Societies and their Stability

Written by Glen McBride and Published Fri, 22/04/2016 - 00:00

As humanists, we seek to understand our world, without a need to seek guidance from culture. When we humans first began to speak, we quickly discovered the need for questions if we were to understand each other. Then came other questions, thousands of them. There were storms and hail, drought and gales, beloved dead parents came to one’s dreams, from where? Always some-one asked ‘Why? Did those parents still exist somewhere? Answers were found by our ancestors.

Since then we have slowly found more answers. Always there was much we didn’t know or understand; there still is. Our searches have taken us in a thousand directions, even to predicting and recently finding gravity waves. Initially, we dreamed a source of answers, superior beings, gods, who could do anything magically. They were the creators of the world and everything in it, magically. Since there were no alternative hypotheses, gods entered our ancestors’ worlds.

Slowly we have found answers that required no magic; there were facts and rules that we could discover. No longer was magic needed to answer most of our questions. Many came to believe that in time, explanations would be found for every phenomenon, no magicians were necessary; we became atheists. Others decided there were lots of unknowables and became agnostic. Most people retained their belief in magicians, sacred gods of vast but unknowable powers.

My studies gave me a biological view of our humanity; however they left me quite unable to understand the implications of gravity waves. For no one can now under-stand all of the enormous accumulated knowledge. Our societies came to depend completely on specialists of a thousand types, able to understand gravity waves, plumbing, cabinet making, chemistry, medical science and the other thousand specialities. I became a biologist, geneticist and student of animal behaviour, now called an ethologist. This filled me with the excitement of evolution. Learning about animal and human behaviour in a psychology department taught me about the societies in which we all live; genetics and the study of selection enriched my understanding of evolution, just one of the wonderful stories we seek to understand.

Animal societies

I discovered that much animal behaviour was concerned with organizing the animal societies in which they lived, maintained and changed. This behaviour evolved by natural selection of individuals’ behaviour as did all characteristics of animals. Animal societies were the most exciting phenomenon I studied. Of course I realized that our ancestors were all born into their societies and they didn’t ever discard their societies as they became talking humans.

Probably they merely made any societal adjustments they felt necessary, as we still do today. Societies probably arrived early in animal evolution. They became the context of most animal and human life; every youngster grew among adults and was quickly corrected whenever they did anything ‘unexpected’. Societies have probably always been part of educating youngsters. They became the repository for all knowledge accumulated in any species, and the source of all moral rules throughout the animal world. Indeed, how could animals live together in the thousand situations and arrangements they encounter without rules, moral rules? Societies are the immortal part of animal life; the individuals within them are temporary, i.e. mortal.

Societies probably arrived early in animal evolution. They became the context of most animal and human life ….

In our species, it is our societies that will continue, ever accumulating all that is human, such as our attempts to manage and change our societies, to improve moralities, to educate children, to create fairness and harmony, and to develop our humanity. Through society, we and all animals are educated in societal living; we all learn to participate in the life of our own species. They, and we, may quarrel with neighbours, but we do so within the security of our own societies. We all learn to live in a largely predictable world of everything around us; but we all focus our attention especially on others like ourselves, our conspecifics, our societies.

Like their ancestor apes, our ancestors lived in small troops. When they stood erect, the females joined in consort pairs with males who could protect and support them. Unlike the males, the females were often pregnant or carrying heavy youngsters; standing erect was much more demanding for them. They needed support. Forming pairs changed their society, from groups of mixed males and female families to groups of pair families, society evolution!

Their little groups had rules of behaviour; they knew what was right or wrong, it was embedded in their society, from ancient times. I suspect that they attributed to the figures of power they had created, the qualities highly valued in their societies. They took the moralities of their society and attributed them to the ‘gods’ that had created them. What was good in society was godly; bad was not.

Most of us still don’t think much about the topic, ‘society’. Yet most animals live in small communities within their societies as we do. Animal societies take many forms; each society presumably evolving because individuals with their particular social behaviour could best create, maintain and thrive in their own evolved society. Societies also allowed the distribution of the resources of

each habitat, with dominance and territoriality, though not always fairly.

