Functional Social System Sociology, Part 2


In the previous essay I posited the existence of a Functional Social Survival System:

“I then asked myself if the sentinel would be analogous to the eyes of the social group and the warrior to the muscles.  It was then only a short step to the idea that the social group was itself a functioning system and that temperaments were the attributes that mediated between the needs of the group and the function(s) of the individual.  In a social species, the group, a set of individuals, is a higher-level system than the individual.  An individual is a functional element for the survival of the group just as an organ is a functional survival element within our bodies.  I can ask, “what are the needs and motivations of the group?  How does the individual serve those needs?  And could the individuals together be the eyes, mind, and muscle – the organs – of a system analogous to those of a body?  Are individuals part of an information system which has inputs, processing and outputs?”

That paragraph from the previous essay has become a peg in my wall of inquiry and knowledge, upon which to hang subsequent perceptions, cognitions, observations, or even speculations – testing its strength of attachment: will it hold the weight of further investigation, thought and knowledge?  The concept of a Functional Social Survival System is a hypothesis worthy of being tested for its weight-bearing capacity.  This is the very essence of scientia and science.

Functional Social Survival System

The concept of a Functional Social Survival System is a portmanteau, there is a lot in it and upon opening it, the first thing I see is Aristotle’s observation that ‘we are a social animal.’  Not quite his exact words, but close enough.  What did he see, and from that perception, what did he distill, extract and condense into that sentence?  Aristotle would certainly would have observed that we are compulsively social, that is, we interact intensively, repeatedly, and emotionally through time.  We cooperate and compete, we conflict and resolve, we agree and disagree, we like and dislike, we love and hate.  We are much more intensively social than most of the other species of animals, and rather differently social than the social insects such as the honey bees, ants and termites.

He must also had observed we are a mosaic social species, and that, like the social insects with their nests and chimpanzees with their troops, we socialize in clumps, groups, clubs, associations, fraternities, congregations, families, clans, occupations, classes, platoons, troops, crews, neighborhoods, cities, and nations: cohesive social groups.  We are not a solitary species at one end of the spectrum nor a herding, flocking, or schooling species at the other end, but ab initio a small-sale tribal social species with intense and frequent interactions.

He would also have observed that within the larger-scale social organizations characteristic of cities and nations, there are a multitude of smaller groups for specific purposes and reasons.  Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed that the United States is a nation of joiners (again, not quite his exact words.)  There was a political context behind this observation which I will set aside for the simple observation that to achieve personal goals we frequently create or join in a social organization of some sort.  Another detail about these associations is that there is frequently no genetic connection between the members except in entities to which families join as a complete unit such as family businesses.  We form functional/operational social groups ad hoc, out of available materials.[efn_note]I found very interesting examples of this while reading of the gold rushes in California, Nevada, and Colorado.  Miners formed various associations to settle disputes, to control behavior, and to punish misbehavior.[/efn_note]

And he perhaps would have observed that in our large-scale demographic entities such as cities, we may not interact with unknown individuals but treat them as Unidentified Foreign Objects – UFO’s in reality, not the imaginary flying saucers of the last half of the 20th century.  A social species, we can, and frequently do, ignore each other.  Interspersed within the free-flowing individuality of a city street, there are clumps of individuals who are interacting to some degree from simply walking together to actively interacting.  Beneath this surface of civility, there may be an underlying desire to interact, but there is in some cases an edgy awareness of the possibility of danger in the unknown, so we hold ourselves aloof and in readiness to meet danger.  We may perceive signals such as oddities of dress and behavior that telegraph an avoidance signal.

Aristotle’s second sentence in his oft quoted statement succinctly summarizes my thesis: “Society is something that precedes the individual.”  We are an obligate social species preferentially associating in small-scale groups with intense intra-group interactivity and varying degrees of inter-group interactivity ranging from lessened social interaction to hostility and enmity.  A functional social survival system requires membership, and membership in one system may, and frequently does, imply non-membership in another system.

