An idea can only be as large as our individual ability to encompass it
We, homo sapiens, are a group species. As we lack powerful muscles, bone-crushing jaws, and sharp tearing claws, our survival depends entirely on being able to operate in groups. Today we often think of these groups in terms of nations.
Like all group species, we require a group leader to provide direction. For 95% of our evolutionary history we lived within small hunter-gatherer groups in which rudimentary decision-making was “good enough” for almost all situations the group would encounter. And on those occasions where a group leader was so incompetent that the group perished, there were plenty of other groups of early humans nearby to occupy the newly-vacant territory.
So we’ve always lived in groups. Arguably we’re just as much a group species as bees and termites and wildebeest. Despite endless Hollywood fantasy, the lone human is an impossible thing.
After the end of the last ice-age around 12,000 years ago, our lives changed forever. Due to chance genetic mutations occurring in certain species of grass, it became easier to separate the energy-rich seed kernels from their protective coverings. This in turn meant that our ancestors found it easier to use these grass seeds as a reliable form of nourishment. Even today, that momentous change remains embedded in colloquial British English: when we want to describe the process of retaining the valuable while discarding the unwanted from some collection of items or people, we talk about “separating the wheat from the chaff.”
This was of course the beginning of what we now call agriculture. Commencing in modern-day Turkey and rapidly radiating outward from there, humans began to cultivate various species of grass. For the first time in our evolutionary history we began to control our environment. This led to momentous and entirely unexpected changes in human society.
Grass doesn’t move. This means that humans intentionally planting and cultivating grasses such as wheat, barley, rye, and oats now needed to remain proximate to their crops in order to tend them and deter such predators as might otherwise consume the energy-rich seeds for themselves.
Humans began to fashion permanent dwellings and as calories became more reliable the size of the typical group began to increase. The first hamlets and villages began to emerge. With the development of fixed habitats it became possible to domesticate certain animals and breed them for desirable characteristics such as passivity and high meat content.
For the first time in history we began to control our food supplies.
Quite quickly, these early hamlets and villages expanded until their borders merged, turning them into towns. As our species always has a certain percentage of individuals who seek to make their living by taking by force the material items of those too weak to resist, these new centers of wealth rapidly discovered they had to find ways to deter external predation by thieves and internal predation by tricksters. In time the former led to the formation of quasi-militia groups that could be assembled from the citizenry at short notice, while the latter led to the invention of writing and counting.
When food can be stored in large jars or dried and stored on racks it becomes essential to know how many jars and racks one has filled and put aside for later consumption. If we can’t reliably account for each jar, bale, or rack, it’s easy for an unscrupulous individual surreptitiously to remove a few supplies because no one would be any the wiser. And so, forced by the inevitable presence of thieves within each town, rudimentary methods of record-keeping began to be devised.
For the first time in the history of life on Earth, symbolic abstraction came into existence. This ultimately led to systems of writing and counting that today we take for granted but which are in fact absolutely extraordinary adaptations resulting from acute environmental pressures. These adaptations enabled the growth of entire civilizations because laws could be written down and transmitted across time and space, thus creating semi-permanent group norms enforced across vast numbers of people.
Not surprisingly this rapidly changed our sense of self-identity. Whereas in hunter-gatherer groups our sense of self was encompassed entirely with respect to other group members in terms of relative capability, as per “Mary always knows when the fruit will be ripe on the tree,” and “Bob is skilled in the use of the blow-pipe,” the development of villages and the subsequent rise in specialization and codification meant that our individual identities became far more complex.
For example, Susan could be a member of the West Village and also a member of the Basket Weaver’s guild and also Wife within in the Jones family. Furthermore, as fixed domicile over relatively long periods of time meant that for the first time in history wealth could be transferred from one generation to the next, self-identity also became strongly coupled to possession of physical assets. The more a person had, the more powerful they were. And the more power they possessed, the more they could control other people’s lives.
It’s not surprising therefore that human society rapidly became far more complex, driving the evolution of new group norms as well as innovations such as formal laws rather than ad hoc decision-making by small groups of elders or tribal leaders. Superstitious beliefs became codified into what we now call religions, each with their local gods, goblins, and ghouls. People began to identify strongly with “their” town, so that it became a fundamental part of their sense of self.
By the time we get to Babylon around four thousand years ago, these stratifications have become extremely sophisticated indeed. Yet for a long time the city-state seemed the natural limit of human organization. Each was all-powerful within its locale and each struggled with the various problems that size and specialization inevitably bring. Thus the city-state remained the dominant form of organization well into the common era, with only a few cultures managing to resolve the various internal tensions so as to permit expansion into what today we call Empires.
Ancient Greeks never succeeded in moving beyond warring city-states, which is why the Roman empire was able to subjugate them along with so many other similar cultures. Only the vast Persian Empire, which had evolved its own solutions to the scaling problem, was Rome’s match. On the other side of the world, China was slowly forging its own answers to similar challenges and gradually becoming a formidable and stable entity. Egypt fell somewhere in between, due to a reliance on the narrow strips of fertile land that flanked the life-giving Nile while being surrounded on all sides by far less hospitable terrain.
