In my previous article, I wrote about how there is a blockchain in the human brain. That is to say, there is a consensus mechanism by which a small group of humans agrees upon a ledger of social accounts. These social accounts keep track of every individual’s contribution to the group as well as debts to it. It is perhaps natural to attempt to relate this idea to your own life especially in regard to your feelings towards other people who have helped you or harmed you. But there is more going on here than mere individual social memory. Your individual memory helps you keep track of who to trust and who to avoid but it does not in and of itself help the group act as a whole.
Social consensus is not merely the sum or average of the views of the individuals in a social group. Let us consider again the hunter-gatherer tribe of about 150 people. In such a tribe, there may be different opinions about major decisions which affect the tribe or certain individuals in it. Yet, even so, the tribe must act as a single unit and maintain its integrity. If it does not, if for example a small number of individuals do not go along with a certain decision, the tribe itself will continually fracture over and over every time there is a contentious decision that is made. Thus, there must be a consensus that is followed, even if there are individuals within the group who disagree in the particulars.
It is helpful then to think of a group social consensus as a single emergent phenomenon of the social interactions within the group. We should expect it to be the case that this social consensus should capitalize on as many brains and neurons as possible in order to arrive at the most adaptive conclusion. In other words, we should not expect the social consensus to be simply dictated by the leader of the tribe, however wise he or she may be. It is far more adaptive to allow individuals to organize into differentiated roles and capitalize on the multiple perspectives that this results in.
This does not preclude the possibility of a “decider” role such as a wise elder that makes major decisions for the tribe. However, the role of the decider itself is made possible by a social consensus that cannot be simply enforced by the physical strength of the leader. A leader who has lost his or her legitimacy will quickly be replaced by a more effective option as a result of a new social consensus. Furthermore, those who best fulfill the decider role are those who are able to listen to the needs, desires, and fears of the rest of the tribe and integrate this information into a decision. Ultimately, if you do not excel at facilitating cooperation, there is no way for you to maintain the role of a decider.
But what about larger societies with millions or billions of people within them? Does the same mental infrastructure scale to meet the task? In larger societies, it is impossible for a human to maintain a set of accounts for every other member of the group. However, the basic structure of a consensus set of social accounts still plays a major role. In addition to this function, governmental bodies, legal procedures, and systems of money are required to ensure a functioning society. In a small tribe where everyone knows everyone else, these are not necessary for survival.
Let us take as an example India under British rule. In this case, we can see groups of individuals having particular balances in consensus social accounting rather than just individuals. In colonial India, those with white skin had a higher social status and were afforded more optionality than those of Indian descent. In this context, we can see that the original functionality of consensus social accounting, to reward prosocial behavior and deter antisocial behavior for the purpose of social harmony, is perverted to maintain an asymmetric power structure.
It is important to note that this asymmetric power structure did not afford the British the ability to do literally anything that they wished to do. Even at a large scale, the ultimate purpose of a set of consensus social accounts is to promote the survival of the genetic lineages of the individuals participating in the social organization. Thus the British had to maintain a system in which the genetic survival of the human populations in India were not threatened. Had the British been so oppressive as to threaten the genetic survival of Indian gene pools, we should expect that a reorganization of society would have occurred in order to prevent this from happening.
Now we can see that there are two very distinct views of consensus social accounts, one being based on the survival of a larger gene pool and the other being the view from an individual’s psychology based on the functionality of this social accounting mechanism. In other words, there can be a consensus of social accounts which manipulates the individuals psychology for the purpose of the survival of the larger gene pool. In the example of Colonial India, the fact that the British had more in their social accounts by the mere fact of their skin color did not make sense in realistic view of the reality of the situation yet the perpetuation of a functioning social order was important for survival.
From the view of the individual, it did not make sense that the British should have extra credits in their account balances because it did not correspond to actual contributions to society. Instead, this set of accounts was maintained by the ideology that the British were superior because of their skin color. It is quite fitting that, in his youth, Gandhi experimented with eating meat thinking at the time that the British were able to maintain their rule because of the strength they got from being meat eaters. Thus social orders in which there is a tension between actual contributions to society and consensus social accounting must be propped up with ideologies and propaganda.
Gandhi’s political actions give us a very clear picture of how one can change the social order by capitalizing on our innate ability to maintain a set of social accounts. Gandhi’s strategy had two main components and, though his strategy was simple, it was remarkably powerful. The first part of Gandhi’s strategy was to pinpoint an aspect of the consensus social accounts which could not stand up to light of reason. In other words, he found specific and powerful instances in which there was a tension between the consensus social accounts and the basic logic of reciprocity and fairness. These specific instances of social accounting had to be maintained by ideology and logically inconsistent propaganda and thus could be leveraged to make a point.
The second part to Gandhi’s strategy was to bring these specific logical inconsistencies into broad public awareness by creating messages about them with large costly signals attached to them. Gandhi regularly put his life and well-being on the line in the process of making a point about the social order of British rule. Gandhi’s famous Salt March is a great example of this. He walked 240 miles over a period of 24 days culminating in him reaching the ocean and making salt. In so doing, he violated the British’s draconian tax laws on salt production and was arrested. Not only did Gandhi highlight a specific instance of illogical social accounting (the British control of salt production) but he also attached a heavy personal cost to this message by being arrested and thus launched the issue into the public consciousness.
It is important not only that Gandhi was able to bring logical inconsistencies in consensus social accounting into public awareness but also that this strategy was ultimately successful in bringing about a radical change in the social order of India. After reaching a point of critical mass, the logic behind British rule was irreconcilable with the understanding of social accounts held by the Indian people. As a result, the British lost their political legitimacy as appropriate rulers of the Indian subcontinent and social consensus of the nation changed all at once in a black swan event. The logic of British rule became untenable.
By now hopefully we have a good foundational understanding of a very basic human ability, the capacity to maintain a public ledger of social accounts which enable cooperative behavior to persist in iterative social games. We can see that, in small groups of humans, this ability produces very high levels of cooperation, harmony, and transparency as it very accurately accounts for prosocial and antisocial behavior i.e. dishonesty is nearly impossible. However, as human societies scale, there can be created separations between an honest accounting of contributions to the society and the consensus accounts. Sudden and radical changes in the consensus accounting paradigm can be intentionally created by bringing into public awareness logical inconsistencies in the old paradigm.
Those with a deep understanding of Bitcoin may start to see parallels between our psychology and blockchain technology. While most discussions about Bitcoin have focused on economics and the future of information technology, there are vast implications in social organization which have yet to be explored. In future articles we will go further into connection between blockchain and our ancient genetic past.
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