The Game Design of a Constructed Language


I waved as I approached the Damocles‘ quartermaster. “Skusatsu mo. Sele ma pasu. Hildo spreku?”

She cocked her head quizzically. “Tak.” Thank god, I thought. At last someone who speaks Hilde. “Kep kereru te?” she asked.

Last Chance boto kapitana yestu me. Iltre siotusa haba ma pasu. Yarog, te butu uno?”

She shrugged. “Probleme yeta.” She disappeared into the open airlock, pushing out a moment later with a small box she tossed with the experience of someone who had lived a very long time in low g.


World building, whether for a book, a movie, or a game, is all about the feeling of immersion.

You actually don’t want to bury your audience in detail – a little goes a long way. That being said, if the snippets you do show your audience aren’t internally consistent and don’t make sense at an intuitive level, while your audience usually won’t explicitly call you out on that, they will definitely pick up on any lack of said internal consistency.

Thus, at the end of the day, the paradox of building an immersive environment is that the most straightforward way to build an immersive world is to construct all the details, and then proceed to only show maybe 10% of said details. The rest isn’t actually wasted, though, it lives in the implicit connective tissue of the world you are trying to build.

Constructed languages, sometimes called “conlags” have been put together for a number of different reasons ranging from attempts to bring humanity together linguistically like Volapük or Esperanto, to supporting the construction of fictional worlds such as Star Trek‘s Klingon language or J.R.R. Tolkien‘s myriad languages of Middle-Earth.

Video games have gotten into the action as well, and true to form, often in such a way as to slip beneath the radar of the player while at the same time deeply enriching the world. Skyrim’s Dovahzul.

c53e27226eb7353788723a89af6f19d0a98a79One of my several side projects is the development of a multiplayer logistics game called ORG. Set in a late 25th century where humanity has finally recovered from an appalling population crash to colonize even the farthest reaches of our solar system, I wanted to do more than make a generic science-fiction environment but to make something recognizably unique with depth that would allow for endless permutations, philosophical exploration, and narrative opportunities.

First, I started with mapping out in detail the over thirty distinct national polities that were to serve as the bedrock of a narrative milieu. In so doing, I also had the opportunity to explore the almost endless political and economic variations humanity has or might someday choose to try out.

These included everything from what might happen if you had an entire enclosed culture and state based on the often exploitive Human Potential Movement of the 60s counterculture to a society built on clone slave labor to societies where labor unions have triumphed to religious fundamentalists building a society living in terror of the possibility of technological singularity to fascinating exercises in pure democracy to…well, you get the picture.

(I admit it, I had a lot of fun seeing how many dystopic variations I could come up with. No economic or social theory was safe from my attempt to exaggerate it until its own victories would become the seeds of its own failure.)

Second, I began to explore some of the philosophical implications of a civilization like this. For example, what are the implications of culture when the frontier is dominated by a very small percentage of the human population, but the power is overwhelming maintained at home on Earth? What are the psychological and cultural implications in a society that exists in an artificially maintained environment? (Andy Weir’s novel The Martian and The Expanse series are both great fictional explorations of this.)

Org_Polities_HildasTriangleFinally, I got to the question of linguistics. Language is a peculiarly underappreciated part of social functioning. We’ve all heard of the languages that have multiple words for love (Greek) to the differences between gendered languages like French or Italian or languages without articles like “the” or “a” (Russian) or languages with minimal or no concept of tense or time (Amondawa).

While the idea of language defining how we think is in fact sometimes exaggerated to strawman-like proportions, the fact is the way a language developed does reflect the needs and foci of the speakers.

One of the unfortunate side effects of technological communication, transportation, and modern commercialization has been a rapid reduction in the diversity of languages spoken in the world today, a concept called “language death“. As the world metaphorically gets smaller by means of improved communication, transportation, and monoculture, the isolation that causes languages to evolve vanishes taking with it the losers in the memeplectic struggle for linguistic dominance.

