The Conformity Police
History of the Global Brain - IX
Why call the first principle of a complex adaptive system "the conformity enforcer," objected a well-meaning colleague. "Doesn't the notion smack of a police state?" Yes. The conformity enforcers pressing perception, behavior and appearance into a common mold can be far more brutal than we might like to think. And they begin their work at a disturbingly early age.
I. Biology, Evolution, and the Global Brain
II. Creative Nets in the Precambrian Age
III. Networking in Paleontology's "Dark Ages"
IV. The Embryonic Meme
V. From Social Synapses to Social Ganglions: Complex Adaptive Systems in the Jurassic Age
VI. Mammals and the Rise of Mind
VII. Tools of Perception - The Construction of Reality
VIII. Reality is a shared Hallucination
Jesus Christ, William Wordsworth, and the current New Age Touch The Future Movement in California have portrayed children as avatars of innocence. If so, then innocence is barb-wired with ferocity. In the early 1960s, Eibl-Eibesfeldt found "toddlers...hitting, kicking, biting and spitting at one another" no matter what culture he studied. It is unlikely that these newcomers to our world had learned their harshness from parents or from violent movies on tv. In many of the societies Eibl-Eibesfeldt scrutinized, television was at best a distant dream. In others parents worked like hell to stop the hailstorms of savagery. If anything the behavioral circuitry of sadism seems a curse genetically pre-stamped into us.
The offspring of humans are not alone at inflicting cruelty. A monkey island in Florida was surrounded by friendly alligators. Yes, I know it sounds hard to believe, but according to pioneering primatologist Harry Harlow, these ominous reptiles actually seemed to enjoy their mammalian company. The monkey youngsters, however, would wait for one of the gregarious creatures to drift by, grab it by all four legs, flatten it against a cement wall, and proceed to chew on it. To the primate hooligans, this seemed highly entertaining sport. Harlow implies that the alligators were somewhat less amused. Gangs of young monkeys will sneak up on a cage in which a mother is kept, pretend to be perfectly innocent until they get within arm's reach, then, when the matriarch's not looking, yank out tufts of her fur. Clusters of baby monkeys allowed to roam free in the lab form gangs that make raids for revenge or simply for kicks. Says Harlow, "If they had not learned to cooperatively aggress, there would be no monkeys in the world...." In other words, Harlow felt that collective sadism was practice for the inter-group tournaments which pit monkeys against those who would like to dine on them or rival groups of their own species determined to do them harm.
But coordinated viciousness serves a function within the group as well. It builds the backbone of a social structure, polices it, and then compels conformity. When Clifford, a juvenile baboon on the savannas of Kekopey in Kenya, injured his leg, he became a target. His agemates ganged up on him until his mother put a stop to it. But her help only halted the harassment for a short time. Adults disabled by injury undergo the same fate. One male whose leg became damaged found that adults and infants both fled screaming from him, and that the males who had been his buddies now targeted him for attack. Detestation of deformity is not limited to primates. A dominant lizard who has his tail snapped off by a predator will return to the troop over which he reigns only to find that he's now an outcast. The sight of a herring gull in distress often inspires others of her kind not to help, but to attack. Says legendary ethologist Niko Tinbergen, hostility in social creatures is almost universal against "individuals that behave in an abnormal manner."
Shunning the Misshappen or Ill-Fated
Human and ape societies cluster around the "fearless" and the "brave." Mountain gorillas respect aggression, and treat those who are gentle poorly. One young female in the Virunga mountains of Central Africa was deeply attached to her brothers and father. She'd sit by her father for hours staring adoringly into his face. Then she became ill. How did the relatives she'd doted on show their concern? They pounded and picked on her.
The tendency to shun the misshapen or ill-fated is not just some dismal quirk of the animal world. An American child whose mother had been killed in a car crash reported that after the accident, the other kids in school shunned her. Even her best friend, who comforted her, had to force herself to get near her. In the late 80s, a student at a university in China made the mistake of telling her classmates that her mother had died when she was young from that point on, they made fun of her mercilessly.
