Sunday, October 6, 2019

Reading The Human Swarm 2: The importance of scale in social structure

I’ve now gone back to the beginning of The Human Swarm and have been reading chapters in order, from the Introduction up to chapter 5, “Ants and Humans, Apples and Oranges”. I’ve made notes (mostly excerpts) on it all, but I want to concentrate on Ch5. By that time Moffett has established two things to keep in mind:
  • Animal life can be organized on two scales, 1) the small band, which is based on recognizing individuals, and 2) what he calls a society, where one only recognizes whether or not an individual is a member. Societies will (may?) consist of a number of small individual-recognition bands.
  • One form of social organization is the fission-fusion society, where bands will spend part of their time on their own, but will also conjoin with other bands in the society for joint activities.
Ch5: Ants and Humans, Apples and Oranges

Let’s list some excerpts:

p. 57
We modern humans may be genetically close to the chimp and bonobo, yet ants are the animals we resemble most. The similarities between our species and theirs tell us a lot about complex societies and how they emerge.
p. 58-59
Insomuch as chimpanzees and bonobos think as we do, the parallels often extend to other animals, too. Both are like us in recognizing themselves in a mirror; then again so do dolphins, elephants, and magpies, and there’s a claim, widely doubted, that ants do, too.
p. 59 Among both bonobos and chimpanzees...
relationships are dictated by strict hierarchies of power, which are tyrannical in the chimp–especially in the males. On maturing, females of both species abandon childhood kith and kin for another community, never to return. The females are sexually receptive only on occasion,...
Here’s the big one, the one this post is about, p. 60:
Scientists investigating animal behavior have too often been narrowly devoted to the evolutionary relationships between species, when many features of societies have more to do with scaling – sheer numbers – rather than pedigree. The societies we have looked at among the nonhuman vertebrates, including the nonhuman apes, contain at most a few dozen individuals. A large leafcutter nest harbors a workforce in the low millions. [He opens the chapter discussing these.]

Once a population grows that large, all types of complexity can emerge – in fact often have to emerge to get jobs done. The coordination seen among hunting groups in a chimp or painted dog society is mercurial enough to amount to wishful thinking compared to the elaborate way some predatory ants organize hunts, with some workers stopping the quarry in its tracks, others applying the death blow, and others dismantling the corpse into slabs of flesh carried off in coordinated teams. Most vertebrates lack the labor force to take on such specific roles; nor must they operate in this way for the members to get the food they need.

The same is true for housing and infrastructure. The burrows of prairie dogs can be intricate; they connect underground with hibernation chambers and dead ends that thwart predators. Yet, contrasted with the monumental architecture of a leafcutter nest or a honeybee hive, the dwellings of these rodents seem a relic of the Animal Stone Age.

It’s one thing to organize a society with, say, a dozen to 30 or 40 members, the individual-recognition band. This doesn’t require much if any occupational and thus role specialization. It’s another thing when you’re dealing with 10s of thousands or millions or even billions of members in one society. Now specialization is essential. That’s what makes ants so interesting. And that’s why it is important to understand how their societies work.

Group size among humans, some quick observations

From my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil (2001), Ch9: Musicking the World, 200-201:
In a recent synthesis and review of work on human groups Linnda Caporael argues that the band, which she calls a deme, and the group of bands, which she calls a macrodeme, are basic units of organization that appear in all human societies. We see demes and macrodemes in their most basic configuration in hunter-gatherer societies, but they persist even in the most sophisticated. Thus, drawing on David Hull’s work on the social organization of science, Caporael suggests that scientific “in-groups” devoted to certain ideas are demes, while somewhat larger “invisible colleges” are macrodemes that meet with one another at yearly meetings of scientific societies.

Caporael’s analysis extends to smaller groups as well. Many tasks typically fall to groups that are smaller than bands. Courtship, mating, and child-rearing involve intense interaction between pairs—technically referred to as dyads. One obvious characteristic of dyads is that they permit a very high level of coordination between people; consider an infant interacting with her mother, or a courting couple. Other activities require “handfuls,” work groups of a half-dozen or so individuals. Here, coupling is generally looser than in dyads. Thus when a handful of men go out hunting they may agree on the type of game and the general direction of the hunt but otherwise function fairly autonomously, at least until game has been spotted.

Caporael treats these core configurations—dyads, “handfuls,” demes, and macrodemes—as basic units of social organization. I will assume her framework for the rest of this book. For the past ten or fifteen millennia, however, humans have been living in societies larger than thousands of individuals. How do we construct societies larger than the largest core configuration, a macrodeme of some hundreds of indivduals? We need a new mechanism—permanent leadership—and as we will see later on, that mechanism requires musicking for its social construction and maintenance.
Along those lines I can also mention Mancur Olson’s The Logic of Collective Action (Harvard 1965, p. 54), where discusses an organization in which “the average size of the ‘action taking’ subgroups was 6.5 members, whereas the average size of the ‘non-action taking’ subgroups was 14 members.” Olson goes on to cite similar numbers for other organizations, including committees in the US Congress. And that makes sense. Taking action, e.g. reporting out a bill for consideration before Congress, requires a higher degree of coordination and assent than simply examining something to, say, issue a report. The smaller group facilities the necessary degree of interaction.

