Leads To: Traditionalism and the Mind of Society
In 19th century South Africa, the Xhosa people destroyed all their own crops and cattle. The result was a horrible famine that reduced their population to a fraction of what it had been. The cause: a prophecy proclaiming that the British would be driven out if only they sacrificed everything.
Enlightened Western thought has long equated irrational beliefs and superstition with nothing less than darkness. Superstition is regarded as the hallmark of primitives; society has progressed and grown beyond such nonsense. Holding such irrational beliefs is regarded as maladaptive and self-defeating. That’s why modern societies have won!
Yet the idea of technology and rationalism being ‘progress’ and evidence of superiority is itself an irrational belief, a superstition, a dogmatic doctrine. Having jet fighters amounts to little if a society falls behind in the reproductive race and is unwilling/unable to use the jet fighters to wipe out their more fecund competitors. If the modernized civilization can’t even keep its population isolated from the more fecund populations, displacement and replacement is just a matter of time.
In a society founded on rationalism and science, we fail to understand:
Actions and ideas that are irrationally justified at the level of individuals can have a perfectly rational outcome when implemented across an entire society.
The evolution of a highly social species doesn’t select for individual fitness by itself. It selects for the most successful social models and the individuals that can function within them.
Clever individuals amount to nothing if the result of their collaboration is a stupid society.
A society has a ‘mind’ of its own looking after its own interests and the evolutionarily successful individual serves as an effective neuron before looking after its own interests.
Of our destinies and autonomy, the mind of society takes the first cut in exchange for handling the larger scale—not unlike like the system of taxation that underpins a government.
Members of successful societies either believe in the ‘right’ things for the wrong reasons or, more likely:
their intended courses of action and ostensibly held beliefs inadvertently result in a favorable outcome for reasons they cannot begin to fathom.
Like birds that distribute the seeds of berries they’ve eaten in their feces without ever understanding why more berries appear, they fulfill their function without knowing what they do.
The individuals in these societies accept irrational, customary behaviors because it’s what they’ve always been told by their society, because they have to belong to their society in order to survive. Because the less cooperative, less malleable, more critically minded individuals are culled from each generation(or were never allowed to come into being to begin with). Thus:
We are bred for susceptibility to irrationally founded social norms and belief in the inherent correctness of collectively endorsed action.
Seen in this way, the disastrous cattle slaughters of the Xhosa no longer seem so surprising or extraordinary. The same social traits of group unity and faith in authority that had previously resulted in evolutionary success simply malfunctioned under changed circumstances.
The clear weakness of social evolution as with natural evolution is its lack of flexibility in the face of sudden change. Taxing individuals of their capacity for autonomy also limits their ability to respond to new environmental stresses.
As with species, the social minds that adapt to change and survive malfunction continue onward.
However, with the human population flirting as ever with Malthusian disaster and resource depletion,
We should ask: Can we afford to leave the social mind as a monarch that does not answer to its subjects? Could the Xhosa have prevented their self-destruction by understanding and collaborating with their social mind?