3. The Tension between Individual & Society

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When do an individual’s best interests align with a society’s best interests? And when do they not? Are individuals expendable? How does society rely on individuals? And how do individuals rely on society? How do these power relations play out? Can an individual leverage the noise that arises in any society, as does noise naturally arise in any system, to live parasitically and improve his or her chances of survival?

Society’s Mechanisms of Control

A society’s ideas, it’s principles, it’s morals, ethics, values, traditions, conventions, laws, and religions are its mechanisms of control. I’ll call them ‘memes’ for lack of a better word. They are the thought/ideas that tell a society’s members how to behave.

Think of your favourite super hero storyline. Hero. What does that word signify? What are the values superheroes uphold and what behaviours do they inspire in you? Super heroes are always ‘good’, they are always powerful, and they always sacrifice their best interests for the best interests of others. These superhero stories are a mechanism via which society spreads ideas that are essential to its survival. These ideas/memes are mechanisms of control. They seed behaviours in your mind. A society functions on its members cooperating and putting the good of society above selfish best interest. Memes reinforce these behaviours. Memes are a societal control mechanism. That is why in memes, good guys always win. Because the messages being reinforced have to be to society’s benefit.

Our myths and narratives uphold and glorify heroism to reinforce desirable behaviors. The Battle of Thermopylae for instance. Those soldiers are glorified for their self-sacrifice, a self-sacrifice for the greater good of the Greek city states. But from a simple, evolutionary perspective they did the worst thing possible, sacrificing themselves with no hope of passing their genes down. In other words, their behaviour went against the grain of self-preservation. Societal memes over-ruled the primal instinct of self-preservation and pushed those soldiers to sacrifice themselves. I think that’s amazing. The power of societal control to shove aside essential human behaviour, and instead bend behaviour to the good of the group, even to the point of casting aside individuals.

Perhaps this might explain why celebrities who appear to do nothing of worth garner greater fame than great scientists and inventors who push progress forward. It’s because celebrities and popular culture bring people together through a shared culture, and thus provide a basis for cooperation. And this enforcement of cooperation and suppression of individual self-interest is perhaps the most valuable of all.

The counter argument is that people perform sacrificial behaviors not because society is telling them to but because those behaviors aid people who share their genes, and thus they are actually helping pass their genes down. However, I feel this is true only where people are very closely genetically related, and not on larger social scales such as the Battle of Thermopylae just discussed.

Dual Level Selection – Individual & Social Scales

Here we assume a crude model with two levels on which selection takes place in humans: individual scale and group/social scale. That is, groups challenge each other for survival. And individuals challenge each other for survival. But society is made of individuals. Thus, selection on these two levels is necessarily connected. If individuals are selected, that affects social selection and vice-versa. And we have discussed that these selections might not align. To clarify, selection in society occurs on all levels and group sizes – a hierarchy of selection. This is called Multi-Level Selection. In a sense, society is recursive grouping, groups composed of groups composed of groups.

So far we discussed how society uses individuals. Can an individual use society? After all, society produces everything you need – food, water, houses, cars, material possession, wealth. An individual can live parasitically off society. We’d call them confidence men, sociopaths, psychopaths. These individuals possess the necessary psychology and ability to live off society parasitically. Society uses narratives & memes to enforce ‘good’ behaviour. But what if not all of us respond to those memes? People who think nothing of super hero narratives? Won’t these be people be unbothered by notions of cheating and parasitism? Given the scale of modern society and ease of travel, it is possible to cheat often while staying ahead of news of your transgressions.

This explains why we send people to jail. It is because they break trust. Because they break trust, and are suspected of being parasites, society punishes them by placing them outside society. Once in jail, and once a convicted criminal, a person is cut off from society forever. Hence, society protects itself from parasites by identifying them and taking them outside society.

If we extend this to our model of multi-level selection, then parasitic groups can exist at any level of society, not just as the individual level.

Societal Reliance on the Individual

Does society need the individual? Surely every individual is disposable? You can simply train another individual to take his or her place. On the other hand, society needs individuals to generate and spread memes. In fact, generating memes is probably the most crucial function required of individuals in society, because they aid society in adapting. However, not every meme can go ‘straight to market’, that is, become accepted widely on a social level. Society has to distinguish between good and bad ideas. Which is why it’s funny to see how society pretends it doesn’t need ideas that it really needs, until it is sure it really needs them. For example, the persecution Galileo went through. Or the skepticism the ‘light is a particle’ theory faced between Newton’s time and Max Planck. Ideas begin as persecution, and gradually advances, till society determines it is truly needed, and then they are accepted.

Thus society maintains a cohort of fringe groups with radical ideas that are necessary to the health of society by virtue of the ideas they contribute. These ideas feed into the mainstream and contribute to social adaptation. At the same time they feel the push-back from society loath to accept a possible dangerous and wrong idea. Thus, a society must tread this fine line between rejecting and accepting ideas, tailoring this process to let through only the best and reject the rest.

In this model, the structure of society is such that there are conservatives and progressives. The progressives agitate for change. The conservatives resist change. The mediation between conservatives and progressives is the adaptability or lack thereof of a society.

Reverse Selection

We like to think that society selects the best of each generation. The most intelligent and capable survive. But does this hold up if we examine the environment? Our environment is the immediate social environment we move in. Our survival depends on our fit with this environment. This could mean that those who work with people best are selected for. These people are those who are able to make connections and hold people, and thus society, together. Highly intelligent people, hypothetically speaking, might find it hard to connect with the average person because interests and life experiences differ. Thus, society might select against high intelligence simply because of the social problems that it causes. Thus, society retards its own progress, because the value of smooth internal functioning overrules a rapid increases in intelligence, or rather, rapid change in general. When drastic change is needed, society utilizes revolutions.

Culture & Rituals


As a civilization progresses, its culture becomes increasingly complex. Culture and language both involve mental constructs or symbols. Cultural symbols convey meaning and denote accepted behaviour and protocol. People debate if language came first or culture. Perhaps they went hand in hand as culture required complex language, and language enabled complex culture. Complex culture is required to maintain, organize and direct complex society, and the individuals within it. Which is why complexity in culture often refers to the places different people should occupy in society, and the manners in which they ought to behave. They emphasize structure and organization within society, for without that, society could not function.


Name a ritual in modern Europe. How about this? I wonder if we have separate neural machinery or pathways dedicated to rituals. Rituals are social phenomenons where a group of people occupy the same physical space and go through a series of codified steps designed to make all of them experience the same emotions and feelings at the same time. Therein lies their power – to make society real and present – not a thing of fiction that exists somewhere beyond the boundaries of one’s everyday life but something omnipresent, in which you are immersed. A ritual re-affirms an individual’s commitment to a group and offers the individual belonging and transcendence in the form of the group.

But Society is made of Individuals

Society is made of individuals. Yet society is emergent, in that you would never guess at society if you looked at an individual. Or guess at the manner in which society forms an organism and how that organism manages the individuals within it, being composed of individuals. And how selection on individuals pushes back against societal pressure. Society transcends individuals while relying on individuals.

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