Fragmentation and Reconciliation: Branches in the Tree of Life

I was fortunate enough to be a guest on Jason Snyder and Jared Janes’ podcast, Both And, which probably won’t be out by the time this is published, but it’s definitely still worth checking out. One of the things that we discussed was the change over the last hundred or so years in the berth and flexibility in the nature of roles. As society has become increasingly modern, the variety of identities and lifestyles available has multiplied tremendously- and I think I have an idea as to why. We’re going to call this process fragmentation.

Before I get into fragmentation as it pertains to identity, we’re going to start zoomed all the way out.

There’s a diagram called (aptly) the Tree of Life- it’s a representation of all the varieties of biological life that have existed (more or less) in a chronological fashion:

fragmentation genetic tree of life

Click for a link to higher res versions and explanations.

I reference this chart to begin to explain a pattern that I’ve noticed in a number of areas. Evolution is going to be the best example, though, so we’ll start there.

Let’s imagine a species we’ll call X. Species X eats seeds, and they’re evolved in such a way that eating seeds is pretty easy. However, some kind of environment change kills off a lot of the plants they normally eat the seeds of. This isn’t great news for Species X, of course. There is another kind of plant in the environment that has edible seeds. Unfortunately, these seeds are contained in a fairly tough shell. Because of this, most of Species X is unable to eat them, and they starve to death.

One member of Species X has a slightly stronger jaw than the others, and because of this mutation, he is able to crack the shells of this other plant, and since he’s the only predator of these plant’s seeds, he eats like a king. Within a generation, his descendants are the only ones able to eat these seeds, and the population has shifted in favor of his traits.

Now, this is obviously nothing particularly new- that’s the basic idea of natural selection at work. However, this concept becomes much more interesting when we see it as it pertains to human problems.

(If you’ve read The Candlemaker’s Fallacy, you’ll have an idea of how innovation works in industries over time. Some of the principles I discussed in that article overlap here, so it may be worth a read.)

Where in nature, evolution is a “blind watchmaker”  (a Dawkins term describing the seemingly illogical nature of evolutionary processes when contrasted against human design) that can only “solve” problems after they arise, we as people have the capacity to predict and plan for future issues. Steve Jobs-era Apple is a great example of this- the iPod (and iTunes) and iPhone were very forward thinking solutions to problems that many people did not know they had yet- which is why he was such an effective marketer.

Let’s take the iPhone as our example. Now, I don’t know how many of you vividly remember the times before iPhones, but I do. I had one of those phones that had the keyboard slide out of the side, and it barely did anything besides call people. This was in the era when you’d pay for ringtones, and I bought a skin for it that was the cover for Rise Against’s album Appeal to Reason, which should date this vignette fairly well for you, if you’re familiar.

Anyway, I was very much against getting a phone at that time, and I really, really didn’t want to get an iPhone because I loved my slidey-keyboard- it took me until the 4S to get one. For reference, before the iPhone, the coolest phone you could get was a Motorola RAZR, which is comically lame by today’s standards. However, once the iPhone came out, basically every other phone changed in style to conform to the standard that Apple had set. Whether or not you’re a fan of Apple, the influence of the iPhone is undeniable. Where before there were a hundred shapes and sizes, nowadays, phones have converged towards a mostly uniform standard of black, white, silver, or rose-gold rectangles.

Sadly, none of these have slidey-keyboards.

Why is this important? Just as our hypothetical Species X developed a trait that allowed it to survive the change in environment, so did Jobs develop an innovation that basically made the other variations on phones obsolete. Bye bye, RAZR. Apple, historically, was actually phenomenal at creating these sorts of innovations, although Microsoft did beat them for volume in the PC market. When MP3 players were the thing, it was iPod or die. You may remember the joke that was Zune, or you may not, but everyone remembers the iPod. What’s more, our current streaming services are mostly descended from iTunes, at least visually. Except Pandora, but Pandora sucks.

Anyway, I’m going to propose a mechanism here.

First, we have the problem- this is the force that prompts creation, a la “necessity is the mother of invention.” A number of people will propose solutions to the problem- in this case, we have a bunch of phone companies attempting to adapt the old school cord phone to be portable. Most of the first ones looked basically the same as wired phone handsets, and the traditional flip phone is evidence of the attempt to retain the old shape. The market diversifies, and we get slidey-keyboard phones, flat phones like the old Blackberry or Palm Pilot, and other stranger kinds like phone watches or shoe phones.

It would seem to be the case that most of the providers in the market are trying to give customers what they already want, rather than actually anticipating demands in advance. We’re in this phase now, since post-Jobs Apple has mostly been reduced to incremental improvements of the same designs. However, every now and then someone shows up with something that’s wildly innovative. This is usually a point where technology has quietly advanced in the background, and the advancements come to a head in such a way that it seems nigh instantaneous- what Malcolm Gladwell called the “Tipping Point.”

This tipping point marks a new era, in which all developments (in the same field) will be influenced (in one way or another) by this pivotal development. We could call these evolutionary choke points, because where the tipping point refers to the “overnight” success of the victor, the choke point signifies the imminent death of the other competitors. The candle market got largely destroyed by the choke point left behind by light bulbs, and those candlemakers that did survive got marginalized into niches like scented candle-making (and whoever makes those religious candles they sell in convenience stores).

Let’s go back to the Tree of Life, but with a different angle.

