Yuri Tarnopolsky                                                                                                      ESSAYS

 32. The Split

  public execution. cruelty. social evolution. social norm.

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Essay 32.  The Split

At this point I am looking with disbelief at my own Essays. What is happening to them? They are affected by current events and refer to current press, they crawl into appendices and technicalities (where I should never venture), and they are getting politicized, quite contrary to my intent.

Of course, one reason for that was the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 that woke me up in the middle of my reveries. Another reason, which I am only starting to realize, is that the world has been changing much more radically than I thought earlier.

The Essays I planned were about more or less stable principles of human life. The laws of inanimate nature interested me only as far as they could be extrapolated or interpreted on the material of history, social change, and personal life. That was the very idea of the Essays: to show how simple scientific concepts can be humanized and given a say in everyday life, on par with what we want, feel, and believe. Today, however, I see how the clearly defined fundamental notions of human reality such as democracy, autocracy, poverty, wealth, capitalism, and socialism have become opaque, blurred, contradicting, and charged with the internal pressure splitting them into smaller but independent components.

Something remains the same for long period of times, but it is growing more and more abstract and less relevant to the problems of the moment. There is an intense evolution going on within large and stable categories that define human nature and daily existence.  

This Essay is about split. It was initially just an introduction within a larger one. The main subject of the original Essay was evolution of power and how the authoritarian power is splitting off its new evolutionary form. The subject of the introductory part was just the mechanism of evolutionary split. I intended them as one, but they split because an Essay must have the unity of subject. Both subjects—that of the introduction and that of the core—grew equal weight. This is how the current Essay became independent. It is about itself, in a sense. The other part becomes the following Essay 33, The Corg.

According to Perky T. Ryan, the
last public hanging in America, witnessed by about 20,000 people, happened on August 14, 1936.

Public executions, with or without various degrees of torture, were part of everyday life in Antiquity and Middle Ages. Jesus Christ, Thomas More, and Rabbi Akiba come to mind, with endless list of other martyrs.

For the most of human history execution was public by definition. It still is in some Islamic countries, Saudi Arabia, for example. Capital punishment does not exist in the European Union. America wrestles with itself about it.  I accept it.

Today a much larger audience can see death on all kinds of screens and displays in quantities partially compensating for incomplete authenticity. People want to see suffering, pain, and death of other people and what people want they will get anyway. Modern entertainment is what Roman Coliseum was 2000 years ago. The Coliseum was as much an evolutionary predecessor of cinema, video recording, and professional wrestling as ancient shaggy bipeds with stone tools were our own ancestors.

The transformation of the Coliseum into a video store and the gladiatorial fight into a movie Gladiator are episodes of the evolution of culture.

We all deviate from the abstract average, along all dimensions of our nature. Most of us feel strong revulsion to violence, while others are driven to it. The actual ratio of displayed cruelty to compassion in most individuals can be modified by cultural influences. In turn, the culture and social norms can be strongly influenced—in whatever direction—by efforts of individuals and, especially, organizations.

Culture evolves. Evolution is as much about transience as about permanence. By drawing an evolutionary line from the ancient Coliseum to a modern video store I emphasize not the obvious change but the hidden continuity.

There are two aspects in the concept of evolution. Variability is obvious: everything changes. The other aspect is the constancy of widely defined types. Thus, the tetrapods have preserved their general design over a very large time span, throughout emergence and extinction of incalculable particular species. They are, in turn, only a subdivision of a much larger class of vertebrates.

The dynamic aspect of evolution is conspicuous. Our cultural habits change. Some of us strongly identify ourselves with the tortured person or animal because we are usually protected from suffering in everyday life. In a more sinister Freudian key, we are, probably, subconsciously afraid that our children and even neighbors will do such things to us. In a  more abstract philosophical key, we regard ourselves the center of the Universe. In an ethical key, all basic religions forbid to do to others what we don't want to be done to ourselves. In a systemic key, when we are not competing for food and water, we become kinder and gentler to each other and the whole world.

The problem with religions—or ideologies that override religions—has been that they may not consider all humans "ourselves," see Essay 24, On Myself , as we do not consider apes human.

