Modified on

Evolution of Social Groups

by Douglas Moreman begun in June 2013

"Shibboleths and War."
"Say now, Shibboleth: and he said, Sibboleth for he could not ... pronounce it right. Then they tooke him and slewe him ... ."
In a shopping mall in Kenya, September 2013, customers were asked by armed gunmen to say something correct about Islam. If they failed, they were shot.
In 2016, a black man outside a bar in Atlanta, Georgia, USA said announced that he intended to "vote for Trump" for President and was shot dead.
These events illustrate, as does Judges 12:6, a main tool of aposyndesis among humans.

Some Basic Considerations

Groups Die. A group can die of disease, famine, fire, flood, war, ...

Since, sooner or later, a group of a social species must die, how can there continue to exist groups of that species? We conclude that

Groups reproduce.

Do there exist instinctive mechanisms for the reproduction of groups?

Aposyndetic: "apo sin DEH tic" was coined by mathematician F. Burton Jones to be interpreted as
"bound together away from."
Here "Aposyndesis" is used to refer to natural processes, and to the study of those processes, that, in some species of animals, bind together members of one group away from or against members of one or more other groups.

When, before 1975, I first began to think of social instincts and the evolution of groups, the concept of instinct was frowned upon in many American universities where research into the behavior of animals was conducted. Honey bees led me away from that frowning crowd. Observers of bees them reported that the tiny brains of bees encode instinctive mechanisms resulting in several distinct roles that can be played by a worker bee in the course of her life. Contrary to prevailing fashion, I reasoned that the much larger brains of humans might hold hundreds of instincts that can be activated in the course of ones life. Most human instincts, if they exist, are not noticed as such. Are you aware that when you greet a friend you rapidly raise and lower your eyebrows before you smile, for one example? You instinctively, unconsciously emit a signal. Your friend, just as instinctively and without conscious awareness of the flash of your eyebrows, reacts both with internal emotion and external smile.

It has seemed to me that humans are unconscious of many of their behaviors and, in particular, of instinctive aspects of motivations of their social behaviors.

People immitate others without always thinking consciously about why. Often, when caught at it and asked, their answers convey no meaning that is both clear and credible.

In the U.S. Presidential election of 2016, for example, millions of people ardently supported one side or another while uttering rationalizations having tenuous connections to reality. This behavior of asserting and rationalizing belief-without-understanding seems pervasive around the world. I am convinced that it represents an evolved complex of social instincts.

Steven Pinker has seen this practicality that might seem to almost explain the evolution of ardent holding of nonsensical beliefs -- without reference to group-based selection of genes:

People are embraced or condemned according to their beliefs, so one function of the mind may be to hold beliefs that bring the belief-holder the greatest number of allies, protectors, or disciples, rather than beliefs that are most likely to be true.

It is good that many people have a natural sense of mathematics. To decipher human social behavior, objectively within the context of broader science, will require a mathematical intuition augmenting the empathetic mode of thinking that is commonly used in attempting to understand people.
Instinctive mechanisms are often hidden and not to be discovered by empathy but by thinking about functionality that can be evidenced in models and about populations of alleles of genes.

A possible function of aposyndetic behavior might be to allowing the making of choices among alternatives facing a group.
But here, we examine the possibility that such perplexing behavior might be the reproduction of "the group."
I have proposed this possible result of group-based selection:

Social Fission Hypothesis of 1975:

In every social species of animals there is at least one instinctive mechanism for reproduction of the group.

The simple fact that "groups die" entails that, in a social species, groups must reproduce. It seems, to me, unlikely that reproduction of groups would, in even one social species whatsoever, fail to become an object of evolution and come to involve instinctive mechanisms.

A mechanism of reproduction of a group would seem to result in, and otherwise be involved in, evolutionary selection among groups. Yet, some (e.g. Stephen Pinker of Harvard) object?!
I suspect that the human line has had, for more than five million years, at least one instinctive mechanism for the reproduction of a group.

Once understood, the Social Fission Hypothesis can lead to a programmable mathematical model to demonstrate that some environmental influences can make selection of some genes stronger via groups than via individuals. And also, the other way round -- can make selection stronger via individuals.

I am currently (June 2013, and still, in December 2014) working, very hard to invent, test and patent methods that make images from echoes, as I imagine that the brains of dolphins do. I cannot now take a great many careful, small steps to convince you of Instinctive Reproduction of Groups. Perhaps you can slog your own way forward with a few more hints:

Natural reproduction is wasteful.
In its life, an oak tree produces how many tens of thousands of acorns? Yet on average, over the past million years, how many child-trees does a live-oak have that itself produces a live-oak tree? The answer is "one." See if you can see why.
One acorn succeeds where a tens of thousands fail.
Generally, most reproductions ultimately fail. It might not surprise you that this is true of reproduction of social groups. Over the eons, most swarms of honey bees have died without surviving long enough to spawn a new swarm. Has the same been true of groups of colonizing humans?

