Discover more from NeoNarrative
The Sapient Paradox, Dunbar’s Number, And Social Media’s Reinstatment Of The Rules Of Pre-History
Time Well Spent is a reader supported publication, if you enjoy any of the content found here, consider becoming a paying subscriber. This publication is my chief occupation, and your support allows continued research and continued effort on my part daily. Thank you in advance to all the generous and brilliant readers who decide to join the community today.
Another post inspired by this substsck, which you should definitely check out.
Currently reading here a long and interesting piece on what’s called the Sapient Paradox, which asks: if anatomically modern humans have existed for the last 100,000 years, with the same cognitive abilities that allow us to build planes and trains and other complex technologies today, why did it take 90,000 years for humans to build anything resembling civilization?
The author of the post posits a great answer, which I’ll describe quickly.
For most of pre-history, humans lived in groups which generally did not exceed Dunbar’s number in size. For those unfamiliar with the term, Dunbar’s number is a group size beyond which human beings cannot very well maintain close, stable relationships; and the number is 150. Below Dunbar’s number, it’s easy to keep track of everyone in your tribe, people aren’t an abstraction as they would be in a large city, and so it’s also easy to keep tabs on everyone’s behavior. It’s also easy to directly persuade the group to give status to or take status away from anyone, to exile anyone, to gain popularity and dominance in the group. Your voice is easily heard, in fact it carries relatively significant weight.
Pure social forces, as opposed to formal laws and impersonal institutions, take precedence below Dunbar’s number, which anthropologists and others have called the Gossip Trap. Reputation directly affects social position when a group is small enough, since no member is inaccessible as they would be in a large city, as I mentioned. Our own families are good examples. It’s relatively easy to ostracize an uncle or aunt or parent or sibling if one of them decides to reinvent themselves as a bizarre sexual deviant, or if information comes out that they’ve done something abhorrent; the number of people needing to be convinced to shun them is too small to not try. Much different from a large city.
In a large city, instances of individuals gossiping about the mayor would only influence his position if the gossip reached the ears of millions of people, but typically no one besides the mayor himself would have that kind of reach, because the default number of people who’d actually listen to you is only 150. Dunbar’s number determines whether or not an individual can influence group decisions through shaming, reputation trashing, and other petty social behaviors.
The Gossip Trap works as a solution to the Sapient Paradox by suggesting that, if all cognitive energy is focused on social dynamics, on gaining popularity or taking it away from someone else, higher pursuits like art and culture fall to the wayside. And all of this might be starting to sound familiar to us modern people. It sounds a lot like the way social media works today.
The author of the Substack post draws an excellent parallel between prehistoric human dynamics and social media today. The way things were in the past are being resurrected again by Twitter, and this doesn’t bode well for civilization. Here’s the excerpt:
ON THE TECHNOLOGICAL RESURRECTION OF THE GOSSIP TRAP AND THE DEVOLUTION OF CIVILIZATION YOU’VE BEEN NOTICING
A lot of things change as you age, but one that’s particularly strange is finding hairs in weird places. Like your inner ears. It turns out this is because aging is basically genetic confusion, down at the molecular level. As they age, cells get mixed up as to what sort of cell they’re supposed to be. And there’s a lot of ancient instructions, just lying around, still in your cells. Weird hair growth is the result of a cell latching on to some ancient genetic instruction. Our predecessors had lots of hair everywhere, your cells get confused, and you begin to manifest your hirsute ancestors. The hairy tufts springing from your grandfather’s ears are there because parts of him are literally devolving into an ancient creature. As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
What if there were a mental equivalent? After all, if we lived in a gossip trap for the majority of our existence as humans, then what would it be, mentally, to atavistically return to that gossip trap?
Well, it sure would look a lot like Twitter.
I’m serious. It would look a lot like Twitter. For it’s on social media that gossip and social manipulation are unbounded, infinitely transmittable. An environment of raw social power, which, despite its endless reign of terror, actually feels kind of good? Wouldn’t we want to go back to forced instances of fission between human groups, exiling those we don’t like? Wouldn’t we punish crimes not with legal proceedings, but via massive social shamings?
The difference between the horror of crabs in a bucket and a human tribe or group living in a gossip trap is actually that the humans are generally quite happy down there in the bucket. It’s our natural environment. Most people likethe trap. Oh, it’s terrible for the accused, the exiled, the uncool. But the gossip trap is comfortable. Homey. People like Jonathan Haidt will look at modern life and scratch their heads in The Atlantic to try to pinpoint when and why the social media algorithm began to spread misinformation and sow discord. They miss the truth, which is that all social media does is allow us to overcome Dunbar’s number, which dismantled a barrier erected at the beginning of civilization. Of course we gravitate to cancel culture—it’s our innate evolved form of government.
One obvious sign you’re living in a gossip trap is when the primary mode of dispute resolution becomes social pressure. And almost everywhere you look lately, it’s like social media is wearing a skin suit made of our laws, institutions, and governments. Does it not feel, just in the past decade, as if raw social power has outstripped anything resembling formal power? How protected from public opinion does a judge feel now? How protected does a tenured professor feel? How protected do youfeel? To what degree is prosecution of crime a matter of law, or does social media have its billion thumbs on the scale? Putin of late seems more afraid of cancel culture than he is of nuclear weapons. Maybe that’s for a good reason.
Which means that, with the advent of social media, and the resultant triumph of the spread of gossip over Dunbar’s number, we might have just inadvertently performed the equivalent of summoning an Elder God. The ability to organize society through raw social power given back to a species that climbed out of the trap of raw social power only by creating societies large enough they required formal organization. The gossip trap is our first Eldritch Mother, the Garrulous Gorgon With a Thousand Heads, The Beast Made Only of Sound.
And if the gossip trap was humanity’s first form of government, and via technology it’s been resurrected once more into the world, how long until it swallows up the entire globe?
If you have time you should definitely read the entire post here, it’s very long, but so, so interesting and so worth it.
Time Well Spent is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.