“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
(Charles Darwin, – ‘The theory of evolution by natural selection’)
Here’s a thought for you – the wind is playfully rustling through the leaves of the trees, your shoes lie strewn in abandon, the dappled lights falls idyllically as you ready to gorge yourself upon a carefully selected luncheon, when…along comes a wasp. You try your best to ignore its incessant buzzing in your ear, but its relentless claim to sharing your lunch eventually begs the question… “Do I kill the wasp?” Well, do you? For many, the idea that if it’s not ‘cute and fluffy’ and of insignificant size, then no one will miss it. So kill the beast. However, if you were Hindu then all forms of life appear as a reflection of God whereas a Buddhist believes that you may re-incarnate as an animal in your next life, so for many the life of the wasp has ethical importance. It does indeed have a ‘soul’ and is a vital force within the energy and structure of our ecosystem. So, we ignore the wasp. Our differing attitudes towards animals does not only span across religions but the ages too. In the Western hemisphere, the main pre-Darwin theory centred around the Christian concept of ‘scala naturae’ (ladder of nature) that detailed a strict hierarchical structure of all matter and life, by decree of God, starting with hell, the lowly and most basic of forms moving all the way up to God at the top, closely flanked by the heavenly creatures and humans. So basically, until Charles Darwin came along and turned everything on its head, the poor wasp had a rather subordinate standing whereas in comparison man had a very high conviction of himself. In his groundbreaking book ‘On the Origin of Species’ (1859), Darwin took God out of the equation when he put forward his absorbing evidence that species had evolved through a process called natural selection. If we take into account how humans have progressed through the ages it is undeniably proportionate to a degree that no other species can contend with. Having branched off from their common ancestor, the chimpanzee, around 5-7 million years ago, the ‘homo’ has since developed into ‘homo sapiens’ (wise man), learning to stand and walk erect (- something that marks us out from other creatures, (except birds) who may also have learned how to stand not for walking but for feeding and fighting purposes only) and to employ our opposable thumbs for making tools that has enabled us to manipulate and alter the world around us. Our highly developed brains have the capability of language, post-rational thought, analysis, resolve and wisdom. Yet somewhere along the way we seem to have got it all very wrong. Some would say our ‘sapience’ has made us too wanting. Rather than living in harmony with nature we have elevated ourselves: we wear clothes, drive cars, put make-up on our faces, invent machines that help us work more competently and bury our dead out of respect. We are self-aware and we acquire and store knowledge, – our world should be the most cleverly adapted and efficient planet in the universe, but it’s far from it. We think in terms of ‘self’ rather than ‘community’, and of ‘rich and poor’ instead of ‘capable and incapable’. Our ‘wisdom’ has been misused and as a result, we are slowly destroying our planet.
The idea of ‘herd’ mentality is the main vocation of Mark Earls (author and self-proclaimed recovering advertising and marketing professional and “all-round opinionator”). Opening up discussion for The School of Life’s day trip to London Zoo, Mark begins by divulging that we constantly contradict ourselves because we act in terms of personal achievement yet subconsciously think as a herd. In other words, we strive in one direction but are constrained to the requirements of the people around us, – “we do what we do because of other people”. Mark goes on in saying that when you think in terms of marketing, change management, mergers and acquisitions and social policy reform, “we struggle to make any demonstrable difference to the behaviour of the people involved.” Realistically, most advertising really fails to make much of an impact (except in some cases like Tesco’s “every little helps” and Apple products such as the ipod), the majority of mergers and acquisitions results in reduced shareholder value, and with social reform the struggle to make changes to the attitudes within a community is always paramount. Our whole lives are founded on the reciprocal actions and influences of other people. We simply cannot go through life without relying on the help of other people. Each person has specialist knowledge but depends on a network of knowledge in order to have a rounded sense of capability. Just like a bee colony we each have our standing and role within our community. So how many friends does one person actually need? If you were to seriously take in the ridiculous amounts of ‘friends’ on other people’s Facebook page you might believe that unless you had at least 1000 friends then you’re not worth knowing at all. Not so. For according to primatologist Robin Dunbar, he proposed the roundabout figure of 150. When observing apes he noticed the strong association between the size of the ape’s neocortex (the part of the brain that is responsible for sensory perception, language, conscious thought and generation of movement commands) in relation to the size of their social groupings. He then researched different human cliques that would only reconfirm the number: English villages around the time of the Domesday book – 150; Neolithic tribes form the Middle East – 150; a rudimentary Roman Empire army unit –130; even within bigger pre-industrial tribal bodies there exists smaller clans of around 150. Dunbar even claims that ‘150’ is about the number of Christmas cards you should be sending out each year. (- although clearly the man hasn’t met me yet, since I struggle beyond a card for my mother and my accountant)
As we move around the different enclosures of London Zoo, Mark points out the different behavioural traits: reproductive fitness display (Peacocks and other birds); status display (Gorillas); safety in numbers (Penguins, Fish); grooming as a way of bonding (the Colobus Monkey); empathy (Penguins); collective intelligence (Meerkats and the shoaling patterns of fish); and social learning skills such as ‘I’ll have what she’s having’. (the Colobus Monkey) Mark states that we can observe most of these traits in our own human behaviour, – like a shoal of fish we “get up, get a move on and try not to bump into anyone.”
Gorillas – anthropomorphic, independent, individual, displays of status.
Colobus Monkey – grooming, playful interaction, social learning “I’ll have what he’s having”
Penguin Beach – Safety in numbers, empathy, mirror neurons.
Meerkats – Distributed intelligence, social creatures, learn from each other.
Snowden Aviary – Peacock’s status display behaviour, genetic fitness.
Aquarium – Safety in crowds, shoaling patterns and crowd behaviour.
Just to prove his point we amble along the Regents canal up to Camden market. Amongst the hustle and bustle we could pick out a couple kissing with protective body language (status display), a group of men out on a stag-do all wearing the same cheap straw hats and eating the same doner kebab (‘I’ll have what he’s having’), groups of youths (safety in numbers), young girls preening themselves, trying on brightly coloured accessories (like Peacocks), canoeists on the canal resembling a shoal of fish and a large family of tourists eating while the father looks out. (a collective intelligence – very much like the dynamics of the Meerkats where there is always one member on guard)
So what can we take from all of this? Mark is adamant that we need to understand the dynamics and our place within our herd so that we can understand the word of mouth phenomena. Take a look at the stratospheric rise in SMS texting use over the past couple of years and the phenomenal success of bands like The Arctic Monkeys through word on the street hype as case in point. To further prove the argument, we found this one alley in the Stables Market section of Camden market that was full of sub-mediocre Chinese food stalls. Every single server was clamouring at passers-by, pestering them to taste their food. People would take the free tester yet you never saw anyone actually buying any of the food, yet if you go to Borough Market on any Saturday morning and try and get a coffee at Monmouth’s you’ll be queuing for half an hour. (They have never advertised and you will not find one person leaving that queue) Buying into this truth may not directly save the planet but it may help you manage your goals and make you more productive and proactive within your ‘150’. And you never know, this year you might even get that Christmas card from me.
All discussion points raised above were debated over throughout the School of Life’s ‘Day Trip to London Zoo’. Based in Bloomsbury, the School of Life offers a wide variety of programmes and services that will challenge your ideas of everyday life. Over the next couple of weeks I will bring you two more School of Life essays (‘Drinks with Freud’ and “A Day of Good Design with Ilse Crawford) in which I dare you to call into question and agree to disagree.