A few weeks ago, I started thinking about which animal society humans are most like. This isn't such an odd mode of thinking, I tell myself. There are many animal metaphors in language to describe human behaviour.
"Birds of a feather flock together."
"Breeding like rabbits."
"What's good for the hive is good for the bee."
Zoologists are taught to be careful not to anthropomorphise their subjects, but perhaps there is just as much danger of doing the reverse; to zoo-ologise the human in the quest to understand what our nature really is. As I'm not a zoologist or a biologist, my musings on this could only go so far. But browsing my local library I stumbled upon Nichola Raihani's new book The Social Instinct. It turns out that Raihani is a biologist who has actually thought a lot about our similarities with animals.
To use an animal metaphor to explain human society might be to found an argument on a naturalistic fallacy, saying that any particular organisation of things is 'natural' because it already exists in nature, and we have little choice but to accept the way things are. However, Raihani manages to talk about the similarities between us without falling into this trap. There are many such similarities, and this is not surprising, given we share our genes with so many other animals, our traits, development and behaviours all find cognates in the natural world.
Cleaner wrasse, for instance, are fish that make a living by cleaning the dead matter from other fish passing by on the reef. They apparently just as paranoid about bad customer reviews as the average small business manager, and will punish each other in order to make sure their partners don't nibble the client's flesh instead of the dead matter, you know, just once, as a treat. There are so many of these great animal anecdotes in this book, including some especially weird ones about the reproductive behaviour of spiders.
Raihani is also concerned to point out the differences between us and animals. Firstly that we are so sexually egalitarian. Our closest cousins, the great apes, are in general much more polygynous (one male to several females) in their relationships; a much smaller proportion of males get to mate and father young than we do. This puts us much closer to bird couples when it comes to rearing young, but even that would be a misleading metaphor. Bird couples are often solely responsible for the survival of their young, while human children can rely on the support of the extended family and grandparents especially. It can also widen to include the whole community, and this is one reason that parents are so unperturbed by the concept of sending underdeveloped children to school to be cared for by near-strangers.
It's important to point out these differences, seeing as the online 'manosphere' seems to be currently obsessed by the idea that 'women only want wealthy alpha males.' This kind of argument illustrates the point that animal metaphors are not just speculative, but real life discourses with political and social effects. Raihani treads very carefully in her section on the family but doesn't pull punches - at some level, our reproductive behaviour can be described as a conflict between genes. However, this conflict leads to co-operative behaviour as our genes act as if they seek to derive mutual survival benefits by playing nice. When it comes to everyday social relations, what the biology uncovers is actually a fairly banal fact-of-life: we want other people to like us, so we work to maintain our reputation as good co-operators, and we apparently relish the chance to punish the uncooperative, or bring down the boastful. Insisting on your alpha-hood among humans is thus more likely to earn a person haters than followers.
Human societies are large and complex, unlike our closest cousins, and this has led some to compare us with social insects like ants and bees. Raihani explores the differences between us and hive-minded creatures as a recurring theme over the whole book. Like us, these insects form large social groups with a hierarchy and a division of labour, they are at times, fiercely territorial and are some species are in a state of constant war between colonies. Sometimes this metaphor is invoked when we have to get together and work on a common project, or defeat a common enemy. Whereas nation-states do have a very hivish vibe about them (something not lost on the makers of the film Antz), humans are importantly different from eusocial species.
A central idea of the book is the tension between individuals and their social groups. In eusocial species, Raihani makes the case that the individual ant or bee has become somewhat de-individualised. Much of the time, they are acting as if their individual genes don't matter, and that what they are reproducing is the hive itself. What makes this possible is a strong vertical solidarity; ants and bees are typically all sisters, and all the progeny of the queen. By being a 'worker' they are helping their genes through their sister's other offspring. Human societies are a much looser federation. Our ability to produce and care for our own offspring has been preserved, and thus the goal of our genes is more closely aligned with our individual bodies. Though hard work and sacrifice is often demanded of us by modern, industrialised, national societies, we operate on the basis that there must be something in it for us or our kids.
Raihani devotes the last section of her book to explaining how such societies arose among humans, a species that evolved to live in much smaller bands of foragers, loosely dependent on each other, and fiercely egalitarian. Indeed, she makes a great defence of what others have called our 'egalitarian syndrome,' our sense that there is something unfair about others having more, whether praise, position or resources (Gavrilets, 2012). In this explanation, she doesn't tread much new ground and follows the argument that agriculture makes state society possible. Her own understanding of this is that agricultural families produce many more children and this ultimately leads to the domination of the fertile land by farmers. This leaves people with nowhere to run if the social conditions tip towards tyranny, meaning that despots can essentially domesticate the population and reap the surplus they produce.
However, her model for deducing this leaves out some critical detail - why are resources not shared equally in agricultural societies? She assumes the existence of a leader of the community holding on to more, but this is a bit unsatisfying. Why do the others let him hang on to more, if they would not allow that in a forager band? I would add the conjecture of economist Paul Collier that this tipping towards hierarchy is hard to resist due to the potential for 'scale economies of violence' to emerge, in which a minority unproductive class, specialising in violence, can cream off the agricultural surplus to support their lifestyle. Early Kings, argues Collier, were little more than thugs.
One important question she does address is, why don't the workers rise up and use their superior numbers to overthrow the elite? While others have attempted to understand this with reference to culture, (which certainly does play a part), Raihani sees it mostly as a simple numbers game. Action against tyrants is an act of co-operation; it relies on people ready to come together for a common cause. But while we can often do that on a small scale, it often becomes quite difficult as the number of people required for action grows. This is because the more people involved in an endeavour, the less your individual contribution seems to matter, and possibly, the less you have to gain. If the punishments for rebellion are harsh enough, then often the disincentives outweigh the incentives on an individual level.
This is certainly the case when it comes to action on climate change, as Raihani goes on to discuss. We've all felt the futility of separating the paper and plastic for recycling in the knowledge that many people continue to contribute daily to carbon emissions on an industrial scale. She has no easy solutions, but follows the 'think global act local' school of thought that argues for building smaller local co-operative institutions and processes with an understanding of the systemic and global effects that action could have. There is more than a shade of pessimism in this, but Raihani is not a doomer. It's not too late to act. But failure is a relatively strong possibility.
Ultimately, the book did not answer my question about the best animal metaphor for human society, because it showed quite clearly that humans behave in quite unique ways that make most such metaphors deceiving. We do share recognisable behaviours with animals, but we have taken sociality to vertiginously complex new forms. Consequently we face incredibly complex new challenges in which our individual motivations and social obligations are often at odds. Understanding what is happening to us demands probing beyond these neat comparisons to assess what is particular about humans, and this book serves as a great introduction to this endeavour.
Gavrilets, S. (2012) ‘On the evolutionary origins of the egalitarian syndrome’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - PNAS, 109(35), pp. 14069–14074. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1201718109.
Raihani, N. (2021) The Social Instinct: How co-operation shaped the world, Penguin: London, UK