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A Game of Giants — Wait But Why

Notes key: Type 1 are fun notes for fun facts, extra thoughts, or further explanation. Type 2 are boring notes for sources and citations.

1) We made an enormous enjoyable clickable desk of contents for this submit. This is the third submit in the collection. In case you’re new to the collection, start here.

2) Yes, the Larger Thoughts is a “he.” However that doesn’t imply he’s a guy. To see why, take a look at our model new information to stick figure id.

three) Right here’s the cope with the clickable notes in posts:



Chapter 2: A Game of Giants


Billions of years in the past, some single-celled creatures realized that being just one cell left your choices pretty restricted.

In order that they found out a cool trick. By joining along with different single cells, they might type an enormous creature that had all types of latest advantages.

The downside was a serious loss of individuality—

—but the survival benefits made it well worth the sacrifice, and the multi-celled organism thing caught.

A single cell is itself an enormous—a magical dwelling big made up of trillions of non-living atoms—and an animal is a higher-level big made up of trillions of cells. This idea—a bunch of smaller things joining collectively to type an enormous that can perform as more than the sum of its elements—known as emergence. We will visualize it as a tower.

Pretty soon after cells began becoming a member of together to type animals, a few of the animals discovered that they might go up one other degree of emergence and type even greater giants made up of multiple animals. In the event you go searching, you’ll see them in all places—faculties of fish, packs of wolves, colonies of ants, waddles1 of penguins. Teams like these symbolize floors of Emergence Tower above that of the person animal degree.

The ancestors of the single-celled organisms that joined together to type the primary sponges have been capable of survive on their very own. However as soon as evolution formed their descendants into elements of one thing greater, there was no turning back. You would attempt pulling a cell out of a sponge and telling it to go rogue, nevertheless it had misplaced that potential. On its own, it will die.

When most of us think about what constitutes an entire life type and what doesn’t, it often comes right down to independence. We think of the sponge as a life type, however we consider every of its cells as mere elements of a life type. In the meantime, there are different single cells—like an amoeba—that we do think of as full life varieties. The key distinction in both instances is independence.

There’s no purpose this idea shouldn’t apply across the board. Isolate an ant from its colony and it’ll endure the same destiny because the extracted sponge cell—so why can we consider the ant as the life type and the colony as simply a group of these life varieties?

In all probability because every of us is an animal. So we’re biased to think about the animal as the important thing degree along Emergence Tower—the point the place the primary “life type” all the time exists.

If we’re not being animal-centric, though, we should always in all probability put an ant in the identical class as a sponge cell, and the ant colony in the same category because the sponge. The ant colony is admittedly the unbiased life type in the ant world—the person ant is simply one of many models of emergence beneath it.

Because the daybreak of human evolution, humans have been forming giants referred to as tribes. In my head, an historic human tribe appears one thing like this:

As is often the case with emergent phenomena, a human big is bigger than the sum of its elements.

In Chapter 1, we mentioned how every human has two “minds”—the Primitive Thoughts with its fiery flame and the Larger Thoughts together with his orb of readability and consciousness. So when people band collectively, they will generate a double emergence phenomenon.

The Primitive Thoughts is all about making giants. The truth is, one of the Primitive Thoughts’s central skills is the power to instinctually merge with different Primitive Minds, combining every of their particular person primal flames into a raging survival bonfire, making the group stronger and extra highly effective than the sum of its elements.

However when Larger Minds work collectively, the effect may be just as powerful: the group as an entire good points superhuman talents in learning and creativity and discovery.

Combining both emergent properties made the human tribe an unimaginable survival machine that allowed the species to stay afloat and thrive in a relentless natural world.

For many early humans, forming into giants with other humans wasn’t simply a bonus, it was a necessity. A pair with little youngsters dwelling alone in a forest in 50,000 BC would have had a hell of a time doing all the searching, gathering, fire-making, cooking, breast-feeding, and migrating they needed to do to satisfy their primary household needs, all whereas raising youngsters. And even when they one way or the other managed this for some time, they’d be a reasonably tender goal for animal predators and for human tribes who needed their assets, and their youngsters wouldn’t have many courting options down the street. For all these reasons, historic people have been tribe dependent.

In different phrases, on the ancient panorama—the one we have been designed for—the human being wasn’t really the unbiased life form of the human race. The tribe was.

