The myths that unite and divide us

| May 26, 2022

Psychologists tell us that the maximum natural size of a group is 150 individuals. Most people can not know intimately more than that. The critical threshold of groups (clubs, societies, associations, etc) changes once that number is reached. Below it, communities, social networks and military units can maintain themselves based on intimate acquaintance.

In order to maintain social coherence above it another factor must be introduced. That factor is usually based on a shared belief in or love for something like gardening, stamps, dogs, football or simply doing good for others.

When groups first left Africa the tribes probably consisted of an extended family. As it increased in size either by natural selection or for safety, the concept of individuality faded and one member came to the fore. A leader was chosen and those who accepted him were ‘one of us’ while others were outsiders and therefore to be distrusted, disliked or even hated.

Symbols appeared representing ideals, concepts, principles to be admired and aimed for. The idea of a god began to appear. Archaeologists agree that this god was usually feared but looked after the interests of the members. With such a shared interest, the group could safely increase – virtual strangers sharing that belief could easily work together in the knowledge that they were part of a unit.

Shared beliefs allowed for greater numbers to live together in virtual harmony. Sub groups began to appear – hunters, farmers, artisans, merchants and later military units – soldiers and sailors. Each group developed its own god or gods and ways of worshipping them. Intermediaries quickly became powerful, communicating the will of the gods to the populace and demanding gifts in return. When it became obvious that some people received more than their fair share while others suffered unnecessarily in this life then the concept of an afterlife developed where everyone received their just rewards.

Another method of enhancing group cooperation was to develop large scale undertakings which required a tremendous amount of effort. This probably started with cave paintings, using small groups but developed into moving huge stones into circles or straight lines. Stonehenge Callanish and the Ring of Brodgar in Britain being good examples of this trend.

Grime’s Grave is also a site with apparently useless hard work attached. In this area flint stones were excavated through chalk mines up to 100 meters deep even though lots of flint could be found on the surface. The idea of these edifices appears to be so that the communities could look at them and say “This was done by my father/grandfather/ancestor.”

Over the years religion became so powerful that it could out compete observed facts and scientific enquiry. Scientists feared for their lives if they attempted to counter the teachings of the priesthood. Some were killed, some ‘recanted’ with a little help, others either hid themselves or their works. It was only with the dawn of the Enlightenment in the 18th Century that rational thought was able to be transmitted widely.

Since large scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths. Under the right circumstances myths can change rapidly. In 1789 the French population switched almost overnight from believing in the divine right of kings to the sovereignty of the people. This opened up a fast lane of cultural evolution.

The behaviour of other social mammals is determined to a large extent by their genes, environmental factors and other quirks. For example, common chimpanzees have a genetic tendency to live in hierarchical groups headed by an alpha male. Bonobos, a closely related species live in more egalitarian groups dominated by female alliances. Female common chimpanzees cannot take lessons from their bonobo relatives by staging a feminist revolution. Male chimps cannot abolish the idea of an alpha male as leader. This would indicate that homo sapiens did not suddenly change its clan structure, but gradually altered its DNA to adjust to differing climate and other conditions.

The concept of leadership also changed over the centuries – the Egyptian ideal of incest to keep the godlike attributes of the pharaoh within the family; the idea to childless elites such as the Catholic clergy, the Buddhist monastic orders, the Chinese eunuch bureaucracies spring to mind – these people always distinguished by a particular headgear. Seeing such people in public allowed the populace to think of themselves as part of the group.

The word ‘science’ comes from the Latin ‘scio’ meaning ‘I know’. Over the centuries the amount of knowledge accumulated means that no individual has the capacity to be aware of all the data which has been acquired. This has resulted in compartmentalising of science into various subdivisions – Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Geology and Astronomy.

These sub units have been further divided into narrower and narrower disciplines focusing on individual interests  (paleobotany, astrobiology, chemical engineering, physiognomy, geobotany, etc). While the knowledge of each is increasing, more scientists are finding that their ‘breakthroughs’  have been known about in different disciplines for some time. The breakdown has been because the various fields of research have not been communicating effectively with each other. It is only when a polymath does research in another field that these discrepancies show.

What is needed is a type of encyclopedia for science where differing disciplines can indicate aspects of their knowledge which could be also applicable in separate fields. There is now far too much knowledge in most fields of research for one person to fully comprehend but there appear to be a number of overlaps which could be of major benefit. In chemistry, for example researchers have found that carbon, spread in layers one molecule thick can have great benefits for computer scientists. Carbon nanotubes have also been shown to have massive potential.

So what are the modern myths which keep peoples together? Our politicians would like us to believe it is our flag, our nationality, our colour or our political system. However, if we look at countries which are vaunting their independence from the rest, the first thing they attack is communication via the internet. China, Russia and many middle-Eastern countries are currently making it difficult for their populations to connect with the outside world. Since they are putting so much effort into this it seems that mere basic communication and the ease of access is what is allowing us to work together.

There will always be differing ideals and therefore groups forming and disbanding but the act of communication with anyone in the world is allowing people to exchange ideas, learn from each other, understand each other and therefore dislike each other that little bit less. In other words, for the first time in history we are relying on myths less and science more.

Many of us still need the psychological prop of religion, sport or hero-worship, but to a lesser extent than our ancestors. Ideally we should just look on ourselves as human, but history shows us that physical, ideological or belief differences will always be a barrier.