Over 400,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to learn how to make better decisions, create new ideas, and avoid stupid errors. With more than 100,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub. To learn more about what we do, start here.

A Cascade of Sand: Complex Systems in a Complex Time

We live in a world filled with rapid change: governments topple, people rise and fall, and technology has created a connectedness the world has never experienced before. Joshua Cooper Ramo believes this environment has created an “‘avalanche of ceaseless change.”

In his book, The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It he outlines what this new world looks like and gives us prescriptions on how best to deal with the disorder around us.

Ramo believes that we are entering a revolutionary age that will render seemingly fortified institutions weak, and weak movements strong. He feels we aren’t well prepared for these radical shifts as those in positions of power tend to have antiquated ideologies in dealing with issues. Generally, they treat anything complex as one dimensional.

Unfortunately, whether they are running corporations or foreign ministries or central banks, some of the best minds of our era are still in thrall to an older way of seeing and thinking. They are making repeated misjudgments about the world. In a way, it’s hard to blame them. Mostly they grew up at a time when the global order could largely be understood in simpler terms, when only nations really mattered, when you could think there was a predictable relationship between what you wanted and what you got. They came of age as part of a tradition that believed all international crises had beginnings and, if managed well, ends.

This is one of the main flaws of traditional thinking about managing conflict/change: we identify a problem, decide on a path forward, and implement that solution. We think in linear terms and see a finish line once the specific problem we have discovered is ‘solved.’

In this day and age (and probably in all days and ages, whether they realized it or not) we have to accept that the finish line is constantly moving and that, in fact, there never will be a finish line. Solving one problem may fix an issue for a time but it tends to also illuminate a litany of new problems. (Many of which were likely already present but hiding under the old problem you just “fixed”.)

In fact, our actions in trying to solve X will sometimes have a cascade effect because the world is actually a series of complex and interconnected systems.

Some great thinkers have spoken about these problems in the past. Ramo highlights some interesting quotes from the Nobel Prize speech that Austrian economist Friedrich August von Hayek gave in 1974, entitled The Pretence of Knowledge.

To treat complex phenomena as if they were simple, to pretend that you could hold the unknowable in the cleverly crafted structure of your ideas —he could think of nothing that was more dangerous. “There is much reason,” Hayek said, “to be apprehensive about the long-run dangers created in a much wider field by the uncritical acceptance of assertions which have the appearance of being scientific.”

Concluding his Nobel speech, Hayek warned, “If man is not to do more harm than good in his efforts to improve the social order, he will have to learn that in this, as in all other fields where essential complexity of an organized kind prevails, he cannot acquire the full knowledge which would make mastery of the events possible.” Politicians and thinkers would be wise not to try to bend history as “the craftsman shapes his handiwork, but rather to cultivate growth by providing the appropriate environment, in the manner a gardener does for his plants.”

This is an important distinction: the idea that we need to be gardeners instead of craftsmen. When we are merely creating something we have a sense of control; we have a plan and an end state. When the shelf is built, it's built.

Being a gardener is different. You have to prepare the environment; you have to nurture the plants and know when to leave them alone. You have to make sure the environment is hospitable to everything you want to grow (different plants have different needs), and after the harvest you aren’t done. You need to turn the earth and, in essence, start again. There is no end state if you want something to grow.

* * *

So, if most of the threats we face to today are so multifaceted and complex that we can’t use the majority of the strategies that have worked historically, how do we approach the problem? A Danish theoretical physicist named Per Bak had an interesting view of this which he termed self-organized criticality and it comes with an excellent experiment/metaphor that helps to explain the concept.

Bak’s research focused on answering the following question: if you created a cone of sand grain by grain, at what point would you create a little sand avalanche? This breakdown of the cone was inevitable but he wanted to know if he could somehow predict at what point this would happen.

Much like there is a precise temperature that water starts to boil, Bak hypothesized there was a specific point where the stack became unstable, and at this point adding a single grain of sand could trigger the avalanche.