Byzantine emperors knew the power of disfigurement. They cut off the noses of relatives who might have a legitimate claim to the throne, knowing the handicap would keep the nasal amputees from ever commanding respect. The trick didn't always work. One emperor was deposed, had his nose removed, and was exiled. He snuck back in through the plumbing system with his followers, retook the city, and remounted the throne. But this was a case of will and past dominance overcoming the pull of instinct which normally would have rendered him too repulsive for words.
Psychologist and zoologist David Barash feels that our intolerance of the handicapped comes in part from an ancient impulse to distance ourselves from those who may be carrying one of the primary killers of pre-modern men and animals - infectious disease. There may be merit to his argument. But I suspect the urge to impose physical uniformity springs from the complex adaptive system's utility sorters and resource shifters. Remember a learning machine's most basic rule - strengthen the connections to those who succeed, weaken them to those who fail. The monkey with a broken limb botched an attempt to maneuver across a tricky landscape. The lizard with the missing tail was insufficiently wiley to avoid the teeth of an enemy. The strategy or physiology of the wailing gull went seriously awry. And the noseless member of the Byzantine royal family wore the sign of political failure on his face.
Our intolerance of deviations from a physical norm seems bundled into us at birth. Human studies from all over the world show that infants as young as two months old already prefer attractive to unattractive faces. Ironically, the most attractive faces scientists have been able to construct are composites of as many as 32 photos, their features cleverly blended into a realistic-looking approximation of a social midpoint. Adult studies demonstrate that we fawn over those who we deem beautiful, clustering around them, over-rating their intelligence, anxious to be their friends. Like moths to a flame, we are attracted to the living embodiment of typicality.
Perceptual Calibration and Punishment of Those, Who are not in line
More important to the operations of collective intelligence is an equally powerful enforcer which prods us into acting, seeing, and believing only what's acceptable to the herd. You might call the result "perceptual calibration" - aligning members so they can operate with mass efficiency. In the first year of human life, we've already examined the flowerings of the herd instinct - from empathy to a fixation on a mother's face and the following of another's gaze. During the second year children fixate on the standards their parents lay down, comparing the objects around them to a social standard, and becoming distressed when things deviate from this shared ideal. Though fourteen-month-olds are not yet bothered by breaches of propriety, nineteen-month-olds point an accusing finger at the tiniest flaw: a hole in clothes, a chip in the paint on a toy, a spot of dirt on a wall, or, most important, the "bad" behavior of someone else. By 20 months, babies have a rich vocabulary for denigrating the deviant - they are incensed when things are "yukky," "broken," "boo boo" and "dirty." In short, at less than two years old toddlers already show not just the instincts that patrol conformity within themselves, but the weapons which will help them impose it on others.
Protests against imperfection are not just some anal-compulsive trait of middle class babies in the West. They also show up in children on the Fiji islands and newly arrived immigrant babies from Viet Nam. In 1896, James Sully summed up such phenomena by observing that a child has an "inbred respect for what is customary, and...has an innate disposition to follow precedent and rule...." Modern psychologist Jerome Kagan wonders what evolutionary advantage this innate tendency to "morality" may have. The answer: it is one of those instincts which make cohesion possible, giving man his most important tool, society.
Children are supersensitive to getting out of line. The punishments their playmates hand out are often appalling. Five to ten percent of children have no friends. In one American classroom, a petition was passed around "saying sign if you hate Graham." The teacher intercepted it just before it was handed to Graham himself. Then there are the beatings, banishments, taunts, theft of clothes and books, and other torments inflicted by gangs of children from the age of four or five on those who don't fit in.
Unattractive children or children with strange religious backgrounds, funny names, and unusual ethnic roots are particular targets for these torments. Kids punish those who do far better than average in school and those who do far worse. One third grader was cursed with talent - she was outstanding at piano, ballet, and reading. Her classmates hated her. She tried to be pleasant to everyone, but was labelled a snob and treated with the derision she "deserved."
