Tuesday, 14 August 2012

"You are all individuals" . . . "I'm not!"

If you've seen the movie Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979), you'll probably recognise these words. When the hapless Brian has been followed - pursued, even - by credulous and demanding crowds, he takes refuge in the house of a woman friend. After spending the night with her, he flings open the shutters in the morning and is horrified to see the crowd waiting for him below. They start to chant and hail him as their leader.

'You've got it wrong,' he cries, 'you're all individuals.'

'Yes, master, we are all individuals,' they chant, as one.

'I'm not!' shouts a wag from the back of the crowd, jumping up and down.

Last week, I wrote that I had one more 'money' post to write, and I still do, but it can wait, because I want to think about something else this week. The Life of Brian quote reminds me of another, from Alan Watts, the Zen teacher. It's a fundamental mistake, he wrote, to imagine that a human being is an individual ego running round inside a bag of skin (see his book The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are).

I've found myself particularly thinking about all of this during the past two weeks of the Olympics. Stay with me . . . this post isn't actually going to be about sport per se, but about what the whole phenomenon of the Olympics can teach us. I'm no sports fan (except for singles tennis) but have found myself fascinated by the social-psychological event that has been going on. It's been a powerful reminder of the degree to which we are social beings, not individual isolates.

Many of the athletes spoke of the importance of the huge support they got from the crowd, and what a  difference it made. On the final Saturday, Britain's Mo Farah was running to win the men's 5,000m track race in the main stadium (after winning the 10,000m just a week before); one of the BBC's commentators said that the crowd was 'roaring him home', that there was a Mexican wave of sound following him round the circuit. In the men's tennis, Andy Murray swept past world number one, Novak Djokovic, in straight sets in the semi-final, and then went on to demolish his nemesis, Roger Federer, also in straight sets (6-2, 6-1, 6-4), to win gold. It wasn't the usual Wimbledon crowd there on Centre Court, but a vocally patriotic Olympics crowd, and they roared for Andy Murray without the undertone of anticipated disappointment that has accompanied British men's tennis for many decades. Not only that, Roger Federer - accustomed for so many years to being the darling of Centre Court - wasn't getting that kind of crowd support. Roger's game was flat, and Andy was just flying.

And many of the athletes, especially those in individual rather than team sports, spoke of the importance of being part of 'Team GB', and the difference it made to them. A couple of years ago Djokovic stepped up to a new level of tennis after winning Davis Cup for Serbia, and spoke of the difference that came in playing for his country. One of the tennis commentators at the Olympics said of Andy Murray: 'Ever since he put that Team GB shirt on, he's been a different player.'

So, what's going on here? What lies behind this phenomenon called 'home advantage'? A research  team has been following athletes of nations hosting the Olympics for many years now. In each case, in the period between being awarded the games, and the games actually happening, the home nation's athletes show a steady rise in testosterone levels, in both men and women - and raised testosterone results in better performance (which is why artifically raising it by doping is so effective). So the 'home advantage' isn't 'just psychological', it affects the physiology, the bodies, of the athletes.

There's something ancient, in evolutionary terms, going on here. Monkeys also show raised testosterone, giving them a fighting advantage, on their home range. If the moving gang fight strays off their own territory, their testosterone levels drop and they lose their advantage.

Way back in human evolution, when we lived in small bands of hunter-gatherers, even a tiny advantage made a huge difference in a very uncertain world; your group was everything - a sole individual would die, and the tribe was the unit that survived. A band that worked together well, that was successful in getting food and keeping other groups off its home range, would pass it genes down to more people. So gene mutations that coded for high group cohesion and successful group peformance under pressure would be passed down to future generations. Hominids without these beneficial adaptations would eventually die out, being out-competed for essential resources by the more successful bands.

And the fact that we are here, now, in an industrial and post-industrial twenty-first century, tells us that our ancestors were the ones that survived. We are the inheritors of those genes, and this tribal physiology is hard-wired into us. At the Olympics we saw the tribe roaring for its champion, time after time. This is something ancient and primitive and all our modern 'sophistication' does not erase it. We roar for the champion, and the champion responds with enhanced performance.There were many, many Team GB athletes who, while not winning gold, posted a new personal best in their sport.

This deep and powerful sociality of the human species is often masked in our modern world, but it comes to the fore at times of powerful emotion. The Olympics constitute one such example, and other sporting contests often display such characteristics - the tribal nature of football is well-known. It may also come to the fore in families when someone dies - there's an experience of not quite knowing whose grief is whose; there's just an amount of 'family grief' washing around, and different family members experience and express it at different times. Some corporations deliberately seek to stimulate these emotions by rituals to consolidate loyalty to the company. And military training is designed to create close bonds between members of a platoon. Times of national mourning, and times of warfare are other obvious examples, and this variety demonstrates the different ways we define our 'tribe' at different times and for different events - out ancient behaviours have adapted and attached themselves to modern circumstances.

So, what can we take from all of this? In last Sunday's Observer newspaper, Will Hutton tried to draw some political and economic lessons. In his article 'Olympics: the key to our success can rebuild Britain's economy' he sought to draw lessons for the mainstream of politics:
We need politicians who understand why we were so successful at the 2012 Games. Cameron and Osborne do not. The lesson is simple. If we could do the same for economy and society, rejecting the principles that have made us economic also-rans and which the coalition has put at the centre of its economic policy, Britain could be at the top of the economic league table within 20 years.
But what of the community politics of sustainability, the informal economy, campaigning, working for a different way of doing things? The following day, Sarah  Bakewell had an article in The Guardian about something completely different (a novel way of attempting a crewed space mission to Mars) in which she wrote:
Also, what about Earth? The big puzzle facing Earth-dwellers at the moment is how to motivate ourselves to do things clearly worth doing, but lacking immediate pay-offs. Our feeble response to the environmental crisis is a glaring case. To outwit ourselves, we need to harness our own psychology in new ways, and trick ourselves into doing good.
Could there be a genius of human motivation out there, ready to dream up some psychologically astute Earth One project? It might rest on some strange or frightening ploy at first, but if it rescues life on Earth, we'll have it.
The task is harness this deep, and deeply effective, tribal instinct that we have seen during the Olympics and widen its application to all humanity, and the biosphere. Humans are an adaptable species, and we've already seen some of this during the Games. The roar of the crowd for our women athletes is already one such extension - the primitive tribe wouldn't have females in that position in the first place. The acclaim for Jamaica's Usain Bolt showed that we can move beyond national chauvinism. The next steps need to happen, and to happen fast for the preservation of life on Earth. This won't happen without disciplined spiritual practice (just for starters!) and one good place to begin - if you don't know it already - is the Buddhist practice of Loving-Kindness Meditation, which starts with ourselves and moves outwards to the whole cosmos.

And if you want think more about our hunter-gatherer ancestry, and what it can teach us now, I can't recommend too highly a book called The Old Way: a story of the first people by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. She was nineteen when her parents took the family to live among the Bushmen of the Kalahari. Fifty years later, after a life of writing and study, Thomas returns to her experiences with the Bushmen, one of the last hunter-gatherer societies on earth, and discovers among them an essential link to the origins of all human society. It's beautifully written, both detailed and evocative; one of the recommendations on the back cover says:
This is the owner's manual we need for humankind. The Old Way gives us critical insight into our past at a turning point in human history, from one of the few people who has seen our kind living as we have lived for most of our species' existence.

It throws a searching light on our modern world, and our modern ways of being and relating. It shows us where we came from, and what kind of physical and social world we are really best fitted for.

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