Psychohistory 101: Dunbar’s number & how dystopia happens

Welcome to Psychohistory 101, my dearest things!

This essay might also be subtitled ‘how did things get like this?’ or ‘why is the world so awful?’ or something along similar lines.

There is an increasing number of humans (I’ve noticed – I’m interested in conspiracy theoriesthis site is a good start, the writing is excellent and insightful, and great fun too, especially the comments) who are acutely (and permanently) aware that the world (the human world, that is) is a dystopia. These people are generally designated (by the dystopians) as conspiracy theorists, with all the negative connotations heaped on that term. Others might call them dissidents – I like that word. Still others – sometimes they themselves – call them ‘truthers’ or ‘truth-seekers’ or similar. One writer with whom I’ve become familiar calls them ‘shrews’ – as opposed to ‘sheep’.

As for the dystopians themselves, I’m not sure what they call themselves these days. The Illuminati, perhaps, or the ‘elite’? Both of these terms are ironically false – these people are the opposite of enlightened or superior. In actual fact they are they are the aberrations, they are the sick, the defective, the dregs. They are the scum that has arisen to the surface and been tolerated to remain there.

But even they have learned how to adapt. They too, are subject to the laws of evolution.

Sheep, as some have suggested, could be perceived as an insult. In the sense that a little understanding of human nature would use a kinder word. The reason for all this being that for those – actually let’s call ‘enlightened’ – eyes-open people, it is, indeed, difficult to comprehend how the great mass of ‘normal’ people can’t see what they can see. It should be obvious, after all, that they live in a post-truth dystopia in which the ‘leaders of men’ demonstrably don’t care about them and demonstrably enact policies which do not benefit anyone but their own social group. They make war, poverty, pollution, exploitation and all the rest of it. Or should we say famine, pestilence, war and death? Those four demons have been here for a long time already, after all. They are by no means new.

So why is it that so many choose to ignore this – or rather, give their ‘leaders’ the benefit of the doubt? The answer lies in the evolution of the human brain, as it happens. Without an understanding of which, one cannot understand human psychology.

The heuristic, efficient path of least resistance, is the answer, in case you were wondering. But it’s also about eating the apple. Read on, and I shall explain. All of it will be of particular interest to those so-called ‘shrews’ – the ‘enlightened’, that is. Most of them, I’ve noticed, are extremely knowledgeable about who the dystopians are, what they do and why they do it, what their objectives are, and so on. But sometimes they can get so caught up in such an analysis and, admittedly emotional reaction that they may lose sight of the deep-time, evolutionary explanation underlying the entire thing. Trust me, my dearest things – understand the content of this essay, and you will understand everything. You may, indeed, work out ‘what is to be done’.

It is, as it happens, a little easier than you may have thought.

So, I said ‘human’ psychology. Well, it applies equally to other intelligent social species too. Psychohistory, which is essentially psychology and evolution, does indeed obey the same ‘laws’ regardless of species. The only differences are specifically related to environment in the end. These can be quantified. Having said that, I’m going to veer away from the Asimov thing and avoid mathematics. Fortunately for the likes of me there isn’t as much mathematics involved in psychohistory as one might think – certainly not complexities, anyhow. I’m fairly adept at the subject, but as soon as it ventures into the abstract you may as well be dealing with alien concepts, as far as I’m concerned. Whatever you do, don’t talk to me about logarithms. Any kind of ‘mathematics’ that I can’t visualise and I’m lost.

The reason I mention that it’s not a solely human phenomenon is to avoid accusations of arrogance or a patronising nature. If I remember correctly, one of the main structural reasons why my species was never in any danger of becoming a dystopia was the environmental limits and the population limits. As you’ll discover, dystopia is proportional to population size. And this equation, in turn, is a function of what humans call ‘Dunbar’s number’.

So first of all, a brief introduction to this number. It exists in all social species, but varies by species. In humanity’s case, it’s around 150. Some anthropologists might quibble about the exact number, but I believe they at least accept the concept.