All traditional religions are much older than the map of the world and the modern realization of a great variety of us and others in close contacts, conflicts, and competition.   Not all others are our others.  They are, at best, our others but one grade lower or they are, at best, born equal. The opposing ideology is the liberal view of the world as a family of twins, even without the difference between men and women, in an extreme version.

It is a remarkable evolutionary step to offer a special protection to apes not because they are just animals but because they share traits of humanity with us. When we compare this branch of moral evolution with the much older one, which does not consider civilians of another way of life as fully human, it seems that the humankind is really repeating in moral sphere the divergence that happened many millions of years ago  between humans and apes. Now the elephants and whales, forests and glaciers, water and air—all that is our others, branches of the same tree.

Modern humanism, which I understand as a course of actions intended to decrease human suffering (Essay 29, On Goil and Evod ), is a product of evolution. Its further evolution in developed countries has brought us not only universal human rights, but also animal rights and conservationism. Its ongoing evolution imposes, weakly, limits on the realism of cruel violence in movies and TV. But this evolutionary view of humanism only emphasizes to me the permanence of its antipode embodied in mass terror of all kinds, including the large-scale state terror of the Nazis, Gulag, Khmer Rouge, and in Sierra Leon. It is part of human nature.

The static aspect of evolution is paid less attention than the dynamic one. I feel a need to portray it in a specific way, not as the commonly used evolutionary tree, but as a kind of pre-existing condition. Remember, man or elephant, we are all tetrapods, former or current. Once born, tetrapods brought their tetrapodiness into the world. Unlike their feet and toes, tetrapodiness, i.e., possession of four limbs, is an invisible abstraction, an imaginary box that should be filled with figurines. While we are tetrapods, we are also bipeds, we wear shoes, and they change with time, from sandals of the antiquity to high tech snickers. It is the shoebox labeled "footwear" that stays constant. 

Any modern phenomenon, institution, or idea has its genealogy. We can trace them back, year by year and millennia by millennia: entertainment, technology, transportation, communication, state, warfare, trade, money, home, beliefs, marital and kinship relations. We can keep track of this travel backwards in time only if we define our topics in a very abstract way. Any particular feature will soon disappear from our past, as with radio and vaccination of children, but messenger and medicine man have lasted for  thousands of years. In the end, we will come to bare human nature: a pack of biped tetrapods with tools, language, and ideas.
In the following Figure 32.1, the chest of drawers A symbolizes a certain primitive culture with four abstract domains. For the sake of illustration, they can be healthcare, entertainment, technology, and communication (and footwear, as well). The red ball represents the single choice of the medicine man in the drawer of  healthcare. Culture B is more developed and complex. There are more compartments, for example, a witch doctor (red ball) and a medical doctor (green ball)  in the former single healthcare drawer. They both share the area previously taken by the medicine man. They are compartments inside a larger drawer. Evolution multiplies the smaller compartments but preserves the larger ones.


            Figure 32.1. The evolution chest

An evolutionary tree is shown for comparison. Representations A and B are, actually, maps. . They can be compared with mapping a continent into nations, regions, and districts, or, in the case of the USA, maps of the states, counties, townships, lots, and rooms of the homes with the drawers of furniture and the storage boxes. The maps are tied to space, or, to be precise, to land that cannot be either created or annihilated.  They are drawn at different times.

Abstract sets are collections of elements devoid of location, distance, area, and even quantity. Some sets overlap because they contain the same elements. Others have nothing in common. One set can completely include another. Sets are mental objects that are designed to be kept in mind. An element of a set can be anything, and a set can include none, one, several, many, or infinity of elements.

We, humans, feel an urge to share our minds with others as well as the curiosity to see what is on somebody else's mind. We need some tangible and eloquent medium to share our thoughts. Language, of course, works, but it could be confusing and cumbersome. Just compare verbal road directions and a concise drawing.

The most common way to visualize the relationship between sets is Venn diagram  (Figure 32.2A) . It is a very simple thing: each set is portrayed by a closed curve, usually, circle. Some of them may overlap, as in Figure 32.2A, where N may mean men, K happy, and M young. Then L means happy young men. There is plenty of space in N for all varieties of men, including old, unhappy, and serial killers.