But what happens once we (hopefully) escape the tyranny of our gravity well in colonizing force? The distances of space are vast, even when we are just talking about the distances between the Earth and the Moon – let alone the distances from Earth to Mars, or even more staggeringly, Mars to Jupiter, or the truly mind-numbing distances between the outer solar system’s gas giants and the dwarf planets of the Kuiper Belt. What happens when you are, really, all alone with just the people around you? How does the fragility of environmental security affect the way a language develops?

It’s not just the fact of isolation: language evolves to match the needs of its environment. Urban environments versus rural environments, arid versus wet, nomadic versus settled are all examples of the various axis that can influence and guide a linguistic evolution.


All these factors, plus the expected improvement in capabilities of translation software (which, I should note from personal experience, is definitely not quite there yet) do suggest a reversal or at least slowing of the aforementioned trend of language death today.

Add onto this the existence of long space voyages by trained specialists who live in even more isolation and environmental insecurity than even someone who lives on a relatively safe colony on Mars or Callisto (other than, of course, the contemporaneously raging Martian civil war and Gallilean conflict) and one can readily see how such a language could evolve.

So that’s what I started to do.

ORG‘s Hilde, or “Spacer’s Cant”, is a classic example of what in linguistic circles is termed a pidgin, or in the authoritative words of Wikipedia, “a simplified version of a language that develops as a means of communication between two or more groups that do not have a language in common. It is most commonly employed in situations such as trade.” (As the years go on, of course, it is starting to become a creole, or “a stable natural language that has developed from a pidgin.”)

I started with the historical background. I had decided that the natal location of my pidgin was going to be the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, specifically a polity centered around the asteroid Hilda in the fascinating Hildas Triangle.

In the milieu of ORG, the Collaborated Union of the Hildas Triangle was settled by a sort of successor state to the modern day real world European Union called Union. Unlike the European Union, however, Union grew out of Poland and Romania, with satellite states in the form of Germany and a sans-Siberia Russia.

Space Asteroid Mining sample rock

This meant the linguistic building blocks would be dominated by the phonemes (the sounds) and vocabulary of these nation’s languages. But this was going to be a pidgin, remember, so that meant I decided to make the grammar more like Esperanto – that is, incredibly flexible, very stripped down, and readily learned. There wasn’t going to be any gendering of nouns or even suffixed tenses. Word order was (almost) freeform. Years of learning French, Spanish, Japanese, and Portuguese in school came back to tell me what parts of languages made learning the language insufferably harder than it had to be.

On top of all of this, because this was intended as a trade language as much as anything, I tried to remove sounds that were hard to distinguish for speakers of the major language groups surviving in the 25th century of ORG. (This last I wasn’t quite able to pull off as much as I wanted to, but that’s why several phonemes don’t exist in Hilde, including f, v, and w. Vowels, as well, stick to a basic five with a notable absence of true diphthongs (where you mash together two vowels to create a new sound.)

Then came the vocabulary.

One of the reasons English has purportedly been as successful as it has been as a common language for aeronautical operations is that it relatively direct, short, and staccato, things that are very desirable indeed when piloting a massive 747. Spaceflight, one can logically reason, would have similar needs. Hilde, therefore, prefers short words generally framed on both ends by consonants.

The vocabulary, as well, reflects the needs of a spacer. There are a lot of words describing things like venting atmosphere (“atmosu”), docking clamps (“kleme”), velocity (“predkoso”), attitude thrusters (“aridiste”), and radiation exposure levels (“radso”).

In the end, constructed languages are not only immersive in the bold, obvious ways as they appear on a page or in a game, but also in the secondary effects where misunderstandings have narrative implications or the language’s constituent pieces indirectly implies history.

As a support to the narrative dictum “show, don’t tell” constructed language works by implication as much as it does by definition, and can be a useful pillar to pulling the reader, viewer, or gamer out of their own context and into a new one.

