04 May 2009

The evolution of the mob

My dear G,

I worry that you may have misinterpreted my comment on my misanthropic tendencies. Unfortunately, as you and I are well aware of, written communication has its limitations. Words can be read in the wrong spirit, and without body language to escort them, misunderstanding can happen. Not to mention the time lapse that prevents instant clarification or modification of a statement. Still, we try our best.

The thing is, I love persons, but have utter contempt for people. When the mob presents itself and its hackneyed works for my consideration, I shake my head in disappointment. But give me an encounter with an individual and I am more generous. Contempt is replaced with curiosity, for there is a singular mind, a unique life before me to explore. A person is a delightful mystery, a people a predictable bore.

This should explain that belief of mine I mentioned in my last letter; that concern and attention should rightly be directed at the individual, not at the collective, which can be a pernicious fiction. Yet perhaps it was not always so. My recent reading has led me to entertain a certain hypothesis on the cause of collectivism, which I beg your indulgence as I share it with you.

Collectivism and ‘mob mentality’ may have evolutionary origins. Individualism would have been a serious disadvantage for early hominids, greatly reducing their chances of survival in a hostile environment with scarce resources. Out of sheer necessity proto-humans co-operated and functioned as a group. ‘Rebels’ may have even compromised the group’s safety and survivability. Perhaps the group exercised punishment or some form of coercion to discourage non-conformity.

But in the modern age of relative comfort and security, individualism is possible since close-knit group relationships are not essential for survival once a person attains physical and mental maturity. In fact, one could say that individualism is more accurately a cultural creation rather than a biological state. If civilization were to collapse and the means to produce, store and distribute resources like fuel, food, clothing and shelter were heavily compromised, people would need to abandon their individualism and live collectively in order to survive. In this sense, individualism is a luxury afforded by the social, political and economic gains of civilization.

It seems to me that an evolutionary explanation for collective behaviour and attitudes provides a reason for their prevalence among all societies across the globe. Millennia of evolutionary imperatives to follow the herd are hard to resist, much less alter. Yet the often terrible cost of uncritical mob thinking should serve as a warning: what had once been in our early history a necessary factor for our survival could be the cause of our destruction in the future if left unchallenged by rebellious individualism.

So, perhaps now you have a better understanding of why I cannot love all of humanity unconditionally as you do. But I can come to love, admire and respect as many persons as meets my stringent criteria: that each of them is kind, generous and brave in their own unique way.

With affection,



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