Groups Must Die Fast Enough.
Evolution requires death of the old making place for youth. For a more or less constant number of individuals, if the old never died, then there would be no place for new alleles of a gene to spread.
The shorter the longevity of the groups of a social species, the faster can selection-on-groups replace one allele of a gene with another. Thus, warring behavior can increase the rate of evolutionary change.

When a bee-swarm leaves its old hive, leaving behind bees who will maintain that old nest, the swarm goes some practical distance away, finds a potential hive-site, and creates a new nest. The distance reduces competition-for-food between the old hive and the new. But, nonetheless, on average, one of these two hives will soon die. So, as with oaks and acorns:

If that average is a bit less than one then the species will slowly die.
A bit more, and the numbers approach infinity, the planet is 1000 feet deep in bees.

A Group's Self-Identifying Stink
Consider this demonstration which I read about when I was very young:
1) An ant from hive A is placed onto hive B and is attacked.
2) An ant from hive A is place onto hive B but in a protective cage. After some sufficent time, the ant is released onto hive B but is not attacked.
It was explained that an ant having the scent-of-the-hive B would not be attacked. An ant of a hive recognizes another ant as a co-member, or not, by some chemicals on, or emitted from, the other's body. The word "stink" seems more appropriate than "scent." Ants of a hive sometimes attack ants that stink of another hive -- or, maybe it is: ants attack ants that do not stink of this hive here?
The immune system of human A will attack protein from human B injected into the body of A, but might not attack protein from A injected back into A. On average, the vigor of the rejection probably is related to "distance" in the sense of kinship?

The stink of a hive of ants binds members of that hive away from other hives.

The stink of a group need not be chemical. A group-identifier can work through sight of sound generated by behavior.

In some sense, the "stink" of a cult or clique of humans binds members of that group away from other folks.

There exist group-instincts related to discriminating a group more or less strongly from other groups.
In humans, stinky group-recognitions of "self," are usually cultural - involving learned behaviors. Can we find behavioral analogs of the chemical signals used among bees and other animals.

One can imagine that, after a panicked flight, a family of zebras can re-form itself, even among hundreds of other zebras, by means of vocalizations. In order for this to work, members of the family must recognize sounds made by some other members of the family. This requires prior practice. So, perhaps, one evolutionary reason for zebras making sounds, in times of rest, is for training in recognition that might be vital later.

In every social species, whose individuals are capable of them:
* There are individual-identifying vocal utterances.
* Every group hold together has group-identifying vocal utterances.

Perhaps, as one group defends its territory, or warns-off another group, we can detect group-identifying differences in their vocalizations?

There is already this unsurprising, related evidence: one study is reported to have found that two languages are more or less similar as their native speakers share, on average, more or less similar genetic material.

In the case of humans, what would be a Stink of the Tribe that binds members of a group together away from other groups? It might begin with the synglot, the proper, or eigen, language of a group. A group's synglot combined with other behaviors can become so obnoxiously distinctive that they constitute a macherschnitt, a behavioral complex that cuts its believers away from non-believers. We expect macherschnitts in gangs of teenagers.

Apologia (apo LOH geea): A subset of the synglot of a beliefplex that marks it and marks its enemies.

A Beliefplex is a Stink of the Tribe.
Why is it that a great majority of humans hold enduringly onto some belief or other that they do not comprehend or that they possibly cannot comprehend because it is nonsense?
Religions provide examples of "Beliefplexes." Politics is another area of Beliefplexes. My father warned me more than once "Never get into conversations about religion or politics." And, one can get oneself into interesting trouble, with nearly anyone, by announcing that "Religion is the stink of the tribe." If a self-proclaimed atheist agrees with you, you can tease him by pointing out that his atheism has many of the behavioral traits of a "religion." I knew a well-known topologist, wise in the ways of humans, who consciously referred to Topology as like-a-religion.

A Beliefplex has component "beliefs." The components of a Beliefplex need not be systematic. In fact, Beliefplexes are so often observed to have nonsensical parts that we have the hypothesis that follows below this supposition:

Suppose that we have an operationally defined measure of "success" of a Beliefplex and that our measure relates to membership. Relates perhaps, specifically, to numbers of members or to the duration of the movement.

Hypothesis of Core Absurdity.

The most successful Beliefplexes have at least one core absurdity that MUST be believed, or pretended to be believed.

That hypothesis might seem to many readers, on reflection, to be true. But, a more likely refinement of its idea is this:

The most successful Beliefplexes have at least one core utterance that MUST be believed, or pretended to be believed, and that is repellent to most people who are not believers.