If K is men and M women, then the circles cannot overlap by definition, although in fact there is a tiny physiological or psychological overlapping , rare for humans but completely natural for other species such as some plants and earthworms. Apparently, capitalism and socialism can somewhat overlap but democracy and dictatorship cannot. Or can they? Even Napoleon legalized many essential democratic freedoms within his imperial rule. In the process of biological evolution there are transition forms that combine properties of different types. They were first suggested by Darwin, but today the question how biological evolution works is not quite closed.
Back to sets. The things in our mind, with all their immateriality, are not extinct species and we can observe their evolution. Thus, as  a Venn diagram, Figure 32.1B would look similar to Figure 32.2B, where the sets do not even partially overlap. The important difference, however, is that the chests of drawers do not have space for new initial drawers. This is why I prefer its symbolism to both map and Venn diagram. On the contrary, the largest external set N in Figure 2A has more room for other enclosures.


Figure 32.2. A: Venn diagram; B: Figure 32.1B as Venn diagram
Here is my thesis:

what we call human nature starts as an initial set of drawers (domains) that has             no room for expansion, but can be further subdivided .

This looks like a very extreme and heretic statement which is tantamount of saying, together with Ecclesiastes, that there is nothing new under the sun, in a sense.


                        The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done

 is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.
                                                                        Ecclesiastes, 1: 9.

My remaining goal is to show in what sense. Really, where to put the computer on the map of evolution? It looks like it sprang out of nowhere. The same can be said about all technology from steam engine to jet airplane.  What about human nature? Of course, it had its evolutionary predecessors in animal nature. But as soon as something appears, it carries all its suitcases into the future until something else appears instead. In fact, the hidden agenda behind my statement is simple. I believe that human nature includes tools as its primary drawer. As the humans appeared with free hands, language, tools, and seasonally unrestricted sex, their subsequent evolution ran from those initial compartments.

In the course of evolution, however, overlapping  may happen, as Figure 32.3 illustrates.


Here, the evolutionary split is presented as both part of an ascending tree (straight lines) and a tube the cross-sections of which are Venn diagrams with a part where the transition forms overlap. Each subdivision carries the halo of its origin into the future.

Of course, the cross-sections in the form of Venn diagrams make a wrong impression that there is a subset which is neither one evolutionary line nor the other. This is exactly why I don't like them but use as comparison.


Figure 32.3

The tree and the chest of drawers with partitions are two ways to visualize evolution.  They are two different cross-sections of Figure 32.3: along and across. The difference is that the tree has the time dimension: it grows and forgets its past. The drawers preserve the static design: there was a classification in the beginning and it remains the same over time, only more detailed. The time sequence of events is erased.

The tree makes an impression that the past has been erased and written over by the present, which is, of course, how it is. Only the tips of the branches exist today. The drawers make an impression that there is nothing new under the sun, which is, of course, only half-truth. But this conservative half of the truth is of primary interest for me here. I am interested how the content of a particular drawer changes with time under the same label.

The chest allocates space for the future not yet existing species. In the tree representation, a new branch splits off the old one; in the drawer representation, a  new partition appears.

The question arises: if everything competes for space, energy, and matter, how can it be that the number of categories of classification increases with time? Various answers can be given, for example:

            the categories multiply but the populations of individual species shrink to give space             to others;
            the increased supply of energy sustains a larger variety of  subdivisions;

            the categories coalesce, form something like continuum, and the

    differences  between them decrease.

I  prefer the answer inspired by Edward O. Wilson who noted in his The Diversity of Life that only groups of organisms are real while the larger categories are abstractions ("Categories are the abstraction, taxa the reality,"
p.153). While particular species of objects (Bermuda grass) are real, larger categories (grass) are abstractions. We cannot find a lawn with Bermuda grass side by side with a lawn with "grass." Naturally, abstractions do not compete for either energy or matter.

The difference between evolutionary tree and systematic chest of drawers may seem purely symbolic. But there is a substantial distinction: the tree is continuous by definition. The chest does not require its content to be changed gradually. The old things can be thrown away; the drawers can be empty for a while; something can be just dropped in, no question asked. The tree does not make humans look as a necessary branch. Their drawer, however, is labeled "humanoids" from the start.  The drawer is something like Platonic ideas. If no question asked, no philosophic questions, either. The drawer is simply a cross-section of a new branch of the evolutionary tree.

