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You Are Not Alone

Photo by Ivan Obolensky

Have you wondered why we’re living in a somewhat crazy world?

I’d like to posit three reasons that make some sense to me. These are long-term conditions, which underpin much of what can be observed today in human behavior. The consequences are observable all around us. Of course, what I’ve written here is open to debate, but at the least, these offer a plausible explanation.

Population Density

Population density comes in two forms: the strict definition is the number of people per unit of area. The other is the perceived definition, or how we feel about it. Do we consider ourselves hemmed in, or not?

As a case in point, when I graduated High School in 1970, the population of the United States was 189 million. Today it’s 332 million, not quite double but vastly different in size. Have I noticed the change in population in terms of space allocation, number of people, and general traffic? Yes, I have. The change has been gradual but certainly noticeable. There’s a lot of us.

To survive over the long-term, all species must handle population density issues. These challenges occur when the density is either too low or too high. Populations do so in ways unique to the individual species. The brown squirrels of Northern Canada simply stop producing young when the food supply is low, or when there are too many other squirrels feeding in the area. Their reproductive systems shut down until conditions improve. Certain insects swarm. Lemmings migrate in vast numbers and often swim to other land masses, succumbing en masse in the attempt. Elephants travel in small groups over vast distances. Some, like the snow leopard, fight it out. What do we do?

One of the more famous series of experiments on population growth was done by John B. Calhoun in which rats were supplied with everything they needed except space. The result was a population explosion, acute psychological disruptions, followed by population collapse. Dominant males became aggressive. Other males moved about in gangs attacking other males, females, and pups. Some became homosexual, others hypersexual. Mothers abandoned infants. Infant mortality rose as high as 96% in certain areas of the pen. More subordinate males and females clustered in the middle or remained in little chambers where they turned to self-absorption and were labelled “the beautiful ones” because their function, other than eating, was to groom themselves. The birth rate collapsed, and the population died out. The alarming part was that normal breeding patterns never returned, even when the population size returned to low levels. The change in behavior was permanent.

Calhoun published his findings in 1962 in the journal, Scientific American, in a paper entitled “Population Density and Social Pathology”. It was so significant that it is included in the Forty Studies That Changed Psychology.

Humans aren’t rodents, but the trends observed today have a certain similarity. Japan’s death rate is double its birth rate, while birth rates in all developed countries are declining. Gender issues, woke-ism, and a host of other ‘isms’, including endless wars, could be construed as human responses to density issues on a large scale.

Downward Causation

Downward Causation is a part of Complexity Theory. It describes behavioral changes brought about by complex interactions within a hierarchy of systems. Most individual elements organize themselves into complex arrangements. This behavior can be observed in the structures of molecules, the proliferation of multicellular organisms, global economics, and in the formations of galaxies and galactic clusters.

As an example, the average human body consists of some 30 trillion individual cells. How and why do our bodies hang together? The strict answers may be found in quantum mechanics and other scientific disciplines, but as a general principle, that “hanging together” is the result of downward causation.

For any structure to function as a distinct entity, the parts that make it up must act to support it. The human body is an example. Any part that doesn’t function as it should means we go to the hospital to sort that part out. If we can’t, we die.

The Internet is another example, although more abstract.

For the Internet to work, there must be server farms, fiber optic cables, and Wi-Fi connections. A great deal of highly organized and complex infrastructure is required. To continue, it must have users. The simplest way for me to demonstrate the Internet’s downward causation is to ask you to throw away your phone. That’s right, stand by the ocean and hurl that iPhone or Android device into the deep blue sea. You can’t, can you? Why? Your life’s in there.

Could you have done that ten years ago? Twenty years ago? Maybe you could have then, but not now.

Now, go to any gathering and look around. You will see 95% of the people looking down at their screens. Would you have seen that ten years ago? Twenty years ago?

That’s a significant behavioral change, and an example of downward causation at work. The higher-level organization (in this case, the Internet and social media) dominated, restricted, and enforced behavioral changes on its individual elements. It’s not personal. It’s how higher-level organizations sustain themselves. You found that higher level organization useful and then indispensable. You changed your behavior and your life so you could continue to participate, and that was the point. You’re part of the system now.

Today, Technology, Government, Economics, Work, Family (less now), and the Environment, including planet Earth, are those higher-level organizations. They dictate your behavior, and not just yours—everybody’s.

Genetic Lag

The human population is genetically the same as it was thirty thousand years ago. It takes that long for genetic changes to diffuse through the human population. What was that world like thirty thousand years ago? We don’t really know. We have hints. The human population was very much less. It has been discovered recently that two million people lived in communities within the Amazon rainforest in the distant past. Likely there were other collections of human beings, but not like today. We’ve changed on the outside, in terms of infrastructure and numbers, but not on the inside. We are the same.

What did we want back then? What do we want now?

I would wager pretty much the same things, and those are:

  1. To be able to demonstrate our competence, our usefulness.
  2. To be autonomous. To be able to determine our future. To make our own choices.
  3. To feel connected. To love and be loved. To belong somewhere and to know we belong.

Today, we may express those elements differently but not in substance. We all want what allows us to feel happy, satisfied, and meaningful. That has never changed, not in thirty thousand years.

How many of these necessary elements exist today in our lives, given our current population and the constraints of the higher-level organizations that surround us?

What would a person from only a hundred years ago think about us now?

He or she might say they see a society made up of many round pegs being slowly compressed into square holes, but what would surprise them the most is that we’re doing it ourselves, willingly and inevitably.

They might even say we are going against our nature, and that conflict between the downward causation we’re experiencing and the individual’s nature, is inevitable.

If that seems dark, I might point out that we’re not living in either a utopia or a dystopia. We’re factually somewhere in between. What we’re made to want, and what we truly need, are not the same things despite any promises or assertions that they are. Sorting out which is which requires some personal reflection and then reaching agreements with others once we decide. Compromises will be necessary and not as a member of this or that group but as individuals. It is up to us to find the middle ground. Doing so may be hard, but not impossible. We’ve been doing this kind of thing against a myriad of backgrounds for a very long time. Collaboration has worked before. It will again.

The good news is that we’ve made it this far.

But what’s to be done now, you ask? Maybe it’s time to take a look at the ocean. Oh, and bring your phone. You may need it.

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