Majoritarian Politics from the United States to Turkey to Egypt


One of the interesting things about both the now-in-progress military coup in Egypt and the tide of protests in Turkey is how both are reflected in U.S. politics.

In modern American politics, we decry – with good reason – the seemingly permanent deadlock in modern U.S. politics that is the result of institutional mechanisms preventing majoritarian over-reach.

Historically, one of the biggest concerns of the founders of the U.S. was “tyranny of the majority”, which is the flip side of not having requirements for super-majorities and filibusters to pass fundamental legislation.

From a coldly practical point of view, the efficacy of democracy as a system lies not in some kind of general moral superiority, but simply that assuming free and fair elections, any protest against the system is doomed to represent only a minority of the population (granted, of course, that armed support is evenly represented across the population, which of course is rarely the case in fact.)

Put more bluntly, democracy’s success as a modern institution may lie simply in its inclination to discourage armed dissent as being a doomed enterprise.

When a democratic state either shuffles between rival internal power structures – for example, in the U.S., where Republicans and Democrats battle fiercely for control of Congress and the office of the President – or, alternatively, possesses sufficient checks on majoritarian abuse – either by tradition, legal requirements for super-majorities, or judicial oversight based on constitutional minority protections – the system more or less works.

But what happens when this balance collapses, or never existed in the first place?


I would suggest that this is exactly what is happening in both Egypt and Turkey. In both places there is a solid – albeit slim – majority that stands in favor of a religious-ish state. In Turkey, the current prime minister has been in power for some ten years, and interprets democracy in a majoritarian light which says, “Well, my party won the election, so I don’t care what the other 49% of the population thinks.” It Egypt, Morsi clearly believes likewise, that a majority – however slim – justifies complete disregard of any minority position.

This is, in fact, a fair interpretation of a “truly” democratic state. It is also a complete disaster in the making.

To be sure, the majority should take the lead in the political process, but where a solid-but-slim majority sees nothing wrong with utterly disregarding the nearly half of their population that disagrees with them, they are in effect just putting up a big sign saying, “Please start a civil war, ‘kay?”

When any political faction feels that it has no hope of ever even influencing the political process, such a political faction will inevitably become divested from having a stake in the nation. When there is no reason to participate in the political process, the political process is no longer seen as a viable engine for change, and other options – usually violent – begin to be considered, first on the fringes, but then increasingly in the mainstream.


The United States has a long democratic tradition, and, as well, the levers of powers are more evenly split than in either Turkey or Egypt. The trouble lurking behind all this, however, is that the primary source of the current split in power in the United States is primarily due to absolutely horrific levels of district gerrymandering and other policies that have the effect of diluting votes and leading voters to conclude – correctly – that their vote can’t actually have an impact.

Ironically, although this cooking of the political system promotes more deadlocks in the political process in the United States, it also has the effect of dampening what would otherwise be the impact of the massive demographic shifts occurring today. Longer term, one can expect the effects of the current political deadlock to force more and more issues to be deferred rather than directly addressed, chipping away at the United States’ once-great physical and human infrastructure until it is a shadow of what it once was.

No modern state is purely democratic, and the reasons for that are playing out right now on the world stage. While it is probably futile at this point in history, we would be better served by approaching the political system in a more nuanced manner, as opposed to the current rigid focus on the “democratic” part of our political engines.

Contrary to popular cultural belief, we really haven’t solved the problem of how to structure a political system that fairly invests and balances the needs of both the majority and the minority of any population. It’s time to stop congratulating ourselves on what fine political systems we have developed, and get back to work at improving said systems.

Can You Own Culture?


Recently, I was faced with an interesting dilemma: A strongly-worded request to not share photos of an ancient site on grounds that members of a group laying cultural claim to it also wished to reserve usage claim to the knowledge about it.

