Cults, tribes, states, and markets

The general problem solved by Civilization is how to get a bunch of people with different goals, each partial to themselves, to live together in peace and build a happy society instead of all just killing each other. It’s easy to forget just how incredibly hard of a problem this is. The lesson of game theory is that even two people whose interests don’t align can end up in shitty suboptimal Nash equilibria where they’re both worse off, by each behaving apparently perfectly rationally. Generalize this to twenty people, or a thousand people, or 300 million people, and you start to get a sense of how surprising it is that civilization exists on the scale that it does at all.

Yes, history tells many thousands of tales about large-scale defecting (civil wars, corruption, oppressive treatment of minority populations, outbreaks of violence and lawlessness, disputes over the line of succession) and the anarchic chaos that results, but it’s easy to imagine it being way, way worse. People are complex things with complex desires, and when you put that many people together, you should expect some serious failures. Hell, even a world of selfless altruists with shared goals would still have a tough time solving coordination problems of this size. Nobody thinks that the average person is better than this, so what gives?

Part of the explanation comes from psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and Joshua Greene, who detail the process by which humans evolved a moral sense that involved things like tit-for-tat emotional responses and tribalistic impulses. This baseline level of desire to form cooperative equilibria with friends helps push the balance away from chaos towards civilization, but it can’t be the whole explanation. After all, history does not reveal a constant base-rate of cooperative capacity between different humans, but instead tells a story of increasingly large-scale and complex civilizations. We went from thousands of small tribes scattered across Africa and Asia, to chiefdoms of tens of thousands individuals all working together, to vast empires that were home to millions of humans, and to today’s complex balance of global forces that make up a cooperative web that we are all part of. And we did this in the space of some ten thousand years.

This is not the type of timescale over which we can reasonably expect that evolution drastically reshaped our brains. Our moral instincts (love of kin, loyalty to friends, deference to authority, altruistic tendencies) can help us explain the cooperation we saw in 6000 B.C.E. in a tribe of a few hundred individuals. But they aren’t as helpful when we’re talking about the global network of cooperation, in which lawfulness is ensured by groups of individuals thousands of miles away, in which virtually every product that we rely on in our day-to-day life is the result of a global supply chain that brings together thousands of individuals that have never even seen each other, and in which a large and growing proportion of the world have safe access to hospitals and schools and other fruits of cooperation.

The explanation for this immense growth of humanity’s cooperative capacity is the development of institutions. As time passed, different bands of humans tried out different ways of structuring their social order. Some ways of structuring society worked better and lived on to the next generations of humans, who made further experiments in civilizational engineering. I think there is a lot to be learned by looking at the products of this thousand-year-long selection process for designing stable cooperative structures and seeing what happened to work best. In a previous post I described the TIMN theory of social evolution, which can be thought of as a categorization of the most successful organizational strategies that we’ve invented across throughout history. The following categorization is inspired by this framing, but different in many places.

The State: Cooperation is enforced by a central authority who can punish defectors. This central authority employs vast networks of hierarchically descending authority and systems of bureaucracy to be able to reach out across huge populations and keep individuals from defecting, even if they are nowhere near the actual people in charge. “State” is technically too narrow of a term, as these types of structures are not limited to governments, but can include corporate governance by CEOs, religious organizations, and criminal organizations like the Medellin Cartel. Ronfeldt uses the term Institution for this instead, but that sounds too broad to me.

The Market: Cooperation is not enforced by anybody, but instead arises as a natural result of the self-interested behaviors of individuals that each stand to gain through an exchange of goods. Markets have some really nice properties that a structure like the State doesn’t have, such as natural tendencies for exchange rates to equilibrate towards those that maximize efficiency. They also are fantastically good at dealing with huge amounts of complex information that a single central authority would be unable to parse (for instance, a weather event occurs on one coast of the United States, affecting suppliers of certain products, who then adjust their prices to re-equilibrate, which then results in a cascade of changes in consumer behavior across other markets, which also then react, and eventually the “news” of the weather event has traveled to the other coast, adjusting prices so that the products are allocated efficiently). A beautiful feature of the Market structure is that you can get HUGE amounts of people to cooperate in order to produce incredibly innovative and valuable stuff, without this cooperation being explicitly enforced by threats of punishment for defecting. Of course, Markets also have numerous failings, and the nice properties I discussed only apply for certain types of goods (those that are excludable and rival). When the Market structure extends outside of this realm, you see catastrophic failures of organization, the scale of which pose genuine threats to the continued existence of human civilization.

