Organization and the Brain

The evolution of politics since our early human ancestors goes something like this: early bands of humans, each group generally never exceeding a few hundred members, made decisions by tribal council. Judging from the similarities we see in chimpanzee social structure humans have probably been doing this for millions of years, but our enlarged brains and our ability to organize more effectively have been the key to our success. Our societies grew in range and extent until they formed vast networks that circled the globe. By acting together, the brain power of each human in the group was be multiplied, and a much more accurate belief space of the world could be reached.

Humans are not especially fierce animals. Alone in the wilderness most of us would probably get eaten by a bear or a pack of wolves. Our advantage over other animals is that we have the collective wisdom passed down by generations of other humans. Language allows us to bridge the gap between the humans of the present and the humans of the past. Because we can pass knowledge from human to human and thus from generation to generation, we don't need to trouble ourselves with deciding which foods are safe to eat or discovering how to forge a steel blade--this knowledge is collectively computed by our culture. John Donne said that no man is an island. Each of us is sustained by and reliant on the culture that surrounds us. Our collective knowledge is what gives us supremacy over the other animals on earth.1

Tribes of humans eventually transitioned from a nomadic to an agricultural lifestyle, which led to the formation of the first towns. These town adopted a more sophisticated mode of decision-making than their tribal forbears. Because the human mind only has space to remember a finite number of other humans, decision-making in large towns could not rest solely on the shoulders of any one tribal chief. Rather than a single leader making decisions for an entire tribe, differing levels of government control began to emerge. For instance, taxation, an invention that quickly followed the adoption of a city lifestyle, was something the ruler of the town delegated to a city official rather than performed himself. Different sectors of government began to emerge; military, financial, and public works, which rapidly began to transform the political organization of human society.

While our ingrained tribal urges have always encouraged human societies to adopt a singular leader as the decision-maker in society, in reality the distribution of power in a town from this point on was distributed over the population of the town. Distinct hierarchies of power and class structures began to emerge.

In short, the adoption of a city life allowed the collective computing power of humans to grow exponentially. By adopting new forms of government, most notably the great Athenian experiment with democracy in the fifth century BC, this computing power was systematized. Power was shifted from kings, who generally acted on the intelligence of a small group of people (i.e. his family and friends), to a representative group of the population. It is no wonder that this shift revolutionized human society. It is no wonder that living standards of democratic nations are generally the highest in the world.

Democracy allowed each member of the group--at first only free Athenian men, but eventually every adult human--to collectively decide on the decisions made by the group. One only has to look at the vast generation of wealth produced in European nations since the adoption of democracies to realize the staggering financial benefit of this approach to decision-making. Monarchies and other feudal power systems did share some qualities with democracy, but the invention of democracy paved the way for an inclusive and self-correcting form of decision making.

But democracy is only one among many forms of political organization in the world, and while it has so far been very successful I doubt it is optimal. One of the benefits of our advances in the fields of psychology and neurobiology on the one hand, and machine learning and neural networks on the other, might be an increased understanding of how to optimize organization. After all, our brains evolved complex organization long before our ancestors decided to settle down and live in cities. Their organization eventually became complicated enough to encourage the mass of organs and cells and DNA that is the Homo Sapiens we know and love today to be able not only to breath and move, but to interact with the with the environment in more complex ways. This level of organization is impressive, and I suspect can offer insights on what we can do to form more effective organizations. At the very least it might offer an indication of why human organization has the quirks that it has.

Our progress in machine learning could offer similar insights. One of the driving technologies behind recent advances in areas like computer vision or voice recognition has been the rediscovery of artificial neural networks. It is no wonder that our most successful efforts at reproducing brain-like behavior in humans have been made by imitating the structure of the brain in code. Neural networks originated in the 1940s, but their potential was only marginally realized until a few years ago when researchers started to create vastly more organized neural networks. Organization is power, and more organization in our machine learning algorithms will lead to greater advances. This branch of machine learning has always been biologically inspired, but researchers have made great advances by re-engineering and re-imagining neural architecture. If neural organization is not optimal, this too will offer clues as to how we can re-engineer our societies. It also hints at the possibility of humans someday altering our own neural architecture to create humans with optimized brains, but I won't get into that here.

I believe that our understanding of the brain can be enhanced by a broader understanding of our society and vice versa. It is all too easy to overlook the fact that our cities and governments are biological in origin and subject to the same laws as any other product of biology. Similarly, there is a marked bias towards drawing lines between higher parts of organization and lower-level organization. This has created flaws in our understanding of what these organizations are. By appreciating organization at a broader level I believe that we will also gain many of the tools we need to improve human society and ourselves.

1. I am aware that animals, especially mammals, also pass down knowledge from generation to generation. For example when a bear teaches her cubs how to survive in the wild. Our ability to transmit culture is not unique to us, we are just better at transmitting culture than other animals.