So it was that as Julius Caesar proceeded through his ten-year campaign of personal aggrandizement in north-west Europe, he and his troops all considered themselves to be Roman citizens while those he attacked considered themselves in a far more parochial way: they were tribal.
Being Roman meant that people worshiped Roman gods as well as their local deities; all citizens operated under Roman law and utilized Roman currency. Being a citizen of Rome was regarded as the greatest single benefit a person could enjoy.
By 200 common era, whether a person lived in the gloomy dampness of central Britain or under the bright skies of coastal Spain, their self-identity would be Roman. This was the world’s first, and arguably with the exception of the Soviet Union, still the world’s only supra-national entity. Being born in the city of Rome did not automatically make a person “better” than a Roman citizen born elsewhere. Indeed, the vast sprawling supra-national civilization of Rome needed talent wherever it could be found and so there was little prejudice against fellow-Romans regardless of their place of birth or place of domicile or physiognomy.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Europe devolved back into tribal societies. Gradually those tribes that had greater military capacity subjugated their neighbors, and so the city-state re-emerged as the most stable form of organization, persisting for periods far longer than the typical brief quasi-national structures. That’s why Venice was able to dominate much of Europe for so long despite being numerically far inferior to other European groups. Other major cities such as London were essentially city-states with their respective countrysides little more than subject hinterlands, little different from those such as Uruk, Mohenjo-Daro, or Cusco.
Ultimately, however, as technologies improved, larger forms of social organization emerged that could be stable over considerable periods of time. The further development of literacy and numeracy enabled adequate bureaucratic control over large numbers of people. But it’s salutary to remember that nation-states as we know them today are an extraordinarily recent phenomenon.
Germany only became an officially unified nation in 1871, under the firm hand of Otto von Bismark. Unification of modern-day Italy began a mere ten years earlier and largely owes its existence to Garibaldi. Britain was officially unified in 1707 through the Acts of Union, though even today this supposed Union has failed to embed itself within the self-identity of those living within its embrace: most people in Scotland self-identify as Scots, most people in Wales self-identify as Welsh, and most people living in England have strong regional identities rather than any affinity for the clichés of the middle-class cricket-playing Home Counties.
Britain, in fact, serves as an example of a conundrum: as the contemporary nation-state came into being, it became too large for the human ape to encompass as a meaningful personal construct. Our brains, hardwired by evolution over hundreds of thousands of years, haven’t adapted to the concepts that have arisen in consequence of the modern technologies that permit the creation of large geographic areas operating within a single politico-economic framework.
So it is that while most US citizens self-identify as “Americans” (charmingly ignoring everyone else who lives in that hemisphere), if a person happens to be born in one of the former Confederate States then their self-identity is generally as a “Southerner” first, feeling that the rest of the USA ought more fully to embrace “Southern” values such as segregation based on skin color and reliance on regressive legal codes based on antiquated mythological norms.
Italians, meanwhile, are divided between north and south, much as the English were during the Industrial Revolution. French people famously adhere to regional identities, while in Germany we see increasing signs of fracture not only between “ossis” and “wessis” but also between those living in Bavaria and those living in other Lander.
It is a curious irony, therefore, that at the very moment we see the limits of the nation-state everywhere around us, we also see a continuing rise in populism/nationalism as the ignorant and simple-minded around the globe desperately seek forms of self-identity that temporarily enable them to feel less inadequate and helpless in the face of forces far beyond their comprehension.
From available evidence, it would seem that the modern concept of “nation” is a stretch too far for the average human brain. Most people still default to more regional norms of self-identification, which is not surprising given our evolutionary history. Yet nationalism does have a powerful appeal to the cognitively limited. Why is this? What is “the nation” to those eager to self-identify as “nationalists?”
In order to answer the question we have to understand the plight of people who are not well-equipped to live in societies that put a premium on intellectual capacity. Until very recently, low-IQ individuals could find work that did not require much in the way of cognitive ability. Ploughing a field or hammering a piece of iron or thatching a roof were valuable and respected occupations that could be performed by those unsuited by genetics and upbringing for more complex mental tasks. Even after the Industrial Revolution there were abundant jobs to be had on assembly lines and behind the counters of convenience stores and McSlop outlets. As recently as the 1960s a person in the USA could leave school barely able to read and write yet still secure a job that was remunerated sufficiently to permit them to acquire most of the modern world’s conveniences.
Today, however, we’re rapidly moving into a post-industrial phase that puts a premium on intellectual capacity. Automation, both physical and artificial-intelligence-based, is resulting in the evaporation of occupations that can more reliably be done by machines. And that leaves hundreds of millions of people in highly precarious circumstances.
When we’re under existential stress we naturally fall back on the group. It’s been our source of survival for all of our evolutionary history. And for most uneducated people, local self-identity and national identity are easily confused. When simple-minded people talk about “loving their country” what they really mean is “I want to be surrounded by people just like me.”