The Tribe: Cooperation is achieved not through a central authority or through mutually beneficial exchange, but through strong kinship and friendship relations. Tribe-type structures spring up naturally all the time in extended families, groups of friends, or shared living situations. Strong loyalty intuitions and communitarian instincts can serve to functionally punish defectors through social exclusion from their tribe, giving it some immunity to invading defector strategies. But the primary mechanism through which cooperation is enforced is the part of our psychology that keeps us from lying to our friends or stealing from our partners, even when we think we can get away with it. The problem with this structure is that it scales really poorly. Our brains can only handle a few dozen real friendships at a time, and typically these relationships require regular contact to be maintained. Historically, this has meant that tribes can only survive for fairly small groups of people that are geographically close to each other, and this is pretty much the range of their effectiveness.

The Cult: The primary idea of this category is that cooperation does not arise from self-interested exchange or from punishment for defectors, but from shared sacred beliefs or values. These beliefs often shape their holders’ entire world-views and relate to intense feelings of meaning, purpose, reverence, and awe. They can be about political ideology, metaphysics, aesthetics, or anything else that carries with it sufficient value as to penetrate into and reshape a whole worldview. The world’s major religions are the most striking examples of this, having been one of the biggest shapers of human behavior throughout history. Different members of the same religion can pour countless hours into dedicated cooperative work, not because of any sense of kinship with one another, but because of a sense of shared purpose.

The Pope won’t throw you in jail if you stop going to church, and you don’t go to make an exchange of goods with your priest (except in some very metaphorical sense that I don’t find interesting). You go because you believe deeply in the importance of going. There are aspects of Science that remind me of the Cult structure, like the hours of unpaid and anonymous work that senior scientists put into reviewing the papers of their colleagues in the field in order to give guidance to journals, grant-funders, or the researchers themselves on the quality of the material. When I’ve asked why spend so much time on doing this when they are not getting paid or recognized for their work, the responses I’ve gotten make reference to the value of the peer-review process and the joy and importance of advancing the frontier of knowledge. This type of response clearly indicates the sense of Science as a Sacred Value that serves as a driving force in the behavior of many scientists.

A Cult is like a Tribe in many ways, but one that is not limited to small sizes. Cults can grow and become global behemoths, inspiring feelings of camaraderie between total strangers that have nothing in common besides shared worldview. While the term ‘Cult’ is typically derogatory, I don’t mean to use it in this sense here. Cults are incredibly powerful ways to get huge numbers of people to work together, despite there being no obvious reason why they should do so to anybody on the outside of their worldview. And not only do they inspire large-scale cooperative behavior, but they are powerful sources of meaning and purpose in our lives. This seems tremendously valuable and loaded with potential for developing a better future society. Think about the strength of something like Judaism, and how it persevered through thousands of years of repeated extermination attempts, diasporas, and religious factioning, all the while maintaining a strong sense of Jewish identity and fervent religious belief. Taking the perspective of an alien visiting the planet, it might be baffling to try to understand why this set of beliefs didn’t die out long ago, and what constituted the glue holding the Jewish people together.

I think that the Cult structure is really undervalued in the circles I hang out in, which tend to focus on the irrationality that is often associated with a Cult. This irrationality seems natural enough; a Cult forms around a deeply held belief or set of beliefs, and strong identification with beliefs leads to dogmatism and denial of evidence. I wonder if you could have a “Cult of Rationality”, in which the “sacred beliefs” include explicit dedication to open-mindedness and non-dogmatic thinking, or if this would be in some sense self-defeating. There’s also the memetic aspect of this, which is that not just any idea is apt to become a sacred belief. It might be that the type of person that is deeply invested in rationality is exactly the type that would typically scoff at the idea of a Cult of Rationality, for instance.

Broad strokes: Tribes play on our loyalty and kinship intuitions. States play on our respect for authority. Markets play on our self-interest. And Cults play on our sense of reverence, awe, and sacredness.

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