The fish rots from the head down.
Recently one of my fellow blogsters put up a piece complaining about the decline of human behaviour in the syndemic age. She referenced it to the famed Calhoun experiments with “rat paradises”. This produced some discussion.
I have decided it is a good time to take this topic a bit further. Right now societies all across the west are in a “behavioural sink”, with people acting worse all the time. However, there is nothing inevitable about this.
People can set up behavioural experiments to prove what they want. People can interpret the results of experiments to justify anything. Yet the sum of this research is that everything depends on the aims and intelligence of the people in control of the ‘rat runs’.
There has been a lot of political theorizing about this as well. I have found the most useful political philosophers on this subject to be Hobbes and Gramsci. I have also been impressed by the psychologist Andrew Lobaczewski in his book “Political Ponerology”.
The “Forest Troop” of baboons in Kenya have much to tell us on this subject. Calhoun’s later experiments, and those of his successors, also give us a different way of looking at it. Behavioural sinks are not inevitable.
Such sinks happen in human societies when people with power want them, and/or when other actors in the society do not have the backbone or intellect to prevent them. Rats and baboons have an excuse for allowing themselves to get into a sink. They are just animals, with no self awareness, able only to respond to the circumstances which life hands them.
Humans should be able to organize themselves to optimize social conditions and quality of life. Healthy societies are able to set up efficient governments and to organize productivity to meet everyone’s needs. It is also within their ability to regulate their populations so as not to overrun resources.
Old Hobbes, one of my favourite political philosophers, and many people’s least favourite, had something to say on this subject. Man to man is wolf, said he. Unless people are under some power which they are obliged to obey, life soon becomes “nasty, brutish, and short” for most.
Thinkers Liberal through to libertarian do not like to be told this basic truth of Hobbes. Alas for them, the best philosophers of most civilized traditions concur with him. Old Confucius tells us that, to have a good life, obey the sovereign as long as he holds the mandate of heaven.
In modern times, many political philosophers were more nuanced about this. There is a great tendency for the sovereign power to be hijacked by pathogenic personalities who can only remain in control of a society by driving it down. Nonetheless, people like Gramsci have theorized about ‘cultural hegemony’; the ruling classes rule through this and the revolutionary party must gain it in order to be able to change the world.
Lobaczewski had very useful things to say on this topic. Most of the trouble in the world is from mentally ill people gaining control of institutions and trying to make their mental illness right. He insisted that most mental illness is due to brain injuries, bad genes, or exposure to people of these problems during early childhood.
Lobaczewski also viewed human history as running in cycles. Ponerogenic personalities, as he called them, will get control of society and exert a very bad influence on it. Eventually they ruin society, there is a reaction against them, more sensible people are in charge for awhile and are able to build things back up.
Baboon history seems to work a bit differently. Once there is a change in baboon society, it seems to be lasting. The main example is the ‘Forest Troop’ who live near a tourist resort in Kenya.
Baboon societies are usually quite brutal. A few dominant males grab the best resources and intimidate the females and weaker males. The majority in the troop seems unable to stand up against a minority of vicious characters, who they could defeat if they combined against them.
During the early 1980s, the dominant faction of the forest troop were accustomed to foraging for food in the dump of this resort. They kept it for themselves. Some meat, contaminated with tuberculosis, was dumped.
The fascist faction of the Baboons ate this meat. They all died from tuberculosis. The wimps among the troop did not get any of this meat and they all lived.
This created a huge shift in the Forest Troop culture. The females would no longer put up with bully boy behaviour. The Troop became socialist in the distribution of resources on its territory.
The salient fact is that this behavioural shift has held over time. Among Baboons, young males usually leave their home troop and find a new one in which to seek a mate. In the Forest Troop, new members conform to the new behavioural standard or are driven out.
It has been observed that other baboon troops near the Forest Troop continue the old fashioned ways. Scientists have drawn blood samples from Forest Troop members and those of more traditional troops, to measure stress hormones. Forest Troopers are much less stressed.
An interesting question is; how do young male Forest Troopers fare when they move to more traditional Baboon troops?
Rat histories also tend to diverge from human history. Calhoun’s behavioural sink was an anomaly caused by his flawed design of ‘rat heaven’. Food was placed in only one spot and the space was divided into only four large areas, with one way between each one.
