04. 10. 2021

The Jaws of Perception

We are currently living the infancy of the globally interconnected humanity. It is a fascinating moment in our history, before society has caught up to develop for us, through culture and traditions, the kind of social skills that take into account the overwhelming diversity of the network. Through social media, we come to socialize with individuals who are so far outside of our inner circles that our default modes of interacting may start to feel inadequate and unreliable. The situation requires from us that we rapidly adapt the way we present ourselves, as well as continuously adjust our overall outlook on what are socially acceptable ways for others to present themselves. Behavior online is seen as one of the troubling aspects of our time, with the online arena often coming off as the antithesis of civilization. To some extent it is the result of the privacy of our homes merging with the public platform of the Internet, where we were suddenly expressing our thoughts to the whole of society instead of merely to ourselves on our computers. This introduced an impulsivity to online communication that had previously not been customary for distributed texts. Then the switch from people mostly writing under anonymity online to the social media norm of having your real name and picture on display with your comments didn’t quite lead to the refinement and sophistication in online communication that one could have imagined, considering other societal standards of identifiable speakers. In the global pandemic of 2020, when office workers started working from home on daily basis, the separation between our private and public spaces became even more muddled to our senses, with notable instances of reputable individuals exposing themselves on camera in conference calls to colleagues and coworkers.

We are living in a society that is experimental and suggestible, possibly beyond that of any other period that has gone before. This is not to paint bygone eras in an excessively romantic light though—no doubt people have always been impulsive, only the difference now seems to be in the potential influences of the impulsivity to reshape (or at least dismantle) societal norms, through the amplification of individual voices over the Internet. Society as a whole hasn’t managed to grow into this new reality quite yet. Those who have been born into the era of social media and grown up with it haven’t yet reached the ripe old age of becoming a generation of parents themselves, who can then guide their own offspring past the pitfalls of their online existence, until every living generation is caught up on this multi-faceted reality, to the point where it can finally turn into a more functional civilization. In the meantime, our human nature is on full display on the Internet and we are no doubt providing the psychologists and the anthropologists of the future with ample material to do research, enabling them to map out the human psyche with unprecedented insights. The knowledge that will have accumulated from all these examples will eventually lead to future generations being more aware of the realities of human nature and be free from developing the kind of misconceptions about what other people are truly like that previous generations have carried with them long into their lifetimes.

These misconceptions themselves are likely to become the subject for future research—the way they are expressed, how they are formed, how they are maintained and how they are spread around. Our ability to resist the persuasiveness of an opinionated mass, motivated to sway us, is now being tested in surroundings that are downright unnatural to us in terms of the sheer magnitude of the social encounters we’ll have. The inaccuracy of today’s common beliefs might end up being every bit as comical to future generations looking back as superstitions of the dark ages are to us now. We look back at how the idea of the Earth revolving around the Sun (instead of the opposite) was forcefully suppressed by the Catholic church, to the extent that its most prominent proponent, Galileo, was forced to denounce the idea publicly, and was then subsequently placed under house arrest. What religion had become at that point was a concentrated commitment to the preservation of a certain shared understanding of the world, where alternatives to the teaching of the church weren’t even allowed to be a perspective. The rationale behind such a commitment goes beyond a mere fixation with blasphemy, as society has seemed like a fragile construct of shared values from the very beginning. These values will have been instrumental in a pivotal moment when it was determined whether our species had any hope of survival out in the unforgiving nature, at all. We frail and feeble humans would end up thriving in a fight for survival against preys and predators of a far superior physique, by adhering to a system of cooperation and collaboration among each other. The only way that the species could ever become so resilient against impossible odds was by the value system becoming engrained in our impulses and turn into a second nature to us. Yet, even to this day there appears to be a widespread notion that these values that will have been essential for humanity to survive are a rarity and even an exception in our society rather than a rule.