Of course, being human and subject to all the human instincts, most of which operate below the level of consciousness, you and I might each indicate our own Belief as a counter-example -- its absurdities seeming reasonable to us.
How can usually rational individuals adopt absurd beliefs? Perhaps "cognitive dissonance" is involved.

Through Dilbert, Scott Adams has explained "cognitive dissonance"

When people are in an absurd situation, their minds rationalize it by inventing a comfortable illusion."
But surely, believing random absurdities does not make evolutionary sense as a behavior of isolated individuals? To understand this hypothesized phenomenon of required absurdity, we think in terms of existence and evolution of groups. Shared beliefs need not make sense in order to have survival value - what they need do is to differentiate members of the group from non-members. Barking like baboons could do almost as well? The humans species does, of course, have language.

In humans, the Synglot of a group contains, or expresses, the Beliefplex of that group.

The seeming absurdity of the utterances of a Beliefplex both binds a person, through poorly understood psychological mechanisms, to the group of that belief and also separates that person apart from other people.

You may doubt the "apart from" part. Some Beliefplexes are evangelical. They don't want to separate other people away, but to bring them into the loving fold of a forgiving God, for example. They desire peace and joy for everyone and they can even be tolerant of other Beliefplexes. But, somehow, much of the rest of the world remains aloof. Even hostile. As if the believers stink.

Every religion is aposyndetic, binding Believers together apart from non-Believers.
More generally, every Beliefplex is aposyndetic.

A Beliefplex is like the stink of an ant hive. Ants that have the stink are supported by other members of the hive. Ants that do not exude the proper stink are not encouraged and might be attacked.

Perhaps you have observed for yourself an hours-long discussion within a Beliefplex, in which not one utterance could be checked against facts in the Real World - apart from utterances like "John said that he felt the power of the devil." (which one could check by asking John if he said that)
They are not about the boiling point of water.
Some ardent discussions, seemingly about facts of science, lack connections to Reality and are really about Beliefs. This is true even among some scientists who argue points of science out of their expertise (or, within!).
Such discussions, filled with non-sense, are so common, and cross-cultural, that the behavior suggests an instinctive foundation.
Are we seeing simply a mis-firing of some instinct with its own survival value or might there be an evolutionary value to discussing the absurdities of a Beliefplex? Is this as simple as the braying of zebras? Possibly it is practice for a great uniting of the herd in some time and place - for war or some other great movement of the folk.

We do not suspect that those zebras, or similarly behaving dolphins, at least the younger ones, are consciously thinking about their making of noises as training for a future emergency. Nor ought we to assume that of humans.

Do you expect that humans are aware of the future benefits of their instinctive social behaviors? They are not even aware of their eyebrow flashes, to which some part of their brain reacts most every day. They, or we, are not aware of the eyebrow flash made by an equally unaware, newly arrived friend in 1/6 of a second -- even though it, instinctively, increases the friendly component of our mood. Our instincts are largely hidden from us and must be found by observational and modeling methods of science.

For what emergencies might evolution have prepared our groups?

Swarms and Wars
Some classes of evolution-impacting emergencies, external invasions for example, are huge and obvious.
Think of the instinctive behaviors in the swarming of locust-grasshoppers. The swarming occurs after a period of abundance of food. The size of a swarm is an indication of how widespread was the abundance. One can reason that grasshoppers that do not join in the swarm do not get to reproduce. Some starve because the food around them quickly disappears, eaten by swarmers. Some die of wounds inflicted by the swarmers, which do take bites out of other grasshoppers who sit too still. Swarms of grasshoppers can travel hundreds of miles. Those that swarm, some small fraction of them, get to survive. Those who do not join a swarm that engulfs them are less likely to live and reproduce than those that do.

Now, think of human wars over the eons. If you do not have some ardent group to cling to when a really bad war sweeps across your part of the world, you are, it seems, less likely to survive that war.

If you have not yet noticed that war has been an episodic constant among humans for all of recorded history, you are either blinded by a Belief or have not yet read enough relevant history.

Wars have shaped human evolution.
Warring is NOT limited to humans. A pride of lions will defeat and assume the territory of another pride. Same for packs of wolves. If this appears untrue of some species, then perhaps that species has not been observed long and carefully enough. Or, it has been observed by people blinded by Belief or by simple pre-conceptions. In 2014, for the first time, a conquest of territory by chimpanzees was reported.

Animals who survive wars, get to pass on their genes.

Genes that cause animals to reproduce their group and to conquer territory seem to survive.


Instinctive elements of warfare existed more than five million years ago in animals that were ancestral both to humans and to chimpanzees.

Beliefplexes play some part in the competition for existence.
Beliefplexes are among the roots or enabling factors of war.


Does war between two groups of humans requires that the groups have distinct Beliefplexes?