In his work, Bak came to realize that the sandpile was inherently unpredictable. He discovered that there were times, even when the pile had reached a critical state, that an additional grain of sand would have no effect:

“Complex behavior in nature,” Bak explained, “reflects the tendency of large systems to evolve into a poised ‘critical’ state, way out of balance, where minor disturbances may lead to events, called avalanches, of all sizes.” What Bak was trying to study wasn’t simply stacks of sand, but rather the underlying physics of the world. And this was where the sandpile got interesting. He believed that sandpile energy, the energy of systems constantly poised on the edge of unpredictable change, was one of the fundamental forces of nature. He saw it everywhere, from physics (in the way tiny particles amassed and released energy) to the weather (in the assembly of clouds and the hard-to-predict onset of rainstorms) to biology (in the stutter-step evolution of mammals). Bak’s sandpile universe was violent —and history-making. It wasn’t that he didn’t see stability in the world, but that he saw stability as a passing phase, as a pause in a system of incredible —and unmappable —dynamism. Bak’s world was like a constantly spinning revolver in a game of Russian roulette, one random trigger-pull away from explosion.

Traditionally our thinking is very linear and if we start thinking of systems as more like sandpiles, we start to shift into nonlinear thinking. This means we can no longer assume that a given action will produce a given reaction: it may or may not depending on the precise initial conditions.

This dynamic sandpile energy demands that we accept the basic unpredictability of the global order —one of those intellectual leaps that sounds simple but that immediately junks a great deal of traditional thinking. It also produces (or should produce) a profound psychological shift in what we can and can’t expect from the world. Constant surprise and new ideas? Yes. Stable political order, less complexity, the survival of institutions built for an older world? No.

Ramo isn’t arguing that complex systems are incomprehensible and fundamentally flawed. These systems are manageable, they just require a divergence from the old ways of thinking, the linear way that didn’t account for all the invisible connections in the sand.

Look at something like the Internet; it’s a perfect example of a complex system with a seemingly infinite amount of connections, but it thrives. This system is constantly bombarded with unsuspected risk, but it is so malleable that it has yet to feel the force of an avalanche. The Internet was designed to thrive in a hostile environment and its complexity was embraced. Unfortunately, for every adaptive system like the Internet there seems to be a maladaptive system, ones so rigid they will surely break in a world of complexity.

The Age of the Unthinkable goes on to show us historical examples of systems that did indeed break; this helps to frame where we have been particularly fragile in the past and where the mistakes in our thinking may have been. In the back half of the book, Ramo outlines strategies he believes will help us become more Antifragile, he calls this “Deep Security”.

Implementing these strategies will likely be met with considerable resistance, many people in positions of power benefit from the systems staying as they are. Revolutions are never easy but, as we’ve shown, even one grain of sand can have a huge impact.

Why Cross-Pollinating Your Work, Works

At Farnam Street we believe in the idea that a multidisciplinary approach to big ideas is the best way to form a deeper understanding. Some concepts will intuitively lend themselves to this type of thinking. Something like evolution is an easy one. But there are also times when this cross-pollination is far less intuitive, yet can produce some amazing results.

In Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, author Tim Hartford walks us through some amazing examples of cross-fertilization and how purposefully adding a measured dose of chaos to your work can benefit you greatly.

Sandpaper Without the Sand

In the 1920s a gentleman by the name of Dick Drew worked as a sandpaper salesman at the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company.

One day Drew was thinking about the challenge of painting a car — it wasn’t a specialty of his but he could appreciate the problem. What he did know inside and out was sandpaper, and he intuitively realized that sandpaper could help solve the problem. What he needed was a roll of sandpaper without the sand.

This became known as masking tape and it transformed more than just how we paint cars.

Presently we call the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company 3M, and Dick Drew’s insight in the early 1920’s wasn’t an anomaly, it is the type of innovation that has defined 3M as a company. What made them so consistently creative and innovative?

…3M has a “flexible attention” policy. In most companies, flexible attention means goofing off on the company dime. In 3M it means playing a game, taking a nap, or going for a walk across an extensive campus to admire the deer. 3M knows that creative ideas don’t always surrender to a frontal assault. Sometimes they sneak up on us while we are paying attention to something else.

3M also rotates its engineers from one department to another every few years. This policy is one that many companies—not to mention some employees—resist. Why make someone with years of expertise in soundproofing or flat-screen displays work on a vaccine or an air conditioner? For the company it seems wasteful and for the employee it can be stressful. But for a company that makes masking materials out of sandpaper… the real waste would be to let ideas sit in their tidy silos, never to be released.

The key term here that Harford hits on is reducing silos.

Many companies, whether by design or by accident, tend to be very compartmentalized. In essence, you are given a tiny box within which to work on your project but you often won’t have a good idea of what’s going on in other areas of the company; the opportunities for cross pollination are limited unless you commit to moving positions/projects.

