|Layer 7: Universal Culture (Big Religion)|
|Layer 6: Ethnicity/Broad Culture (Nationalism)|
|Layer 5: Clan (Extended Kin Group)|
|Layer 4: Tribe (Subculture/Monkeysphere)|
|Layer 3: Family (Immediate Kin Group)|
|Layer 2: Self (Identity/Consciousness)|
|Layer 1: Biology|
The above is my seven layer model of social organization. It’s supposed to be analogous to the OSI 7-layer model for network architecture. The idea behind the network stack is that each layer is a layer of abstraction over some work to be done to move packets about. Each layer presents an interface up and relies on functionality below in order to do its job. Functionally, each lower layer is supposed to be ignorant of whatever is going on above, and treats the layers above it as payload. In the real world, most of the Internet isn’t built on a pure expression of this seven layer model. In particular, layers 5 and 6 usually get sort of compressed or ignored. But if you’ve ever heard of “TCP”, “IP”, or “TCP/IP” in regard to network traffic, what you’re hearing is people talking about particular solutions to layers 3 (IP) and 4 (TCP) and their interplay.
Here are the basic rules to reading my presented stack layer.
- Each layer operates at its own level of abstraction, with its own impetus and requirements.
- Abstraction and scale both go up as you go up the stack.
- Higher layers are dependent on sufficient functioning of lower layers, but can often redirect/repurpose outputs.
- “Higher” need not imply “better” in this model (notably, though, “ethics” is high).
- Scale-up is a hard problem. Each interface layer implies the solution to difficult scale issues.
- Good solutions at higher layers feed down the stack just as good solutions at lower layers ease implementation at higher layers.
OK. Given this, let’s drill down into each of the layers and their interfaces. Who knows, maybe we’ll find something cool?
Layer 1: Biology: Here, I’m mostly talking about the physical needs of an individual person. Water, food, sex, shelter … the low-level slices on Maslow’s hierarchy. In particular, this is all the stuff that humans share with the rest of the animal kingdom. Importantly, though, these needs have to be provided for in order for anything else at a higher abstraction layer to work. Just as how it doesn’t matter what kind of fancy HTTP protocol you’re running if someone accidentally cuts the fiber-optic cable, it doesn’t matter what kind of society you’re trying to build if everyone is dead or entirely occupied with looking for a cave to cower in. Presumably, non-social animals implement no layer above this one.
Layer 2: Self: This layer is interesting. It encompasses everything about the experience of being a person. Consciousness, sense of self, all that jazz. It interfaces with the physical layer in ways we still don’t entirely understand yet. When you have the subjective experience of being tired, hungry, or cold, that’s the 1-2 interface in action. Other subjective experiences, like the feeling of ennui, are probably pure second-layer concerns. The kinds of fiction that are popular in university English departments are largely about gaining insight into the interior life of other people. In this verbiage, they’re trying to describe Layer 2 implementation details.
Notably, anyone in a Robinson Crusoe type situation (a society of one) would not need to implement any layers above this one. This is likely connected to the reason why anyone isolated from other people for too long goes crazy. The built-in human software expects implementations of layers above this one.
Layer 3: Family: Depending on social expectations, the extent of this layer waxes and wanes. But, fundamentally, what defines a family group in this model is cooperation among people with the expectation that there is a close enough genetic relationship among many of the members to warrant significant altruism at the gene propagation level.
The biologist J.B.S. Haldane developed models wherein, as he quipped, he would not give his life to save his brother, but he might to save two brothers or eight first cousins. The idea there is that since, on average, a blood sibling shares half your genes, from the perspective of gene propagation you should therefore be indifferent toward your own life or two of your siblings’. This is the math that implies that group selection has a very weak effect at the genetic level. A gene that imposed X fitness cost on its host but added value to those around it would need to have drastic effects in order to pay off for even somewhat closely related people. Greater than 8X, total, if everyone helped were first cousins. As the degree of relatedness falls, the required scope of effect for the given X increases proportionally, rapidly reaching impossibly large effects.
So, Layer 3 solutions have the great benefit of being biologically supported at the individual level. There are strong evolved behaviors and preferences for parents to sacrifice for their children, or brothers for brothers, that can be reinforced and channeled at Layer 3. The 2-3 interface is mostly about how behavior required of a person by their family is enforced. Think of filial piety or an arranged marriage as examples of Layer 3 solutions that need to be enforced through the 2-3 interface.