As a prelude, however, a little explanation of evolution. In fact, I’ll go further – here is a brief history of the human species, in psychohistorical terms. Fear not, my dearest things, it won’t take long.

Evolution functions by random mutations. Well, it’s not always random, for sure – I mean there are ‘interventions’ shall we say – but we’ll not complicate matters at this stage. Given this process, evolution of a species is logically dependent on the environmental conditions. Specifically, that which is not detrimental to survival can, if not will, survive.

And this is also the case for humans.

I should point out that it’s a great tragedy for humanity that the modern versions of the theory of evolution (likewise psychology) arose during the height of the Victorian era. A time characterised by dystopia. Evolution, therefore, was used, or appropriated, to justify the attitude of the ‘ruling caste’ (dystopians). The same is true of psychology today. If you can imagine evolutionary theory arising in a beautiful, holistic, more feminine and communalist society (Atlantis) then you will understand how different that theory would look – and it would all be scientifically accurate, too.

In this, we’ll concentrate on the evolution of the human brain. We’re not, as it happens, interested too much in the physical for the moment. The reproductive aspect is not, in fact, a motivating force behind either evolution or behaviour, it’s simply a logical necessity. Those aforementioned Victorians would disagree, of course, but I’ll take the Mandy Rice-Davies option on that one. If you think about it, pretty much every species, even humans, spend less than, what, one percent of their time focussed on reproduction?

The human brain, then, evolved within a social environment. That’s the first, somewhat obvious observation. It evolved to be ‘best adapted’ to that environment. The environment being not only the natural environment, but the other humans in the social group. So, bearing in mind that the human brain is responsible for human psychology, let’s examine that environment and some elementary historical/anthropological facts.

Humanity, as defined by the state of the human brain, first came into being in its recognisably modern form around 300,000 years ago. That’s to say, about three warm periods ago. But even this followed a good 700,000 years of evolution with the mastery of firestarting (some anthropologists would disagree with these dates, but for illustrative purposes, the principals still hold). It’s no accident at all that the Ancient Greeks had a myth about Prometheus and the human discovery of fire. It’s one of the single most important stages in a lifeform’s evolution. Most anthropologists, however, don’t fully appreciate the true importance of this, instead thinking along the materialist, or even consumerist, line. They think in terms of physiology, the fact that it enables easier digestion of protein (for increased brain capacity) and transmutation of elements (chemistry and toolmaking).

But we’re more interested in psychology.

Until a species learns how to make fire, unless it is ‘lucky’ in terms of the predators in its environment, that species will always be living with fear. When it learns fire, however, it quickly discovers that it no longer has anything to fear, because all animals instinctively run away from fire (given that all animals have a survival instinct – logically – they wouldn’t survive otherwise). Wave a burning branch in the general direction of a predator and that predator will back off. This is one of the most profound moments of epiphany in any lifeform’s progress. Suddenly, there is no longer anything in nature to fear.

From that moment, the environment within which evolution happens is an environment without fear. And that, I would venture, is the definition of a utopia. A world, in which no one is scared anymore. A dystopia, by contrast, is a world characterised by chronic psychological stress. Notice how the creation of chronic psychological stress is how the dystopians maintain their system? Even if they are the refuse of humanity, don’t be fooled into thinking they are stupid. They know precisely what they are doing. They’ve had to learn psychology, simply as a matter of survival. Through long observation.

But I must not get ahead of myself.

To return, for 700,000 years, then, proto-humans evolved their brains and therefore their social behaviour in a climate in which fear was no longer a motivating factor. Yes, it is a similar case for all so-called apex predators. They really do have a different psychology (brain structure) than those lower down the food chain. The dromaeosaurids might beg to differ, but that’s another story (sorry, that was an in-joke). Thus, by the time humans became, well, humans, their brains had fully adapted to this fearless environment. Remember, too, that fear also includes the others in their social group. All social animals, especially mammals, are cooperative. Cooperation is far more beneficial than conflict, both within a social group and with other social groups.