By adding just a little disorder, a company can give its employees the freedom to think differently and maybe even help them out of a rut that is often caused by looking at something with too narrow a focus. Sometimes we just can’t “see the forest through the trees” — we're stuck in our little box.

Crop Rotation

A company doesn’t have to rotate it’s personnel into wildly varying positions to achieve this goal; it can be as simple as providing an environment which allows employees to easily work on various/differing projects.

Creativity researchers Howard Gruber and Sara Davis see a strong link between the most creative people and their tendency to work on multiple projects. Gruber notes that Charles Darwin is a good example of this.

… throughout his life [Darwin] alternated between research in geology, zoology, psychology, and botany, always with some projects in the foreground and others in the background, competing for his attention. He undertook his celebrated voyage with the Beagle with “an ample and unprofessional vagueness in his goals.”

And then there are the earthworms. Darwin could not get enough of earthworms. This great scientist, who traveled the world, studied the finches of the Galápagos, developed a compelling account of the formation of coral reefs, and—of course—crafted the brilliant, controversial, meticulously argued theory of evolution, studied earthworms from every possible angle for more than forty years. The earthworms were a touchstone, a foundation, almost a security blanket. Whenever Darwin was anxious, puzzled, or at a loss, he could always turn to the study of the humble earthworm.

Gruber and Davis have coined a term for this melting pot of different projects at different stages of completion, they call it a ‘network of enterprises'. They argue that the parallel project approach has four benefits:

  1. Multiple projects cross-fertilize. The knowledge gained in one enterprise provides the key to unlock unlock another.
  2. A fresh context is exciting; having several projects may seem distracting, but instead the variety grabs our attention—we’re like tourists gaping at details that a local would find mundane.
  3. While we’re paying close attention to one project, we may be unconsciously processing another—as with the cliché of inspiration striking in the shower. Some scientists believe that this unconscious processing is an important key to solving creative problems. John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexel University, argues that daydreaming strips items of their context. That’s a powerful way to unlock fresh thoughts. And there can be few better ways to let the unconscious mind chew over a problem than to turn to a totally different project in the network of enterprises.
  4. Each project in the network of enterprises provides an escape from the others. In truly original work, there will always be impasses and blind alleys. Having another project to turn to can prevent a setback from turning into a crushing experience. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called this “crop rotation.” One cannot use the same field to grow the same crop indefinitely; eventually the soil must be refreshed, by planting something new, or simply taking a break.

Gruber and Davis argue that with the right network of enterprises, an impasse in one project can end up feeling somewhat liberating. If you fall down the wrong rabbit hole you have the ability to pivot to something fresh.

The writer can pull out some old jottings, the scientist can turn to an anomaly she had long wanted to investigate. What would have been a depressing waste of time for a single-minded person can become a creative lease of life for someone with several projects on the go. That’s the theory, but in practice it can be a source of anxiety. Having many projects on the go is a stressful experience that can quickly degenerate into wheel-spinning. (Rather than turning to the study of earthworms for a break, we turn to Facebook instead.)

We have written before about the negative aspects of multitasking and dividing your attention and focus. The goal here would be to find out the number and type of projects which give you the benefits outlined by Gruber and Davis but still keep that number manageable enough to not create an undue amount of stress. This will likely take a bit of trial and error.

Harford himself has a strategy that seems to work. It’s a wonderful mix of messy and organized.

I have a related solution myself, a steel sheet on the wall of my office full of magnets and three-by-five-inch cards. Each card has a single project on it—something chunky that will take me at least a day to complete. As I write this, there are more than fifteen projects up there, including my next weekly column, an imminent house move, a standup comedy routine I’ve promised to try to write, two separate ideas for a series of podcasts, a television proposal, a long magazine article, and this chapter. That would potentially be overwhelming, but the solution is simple: I’ve chosen three projects and placed them at the top. They’re active projects and I allow myself to work on any of the three. All the others are on the back burner. I don’t fret that I will forget them, because they’re captured on the board. But neither do I feel compelled to start working on any of them. They won’t distract me, but if the right idea comes along they may well snag some creative thread in my subconscious.

You can organize your projects like Harford, or come up with your own technique that suits your network of enterprises. The key is to create an environment that allows you to cross pollinate and, ideally, to rotate your crops when you stop liking what the harvest looks like.

If you want more, check out our other post on Messy, it’s a great book if you are looking for ways to facilitate a bit more creativity in your life.