The rat population kept increasing, but behaviour kept degrading. All the rules of rat society were broken. Males would fight for no reason, females would eat their young or be unable to raise them properly, some rats became cannibals, and loner rats would withdraw to the periphery and refuse all social contact.
Eventually the population collapsed despite abundant food being made available. The last survivors were the loners, who Calhoun called “The Beautiful Ones”, who had avoided all the antisocial behaviour but became mentally unable to mate or raise young. The personality traits which enabled survival in the behavioural sink did not allow for any recovery of the rat society; it was permanently dysfunctional and died out.
All this sounds pretty grim. However, Calhoun and his associates continued their research. They discovered how to engineer rat heavens so that they were true Utopias for rats.
The rats needed food sources to be more dispersed. They needed smaller spaces, where they could organize in smaller social groupings. They needed multiple routes for getting around inside the rat pen.
Once this was arranged for the rats, they really were in heaven. They stabilized their populations, not on available food supply, but available space. Once the needs of rat societies were met, they were able to live peacefully in quite small areas.
The key to this was in the rats being able to avoid unwanted interactions. This is a very important point but which a lot of people who want to engineer human societies in certain ways, will not like. Relationships must be freely chosen.
As he got older, Calhoun became disturbed by the misuse of his early research to justify various misanthropic views of humanity. What he had actually shown was that behavioural sinks were caused, not by anything inevitable about human or rat nature, but by their living conditions. As one of the commentators of my fellow blogger noted, there are human societies living in much smaller spaces than in North America, who are much more socially cohesive.
In fact, some malign force may have designed the living conditions for contemporary North Americans to create behavioural sinks. This force may have taken lessons from Calhoun’s experiments, and those of other behaviouralists, but in the wrong direction. The key seems to be in breaking down normal relationships between individuals, which can be achieved as well by isolating people from each other, as by crowding them in with no safe space.
It has long been noted that in North America, the physical environment is deliberately designed so there is no public space for people to meet in. Due to extreme social inequality, what public space there is, is usually unsafe. It is work, shop, go home; or if you are affluent enough you can meet in restaurants and bars.
People are kept working themselves to death for never quite enough to get by on, usually at “bullshit jobs” which do not really need to be done. The cost of housing and food, and all other key things people need to live, keeps rising. There is no plan to reduce living costs, or shorten working hours.
There is plenty of description of the problem, including from the blog post being cited. But there is a great shortage of real analysis of the causes, and of the solutions. The article generated a lot of discussion, with threads going off in many interesting directions, but there is a syllogism which no one seems to want to complete.
This seems to be a common problem in all these countries in the western world suffering from the decline Wildfire is describing. Everyone is aware that something is wrong, but there is no agreement about cause and solution. The solution for the present malaise is fairly simple and obvious, but most people cannot yet conceive it or say it aloud.
One of the authors I cited about the Forest Troop gleefully described how she would like to kill off all the dominant males among the human species. Alternatively, Lobaczewski advocated a softer approach to dealing with the “ponerogenic personalities” among us. Once they are removed from power, segregate and ‘protect‘ them from the rest of us.
Gramsci was a revolutionary, although he advocated a more gradual approach to overthrowing the ruling class. Sometimes revolutions work that way, which is much less destructive, but often they are quite violent. A pathocratic ruling class rarely gives up power without a vicious fight, and if they are not fully neutralized, will usually keep trying to regain their former power.
Thus, the history of humans is that behavioural sinks do not usually end in the complete collapse of societies. They usually lead, in the end, to revolutions which reshape the societies in a more viable way. This is because humans are the unique critters who can talk, think abstractly, alter their environment, and eventually find solutions for their dilemmas.
No ‘deux et machina’ is likely to come along, like the Forest Troop’s tuberculosis meat, and kill off our pathocracy for us. An external military defeat is possible, but that could have dire consequences for all of us. The big thing inhibiting an overthrow of the present hegemony is that, while most people agree something has to change, there is no agreement on what to change to.
People tend to cling to what is familiar, so they often have the idea that the new order will look just like this one, but without all the problems. Yet there are plenty of ideas for creating a new and more healthy human society, and in the present day some good examples of better ways of running things. They are worth plenty of future blog posts.
The question is, what will finally trigger this needed upturning of affairs? The behaviourists offer some insights into that. The revolutionary theorists have ideas about it.
Some say we need to avoid trying to predict the future. However, we do need to plan the future. That is a subject for plenty of future blog posts.