Civilization, Coordination and Belonging

Let’s start from the bottom up.

The problem of civilization is the problem of coordination at scale. Robinson Crusoe has no need of civilization. He is entirely on his own. Once you have more people you need to cooperate. Hence starts the division of labor and trade based on specialization. However there’s a Dunbar limit to this cooperation before transactions cost overwhelm the cooperate-cooperate equilibrium on the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Religion and culture are social technologies evolved to reduce transactions costs over scale. This is how if you’re part of a particular faith community, you can trust someone far removed from you but within the same faith community, on average, far more than you can a random person outside of it.

However, your tribe’s culture will not be identical to another tribe’s culture due to not just the path dependence of culture formation that depends on mimesis and the stickiness of ideas (changing people’s minds is hard, they tend to ‘believe’ by default what others around them believe, on average). The path the formation of culture takes itself depends on genetic propensities of the group belonging to the culture. These genetic differences themselves have arisen due to geographic separation, hence geography often leaves an imprint upon culture, as it drives the evolutionary selection effects not just of genes but culture. Cold weather and hot weather cultures, to take a crude example have very different attitudes towards the weather and things like afternoon naps.

After the separate evolution of different cultures for different tribes, cross-cultural and cross-tribal cooperation and competition have become a collective, not an individual phenomenon due to the simple fact of economies of scale – if you’re a bigger tribe, you would most likely prevail against a smaller tribe. Hence, as an individual you’d best join a tribe. This situation is of course even stickier for the individual as he is born into a tribe and had seldom had a chance to quit and join another one.

As you scale up a tribe into a collection of tribes, and further into ‘nations’ (not necessarily the modern nation state but the older meaning of nation), the transactions costs for cooperation within the ‘tribe’ (now nation) rise exponentially using the old methods. Culture now has a job of spreading memes (ideas) that are shared across the nation to mould the metaphysical beliefs of the nation in a certain way to preclude internal strife and solidify the nation into a coherent cooperative force capable or wreacking destruction upon competitors and predators.

If we take neoclassical economics as a foundation, we posit the individual as a rational actor (rational, in the economics sense means ONLY that, say, if the actor prefers apples to oranges, and mangoes to apples, that he would prefer mangoes to oranges) who acts in the world to fulfil objectives or desires. We do not need to ditch neoclassical economics to note that it does not describe how the individual actor decides what to seek at all. Rene Girard in his path-breaking work noted how men’s desires do not necessarily come from their own quiet contemplation of innate preferences and needs – that they come from other people. This is the process known as mimesis.

We borrow our desires from others. Far from being autonomous, our desire 
for a certain object is always provoked by the desire of another 
person — the model — for this same object.

When a young man joins an investment bank to work 100 hour weeks for a few years so he obtain that huge bonus check – this desire has not simply come out of his innate preferences for wealth (which most of us share), but most likely also from certain role models and mimetic desires for wealth distributed throughout the culture. Now let us consider another quirk of the human mind – the Endowment Effect.

In psychology and behavioral economics, the endowment effect 
(also known as divestiture aversion and related to the mere ownership 
effect in social psychology[1]) is the hypothesis that people ascribe 
more value to things merely because they own them

We can now begin to sketch how Mimesis and the Endowment Effect together coalesce an identity for a member of a cultural tribe through his feeling of ownership in his own membership in the cultural fraternity thereby fueling the mimetic process of borrowing desires from the cultural ether that surrounds him. In this way, the individual is fused into the body of the cultural whole, adopts its metaphysical beliefs and its transcendent desires (such as the afterlife), thereby boosting the strength of the tribe, its coherence of purpose, thereby decreasing the transactions costs of cooperation, and hence, ultimately the tribe’s evolutionary fitness (survivability).

In this way, the individual and culture together form an Egregore. The individual needs the egregore as much as the egregore needs the person. The egregore directs the individual energies of the people in the group to enhancing the fitness of the egregore itself. In a healthy egregore, this would lead to enhancing the fitness of the group in reality. If the egregore is broken, for example, if an entire tribe came to believe that drinking poison together and dying is a Good Thing, then the egregore will perish along with the tribe obviously. Hence selection works on egregores as well as on people, which is to say that culture/religion ITSELF is selected to enhance fitness and survivability of people.

Now, we can see that since people prefer and value things that are their own, by nature (Endowment Effect) and that they receive desires through mimesis, and that culture of a tribe is evolved to enhance its fitness (on average), it makes sense for people to value and advance their culture.

Please note that this argument works regardless of the bad/undesirable-at-present parts of a culture. That continuum exerts its own effects. Nonetheless, there is no life without adopting a mimetic tribe or a culture.


  1. Division of labor
  2. Transaction costs
  3. Gene-culture co-evolution
  4. Mimesis (Rene Girard)
  5. Egregore
  6. Endowment Effect (can use it for coordination)

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