Layer 4: Tribe: I define a tribe as a group of people that are small enough to fit into a member’s Monkeysphere, but generally larger than the family/kin group. This means that there is sufficient mental hardware for each person to consider each other person in the tribe as a fully-realized person. But, at the same time, there are too many people too loosely related for the genetic basis of family cooperation to be expected to kick in. Layer 4 solutions can therefore rely on built-in human social mechanisms to smooth over disputes and maintain affiliation. When tribes grow too large, the usual solution is fission into two or more Monkeysphere-sized subgroups.
The 3-4 interface layer is interesting. Because the tribe layer and the family layer are so close together in size and abstraction level, oftentimes tribes will adopt the rhetoric of family to strengthen the ideological in-group loyalty bonds. The institution of “blood brothers” or small, intensely devoted cults are dramatic examples of this pattern. If the given Layer 4 implementation does not require (or wants to override) the Layer 3 solution, it can route around it with a direct 2-4 connection. This can be undeniably effective in the short run. But it is common that solutions of this sort flame out after a while. In particular, a stable, long-running society needs to solve the problem of rearing the next generation. And it is very difficult to get people to bear the intense personal costs of child bearing and raising without Layer 3 incentives.
Layer 4 is the top layer that was implemented in the EEA. Implementations of Layers 3 and 4 are therefore commonly reprised throughout history. Basically, any time you leave enough people alone for long enough, you’ll find that they’ve come up with solutions at this scale. But any layer above this one has to be implemented purely in software, so to speak. They aren’t natural innovations. And, as such, they respond to different pressures and need to be maintained using different mechanisms.
Layer 5: Clan: A clan is a conglomeration of neighboring tribes that all share some common traits. Oftentimes, this can happen after one particularly successful tribe has split several times and come to dominate a large territory. But this isn’t strictly necessary; clan-type organizations can also be readily observed in virtual communities. Reddit is a good example: the various sub-reddits are usually tribes of various sizes, all under the broader clan banner of Reddit. When events occur that seem to threaten the interests of all the tribes, the resolutions they seek to their disputes occur at the clan level.
Layer 5 implementations generally require a powerful outside influence to unite the fractious tribes around their common interest. This makes sense. Historically, the point of a Layer 5 solution is to deal with the pressing problem of group selection. Which is a fancy way of saying that sometimes a society is confronted with existential military threats that cannot be handled by groups that only have Layer 4 or lower solutions. Since clans cannot rely on solely on genetic relatedness or Monkeysphere personal loyalty to enforce cooperation, another motivation is required: fear of the outgroup.
The 4-5 interface layer is commonly implemented as something of a council of tribes where each can send representatives of their interests. Alternatively, a single tribe can be designated as the rulers (led by a king of kings). In this case, the ruling tribe is responsible for rallying the others against an encroaching power in exchange for a greater share of the rents or spoils.
Solving social problems other than “We’re all going to die!” at Layer 5 is somewhat clunky. This is because the 4-5 interface layer is necessarily weak. There isn’t a lot of loyalty to call on at Layer 5 to override or restructure lower-level behaviors, because most of it is held at Layer 4 or constructed using logic that’s compelling at higher layers. At the same time, though, the loose coupling enables targeted large-scale cooperation at inexpensive prices. If you don’t need uniformity among the tribes, this can be a substantial virtue.
Layer 6: Nation: A nation is a synthetic, high-abstraction, fairly-cohesive identity group. Generally, a nation is based upon some combination of idealized versions of race, language, and shared cultural artifacts that compel the loyalty of the member of the nation. The most common Layer 6 implementations vest political power in a single entity that is supposed to govern and represent the nation. Hence: nation-state. This pattern has become so common that the rare modern exceptions are usually engaged in active secession movements. Think Kurdistan, Scotland, Catalonia, Quebec, and Palestine. Each of these places has a nation (or, at least, a large number of people claiming to speak for an authentic nation) but does not have a state to go with it.
Significant effort is required in order to foster and maintain loyalty at this layer. Familial and tribal loyalties happen automatically; clan loyalties are weak and narrowly scoped; but national loyalty has to be consciously built and carefully maintained. This is often done through universal schooling, sponsored veneration of particular cultural products (like flags and anthems), and careful policing of people with suspected dual loyalties.
