An article from my time in Maharashtra last year
… two completely identical phenomena may very well coexist side by side and even come into certain contact. This contact, however, will not yield anything new at all until it elicits in each of them internal changes which will transform them into different and mutually opposed moments within a certain coherent whole.
There is in primate society a certain sameness which prevails, despite the simple variation of hierarchical and parental ordering; that thus the individuals within these structures never attain to a complexity which we may think properly deserving of the title ‘society.’ The difference with man is that we are incomplete and that this limit is precisely what binds early man into the complex organic forms which have unfolded into what we now face. This incompleteness is still plainly apparent today, in that few individuals are self-sufficient; indeed, few nations attain to anything like the ideal state of autarky. We are thus bound by our limits, that without others we would not be; hence properly considered ‘we’ exist only as the whole.
The topic with which I am immediately concerned, however, is the evolution of complex forms of social ordering; it is the marked difference between human and primate societies. There are a group of langurs that live in the trees outside my window, sometimes they will come and eat the miniature watermelons which populate these trees; and then sitting there, they will watch me and I will watch them. This ‘society’ of langurs is simple in that they are all more or less the same—that they are identical and therefore stable, inert.
Of course, they are not truly identical. There are basic differentiations, most notably of the sexes and with regard to parenting roles. The infant langur is raised primarily by its mother for the first two years, after which the females of the group share in this role. This is a particularly prominent difference insofar as sustenance for the infant depends upon the routing of needs through the mother. There are further male-specific roles, such as the strange alarm calls issued on encountering a predator.
Beyond this, however, there seems a simplicity to the basic structure of these langurs’ lives. They wander between trees and pick at fruit where they find it, their needs are closely coupled with sustenance and survival as immediate aims. To the extent that there is an instability which drives the motion of these groupings, it is the same thermodynamic inversion which everywhere characterises life. Yet we find that this movement, and the contact between individuals within it, does not manifest any process of significant differentiation.
Here we may return to the quote at our outset, for we find in this the origin of human society as a distinct category. The complexity of human society arises from the exaggeration of basic differentiations within the social order, that the structure comes to be characterise by a far more radical incompleteness; it is bound ever tighter by the necessity of maintaining various lines of complex behaviour within a division of labour. Human society, even for all the similarities between the oddly templated nature of modern men, is characterised by a degree of variety which far exceeds anything obvious in the ‘natural’ world. We find that, at least in this sense, it is precisely true that diversity is our strength; indeed, that it is a defining characteristic of mankind.
The principle of our initial quote, however, is that it is precisely this diversity which is also the specific unity of humankind. This is not merely a diversity of sameness, rather must be a true diversity which binds the structure of social order; it is based on need, in other words, and the flow of basic desires through the social forms into which they have been entrained. These bonds will, of course, be stronger where they run through the fundament rather than entailments long spun off from this base.
Whatever the case in this relation between diversity and unity, we must note that there is a further distinction between the human and primate orders which we have here discussed. This is that the langur society is stable, that variations may result from external influences but as a whole the sameness of its internal components renders the whole inert. Human society, in contrast, is characterised precisely by its distance from this. The step which made us what we are has also freed us, or some may say cast us out, from the stable simplicity of our prior state.
The multiplicity which is human order exhibits a twofold continuity: first in the basic requirement of its being bound as a unity by the incompleteness of each aspect; and second, by the lines which constitute this vast net of developmental complexity. This total social order is woven of threads which trace back by way of necessity and exaptation to the very origins of productive labour, that what follows has been built upon this basis and every generation has proceeded by initiation and then extension.
What seems to characterise human society as much as the internal variation of parts is the temporal variation in this process of historical development. While this may seem to some a trait peculiar to the modern age with its doctrine of progress driven by an intense dissatisfaction with whatever merely happens to be, still the development of human society seems to follow a trajectory entirely unlike anything else found in nature. There seems to be an instability built into our particular mode of social ordering which causes it to yearn in vain for this lost stability by way of ceaseless various and permutations of parts and whole.
This is perhaps why the problem of human social order has never been solved to perfection, that every answer has contained some flaw in its instantiation which ultimately resulted in its downfall and the birth of something new. If ever a stable solution was found then this would be precisely the death of man.