Competitive body builders. The billionaires of Davos could strike a similar pose but instead of muscular toning, they have accumulated wealth to impress the world. Photo from Wellcome Trust.

I’ve noticed that humans spend an inordinate amount of time gossiping, reporting on others behaviors and actions, guessing at their motives and assigning moral judgments. It almost seems that network news has become exclusively a forum for denigration of the competition. I can’t imagine that people really find this interesting, so why do they watch? If you can make the assumption that historically, in a pre-technological setting, the only way to improve ones standing in a social hierarchy was to constantly make positive statements about oneself and allies while denigrating all others, it becomes clearer why humans still do this much of the time, to gain advantages in the power structure of the political hierarchy. They seem to do it naturally without involving much conscious thought. They are stuck in a behavioral groove cut for them by evolution and continuously engage in the monkey politics even as devastation is preparing to make a surprise visit.

Brain circuitry involved in social dominance. A lot of fear involved with the amygdala (see photos below). Left prefrontal cortex (LPFC)  inhibits inappropriate social behavior. There’s a lot of dopamine at the striatum that may encourage alpha-apes to cruise around in their limousines to display their social dominance.

For a social, hierarchical ape that finds socializing unavoidable and perhaps desirable, the common objects of discussion are rarely anything of substance, but rather socially salient information. This gossip is not innocuous and is not meant to be, rather it is yet another mostly unconscious behavior that humans participate in, given to them by thermodynamics, to establish hierarchy and resource distribution. The gossip you hear every night on the news channels, night after night, is nothing better than social warfare, where moving oneself and one’s tribe into a brighter light is always the objective and casting other individuals and tribes in darkness is the primary goal.

Nancy Pelosi (or is it Elizabeth Warren) of the Democrat tribe vocalizing displeasure with the election of strongman, Donald Trump, of the Republican tribe.

Interested humans watch the battle, day after day, anxiously awaiting the report of some social faux pas that will sink the reputation of some luminous ape. Republicans and Democrats in the United States are competing coalitions intent on putting their hands on as much power, money and perks as possible. The dupes at home are made to feel like they are a part of the tribal competition as seen on TV, and if their leader comes out ahead, they have the misapprehension that they will share in the rewards. Instead, when the feces throwing contest is over they’ll find that climate change is making continued existence a dicey proposition while their 401ks and pensions are being stuffed with worthless promises-to-pay in exchange for underwriting a sick economy sputtering on the dregs of oil extraction.

Even though we inhabit rapidly evolving technological systems, the systems cannot alter the basic mental attributes of the human RNA that have underwritten human success for millions of years but which now, as part of a new systematic configuration, move us ever closer to collapse and extinction. Humans are dissipatives and will always hunger and compete for energy and resources and will use their tools to access and protect scarce gradients. There is a natural impetus towards growth in fulfilling the Maximum Power Principle and in the particular case of humans there is an impetus to growth, not only to gain a minimum of nutrition, but to accumulate wealth as a signal to others of a dominant position in the social hierarchy. No matter the level of wealth achieved, the competition requires vigilance in continued acquisition lest some other ape gain a decisive advantage.

The stalemate in the competition for resources at the national level is not a result of a heartfelt moral imperative, but rather the terrifying prospect of mutual assured destruction from nuclear war. As hunger mounts, the mutual assured destruction may be inadequate to prevent resource grabbing behavior and nuclear war.

Soldiers wrestling. No snowflakes here, just a raw dominance contest among members of the same team. They’ll cooperate later to fight the “bad guys.”

Wildebeests doing the same as the soldiers above.

Just as an afterthought, how is it that hierarchical position is established in modern societies of strangers? Does everyone seem to be competing with their clothes and friends and hairdos and vacations and …………… It almost seems automatic that upon meeting a seldom encountered friend that they will bore you with a list of recent lofty accomplishments, victories and acquaintances.  It does get tiresome.