Animal Farm

Posted: January 16, 2022 in Blogroll, Culture, Debate, Environment, History, Intellectual History, Science
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There’s a Joseph Conrad title with which I’ve always struggled, not having read the short story: The Secret Sharer (1910). The problem for me is the modifier secret. Is a secret being shared or is someone sharing in secret? Another ambivalent term came up recently at Macro-Futilism (on my blogroll) regarding the term animal farm (not the novel by George Orwell). Is the animal farming or is the animal being farmed? Mention was made that ant and termites share with humans the characteristic that we farm. Apparently, several others do as well. Omission of humans in the linked list is a frustratingly commonplace failure to observe, whether out of ignorance or stupid convention, that humans are animals, too. I also recalled ant farms from boyhood, and although I never had one (maybe because I never had one), I misunderstood that the ants themselves were doing the farming, as opposed to the keeper of the kit farming the ants.

The additional detail at Macro-Futilism that piqued my curiosity, citing John Gowdy’s book Ultrasocial: The Evolution of Human Nature and the Quest for a Sustainable Future (2021), is the contention that animals that farm organize themselves into labor hierarchies (e.g., worker/drone, soldier, and gyne/queen). Whether those hierarchies are a knowing choice (at least on the part of humans) or merely blind adaptation to the needs of agriculturalism is not clearly stated in the blog post or quotations, nor is the possibility of exceptions to formation of hierarchies in the list of other farming species. (Is there a jellyfish hierarchy?) However, lumping together humans, ants, and termites as ultrasocial agricultural species rather suggests that social and/or cultural evolution is driving their inner stratification, not foresight or planning. Put more plainly, humans are little or no different from insects after discovery and adoption of agriculture except for the obviously much higher complexity of human society over other animal farms.

I’ve suggested many times on this blog that humans are not really choosing the course of history (human or otherwise) as it unfolds around us, and further, that trying to drive or channel history in a chosen direction is futile. Rather, history is like a headless (thus, mindless) beast, and humans are mostly along for the ride. Gowdy’s contention regarding agricultural species supports the idea that no one is or can be in charge and that we’re all responding to survival pressure and adapting at unconscious levels. We’re not mindless, like insects, but neither are we able to choose our path in the macro-historical sense. The humanist in me — an artifact of Enlightenment liberalism, perhaps (more to say about that in forthcoming posts) — clings still to the assertion that we have agency, meaning choices to make. But those choices typically operate at a far more mundane level than human history. Perhaps political leaders and industrial tycoons have greater influence over human affairs by virtue of armies, weapons, and machinery, but my fear is that those decision-makers can really only dominate and destroy, not preserve or create in ways that allow for human flourishing.

Does this explain away scourges like inequality, exploitation, institutional failure, rank incompetence, and corruption, given that each of us responds to a radically different set of influences and available options? Impossible question to answer.

  1. notabilia says:

    The best source of your question about Gowdy’s thesis is his book, of course. If you want to see how its thesis pervades other big picture thinkers’ ideas, without attribution though, check out Richard Heinberg’s Museletter #347, available by signing up here
    Don Quixote Heinberg highlights the extensive work of Peter Turchin, who blurbed Gowdy’s book – one degree of separation.
    Gowdy’s book was sold by for a little less than $20, but I don’t know if more than 50 people have either read it or purchased it. Humans, like their ultrasocial and nearly equivalent in biomass cousins ants and termites are evidently too busy scurrying around in their cars and with their screens to bother to read anything that challenges their vaunted sense of individual cosmic importance.

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’m guilty of blogging about a book or idea contained in a book without actually having read the book, only a review. Such is the case with Gowdy’s book. So I drew out a detail of particular interest to me based on rather limited exposure but with no plan to read the book. Too many others already in queue, competing for my limited time.

  2. notabilia says:

    No guilt on your part, just fact. Guilt could more easily be ascribed to me, having had the lifetime privilege of access to wide constellations of reading sources, and yet having a brain process that goes light on the textual details.
    Reading gets skimmy, as collapse grows ever more evident. Happy reading, and its subsequent pleasures of understanding and writing, as you are exemplifying here.

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