There is an argument to be made that Layers 5 and 6 address a similar level of social organization. Implementations at either layer result in wide-ranging polities that solve the issue of collective self-defense. The main difference could merely be that they address the issue differently, not that they are acting at substantively different levels of scale and abstraction. It is just that one is thin and the other is thick.
But I think the more proper analogy is to Layers 3 and 4. Many tribes use the language and logic of family. Similarly, many implementations of nations seek to solve the problem that clans generally solve: collective self-defense and dispute mediation among component groups. But that doesn’t make the two adjacent layers equivalent.
The 5-6 interface layer mostly consists of bureaucratic solutions to national administration that accept the legitimacy of subsidiary Layer 5 institutions. In an analogous way to how Layer 3 can be cut or worked around via a direct 2-4 interface, national administrations of sufficient influence can issue directives that interface directly with lower levels. This implies the potential existence of 2-6, 3-6, and 4-6 interfaces. Strictly, in terms of the stack, what this really means is that the intervening layers are implemented merely as pass-throughs for those functions. But it’s important to note that there can still be possible interference from intervening layers.
Layer 7: Universal Culture: National cultures (Layer 6) seek to unify a particular group of people around abstractions that are tailored to appeal to them in particular. Only certain people are eligible for admission into any given nation. And, it is important to note, this eligibility is generally drawn from deep history or cultural affinity. Logically, you are accepted into a nation only if you always were a national.
This serves as a sharp contrast to a universal culture. A universal culture is one that everyone is in theory eligible to join. This means that the distinction between the ingroup and the outgroup at Layer 7 is entirely a function of ideology. Examples of universal cultures throughout history are primarily big religions (e.g. Christianity, Islam, and Communism).
And since the boundaries between the ingroup and the outgroup are malleable – it’s much easier to convert someone to Catholicism than it is to make them a Frenchman, for instance – this implies that it is at least theoretically possible to convert everyone. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, this theme of all men eventually discovering the truth of the universal culture’s claims and pledging their loyalty accordingly is quite common. Just as the proletariat will eventually triumph over the bourgeoisie, so will the Ummah come to encompass all of mankind.
Universal culture, therefore, is the theoretical top of the stack. You can’t get bigger or more abstract than everyone. This means that generally, motivations that stem from motivations of universal culture will be seen as the highest or most noble. Conversely, there is very little inherent support for any directive stemming from this layer. Self-interest or some rough analog can make sense at every lower layer, becoming more obviously applicable the lower you go. But all the support for Layer 7 operations has to be done purely in software. This makes universal culture inherently very fragile.
A society that relies on a strong Layer 7 implementation for scale will also require good implementations at the lower levels to support it. However, at the same time, solutions that are hammered out at Layer 7 are highly portable. Innovations in universal culture can spread like wildfire compared to tribal knowledge.
The 6-7 interface layer is invoked whenever someone is asked to choose God over country. Or whenever national policy is affected by concerns that are seen as higher or broader than the national interest. So, to the degree that IR realists’ projections do not map to reality, that is the 6-7 interface layer at work.
Just as with Layer 6, universal culture often has influence all the way down to the individual. This means it can make sense, at times, to talk about 2-7, 3-7, 4-7, and 5-7 layers as well. Whenever someone is called to apply the demands of their applicable universal culture to their responsibilities at a lower level, this is evidence of an interface.
Interestingly, though, the mediation often happens at a higher level even when it seems like it shouldn’t. Even universalist religions that lean strongly on the idea of an individual’s immortal soul rarely attempt to make use of the 2-7 interface. It’s just too unreliable. Instead, in these cases, you see innovations like state-sponsored churches, which can be used to align the implementations on Layers 6 and 7. And individual clergy usually work through a particular church franchise (Layer 4 or 5, depending on the scale) where the people are expected to break up into small groups (Layer 4). And often the adult members of families are expected to help indoctrinate their children (Layer 3).
I’m not sure how much predictive power this model actually has. In theory, it could be used to help intelligently craft a novel, sustainable society. But at the very least, it seems to be reasonably descriptive. And it’s universal enough to possibly be used to help classify and understand how any given form of social organization actually works.