Societies are built by natural selection into the minds of individuals, for it is individuals who create, maintain and change societies. To maintain any sort of stability, whether in a society or your own body temperature, a cybernetic system is needed; a ‘general systems’ model as first described by von Bertalanffy in 1950 [1]. Your body ‘knows’ and always monitors the temperature it expects. It is thus able to detect any change and has mechanisms to restore it – through negative feedback. The great distortion a marathon runner creates is controlled by the negative feedback mechanisms. If the mechanisms fail, the distortion may increase, becoming positive feedback, in which case the runner could be in serious trouble. A general systems model describes this.

You know that you live in a stable society, but what are the general systems mechanisms that keep it stable? Natural selection could hardly produce anything that could not maintain itself throughout all the problems of living. Natural selection can probably only produce cybernetic systems, that is, ones that are stable and self-maintaining. Systems without these properties would fail, whether as individuals or societies. Let’s look at the mechanisms maintaining societal stability.

Mechanism to maintain Societies

Since every detail of society is familiar and thus expected, every expectation can be monitored, allowing social change of any sort to be detected and responses elicited. The famous philosopher of science, Daniel Dennett [2] once described ‘the unconscious driving experience’ in which we have all walked or driven somewhere and could not remember anything of the trip. The driving required skills and the trip may have been through a busy city or pleasant country scenes. Of course the driver was conscious throughout. However complex the drive, you noticed and remembered nothing. You were aware, in an unremembered consciousness while in monitoring mode – checking that everything your senses delivered to your mind was as expected; it must have been, for you would have remembered anything unexpected.

Your senses deliver a stream of images; we are mostly conscious of the visual images. Each of these is then compared with the images you have of these ordinary scenes in memory. If there is no difference, the comparison brings the memorized scene image up to date and discards the information on the comparison; it has no further relevance and would be clutter, best unremembered. Bringing images up to date is important; only up-to-date images would be relevant for future visits to these surroundings or situations.

If the comparison yields a difference, the response is very different. The mind immediately generates what is called an Orienting Response (OR), a moment of high attention, high learning, some cognition to understand this difference and, finally, make a decision as to how to respond. The OR was first described by the great Russian scientist, Pavlov [3] in 1927. Thousands of studies of the OR have been made by scientists, mainly psychologists, using people and laboratory animals. On the other hand I know of no studies by ethologists who see ORs daily in the natural contexts in which they evolved. With an OR, you will remember! But the OR involves the cognitive challenge that you and every animal faces.

The famous anthropologist Gregory Bateson challenged me with this question, ‘is it a difference that makes a difference?’ For you and presumably every animal in an OR, the answer to this question is urgent. You may need more information from your senses, you look around urgently. From your memory you seek images of similar events or experiences; all this information must then be integrated to find an understanding and reach that decision, how to respond? You and I know this requires both consciousness and cognition. For one who has watched animals as a career, the question is also, ‘can animals require less?’ Indeed, I have elsewhere argued [4] that our own consciousness and cognition evolved from the processes within the Orienting Response, for natural selection usually starts from existing traits when looking to produce some-thing new. Our extended consciousness and cognitive capacities were quite new to animal life. How does ‘unconscious driving’, what I call being aware (unremembered consciousness), and the OR relate to our question on societal stability?

I suggest that the combination of awareness, Dennett’s unconscious driving experience, and the OR was natural selection’s really magnificent achievement. It meant that every animal could live its life in the present, fully aware, monitoring its social and physical environment, finding all expected, yet remembering nothing, avoiding cluttering memories of the endless expected ordinariness of everyday living. Yet the OR was always immediately available, offering the ability to detect and instantly respond to any change, any possible danger.

Animals could live strategically in an expected environment, aware but living ‘consciously’ only in the present, able to monitor everything sensed, checking endlessly for change. Recognition of change or of anything is only possible by a comparison of two images, one from the senses and one from memory. The animal or person does not need to remember repeatedly the minutiae of every-day life, it already has everything expected in memory; the unconscious driving experience is one of natural selection’s great blessings.

