Collaborative niche construction

Psychiatry is slowly catching up with the concept of neurodiversity amongst animals, including humans, taking clues from animal biology/psychology and from the neurodiversity movement. The language used is still compliant with the language of the pathology paradigm, but if you are unfamiliar with the emerging discipline of evolutionary psychiatry, the presentation by Adam Hunt will provide you with a good foundation. The core observations are piggybacking on what Autistic communities have been discussing for a number of years, and what has more recently also found its way into anthropological narratives.

We can use the language of evolutionary design (specifically the semantic lens and the evolutionary lens) to broadly categorise the intentions of the social niches that existed in the hunter gatherer societies that preceded super human scale empire and civilisation building endeavours:

Neuronormative cultural practices

Sustaining and replicating a culture

Cultural practices that are focused on the here and now, performing neuronormative cultural practices and transmission of such practices across generations:

  • Social: Participating in practices related to warfare, punishment, or generosity
  • Design: Performing specific crafts that deliver the material basis for sustaining the local community and the local culture

Neuronormative cultural practices assisted in maintaining networks of domain specific competencies and ecologies of care over many hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. Social cohesion was reinforced by egalitarian resource sharing, collaboration within groups and between locally connected groups, and constraining the scope of punishment and war to clamp down on violators of egalitarian principles.

In contrast, in industrialised societies, neuronormative practices have been hijacked to support super human scale empire building endeavours: Preoccupation with symbols of social status (wealth), accumulation and uneven distribution of food and material goods (meritocracy), head to head competition (the religion of the invisible hand of the market), and unconstrained use of punishment and war via socially sanctioned forms of bullying (hierarchical management) and large scale war (especially economic wars that condemn millions to poverty, inhuman living conditions, and premature death) that are sanctioned by the invisible hand.

Neurodivergent cultural practices

Understanding environmental conditions, conducting experiments, and selecting adaptive strategies

Cultural practices that reflect on the past through a critical lens, with a view of shaping and influencing the future, engaging in neurodivergent practices and exploration:

  • Critical: Responding to unusual environmental changes and social challenges
  • Organic: Acquiring domain specific knowledge about the ecological context / niche of the group through direct observation and pattern recognition
  • Symbolic: Integrating new experiences and knowledge into the local culture via performance or art (storytelling, singing, composition, dance)

Neurodivergent cultural practices and Autistic ways of being are best understood as essential elements of the cultural immune system of human societies. In societies with severely disabled cultural immune systems that are facing existential threats we have to urgently think about how to repair the cultural immune system.

Autistic people and other traumatised people should be free to imagine and realise a world where we don’t have to leave behind everything we value in life to go to “work”, only to perpetuate the sanctified institutional bullshit that is killing the entire living planet.

Cultural adaptations over evolutionary time scales

If we want to find our way back to human scale and to the level of collective intelligence and cultural adaptive capability that is needed to navigate existential threats, we need to develop a language that enables us to imagine potential paths into a future that looks very different from the industrialised world that we were born into.

Keeping in mind the interplay between neuronormative and neurodivergent cultural practices, and mapping the social dynamics onto human evolutionary history, we can distinguish four basic categories of human societies:

Egalitarian

Egalitarian societies are focused on group survival and collaborative niche construction, and they are underpinned by consciously designed collaborative social norms. The dynamics of local environmental conditions allow everyone to viscerally understand the group as the smallest unit of survival. Mutual aid and an appreciation of unique individual talents, strengths, and limitations is baked into foundational social norms and daily routines. Human collective compassion and intelligence ensures that life is enjoyable for all. Hence it makes sense to think about the adaptation of egalitarian societies to changing environment conditions in terms of collaborative niche construction, and to conceptualise the resulting social structure as an ecology of care.

The following characteristics clearly distinguish egalitarian societies from other societies:

  • Competition is a secondary effect that operates over multiple generations (hundreds of years) between groups.
  • Everyone intuitively understands human scale – super human scale is recognised as a dangerous collective learning disability to be avoided. Explicit social norms prompt large (super human scale) social groups to split into two collaborating groups.

Success oriented

Success oriented societies are still focused on group survival and collaborative niche construction, but they no longer have effective social norms against competitive niche construction.

Such shifts in social norms can occur when local environmental conditions are stable and offer an over-abundance of food and material resources. As consciously designed collaborative social norms for punishing individually competitive behaviour become weakened, social norms eventually – over generations – gravitate towards a mix of collaborative and competitive social norms. Human collective compassion and intelligence is weakened.