There is, of course, a problem. The tree is always correct because it reflects observable facts. The drawer is a product of our mental activity which may progress in the future, so that the way we label the drawers will change. For example, we say "humanoids" because we have robots. In fifty years we may have something of which we don't have a slightest idea today. We will understand its place in evolution with a hindsight. Will that novelty fill the old space or will we have to add a completely new large section? This is an intriguing question, which I would answer tentatively in the following way.

If our civilization remains human, then human nature will determine its compartments. If the future civilization includes other forms of non-biological nature, an updating may be possible. My general point of view is that the biological evolution is not sufficient to cover the entire evolution of humans. Someday we will have to add Technos (Things) to Bios (life) and the evolutionary tree of civilization and, at some point, to record the split between the humans and the Things.

In other words, we can anticipate a new powerful tree of Technos branching off the three of biological life at the point of appearance of humans. The entire tree of evolution will suddenly change its meaning. Biological life will be perceived as just one form of meta-life. 

NOTE (2016)
. Will we then regard humans as a branch of the much older Technos, i.e., humans will be more like a branch of machines from the start? Will we see life as a branch in the evolution of machines? We can, actually, see it this way even today.  To be machines, humans only need to be predictable and so they are to a large extent, especially, with digitalization, globalization, and standardization.  This is why I recognize Donald Trump as a fruit on a familiar pattern branch and I am worried.  


            Figure 32.4.

Figure 32.4 attempts to show how the humans start a completely different evolutionary three of technology at the very diffuse moment of their appearance.

Similarly, the tree of language, not shown here, springs up. With it comes a different evolutionary tree of ideas that left some material artifacts in the form of burial rites. Immediately, the tree of art leaves its first imprints on the walls of the caves and starts its own evolution toward the present fusion with technology and junk.

The evolutionary tree of human civilization becomes very complicated. This is where the idea of compartments comes handy, with a separate tree growing from each drawer, as from a set of planters, and all of them growing from the checkered garden of human nature, itself a plot on the continent of life.

The actual, not taxonomic, tree of biological evolution is not as straightforward as it looks, either. There are separate evolutionary trees of biochemistry, skeleton, digestion, muscular system, vision, hearing, nervous system, behavior, and others, which spring up at different time moments with certain innovative species and grow intertwined with the general taxonomic tree. We can say, again, that only species are real, and digestion and thinking are abstractions.

Once a primary evolutionary branch appears, a certain parcel, taken out of endless wilderness, is posted on an imaginary Venn diagram and its further cultivation and partition follows.

The macabre topic of public executions, probably, inspired by the enormity of violence in American entertainment, served me as an introduction into a more general topic of stable patterns of human nature.

The evolution of the attitude to cruelty from common and public executions to rare and private executions and further to protection of animals tells me that culture is a chest of drawers: the content of the drawers changes, they are subdivided by new partitions, but something is always stored there. Not only the large compartments, in this case, public entertainment, are never empty, but their smaller nooks, like display of cruelty and sadistic urges, are filled, too, with new evolutionary progeny.

Learning more about history, I came to the conclusion that, in addition to impersonal patterns of history, there are also basic general structures centered around the design of the average human. As much as the average human being needs bread, circus, and sex, it needs to obey, command, stand out, and blend in. What else does it need? According to Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria in their book Driven, it is : Acquire, Bond, Learn, Defend. I think it is logical to complement them with opposites: Give Away, Stay Away, Be Independent, Forget, and Share, but, probably, not in the corporate and competitive atmosphere.

Another list can be found in
Sociobiology by Edward O. Wilson (also this). Wilson is often compared to Darwin, but there is also something of Galileo and Bruno in his position, too, as well as of Don Quixote. He is one of a few noble figures casting  long shades over the carpeted football fields of mass culture (Jaques Barzun is another; his From Dawn to Decadence is among the best books I have ever read about culture).

Here are some components of human nature shared with animals: division of labor, communication, learning, play, socialization, competition, aggression, territoriality, dominance, roles, castes, sex, parental care, and social symbiosis. All of them are institutionalized in human societies, whether by law or by tradition. What is different, however, is that institutions have a life of their own, free of any biological factors, and they interact with human not as part of their nature—the term interaction would be meaningless—but as external factor, comparable with that of climate and invasion of neighbors.

