‘The Human Swarm’- a book review

A North Sentinelese Man shoots arrows at an Indian helicopter.

‘The Human Swarm: How our Societies Rise, Thrive, and Fall’ by Mark Moffett is the kind of book I would have written had I been a zoologist rather than a historically inclined geopolitical analyst. Its almost a relief to see someone more qualified than myself in the field of looking at animals to be inspired by the observation that humanity is a primate that behaves like wolves on the small scale and like ants on the large scale. Once this observation is made the inevitable question is how this unique combination came about and why it makes us such a successful species.

Moffett spends about 40% of the book on evolutionary biology of multiple socially-oriented species to do the compare/contrast with humanity. He spends another 40% on hunter gatherer, pastoralist, and tribal peoples, reasoning correctly that this is the lifestyle humanity primarily evolved for and spent the overwhelming majority of its existence in. The final 20% or so is all sedentary civilization and the high cultures get. This kind of spread may strike many as odd, but considering how most of human history played out until (in terms of evolutionary time at least) it makes perfect sense. This is not a work of macro-history quite as much as it is a work of macro-anthropology.

Moffet’s main argument, which I will summarize to the point of oversimplification here, is that almost all pack animals have a type of fission-fusion dynamic that causes individuals to status seek against each other to maximize their own place or find their own niche while also retaining an overall group dynamic about loyalty to the greater whole. This likely developed as a survival tactic to both concentrate for maximalized social bonds among breeding couples while also enabling the social unit to cover more territory both for expansion and for warning of coming hostile attack. (Closer to home one can think of the ‘gay uncle hypothesis’ or the equally valid yet divergent lifestyles of householder vs renunciates to see the value outsiders can bring to social units). Wolves patrol far and wide around the territorial perimeter, but not those with children who sit in the center of a given pack’s territory. Humanity’s conception of the tribe, however, is much more numerous than that of other primates. This leads to a type of ‘anonymous’ society, where not everyone in a greater culture knows each other personally. Not being known personally is immediate sign of being an outsider in most other species, but not in humanity.

In other words, in addition to our technological prowess (which may have come later), we were the original zerg rush primate. No other primate can have so many numbers in one band. Only insects have the numbers per society we can pull off, and they do it by chemical smell markers…not something we can tell in an outgroup by save perhaps when the French are involved. Also, insect hives tend to be true collectives, and individuals have little brain power giving them a much smaller amount of dynamism in fission-fusion relations. So how did a species come to grow in numbers to the point where it had towering cities across the globe with population densities that would be considered insane to most of our ancestors? We do in fact have signifiers, but they are not chemical nor even genetic. They are cultural affect. Things not given off as pheromones but as behaviors and lifestyles. Language is the most important part of this, and from ‘Human Swarm’ one can easily slide into Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’ to see how the interplay of geography and language gives rise to internal mass press cultures in the early modern period, which was his thesis on the rise of nationalism displacing religion and loyalty to monarchs. But language isn’t the only thing. Remember, Moffat, unlike Anderson, is looking back to prehistory most of the time. He reminds us that we are a uniquely un-furred species and that most surviving tribal societies who live traditionally can tell foreigners from body language and body painting. Smooth skin is a canvas and spoken language comes with accents and hand gestures that vary from region to region. These in turn create a divergence of aesthetic that elevates and demotes individuals based on the dominant or despises personalities within a tribe, giving rise to cultural divergence. Culture is the outcome of what kind of personalities maximize survivability in a given region.

Cultural divergence itself plays a similar role to a famous Arab proverb, ‘My country against the world, my region against my country, my town against my region, my family against my town, me against my family.’ Though Moffett does not quote this, I was reminded of it constantly while reading his book. It could also go ‘pastoralists against agrarians, agrarians against industrialists,’ or ‘little powers against big powers, big powers against the biggest power, North Sentinel Island against the world.’

The negative side effect (to many anyway, I’m ambivalent) of this kind of community building is that it is always de facto competitive. To have an in group there must be out-groups. Without out-groups the internal divisions become more important and the group will split, often in a hostile fashion. Here we see why on those rare occasions that universal creeds triumph, they almost inevitably split apart soon after their victory. The breakup of Yugoslavia was not an outlier, but just a modern version of a process as old as humanity. The inevitable fate of all societies which, like people, eventually die and are replaced by others. Though obviously each nation’s rate varies due to a variety of circumstances. The book does a good job in acknowledging that the average life span for a recognizably continuous state is not as long as many assume, and rarely passes past 200-500 years. Modern states have not yet shown to have made gains on average length of survival than Mesopotamian city states in the ancient era.