In Japan, where the ideal of harmony is king, enforcement of conformity takes on particular viciousness. Ijime, bullying or picking on someone who sticks out is often led by, of all people, the teacher.
Ritch Savin Williams studied U.S. summer campers and discovered adolescent leaders were particularly gifted at dishing out ridicule. Female camp trend-setters - praised by feminist scholars of the post-Carol Gilligan school for the warmth of their gentle cooperation - were particularly wicked conformity enforcers. They did it with the carrot and the stick. A dominant female camper would offer to fix another girl's hair or help her with her choice of clothes ... both quiet ways of shaping her appearance to fit the mold. But the verbal abuse these teen leaders could mete out was so devastating that it agonized even the researchers watching it. When the girls were quizzed about dominance, they claimed to dislike it, though clearly some of them dominated others in no uncertain terms. Tellingly, they abhorred the term because to them it represented standing out and being different.
Youngsters who lead attacks on the odd often end up running animal troops or human nations. The pubescent Oliver Cromwell roamed the streets of his British hometown clubbing adults he didn't care for with an outsized walking stick, then led the English Revolution of 1648 and ended up as a piously Puritan dictator. As a child, Fidel Castro was a bully and proud of it. In his fifties and sixties, he still enjoyed telling how he once had beat up another grammar school student because that student was the teacher's pet. In an attempt to stop the battering, the Catholic teacher/priest whomped Castro on the head. The youth turned and pummeled the pedagogue for all he was worth. Fidel gloated that the incident had made him a school hero. Bullies act as conformity enforcers when they are children, and may become conformity enforcers in adulthood once again. Fidel, for example, allows no straying from the norms he sets for Cuban citizens. Nor did Oliver Cromwell, who persuaded the author of a famous work on freedom of the press, John Milton (the essay in question was Milton's 1644 Areopagitica), to become his censor, and a rigorous one at that.
The tendency of children and adolescents to whip diverse humans into line grows more polished among adults. Max Weber, describing the America of the '20s, said that to be among the fashionable elite you had to live on the correct street, wear the correct fashions, gush over the correct art, and behave in the correct manner. Otherwise, you would not get invited out. No one would show up to visit you. The threat of social exclusion drove the U.S. upper class to conformity with the norm. In pre-Revolutionary China "public standards were enforced mainly by gossip, threat of 'loss of face,' (prestige), and ostracism," say anthropologists Allen Johnson and Timothy Earle.
The Utku eskimo also used social exclusion to enforce conformity. They disallowed angry thoughts, which they were sure could kill. Living on the edge of existence, closeness and cooperation were vital. Anger was regarded as a child's emotion that adults learned to hold back. Those who failed to control their anger were teased, ignored or tossed out of the band.
Things are not that different in the modern scientific community. Sociological researchers maintain a mask of objectivity. But behind that mask some schools of thought hide ideological goals. When students in these movements report facts that contradict the tenets of the creed they are not praised for the objectivity of their work, but punished for their heresy. They are derided, their papers are rejected by journals, and they are excluded from key symposia - all an indirect way of forcing them "to leave the movement." A similar mechanism of repression is at work in every scientific discipline I know. Mathematician Peter Nyikos reports a typical case, that of:
"Clifford Grobstein, an amphibian embryologist who has published many false claims about human embryos, yet has enormous influence. He has been cited in legal battles over the custody of human embryos, and his bogus embryology has swayed the courts despite the counter-arguments by experts in human embryology. ...Grobstein wields great power in the matter of grant funding, so when biologist-philosopher Dianne Irving corrected five factual errors at a conference after a talk by Grobstein, lots of people voiced agreement in private but told her that they wouldn't dare say such things in public themselves."
For numerous scientists, to go against the tide risks academic suicide.