Being aware, an unremembering consciousness, living only in the present, is a talent we brought from our animal ancestors. It includes the endless checking that all is familiar, that society is expected and stable; it also includes monitoring search images we all have – introduced below. Only with this endless conformation of expected stability can change be detected. Animals have had this awareness/ OR system for many millions of years. Our transition to people added the new talent of improving the consciousness and cognition of the OR, not just for minutes, but for hours, accessing all, not just immediately relevant memories, indeed, bringing memories under mind control. As Dennett showed us, natural selection kept this aware mind we brought from animals.

As an ethologist, I believe that animals too have evolved ways of extending the ‘conscious’ period of the OR, but without the need for our ability to access memories not relevant to their immediate situation. Two such situations are in hunting and exploration. You have watched on television a lion hunting, creeping forward, inch by inch, motionless at the tiniest disturbance in the potential prey, finally deciding on experience the moment to charge, to attack. Every moment needed high attention, some consciousness, access to every relevant memory leading finally to that decision.

Attention in exploration is also extended in time. In novel surroundings, the animal must be highly alert to images from experiences of danger; but it is now comparing sensory input with categories rather than exact images from memory; it must learn everything relevant to new decisions to be made. We often know those decisions, for eventually the animal will have ‘chosen’ places for drinking, for body care, for resting and perhaps sleeping and regular paths between these familiar places. It has built new mental maps of an environment that is becoming familiar. I define environment as that portion of surroundings in which animals can detect change, in other words their mental maps of their world. (Human societies have societal environments, monitored by societal subgroups.) This mapping includes only parts relevant to the animal, places to be monitored, all and every day in the aware state. These memorized image maps of all physical and societal surroundings provide the endless flow of remembered images being compared with the images the senses are taking in, moment by moment. Environment is the expected monitored world we all inhabit. For animals, monitoring also may contain the territorial boundaries of its group. It includes the dominance ranks of the others in its group, and how closely to approach those of ‘higher’ rank.

Mothers and offspring must monitor endlessly their spacing from each other, where they are moving and potential dangers for youngsters. All are monitoring for dangers, ready to respond with an alarm call immediately any potential danger is detected.

Within our societies, we structure our lives through the social relationships we have with family and friends, colleagues and acquaintances. They are familiar; their behaviour is expected. With close friends and family it is expected because we have built all the behaviour together, ‘agreeing’ to (or omitting) all new behaviour or topics introduced. With colleagues and acquaintances, it is expected because behaviour is mainly culturally rather than personally determined. Of course, any deviation from any expected behaviour is immediately detected with an OR, and since we know these people, a discussion follows; why was the unexpected introduced? With everyone monitoring the behaviour of everyone they know for anything unexpected and questioning everything unexpected, we have a perfect mechanism for everyone to contribute to maintaining a stable society. Societies are not easily changed; though exciting ‘smartphones’ were adopted enthusiastically, restructuring communication.

Of course there are always problems that affect very many people and within social relationships they are much discussed. Christopher Boehm [5] showed how, in small groups of hunter-gatherers, people seizing authority could be brought into line or even killed if they became disruptive. In a more modern world, state-wide disruption could perhaps lead to powerful demands for change, or perhaps to a revolution.

Within our societies, we structure our lives through the social relationships we have with family and friends, colleagues and acquaintances.

We changed our societies when we formed permanent consort pairs and became hunter-gatherers. We kept forms of social ranks, but avoided authority and excessive dominance. We adopted farming and, in time, lords and kings with great power and authority. Mostly we overthrew them and introduced democracies, which we struggle to improve, seemingly endlessly. This will be our future. The evolution of our societies by natural selection is, and has long been, in our own hands. We now can have good societies; we seek great ones.

Search images

Search images are a part of the way we structure our attention. We attend to so many things of importance in daily living, and so do animals. We monitor our children: how far have they wandered, what dangers are present or possible? Are food and water becoming needed? Where is our friend? Where are we going? Attention must always be prioritized, differently for the time of day and situation, always changing. Search images are part of an attention structure, an important idea introduced to me by the British ethologist, Michael Chance [6].

