While The Apes Slept


You see, dogs are dogs. For us it is easy because if it barks like a dog, sniffs your butt, and likes it doggie style, it is a freaking dog. The only reason there are Bulldogs, Pomeranians, Poodles, Terriers, Chihuahuas and whatnot, is because humans are obsessed with purity. Also, because it is good business and, with pure breed dogs, individuals channel their inadequacies through competitive eugenics. There are no two ways about it. If left to our own devices, a shag is a shag and we'll happily go to town with whomever, all the way until the world is a beautiful mix of happy mongrels. So, where is the difference? The difference is culture.

My favorite primatologist is Robert Sapolsky and he has some interesting things to say about what makes humans unique. For starters, it is not the genes, as humans share a large genetic chunk with other organisms to a degree that would burst the ego bubble of any special little snowflake. "B-but... we make wonderful things to do things for us!" Yeah, well, chimps make tools too. Sure, they're not Amazon™ drones delivering your unnecessary purchases to your doorstep, you consumerist twat, but animals make tools nonetheless. And guess what? We also understand reciprocity and will play ball if you play ball, and will stop if you don't and go back again if we're at square one. So, not so unique in that field after all, uh? And, surprise, surprise, we are also capable of feeling empathy and respond to reward and punishment, just like you. So, humans are not so unique, we can all agree. Which brings you to the crown jewel, humanity's pride and joy: culture. And culture, defined as the transmission of particular traits of behavior from one generation to another, has been demonstrated to be found also in other species.

So, what's unique about humans? Two things: first, the mammoth-size complexity of their traits (language, culture, tool-making, etc.), and, second, faith. Or, in philosophical terms, the ability to believe in impossible things, even harboring in the same thought two contradictory propositions. And this is precisely where my mind is blown. If, as a rudimentary ape, humans are just like anyone else other than in terms of complexity, why is it that they rabidly hold on to their hunter-gatherer roots and construct myths around their tribe in order to preserve it from others? The complexity of the human world has come at the price of building larger myths that trigger grand scale cooperation yet, at the most basic level, those same myths have caused the most outrageous acts of cruelty and isolationism.

Picture it this way: it is a piece of cake to control a small, family-tied tribe. Everybody is interdependent, connected by blood, and cohesion is key for survival. However, that small tribe cannot build a pyramid or sail the seas to conquer new continents. In order to do so, a bigger tribe is needed with a common sense of purpose and the ability to coordinate a myriad of different talents and roles. For such an enterprise, greater cohesive myths have had to be developed, and that is where ideologies kick in. Ironically, those same ideologies gluing together enormous enterprises are the same triggers to extermination, i.e. the denial of all cooperation. What brings tribes together is what sets tribes at war. How can that be possible?