1980s New Conservatives, like the members of other groups, furtively disciplined their members to toe the party line. Paul Weaver was a dedicated neo-conservative free marketeer who believed passionately in the reigning dogma of his group - that corporations are the salvation of America. After two years at the Ford Motor Company, he became convinced that the corporation could be a self-destructive beast. When Weaver returned to New York with his new observations, his neo-conservative friends spurned him. His criticism of the corporation was an affront to the faith.
Even humor is a conformity enforcer clothed in the garb of congeniality. It focuses on others' weaknesses, disasters, stupidities, and abnormalities. Darwin reports that in the mid-19th century, Australian aborigines would "mimic the peculiarities of some absent member of the tribe" and break into uncontrollable fits of laughter. Even in "gentle" Tibet before the Chinese takeover Heinrich Harrer, the only westerner allowed to stay at length in the capital of Lhasa, reported "If anyone stumbles or slips, they enjoy themselves for hours. ...They make a mock of everything and everybody. As they have no newspapers, they indulge their criticism of untoward events or objectionable persons by means of songs and satire. Boys and girls walk through the Parcor in the evening singing the latest verses. Even the highest personages must put up with being pulled to pieces."
Acceptance is as important to social animals as oxygen and food
Thomas Hobbes declared that the man who laughs too much is aware of how many flaws he has and maintains a high opinion of himself by focusing on the imperfections of others. And mid-20th century cartoonist Al Capp observed bitterly that "All comedy is based on man's delight in man's inhumanity to man."
But perhaps the word "inhumanity" is a tad too homocentric. Humor is governed by the animal brain - the thalamus and hypothalamus. Gorillas, like humans, use mockery to punish those who botch their attempts at conformity. Two groups ran across each other in the forest. The males strutted and swaggered to show their power. One was young and inexperienced. He charged to show off his boldness, but pulled off the maneuver sloppily. An older rival made his displays with confidence and finesse. The youngsters of the inexperienced male's group followed behind him, "exaggeratedly mocking his awkward displays of bravado."
But often rejection is far less benevolent. Like juvenile chimpanzees, we avoid the deformed and different. In studies where an actor collapsed dramatically in the middle of a subway car, he was much less likely to get help if he had a large birth mark. A questionnaire administered by a psychologist in 1894 showed that tiny breaches of custom - men who wore earrings, people who wore a ring on their thumb or too much stylish jewelry people who tried to stand out or who strayed from the pack - roused infuriation. An experimental group was given the task of assigning others to jobs that would either pay money or involve receiving an electrical shock. They awarded the paying job to those whose personalities matched the majority, and shuffled the painful shocks to those who didn't quite fit in.
A willingness to dish out pain is not limited to the lab. If an American worker in the 1960s and 1970s worked faster than the rest of his group, the other laborers would "bing" him - snapping their fingers painfully on his arm.
A tremendous number of cultures believe in witchcraft or the evil eye. There failure to fit in can be lethal. To the Bantu, all evil is caused by a witch, an innocent soul in whom a demonic spirit has taken up residence without his knowledge. To detect the bearer of malevolence the Bantu gather in a circle, chanting softly, as the witch doctor goes from man to man, sniffing each. The tribesmen believe that the volume of their chanting is under the control of supernatural forces. The individual in front of whom the witch doctor is testing the air when the chanting becomes the loudest is the one he picks as the demonic vessel. The unwitting conduit of evil is hauled off and dispatched from this planet by having a stake driven up his rectum. His Kraal is burned, his family wiped out, his cattle given to the chief, and a smattering of cows and bulls are divvied out to the witch doctor as a tip. But in reality the chanting is a popularity contest. And as in the American witch-hunts of the 1600s, suspicion locks in on the person who strays the furthest from the norm.
In this we differ little from our animal cousins. Social exclusion among chimps involves a puzzling willingness to dish out pain. At Holland's Arnhem zoo one male chimp was attacked by two others so viciously that they removed his testicles, slashed his head, back, sides and anus, removed several of his toes and wounded his hands. Yet the next morning he did not want to be separated from his attackers - the key males in the social group in which he'd spent most of his life.Twelve hours later, his wounds had killed him.