Imagine we have a plant which has a need for sunlight. To obtain the sunlight, the plant begins to grow a number of branches, and the branches grow leaves. Some of these branches are smaller than others, and some of the leaves aren’t in as good of a position to get sun on them. This is the pre-iPhone market for mobile phones- it’s blindly growing without any huge innovations, just branches that sprout randomly, and those that get no sunlight (purchases) wither and fall off.

Then, all of a sudden, a neighboring oak tree starts to shoot up, and it towers over the first tree. At this point, it doesn’t matter what the first tree does, because it’s already too late. The new tree begins to completely block out the sunlight from the old one, and the tree shrivels up. This is the post-iPhone market- the novel innovation has stifled the old-fashioned phone approach, and now all the phones in the forest- er, Radio Shack (or whatever the modern equivalent is) are going to be descended from the iPhone tree. The shriveled tree becomes those weird Jitterbug phones that you give to your grandparents because they don’t understand technology.

What I’m trying to illustrate with these metaphors is that it’s the same force governing these evolutionary systems- the tendency towards complexity in nature and the Will to Order in humans. We innovate, our innovations create new problems, and from new problems, we devise new solutions. The best solutions become a thick branch in the tree, and the obsolete ones become twigs that terminate.

We have the tipping/choke point, and from this, fragmentation. The phones that came after the iPhone took the core theme and performed variations on it. After large innovation comes incremental change- fragments. Post iPhone Phone A may have a slightly better camera, while Phone B may have a more break-resistant screen, and so on. This continues as the branches grow, diversifying and evolving slightly as the market dictates.

This fragmentation phenomena is in basically all fields- look at psychology. You have Freud and the Freudians, who produced Jung and the Jungians, and so on. This meshes a bit with the Great Man theory of history (and my take on that here) as well- it actually may be something like the same force. All of these systems of innovation draw from nature’s tendency towards complexity and the human Will to Order.

Now, for the fun part.

Thus far, we’ve been discussing primarily external innovations like technology. However, this particular process that draws from the Will to Order also applies to the internal experience of human consciousness.

The striving of Man to develop an independent identity (what Jung called individuation) is the subjective experience of this process. As I discussed in No Separation, the individual is fundamentally inseparable from the environment, and as the individual responds to their environment, the identity begins to form as a response.

That’s all pretty vanilla- let’s go deeper.

The preeminent issue of our age is the Nihilism that has arisen from the “Death of God” (covered in more detail in The Desert of Nihilism and the Throne of God), and as a result of that, the primary environmental factors affecting individuals are factors that have this conflict at their root. There’s a quote from Fight Club that captures this sentiment perfectly-

“We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.”

If the Death of God represents the death of an external meaning source, we see that in full force here. Where human lives had been defined by these large conflicts and the struggle to survive, in the age of relative abundance we find ourselves in, the meaning has to come from within.

Cue the fragmentation.

In America, the sixties were the first great example of the identity fragmentation- the hippies rebelled against the relative mundanity of their parents lives because the America of peacetime was approaching meaninglessness. Activism became a means of attaining identity, and that same sentiment has carried through to today, where some universities even encourage activism as part of the curriculum.

Sometimes it takes an enemy for us to determine who we are- a dark reflection that reminds us of what we look like. However, the last great enemies we had, the Nazis and the Soviets, are long gone. We could argue that the propensity for politically-minded individuals to liken their opponents to either Hitler or Stalin is evidence of this desperate plea for anathema- we need someone to define ourselves against.

The rise of alternative lifestyles is also likely due to this fragmentation. Because the traditional sources of meaning have failed, the individual, like a new sprout emerging from an older branch grows toward the light, seeks to find individuality where no one else has. Novelty seems to be a core component of both the tendency towards complexity and the human drive for identity. The hipster effect- it’s not cool if everyone else is doing it.

This is a very strange game to watch, however, because none of the players are consciously aware that they’re suffering from the death of God and are seeking meaning through novelty. The perspective of the observer is always different from the man on the field. (I’m realizing as I type this that that concept is actually worth an article in itself, so I’ll leave that as a tangent.)

The two primary responses, at least as far as the US is concerned, have been the “turn the car around” of conservatism and the hyperfragmentation of progressivism. Where the right seems to be attempting to simply ignore the death of God, the left has accepted that the original source of meaning is gone and thus decided to throw out meaning entirely. This is a bit closer to politics than I like to get, but I can’t touch on the subject of modern identity without hitting it.

If we returning to our iPhone metaphor, the right wants to ignore technological and philosophical advances and take the jitterbug, and the left is in favor of one hundred types of phones that mostly can’t communicate with each other because they’re so individualistic that a common transfer protocol is impossible (discussed from a different angle and in more detail in The Problem of Solipsism: Self and Other).

Remember, however, that unlike in nature, humans are capable of predicting problems and planning for solutions! Because we’ve identified this as a massive problem (and reduced it to its core issues), we can be the Steve Jobs figure here and innovate. Here’s a critical principle that works in all situations (explained in The Humbling River)-

When you find yourself with a problem that has two contradictory answers, there is a market for a solution that can reconcile the two. If there’s a phone with a touchscreen and another with a calculator on it, whoever combines the two can hit both markets. If there’s a way to preserve the good parts of tradition while still leaving the individual free to live in the manner they choose, well, that would sell pretty good to both sides, right?

What we need, what this fragmentation is really telling us we need, is a solution that provides a source of meaning that both honors tradition and adapts to the present. As soon as we can devise a means of reconciliation, we can build a bridge with which we can cross the Humbling River- a new branch in the Tree of Life.

Make the two as one.

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