In my last article, I talked about how monetary systems and systems of government can scale human societies beyond the Dunbar number. But just because a society at scale is functional does not mean that its organization is optimal. In this article, we will focus on psychological wellbeing though the implications of societal organization are much larger. Psychological wellbeing is something we all find desirable but it should also function as an indicator of genetic fitness for the individual. If we are happy and content, it should indicate that we don’t have any pressing dangers for the continuation of our genes. We should expect that the brain subconsciously picks up on cues relating to our genetic fitness and our psychological wellbeing should be an indicator of what our subconscious determination is.
But considering that we evolved in small, intimate tribes, is it necessarily the case that the cues our subconscious minds are picking up on are really accurate indicators of fitness in a global civilization with billions of humans involved? How do societies at scale change what cues are more important for genetic fitness? Let us consider again the small hunter-gatherer tribe in which everyone is known by everyone else. As we have discussed before, the fitness of the tribe is not primarily a function of the physical strength of the individuals but rather the degree to which the tribe can act together as a cohesive unit. It’s all about cooperation.
From the perspective of an individual within a tribe, what would be accurate indicators of his or her genetic fitness? The primary concern of the individual is that they are not abandoned by the group. Left to his or her own means, it is virtually impossible for a single human to survive in the wild. Thus the degree to which the individual is an integral part of the social fabric and has a positive balance in the consensus set of social accounts should be quite important in this regard. It is also important to note that in a small group in which everyone is communicating with everyone else, it is not possible to hold any meaningful secrets and thus relationships are kept honest, open and transparent. In short, we can call this variable the “connectedness” of the individual to the tribe.
The second metric that should influence an evaluation of one’s genetic fitness is the social health of the group as a whole. Clearly, a tribe can be influenced by environmental factors such as the disappearance of a particular food source but the social health of the tribe is relevant in both good times and bad. One can define the groups social health as the degree to which the group is able to cooperate effectively. Working together to find solutions to complex problems is much superior to individuals solving problems on their own. Thus the effectiveness of social regulation within a tribe should be a significant indicator of an individuals genetic fitness.
What about more modern indicators of genetic fitness? In today’s society, the primary indicators of genetic fitness should be wealth and status given that we assume civilization to be stable. Wealth allows you to provide a very safe environment for your offspring and status will grant your children privileges that they might not otherwise have such as acceptance to a prestigious university. Note that neither of these indicators necessarily involve deep reciprocal human relationships. Since reciprocity is enforced by systems of money and governance, there is not necessarily a need for you to concern yourself with social connectedness.
We should also consider the case in which the stability of civilization is questionable. Societal institutions are efficient at performing a certain function at scale. This is achieved by systematizing and formalizing a process and delineating different roles which are filled by different individuals. We can see many instances in society where functions are served by institutions such as education, health care and entertainment. The downside risk of institutions is that they are not particularly adaptable to change. As circumstances change, such as in the cases of the environment and technological advancement, they may no longer effectively serve the function for which they were created or there may be new problems that emerge which remain unsolved. Institutions are very effective in retaining their structures but their structure may eventually become maladaptive or insufficient.
Here we can see that deep social networks are the functional antithesis to institutions. Within our evolutionary context, we developed the ability to self-organize in such a way as to be highly adaptable to environmental and social changes. While some of this functionality does not scale, deep social networks are a hedge against uncertainty. They are able to create emergent solutions on the fly. They are naturally fluid and individuals within them are able to change their roles depending on circumstance. They are, in effect, decentralized in that their structure is not dictated from the top down. In the case that civilization is unstable, we should expect deep social networks to be more important even if they are not technically required for institutions to function.
There is a question as to the extent to which human beings have evolved in response to living in large scale civilizations. Thus we may not have certainty in knowing how much human psychology has adapted to modern signals of genetic fitness. However, even in the most conservative case, we should expect humans to be highly sensitive to their social connectedness when the stability of their society is uncertain. During violent revolutions, like the French Revolution for example, wealth and status did not necessarily protect your life. Thus, at the very least in the context of volatility, social connectedness should be a primary indicator of genetic fitness and a subconscious cue used to determine psychological wellbeing.
When we look at the situation as a whole we can see how important social embeddedness is for psychological wellbeing. If we assume that human psychology has not evolved significantly since living in small hunter-gatherer societies, there is a large rift between what indicators of genetic fitness used to be and what they are today. In short, in large civilizations, many individuals can survive quite well while being positively miserable. If we posit that human psychology has evolved significantly we should see that social embeddedness should be a very important indicator given the growing instability of modern society.
It is important to note that deep relationships with a small group of friends and family is not sufficient for social embeddedness. For a social network to be effective it must have enough scale to provide emergent solutions. Thus it is not just a matter of the depth of one’s connections but rather the network topology and size that determine social embeddedness. If we use the example of the hunter-gatherer tribe, 150 people seems to be an optimal number for an intimate social network. This allows for social connections to evolve and change and allows the individual to find a social niche in which they feel most comfortable. In effect, the network is searchable.
In my previous articles, I touched on how Bitcoin improves the efficiency of human societies at scale. Bitcoin is an important innovation in regulating societal institutions through transparency. But can Bitcoin go even deeper? Can it be used to fundamentally reorganize the network topology of society? Can deep social networks themselves scale beyond the Dunbar number? If so we could expect radical improvements in psychological wellbeing and highly effective hedges against uncertainty and volatility. In future articles, we will go deeper into how Bitcoin can achieve this goal.