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The Ascent (or Descent) of Humankind

In part one of an exploration of radically networked societies, we examine the constituents of human nature.

Read Part 2 on the Age of Outrage and Part 3 on the contemporary Nation-State.

In the dictatorships of the Middle East, the self-immolation of a fruit vendor kicks off a series of pro-democratic revolutions, all of which, except one, ultimately fail. In the USA, a nation that has proudly self-identified itself as the world’s saviour from Nazi Germany, a rally is held in which Nazi slogans are chanted. In Wall Street, a movement to ‘Occupy’ the symbols of the economic system that led to a global economic crisis achieves rapid success but fizzles out. In India, the world’s largest democracy, social media is used to rapidly mobilize lynch mobs and vigilantes that the state seems unwilling or unable to contain. Fear, fake news, and polarization have laid waste to reasonable debate online. On the flip side, citizens across the world use social media to mobilize outrage against the excesses and inefficiencies of the state; anti-alt-right rallies are resoundingly successful.

What connects the behaviour of all these citizens to those that came before, and yet makes them so different? The answer: their membership in radically networked societies (RNS). Interconnected to an extent greater than any form of human organization in the past, the effects of RNS are all-pervasive today, deeply affecting the way that individuals behave.

Everything is changing: from how and what we identify with to the way that we consume and react to information. As these aggregate into groups and societies, they have drastic effects on politics, and in turn on the functioning of states. This is a complex topic with ramifications in almost every aspect of modern human life. To do justice to the puzzle in this series of articles, I will be drawing on research from biology to cognitive neuroscience, network theory, protest theory, democratic theory, and history.

This first article will lay the biological foundation for the series, applying these concepts to the rise of the nation-state as a form of group identity.

Let there be… Life!

Let’s talk about life. But not in the sense of ‘life’ as a subjective, personal experience, but more as an empirical phenomenon. What is life? Life is, to use a simple definition, a collection of biological processes that aim to transmit genetic code to subsequent generations. Through millions of years of evolution, some inventive ways of doing that have evolved. These include instincts, social behaviour, and self-awareness. While we like to think of these as part of our personal experiences of life, the stark truth is that they are side-acts to the all-important imperative to continue to propagate molecules that first evolved nearly a billion years ago.

The Importance of being Instinctive

Okay. So our lives are what happen to us while our bodies attempt to reproduce. What is the point of instincts, though? Humans are rather intelligent, and we are quite capable of logic and rational thought. Entire subjects have been founded on this basic assumption. Processing everything logically, rationally, would surely lead to the best outcomes and the best chance of reproduction always. Instincts, then, are a throwback to our animal ancestors and should be done away with.

Unfortunately, rationality and higher reasoning are only recent developments in our evolutionary code. Our most ancient biological algorithms have been fine-tuned over millions of years to efficiently process the masses of information that our senses constantly demand, so as to keep an eye out for danger and opportunities. We instinctively feel good or bad about things, without having to brood and mull deeply about them and thus risk getting eaten by a sabretooth tiger. Instincts help process sensory information rapidly to ensure that we take good care of ourselves and our genetic code.

We can look at a corpse and feel sick. We can look at an attractive person and feel good. Over these snap judgements, we later add layers of reasoning – usually drawing on moral judgements of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in order to convince others to join us in them. Something that triggers feelings or ’emotions’ of fear, disgust, or disrespect, for example, is considered ‘wrong’.

Think about widow remarriage. You’re okay with it? Great. Someone from rural India would likely disagree with you (Shweder, Mahapatra and Miller 1987) because to them, widow remarriage is disrespectful to her dead husband. Of course, they’ll justify it in terms of religion or culture. But what has actually happened is initial instinctive emotional reaction, with ‘moral’ reasoning on added later.

To paraphrase Jonathan Haidt: our brains are social ‘riders’ on instinctive ‘elephants’. The riders’ job is to justify the behaviour of the elephants to themselves and to other riders so that all elephants and all riders stay in the herd. For the sake of brevity, I’ll refer to this as behaviour as ‘moral reasoning’ through the rest of this essay.

On Behaviour

But, wait, back up a little – why do we have social behaviour at all? Why be nice to other people, and coordinate with them? The reproductive imperative explains selfish and antagonistic behaviour towards others. The efficiency of evolved instincts makes sure we’ll personally stay alive in a pinch. What explains altruistic behaviour? Why sacrifice ourselves for someone else? Why do we have an urge to justify our moral behaviour and convince others to join us?

The dominant theory to explain this used to be ‘Kin Selection – that we developed altruism to people who share our DNA so that its survival is ensured. However, two more recent theories dispute that.