The following characteristics distinguish success oriented societies from other societies:

  • A mix of collaborative and competitive niche construction. Collaboration and competition are primary effects that operate between individuals within a single generation.
  • Social norms don’t systematically clamp down on attempts of wielding power over others, social power gradients are acceptable. Individuals with a psychopathic lack of compassion are given opportunities to benefit from competitive behaviour – paving the path for eventually undermining the intuitive understanding of super human scale as a dangerous collective learning disability.

Growth oriented

Growth oriented societies are focused on empire building, prioritising competitive niche construction and aggressive head to head competition over collaborative niche construction. Human collective compassion and intelligence is seriously undermined, and society is now primed for eventual self destruction.

The following characteristics distinguish growth oriented societies from other societies:

  • Achieving super human scale and further expansion has become an explicit goal.
  • Collaboration is a secondary effect that operates mainly because of the innate social / helpful disposition of humans – in spite of largely competitive social norms.
  • Social norms celebrate those who successfully wield power over others, social power gradients are understood as a law of nature. Individuals with a psychopathic lack of compassion have gravitated to most positions of power. All of society has been co-opted into a super human scale empire building scheme, culture is deteriorating into a cult.

“Pay for merit, pay for what you get, reward performance. Sounds great, can’t be done. Unfortunately it can not be done, on short range. After 10 years perhaps, 20 years, yes. The effect is devastating. People must have something to show, something to count. In other words, the merit system nourishes short-term performance. It annihilates long-term planning. It annihilates teamwork. People can not work together. To get promotion you’ve got to get ahead. By working with a team, you help other people. You may help yourself equally, but you don’t get ahead by being equal, you get ahead by being ahead. Produce something more, have more to show, more to count. Teamwork means work together, hear everybody’s ideas, fill in for other people’s weaknesses, acknowledge their strengths. Work together. This is impossible under the merit rating / review of performance system. People are afraid. They are in fear. They work in fear. They can not contribute to the company as they would wish to contribute. This holds at all levels. But there is something worse than all of that. When the annual ratings are given out, people are bitter. They can not understand why they are not rated high. And there is a good reason not to understand. Because I could show you with a bit of time that it is purely a lottery.

– W Edwards Deming (1984)

Terminally learning disabled

Terminally learning disabled societies are late stage empires, focused entirely on maintaining a façade of growth and success, right through to the final stages of collapse.

The following characteristics distinguishes terminally learning disabled societies from other societies:

  • Once the cult of empire and growth has become hyper-normative, sizeable parts of the population are dehumanised.
  • Ultimately the neurodiversity within the human species triggers the process of schismogenesis. Small groups split off to consciously co-create egalitarian societies. Some members of the collapsing empire may find the courage to migrate to one of the emergent egalitarian societies, and others may die as part of the empire, due to forces far beyond human control.

Successful bullshitting enhances the image of bullshitters. This happens when bullshitters are able to more or less convincingly present themselves as more grandiose than they actually are. External audiences are more likely to make positive judgements about them and be more willing to invest resources in them. Organizations often use trendy but misleading names to attract resources (particularly from the uninformed). In recent years, firms have gained a boost in valuation by adopting a name invoking blockchain technology.

As well as enhancing one’s image, bullshitting can also help to enhance self-identity. This is because bullshit can enable bullshitters to conjure a kind of ‘self-confidence trick’. This happens when bullshitters mislead themselves into believing their own bullshit. Self-deception enables individuals to present themselves as much more self-confident than they would otherwise seem if they had to engage in cognitively taxing processes of dual processing (holding in one’s mind both the deceptive statement as well as the truth). The self-confidence which comes from self-deception can aid resource acquisition. For instance, entrepreneurs are encouraged to ignore their objective chances of failure so they can appear self-confident in their search for resources to support their venture.

When bullshit has become part of the formal organization for some time, it can slowly start to seem valuable in and of itself. When this happens, bullshit can be treated as sacred. Sanctification happens when an element of secular life (such as bullshitting) is elevated, a sense of higher meaning is projected into it, and deep existential significance is invested in it.

