Of chocolates and crowds

The recent riot in Moscow (after Russia lost a soccer game to Japan) which caused the police to club a fan to death is but one example of the fear of governments—of the left or the right—when more than a few people start to . . . gather together to protest in a public place, particularly in a capital city. Why the fear? The answer is that such a crowd (but not necessarily soccer fans!) could simply walk into government buildings and take over—as they did in the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2004.

But why do crowds become emotional, uncontrollable and do extraordinary things which individuals or very small groups would never dream of doing? Instead of trying to answer in abstractions beloved of sociologists and newspaper pundits, let me ask two other questions. Why do we love chocolate? Why do we love to eat sweet things?

We love the taste of chocolate (more than most other things)—even to the point of being sick sometimes—because the cacao plant never existed in Africa during the six million years in which the hominin line evolved after separating from chimps. Our genes never evolved resistance to eating too much chocolate simply because we never came across it. We love sugar because, during the same period in Africa, natural beehives were very rare. Once a group had gorged itself on the honeycombs of one nest then that was that. The discovery of another beehive might be months away. Consequently, our genes had no need to build up a defence against eating too much honey.

So we now have the answer to governments’ fears.  It’s genetic.  For six million years or so, the circumstances of the open savannah meant that we only lived in small groups—maybe no more than a score or so of adults and offspring for most of that period.  Our emotions could easily run riot—and no doubt did—but they could never do any great damage. Even when one group violently clashed with another, the warfare is usually appeased when one person is killed or badly injured—so anthropologists tell us about those hunter-gatherers who still exist. But those genes which guide our behaviour never had to cope with huge masses of people in which emotions might be running riot to the very last individual.

All these—chocolate, sugar, large crowds—are examples of what evolutionary biologists call super-stimuli.  We have no natural defence against them.  A corollary of this is also the reason why political demagogues or religious revivalists like crowds—albeit in carefully circumscribed circumstances—because they can easily lead their auditors’ emotions along avenues which most would never have gone individually.

A recent poll in Moscow said that 60% of Moscovites did not trust their police. A recent poll in America said that 65% of the population want the government to crack down on bankers because of the misery of the credit-crunch. No doubt there would be the same response in the UK and all over Western Europe. Yet governments have not done so, or have only made desultory gestures.

Whether the banks are the primary causes or not (I think governmental printing of money is) is beside the point.  Unless an economic recovery comes along soon, all Western governments are now on tenterhooks because they know (without knowing the precise biological reason) that crowds can easily gather and, when suitably triggered, can cause even worse disaster—even the loss of the present politicians’ own power.

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