Saturday, January 23, 2010

A massacre . . . in London

We are witnessing the unfolding of the economic meltdown exactly according to script. It's not all the way downhill. There will be ups and downs but the future ones will be worse than the preceding ones. We'll wait for the script to be played out and come back to economic issues whenever any major episode is reached. Meantime we'll go in search of patterns in other fields.

This time it is about a grisly event that took place surprisingly not in Baghdad or Kabul but of all places, in London. The massacre occurred over a period of several years beginning spring 1925 on Monkey Hill, London, an area of about 33m by 20m. The 100 residents had originally been separated from each other in their own individual ‘tenements’. One day, the administrators thought that it was more ‘humane’ if they were given a bigger partly open space where everyone could roam freely and mix with one another. The open environment had a total population, initial and subsequent additions, of 99 males and 36 females.

By late 1931, 64% of the male residents and 92% of the female had died. Of the 33 dead females, 30 died in fights in which they were the prizes fought for by the males. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, the perpetrators and victims were not humans but hamadryas baboons. The humans acted only as the catalyst.

This story was recounted by the late Carl Sagan and his wife in their book, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. The event would have ominous significance more than 70 years later in Baghdad and Kabul, this time with humans taking up all the roles.

Why did this unmitigated carnage happen? After all, the administrators were doing what any sane white man would have done - give the baboons freedom. Unfortunately, that was the spark that triggered the slaughter; the very failure that the white man of the 1920s failed to appreciate in their handling of the baboons. They attempted to anthropomorphise human ideals onto the baboons.

And tragically, in the present moment, not only the white man but also the black, brown and yellow men cling to the dangerous idea that freedom is the ultimate aspiration of every human being. Now they try to impose the Western ideals onto Eastern peoples who have been brought up in cultures that have stood the test of time that actually has spanned thousands of years. Thousands of lives have been sacrificed in this mindless pursuit with no end in sight.

To correct this false belief, we can unravel the history of mankind to understand how the quest for individual freedom came about. But for this post, we'll stick to animal patterns and hamadryas baboons turn out to be a perfect example of patriarchal and patrilineal tribal living in which the male parent lineage dominates the social system, one that also prevails among the Arabs and Afghan Pashtuns. They also happen to live in a harsh semi-desert environment where food is scarce and a lack of hiding places exposes them to predation. In such an environment, organising oneself into a hierarchical structure is a good defence strategy.

In their natural world, hamadryas baboons maintain their harmony through a complex social structure. It's based on a four level hierarchy which at the lowest level is the one male family unit (OMU) or harem comprising a dominant male controlling about ten females. Several units organise themselves into clans. Several clans can form a band. Finally several bands make up a troop which can consist of more than one hundred individuals. A troop forms for the purpose of sharing a vertical rock/cliff for sleeping. Troops and even bands can combat one another over access to resources. They are the only nonhuman primates in which two groups have been observed to gang up on a third. The Arab, or sometimes referred to as the Afghan, proverb, "I against my brother; I and my brother against my cousin; I and my brother and my cousin against the world", defines in a nutshell the inter-relationships among the hamadryas that also prevail in both the Arab and Pashtun societies.

Bachelor hamadryas males whose job is to protect the females from interloping males can be affiliated to a family unit led by a related male. In return they are rewarded with the occasional sex with the females. The unaffiliated solitary males have no access to females. They can form their own harems by persuading females to join them in the new groups or by stealing females from other troops whenever they go into battle. Within a harem, the leading male's position is safe unless he's injured or enfeebled whereupon his harem may be taken over by another male.

Physically, because the males are almost twice the size of the females, males are naturally adapted to having many females. For humans, the body size difference is small which means males paired with more than one female is natural though the number would not approach that of the hamadryas.

Band-and-village or traditional human societies are not necessarily tribal. Some are egalitarian like the !Kung of Namibia and Semang of Malaysia. Even the tribal ones can be categorised into two: those with plentiful supply of food and those with meager food resources. Like the egalitarian the latter tribal group had to cope with food scarcity but in addition it had to fend off predators. To deal with these two conditions, its hierarchy must be modular like that of the hamadryas; in search for food the hamadryas break into harems or clans while in defending or securing a safe sleeping place, they group into bands or troops.

In tribal societies, everyone has a rank. Each would know his place. Lack of switching in ranking makes for peaceful living as the insecurity of the continual jostling for positions is absent. You only fight to take over the position of the leading male and that is fortunately an infrequent event. Occasionally tribes or sub-tribes may raid one another but that usually happens to be in conditions of extreme scarcity where killing is one way to maintain a sustainable population or where the population has exceeded the environment's carrying capacity.

In a human tribal society, maintaining cohesiveness of the society demands the dispensing of rewards from the tribal leader. He could do this if his own members as well as the other tribes recognise him as such whereupon his actions and decisions carry authority which thus can influence the viability of his tribe. The ability of any tribe members to bring in rewards directly can challenge his authority and lead to an organisational breakdown.

Saddam Hussein when he ruled Iraq understood this to a T. He was in fact a tribal leader in chief, certainly relatively more powerful in his country than a US president as commander in chief in his. He didn't have to distribute the oil wealth to every Iraqi but only to the Sunni and Shiite tribal chiefs. As for the Kurds, he unleashed his killing apparatus on a vast scale. Through these means, he kept a tight rein on Iraq.

When the US invaded Iraq in March 2003 in what is known as Operation Iraqi Freedom, the ensuing chaos led to a breakdown in the tribal arrangement that Saddam had painstakingly nurtured. Likewise when the zoo attendants allowed the free mixing of the hamadryas baboons, they were unknown to each other. In trying to establish a dominance hierarchy among themselves, they brawled to their deaths. The number of females which was very much less than the males in contrast to the situation in the wild, made the fight all the more violent. The Iraqi violence subsided only when the US resumed the bribe money to the Sunni tribal sheiks and thus restore the tribal structure.

The coming economic conditions of increasing scarcity call for a new social and political arrangement in order for mankind to reach some sort of stability in the inter-relationships among its members. It can opt for either the egalitarian or the Arab tribal way. The egalitarian is tougher to attain because the society members have a duty to share resources equally. No one needs to feel obliged to another for receiving benefit nor should he expect gratitude for giving. It's an obligation that is demanded of all members. Moreover egalitarian societies live in environments in which they don't prey upon their own kind. A hierarchical structure is thus not needed for organised offence and defence.

That leaves the Arab or the hamadryas tribal way as the only choice left for us. The starting point is the formation of modular groups that can agglomerate and dissipate depending on needs. In this arrangement, there is no room for individual freedom. To be sure, individual freedom is an excellent idea which should be left at that, to wit, as an idea. Being independent in the future economic and political landscape leaves you vulnerable to the predations of organised groups.

As we survey the political landscape of the world, the fragmentation of the nation-state structure hastens with the global economic collapse. However the next technology wave driven by biotechnology and nanotechnology will partially stem it. Ironically, that wave will cheapen the production of weapons of violence and destruction much like the internet weakens the control of minds and ideas in the current wave. Political leaders still stuck to the old paradigm will use all the tools at their disposal to check this disintegration but it is a lost cause noted only as one evolving phase in the long history of mankind.

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