Charles Darwin famously held back on getting his work on the origin of the species published, supposedly intimidated by the implication of evolution through natural selection for the pious society, and he only went through with it once he had discovered that a colleague of his, Alfred Wallace, had made the same observation and was about to get his work on it published. It was a powerful observation and a true testament to the deductive abilities of our species. The process of evolution through natural selection is pretty much considered to be a proven fact at this point. The theories of Darwin and Wallace would find support in the discovery of DNA. Evolutionary biology has expanded far beyond the initial contributions of Darwin and Wallace, in terms of environmental influences from prehistoric times on our society, yet they already acknowledged that mutations that determined the diversity where one variant succeeded and another one didn’t wasn’t limited to an animal's physical traits, but also its behavioral impulses, as patterns of behavior affected fitness for survival, and behavior was determined by impulses in wild animals and humans alike.

The zoologist Desmond Morris proposed, in his book The Naked Ape, that the prehistoric human race had had to overcome significant challenges imposed on the species by its relatively weak physique, if it were to have any chances of making it out in the prehistoric wilderness. Morris identified one of those major hurdles to the advancement of our species in how long bearing our children takes and then their rearing beyond that, as the helplessness of the infants of the species means that they require looking after for an inordinate amount of time after their birth. This would be somewhat unworkable in the harshness of the prehistoric wilderness. Even the childbirth itself was dangerous to the mother. This, Morris proposed, presented an additional challenge to the survival of the species, and required that couples developed between them a ‘pair-bond’, so that the male would not abandon the female after impregnating her, but instead be overcome by a sense of commitment towards protecting the mother and their offspring. It would be a mutual bond based on commitment and protection. The pair-bond would then be what we have inherited from those times, as ‘love’. And so, the way in which we originally overcame these early limitations became the model for our civilization, with love remaining an undeniable characteristic of human culture and society, and a prevalent theme for all our artistic output.

But the pair-bond alone probably wouldn’t suffice to ensure the survival (and later downright dominance) of our species. There would have to exist within everyone a sense of commitment not just to an individual partner, but towards the rest of society as well, in the form of altruism. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins demonstrated, in his book The Selfish Gene, through analysis of the optimal strategies for the card game Prisoners’ Dilemma (which simply involved choosing between ‘cooperation’ or ‘betrayal’ for getting ahead), how ‘niceness’ could in practice turn out to be beneficial long-term strategy, both for an individual and for society on the whole. This would explain how altruism could rise to prominence, as it has--not just among us humans, but in other mammals and birds, as well. The origins of human society and civilization could potentially be reduced to these basic terms, where behavioral mutations have turned into survival strategies through their usefulness to the species. Behavior is passed down and inherited by succeeding generations, not just through culture, but as genetic properties through our natural impulses. And so, love and altruism would be relics from prehistoric times, though they may very well still be an essential driving force for the ongoing survival of our species.

For a more complete picture of the intricacies of human nature, one would have to acknowledge the human tendency towards tribalism, rather than altruism--or, something we can define as a downright lack of empathy towards those outside the boundaries of a supposed tribe, above a universal consideration for others. Could the Catholic church’s treatment of Galileo, in the aforementioned example, be seen as an act of tribalism, considering the tribal properties of religion, historically? Does tribalism play into discouraging ideas and ideologies that threaten the moral fabric of society, a role that altruism is oblivious of? Another possibility is that tribalism and altruism aren’t separate at all, but rather two sides of the same coin, where the original altruism was reserved for those within a tribe, and perhaps still is, however the boundaries of the ‘tribe’ have become more subjective and obscure. Whether an individual is altruistic or tribalistic towards another will then be a matter of perception, regarding where the latter’s relations are to the observer’s ‘tribe’. In such a situation, the attempts to manipulate people’s perception would naturally be commonplace, as the key to triggering a tribalistic response in an otherwise altruistic individual. ‘Tribe criteria’ can thus become a battleground in a fight over The Great Impression, which determines people’s perception of the reality around them.

Referenced sources:

Darwin, C. (1859). On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: John Murray.

Dawkins, R. (2006). The selfish gene (30th anniversary ed.). Oxford University Press.

Morris, D. (1967). The naked ape: A zoologist's study of the human animal. London: Cape.