That’s why nationalists in the USA are predominantly found in the South where lower levels of educational attainment are concentrated. For a Southerner, USA = my State. It’s why nationalists in the UK are predominantly found in low-income regions where lower levels of educational attainment are likewise concentrated. For a British nationalist, UK = my County (for example, Yorkshire or Northumberland). As nationalists generally aren’t very bright and are invariably woefully ignorant, the many contradictions inherent in this posture are not apparent to them.
As economic uncertainty spreads around the globe, more and more people are retreating into smaller and smaller self-identifying groups while simultaneously embracing nationalist slogans and labels. A simplistic concept of “nation” is driving the very fragmentation that makes stable nations impossible.
Furthermore, large swathes of the planet’s surface had the concept of nation imposed on them by colonial overlords. There are no natural “nations” to be found anywhere on the vast continent of Africa and the artificial constructs created by European colonialists have resulted in endless strife since decolonialization in the second half of the last century. Likewise, much of the Middle East and Asia comprises entirely artificial nations for the same reason, with the same baleful results. It’s obvious that fragmentation in these regions is inevitable.
Everywhere we look today we see the beginnings of large-scale fragmentation. The only opposing force is a reluctant acknowledgement of the fact that fragments are generally less strong than larger entities. Thus Italy remains (for now) a unified nation simply because the poorer South accepts that it needs the (resented) largess of the North. Likewise the US Southern States know they are utterly dependent economically on the wealthier Northern States. But division is like weeds growing between cobblestones. Slowly, inexorably, the weeds will push the much stronger stones aside regardless of the consequences.
Catalonia will eventually secede from the rest of Spain regardless of how repressive and violent the Spanish State responds in the interim. Scotland will eventually secede from England, not least because the economic and social catastrophe of Brexit will make it obvious that the English (whose simple-minded prejudices and votes drove Brexit) are unfit partners. Northern Italy may become weary of supporting an eternally corrupt and feckless South. Germany may well become a quasi-state, united in name alone. And it’s unlikely that the European Union will survive in any meaningful form as nationalist-separatist forces make inter-nation collaboration increasingly impossible.
India likewise will almost certainly come apart at the seams as Hindu nationalism rends civic society and regional economic failure exacerbates tensions between thriving urbanites and the vast hinterland of backward agricultural society. Pakistan has always been a geographic description rather than a nation. South American nations may continue to lurch along under one authoritarian regime after another, but violence and repression can only succeed for so long before economic collapse results in accelerated fragmentation there also.
It would seem to be a plausible hypotheses, therefore, that the idea of nation has been a temporary phenomenon ill-suited to the mental constraints within which our species operates. There may be a limit to group size that, when exceeded, creates too much dynamic instability to persist for more than a handful of centuries. We need to remember that seemingly long-lasting nations such as England for nearly all of their history had populations smaller than those found in any of today’s mega-cities.
It would be nice to imagine that we could adapt to the reality that people need to operate within smaller groups in order to achieve adequate psychological succor. In principle there is no reason why organizations such as the European Union could not accommodate hundreds of regional members rather than twenty-seven nation-states. This would permit the benefits of small group size without sacrificing the ability to co-ordinate at a supra-national level to tackle large-scale challenges that cannot be addressed on a regional basis.
Unfortunately, it seems improbable that such an outcome will occur. As the European Union is a loose assembly of nation-states, each one of which fears fragmentation and each one of which must respond to local populist/nationalist sentiments, it seems inevitable that the EU will be part of the problem rather than form the basis of an adequate solution. The self-interest of populist national politicians will dominate and the potential benefits of eventual small-group federation will be sacrificed ahead of time on the spurious altar of “national unity.”
In the USA the continuation of trends towards hyper-dysfunction in government coupled to a collapse of prosperity will most likely lead to plenty of low-scale local insurgencies that will gradually erode the already-threadbare authority of central government until such time as entire regions break away, most likely initially in combination (for example the Western States of California, Oregon, and Washington, the Southern States of Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana).
Historians a millennia hence may look back upon the nation state and see that it was unsuited to the limited mental horizons of the average person, being too rooted in geography and insufficiently rich in region-free forward-looking concepts such as the ability to tackle large-scale challenges and the many benefits accruing from large-scale political integration.
Perhaps a thousand years from now, when representative democracy is regarded much as we today regard systems of governance based on inherited authority (kings & queens) or based on raw force (autocracies, dictatorships), there will be a second chance for our species to expand beyond the confines of people-like-me groups. Perhaps the catastrophic consequences of our present inability to tackle global challenges will ultimately give rise to more coherent systems of self-organization.
From our present vantage-point it is impossible to adumbrate the far-distant future.
The near-future, however, seems clear: atavistic populism/nationalism will ironically lead to the disintegration of the nation-state and carry us back to smaller units of regional organization. There will be a great deal of strife as each group blames its neighbors for its many and endless self-inflicted misfortunes.
Thus perhaps we can answer our question “What is a Nation?” with the following definition:
Nation is a unit of human social organization on a scale too large for the average person to encompass, thus resulting in tensions that inexorably lead to its eventual collapse.