Functional Social Survival System

Our individual survival is within the ambit of a social group.  And that raises questions about the concept of survival.  I am first going to ask a question: what if evolutionary theory had been first generated and then expounded by women?  Would it be saddled with individual ‘survival of the fittest’ or ‘the selfish gene’ as its first principles?[efn_note]Two days after writing that question, I read an answer: Eleanor Arnason’s science fiction short story “The Potter of Bones.”  (Anthologized in Gardner Dozois’s The Very Best of the Best -2019.)  An inquisitive young exo-female living amidst a flat stack of sedimentary rocks full of fossils realizes that the bones were not created by the goddess but were the remains of animals that lived long ago and that life changed through time.  The story revolved around the concept of  evolution by female choice of the male for ‘beauty’ – appearance being a honest signal of fitness – and for functionality – usefulness – that generated increased survival in the children and their society.[/efn_note]  That being asked, I will modify the current conceptualization of evolution and assert that the first purpose of a social survival system is its own survival via enhanced survival of its constituent members who are themselves, only temporary.  The first need of a survival system is, then, durability and continuity, despite membership changes due to birth, transfer, and death; and ecological changes over time.

The social insects with their rather different survival and reproductive rules are an excellent model against which to view our social systems and survival rules.

Instinct: The Lessons of Honeybee Swarming

Quite by accident, or so it seems, I visited a part of the library that I do not often peruse, the periodicals, and discovered the article “How to Sway a Baboon Despot” by William Brennan in The Atlantic magazine for May 2018.[efn_note] [/efn_note] He devoted some space to swarming of honeybees and how they find a new hive.  Upon returning home I did a quick Web search on ‘honeybee swarm.’[efn_note] [/efn_note] With the knowledge that a few scout bees left the swarm to explore for a new site, and then communicated their discoveries to the swarm for a group decision, I immediately wrote this:[efn_note]Setting aside the group decision process for a near-future essay.[/efn_note]

For some reason, commonly over-population, the queen bee together with about half of the workers bees in the hive will leave and venture forth in a swarm to find a new home.  The swarm will first move to a temporary site near the hive and rest there while scout bees explore for a new hive.[efn_note]Swarming is a dispersal mechanism and dispersal will become an important mechanism in my later discussion of the requisite functions of a social group.[/efn_note]  They need a new home, for they left their honey in the old hive and carry only the food within their tiny bodies.  They are getting hungry.

Yesterday our scout bee was a forager, her brain tuned to the patterns of food to be found in brightly colored flowers.  She did not learn food search behavior from a sister bee, she just knows.  She can find food, assess its quality and quantity, and its location.  She can navigate back to the hive remembering all the information about the food source.  There she communicates this information to other foragers, evangelizing on behalf of her perceptions with the intent of persuading them to forage there also.  This is a suite of behaviors, none of them learned, and all of them wired into her tiny brain.  We call it instinct.

Today the swarm is outside the hive and she is no longer a forager for food.  She now scouts for a hive site with a completely different set of patterns set into her brain.  Instead of searching for bright flowers she looks for dark openings into an interior volume suitable for a hive.  She has never done this before and will not do it again, yet she competently locates a potential site, assesses its values on a variety of parameters, remembers the location and its values as she returns to the swarm.  There she ‘waggle dances’ to communicate her perceptions to other scouts.

There was a day before yesterday. Before they were foragers exploring outside the nest, they were workers inside doing various jobs.  They are not taught these behaviors nor are they commanded in their performance.  Neither the queen nor the mass of the workers commanded them, and older foragers did not teach or mentor them, passing along the accumulated wisdom of the ages and the culture of the hive.  Instead they perform different functions within the hive as they age.  It is as if their brains have a time clock which releases various behaviors at different ages and upon receipt of a particular signal conveying the needs of the hive – that is, there may be several age-released behaviors available to the worker, and the specific task she performs will be upon her perception of a need or signal.  A useful conceptualization is that she is self-assigned in the hive task allocation.

This is an extraordinarily complex and fascinating process.  How can a bee with a brain the size of a sesame seed have different behavioral suites, at different ages and times, and under different motivations in response to different signals or perceptions?  To perform new functions, her motivations, sensory filters, perceptions, decisions and symbolizations have to have toggled from those of yesterday to those of today.  She now knows to do something different and how to do it.  She knows and does what the hive or swarm needs, yet she is not ‘told’ what to do.  There is no external authority – the queen does not command her obedience.  She is not coerced in any way.  Some bees take up the new necessities and perform the appropriate behaviors.  Our scout is self-appointed and something, somewhere in her neural system is tuned and responsive to the swarm being outside the hive.  The scout bee gains nothing personal, but the survival of herself and the swarm in the new hive.  She, like all bees, is short-lived, and may die soon after performing her duty.