‘Group Selection’, first discussed by the biologist Edward O Wilson, posits that altruism evolved to ensure that members of a group managed to transmit their DNA. Robert Trivers’s ‘Reciprocal Altruism’, meanwhile, argues that altruism is evolutionarily favoured as long as the altruist receives a reciprocal benefit that is greater than its initial cost.

Therefore, human brains evolved altruistic behaviour within a social context over millennia, learning to help members within their group for extra benefits, and to be hostile to those outside it. The group does not have to be biological – their ties can be completely imaginary. This satisfies our tendency to be selfish, while also enabling us to coordinate with others and thus survive as a group.

This most basic ‘in/out’ behaviour has been observed experimentally, and leads to an interesting conclusion. The existence of altruistic behaviour implies the need for a ‘group”’to identify with at an extremely primal level: it is literally hard-coded into our genetic makeup.

So instincts and social behaviour are around to ensure that our genes propagate, I hear you say. Fine. You can live with that. But you are a distinct individual and are not affected by all these relics of your animal ancestors. You are a wise, self-aware human being. You are who you are, “Cogito, ergo sum” and all that. Sorry, Descartes, but I have one last bubble to pop!

You Think, Therefore I Am

The experience of ‘selfhood’ is a hallucination that the brain generates. And, contrary to modernist philosophers, there is no unitary Self – just a shifting set of mental constructs, of ‘selves’ that converge to our individual experiences. These are (according to the cognitive neuroscientist Anil Seth) the bodily, perspectival, volitional, narrative, and social selves.

The last two are particularly intriguing. The Narrative Self is the construction of ourselves as unique individuals with distinct identities, encompassing all the experiences that we go through. The Social Self is the construction of ourselves as we perceive others think about us. That roughly translates to “I am not who I think I am. I am who I think you think I am”. Puzzling, but they don’t call our species ‘Sapiens’ for nothing!

Both the Narrative and the Social Selves draw on ancient instincts for self-preservation (emotional reactions and antagonistic behaviour), with an overlay of more recently evolved and learned behaviours (moral reasoning and altruistic behaviour) to allow for efficient social coordination and the collective survival of genus Homo, species Sapiens. Think of us, as Haidt suggests, as “90% chimpanzee, 10% bee.”

These mental constructs, the Narrative and Social Selves, demand that we have broader identities, loyalties and antagonism to maximise our chances of collectively transmitting genes to the next generation.

So the Narrative Self isn’t just a product of the experiences that we go through as individuals. It’s also composed of collective memories that we believe our groups have gone through. And the Social Self is a complex, continuous, set of calculations that maximise our social capital within a group. It does this by following ‘moral’ and ‘conditional’ behavioural norms (which, recall, are moral reasoning on top of instinctive emotional reactions). It is also constantly considering how its actions will impact its reputation within the groups, and molds itself accordingly. Individuals make the group, but the group equally makes the individual.

All these complex behaviours have resulted in a versatile, innovative animal capable of unprecedented levels of organization and coordination. They are the reason why Homo Sapiens is so successful as a species, and went from apehood to moon landings in a few millennia – a mere blip in evolutionary timescales.

Our ‘groups’ have varied dramatically over the last few centuries, and especially so in the last few decades. From tribes to empires, from religions to feudalism, to the era of the nation-state and the online chat forum, the human need to identify has remained the same. Through history, the strength of group identity, the capability to mobilize it, and our personal abilities to live as part of massive, impersonal groups, has led to some of our most extraordinary and disturbing achievements.

Yet this progress has been so rapid that we’ve been able to create technologies that our instincts demand, but are no longer capable of using efficiently. We demand stimuli, groups, and socialisation; we are flooded with stimuli, we are ultra-social, all day, every day. And now we have no idea how to keep track of it all. One begins to sympathise with Charlie Chaplin in the gears of the factory in Modern Times.

To recap, since I’ll be returning to many of these ideas in later articles:

  1. Life has evolved all sorts of baubles and trinkets to ensure that it continues into the next generation.
  2. We have an evolutionary need for:
    1. Constant stimulation, to keep an eye out for opportunities.
    2. Group identities, for collective survival.
  3. Evolution has equipped us with:
    1. Emotional instincts -fear, disgust, shame, disrespect, and so on – to quickly process most stimuli.
    2. Moral reasoning, to convince others to join us in our instinctive reaction.
    3. Self-awareness, the most efficient survival mechanism ever invented, with the following properties:
      1. Narrative compositions of ourselves and our groups so that we love our groups and hate others.
      2. Social compositions of ourselves within groups, so that our groups work with clear rules of acceptable conduct, which allows wide cooperation.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Nation

In hindsight, collective survival is a fairly self-evident reason for why we need and form groups. But then humans are relatively different within the animal kingdom for their ability to coordinate over things that ostensibly have nothing to do with fundamental biological urges. A more pertinent question, then, is: what are the non-biological reasons involved in group formation? How do these square with our biological behaviour?