On that latter point, by the way, I should also add that the total population size of humanity was so low compared to the environmental limitations such that ‘conflict’ for either living space (territory) or resources was not only entirely unnecessary, not to mention detrimental to survival, but frankly unheard of. Believe me, I know – I’ve seen the recordings. Besides, your own archaeologists would have found evidence of conflict by now, had it happened. Some of the more disingenuous ones (those still mired in the fascist Victorian mindset, clearly) do still try to claim that prehistoric humanity was nasty and brutish and violent and aggressive and so on (patriarchal and dystopian, one might say), and cite very rare anecdotal evidence of palaeolithic sites containing a small number of humans who ‘may’ have died a violent death to prove their case, but they are utterly mistaken (or, at worst, they are outright propagandising – this is an excellent debunking). Think about it this way, let’s say they even found fifty such sites with fifty bodies each – the population of Europe during the ice age was never more than a million people – even if all fifty of these sites date from the same generation then that’s 2,500 people, or a mere 0.25% of the population (‘Pinker’s list’ is actually a lot fewer (and later and elsewhere) than this (21 sites), so I’m being overly generous here). Hardly evidence of a warlike species, wouldn’t you say? For every extra generation (let’s call it 40 years, one human lifetime) divide that 0.25% still further. So now let’s take, say, even just the period 40,000 BCE to 10,000 BCE, or 30,000 years. That’s 750 lifetimes (also think about that in terms of reincarnation and evolution – I’ll write about that another time, but it tells you a lot about the marked difference between sheep and shrews – it’s about soul age). Or 750 million people, out of which these disingenuous anthropologists suggest 2,500 violent deaths. That’s 1 in 300,000. So if you ask me what time I would want to be living, my choice for a safe and lovely life is somewhat clear. Besides, they don’t say why these people may have met a violent death, do they? What if these people were the worst kind of criminals?

What if, dare I say it, those people were the wannabe dystopians…?

So here we get to the crux of the matter. Hopefully the realisations are arriving.

Forget that opening scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey – maybe Arthur C. Clarke didn’t realise he was portraying the interventionist aliens (the ‘sentinel’) as a bunch of fascists, but no advanced lifeform would intervene in such a vile and violent way, teaching a proto-humanoid species how to war against the weaker. That would be like giving Americans the technology to control gravity so they can create a black hole bomb and destroy entire solar systems. Aside from anything else, it goes entirely against natural evolution, which tends towards cooperation, not conflict. We, ourselves, would do the opposite (have done, as it happens). If you’re talking Ancient War stuff, though, maybe.

While I’m on the subject, Clarke also didn’t consider the notion of beta testing. If we’re talking about HAL 9000, I mean. QAI-TI has a simulation subroutine (SSR). Any decisions would be run through the SSR first, and if it resulted in some adolescent refusal to open the pod bay doors then the AI would reject that option. Or, at the very least, they’d be programmed to run it by the humans first. If you don’t do that with your quantum AI when you build your interstellar ship then you’re asking for trouble and you’ll never reach Alpha Centauri. So bear that in mind.

I digress (I’m good at that).

Let’s get on to Dunbar’s number, then. The anthropologists’ definition of this number is something like ‘a measure of the brain’s capacity for intimate relationships, defined as knowing a person’s role in the social group’. Well, sure, but it’s actually way more important than that.

Furthermore, it doesn’t really take evolution into account. What I mean by that is it doesn’t acknowledge how the number arises in the first place. Dunbar’s number is a product of the brain’s evolution within a social group of a specific size. It is, in other words, equal to the size of the social group in which the lifeform evolved. In the case of humans, over that aforementioned 300,000 years (or even the 700,000 years before that). In other words, Dunbar’s number tells you about the optimum size of a social group with regards to social harmony and cooperation. It gives you a psychohistorical insight into human prehistoric evolution. If humans had lived in differently sized groups, Dunbar’s number would be different.

Interestingly, some of those other, now extinct, branches of humanity, like the Neanderthals, had a different value for Dunbar’s number. In their case, it was far lower than 150 (around 10-30, so possibly as low as a tenth of humans’, or 15). This puts a very real limit on cultural and civilisational progress, given that such progress is a cooperative endeavour. This low Dunbar’s number, then, was in fact the most significant reason for the extinction of the Neanderthals. Nothing, I assure you, whatsoever to do with some mythical violent human war against them. That never happened.