Workers know.  They know what to do when and where and how.  But they do not know why and they cannot answer questions about their behavior.  They only do; they do not tell.  We can tell meta-stories intended to explain why.  That is what I do.  Except I cannot account for how genes can code for instinct and behavior, for the age-graded progression of functionality in the honey bee hive, or for our instinctive sociality and its modification by learning.  The best I can do is to state that both our sociality and our capacity for learning are instinctive – wired into our brains and form the basis of our social systems.

Functional Social Survival System

The social insects are all about function – apparently, they do not play.  They work and rest.  There are a variety of jobs that must be performed within the hive and instinct ensures that they are done.  Even the queen is, in some sense, a functional worker – an egg layer.  Did the social insects invent work?  That is a question worth thinking about.  To provide a conceptual backdrop as a contrast to the work of the social insects, I offer these observations: predators can be extraordinarily lazy, they do no work.  Do our closest genetic relatives, the social primates perform work?  Do herding, flocking or schooling species have jobs or specializations?  Certainly, there is work for altricial and nesting species; perhaps some of the parasitical species also.  Nest building is work – energy is expended to make something physical that did not exist before that is necessary for survival and/or reproduction.  Digging a tunnel to bury a paralyzed victim, dragging it in and covering it may be considered to be work.

My second-hand observations of the behaviors of the other three great apes, the chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas, indicate that they do not exactly work.  They forage for food in various manners, occasionally patrol their territory, and they may build night-sleeping nests, but otherwise they do not work.  I would not characterize their social system as functional in the sense that they have specific jobs to be performed.  Theirs is a simple social survival system.

Work itself then has an evolutionary history: humans evolved it, the other great apes did not.  Within civilization we are much closer to the functionality of the social insects than to the sociality of our closest primate relatives.  If we are the only primate that works, then how, where, when and why did we acquire such a novel attribute?  The Affluent Savage hypothesis posits that outside of foraging for food and building rudimentary shelters, as foraging hunter gatherers we did little work.

Let’s look again at the social insects, to see if it is possible to insectivise human behavior, that is, to find interesting and instructive commonalities between their and our social systems.  Their first priority is to care for the brood for they are the future of the nest.  The second priority is to care for the queen, the egg layer.[efn_note]We know these two priorities as the Birkenhead Drill: women and children first. [/efn_note]  The third priority is to care for those workers, feeding them, removing excreta, waste material and dead workers, ventilating the hive to keep it at operating temperature, etc.  In addition to these hive interior functions are the exterior functions, the foragers, older worker bees, bringing in nectar and pollen upon which the entire system depends.

The brood of the social insects require care as do our babies and youth.  Our biological evolution has equipped us with large brains and that has required early birth of highly altricial babies which require extended care.[efn_note]Altricial babies also make an extended pair bond necessary for survival.  This is a wasp in a different jam jar and I will confine my speculations to this: there is sufficient evidence to accept the evolution of the pair bond with a duration of about 4 – 7 years.  There is some evidence that we are not fully adapted to this necessity and that we may have significant problems selecting a mate whose compatibility will last for that time span.  And there is sufficient evidence that ‘true love for ever’ – the idea of a durable pair bond extending for a much longer time span – may be impossible for a significant portion of the human population despite the socio-cultural and legal imperatives attached to it.[/efn_note]  The problem, then, is how to achieve the needs imposed by our biological evolution: water, food, shade and shelter – just being a naked ape imposes additional functional burdens upon us. Our major ‘tool’ for satisfying these needs is our large brain which caused part of the problem in the first place. Some of this is accomplished by instinct and some has been done by our socio-cultural evolution: our large brain designs and makes tools.  We make things and making things is work and things generate work.  Tools are one of our most valuable survival devices and are a major source of work, both in making and in using them to generate enhanced survival or at least more comfortable survival.