This idea might clarify an entire lot about individuals and concerning the world around us, and it’s something we’re going to speak rather a lot about in this collection. If we needed to know why ants advanced to be the best way they are, we’d need to think about the evolution of their unbiased life type: the colony. The individual ant wasn’t formed by evolution to be the right survival creature—it was formed by evolution to be just the best aspect of an ideal survival colony. That’s why ants fortunately sacrifice their lives to guard the colony during an assault.

If we need to perceive why individuals are the best way they are, we should always attempt considering the same method. A human isn’t simply a perfect survival creature—it’s additionally just the fitting aspect of a perfect survival tribe. Analyzing the traits of an ideal survival tribe might help us see the specs for human nature, not only illuminating who we’re, but why we’re that method.

Ants and Spiders

For the human genetic line, sustenance was a survival requirement, so we advanced to be hungry. Copy was a survival requirement, so we advanced to be sexy. Not falling off a cliff was a survival requirement, so we advanced to be fearful of heights. Tribe well-being was a survival requirement, so we advanced to be tribal.

However what precisely does it mean to be tribal?

To me, someone is being tribal once they’re considering and behaving more like a bit of a bigger organism than as an unbiased organism themselves.

Beneath this definition, ants are tribal as fuck. They’re furiously loyal. They all the time put the staff first. The ants I’ve gotten to know in my life have an extended record of dangerous personal qualities, but “individual selfishness” isn’t considered one of them.

Meanwhile, two rival spiders will compete with one another ruthlessly, each solely self-interested.

So what’s the deal? Are ants higher individuals than spiders are?

Ant conduct appears pretty totally different than spider conduct—till we keep in mind that the 2 species have totally different relationships with Emergence Tower. For spiders, the “unbiased life type” lives on the level of the person animal. For ants, independence happens a couple of floors up.

Comparing the conduct of particular person spiders to particular person ants is evaluating the conduct of one unbiased life type to the conduct of the cells of one other unbiased life type. Cells of a life type are typically highly cooperative with each other—that doesn’t inform you much about whether or not the life type itself likes to cooperate with other life types.

If we take a look at ant conduct up on the colony degree of Emergence Tower, they don’t look so good anymore. Colonies aren’t especially into cooperating with or sharing their meals with other colonies, and as many 2:45am YouTube spirals have taught me, they won’t hesitate to pillage and homicide members of another colony if it helps their colony. Ant colonies are massive, egocentric creatures—particular person ants are simply the cells of that creature.

In the human world, we consider “Me vs. You” selfishness and “Us vs. Them” tribalism as totally different ideas, but they’re truly just the same phenomenon occurring on totally different elements of Emergence Tower. Spider dickishness comes within the form of “Me vs. You” selfishness because the spider is the unbiased life type. Ant dickishness comes in the form of “Us vs. Them” tribalism as a result of the ant colony is the unbiased life type. Tribalism is simply what selfishness appears like up on the group degree.

The human Primitive Thoughts isn’t any nicer than the spider or ant Primitive Mind—however it is a bit more difficult. In contrast to spiders and ants, whose unbiased life type by no means modifications emergence flooring, people are a sort of hybrid creature that inhabits a variety alongside Emergence Tower, not a single flooring.

We may be like spiders typically and like ants different occasions. Our unbiased life type makes trips up and down Emergence Tower’s elevator.

Human evolution has pushed our use of this elevator, hanging what’s in all probability an optimal stability for max genetic survival.

Me towards my brother

Of all the elements that have an effect on our emergence mindset, probably the most reliable is conflict.

When my tortoise Winston is scared, he tucks his head and his limbs into his shell. When humans are scared, they type giants. The enormous is the human tortoise shell. Sometimes, the larger the enormous that threatens a gaggle of individuals, the larger an enormous they’ll type in response.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt likes to level out an previous Bedouin proverb that nails this idea. It goes:

Me towards my brothers; my brothers and me towards my cousins; my cousins, my brothers, and me towards strangers.

Once I hear this proverb, I see a human taking a journey up the Emergence Tower elevator.

At the start of the comedian, the psychology of the 2 brothers was centered on the individual human flooring. With no bigger conflict occurring, they acted rather a lot like two competing spiders. But selfish spider conduct is a luxury of protected occasions, and as other groups entered the scene, the brothers had greater issues on their arms than their dislike of each other. Their psyches rose up on the emergence elevator, and by the center of the comic, everyone was appearing more like ants than spiders. In the direction of the top of the comic, as the menace levels went down, greater tribalism melted away and issues turned less ant-like—the elevator got here back downwards.

