My (very few) real-life friends know that I’m prone to excessive broken-record peroration on a select group of topics that are near and dear to my heart. One of them is my long and often unsuccessful struggle to understand human behavior. I’ve read everything from Winning Through Intimidation to Freakonomics in the hope that the actions and motivations of my fellow man and/or woman would eventually become transparent to me.
This is, of course, because as someone who resides on the far end of autism-spectrum behavior, I’m frequently totally wrong about what normal people are going to do in any given situation. I’m not alone in this: the entire “manosphere” and “PUA” scene is full of guys who are struggling mightily night and day to write the API for the gentler sex, so to speak. We’d all be completely gratified if women turned out to be as easy to understand as, say, machine-language instruction for the Motorla 68k series of processors.
Frankly, that Holy Grail of bioware programming is unlikely to arrive any time soon. But after considerable thought and research on the matter, I’ve come up with a working model of human motivations that applies to men and women. It both explains puzzling behaviors and helps predict future ones. And you can have the fruits of my research for free, because you were kind enough to sit through the 2000-word thing I wrote about quilt maple.
Oh, wait. I haven’t published that yet. Well, you’d better fucking read it when it does come out, okay?
I started thinking about this when David Wong wrote “What Is The Monkeysphere?” a while ago. It’s a long article that contains one critical insight: that the human brain is biologically constructed so that you are unable to feel genuine concern across a social group with more than about 150 members.
We’ll illustrate with a point: Noted idiot Johnny Lieberman made a big deal of a Swedish school shooting a few years ago on Facebook, stating that everybody who posted about celebrities and other random topics on the same day of the school shooting was an insensitive piece of shit. I responded with some numbers showing that more children die in Africa from lack of clean water every few hours than were killed in the school shooting, and that Jonny had never bothered to stop posting photos of the Virgin America Airbus 380 first-class sleeping pods in response.
I did this to point out that Jonny was suffering from his usual inability to separate logic and emotion. Because he is pro-gun-control and pro-left-wing, the shooting of children by a right-wing extremist with a firearm was emotionally important to him. Dead children in Africa, on the other hand, don’t mean much to him either way. (Africans are a difficult and messy topic for feel-good Upworthy types; they simply refuse to behave like Jackie Robinson or Morgan Freeman, preferring instead to pursue their own goals irrespective of white Western thinking. This assertion by Africans of their basic humanity and self-determination is extremely frustrating to the media-educated who think every black man in the Dark Continent should act just like the bass player on the Graceland sessions.)
Jonny was nonplussed by my pointing this out and he called me a bunch of names, one of which was almost certainly “racist”. If you’re wondering why it’s racist to criticize someone for caring more about dead white kids than dead black ones, you have lost touch with the modern definition of “racist”, which is “someone with whom I am currently disagreeing”. The truth of the matter, of course, was that Jonny didn’t give a shit about either group of kids, not in any sense real enough to matter. Very few Americans really cared about the victims of the Dai-Ichi or the tsunami or the earthquake or the plague or the war or whatever. It isn’t because we’re bad people. We’re simply wired not to care. It’s a survival mechanism. If you felt the death of a child in Africa as deeply as you felt the death of, say, your own child, you wouldn’t be able to get out of bed on this or any other morning.
Because our “monkeysphere” — the largest group of people about whom we can genuinely care at one time — is limited to about 150, it’s no surprise to find out that most human groups in prehistory (defined as from 2 million years BC to 4,000 years BC) topped out at… you guessed it… 150 or so. It was impossible to maintain tribal cohesion past that point. People naturally subdivided into smaller tribes, because their brains made them do it.
Modern humans, as a type, are about 200,000 years old. That means that 95% of our history as a species was worked out in sub-150-person tribes under conditions that were, to quote Mr. Hobbes, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. Look at it this way. You, my dear reader, are the product of about seventeen thousand generations of vicious, uncivilized humanity, and perhaps three hundred generations of post-pyramid agrarian society. Raise your hand if you think that you, as a biological machine, were shaped in any significant fashion by, say, human civilization in the post-Renaissance era.
I didn’t think so. As a human being, you may appreciate art, you may read philosophy, you may play the mandolin with enough depth of expression to obtain a MacArthur Fellowship — but you are fundamentally a bio-machine shaped by 17,000 “stupendous bad-asses”, as Neal Stephenson once said. Seventeen thousand times, your ancestor survived the famine that killed his neighbor, survived the wolf attack, survived the battle, survived the fall, the injury, the disease, the conflict. Seventeen thousand times, your ancestors survived to reproduce. You may feel like a weaking as you sit in your bean bag chair and play Candy Crush Saga, but you are an apex predator by birth.
The more we understand about human behavior, the more we understand that many instincts and ideas are hard-coded in the genes. Nature, not nurture. We might not like it, but it turns out that temper and intelligence and socialization skills are as much part of our genetic inheritance as our height and eye color. Which means that we evolved those characteristics in such a way as to survive conditions that very few people today will ever even briefly encounter.
Imagine that you are part of a 150-person tribe struggling to survive in a Northern European winter, thirty or forty thousand years ago. Or that you are part of a tribe in Africa fighting to maintain control of a coastal fishing area. Or that you are on the steppes of Mongolia in darkest prehistory, living in a world where breaking your leg or losing one too many teeth is a death sentence. What motivates you?
Truly, we can’t quite know. But we can guess, and reason from first principles, and apply that to understanding the genetic patterns behind modern-day behaviors. There are some things that we can easily intuit or research about prehistoric people.