Tribal Leadership: The Key To Building Great Teams

Have you ever wondered about internal organization dynamics and why some groups of people (who aren't on the same team) are more successful than others? Why different “tribes” inside the organization seem to be at war with one another lowering performance in increasing politics? Why certain groups of people never seem to do anything? Or why its hard to move into the next level? Read on.

***

Tribal Leadership

Organizations are a collection of small towns wrapped into a bigger city. Each small town is full of people from slackers to sherifs. While the people in the towns are different, the roles are similar. In their book, Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright, call these small towns tribes.

Tribes consist of groups of people from 20-150. (You can think of the test to identify whether someone is in your tribe as stopping to say “hello” and have a brief chat when you pass them on the street.) When the tribe approaches 150, a number that comes from Robin Dunbar's research that was popularized in The Tipping Point, it naturally splits into two.

Importantly, tribes are not (necessarily) teams. Yet tribes are how work gets done in organizations. They have the ability to render the latest corporate culture efforts from CEOs useless. “In companies,” Logan and his co-authors write, “tribes decide whether the new leader is going to flourish or get taken out. They determine how much work is going to get done, and of what quality.”

As you can imagine some tribes want to change the world while others are content to take a lot of coffee breaks. What compels one tribe of people to constantly evolve and move forward and another to stagnate (succumbing to the Red Queen Effect)? The leaders of the tribe.

More than others, tribal leaders influence the culture of their respective tribes. Ambitious leaders focus on growing, adapting, and upgrading the tribal culture to improve the tribes standing in the organization. If they are successful, the tribe members reward them with “cult like loyalty.” (This explains the phenomenon of promotions in a lot of organizations: When the tribe leader is promoted, a lot of the tribe members follow suit.)

Organizations are the sum of the tribes. Some are moving in the same direction while others veer in another. Some tribes propel while yet others add friction. Some tribes attract talent and others eject it. Performance is set not by the individual tribe leader but by the aggregation of them.

Tribal leadership is a process not an outcome and most people are blind to the dynamics of their tribes. Like all of our mental models, when you learn to see your company as a tribe, you can't unsee it. Things just click.

Logan and his co-authors simplify the dynamics of tribal leadership into 5 stages and they arrange the tools accordingly. Each stage has different “leverage points” to move to the next stage. “Each stage,” they write, “gets more done and has more fun than the one before it.”

Companies are never fully in one stage. They may have various tribes in Stage Two all the way to (hopefully) Stage Five. The more tribes you have operating at higher levels the better the company's performance, at least in theory.

Every tribe has a dominant culture, which we can peg on a one-to-five scale, with the goal being stability at Stage Four, and on occasion leaps to Stage Five.

The leverage points to move from Stage Two to Stage Three is not the same as those you need at Stage Three to move to Stage Four. (A lot of business and self-help books fail to realize this point. Perspective advice is more contextual than people realize.)

Let's look at the Five Stages before looking at the leverage points.

The Five Tribal Stages

Stage One (2%): This is the “life sucks” camp. Logan and his co-authors likely this to street gangs and people that come to work with hostility and despair.

Stage Two (25%): In this stage, life doesn't suck, only your life. In this stage, Logan et al. write, people are “passively antagonistic; they cross their arms in judgment yet never really get interested enough to spark any passion. Their laughter is quietly sarcastic and resigned. The Stage Two talk is that they've seen in all before and watched it all fail. A person at Stage Two will often try to protect his or her people from the intrusion of management.” This tribe is largely a collection of victims. This is what we see in Government Departments or The Office. Innovation is almost non-existent. Urgency is reserved for the coffee break. Accountability is rare.

Stage Three (49%): Moving along the continuum from “my life sucks” (Stage Two) we arrive at “I'm great (and you're not)”. “Within the Stage Three culture,” Logan and his coauthors write, “knowledge is power, so people hoard it, from client contacts to gossip about the company.” At this Stage people need to win, especially if that means you lose. On an individual basis, these people are generally competent but form a collection of “lone warriors,” who want to help but experience near continuous disappointment when “others don't have their ambition of skill.” These people, however, are willing to do the work. The most common complaints for people at this level is that they are too busy, they have no time, and they have crappy support.

Stage Four (22%): This is the progress from I'm great (Stage Three) to we're great (Stage Four). The journey is not measured in equidistant miles between each stage and the gulf between Three and Four is much larger than from Two to Three. In this Stage if you take the tribe away, “the person's sense of self suffers a loss.” Leaders in this Stage feel “pulled by the group.” Stage Four tribes have an outside adversary (whereas those operating in Stages Two and Three often have internal ones.) “The rule for Stage Four,” writes Logan et al., is “the bigger the foe, the more powerful the tribe.” These tribes have little patience for the politics, personal agendas, and Office-style performance that dominate Stage Three. Like a transplant that doesn't take, the group rejects these people.