Interaction in musical groups

This is obvious in the structure of musical groups. Small group jazz, which I know very well, gives each musician a great deal of freedom. Such groups typically have between three six or seven members; quartets and quintets are particularly common. Typically, though not always, at any given moment one musician will have the “floor” as a soloist and, as such, is free to play whatever they wish. But the accompanying musicians do not play set parts. Rather, they are expected to vary their accompaniment in response to the soloist.

Larger jazz groups are organized differently, say nine to perhaps twenty or so piece. Now fixed arrangements become necessary. You can’t have a dozen people making it up all the time. Typical arrangements will have sections that feature a soloist, who is free to do as they wish, just like in a small combo. And, like a combo, the rhythm section is some latitude in how they accompany the soloist. But the arrangement may well include set backing figures played by other musicians.

In the case of so-called Western classical music, by the twentieth century the music and arrived at a point where everything was fixed regardless of the size of the ensemble, whether a duet (say, vocalist with piano accompaniment playing German lieder), a string trio, brass quartet, chamber orchestra (say 20 to 30 musicians) or a full sized symphony orchestra (60 to 100+ musicians). There was a time when concerto soloists were allowed to/expected to improvise a cadenza or two. But that disappeared. Just why that happened....

Here’s an account I gave of the social organization of marching bands, Beethoven’s Anvil, pp. 243-245:
Though we now associate them with football games and half-time shows, marching bands arose in the military, from kettledrum and trumpet units and fife and drum units that transmitted signals to the troops. The basic performance paradigm and musical repertoire of the modern military band emerged in the 19th century, following the invention of valved brass instruments. As quasi-military organizations, marching bands partake of both military drill and music, the two the cultural activities William McNeill discussed in Keeping Together in Time.

Unlike the symphony orchestra or even its more recent cousin, the drum-and-bugle corps, the marching band is not generally organized as an autonomous social unit. Marching bands are fielded by schools and the military and exist to help maintain esprit de corps. They also represent their parent organizations in community parades.

As a functioning parade and drill unit, a marching band is organized into ranks and files. This social structure is responsible for how the band moves on parade, on the drill field, or on the football field; it is, at best, loosely related to the band’s musical organization. The drum major initiates activities—marching, stopping, turning, performing—while individuals at the left and right ends of individual ranks are responsible for keeping order. The drum major is simply a proxy for the band leader, who generally does not march but who has ultimate authority over the band and, as such, bears ultimate responsibility for its performance. In the United States military the band leader is a commissioned officer while none of the bandsmen, including the drum major, hold commissions.

These responsibilities obtain both during parades and during practice. A band of, say, 72 individuals may be organized into nine ranks of eight and be directed in its maneuvers by a drum major. The band is thus a dyad, and the relationship between the drum major and the band as a whole is an example of the basic authority configuration we examined in the previous chapter. Yet at the same time the band consists of nine groups of eight individuals each, with each group having its own leadership structure. Thus we can think of the drum major as having a dyadic relationship a group of nine social individuals, each of which, in turn, consists of eight individual actors.

The musical organization is similar, but the units do not necessarily match. For musical purposes the band is divided into sections, each consisting of players of the same or similar instruments. To the extent possible, the instrumental sections will march together. Military bands typically have the following sections: clarinet, saxophone, flute, trumpet, trombone, baritone horns and euphoniums, tubas, percussion. Each section will have several members. The music for such bands is written so that each section will have its own part, which may differ from the parts played by the other sections. Thus we can think of each section as one social individual, where each social individual can be realized by several individual performers. The band as a whole stands, again, in a dyadic relationship to the director.

The director may conduct the band when it is more or less standing in formation. Otherwise the band performs without a conductor—the drum major is not a conductor, though he or she will initiate music.
The marching band is thus a very sophisticated social organism. But this sophistication involves only two basic groups, the dyad and the small work group of six to ten individuals. These two social forms are extended to cover groups of sixty or a hundred or more individuals through the principle of substitution. But getting this general principle to work in practice is not an easy matter. Marching bands do not arise spontaneously. They require much practice and discipline, and they require obedience to authority. Beyond this, they reflect an extensive body of social and musical lore accumulated over centuries. The performers do not have to discover these techniques and processes ab novo; they learn them from the previous generation, who learned them from their predecessors, and so on. Each generation may add new techniques to the body of knowledge, but no generation makes it all up from nothing.

Note, in particular, the marching bands are organized according to two interrelated structures, one having to do with the physical positions and movements of the players while the band is on parade (or performing drills and formations in shows), and the other having to do the musical roles played by the individual musicians. The second is dictated by the structure of the music while the first is dictated by the logistics of moving a group from place to place in a coherent manner.

Tricky stuff.

More later.

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