But which really does the killing - the physical injury or the social disapproval? When vervet monkeys are attacked by their peers, the bites they get are often trivial - in fact, many don't break the skin. But the punished monkey can go into shock and die.
Human children are wounded far more than physically when lashed by humiliation from those who deem them different. Adults assume that youngsters are concerned with problems like the birth of a brother, the prospect of an operation or a trip to the dentist. But a 1988 survey of 1,814 children by the University of Colorado's Kaoreu Yamamoto showed that, in fact, many of the primary fears of nine to fourteen-year-old children in the U.S., Australia, Canada, Egypt, Japan and the Philippines focussed on being shamed or disgraced in front of friends.Yes, children were frightened of the expected horrors: a mother or a father's death, going blind, and seeing their parents fight. But their preoccupations also included being held back a grade in school and wetting their pants in the classroom.
Yamamoto's study indicated that even the experts were usually way off base in estimating the importance of these fears. Ann Epstein of Harvard Medical School pointed out the most chilling fact of all: that humiliation was one of the most common causes of childhood and teen suicide. Acceptance is as important to social animals as oxygen and food. When we reach the complex adaptive system's utility sorters, we'll see exactly why.
Humans have been willing to starve rather than give up their social ties. The Japanese have incorporated this inherently human fact into their culture far more overtly than we have. Most Westerners are familiar with one of Japan's most popular adages - "The nail that stands out will be hammered down." The pre-eminent expert on Japanese culture, Edwin Reischauer explained twenty years ago that the Japanese were painfully concerned about what others might think of them. The ultimate threat parents delivered to a misbehaving youngster: "people will laugh at you." The effect, said Reischauer, was "devastating."
The supreme punishment in a Japanese village, said Reischauer, was ostracism. The inability to trade food and other necessities with your neighbors could seriously threaten your existence on this earth. Something remarkably similar once played a primary role in keeping early North American colonists in line. During the 16th and 17th century, behavior was policed by taking advantage of the individual's entrapment in a small community. The entire village would participate in the ritual of his marriage. However it would also unite in chastising his aberrance. Puritan settlers were dependent for their meals and feelings of self worth on the two to three hundred neighbors with whom they shared their labors in the isolation of a dangerous wilderness. As in Japan, exclusion from the community could increase your chance of death dramatically.
By the 19th century, on the other hand, land in the Northeast had been cleared of Indians and wild animals. One could easily leave one town and move to another, or better yet, blend into the crowds of a large city. New circumstances called for new conformity enforcers - highly portable ones. On the positive side were passionate emotions like love, which substituted for the pressure of neighbors, parents and propinquity to draw one into marriage. On the negative side was your sense of guilt. Your parents didn't humiliate you in public, they sent you to your room so your conscience would torment you. The government put you in a penitentiary, where your feelings of remorse would theoretically pummel you mercilessly. But the publicly inflicted shame of village life and the more private "conscience" you carried in the anonymous metropolis both - at heart - came down to the same bottom line: they meant that the people who mattered to you the most were going to reject you, sometimes ferociously. The agony of anticipated shame usually whips the non-conformist tendencies out of us, and lashes us into running with the herd.
The instinctual exercise of cruelty thrusts non-conforming individuals to the periphery and sometimes expels them entirely, squeezing us into social units as automatically as the discomfort of termites at the sight of scattered feces compels them to turn excreta into architecture. The termites' mounds of excrement eventually mesh to form cities of up to 20 million inhabitants. Our packs of vicious children and adults gradually shape the social complexes we know as religions, sciences, corporations and nations. The tools of our cohesion include ridicule, isolation, assault, torture, and death by stoning, lethal injection, or the noose. A collective brain may sound warm and fuzzily New Age, but some of the forces twisting it together are far less kindly than we'd like to think. ??