Simply put, a group doesn’t just make it more likely that our genes will continue to propagate. They also help societies organize and function more efficiently. Division of labour and efficiencies of scale do help get things done faster, as Henry Ford would testify. Another example is the formation of the Taliban as a counter-Soviet guerrilla force motivated by religious identity. In this sense, creating a group identity was great at achieving short-term goals as the Soviets were bogged down in the ‘graveyard of empires’ and were forced to withdraw. However, group identities can and often will get much, much larger than the founder intended them to – as the rapid spread of global jihadism even after the fall of the Soviet Union proves.

But before I discuss group identity in detail, I’d like to highlight this: for much of human history, most people lived and died in the same agricultural community that they were born in. “History is what some people were up to while the rest were tilling the fields,” to paraphrase Harari. Except, if one lived in a city – which was unlikely until the Industrial Revolution kicked off large-scale urbanization in the late 19th century – one would probably never meet someone from far away. Personal and group identities, therefore, were intensely local, place-bound concepts for the longest time.

Another possible factor in the creation of groups is homophilya property of networks, which states that people with similar interests tend to group together closely. Either that, or people who group together closely find similar interests thrust upon them – the evidence is not yet clear. This would then allow for more granular identities based on socio-economic realities, such as caste or feudalism, within a larger spatial context.

Now, how did human identities first transcend identities formed by interaction into Benedict Anderson’s completely ‘imagined’ community identity – the Nation-State? And how has that changed in the last few decades?

The Ascent of the Nation

Let’s look at a specific case: the French Revolution.

As the French Revolution broke out, King Louis XVI was imprisoned and then executed; the properties of the Church were appropriated; other European monarchies declared war on the French Republic. The new French State had to do something drastic if it was to survive.

A new identity was developed by demagogues (such as Georges Danton) and propagated by the State to help in the process of mobilization, which made up for the destruction of the older ones: the ‘French Nation’. This nation was defined by the ‘natural borders’ of France, by the French language. It was as inclusive as it could be, in order to motivate as many foot-soldiers as possible, similar to the crusades of bygone eras. It deliberately avoided ‘horizontal’ ties of loyalty to allied dynasties to concentrate on ‘vertical’ ties of antagonism to all out-groups.

This was a drastic contrast to pre-Revolution France, where to be French meant to be a subject of a dynasty, and low-intensity conflict allowed for a general flourishing of different identity-forming narratives during the Enlightenment. There were plenty of books and people who could read books and talk about them. However, there were barely any newspapers, which were so tightly censored as to contribute practically nothing to ‘national’ identity.

Revolutionary France, however, was very different. There were less coffee-house debates on varied books and ideas, but there were far more newspapers and demagogues, all saying essentially similar things. France is a nation. France good. Revolution good. Everyone not French bad. Monarchy bad.

Figure 1. Intensity and diversity of narratives as the French Revolution progressed. Representative diagram.

The Narrative Selves of the French people would be shaped by narratives which constantly and repetitively stressed

  1. Collective memories of royal misrule, triggering disgust.
  2. The threat of invasion, triggering fear and collective solidarity – further enabled by the state moving troops from different regions around and generally lowering barriers to trade.
  3. The conviction that their cause (‘liberty, equality, fraternity’) was just, triggering a sense of superiority.


The intensity and diversity of prevailing narratives played a vital role in creating an identity.

The Social Selves of the French were shaped by

  1. The social norm of sacrificing everything for the Revolution, enforced by the State and its constantly-discussed ideals.
  2. The reputational costs of not being a loyal citizen – which could lead, at the least, to ostracism, and at the worst, to the guillotine.
  3. The reciprocal ‘benefit’ of enhanced reputation as a hero of the French nation.

Social signalling played a vital role in determining what individuals did with this new group identity.

This experiment proved more effective than anyone could have foreseen, with almost the entire ‘nation’ leaping into the war effort. Napoleon Bonaparte built an entire career off effective propaganda that harnessed nationalist ideas (Dwyer, Philip. Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power. Yale University Press, 2013). The ideas and forms of organization of the French Revolution allowed it to steamroll most other European states, which rapidly learned from and implemented them. The ‘nation’ came into its own as a form of identity. Its marriage with the State created the most powerful form of human groupism ever conceived.

What can we learn from this exercise? Conflict and war are so useful in nation-building because they turn every narrative into the in/out binary that appeals to our genetic predisposition for altruism within the tribe and antagonism without. And the ‘nation’ is quite a simple tribe to get people to believe in. Especially when collective memories get involved.

Collective memory is vital in creating such a concept of ‘us’ as a group that has gone through certain experiences, even though the individual will probably never meet the rest of their group. The best part about collective memories? They don’t even have to be factual. We can imagine them into existence just as well as we imagine selves and nations.

