Book review – The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall

“Why, of all the species that have ever existed, have only us humans reached this unparalleled level of social organisation?” Sounds familiar? I indeed opened my review of E.O. Wilson’s recent book Genesis: On the Deep Origin of Societies with almost these exact words. Where that book (quite literally) fell a bit short of the intended mark, biologist Mark W. Moffett here delivers a sprawling big history book that considers almost the same question. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise, for Wilson has been Moffett’s mentor.

The Human Swarm

The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall”, written by Mark W. Moffett, published in Europe by Head of Zeus, in April 2019 (hardback, 480 pages)

Two ideas lie at the basis of The Human Swarm. One is Moffett’s fascination with social insects and his conviction that human and insect societies are more alike than we might think. The other is a fascination with the concept of “foreignness”: how human societies are shaped in time and space by what are, on the face of it, but small differences.

With its narrative stretching over more than 360 pages, Moffett has divided the book into nine sections and 26 relatively short chapters. I think this has been a very good choice as the book is information-dense and, befitting a big history book, deals with big questions. It also allows him to bring together many disparate strands and still keep the story organised.

The first two sections of The Human Swarm introduce the different societies we see in vertebrates and social insects. This is a benchmark Moffett will return to throughout, although the majority of the book really deals with human societies. He makes some fascinating observations here. Though animals can congregate in large numbers, we typically do not consider the herd of mammals or the school of fish a society. Biologist W.D. Hamilton instead referred to them as selfish herds. Those animals that do form societies, such as elephants or primates, rely on individual recognition of all members. This puts a hard limit on size, with groups rarely surpassing 50 members (though multiple such groups can congregate).

“[…] the key breakthrough that allows [ant] and human societies to grow so large is anonymity.”

Social insects such as ants are an exception, and the key breakthrough that allows their and human societies to grow so large is anonymity. An ant “cares” only that fellow ants are his nest mates, he does not need to know them personally. It is much the same for humans. But where ants rely on scent marks to establish identity, humans use a constellation of markers, language and dress being just some of them.

It would be tempting to take the beginning of agriculture and the rise of states as the starting point for his argument. And Moffett gets their eventually, but not before taking the reader through an extraordinarily thorough and largely chronological tour of our deeper prehistory. From primates to hunter-gatherers, this is really the part of the book where he branches out into topics such as archaeology, anthropology, ethnology, linguistics, and psychology to make his many points.

Moffett traces the development of identity badges that allowed for anonymous instead of individual recognition societies to our primate ancestors, speculating that certain vocalisations could have been the first markers (the wonderfully named pant-hoot still seen in chimpanzees and bonobos). As Scott also highlighted in Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, the progression from nomadic hunter-gatherers to settled farmers was not neat and linear, with switches between these lifestyles and intermediate forms of settled hunter-gatherers all possible. But where they did settle, the egalitarianism still seen in such societies today started making way for leaders who could intervene when arguments broke out.

“[Violence] seems to have been unavoidable when it came to expanding villages into kingdoms, nations etc. “Societies don’t merge freely”, writes Moffett”

Several doors opened up by settling down, such as accumulation of possessions and developing technology. Scientists often speak of cultural ratchets in this context (see also The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis). But doors also closed: with growing populations suitable space ran out, especially if all the neighbours also started settling, and reverting to nomadism became harder.

But Moffett is equally interested in the psychology that comes with recognition of one’s tribe or clan members and, therefore, categorising those who do not belong as foreign. Many biologists and sociologists have been vehemently combatting the notion of human race as a biologically useful concept (see e.g. The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea and Superior: The Return of Race Science). Moffett largely sidesteps the issue by contending that in the context of societies of people of different lineage coming into contact during migrations, the word race has a distinct meaning, and throughout happily uses this word. Interestingly, he does not address the findings from ancient DNA that reveal our ancestors’ constant mingling and mixing (see my review of Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past). Although I did not get the impression that his use of this shorthand serves any nebulous agenda, I wonder if it will land him in hot water in certain quarters.

Contentiousness aside, it does allow him to highlight our natural proclivity to subconsciously and almost instantaneously classify people when we meet them, something that shows up very early in childhood. We are all biased to some degree. It feeds into how we perceive people; into stereotypes and generalisations, the ignoring of differences between groups of people; into rituals to affirm group membership and cultural markers of national identity such as flags, and the feelings those evoke. It affects how immigrants respond to their host countries and vice versa. The sweep of topics considered here is very broad, going well beyond modern Western societies in both time and space.

“we should think of [the fall of civilizations] more as fractures or dissolutions than wholesale collapses”

It is exactly at these interfaces, of groups meeting other groups, that we are at our most aggressive. Moffett is pleasantly up to date here, touching on Wrangham’s idea of the “peace at home”, “war abroad” dichotomy that characterises humans (see my review of The Goodness Paradox: How Evolution Made Us Both More and Less Violent) as he considers our history of conflict. Although violence does not mark all interactions between groups, it seems to have been unavoidable when it came to expanding villages into kingdoms, nations etc. “Societies don’t merge freely”, writes Moffett, and with it come all the horrors of slavery, warfare, and genocide.

And nor, it seems, do they last. One other big topic is the rise and fall of civilizations over time. As Harper pointed out in The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, & the End of an Empire, we should think of these more as fractures or dissolutions than wholesale collapses (sensu Diamond, see Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive). And, not surprisingly, the fracture lines often follow the old factions from which such societies were build up in the first place. Moffett stops short of going into the topic of environmental history to consider some of the more ultimate causes of the fall of civilizations (see my review of Climate Change and the Health of Nations: Famines, Fevers, and the Fate of Populations). Given the scope of the book, leaving things is not a bad decision.

As he considers many topics along the way rather than pushing one central thesis, I did come out of reading it feeling slightly stunned, with that kind of “what just happened?” grin on my face. It is pleasantly dense in information and well referenced and annotated, and I will need some time to digest and ponder it all – I have only touched on some of the book’s topics here. Reviewers elsewhere have put The Human Swarm in the same category as Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years or Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and it is easy to see why. Moffett casts his net wide and knows how to write a captivating book. Recommended if you like big big history books.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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