André Spicer (2020)

The current social operating system amplifies the influence of the opinions and whims of a few people (including algorithms that are designed to act as extensions of these people) by several orders of magnitude. At the same time these people are subject to the same cognitive limits as all humans – if anything they may lack sensitivity and self reflective capacities, not understanding that their influence, amplified to the scale of millions and billions of people invariably causes great harm to large numbers of human and non-human living creatures.

There is only one conclusion: it is a form of collective insanity to allow such concentrations of social power, and within this system, the only people who are in a position to do something about this state of affairs are those few who currently hold positions of highly concentrated social power – but these people are in these positions because they are hopelessly addicted to the most dangerous drug for humans, namely social power.

Let’s not look to the people in power to change things, because the people in power, I’m afraid to say, are very often some of the emptiest people in the world, and they are not going to change things for us.”

– Dr. Gabor Maté

We have to recognise that these people are addicts, and we need to start treating them as such. Humans have severe cognitive limitations, but once we start acknowledging our limitations, we can at least organise for optimal collective intelligence – a small positive number, not quite zero.

It is delusional to think that any of the addicts in positions of social power will ever voluntarily give up their drug, just as it is delusional to think that any other system of large scale social organisation based on some different form of coercive control or influence would be any better or less corruptible. I have spent over 30 years of my working life getting paid for surfacing tacit knowledge, ensuring psychological safety, and establishing shared understanding across disciplines and cultures. I am also acutely aware how often misunderstandings accumulate, even between people with the best intentions, and how people quickly become judgemental, and thereby invoke social power dynamics that can get in the way of establishing a basis for de-powered dialogue and shared understanding.

All human attempts of control at large scale are futile. We can build on this insight, co-creating optimal environments for nurturing collective human intelligence. We know how to do this. It is not rocket science. It involves what I refer to as “de-powering” everything we do, ultimately including nuclear disarmament.

This involves reducing energy consumption, as well as reducing social power gradients by orders of magnitude, and nurturing the evolution of small, human scale ecologies of mutual care. The latter can occur in parallel with offering palliative care to established powered-up super human scale organisations, including compassionate exit paths for the inmates.

De-powering is occurring in two basic ways:

  1. Voluntarily and consciously, by realising that emergent human scale ecologies of mutual care provide an avenue for incrementally phasing out super human scale institutions of power, without needing to come up with an overall grandiose master plan that pretends to offer “the” solution. Human scale is small, it is local, it is beautiful, and by definition is compatible with human cognitive limits – it protects us from the grandiose delusions of control that have culminated in the predicament of powered-up industrialised civilisation.
  2. Involuntarily, by forces beyond human control, such as increasingly severe extreme weather events, ecological collapse, and breakdown of brittle energy intensive and under-resourced systems that implode under their own bureaucratic weight.

Given the addictive nature of social power, the second path will play a prominent role. This is the sad reality that has unfolded. We have to face it.

All that we can do is to offer support to the few who are consciously working on the first path, in many different localities, surfacing and distilling locally relevant knowledge, including indigenous ways of knowing that are still accessible.

The marginalised people who are working on this path constitute the cultural immune system of human societies. Some of us have been on this path for many decades, and increasingly we are collaborating, both globally and locally. In contrast to culturally well adjusted neuronormative people, Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people are “not culturally well adjusted” from their first day of life onwards. We are anthropologists by birth, and for many of us, attempting to become “culturally well adjusted” to our sick society was never really a survivable option.

Collaborative niche construction at human scale

The four categories of human societies are compatible with the evidence examined by historian Joseph Tainter and by what anthropologists and archaeologists are discovering about human cultural evolution. The main difference between modern emergent human scale cultural species and prehistoric human scale cultural species lies in the language systems and communication technologies that are being used to coordinate activities and to record and transmit knowledge within cultural organisms, between cultural organisms, and between cultural species.

Humans all over the world need to address multiple existential threats, without any delay, within a time frame of a few years and decades, which is only possible by transitioning to egalitarian cultural practices at human scale, and by recognising the role of neurodivergent niche construction within this context.

Neurodivergent niche construction at human scale primarily relies on a critical lens and on environmental (re)engineering practices that result in new adaptive paradigmatic frameworks that are tailored around the unique needs of the members of a specific ecology of care and that are embedded in the local non-human ecology. In contrast, neuronormative niche construction primarily relies on social learning by imitation, within an established paradigmatic framework.