Now, I do understand where this is coming from. It is undeniably true that small populations and cultures under threat of being subsumed by other populations and cultures can feel under siege, and in so doing there is a temptation to entrench and monopolize claim to identifiable elements of one’s culture.

Ultimately, however, I believe this represents a profound misunderstanding of what culture is, how it is formed, how it changes and the individual’s relation to it.

cul·ture [kuhl-cher]
1. A particular form or stage of civilization, as that of a certain nation or period: Greek culture.
2. The behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture; the drug culture.

(There are, of course, other definitions of culture, but I want to be clear that this is the aspect of the term I am focusing on in this post.)

In fact, I would go further and propose the following, more memetically-specific definition of culture: “A culture is a set of prevalent memes found amongst a set of individuals who identify themselves as a group.”

Culture is, thus, nothing more and nothing less than a set of ideas, techniques, aesthetics, and styles held in common by a self-defined grouping of individuals. Cultures do not form Athena-like from Zeus’ head – they are born by blending with or fissioning from other cultures, as well as evolving to better match their environment.

In much the same way as parallel evolution happens biologically, so too do disparate cultures come up with very similar, even identical solutions, particularly when their respective challenges are similar. In other words, just because two different cultures have a similarity doesn’t mean one copied that aspect from the other. It might be, but it just as easily might not be. Original evolutions, moreover, are far less common than copied adaptations – witness the speed at which various art styles or technologies have been repeatedly spread between various populations.

How does this relate to the original question?

A cultural group may legitimately lay claim to a location and the access and direct usage of that location. In appropriate circumstances, control of commercial exploitation of associated specific images and iconography may also be justified.

A cultural group may not, however, lay claim to the knowledge, form, aesthetic or shape of cultural elements, whether this be a location, a practice, or an aesthetic style.

Yes, this means that people will sometimes copy or adapt cultural elements in a way that some will find offensive or disrespectful. At the end of the day, however, cultural elements are fundamentally memes and ideas. They will mutate, they will evolve, they will see usage of both a profound and profane nature.

Someone may say, “We claim/built this temple/church/sacred site and reserve the right to control access to it.”

Someone may not say, “We claim this symbol/idea/concept and reserve the right to control access to it.”

Ideas cannot be subject to monopolization, but are the birthright of everyone; to maintain otherwise is to deny our individual and collective right to learn, grow, adapt, create art, develop philosophy and construct out of the building blocks of today the aspirations of our tomorrows.

Sensitivity, respect, and courtesy are all things that should be striven for and held up as an example of ethical behavior. Unfortunately, such has frequently not been particularly in evidence throughout the history of anthropological research, not to mention the myriad less academic cultural contacts over the course of history.

Regardless, the best thing one can do for the expression of culture is to recognize it as a living, breathing, evolving creature, and not some strange kind of immutable memetic fossil. Embracing growth, adaptation and change are as necessary for cultural health as they are for biological growth.

The Scourge of Hyperabstraction and Politicization of the Video Game Industry


There have been rumblings for years, but this last year has seen a blitzkrieg of media coverage focusing primarily on a few particular accusations:

  • Video games have a causative, not just a correlative effect on real world violence.
  • Studios are brutal places requiring their employees to forgo any semblance of a normal life.
    • Corollary: Working in the industry will turn you into a basement dwelling misogynistic troll. Assuming you weren’t one to begin with.
  • Video games are inextricably misogynistic.
  • Video game studios are inextricably misogynistic.

Before I go further, let me be absolutely clear about my position:

  • Yes, there are studios that are indeed ruthless and unprincipled in their predatory abuse of their employees.
  • Yes, there are studios with ingrained subcultures of misogyny.
  • Yes, marketing departments do indeed tend to focus on the historically proven markets for video games, which are, in fact, young and male.