For those who take note of the world around you, and to your personal psychology, you’ll spot the elevator in motion. Ever discover how nations in one area of the world will typically despise one another, focusing most of their national dickishness on each other—until there’s a broader conflict or conflict in play, at which era they put aside their variations? How totally different sects of a religion in fierce battle with each other will all of a sudden find widespread ground when a rival religion or other outdoors entity insults or threatens their faith as an entire? How about when rivalries on the planet of membership soccer grow to be less heated through the World Cup? Or when political factions with differing and even completely contradictory ideologies start marching on the street, arm in arm, throughout a nationwide election or mass movement? I saw the elevator shoot upwards within the days following 9/11, when tens of millions of New Yorkers who usually can’t stand one another have been holding doorways for each other, displaying concern for one another’s well-being, and even hugging each other in the street. I keep in mind considering that while an alien assault would suck general, it will do wonders for species solidarity.2

In each case, human dickishness is operating at full pressure—the factor that’s altering is the dimensions of the giants which are being dicks to each other.

Human evolution has in all probability been influenced by all the human emergence range. We have been formed partially by our spider interactions as we competed with neighboring individuals and partially by our ant interactions as our tribes competed with neighboring tribes. In different phrases, to outlive via human historical past, it is sensible that our genes needed to be good at competing as an individual towards their brother and competing with their family towards different families and competing with their tribe towards different tribes.three

The fitting factor of a perfect survival tribe

Our society at this time is, in its personal approach, nonetheless a recreation of giants. To know the world round us, you possibly can’t assume solely about individuals as individuals—we have to get to know the tribal mindset. So what are some parts of a tribal mindset?

There are basic “Us > Them” traits, like our respect for loyalty—the feeling that being loyal is a essential virtue and nothing is worse than being a traitor.

Or the best way we view others. Our tendency to lionize members of Us and demonize members of Them.

Most of the most tribal traits come in the type of “Us > Me”—as if the tribal mindset is in direct competition with the me-first selfish mindset.

Typically it exhibits up as a love of conformity. A literal “selflessness.” The inclination to fit in on the expense of your individuality. A susceptibility to groupthink over particular person reasoning. A worry of standing out or being disliked and a disdain for many who diverge from group conformity. A very ant-y option to be.

Typically it exhibits up as an affinity for social hierarchy—a deference to authority and the inclination to suck up to those in energy.

Or reverence for self-sacrifice. The feeling that probably the most noble factor someone can do is sacrifice their life in service of Us as an entire or to be able to save another group member. And deep contempt for anyone who seems out for themselves in battle or behaves selfishly inside the tribe.

But the tribal quality that I discover most fascinating is what I’d name selective kindness.

To see how selective kindness works, let’s visit with three historic tribes—one made up of people who are by no means type, one product of people who find themselves selectively type, and one filled with people who find themselves all the time type.

Okay properly that was dangerous for Tribe A. The tribe was full of people that have been by no means variety, which turned out to be a nasty survival strategy. And how about Tribe B and Tribe C? Each look pretty respectable up to now. But what occurs when, in the future, they run into one another?

Alright, then.4

Tribe B showed kindness within their big the identical method the organs in your body work collectively and help each other. This conduct emerged not from a basic precept but as a way to the egocentric survival of the enormous they shaped collectively. However, Tribe C’s kindness was a core worth, not confined to any single layer of emergence—it extended upwards into the world of giants as nicely.

So whereas kindness, in all its manifestations—care, altruism, compassion—was an necessary survival trait in a world where well-functioning groups have been essential for survival, universal kindness in all probability wasn’t an amazing survival trait. Inevitably, other tribes can be selectively sort, shedding all of that kindness when coping with different tribes. And when a sort tribe faces off towards a ruthless tribe, the ruthless tribe often wins.

The evolutionary sweet spot in all probability wouldn’t have been kindness or empathy or compassion or cooperation—it will have been to have these traits on a toggle change. To be micro-kind and macro-ruthless.

