Blueprint by Nicholas Christakis posits that humans are all fundamentally the same. Except under unusual circumstances, humans build societies full of good people, with instincts inclined towards kindness and cooperation. I read it.
This book is a grab-bag which combines lab-grown sociology (much of it from Nicholas’s own team) with down-and-dirty research about common foundational elements across human societies — both “natural” ones (tribes more-or-less undisturbed by modern society) and “artificial” ones (religious sects and shipwrecked crews).
First, the book gives a tour of artificial and real communities, and their defining features:
- Pre-industrial societies (such as the Hadza in Tanzania)
- Hippie communes in the 70s
- Utopian communities in the 1800s
- Sexual mores in uncommon cultures (non-monogamous or polygynous)
- Religious sects (Shakers)
- Shipwrecked crews (some successful, some disasters)
Nicholas takes findings from these communities and references them against his own research of human behavior in controlled circumstances (think, using Amazon Mechanical Turk, MMORPG-esque games, and other controlled sociological experiments to test human social behavior given variations of the prisoners’ dilemma), and against our behavior as compared to other intelligent primates (Chimps and Bonobos), and comes up with a central theme:
“Humans are all genetically hard-wired to construct certain types of societies, based on certain foundational cultural elements. These societies trend towards “goodness”, with predispositions towards:
- Kindness, generosity, and fairness
- Monogamy (or light polygyny)
- Inclination to teach
There are differences between people, and possibly across cultures, based on genetic differences, but these distinctions are trivial when measured against the commonalities in the societies we build”
Or, in his own words:
“We should be humble in the face of temptations to engineer society in opposition to our instincts. Fortunately, we do not need to exercise any such authority in order to have a good life. The arc of our evolutionary history is long. But it bends toward goodness.”
It’s an all-encompassing statement. Given the breadth of human experience, it’s a hard one to either negate or endorse without begging a thousand counterexamples.
(This summary comes out sounding like I’m accusing Blueprint of being primarily hand-wavy sociology, which wasn’t intentional. The research and historical errata are fairly hard science. But the conclusion is markedly less concrete than the research behind it.)
To be honest, I had more fun with the world tour — the fun anecdotes like “Hippie urban communes in the 70s actually did fewer drugs than the norm”, or “certain Amazon tribes believe that children are just large balls of semen, and children can have five fathers if the mother sleeps with every dude in the tribe” — than I had any “aha” moments with regards to the actual thesis.
My guess is that the book is a decade before its time — in 2020, we know enough to confidently state that “genes matter”, but are only beginning to get the faintest glimpse of “which genes matter”. Until the biology research catches up with the sociology (I never expected myself to type that) it’s hard to separate out “humans, because of these specific genes, organize ourselves into monogamous or lightly-polygynous societies with altruism, friends, respect for elders, sexual jealousy and love of children from “any complex society inherently will develop emergent properties like friends, altruism and sexual jealousy”.
I did find one interesting, tangible, take-away: the examples in Blueprint suggest a common recurring theme of physical ritual, like ceremonial dances and singing, in successful “artificial” communities.
Obviously, song & dance are a central theme in pretty much every natural community (eg, civilizations which developed over thousands of years) as well, but it’s easier to use artificial communities as a natural experiment, because many of these “new” communities completely failed — we generally don’t get to observe historical cultures fail in real-time.
(to be clear, this was not even slightly a central theme of the book — I’m extrapolating it from the examples he detailed)
In the chapter on ‘Intentional communities’ (that is, constructed societies, a la communes or utopian sects), Nicholas discusses the remarkable success of the Shaker sect. Why remarkable? Because the sect endured, and even grew, for a hundred years, despite some obvious recruiting challenges:
- Shakers worked hard, all the time
- Shakers didn’t (individually) own possessions
- Shakers were utterly, absolutely, celibate
Much of the appeal of the Shaker communities to converts was the camaraderie and in some ways progressive values, like equality between the sexes. But a lot of the success seems to stem from kinship and closeness from ritual:
“Religious practice involved as many as a dozen meetings per week with distinctive dances and marches.”
Wikipedia adds to this story with contemporary illustrations; here, “Shakers during worship”:
I’m sure that economic and cultural aspects of Shaker communities also attracted converts and retained members, but I have to wonder whether part of the success of Shaker-ism (despite the extreme drawbacks of membership) was due to the closeness engendered by… essentially constant, physical ritual.
The second example was from Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The tl,dr of Shackleton’s expedition is:
- 28 men were shipwrecked in Antarctica (aboard the Endurance)
- For the better part of a year, they were stuck on an ice-bound boat, with no obvious exit plan
- There was absolutely no fighting or tension in the crew. Nobody was killed, left to die, or recycled as dinner. In fact, nobody died, at all.
(3) is a remarkable achievement, given the other shipwrecked “societies” described in Blueprint — shipwrecked crews were wont to fall prey to violence, infighting, and occasionally cannibalism. Blueprint quotes survivors though, as they describe how the crew of the Endurance… endured:
“Strikingly, the men spent a lot of time on organized entertainment, passing the time with soccer matches, theatrical productions, and concerts… On the winter solstice, another special occasion, Hurley reported a string of thirty different “humorous” performances that included cross-dressing and singing. In his journal from the ordeal, Major Thomas Orde-Lees (who later became a pioneer in parachuting) noted: “We had a grand concert of 24 turns including a few new topical songs and so ended one of the happiest days of my life.”
It’s hard to separate cause and effect — a crew already inclined towards murdering each other over scarce Seal-jerky is unlikely to put on a musical production — but it seems likely that the “ritual” entertainment was a reinforcing element of the camaraderie as much as it was an artifact.
It’s hard to conjure up many strong feelings about Blueprint. It’s worth reading for the anecdota and history, but my main take from the descriptions of “in-progress research”, is that in a decade, we’ll be able to actually tie human behavior back to the genetic underpinnings, and won’t have to speculate quite as much.
Blueprint is a good read, but the sequel will (hopefully) prove an even better one.