From this very different perspective, the drawers are close to the social facts of Emile Durkheim:

        Here, then, is a category of facts which present very special characteristics: they consist of manners of         acting, thinking and feeling external to the individual, which are invested with a coercive power by                 virtue of which they exercise control over him. Consequently, since they consist of representations and         actions, they cannot be confused with organic phenomena, nor with psychical phenomena, which have         no existence save in and through the individual consciousness. Thus they constitute a new species and         to them must be exclusively assigned the term social.
Emile Durkheim,
What is a social fact.
In a description of an individual or society as a category, they are blanks to be filled or, as I call them, the drawers. Entertainment is one of them. Power is another. Any human factor (motivation, drive, need, expression) creates an institution for its satisfaction. There are people who watch the show ant there are performers who need not watch but perform. There are people who want to rule and there are others who want to be governed. That duality, often combined in one mind, according to my long time observations, is a noticeable pattern of  Russian mentality.

Homo Sapiens
seems to come from group animals. One of its close relatives, orangutan, however, is not much social and the genes of  ultimate individualism might have come from animals, too.

There are essential properties of humans, as well as of the group, that change only form but not substance. Humans follow some basic patterns of individual behavior because they are genetically programmed to do that. This is the point of view of
sociobiology. Among the individual patterns are aggression, mating ritual, attachment to children, domination, submission, competition, and altruism. The term "individual" is misleading because the "individual" behavior displays only between two individuals and is interactive, and so is human individualism. What we call a solo is in fact always a duo.

Culture is a separate form of life, with its own evolutionary tree, and it interacts with our biological patterns. It could be that the drawers of culture are in one-to-one correspondence to our biological drawers and have the same labels. But I don't see in our biological nature anything like trade, truth, regrets, philosophy, and poetry.  Culture can be, like in the Victorian England, rather counter-natural, at least from our modern point of view. The current culture of Things may seem counter-natural from some future point of view, and I am close to viewing it this way.

I started with acknowledgement of my confusion. Part of it, as I believe, comes from the current historical change in culture, technology, and very principles of human civilization. On many counts we are in the overlapping areas of Venn diagrams. Fifty years from now, most of the picture will be clear to those who will look back. I am pathologically impatient.



Nikolai Gogol,
Taras Bulba , online text, page 125.

            The square on which the execution was to take place was not hard to find: for the people were                     thronging thither from all quarters.

In that savage age such a thing constituted one of the most noteworthy spectacles, not only for the common people, but among the higher classes. A number of the most pious old men, a throng of young girls, and the most cowardly women, who dreamed the whole night afterwards of bloody corpses, and shrieked as loudly in their sleep as a drunken hussar, missed, nevertheless, no opportunity of gratifying their curiosity. "Ah, what tortures!'' many of them would cry, hysterically, covering their eyes and turning away; but they stood their ground for a good while, all the same. Many a one, with gaping mouth and outstretched hands, would have liked to jump upon other folk's heads, to get a better view.

Above the crowd towered a bulky butcher, admiring the whole process with the air of a connoisseur, and exchanging brief remarks with a gunsmith, whom he addressed as "Gossip,'' because he got drunk in the same alehouse with him on holidays. Some entered into warm discussions, others even laid wagers. But the majority were of the species who, all the world over, look on at the world and at everything that goes on in it and merely scratch their noses.

In the front ranks, close to the bearded civic-guards, stood a young noble, in warlike array, who had certainly put his whole wardrobe on his back, leaving only his torn shirt and old shoes at his quarters. Two chains, one above the other, hung around his neck. He stood beside his mistress, Usisya and glanced about incessantly to see that no one soiled her silk gown. He explained everything to her so perfectly that no one could have added a word.

"All these people whom you see, my dear Usisya,'' he said, "have come to see the criminals executed; and that man, my love, yonder, holding the axe and other instruments in his hands, is the executioner, who will dispatch them. When he begins to break them on the wheel, and torture them in other ways, the criminals will be still alive; but when he cuts off their heads, then, my love, they will die at once. Before that, they will cry and move; but as soon as their heads are cut off, it will be impossible for them to cry, or to eat or drink, because, my dear, they will no longer have any head.'' Usisya listened to all this with terror and curiosity.

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