There is a Blockchain in Your Brain
Before we discuss blockchain technology, let us consider the human being from a biological perspective. Human beings are quite unique in so far as we are dominant within a wide variety of climates, ecosystems, and other environmental factors. From the polar arctic to the equator, humans have adapted to their environments to survive and thrive. Being omnivorous, humans have capitalized on whatever sources of food that surrounding ecosystems have produced.
Perhaps more remarkable than our extreme adaptability is our unimpressive physical strength. We do not have very intimidating teeth or claws and we are significantly less strong than other apes. What sort of genius genetic trade-off have we made to sacrifice physical dominance for world domination?
The answer to this question may seem obvious but it is instructive to rederive the answer from first principles. There are three answers to this question which have been discussed at length. First, we have opposable thumbs and we are bipedal, allowing us to create tools and manipulate our environments. Second, we have a prefrontal cortex, allowing us to entertain sophisticated systems of thought and to plan over the long term. Third, we have the capacity for language allowing us to communicate complex concepts and organize our behavior.
However, we have yet another adaptation built into our genetics which bears further exploration. This is what one could call social ability. Let us take for example the simplest form of human society, the hunter-gatherer tribe. The prototypical hunter-gatherer tribe is about the size of Dunbar’s number, 150 people. This is the maximum number of meaningful human relationships that the human brain can handle.
A hunter-gatherer tribe is special in that, generally, every individual in it is a known entity for everyone else in the tribe. Human societies can obviously scale beyond this number, but this formation of humans seems to be essentially the minimal human grouping. This is the number of people for which the benefits of cooperation outweigh the handicap of relatively unimpressive physical strength. It is the size at which a human society begins to have a network effect.
Now how does such a small group of humans survive? The hunter-gatherer tribe survives by acting as a whole, with individuals taking different roles within the society. It is the most primitive form of role specialization. But a crucial question is how does such a society survive without money? We use money as a means by which individuals can specialize and as a way of keeping a tally of our contributions to society. It is how we can cooperate with individuals from all around the world to produce the goods a services that we use every day. In order to get more money, at least ideally, you need to produce more for society.
Because a hunter-gatherer tribe does not use money, we must conclude that there is something special going on in the human brain. How does it align sophisticated incentives in such a way as to produce such effective cooperation? What would happen without such a function? In a society in which everyone is as greedy as possible and in which there is no system of money for coordinating cooperative behavior, the structure of the society breaks down. One simply attempts to take as much as possible from others without giving anything in return and, if everyone is using this strategy, we encounter the problem of the tragedy of the commons.
Therefor, embedded in our genetics is a solution to the tragedy of the commons which regulates social behavior in a very powerful way. This solution must be stronger than the impulse for self-preservation since the survival of the group must be prioritized higher than that of the individual. Evolutionarily speaking, this is no small feet given that for most of evolutionary history, the self-preservation instinct was paramount. It is only with the development of sophisticated social cooperation that valuing the survival of the group over one’s short term interests is an adaptive behavior.
Now what does this have to do with the blockchain? I posit that the solution to the tragedy of the commons in small groups of humans is that there is a blockchain within the human brain. That is to say there is a consensus mechanism by which everyone has a copy of a ledger of social accounts. Contributions to the group and acts of good will are recorded as are anti-social and destructive behaviors. It is important both that everyone has a copy of this ledger as well as that everyone has essentially identical copies. This public ledger is stored in human brains and so we should not expect the copies to be literally identical. Every individual has a unique view of the social network. Nevertheless, there is a strong need for consensus.
Embedded in such a social dynamic, the primal fear is that of abandonment. Abandonment by the group is equivalent to certain death. And thus, rather than primitive impulses for physical survival, group acceptance is the main desire for such a socialized animal. It is thus abandonment that is the final threat which can be used to enforce social behavior. There is a limit to how much you can withdraw from your social accounts. Beyond this limit there is very little you can do to ensure your survival.
Besides this existential threat, there are also positive reinforcements. Productive social acts must be rewarded since a society cannot hold together with the threat of death alone. Those who contribute most valiantly to the society are admired and are cherished by the group. Thus the rewards of prosocial behaviors are actually social goods and connection to others in the tribe. Beyond social satisfaction is also the knowledge that because of one’s established relationships, one will be cared for in difficult times as well as in old age.
There is more to explore regarding this built in social consensus mechanism but I will leave it for another article. My hope is that we can start to see Bitcoin as an extension of our humanity and indeed a more effective one than perhaps any other recent technological advancement. For in order to move forward, we must also understand our ancient history.