Monitoring raises the question of the search images carried by animals and people, a part of the conscious and subconscious monitoring that is ever a part of the aware state. The best example of a search image is familiar to us all. We know a dog can be used to track a fugitive or someone lost, holding the image in its mind, continuously comparing it with every new image sensed, allowing the monitoring to continue following the trail. A dog can also be trained to detect the presence of drugs in airports. Training provides the search images it uses daily.

Attention structuring and search images are part of the animal minds we have inherited. We know that our hominid ancestors moved around all and every day, hunting or foraging. Each carried many search images necessary to their activity. The hunters sought tracks, droppings and the rubbings of prey animals. The female gatherers knew the images of hundreds of edible plants or small animals and the sort of evidence of their presence. Effective search images kept our ancestors out of danger and well fed for millions of years. When they created stone tools, stones and rocks suitable for making tools entered the search images of these foragers. Every likely stone was picked up and examined before the decision to discard or keep it.

I suspect that this ancient search image talent has been built into modern shop design. We wander through super-markets or department stores, aware and monitoring with our search images to do our shopping, always alert to any-thing that provides an OR, and a cognitive decision to discard or purchase. Search images have always been part of the monitoring we and all animals do. To me, so much of our human minds was developed in animals. We could be grateful, but seldom actually acknowledge the gifts that came into humanity from our ancient ancestors.

Think always that explanatory gods and the very idea of powerful beings able to create us and weather first arose in the minds of ‘people’, newly talking and discovering endless questions about themselves, their dreams of dead relatives, the causes of everything once just expected. They under-stood cause and effect and sought causes for everything not understood. They made simple gods and as they improved their societies and understanding, they constantly improved the qualities of their gods, eventually creating the sophisticated gods of today. I well remember reading George Bernard Shaw’s The adventures of the little black girl in her search of God [7], introducing me to the gradual improvement of the gods in my own boyhood Christianity. The first god stories arose in the minds of people who really had no information on which to create any realistic stories of their origins. Their knowledge of their world was built on their need to thrive and to survive. Gods and super beings with powerful magic were made by hunter-gatherers who were dependent on what they could find if they were to thrive every day. They were subject to every force of climate or weather, of every unexpected raid by greedy neighbours. Gods provided stories to account for everything they then had no way of understanding. Certainly believing in mostly friendly and supportive gods gave them the security they expected in every part of their physical and societal worlds.

They could thank their gods for every survival through the forces of nature or enemies, but the credit was always theirs.

The first god stories arose in the minds of people who really had no information on which to create any realistic stories of their origins

Every improvement they and their communities built, was seized by natural selection; it produced us. But they shaped the myths becoming religions into ways of thinking and living that became part of daily life, a cultural life within small warm and embracing communities. The myths became part of the success of our species. We no longer need religion to maintain our societies, but it remains a powerful emotional need for most people, not easily rejected nor discarded. Time, information and education will eventually make religion unnecessary, perhaps for most people but never for all. Perhaps the success it has given our ancestors over so many thousands of generations has allowed it to become partially genetically assimilated [8] by natural selection.


1. von Bertalanffy, L. 1950. An outline of general system theory. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 1, 134-165.

2. Dennett, D. C. 1991. Consciousness explained. Boston, Little Brown.

3. Pavlov, I.P. 1927. Conditioned reflexes. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

4. McBride, G. 2012. Ethology, evolution, mind and consciousness. J. Conscious. Explor. Res.3,830–840.

5. Boehm, Christopher. 2001. Hierarchy in the forest: evolution of egalitarian behaviour. Harvard, Harvard University Press

6. Chance, M. & Jolly, C. J. and 1970. Social groups of monkeys, apes men. Jonathon Cape, London.
See also Chance, M.R.A. (1967) Attention structure as the basis of primate rank orders. Man, 2, 503-518.

7. Shaw, G.B. 1932, The adventures of the little black girl in her search for God. Time-Life Books.

8. Baldwin, J. M. (1896). A new factor in evolution. Am. Nat.30, 441–451.doi:10.1086/276408. See also Waddington, C.H. (1953). The “Baldwin Effect,” genetic assimilation and “homeostasis.” Evolution, 7, 386–387.doi:10.2307/2405346

Last updated Tue, 23/05/2017 - 11:49