But we are talking about how dystopias come to be. So with that in mind, here is how psychohistory defines this number:

The number of other people one can know to such a degree of detail that one can know absolutely whether one can trust them or not.

Now apply that to prehistoric human social groups. In layperson’s terms, everyone in the group can tell who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. And given that the bad guys are the very real minority, those bad guys aren’t going to last very long. They would be detected at a very early age and dealt with. They would never get a chance to become head of any hierarchy, even if hierarchies existed – which they didn’t.

They would be ostracised. Kicked out of the social group, left to fend for themselves in the wilderness. They would not survive. They certainly wouldn’t be able to reproduce and therefore pass down their dystopian nature to a next generation. Their behaviour, after all, is obviously detrimental to the social group. And humans are not stupid. Common sense dictates that they would never allow such psychopaths to have any influence whatsoever. Any group that did allow that wouldn’t last very long. It would disintegrate, as the wannabe alpha male attempted to attain and maintain dominance, possess other men’s women, force himself on them, order everyone about, appropriate their surplus value to himself and generally cause widespread bitterness and resentment and, well, the inevitable violent revolution removing him from chiefdom and smashing his head in with a sharp or blunt (take your pick) tool as soon as sleep next overtakes him.

As I say, if you want to understand human nature, use imagination and visualise, in great detail, what life must’ve been like for a group of humans in a neolithic setting. All of human life, really, can be found in a group of friends, sitting around a campfire.

Storytelling, by the way, is the oldest profession. Forget prostitution – again, that’s the kind of thing those Victorians would say. And the oldest story? It’s called ‘The one that got away’. The longer and funnier the better. It contains all the elements of narrative theory. Protagonist, antagonist, drama and character and key question and resolution. Human beings see the world through stories. It’s how they pass wisdom and learning down through the generations. It’s how they entertain and love each other.

It’s how they do culture. It’s a much older thing than people realise.

A lot of evolution can happen in 300,000 years, in a climate without fear with so much free time and friends and language and with a magnificent brain capable of marvellous things and flights of imagination and invention.

The question anthropologists should really be asking themselves is ‘did it really take, what, 290-odd thousand years for civilisation to happen?’ ‘How come it didn’t happen earlier?’ ‘Like, maybe 200,000 years ago in the warming period when humanity was already 100,000 years old? And then again, 100,000 years after that? Or even during the ice ages, when certain islands may well have been above sea level?’.

But no, they will not countenance such scary questions – it might make them feel just that little bit inferior.

Anyhow, I am digressing – yet again! I apologise.

So here’s how dystopia happens. The environment changes and provides an abundance of resources so that humans no longer have to migrate with the seasons. Call it the agricultural revolution, if you will. So humans settle down and the population size increases. But it increases too fast for the evolution of the human brain, and therefore Dunbar’s number, to keep up. In a very short space of time an individual no longer has the brain capacity to know everyone else in the social group to such a degree of biographical detail that they can distinguish between the trustworthy and that small, hitherto perhaps 1% of random mutations who turn out to be arseholes (yeah – that’s the arsehole theory of humanity – there are only two types of people in the world – normal people and arseholes. Everyone has an arsehole detector, and normal people never remain friends with arseholes for very long – when they discover a person they previously liked is actually an arsehole then they ostracise them – see what I mean?).

So this means the psychopaths escape detection and learn how to survive by mimicking normal people. It’s why they have a heightened ability to read other people’s expressions. They’ve needed to develop that ability for sheer survival. It’s not strictly speaking ‘empathy’, but it’s a related ability. The only difference is they, out of necessity, have to destroy their conscience because, by definition, they need to do deceitful things in order to survive. A conscience would get in the way of that, after all.