The most successful collective memories draw on emotional instincts (the same ones that govern behaviour) – that make us feel good or bad about ourselves. For example, evocations of past glories lead to positive responses, and make people feel good. The infamous hyper-nationalism of the early 1930s, both in Germany and Italy, consciously modelled itself on ‘glorious’ ancient imperial symbols. The ‘Third Reich’, as it was called, drew on memories and legends of the ‘First Reich’, or Holy Roman Empire, and the ‘Second Reich’ of the Hohenzollern dynasty, which had humbled France in 1870. As if that wasn’t enough, the swastika, an ancient symbol of prosperity, and the eagle, the most famous symbol of Ancient Rome, were re-appropriated for additional positive connotations.

Memories of past trauma are also effective. They draw on of fear and shame, delineating a sharp ‘us versus them’ binary that helps bind a group together. Another aspect of Third Reich symbolism were memories of ‘national humiliation’ by the Allies – and especially France – in the Treaty of Versailles. A grandiose proclamation of a Thousand-Year Reich, coupled with anti-Semitic (enemy within) and anti-Allied (enemy without) propaganda created an identity that was virulently antagonistic to outsiders while maintaining a ‘pure’ in-group with strong inner ties. This practically became a template for later dictators.

The vital points here are:

  1. Identities depend on the diversity and intensity of narratives.
  2. The most successful narratives draw on emotional instincts.
  3. The behaviour of groups depends on social signalling.

Beyond the Nation

So the less diverse and the more intense the narratives are, the more they draw on evolutionary behaviours and instincts, the more effective the identities they create. The nation, a non-spatial identity, was so successful because the first condition was enforced by the state. The second was assisted by the industrial wars of the 20th century. How, then, are imagined communities still thriving today? What has social media done for identity in the 21st century?

I use ‘Social Media’ in the sense defined by Margets et al in their excellent Political Turbulence (2015), as an “Internet-based medium which provides a platform for the sharing of user-generated content.” Social media is cheap and easily available. It’s very easy to generate and share massive amounts of content in a way that transcends physical boundaries.

Recall that pre-Industrial Revolution, identities were local/spatial because people simply weren’t exposed to broader narratives. States helped disseminate those, but nation-building was always an expensive and time-consuming activity, and was easiest to do when the entire state was at war. Even after the Second World War, media such as newspapers and television, generally tended to carry a wider variety of views and generally factual information in order to appeal to a broader audience (at least in liberal countries). Meanwhile, a general acceptance of individual rights ensured that citizens would have the physical space they needed to develop their identities.

But now, social media algorithms curate content that is explicitly tailored to one’s ideological or consumption patterns. This has coincided with decreasing levels of engagement in public spaces. What that leads to, in practice, is a drastic shrinking in diversity and an increase in intensity of the narratives that one is exposed to. All of it happens in cyberspace, and none of the content requires massive expenditure, unlike in, say, Napoleonic nation-building propaganda.

Of course, this isn’t entirely a bad thing. The fact that people are no longer bound by physical space makes it much easier to connect to similar people in cyberspace. This has led to everything from online stamp-collecting communities to global gaming tournaments. Plus, the proliferation of new forms of content has enabled citizens to be much better informed of their rights. It’s allowed protests against injustice to snowball easily. All of these are good things for modern democracy.Figure 2. Intensity and diversity of narratives in the social media age. Representative diagram.

However, as anyone who’s used Twitter will tell you, it’s not all hunky-dory. If minority communities are able to organize better, so are majoritarian groups. Just as new groups with new norms are formed, so too are old groups with old norms reinforced. Keep in mind that cyberspace is a completely open field. Whereas the state is compelled to provide physical space for identities to grow, it can do nothing about the shrinking of cyberspace into echo chambers which enforce their own norms and identities. Fact-based reporting is no longer cost-effective, as Naval Ravikant says. One can simply spread fake news designed to trigger our emotional instincts, and sit back and count the dollars and votes as these gradually aggregate into narratives of collective memory that become virulent, exclusive online identities. This is one part of the puzzle that is the radically networked society.

My next essay will discuss how the warping of social norms and instinctual information processing mechanisms affect voting behaviour and the level of public discourse, contrasting, as here, past and present. These present a challenge that pluralistic democracies in general, and India in particular, must overcome.

This is a three part series which explores radically networked series. Read Part 2 on the Age of Outrage and Part 3 on the contemporary Nation-State.

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About the author

Anirudh Kanisetti

Anirudh Kanisetti is a Research Associate at the Takshashila Institution. A graduate of BITS Pilani Goa, his research interests range from systems modelling to geostrategy, economics, history and culture.