Once I look around, I see proof of this toggle change all over the place. Discover how simply people who are usually compassionate drop that compassion when considering and talking about members of a political celebration they hate—the “Them” political social gathering? How these individuals are all about forgiveness with individuals they see as part of “Us” but are nice with everlasting, lifelong penalties for enemies of that group? How they’re so good at seeing the story behind the story once they hear about criminals they contemplate a part of “good man” groups, but all the time appear to see the worst superficial caricature in wrongdoers from teams they don’t determine with? It occurs on a smaller scale too, like when individuals who have spent their lives displaying no compassion or understanding for a certain sort of outsider all of the sudden have a heat coronary heart when somebody in their family finally ends up as a part of that group.

Selective kindness isn’t high-mindedness. The Greater Mind reveals these traits all the time. He’s high-minded universally, as a basic precept, and applies it to everybody equally. Selective kindness is a Primitive Thoughts trick that appears to be high-mindedness, in case you’re not paying close enough attention. Keep in mind, at first look, ants seemed like good individuals too. That’s why the litmus check of anybody’s true colors—the revealer of which thoughts is operating the show of their head—is how they treat individuals outdoors their tribe. Both the Greater Thoughts and Primitive Mind are likely to deal with fellow tribesmen with kindness, in order that tells you nothing—it’s when dealing with Them that the 2 minds diverge.


I’ve written about our troubles with the Primitive Mind many occasions on Wait But Why, exploring the way it manifests in several types—as the rationale we procrastinate, the rationale we care a lot what others consider us, the rationale we’re so dangerous at unique considering, the rationale we wrestle for self-awareness. In every case, the Primitive Thoughts is simply doing what it’s programmed to do—help us move our genes on in 50,000 BC. In each case, our issues stem from the fact that we not reside on the planet we have been optimized by evolution to stay in. And in every case, there’s hope to make issues better—because proper subsequent to the Primitive Thoughts in our heads is a complicated middle of readability and wisdom and unbiased agency. The Larger Thoughts stands out as the underdog, but he’s a fighter.

Once I started fascinated by trendy tribalism as I wrote this collection, it hit me that this has lots in widespread with these different posts. As a result of a society’s struggles aren’t that totally different from each of our personal struggles—identical to two households preventing isn’t that totally different from two brothers preventing. Society and the people who make it up have a fractal relationship—their inner issues are of the same nature, just on totally different emergence flooring. At the core of both struggles is the mismatch between our historic programming and the superior civilization we stay in.

I’ve all the time felt hope when writing about our struggles at the individual degree, and I really feel hope in this collection too as we take a look at what’s happening a couple of flooring up on the elevator. But we now have a reasonably daunting process in entrance of us—as a result of innate tribalism is just the beginning of what we’re contending with at present. Someplace down the road of human history, evolution occurred upon a brand new software that put human tribalism on steroids. That’s what we’ll discover in the subsequent chapter.


To keep up with this collection, join the Wait However Why e mail listing and we’ll send you the brand new posts proper once they come out.

Big because of our Patreon supporters for making this collection free for everybody. To help Wait However Why, visit our Patreon page.


Three totally unrelated Wait However Why posts:

Why I’m all the time late

Find out how to fit all 7 billion individuals inside one building

Your life is a phenomenal portray…however you reside inside a single pixel


A word about how sources will work in this collection

Influences and associated studying

A fantastic video on emergence by Kurzgesagt

Jonathan Haidt: The Righteous Thoughts

Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph: The ethical thoughts: How five units of innate intuitions information the event of many culture-specific virtues, and maybe even modules

David Sloan Wilson:5 A Concept of Group Selection

Robert Axelrod: The Evolution of Cooperation

Smithsonian: What does it mean to be human?

An excellent Wikipedia article on kin choice. One other good one on inclusive fitness

W.D. Hamilton: The genetical evolution of social behaviour

Elainie A. Madsen, et al: Kinship and altruism: A cross-cultural experimental research

Wladimir J. Alonso and Cynthia Schuck-Paim: Sex-ratio conflicts, kin selection, and the evolution of altruism

Martin A. Nowak, Corina E. Tarnita, Edward O. Wilson: The evolution of eusociality (Nature)

There are also a number of group selection skeptics. Like:

Steven Pinker: The False Allure of Group Choice

Richard Dawkins: Replicators and Automobiles

Eliezer Yudkowsky: The Tragedy of Group Selectionism

Jerry A. Coyne: Can Darwinism Improve Binghamton?

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