This is my model of how community used to work:
Basically, you have four fundamental activities in life, defined by two axis-like dimensions. Vertically, you have the universal/abstract on top and the local/concrete on the bottom. On the left you have consumption and on the right you have production. In our evolutionary environment, people did all of these things with their primary group, the band. Every once in a while, under grave threat from distant barbarians, they joined together with other people who spoke your language (i.e., the tribe) to fight.
This is my model of how community works now:
Basically, instead of doing everything with the same band of people, we do different things with different groups of people. Sometimes there is some overlap, but our social groups are largely distinct, composable, and replaceable. Sometimes we change jobs, sometimes we get a divorce, sometimes we change congregations, sometimes we change friends.
Also, we expect a lot more from our state and national governments than our ancestors did of their tribes. We still expect the nation to be involved in war-mongering, but we also have significant education and social insurance programs.
So which is better? Economically, the modern model is clearly better. Letting people form fluid groups from a pool of millions of other people to serve niche needs in a highly diversified economy is much more productive. Also, giving people an exit from any particular social group has made it a lot easier to develop individual tastes and differences (i.e., freedom). End of story, right? Modern progress has made us rich and free to find our true selves! Yay!
Food and Security
For me, a little crack started to form in this narrative when I learned the following thing: when society transitioned from a hunter-gatherer model to an agricultural model, individual people became worse off. Here’s an anecdote from an essay on the subject by Jared Diamond.
Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5' 9'’ for men, 5' 5'’ for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5' 3'’ for men, 5' for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors.
So famers are 5–6 inches shorter than hunter gatherers. Wait, what?
Clearly agricultural societies had an advantage over hunter-gatherer societies or the famers wouldn’t have taken over. So what gives? Well, agricultural societies may have been bigger and more powerful, but that doesn’t mean that individuals were better off. Another interesting version of this concept is found in the book Against the Grain, by James Scott, which argues that farmers were exploited by early states, and had to be forced to live in the new powerful civilizations.
So, by analogy, what if the modern freedom and economic prosperity we all enjoy is really making us impoverished in some way? Anecdotally, it does seem to be the case. The people I observe around me seem to suffer from quite a bit of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses. A study of the relationship between depression and food scarcity in our ancestors puts the problem like this:
If this prestarvation theory of depression is correct, then it seems odd that so many people are experiencing depression at a time in history when the actual starvation risk appears to be the lowest it has ever been in most of the world. One might think that starvation does not exist in this age and time. A related question is why people overeat when no starvation risk is evident. However, the past explains the present, and some aspects of modern life do not mesh well with our stone-age brains. It appears that eating does not entirely resolve food security concerns: the mood system looks at cues beyond eating to sense that the current situation will not lead to starvation or related mortality.
In other words. If we are so rich, why are we so depressed? That particular essay doesn’t give a definitive answer (if such a thing exists), but it does give some clues. Namely:
[W]e should not be surprised if the mood system sometimes mistakenly senses dangers that are not present.
What are these “dangers that are not present”? What kind of things could trigger our brains to become depressed an anxious (i.e., anticipate food insecurity) despite the abundance of food? Well, the authors of the depression study do mention one thing that seems relevant:
In ancestral environments, obtaining food often involved considerable risk and effort. Therefore, it was highly adaptive to have a buffer against the risk of starvation and related threats, one that humans provided each other through sharing…The danger of being expelled as a group member may explain the feelings of worthlessness often reported by people experiencing depression.
So there it is. This is the problem with modern society. We are all in danger of being expelled from our communities because they aren’t stable enough. Or at least, our brains think we are in danger of being expelled.
Consider the following very simple relationship graph:
You are the bottom “node”. The green arrows are first order relationships you have with all of our friends, families, church members, colleagues, etc. The orange arrow represents a second order relationship, i.e., whether your friends are also friends with each other. In a complex community where our friends, family members, co-workers and prayer partners are all the same people, no one can unfriend you unless they get agreement from all your other friends. One reason you trust your brother not to fire you from the hunting party is that he will face the wrath of mom if he does.
In other words, you might have really close first order relationships in a modern society, but that isn’t the only clue your brain looks for to determine whether you are in a secure social situation. You can’t just have friends. You need your friends to be friends (and family members, colleagues, etc.).
Of course, in a modern society your boss isn’t your friend. One of the reasons for all of the efficiency in a modern society is precisely the fact that bosses can fire people without having to face their mom or their cousins. So in a way, we really are in a precarious social situation. Perhaps we can just go and get a new job whenever we get fired…but does the brain know that?
Get the Band Back Together
So what can we do about it? We can’t very well turn back the clock, although some have tried. In my view the best solution is to simply create a bubble around ourselves that simulates the kind of secure, complex society that used to be the norm. In other words, we need to modify our social environment to look something like this:
That is, we need some sort of band-sized bubble (say, sub-Dunbar size)that includes 1) family connections (or family-like commitments), 2) a common belief system, 3) work relationships, and 4) consumption sharing. Or, at the very least, we need to trick our brain into thinking we have this. In other words, we need a social group that our brain recognizes as secure.
Your job is probably the biggest barrier to doing this. Someone might be paying you lots of money to be a part of their anxiety-producing corporation that can fire you at any time. Or at least they are paying you more than you would get if you went off and started selling socks with your brother-in law (I know from personal experience).
But your job isn’t the only barrier. What if you are an atheist and your family are all believers? What if you don’t like spending time with your co-workers? What if your friends aren’t reliable? What if you are an individual that likes your individual freedom and the ability to choose your own beliefs, friends, family commitments, and work — without trying to make them all work together?
Well, you are free to choose the modern way of life. Most people do. Just realize that you are probably giving up about 5-6 inches of emotional stature.