For a very, very long time in our species’ history, we were stuck in small tribes. These were groups of a couple dozen family members and our closest friends to help us live, hunt, and survive on the savannah. And for a long time, our communities were stuck. They couldn’t grow. Even though growth might have meant more resources, better hunting and gathering, and more mating opportunities—all of which, in theory evolution ought to have favored.
But every time these groups grew, they faced the same problem: violence. The amount and proportion of violent deaths went up with community size. The end result, as tribes reached 100 or so people, is that they’d split apart. It was as if there was a ceiling; a point where the growth of the community created too much tension. In particular, violence by men was a major problem.
But some people found a solution, a way to break the pattern.
It started simple: making friends with neighbors. A small but meaningful gesture that started to make a dent in the crime. From there emerged more opportunities for connection. A type of community center was established, and along with it all sorts of group activities: dancing, singing, and lots of feasts. It started with a single tribe before branching out to neighboring ones. As time went on, these growing bands of tribes added more structure: there were rules on how to settle dispute and religious rituals and collective practices. Perhaps most interestingly, early civilizations found success when they created outlets for men. They gave men opportunities to obtain status (e.g., be the best hunter in the tribe). And although it might seem sexist, they established what today we might call “men’s groups” for them to connect and let off steam.
Violence fell precipitously. Equally important, early societies were able to grow. First, into the hundreds, but with the addition of more institutions and outlets for male energy, eventually into the thousands. In fact, researchers found that the size of ancient tribes correlated well with the number of social institutions they had. In studying human societies, biologist Mark Moffett described this transition as going from individual societies where you knew everyone in the society and how the society worked to an anonymous society, one where you didn’t know everyone, where alliances weren’t based on first-hand knowledge of the other but rather on something more nebulous. And with anonymous societies came an erosion of social cohesion and coordination.
To overcome the challenges of the anonymous society, something else was needed. For societies that managed to break through the barrier, moving from a few hundred people to thousands and eventually hundreds of thousands, there was a clear increase in social institutions that were necessary to create a sense of order, cohesion, and connection. These included coalitions, leadership structures, festivals filled with feasting, singing, and dancing, laws, policing, marriage rituals, social ways to obtain status, and clubs to fill time and connection. All of these institutions proliferated as the size of the society did. In fact, across a wide array of societies, as the size of the community surpassed 1,000 individuals, they moved from shamans to more formal religions with priests and temples. You may think it was the increase in population that drove the increase of these institutions, but we have reason to believe it was the opposite: the increase in institutions allowed for the growth of the population.
A risk of larger societies is that they make us feel lost. We, as individuals, can feel like we don’t matter. We stop understanding how society works and who is on our side. The antidote is societal institutions that ally us with ‘anonymous’ others, providing structure for how to act and providing space for us to find a place in a huge society. In other words, to move from an individual to an anonymous society, we need ways to fill our basic psychological needs, to feel significance, direction, coherence, and belonging. If we don’t violence and chaos ensue.
I can’t help but think a similar transition is playing out in the world today. With the rise of the internet and social media, we’ve moved further away from a local society to a global and anonymous one. A place where it’s really hard to find status, competence, and community. It’s much easier to get lost and to stop trusting others. This is reflected in surveys which found that 71 percent of people believe there’s been a drop in interpersonal trust.
What’s the solution?
It’s complicated, but perhaps a large part of the answer is about learning how our ancestors solved the problem of an ever-growing society. They did it through alliances, get-togethers, and outlets for people to fill their basic psychological needs. We could learn from them and start locally. Maybe we need to reverse the decline of local community organizations (e.g, rotary, recreational leagues, community clubs), and provide outlets outside of work that allow people to connect and also feel like they are needed and contributing to society. Maybe it’s time to bring back bowling leagues or grow your local running club. Or perhaps we should think about what institutions can support security and trust at the local level.
By no means do I think going local is the solution to everything. But I’m reminded of the research that looks at how we form connections in the workplace, on sports teams, and in the military. It’s during the in-between times that connection is formed. The water cooler talk, the shooting the shit waiting for coffee, the conversations around the dinner table. The reason this works so well is that we transition from seeing Bob as the accountant to Bob the human being with a wife, kids, hobbies, and goals. We move from seeing each other as two dimensional characters that we can quickly label and stop thinking about, to complex three-dimensional human beings.
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