This being said, the media frenzy has lately gone off the deep end, and is now doing more harm than good in its witch hunt against the industry. Moreover, as with all witch hunts, this one has so unnerved those targeted by this witch hunt that it has become easier to stay quiet and not say anything than point out the sloppiness of the media assault.

Personal History
I have been at studios that did conduct themselves in each of the the ways accused.

During my tenure in QA, for a time I worked twenty hour days, six days a week to the point that I wound up with viral pneumonia in the Emergency Room. Did I “have” to work the “optional” overtime? No, but it was well known that those who did not “volunteer” would not have their contract renewed, so if you had any sense at all, you grit your teeth and did what you had to to make sure you could afford rent at the end of the month.

Similarly, was there a “Boy’s Club” atmosphere? Certainly, at least to some extent. As a guy, I am quite sure far more happened than I ever personally witnessed, but even there it was certainly not a case of absolutely every guy being a misogynistic asshole or tolerating misogynistic behavior, which is, in fact, the too-frequent inference.

I have also been at more studios that do not conduct themselves in the ways accused.

Both Cryptic Studios, my last place of employment, and Gazillion Studios, my current place of employment, have staffs that probably average somewhere in the mid-30s, meaning there are some 20-somethings, but there are also a notable number of 40-somethings. Both of these studios do sometimes have crunch periods, but they are, by comparison, mild – maybe a day on the weekend and a couple of extra hours in the evening for the month or two before a critical deadline. Rough, yes, but nothing all that different from any number of other industries. This represents a vast improvement from other former practices in the industry, and should be acknowledged as such. Both make a focused, if sometimes imperfect, effort to offer a reasonable work-life balance.

Misogyny and the Dearth of Women Developers
Are there misogynistic individuals in even the best studios? By both personal experience and by conversation with female friends in the industry, there absolutely are. Where said individuals happen to also be in positions of power, this will of course cause considerably worse situations. However, it is a gross hyperabstraction to extend this to a claim that an entire studio is, as a whole, necessarily fundamentally misogynistic, which is the common inference.

One of the claims that particularly irritates me is that game studios are somehow the sole cause of fault for there not being more female developers. This claim generally appears to rest on three related claims:

  1. First, that developers don’t want to hire women.
  2. Second, that development studios are so misogynistic that no woman would ever want to work there.
  3. Third, that the games studios make aren’t the kinds of games women would want to play, ergo not the kinds of games women would want to develop.

Let’s get the third claim out of the way first. Yes, of course marketing departments are going to focus on demographics that are proven rather than hypothetical. The graveyard of studios who chased after imaginary markets is vast, and marketing departments know that. Are the rewards great for those who succeed in embracing new markets? Absolutely. The problem is, the chance of actually pulling that kind of coup off is very tiny. In other words, bad business. Moreover, the basis of this claim is really even only valid for certain types of games – first person shooters, for example, are indeed vastly represented by men. MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft, simulators such as SimCity, and the myriad badly-termed “casual” social games do not share that vast over-representation.

(I should also note that there are, in fact, women who do play these games, but they are still a significant minority. This is not meant to indicate in any way that women don’t enjoy such games – simply that as it is now, they are in fact not the dominant demographic.)

The second claim – that all studios are fundamentally, pervasively and structurally misogynistic is simply crap. There are studios that fit this claim. There also are individuals, even individuals with power, in otherwise benign studios who are misogynistic. Neither of these realities is reasonable cause to tar and feather an entire industry.

The first claim I can speak to from personal experience, at least on the MMORPG side of things. Over the ten or so years I have been in the industry, I have been a hiring manager for probably close to half of that. I have gone through – literally – hundreds of resumes, sometimes for a single position. The cold hard fact is that the number of women who apply even for design jobs – let alone programming jobs – is depressingly small. As in, I can literally count the number of women who have even applied to a job I was filling on the fingers of one hand.

(Notably, of the positions over the years in question, as I recall three offers went out to women; two of these were accepted. This, out of probably a dozen separate positions over all the years I have been a manager.)

