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Paul Lillebo

Constructive citizen, independent

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Is the herd instinct a boon or a bane - a help or a hindrance - in a modern society?

Humans are social animals with a lot of the herd instinct left from our ancestors.

We like to be in a group, to do things others do, to follow a charismatic leader. We like to wear the approved garb: Think of politicians in their dark suits and red ties, of street gangs with their bandannas and approved clothes, of college football fans waving their colors, or of Harley riders with their black leathers, beards and tattoos. There are hundreds of such examples. And of course, the herd instinct is what keeps the fashion industry going. We must have this season's fashion. (How many still have their bell-bottom jeans?)

The herd instinct has undoubtedly been valuable in our species' survival, because it has made it possible to engage in mass action for hunting, for construction and for defense.

In modern life we see the herd instinct in politics, where nationalism separates "us" from "them," and where parties gather together their faithful flocks, further separating the "us'es" into fractious factions. Nowhere is the herd more apparent than in religions, where millions follow beliefs and rules laid down by a long-gone guru, and as often as not, proclaim the damnation of all who don't belong to their herd.

So what's the effect, on balance, of the herd instinct? Is it mostly beneficial because it brings us together, gives us safety, and allows us to think and plan for the common good of society? Or does it separate us into warring clans, and restrain our innovation, individualism and free thought because of an inborn fear of being different? Or is it a mix, for better or for worse?

Happy debating,
Paul

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  • Aug 20 2013: It is clearly a benefit to our species that we recognize and value the actions of others. This powerful self defense mechanism accepts the principle that others generally act in their self-interest. If this is true and it seems logical that it is, then we benefit from imitating the actions of others, generally speaking. Clearly there are hundreds of examples where imitation should be avoided. Nonetheless, I would wager that the arc on the graph of human behavior bends toward self preservation and other actions that are beneficial both long and short term. I do not think that luck has permitted us to reach the 5.5 billion population mark.
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      Aug 20 2013: Yes, I think the survival instinct, which is natural in all animals, can be problematic in human societies, where we often see it in the forms of self defense, self interest, and egotism. We all have it, of course, and the problem is to find a workable integration of this focus on ourselves with an equally natural concern for the group: it's simply true that if the group doesn't survive, we ourselves as individuals don't survive. So it appears to me that a total focus on oneself, or on the individual with no concern for the group, is pathological, as is the opposite total emphasis on the group with suppression of individualism, as was the ideal in the communist experiments of the last century.

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