Book Review: The Human Swarm

The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and FallThe Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall by Mark W. Moffett

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An exhaustively researched analysis of human tribalism and the evolutionary underpinnings of in-group selection, cultural identifiers, and racism, for some reason put together by a tropical biologist who specializes in insects.

Humans are unique in that they can pass other, strange humans on the street without it becoming an ordeal. Very few social animals are capable of ignoring one another due to instinctual acknowledgement of potential competitors. We’ve adapted to being able to disregard strangers, but that’s not the same thing as acceptance, and our monkey-mind still has us giving preferential treatment to those we deem to belong to our group/tribe/band, which is usually divided along lines of nationality, religion, and ethnicity. You’re invited to feel guilty about it, but the full gauntlet of implicit bias psych tests demonstrate that shades of bigotry come standard with the human portfolio, and no amount of re-learning can shake the heuristic from its root.

Neither does this give us carte blanche, so to speak, to be 12-year-old Call of Duty gamers. This reflexive identification with others like us at the expense of others not like us only registers for a few milliseconds before our higher reasoning circuits kick in and we’re able to make up our own minds. That initial impression could color the rest of the interaction, but it’s up to us and our utilization of the orbitoprefrontals as to how. It’s like a balloon popping. There’s no getting around the startle reflex, but then it’s your choice to either laugh it off, or to curl up into a corner and shriek until sedated.

A lot of the book was about hunter-gatherer societies, which I consider to be my jam as I am a major proponent of being joined in the shrub by my brethren. They tend to exhibit the usual human level of xenophobia, scaling in severity dependent on how violent their societies are, but with the exception of cross-tribe exchanges, usually of women, as a means of avoiding the incest taboo. They are avoidant of leaders as we know them, suggesting that human rulership is a relatively recent development; the anthropologists all agree that in these close-knit tribal communities, humility is the coin of the realm, and braggarts are smacked right tf down by everyone else. It’s common for the tribe to heap praise on the hunter who bagged tonight’s dinner, while the hunter is apparently expected to say things like “No, this was the smallest one there!” and “I was just lucky”, stuff like that. Self-aggrandizement is viewed with either suspicion, best case, if not outright scorn.

We’ve come a long way.

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