Possible Solutions
Now, this does beg a legitimate question: Why do so few women want to get into game development?

Some of it, to be sure, is a legacy of the early years of video games. Moreover, since the industry thrives on the relative certainty of sequels, new, untested ideas are rare, and so relics tend to persist far beyond the historical time when they made sense.

Some, as well, is a perception of hostility or outright misogynistic behavior. Some women undoubtedly do not want to go into an environment they suspect would be hostile to them, whether or not such is actually the case.

Personally, I suspect this is more than anything else an unfortunate function of basic sociodynamics. That is, to you or I, standing where we are in time, we see our own experience over, say, five years or even ten years and easily become frustrated at what we see as a lack of change or evolution, whether we are talking about a society or, as in this case, an industry. Moreover, we confuse this perception as a failure, as if things “should” change faster.

The reality, of course, is that societies evolve and change excruciatingly slowly from the perspective of individuals, mostly due to the generational timescale and the “people like to hire people who are like themselves” effect, which while applicable to gender and race is just as applicable to personality, education background, geographical region, and myriad other factors.

Is this frustrating? You bet. Is this one of the root causes of injustice and nepotistic practices? Without a doubt. Fixing it, however, is not something that can be done by waving a magic wand, either in the form of regulation or wishful thinking. It can be done, but by fair and persistent cultural pressure over the course of decades.

There are things wrong in the industry. As it is, even in just the ten years I have been in it there have been significant strides. Are we, as an industry, at the place where we should be in these areas? No, but that’s okay, so long as we don’t get discouraged and continue to do what we can to improve the status quo as individuals and as studios.

What is not helpful, however, is the currently popular machinegun approach to condemning every studio and every developer as an equal participant of unfairness, misogyny or other injustice.

If we, as a society, want to see this – or any other – industry improve, we are best served by, yes, condemning those studios and those individuals who act badly, but also by holding up those studios and individuals who make an effort to behave fairly.

Moreover, the current presumption of guilt in the absence of proof to the contrary is not only itself unjust, but it is strategically foolish; it makes enemies of those who might otherwise be allies in this effort. Lack of action is not necessarily complicity; lack of action is, to be sure, not to be lauded, but neither should it be condemned the way we condemn the actual individuals who behave badly.

Sociogenic Conditionals of Democracy

There is a common conceit that democracy is a universal truth and a universal good, that those past societies that did not practice it did not practice it due to ignorance, short-sightedness, stupidity or greed.

We began as a social species, as hunter gatherers who eventually branched off and explored static agricultural strategies, and as humanity’s ability to manipulate its environment became refined, was able to gradually increase the percentage of its population that could be diverted from food generative occupations to other occupations.

Some historical comparison is useful here.  Here at what is likely the apex of human industrial civilization, we are fond of casting moral aspersion on previous cultures.  These aspersions are ignorant; a medieval society could afford, simply by dint of its agricultural and industrial capabilities, to maintain only a tiny percentage – perhaps 1% of its population – at anything other than agricultural.  Today, these percentages are completely reversed, with 1-2% of the population in the United States engaged in agricultural occupations.

Democracy relies on a cluster of critical components:

First, the society must allow for a strong sense of common purpose.  A divided society that lacks trust and some sense of commonalities in its moral views will tend to fracture down into component pieces that allow for trust.

Second, the society must have robust multilateral communication channels, meaning its component individuals must be physically capable of maintaining communication with a wide cross-section of the society.

Third, the society must have sufficient leisure time to be able to devote to abstract intellectual investment.  Abstract intellectual investment may lead to philosophic, economic, geographical, or technological exploration – all of which contribute to a society that is based on an individual’s ideas’ merits as opposed to an individual’s structural place in society.

Rendered down like this, a society must either have a small population or else possess – as is the case in the First World today – superior communication technology.  In addition, a society must have substantial leisure time, something possessed by modern First World economies, although also by most hunter-gatherer societies, as well as certain very wealthy city states (e.g., Athens) throughout the annals of history.