Stage Five (2%): “Stage Five's T-shirt,” write Logan et al., “would read life is great.” The language here is one of potential and making history. “Teams at Stage Five have produced miraculous innovations. The team that produced the first Macintosh was at Stage Five. … This stage is pure leadership, vision, and inspiration.” These teams often revert back to Stage Four to regroup before attempting to summit again.

tribal-leadership

“Tribal leadership,” argues Logan and his co-authors, “focuses on two things: the words people use and the types of relationships they form.” Moving from Stage to Stage means using different leverage points.

Leverage Points And Success Indicators to Upgrade Tribal Culture

For a person at Stage One:

  • Go where the action is.
  • Start hanging around people at Stage Two.
  • “Cut ties with people who share the “life sucks” language.

The success indicators here are:

  • A move away from “life sucks” language to “my life sucks.”
  • Passive apathy replaces despairing hostility.
  • Cuts ties with people at Stage One.

For a person at Stage Two:

  • Start building one-on-one relationships especially with people at Stage Three.
  • “In one-on-one sessions, show her how her work makes an impact.”
  • Assign short duration projects that require little nagging (as that might reinforce the “my life sucks” language that dominates this Stage.)

The success indicators here are:

  • A move away from “my life sucks” to “I'm great.”
  • Name-dropping and bragging.
  • Lone warrior fighting the good fight.

For a person at Stage Three:

  • Encourage them to form three person relationships (we expand on this in our learning community).
  • Encourage them to work on projects bigger than something they could tackle by themselves.
  • The way they've worked to achieve the success they've had up to this point won't get them where they need to go. Focus on bigger goals and inviting people in to help them.
  • Point to role models who use the “we” language and the success they've achieved.

The success indicators here are:

  • They will use “we” instead of “I.”
  • Their network expands from a few dozen to several hundred.
  • Working less but getting more done.

For a Person at Stage Four:

  • “Stabilize by ensuring (relationships) are based on values, advantages, and opportunity.”
  • Encourage opportunistic behaviour to accomplish greatness.
  • Recruiting others to the tribe who share values.
  • “Perform regular oil changes with the team. In this process, she should lead a discussion about (1) what is working well, (2) what is not working well, and (3) what the team can do to make things that are not working well, work.”

Success indicators here are:

  • A switch from “we're great” to “life is great”
  • Networks include a “stunning amount of diversity.”
  • Time allocations are based on values and noble missions.
  • Exemplar of the tribes values.

Tribal Leadership is a fascinating book that goes on to offer more strategies for leading others (and ourselves) through the stages. In our learning community we dive into some of the strategies the book offers for growing your network.

Survival of the Fittest: Groups versus Individuals

If ‘survival of the fittest’ is the prime evolutionary tenet, then why do some behaviors that lead to winning or success, seemingly justified by this concept, ultimately leave us cold?

Taken from Darwin’s theory of evolution, survival of the fittest is often conceptualized as the advantage that accrues with certain traits, allowing an individual to both thrive and survive in their environment by out-competing for limited resources. Qualities such as strength and speed were beneficial to our ancestors, allowing them to survive in demanding environments, and thus our general admiration for these qualities is now understood through this evolutionary lens.

However, in humans this evolutionary concept is often co-opted to defend a wide range of behaviors, not all of them good. Winning by cheating, or stepping on others to achieve goals.

Why is this?

One answer is that humans are not only concerned with our individual survival, but the survival of our group. (Which, of course, leads to improved individual survival, on average.) This relationship between individual and group survival is subject to intense debate among biologists.

Selecting for Unselfishness?

Humans display a wide range of behavior that seems counter-intuitive to the survival of the fittest mentality until you consider that we are an inherently social species, and that keeping our group fit is a wise investment of our time and energy.

One of the behaviors that humans display a lot of is “indirect reciprocity”. Distinguished from “direct reciprocity”, in which I help you and you help me, indirect reciprocity confers no immediate benefit to the one doing the helping. Either I help you, then you help someone else at a later time, or I help you and then someone else, some time in the future, helps me.

Martin A. Nowak and Karl Sigmund have studied this phenomenon in humans for many years. Essentially, they ask the question “How can natural selection promote unselfish behavior?”

