemistry, biology, psychology, computer science, and
the humanities. My strongest tribal affiliation is with biology, I
suppose, but my emotional attachments to any discipline are probably
weaker than those of many other scientists. My time commitments to
individual professional societies and such are measurably smaller,
because I do a lot of different things. There are both benefits and
costs to my approach; one of the main costs is that the academy
rewards those who stay in their silos and specialize, because it
competition with other members of the department.
Intellectual nomads like me tend to step on people's toes as we're
wandering around in the dark, no matter how nice we might try to be
So it's with hopeful
skepticism that I propose a social organization I call INTERTRIBES,
as in tribes that overlap one another like a Venn diagram, or like
chain mail. With a few exceptions like dual citizenship, our current
hierarchical models of personal identity nested into society are
about complete belonging. You can only belong to one species,
as a matter of biological definition. I
see that as a problem. We may have exhausted the
possibilities of emotional and economic hacks
designed to expand our personal bubbles of cooperation until they
merge into a single perfect utopian bubble that encompasses the whole
species, or the whole cosmos.
I want to explore
instead how partially overlapping social groups can strengthen
cooperation at a larger scale. In other words, I want to ditch the
idea of perfect community and see if we can achieve “good
enough” cooperation by having everyone belong to multiple
groups, and emphasize friend-of-a-friend relationships. The answer
has always been to increase in-group cooperation, in bigger and
bigger groups. What if another, more practical answer is to decrease
it in-group, in order to have more room for between-group
cooperation? Just to toss out a frinstance, what if everyone
became somewhat competent in five randomly chosen languages?
In terms of academic
research, I can see this being a good question for simulation to
tackle, similar to what other groups are doing for religion.
How many in-group and between-group links are optimal? What's the
optimal ratio of link strengths? It could also make for some pretty
cool stories. After all, what's a story but a simulation, involving
interacting agents, described in words instead of numbers?
Ph.D., read “The
Man Without a Country” in grade school,
and totally missed the point. Sorry, Mr. Hale.
It’s one thing to say that a show was ahead of its time, but season 1 of
Bab 5 is downright spooky, given where we are right now as a country.
“The longer I stayed, the more I sensed that my fellow-attendees occupied a parallel universe in which white Americans face imminent demise,
the South is preparing to depart the United States, and Donald Trump is going to be President.”
Just click the ‘religion’ box to see several dozen short articles.
“The Humanist Dream: Babel Then and Now” requires a free registration to read it. JSTOR allows you three free articles at a time, a take on the freemium model I’ve not seen before.
The Guardian, on the other hand, relies on donations to keep all of their content free.
Of course, the Evil Empire and the Noble Savage are also simplifying myths. This article also refers back to the Mound Builders of last month’s column.
“The human need to encompass life within the framework of myth is not merely a longing for pleasing illusion. Myths reflect a fundamental
human need for a larger shape to our collective aspirations. And it is an illusion to think that we can so ignore that need, and so cauterize our souls, that we will never again be troubled by it.”
As I wrote in column 2, money is another route to the same goal.
Sarah Smarsh agrees: “Contrary to popular narratives, you can be a progressive populist, a wealthy and college-educated Trump supporter,
a rural laborer of color, a provincial urbanite, an open-minded midwesterner.”
Biologists call this strategy niche partitioning, and in nature it can get pretty extreme. Parasites can specialize not just to individual species, but down to the level of individual organs.
Chemical hacks might be a different story.
An interview, not a typical article, but fascinating. Discusses religion generally and through a case study, a new religion called Kivung in Papua New Guinea.
The title is a bit misleading, as it is actually a profile of the Modeling Religion Project, which goes way beyond atheism.
Read more by Randall Hayes