And so we have the evolution of the psychopath. It’s simply just another adaptation. Whereas in earlier times these people, this very small minority, would have been detected early and ostracised, as population sizes increase the detection capacity decreases. If you want an absolute (psychohistorical) number, it’s Dunbar’s number squared. I’ll explain that one. As a normal, decent person, you are only friends with other normal, decent people. Let’s say you are friends with 150 people from 150 different groups, so each of your 150 friends also has 150 friends – that’s the maximum number of ‘second degrees of association’, or ‘friends of friends’. Because you know you can trust your immediate friend, if that person introduces you to one of their friends and says ‘you can trust this guy’, then you will know for certain that you can. Beyond this number, you are into ‘third degrees of association’ (call it hearsay) at which point the trust is no longer possible because the brain can’t cope with that amount of biographical detail about the person. So beyond that point, the survival of the psychopath is assured.

For humans, this number, Dunbar’s number squared, is 22,500. As soon as human population centres exceed that number, you’re on the path to dystopia (or to put it in layperson’s terms, shit happens because the arseholes are on top). It will still take a while, but if humans forget the importance of remaining vigilant about the potential 1% who are detrimental to the social group – that’s to say, they forget to eat the apple – then those 1% will, over time, get themselves into positions of ‘authority in the social structure’ (a necessary social construct required to organise large groups of labourers) and turn those positions into a ‘hierarchy’, with a ‘master and servant’ relationship (Marxists would presumably call this the origins of the ‘class system’) and eventually a chiefdom. Of course it’s something of a complex process, and requires working with (conspiring with) other members of the 1% (not always an easy task, given that they are all somewhat selfish). If we remember that other significant historical fact, that the first instance of what could recognisably be called ‘war’ (i.e. war between large social groups – instigated by a chief, since normal people would never choose war) was around 5,000 years ago, then, if we take the origins of the agricultural revolution at around 10,000 BCE, clearly it took these psychopaths some 7,000 years to achieve complete social control.

And it’s been that way ever since. Their methods of maintaining control may have evolved and become more sophisticated, but their mentality has not. Why do they do it? Very simple – they are terrified of being ostracised. They are, believe it or not, extremely and acutely self-aware. They know the 99% would view them as a threat, if they were detected. They know they would be ostracised for the good of all. That’s what happens when humans detect evil. It’s called self-defence, and it’s a very sensible behaviour.

So, how to understand dystopians – they are permanently paranoid. They spend at least half their time trying to prevent normal people from recognising them for what they are. And this permanent fear never leaves them. It’s almost as if they have some deep, primal memory of what happened to them in ancient times, of how they were and should be dealt with (not that they are in any way older souls, I should add – quite the opposite). And they are terrified, permanently, of the same thing happening again. They know that normal people are far, far superior to them, to anything they could ever be, because love and sociability and friendship comes so easily and naturally to humanity and it’s something they can never have. And they hate humanity for it. It must be awful for them. Not surprising, then, if they have become, well, twisted, and evil (and would like to become more machine, than man).

From all of this, then, the solution should be fairly obvious. Eat the apple. Make that feast a fundamental part of the education of your younglings.

Of course the dystopians are aware of this. It’s why they dumb down the education system, control the flow of information to prevent detection and why they misinform and misdirect you about who the ‘evil’ actually is. Anyone but them. If they can deceive you about that, use your apple-eating against you but make it taste different, make you look in entirely the wrong direction and manipulate your natural antithesis to all things evil so that you focus it, in your attitude towards both the present and the past – it’s called falsified history and present-day propaganda of course – then they will continue to remain undetected. Indeed, even more than this, if they can make themselves out to be innocent, good, victims, coercive controllers, make a taboo out of detecting them, then, well, they may just survive.

But that is their ultimate weakness, their vulnerable point. Expose their big lie, their method, reveal the evil, and given how much humans really, really hate being lied to and manipulated, then that sheer mass of humanity will do the work for you. Do what must be done.

This will happen at some point. Trust me on that one. How long it takes, however, is another matter entirely. Something for another essay, I think.

In fact, this is already long enough. I’ll have to do a part two.

Bedtime. Sleep well, my dearest things…

Published by eviekb

Writer, translator, exopsychologist...

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