Many of their studies have shown that “propensity for indirect reciprocity is widespread. A lot of people choose to do it.”

Furthermore:

Humans are the champions of reciprocity. Experiments and everyday experience alike show that what Adam Smith called ‘our instinct to trade, barter and truck' relies to a considerable extent on the widespread tendency to return helpful and harmful acts in kind. We do so even if these acts have been directed not to us but to others.

We care about what happens to others, even if the entire event is one that we have no part in. If you consider evolution in terms of survival of the fittest group, rather than individual, this makes sense.

Supporting those who harm others can breed mistrust and instability. And if we don’t trust each other, day to day transactions in our world will be completely undermined. Sending your kids to school, banking, online shopping: We place a huge amount of trust in our fellow humans every day.

If we consider this idea of group survival, we can also see value in a wider range of human attributes and behaviors. It is now not about “I have to be the fittest in every possible way in order to survive“, but recognizing that I want fit people in my group.

In her excellent book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, author Susan Cain explores, among other things, the relevance of introverts to social function. How their contributions benefit the group as a whole. Introverts are people who “like to focus on one task at a time, … listen more than they talk, think before they speak, … [and] tend to dislike conflict.”

Though out of step with the culture of “the extrovert ideal” we are currently living in, introverts contribute significantly to our group fitness. Without them we would be deprived of much of our art and scientific progress.

Cain argues:

Among evolutionary biologists, who tend to subscribe to the vision of lone individuals hell-bent on reproducing their own DNA, the idea that species include individuals whose traits promote group survival is hotly debated and, not long ago, could practically get you kicked out of the academy.

But the idea makes sense. If personality types such as introverts aren’t the fittest for survival, then why did they persist? Possibly because of their value to the group.

Cain looks at the work of Dr. Elaine Aron, who has spent years studying introverts, and is one herself. In explaining the idea of different personality traits as part of group selection in evolution, Aron offers this story in an article posted on her website:

I used to joke that when a group of prehistoric humans were sitting around the campfire and a lion was creeping up on them all, the sensitive ones [introverts] would alert the others to the lion's prowling and insist that something be done. But the non-sensitive ones [extroverts] would be the ones more likely to go out and face the lion. Hence there are more of them than there are of us, since they are willing and even happy to do impulsive, dangerous things that will kill many of us. But also, they are willing to protect us and hunt for us, if we are not as good at killing large animals, because the group needs us. We have been the healers, trackers, shamans, strategists, and of course the first to sense danger. So together the two types survive better than a group of just one type or the other.

The lesson is this: Groups survive better if they have individuals with different strengths to draw on. The more tools you have, the more likely you can complete a job. The more people you have that are different the more likely you can survive the unexpected.

Which Group?

How then, does one define the group? Who am I willing to help? Arguably, I’m most willing to sacrifice for my children, or family. My immediate little group. But history is full of examples of those who sacrificed significantly for their tribes or sports teams or countries.

We can’t argue that it is just about the survival of our own DNA. That may explain why I will throw myself in front of a speeding car to protect my child, but the beaches of Normandy were stormed by thousands of young, childless men. Soldiers from World War I, when interviewed about why they would jump out of a trench, trying to take a slice of no man’s land, most often said they did it “for the guy next to them”. They initially joined the military out of a sense of “national pride”, or other very non-DNA reasons.

Clearly, human culture is capable of defining “groups” very broadly though a complex system of mythology, creating deep loyalty to “imaginary” groups like sports teams, corporations, nations, or religions.

As technology shrinks our world, our group expands. Technological advancement pushes us into higher degrees of specialization, so that individual survival becomes clearly linked with group survival.

I know that I have a vested interest in doing my part to maintain the health of my group. I am very attached to indoor plumbing and grocery stores, yet don’t participate at all in the giant webs that allow those things to exist in my life. I don’t know anything about the configuration of the municipal sewer system or how to grow raspberries. (Of course, Adam Smith called this process of the individual benefitting the group through specialization the Invisible Hand.)

When we see ourselves as part of a group, we want the group to survive and even thrive. Yet how big can our group be? Is there always an us vs. them? Does our group surviving always have to be at the expense of others? We leave you with the speculation.

 

John Gray: Is Human Progress an Illusion?

