The Primitive Social Network
March 16, 2011
The other week I was pondering over the immensely complex notion of Karma… Over the last year or so I have spoken to several well versed Buddhist practitioners about what Karma is exactly… And during our discussions I couldn’t help but notice one comment that cropped up time and again with each of them. Usually I wouldn’t have thought that much about it if they had known each other… Or even if they had had the same teacher… However, each of these practitioners were from very different Buddhist “schools” and did not even share any of the same teachers. Thus, when they said what they said, I knew that it was something to heed, to take note of…
What they said was this… “If you think, at any time, that you understand what Karma is… Then the chances are that you don’t.” This important point stuck with me… Leaving me somewhat humbled in my unenlightened state of mind, and I became very cautious about using basic concepts to describe something that was probably unfathomable to someone like myself… Either that, or it shifted so subtly, but surely, from one situation to the next, that never could it become a definite, text-book like certitude, let alone a conceptual understanding. While turning this over and over again in my mind, I found myself remembering how chaos once seemed when I first came across it earlier in the Lorenz attractor… A sort of knowledge that some system existed within certain parameters, and yet, one could never quite predict exactly what it was going to do next… Or in the case of Karma, one could perhaps never quite discern the outcome – probably due to the inherent complexity of all the factors within the dynamics of the system – of life.
Whether or not I will ever get a deeply intuitive grasp of Karma – one that is devoid of any conceptual “boxing-in” or limiting notions – has yet to be seen. However, just the other week I stumbled across this article in the New Scientist magazine… And I felt that somewhere in there, one could see how the nature of mind – via a type of memetic understanding – might allow/explain how such a notion as Karma might unfold and affect individuals within a social group OR a social dynamic. Perhaps having read some of the earlier blogs contained within the pages of this website, it might well be seen that human beings, on the whole, are easily be swayed into doing things that are untoward to their fellow sentient beings here on Earth. And here, in the marmot case study, we can again see that even animals are prone to inheriting social behaviour from one other, just like humans seem to copy their actions from each other… Spreading memes from one to another.
Another thing that the Buddhist practitioners whom I spoke with mentioned, was that we all had a chance to change our Karma. Perhaps this is what We – as human beings – now need to address, especially as our excuse for predation pressure no longer really applies to our present state of cultural existence. Once we wholly grasp that what we do to others is, in a way, memetically programming others – predisposing them to perform similar type actions within their social groupings – then perhaps we might well see that a wholesome evolution lies with mindful awareness of how unique each social situation really is… And how we should be so aware of every action that we perform in front of anyone else. Then, with this mindful sense of interconnectedness, perhaps we can begin to evolve beyond the old scores of “tit-for-tat” i.e. such as the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, and weave a new dream of open hearted connection that inspires balance and peace, free from violence and a need to be avenged… Making the notions of war, self-centred importance and greed obsolete. Then we can side-step any problems that might be looming in the supposed end game.
The Primitive Social Network: Bullying Required
Someone gets bullied in every society. It’s bad luck on the victims, but in primitive social groups they might do best to put up with it. If the advantages of group living outweigh the costs of being bullied, evolution might leave some animals resigned to their victim status, thus stabilising the group.
To find out if this is so, Daniel Blumstein of the University of California, Los Angeles, and colleagues studied a population of yellow-bellied marmots living in the Rocky mountains in Colorado. These large rodents have a primitive society: they live in fixed groups, but do not cooperate in the way that many primates and other highly social animals do.
Facebook For Marmots
Blumstein’s team monitored them between 2003 and 2008, keeping records of who interacted with whom and so building up a social network for the group. They also mapped the marmots’ family relationships. By putting the two datasets together, they worked out whether the marmots inherited their social behaviour and positions from their parents.
To their surprise, they found that marmots did not inherit social behaviours that they performed themselves, but they did inherit actions that others performed towards them. “The things they do to others are not inherited, but the things that others do to them are,” Blumstein says. In particular, “the tendency to be victimised is inherited”.
What’s more, well-connected marmots lived longer and reproduced more, even if their social connections put them on the receiving end of aggression. “Interacting with others is valuable, even if the interactions are nasty,” Blumstein says.
“It’s a surprising result, and I’m not entirely sure how to explain it,” says Julia Lehmann of Roehampton University in London, who was not involved in the study.
Lehmann thinks that animals form groups because sticking together reduces the risk from predators. “As long as the predation pressure keeps up, the group stays together,” she says.
As a result, low-ranking marmots might evolve to cope with being victimised, because it’s better than being eaten. “Staying alive is the most important thing,” Lehmann says.
Blumstein thinks researchers have focused too much on friendly interactions when they study how groups evolved. “We need to think more about the role of aggression,” he says.
by Michael Marshall
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