One important guiding principle is that our ancestors were, by and large, truthful. It’s difficult to convincingly tell lies when you live in animal-skin tents and conduct your entire life in view of the tribe. The reason the ancients venerated “tricksters” so much was simple: lying was immensely difficult. It was equivalent to magic, making people believe something that wasn’t in front of their own eyes. Human beings are generally trusting, because until the advent of agrarian society, fixed dwellings, and wealth storage, it was almost impossible to lie convincingly. You say you killed a mighty beast? Where is it? You say you raped five women of the opposing tribe in the last battle? We were all there, dude, it was two chicks and then you started looking for a free set of sandals in the burned-out huts.
Kevin Mitnick wrote a brilliant book, The Art Of Deception, about “social engineering”, which is a process by which you misuse the trusting nature of human beings to get what you want. More than a few times I’ve used the tactics described in that book to unmask a supposedly anonymous Internet critic or find someone who didn’t want to be found. Virtually all of them are designed to bypass your conscious modern educated mind and reach the caveman within, and they are hugely effective.
That notion of prehistoric truthfulness has broader implications. In a 150-person tribe, everybody’s strengths and weaknesses are well known, and their social behavior conforms to them. The best hunters and fighters act in “alpha” ways. The ones who are less good at it act like “betas”. They have no choice. The marketplace has perfect information. Your neighbors know everything about you and they’ve known it since you were born. They heard your conception and they know who your real father probably was. They know if you can kill a tiger or weave a rope. Lying will do you no good.
In that tribe, everybody knows who the best reproductive partners would be, and they are treated accordingly. Furthermore, since outbreeding is a survival tactic in small human groups, the women who were genetically inclined to fuck strangers, particularly physically vigorous strangers, tended to have stronger, healthier children. If you could find someone in another tribe with a good “rep”, it’s worth taking a shot on that person, so to speak.
Injury for prehistoric people was a far more severe issue than it is today. If you were injured in a fight, you might not be able to hunt well enough to survive the winter — or you might be further victimized by stronger members of the tribe. Good, well-adjusted members of ancient tribes preferred a display of strength or aggression to actually cashing the check your mouth had just written. To do otherwise could be deadly. (This, by the way, is a concept treated with full respect by George R.R. Martin in his Game of Thrones, when Khal Drogo is finally forced to enforce his alpha status.)
If you sit and think about it long enough, you’ll come up with other things that were almost certainly true about prehistoric life, from the way in which it rewarded on-the-spot decision makers to how it engineered male humans to enjoy watching other men screw women in pornographic films — hint: the last sex partner a woman has in a multiple-partner session is the one most likely to impregnate her. We’re all the products of those nasty, brutish tens of thousands of years. Civilization is a thin veneer laid over the bedrock of humanity and the minute the colonial armies retreat, or the levee breaks, or the regulations regarding certain types of mortgage-backed financial instruments are relaxed, this lesson is demonstrated with unsheathed cruelty.
Now that we’ve established the thinking behind what we could call Tribal Logic, let’s see if it answers questions that everyday men and women have.
- Why do women prefer “bad” men? Because “bad” men emulate behavior that in a 150-person tribe meant genuine status. They are confident, they are aggressive, they appear to be in charge of situations. They are like insects who evolved to resemble sticks so birds wouldn’t eat them. In reality, the tatted-up bisexual gym rat who tends bar around the corner from your apartment wouldn’t last ten minutes in a prehistoric tribe, but your backbrain can’t tell the difference.
- Why are people so gullible? Because lying is a recent development, see above.
- Why do ‘assholes’ succeed in sales and corporate management? Because we are genetically programmed to respect confidence and aggression.
- Why am I scared every time I am about to get in a fight, even though I’ve been in many fights? Because your tribal brain would prefer you avoid the fight, lest you break a couple of toes in the process of righteously stomping this herb’s ass and be left behind when the tribe crosses the frozen lake.
- Why do we respect the “expert from afar” more than the local one? Robert Ringer talks about this at length but doesn’t probe the reason, and the reason is simple: your tribal brain understands that anybody who successfully travels anywhere is probably not an idiot, and he may know things that your tribe does not.
- If the above is true, why are we suspicious of strangers, other races, cultures, and so on? Because they aren’t part of your Monkeysphere and therefore might kill, rape, betray, or otherwise injure you with no reservations whatsoever.
- Why are people so easily divided into factions/teams/opposing parties? Because very few people were able to live on their own for any length of time in prehistory. Isolation almost always equated to death in the short run and it always meant death in the long run. You’re safer with the group.
- Why are men prone to hero worship? Because a hero is someone who has figured out how to do something you couldn’t do: kill a tiger, cross a stream, lead a tribe. In a world without a single book, imitation is the only path to learning. So imitate heroes, okay?
The “manosphere” guys have some of this worked out, but they are compelled to view it in a framework of “women are terrible creatures who are slaves to the basest instincts possible.” In reality, men and women mostly operate with a single goal in their subconscious minds: increase the number of healthy, successful progeny that you have before you die. It’s not a moral issue. It predates morality. “Morality” is something that had to be invented so agrarian societies didn’t break back into murderous tribes. There’s no such thing as morality in 80,000 BC. There’s successful behavior and unsuccessful behavior. If you’re reading this, you are the descendant of prehistoric humans who did whatever it took to succeed — and they did it for about twenty-three hours and forty minutes of the Homo day on this planet.
If you want to be hugely successful with women — or with men — you should be an outlaw alpha male with massive bravado and swagger. For most of us, this is too much work. We’re too unwilling to give up our emotional involvement with: women, children, 8-bit computing, the music of George Benson. But don’t be surprised when your girlfriend turns her head to watch some vicious-looking fellow on an unmuffled Harley Night Rod Train or whatever they’re called. In real life, you might earn five bucks for every one he does, and you might be respected everywhere from your World of Warcraft server to the international competitive Tae Kwon Do community, but there’s a funny thing about reality: to the vast bulk of your fluid-soaked, primitively-constructed prehistory brain, it isn’t real.