“Straw Dogs is an attack on the unthinking beliefs of thinking people.”
— John Gray

***

We like to think that the tide of history is an inexorable march from barbarity to civilization, with humans “progressing” from one stage to the next through a gradual process of enlightenment. Modern humanists like Steven Pinker argue forcefully for this method of thinking.

But is this really so? Is this reality?

One of the leading challengers to that type of thinking has been the English writer and philosopher John Gray, the idiosyncratic author of books like Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, The Soul of the Marionette, and The Silence of Animals.

To Gray, the concept of “progress” is closer to an illusion, or worse a delusion of the modern age. Civilization is not a permanent state of being, but something which can quickly recede during a time of stress.

He outlines his basic idea in a foreword to Straw Dogs:

Straw Dogs is an attack on the unthinking beliefs of thinking people. Today, liberal humanism has the pervasive power that was once possessed by revealed religion. Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world; but their core belief in progress is a superstition, further from the truth about the human animal than any of the world's religions.

Outside of science, progress is simply a myth. In some readers of Straw Dogs this observation seems to have produced a moral panic. Surely, they ask, no one can question the central article of faith of liberal societies? Without it, will we not despair? Like trembling Victorians terrified of losing their faith, these humanists cling to the moth-eaten brocade of progressive hope. Today religious believers are more free-thinking. Driven to the margins of a culture in which science claims authority over all of human knowledge, they have had to cultivate a capacity for doubt. In contrast, secular believers — held fast by the conventional wisdom of the time — are in the grip of unexamined dogmas.

And what, pray tell, are those dogmas? They are numerous, but the central one must be that the human march of science and technology creates good for the world. Gray's not as sure: He sees science and technology as magnifying humanity “warts and all”.

Our tools allow us to go to the Moon but also murder each other with great alacrity. They have no morality attached to them.

In science, the growth of knowledge is cumulative. But human life as a whole is not a cumulative activity; what is gained in one generation may be lost in the next. In science, knowledge is an unmixed god; in ethics and politics it is bad as well as good. Science increases human power — and magnifies the flaws in human nature. It enables us to live longer and have higher living standards than in the past. At the same time it allows us to wreak destruction — on each other and the Earth — on a larger scale than ever before.

The idea of progress rests on the belief that the growth of knowledge and the advance of the species go together—if not now, then in the long run. The biblical myth of the Fall of Man contains the forbidden truth. Knowledge does not make us free. It leaves us as we have always been, prey to every kind of folly. The same truth is found in Greek myth. The punishment of Prometheus, chained to a rock for stealing fire from the gods, was not unjust.

Gray has a fairly heretical view of technology itself, pointing out that no one really controls its development or use; making humanity as a group closer to subjects than masters. Technology is both a giver of good and an ongoing source of tragedy, because it is used by fallible human beings.

Those who ignore the destructive potential of future technologies can do so only because they ignore history. Pogroms are as old as Christendom; but without railways, the telegraph and poison gas there could have been no Holocaust. There have always been tyrannies; but without modern means of transport and communication, Stalin and Mao could not have built their gulags. Humanity's worst crimes were made possible only by modern technology.

There is a deeper reason why “humanity” will never control technology. Technology is not something that humankind can control. It as an event that has befallen the world.

Once a technology enters human life — whether it be fire, the wheel, the automobile, radio, television, or the internet — it changes it in ways we can never fully understand.

[…]

Nothing is more commonplace than to lament that moral progress has failed to keep pace with scientific knowledge. If only we were more intelligent and more moral, we could use technology only for benign ends. The fault is not in our tools, we say, but in ourselves.

In one sense this is true. Technical progress leaves only one problem unsolved: the frailty of human nature. Unfortunately that problem is insoluble.

This reminds one of Garrett Hardin's idea that no system, however technically advanced, can be flawless because the human being at the center of it will always be fallible. (Our technologies, after all, are geared around our needs.) Even if we create technologies that “don't need us” — we are still fallible creators.

Gray's real problem with the idea of moral progress, technical progress, and scientific progress are they, even were they real, would be unending. In the modern conception of the world, unlike the ancient past where everything was seen as cyclical, growth has no natural stop-point. It's just an infinite path to the heavens. This manifests itself in our constant disdain for idleness.

Nothing is more alien to the present age than idleness. If we think of resting from our labours, it is only in order to return to them.

In thinking so highly of work we are aberrant. Few other cultures have ever done so. For nearly all of history and all prehistory, work was an indignity.