Make no mistake about it, democracy – if you can economically pull it off – has a lot of advantages, the most important of which is the generally peaceful transition of power to significantly different loci of power and ideas within the society.  There are, however, drawbacks to it.

The preservation and promulgation of democracy lies thus not in slogans, nor (much) in emotional fervor, but rather in an understanding of the fundamental forces that shape, promote and allow for it.

Measuring Polity Induction and Disintegration

Sociodynamics is a discipline that frustrates our desire to apply empirical systems of measurement to it. Despite science’s sometimes embarrassing love affair with quantitative data to the exclusion of all other descriptive modes, empirical measurement is in fact incredibly useful at explicitly measuring the change and rate of change (delta) of phenomenon.

One of the great questions sociodynamics has always sought to answer is how political entities (polities) accrue and lose power; that is, what are the factors determining how and when a civilization or empire rises to power or disintegrates into pieces?

The why and how parts of this equation are larger questions, but here let’s examine how we might measure this. If we can empirically measure the breadth of a polity against time and its neighbors, we have an interesting tool towards understanding the larger patterns of civilization and empire induction and disintegration.

There are a number of ways one might choose to measure the expanse and potency of a polity:

  • Population
  • Q Score
  • Geographic area
  • GNP or GDP
  • Per capita GNP or GDP
  • Capacity to project military force
  • …others

For the view of the particular analysis (view in this sense means the context; for example, “polity induction and disintegration in Sub-Saharan Africa from 1950 to 2010”) different of these (or other) aspects may be more or less relevant. Similarly, scaling values should be normalized based on the view; if there is excessive static, measurements based on standard deviations may prove useful at filtering out noise born out of background variation.

Finally, while there is value in absolute estimations for all of these values, ultimately geopolitics is a subjective game, so additional normalization to the various means for each of these values for each time increment will give values that describe a polity’s relative strength in addition to a polity’s absolute strength.

The Western Experiment in the Supremacy of Individual Rights

Historical perspective can be inconvenient. Anthropological perspective, even more so.

Societies rely upon a bedrock and hierarchy of foundational values. Some of these values are fairly universal – things like, “Don’t kill members of your own group,” and “Help members of your own group” and similar values are basic values in any society’s toolbox.

Other values, however, are more complex, and of these some of the most interesting of these are the values of individual rights and community rights. While these are not necessarily in conflict, the reality is they frequently are. Whenever a decision between the good and rights of the individual and the good and rights of the larger community are in conflict, that society’s unwritten rulebook of its ethos defines what that society determines to be the moral viewpoint.

But let’s back up for a minute.

Most of us will remember from high school the basics of natural selection; replication error in DNA results in periodic mutation. Most of these mutations are unhelpful or malign, but some are by chance beneficial for the environment the organism exists in. (This last part is far too frequently forgotten; as the physical or social environment itself changes or the organism moves to a new physical or social environment, what is “ideally adaptive” will similarly alter. In other words, the rules are always changing. Kinda sucks for all of us organisms, but nobody promised us this would be easy.)

Organisms that mutation have made better adaptive for the physical or social environment they exist in will – on average and over the long haul – live longer and breed more offspring, thus tilting both the genepool and memepool in those respective directions. Note the use of “physical or social” environment and “genepool and memepool” in the preceding; mutation and natural selection operate at the level of culture and society as well as the physical. In the case of culture and society the underlying mechanic is not DNA replication, but it involves the same kind of replication error as we use the imperfection of abstraction and language to communicate to other people ideas, those ideas mutating and changing, dying or thriving, depending upon the social environments their hosts (us) find themselves in.

So going back to values, and in particular the values of individual rights and community rights, where these conflict, which of these two are ascendent?