Seeming Multiplicity of Beliefplexes and Synglots
Every Beliefplex is expressed in its Synglot which has some utterances, more or less like sentences, and has a, mostly unconscious, set of rules for generating sentential utterances. These rules insure that a member of a group can invent new Synglot utterances that are consistent with the Beliefplex. So, not every in-group conversation sounds like a pre-recorded playback loop.

If some of the behaviors associated with (nearly) every Beliefplex are instinctive then it seems likely (but is not necessary) that everyone has at least one Beliefplex.
It seems that most people have more than one - though that might be due to a failure to define the term sharply enough. Perhaps Beliefplexes vary from one to the other in emotional inter-individual force. It might be a stretch to use the term Beliefplex in reference to, say, Plane Geometry, where, for some people, that emotional force is absent. But, on the other hand, there are people who say that they are repelled by Geometry.

Ardently Held "Beliefs" and the Reproduction of Groups
Does the existence of Beliefplexes support the notion of an instinctive mechanism, in humans, for the reproduction of a group?

There are terms to be sharpened.
How might one begin to build a meaning to be conveyed or intended by "instinct"?
This seems to be not taught in schools, but it is a fact that many, even most, words in science are not given, except by amateurs, precise definitions. This is well known in mathematics where "primitive" terms, not defined, begin every sub-field. Examples: "number" in the algebra that develops into Calculus and "point" in most of the Geometries. Maybe you think that in the empirical sciences, all words relating to real objects have been given crisp and correct definitions. This is the opposite of my own impression.

While I will try to clarify the word "instinct" sufficiently enough, I will not "define" it.

One can think of an instinct as being something like a neuronal computer program that is passed from parents to child via heredity.
Some instincts relate to social behavior and some of these seem, to me, to have likely resulted from evolution through group-selection.

Social Mitosis
Instinctively and, for the most part without conscious thought, adolescent humans, forming a new group to separate from the old, will create a new Synglot -- which need not be complicated or deep or have Beliefs that make a bit of sense. The creation of a second Synglot within a group creates conditions for the aposyndesis of social fission.

A swarm of honey bees does not land near to its old hive (still populated) when it is about to send out scouts to find a new hive-site. One can imagine there might be evolutionary pressure to separate related bee-hives in order to increase the chances of their being enough food within flying distance.
Likewise, as the surroundings allow, a group of (mainly) adolescents, separting from their parents, is repulsed some practical distance away. And good riddance!

Social Halitosis
There seem to exist, in human languages, words that can take part in social fission. When young people in a village begin to use forbidden words, they antagonize and push-away the elders and they join themselves together. The use of forbidden, or highly, socially restricted, words can can be aposyndectic.
That such words exist in languages might be due to some instinctive mechanism. Within a newly separated village of mostly adolescents, the old, forbidden (or highly restricted) words are uttered freely. But, other words become forbidden, having whatever are their immediate, instinctive uses (e.g. the force of a blow without the physical exertion or risk of damage), but also preparing for the next aposyndetic, social fission episode, several years in the future.

There seems to be a complex of instincts related to splitting away a group of adolescents from a village -- in a social mitosis. But, survival of such a group, long enough to spin-off another group, is seldom likely. Imagine a group containing 50 fiery adolescent males leaving their homes and, in a confident band (or "gang") travel over a mountain and descend into a lush valley - that is already territory of an alliance of villages having 500 hearty men, ready to fight. Most acorns die.

It seems likely (to me) that
human social instincts evolved over millions of years,
those instincts functioned in "villages" of maybe 100 to 200 individuals,
agriculture greatly changed selection-pressures, particularly those related to village-size and war.
These topics deserve elaboration - which is postponed.

Entraining for War
Warfare among humans seems to have some similarities to swarming among locusts.


There is an instinctive mechanism for entraining groups that are, each, splitting away a home village - such that a natural army forms.
Entraining mostly draws together groups of similar language.
Men of a village are more likely to be entrained into an army as the language of that village is similar to perceived languages of that army. With increasing similarity of languages, the degree of kinship between village and army increases. This impacts evolution.

Hypothesis: On average, the more similar the language of two groups, the closer is their kinship.
Men form a vanguard and "camp-followers" follow. The "army" flows, from the region of kinship-related villages, to descend upon and replace some strangers whose utterances sound like gibberish of animals or like some evil heresy.
The higher the rate of death of groups in war, the faster can be group-based evolution.

It seems instinctive that humans have some Beliefplex that has some stinkily absurd beliefs and the humans are blind to (or not worried about?) the absurdity or obnoxiousness which is obvious to people who do not share those beliefs. But, I am a human and my brain must be "wired" with that same instinct. I surely have some beliefs that seem stinkily absurd to others. Not just to others who are made crazy by their own beliefs but to nearly all others not in my Beliefplex. I wonder what they are?

Feeling impelled to write this - after waiting 38 years.

to be continued ... This page was modified on