A possible source for early work may be found in the maintenance of fire.  The back story for that assertion is that before we learned how to make fire, it was a found resource that was so valuable that it was carefully preserved.  Here is one source of responsibility, the socio-individual desire for fire: to light the night to deter predators and nighttime terrors, to cook food, and to warm and comfort.  Thus, the need for its preservation.  Fire is our first domestication[efn_note] [/efn_note] and we tamed one of the most fearsome forces of nature.  Work also occurs in the necessity of collecting wood fuel and dry tinder, and these necessities are not instinctive as is foraging for water and food.  Maintenance of fire and foraging for fuel is learned and socio-cultural, and as such may be experienced differently than instinctive behaviors.  I suggest that instinctive work well-done is accompanied by a brain reward and has little or no component of individual freedom and agency even though it is a restriction of the individual in favor of the social group.

I further suggest that learned, socio-cultural work well performed may generate a brain reward, but may also generate an instinctive understanding that in some way it violates individual freedom.  Work has to be done.  An example: my first eight years were on a dairy farm in the southeast corner of Minnesota.  Domestication of the herding animals also domesticated us and imposed enormous work requirements upon herders.  There are few jobs that are more relentless than dairy farming.  The cows must be milked twice a day whether the farmer feels like it, wants to do it, or not.  Well or sick, rested or tired, there is silage to shovel from the silo to the floor level, manure to muck out, and fresh straw to be thrown down from the mow and spread through the stalls.  There is no choice, and no freedom other than to quit and do something else, and that is experienced as a forced choice, particularly for its economic consequences.  This is work at its basic level.

In this section, I have suggested both an instinctive and learned or cultural element of functionality and work, and that functionality may impose responsibility and loss of freedom.

Functional Social Survival System

I have set out a conceptual basis for a functional social survival system with one eye focused upon the honey bees and the other on comparing H. sapiens with the other great apes.  I am going to suggest that a functional social system, one in which there are a variety of jobs to be performed, imposes a wider range of behavior controls and quite possibly a narrower range of acceptable individual behaviors, particularly for humans.  A social system has problems to solve that are not characteristic of solitary species, that is, living in social associations imposes the needs and demands of the system, over, above, and upon the individual needs.  System fitness and survival is how well those problems are solved, and system fitness is the foundation for individual fitness.

 System needs may be expressed in this portmanteau: membership in a functional social survival system imposes obligations and duty upon its constituent members.  Increased individual survival is purchased at a price, and perhaps most significantly for humans, some loss of individual freedom and agency, and some increased behavior control, as compared to other primates.

These are the pieces that coalesced into the new whole: Functional System Sociology: the study of the mutual interaction between the individual and the larger system in which the individual performs functions under a responsibility and duty that enhance the durability and survival of the social group while appearing to be acting under agency and individual choice.

The bees and termites are ancient lineages and we understand their behaviors as being instinctive, relatively fixed, and exhibiting little learning.  We pride ourselves upon being a less instinctive and a more instructive species.  An appropriate modification of Aristotle’s observation would be: we are an instinctively social species and the expression of that instinct is both relatively fixed and rather flexible.  We overlay our instinctive behaviors with extensive learning.  We are a social animal, a possessor of a social survival system.


There is a by-product of our domestication of fire and conquest of darkness: we generated additional social time.  We made of the night a time to play and party, to tell stories and act them out, and to sing and dance.  Out of these symbolizations – language, music and dance – we created magnificent works of art and presented them to each other against the flickering flames.   Only much later did fire light the tableau of work.  The former use of fire was to our benefit, the latter to our detriment as work expanded to fill time available to the loss of play and rest.  We have become apex predators, but unlike some other predators who can be spectacularly lazy, we work almost obsessively.

If sociality is such a survival advantage, then why are there so few social species?  Is it that sociality is difficult to evolve, that is, its evolutionary incipience is low, or maybe, except for H. sapiens, social survival is not that great an advantage?  After all, few of the bee species are as social as the honey bees and none of the other social primates are particularly successful compared to the social insects.  That raises the question “just how successful are the primates in general” as compared to some of the herding and flocking species.  If numbers are the criteria, then as foraging hunter gatherers and prior to civilization, we are certainly less successful than some animals.