The Human Swarm | Mark W. Moffett

Summary of: The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall
By: Mark W. Moffett


Embark on a fascinating journey through ‘The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall’ by Mark W. Moffett, as we explore the complexities of human societies and their strong resemblance to the lives of meerkats, ants, and other animals. Learn how cooperation and mutual protection play vital roles in the creation of societies and discover how we humans have transcended the need for individual recognition, allowing us to live together in larger, diverse communities. Delve into the concept of ‘markers’, which help members of societies differentiate between insiders and outsiders. Finally, witness the impact that these markers have had on our perception of people from differing backgrounds and how it has shaped the modus operandi of societies worldwide.

Animal Societies

Meerkats, wolves, elephants, horses, and even ants, all share something in common: living in societies where mutual benefits of cooperation and child-rearing can be achieved. These societies are built on recognizing and knowing each member of the exclusive group. However, humans have successfully broken free from this recognition requirement, leading to the ability to live in far larger societies.

Ants: The Little Civil Engineers

Ants are sophisticated creatures, and their level of organization in their highly populous societies is truly remarkable. Leafcutter ants, for example, build complex infrastructure, including highways and waste management systems, that are comparable to modern human settlements. These ants also have a division of labor that any business owner would be proud of; larger ants guard and perform heavy-duty work, while smaller ants handle more intricate tasks such as cutting leaves and planting fungus. It’s fascinating how ants are able to work together in such large societies, and markers play a crucial role in making this collaboration possible. Ants invest in clean air and recycling, demonstrating the benefits of a waste-disposal system that is tailored to their society’s needs and size.

Anonymity and Harmony

Humans and ants have a lot in common, as both can live peacefully in societies where they don’t personally know everyone. This ability is primarily due to their use of markers to identify society membership. Ants use smell to recognize outsiders, while human beings employ markers such as language and cultural norms. This allows them to build complex, anonymous societies where individuals can coexist without conflict. The ability to recognize markers and accept strangers as part of a community is critical to creating peaceful, harmonious societies. However, when these markers are absent, conflict can arise instantly, as seen in the case of Argentine ant supercolonies that fiercely fight to the death when different societies meet.

The Importance of Markers in Human Society

Our society is filled with markers that signify membership and help us identify outsiders. Some markers like waving a national flag or using a spoon instead of chopsticks are obvious, while others like hand gestures or walking styles are less overt. Markers have evolved to protect us and put people and things into categories to help us make quick judgments about potential threats. Even elephants in Kenya differentiate between humans of different tribes. Markers have allowed us to live in larger and more complex societies and have had a profound impact on how we perceive others.

The Power of Markers

From swastikas to skin color, we are hardwired to use markers as a way of categorizing and making judgments about people. Research shows that even infants use markers to identify people who belong to the same society as them. However, this innate bias can have negative consequences, such as false imprisonments resulting from faulty eyewitness statements made by people of different races from the accused. We are also less empathetic to outsiders and pay less attention to people who are not like us. This is because thousands of years ago, identification of a foreigner or outsider could set off alarm bells. Despite this, markers have helped humans distinguish each other for hundreds of thousands of years.

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