There is a positive side of this competitive-swarm model though beyond its utility for maximizing human numbers and coalition building. It is designed for a degree of flexibility at the individual level. People with a low role in one tribe can leave for another. They will be obviously foreign, but if young enough to be impressionable or tough enough to prove themselves, can fall in with another band in potentially a better position. A risk of course, but not an irrational one when one feels they have bottomed out at home. This reflects what I know to be true about tribal societies and chiefdoms in actual history, where racial essentialism didn’t exist but cultural allegiance does. Its easy to forget that modern notions of race are barely over a couple hundred years old and were specifically invented to justify the new order that arose in post-smallpox apocalypse New Worlds after European expansion. Compared to ancient concepts such as cuisine and sectarianism, it is a baby. Even older than all of those is adaptive lifestylism and art. Most people obviously stay with their birth community, hence why they retain longevity, but others by choice or through captivity, do not. Societies cross-pollinate and the definition of inside-outside changes. Often growing more inclusive as a society grows than fracturing when it stagnates or contracts. The ability to function both in groups, through signifiers, and as individuals, through differentiation, is the key to making the anonymous society work. Its the collective experience of living amongst certain people who frequent certain places that matters most. Hence why giant waves of immigration did not tear the United States apart, but rather simply grew its taxable citizen pool…a similar process as once occurred in pre-modern empires with diverse concepts of citizenship like the Achaemenid Persians and Romans.

This point reminds me of my current bugbear, trying to get moderns to re-engage with the concept of sovereignty after its attempted abolishment in the neoliberal era (see many pieces I’ve published elsewhere which are now collected in the ‘publications’ tab page of this blog). Being sympathetic to sovereignty does not mean one must be a nativist or anti-immigration. If anything, I would argue that in an extremely connected world where people can travel and resettle so easily, sovereignty matters even more now. The risk of an over-powerful monoculture or political order with which one might not be compatible should increase ones desire for both the ability to migrate to foreign lands as well as the rights of foreign lands to choose who fits the criteria for coming in as they preserve their distinctiveness. Unity is important at the tribal and society level, but at the species level it is stagnation. We need divergence. Rather than simply write off people as losers for not working in the society of their birth, they should at least have the opportunity to start again elsewhere in a place that could be more fitting. Kind of like a career reset mid-life. Though the onus then is on them to start a bit behind and at least partially integrate into their new society. And they will always be a little ‘off’ through accents and learned habits of course. The exiles life isn’t for everyone, but I can speak to this personally, it it for cool people. There are definite advantages to never being too at home when it comes to personal development.

Moffet, also like myself, has a strong interest in societies that straddle the lines between what we think of as settled vs nomadic or tribal vs national. He often cites examples of the unique material culture of the Pacific Northwest indigenous peoples and the political intricacies of the Iroquois League (who upheld tribal sovereignty inside but kept a largely unified front towards outsiders in the near abroad-at least until they didn’t anymore) and the generally widespread practice of adopting war captives in Native American history as a population replacement tactic. Like I said, a book after my own heart.

Sadly, I can’t say its perfect. What is? His lack of a truly thorough historical background leads Moffett to draw some erroneous conclusions in some of his examples. None of these ruin his overall point though, even when they are galling (The Maya claimed as the first Mesoamerican civilization, really?) But they usually aren’t that bad slip ups. Also, as previously mentioned, more of this work is anthropological than it is historical. Also, considering his background I cannot say I am surprised by this but the lack of reference to Ibn Khaldun ( I know I know, I am a total broken record about this) is a missed opportunity. If a late middle ages Tunisian guy could come to such similar conclusions of how societies form and then dissolve from such a different scholarly background it seems worth including him. Perhaps Moffet never heard of him? If so, he should definitely become acquainted with the Muqqadimmah.

If you like big picture stuff and anthropology rooted in robust materialism, ‘Human Swarm’ is a book worth checking out. For now, I am going to fission out of this fusion with one of my favorite John Gray quotes, one that works for this book as well as when I usually use it against anti-materialist theory-first people:

‘A zoo is a better window from which to look out of the human world than a monastery. If you believe that humans are animals, there can be no such thing as the history of humanity, only the lives of particular humans.’

3 thoughts on “‘The Human Swarm’- a book review

  1. “If you like big picture stuff and anthropology rooted in robust materialism, ‘Human Swarm’ is a book worth checking out.”

    That’s EXACTLY my M.O dude, thank you!! Already this hasn’t given me alot of validation & much to ponder. Also I think every even semi-intellectual has their guy or girl they reference over & over again so don’t feel to bad about the Ibn Khaldun thing! I feel like you’re my favorite blogger because we disagree just enough on our views of the ends of things like history (the unity question) while also having a commitment to materialism that allows for differing perspectives to be enlightening & interesting rather than frustrating XD. It’s kind of like what you said about the benefits of never being fully comfortable/ at home but much better off then you are elsewhere. I know I’ve experienced that before many times. That line about Cultures relations to personality is definitely what I’m looking into next since it fits in perfectly with other topics I’m interested in right about now. And as always thanks for the awesome quote for me to yoink at the end~

    Liked by 1 person

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