Among Christians, only Protestants have ever believed that work smacks of salvation; the work and prayer of medieval Christendom were interspersed with festivals. The ancient Greeks sought salvation in philosophy, the Indians in meditation, the Chinese in poetry and the love of nature. The pygmies of the African rainforests — now nearly extinct — work only to meet the needs of the day, and spend most of their lives idling.

Progress condemns idleness. The work needed to delivery humanity is vast. Indeed it is limitless, since as one plateau of achievement is reached another looms up. Of course this is only a mirage; but the worst of progress is not that it is an illusion. It is that it is endless.

Gray then goes on to compare our ideas of progress to Sisyphus forever pushing the bolder up the mountain.

He's an interesting thinker, Gray. In all of his works, though he certainly raises issue with our current modes of liberal progressive thought and is certainly not a religious man, one only finds hints of a “better” worldview being proposed. One is never sure if he even believes in “better”.

The closest thing to advice comes from the conclusion to his book The Silence of Animals. What is the point of life if not progress? Simply to see. Simply to be human. To contemplate. We must deal with human life the way we always have.

Godless contemplation is a more radical and transient condition: a temporary respite from the all-too-human world, with nothing particular in mind. In most traditions the life of contemplation promises redemption from being human: in Christianity, the end of tragedy and a glimpse of the divine comedy; in Jeffers's pantheism, the obliteration of the self in an ecstatic unity. Godless mysticism cannot escape the finality of tragedy, or make beauty eternal. It does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of any oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being.

There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.

In the end, reading Gray is a good way to challenge yourself; to think about the world in a different way, and to examine your dogmas. Even the most cherished one of all.

Are Great Men and Women a Product of Circumstance?

Few books have ever struck us as much as Will Durant's 100-page masterpiece The Lessons of History, a collection of essays which sum up the lifelong thoughts of a brilliant historian.

We recently dug up an interview with Durant and his wife Ariel — co-authors of the 11-volume masterpiece The Story of Civilization — and sent it to the members of the Farnam Street Learning Community. While the interview is full of wisdom in its entirety, we picked one interesting excerpt to share with you: Durant's thoughts on the “Great Man” (and certainly, Great Woman) theory of history.

Has history been Theirs to dictate? Durant has a very interesting answer, one that's hard to ignore once you think about it:

Interviewer: Haven’t certain individuals, the genius, great man, or hero, as Carlisle believed, been the prime determinants of human history?

Will Durant: There are many cases, I think, in which individual characters have had very significant results upon history. But basically, I think Carlisle was wrong. That the hero is a product of a situation rather than the result being a product of the hero. It is demand that brings out the exceptional qualities of man. What would Lenin have been if he had remained in, what was it, Geneva? He would have a little…. But he faced tremendous demands upon him, and something in him responded. I think those given us would have brought out capacity in many different types of people. They wouldn’t have to be geniuses to begin with.

Interviewer: Then what is the function or role of heroes?

Will Durant: They form the function of meeting a situation whose demands are always all his potential abilities.

Interviewer: What do you think is the important thing for us, in studying the course of history, to know about character? What is the role of character in history?

Will Durant: I suppose the role of character is for the individual to rise to a situation. If it were not for the situation, we would never have heard of him. So that you might say that character is the product of an exceptional demand by the situation upon human ability. I think the ability of the average man could be doubled if it were demanded, if the situation demanded. So, I think Lenin was made by the situation. Of course he brought ideas, and he had to abandon almost all those ideas. For example, he went back to private enterprise for a while.

One way we might corroborate Durant's thoughts on Lenin is to ask another simple question: Which U.S. Presidents are considered the most admired?

Students of history have three easy answers pop in (and polls corroborate): George Washington – the first U.S. President and a Founding Father; Abraham Lincoln – the man who held the Union together; and finally Franklin Delano Roosevelt – unless the U.S. amends its Constitution, the longest serving U.S. President now and forever.

All great men, certainly. All three of which rose to the occasion. But what do they share?

They were the ones holding office at the time of (or in the case of Washington, immediately upon winning) the three major wars impacting American history: The American Revolution, the American Civil War, and World War II. 

It raises an interesting question: Would these men be remembered and held in the same esteem if they hadn't been handed such situations? The answer pops in pretty quickly: Probably not. Their heroism was partly a product of their character and partly a product of their situation.

And thus Durant gives us a very interesting model to bring to reality: Greatness is in many of us, but only if we rise, with practical expediency, to the demands of life. Greatness arises only when tested.

For the rest of Durant's interview, and a lot of other cool stuff, check out the Learning Community.