Autistic people have a life time of experience of surviving by learning to trust their own senses and environmental observations. For Autistic people learning by imitation is neither desirable nor intuitively accessible. In the current context of civilisational collapse, paying attention to the non-human environment and paying attention to the cognitive limitations and unique cognitive abilities and talents of each individual is the only viable survival strategy.

What has been obvious to many Autists for decades, is far from obvious to the culturally well adjusted and increasingly confused neuronormative majority. We don’t need yet another complex template for organisational structure and not yet another complex or rigid process to follow within the established social order.

The path to escape the box of a sick society involves rediscovering timeless and minimalistic principles for coordinating creative collaboration in the absence of capital and hierarchical structures:

  1. Visibly extend trust to people, to release the handbrake to collaboration.
  2. Unlock valuable tacit knowledge within a group.
  3. Provide a space for creative freedom.
  4. Help repair frayed relationships.
  5. Replace fear with courage.

People have known about these principles for millennia. Some of the principles have been rediscovered many times, by different groups of people in various geographies and in different cultural contexts. In particular, neurodivergent people are acutely aware that culture is constructed one trusted relationship at a time – this is the essence of fully appreciating diversity.

“Study after study confirms that most people have about five intimate friends, 15 close friends, 50 general friends and 150 acquaintances. This threshold is imposed by brain size and chemistry, as well as the time it takes to maintain meaningful relationships”

– Robin Dunbar (2018)

Within good company (smaller than 50 people), everyone is acutely aware of the competencies of all the others, and transparency and mutual trust enables wisdom and meta knowledge (who has which knowledge and who entrusts whom with questions or needs in relation to specific domains of knowledge) to flow freely. This allows the group to rapidly respond intelligently, creatively, and with courage to all kinds of external events.

As events beyond human control force us to pay attention to the much richer metaphors of living systems, Autistic people are rediscovering the beauty of collaborating at human scale, and co-creating beautiful works of art as an antidote against the emergence of social power dynamics and the competitive logic of hate and violence.

Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. 1902.

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4 Responses

  1. My son’s reaction to his autistic traits is to set himself apart from others who do not “get” him. Part of his creative process is creations he makes out of wood and metal that, quite honestly, have no meaning to me but do to him. He sees within the strange shapes things I simply cannot. While he and I occassionally tussle over where to keep these giant creations, there is no doubt that the creation of them gives him a purpose his part-time job does not. It also, I believe, keeps him from self-medicating in harmful ways. I could only hope our neighbors could understand that Allen’s need to build a structure in the backyard is part of who he is, not different from the fellow down the street who washes his truck every day and feels the need to rev the engine at 6AM.

  2. Thank you, Jorn Bettin. I listened to the You Tube videos along with your writing in this article. It’s helpful to see the connections of myriad systems. Are there classes in universities that focus and communicate about these interconnections, for creating new benevolent earth systems? I have wished for this type of education. Maybe neurodivergent communities will start new educational communities and also the creation of new ways. Your writing is educating me to see more deeply into the human experience and the unique capacities of the neurodivergent to bring something better to humankind.

    1. Thank you for the encouragement. You raise an important point about education. As you will have heard from the interview with William Reece, the topics he is covering are not front and centre in mainstream academic curricula. The sad reality is that in many countries the notion of academic freedom and independence has been heavily integrated into – or rather overpowered by – the dominant economic paradigm. You have to look long and hard to find educators who have managed to carve out a niche where they can conduct academic research and design courses with minimal strings attached. Academic-self censorship is a major problem.

      Nate Hagens has published a course titled “Reality 101” on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/@reality101-umnnexusone9/playlists. But there are also many important topics that are less closely connected to energy use that I would consider relevant as well. I have compiled a short essential reading list at https://autcollab.org/2021/11/28/understanding-human-collective-behaviour/. The book I wrote on collaboration at human scale can be downloaded free of charge at https://autcollab.org/books/ and it contains a long list of relevant references.

      Here is an idea. AutCollab.org can set up a dedicated web page that lists education courses endorsed by (and often run by) Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people. I can seed the list with courses that I consider trustworthy and relevant, and we can then crowd-source further courses about transdisciplinary topics that are relevant to neurodivergent and intersectionally marginalised people, but which don’t necessarily have a high visibility in the mainstream of academia. We already have a page where we feature Autistic research https://autcollab.org/projects/research/ and we already offer in-depth professional education courses for clinicians and healthcare professionals https://autcollab.org/projects/for-healthcare-professionals/.

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