Throughout history and the anthropological record the overwhelming answer has been: Community Rights. This doesn’t mean these societies don’t care about the individual’s rights, but it does mean that in the event of conflict, the general rule is that what is best for the community as a whole is what that society will judge to be the moral decision, even if that means harm to an individual. From a sociodynamic point of view this makes sense; memes flourish when their hosts flourish, and hosts of organized societies capable of large-scale collective action towards focused purposes will almost always cream hosts in less-organized societies.

Western civilization – and at the extreme end of this, North American society – has over time migrated to the opposite extreme. The United States Bill of Rights sets the stage for this, delineating the rights of the individual that the state (that is, the formal representation of society) in theory must respect.

This is not a bad thing, in truth, since in the conventional approach of community rights over individual rights has a tendency to purge itself of square pegs that will not fit into round holes. When I say “this is not a bad thing” I am not making a moral judgment but a functional judgment; square pegs are a society’s equivalent of DNA replication error – mutation. Square pegs are the primary engine for creating new ideas, new processes and new mechanics without which a society will lack adaptive options in the event of social crisis. (Though it should be noted, just as with DNA replication error, most square pegs are useless or even malign; this is the price for the tiny percentage of effective adaptations.)

In the case of extreme valuation of community rights over individual rights, the result is over-homogenization, meaning such societies will be resource poor in the area of adaptive options. In the case of extreme valuation of individual rights over community rights, the result is over-heterozation, meaning such societies will be so rich in adaptive options and so poor in unifying societal elements that such societies will tend to be paralyzed by gridlock and infighting.

Individuals pay a price in both of these extreme scenarios as well. In the case of societies that value community rights to an extreme degree, eccentricity is punished and immigrant groups that can bring vast reservoirs of new adaptive social mutations are viewed with suspicion and marginalized. Society loses, to be sure, but the individuals lose even more.

In the case of societies that value individual rights to an extreme degree, individuals are trained to view their purpose and life solely at an internal level. The question, “Who am I?” becomes inevitably an internal exercise divorced of the subjective relationships that define that ultra-social species we call humanity. The cliche of the midlife crisis and the “finding yourself” are born out of this.

I am not saying that the internal level should not be a consideration – I am a serious introvert who finds talking to strangers on the phone a distasteful exercise, after all – but what I do think is too often forgotten in the currently dominant North American society is that we humans are closer to ants in our socialization than we are to wolves or sheep; we are not social – we are ultra-social. We rely on abstraction and reciprocity to generate social structures that allow us as a species to harness vast and powerful engines. In other words, while an individual certainly has an internal component, even the most introverted and isolated of us is a social being defined as much by our relationships to other individuals and abstract ideologies and groups as we are defined by our genetic code and personal experiences.

The culmination of this experiment in the supremacy of individual rights has resulted in some truly great things. We cherish the individual’s right to self-expression fanatically resulting in an unprecedented reservoir of potentially adaptive social mechanisms. We protect individuals that in most societies throughout history would have been stamped out, exiled or systemically crushed. Whatever we as a society do, it is not in our interest either as individuals or as a society to see these triumphs curtailed.

The downside of this experiment, however, is something we are all too familiar with: we live in a society today that is rent with divisions, our support networks are fragmented and ephemeral, our ability to create effective collective action is laughable. These issues are present at national levels, but they are also evident all the way down to our family structures and kith networks. Certainly, we humans are an adaptable bunch, and we have come up with all sorts of clever mechanisms to compensate for this – witness the radical rise of social media, distributed subcultures and fictive kinship networks – but the reality is that these mechanisms have not been sufficient. We, as individuals and as a larger society and a collection of distributed subcultures, are paying the price for this.

Somehow, we need to modify this noble experiment, reincorporating the better parts of a cultural valuation for community goods without losing the victories we have fought so hard to attain. The only other option is the partial or total disintegration of this experiment in the supremacy of individual rights, inevitably with many of its benefits.