Surviving While Wearing Stripes
What zebra camouflage teaches us about the survival of human social groups.
Zebras have bright white and black stripes. Zebras live where the background is not black and white stripes. Lions have camouflage for their environment. Lions blend into their surroundings. Lions hunt zebras. Zebras are prey animals. But how could anti-camouflage evolve in a prey animal?
The clue is in how early zoologists tried to study zebras. Early zoologists wanted to track a specific zebra and watch what it did. They’d look down to write some notes. Then they’d look back up and they wouldn’t be able to tell which zebra they were looking at.
Do you think the zoologist realized the zebras were somehow blending into the group as an emergent strategy? Nope. The zoologists would drive up to the zebra and tag them with some paint or an ear tag. Now the zoologists could easily identify that zebra.
That zebra would get singled out by both the researcher and the lion. The zebra would get eaten.
Zebras are camouflaged to their group. An individual zebra’s natural environment is not the environment that the zebra is camouflaged against. The zebra’s camouflage environment is other zebras. Each individual zebra is not camouflaged, but as a group they have better odds of survival.
What can we learn about human organizations from zebras? Quite a lot.
Niches and Jargon
Why do arcane academic niches invent jargon? Partially to discuss niche ideas; Sometimes a group invents new concepts that really do need new words to discuss! But those ideas need to make contact with reality at some point. Red flags to watch out for:
refuses to try to explain without jargon
or the ideas seem low-quality when said plainly
There’s a good chance they are hiding the ideas with group camouflage.
What is especially worrying is when a group of idea-zebras are forcing their arcane jargon on others. It’s a weaponized information asymmetry. They are shifting the territory of idea-competition to their own personally-constructed jargon territory. Be especially careful if moral judgement is passed on anyone who doesn’t agree to the camouflaged ideas: That’s a mechanism to prevent questioning.
Getting Picked Off One-by-One
If a group of zebras is getting picked off, one-by-one, by an attacking lion, what should the zebras do? In nature, the lion will be full for a long time with just one zebra. Eating and digesting the zebra rate-limits how many zebras can get picked off. But in more complex human societies, when someone is picked off from the group, the hunters are reinforced: Imagine a twitter mob that gets someone fired: The attacking mob gets a quick hit of righteous dopamine, and looks for their next target. The zebras, the group under attack, can’t keep their head down and hope they won’t get picked off next. This is the game theory behind the famous poem “First they came for…”.
The 20th century is full of extreme lions hunting groups of zebras from all sides of culture and politics.
Where is it today?
Where are there…
academics wielding jargon as a cudgel
picking off individuals and then continuing the hunt
individuals are hiding and keeping their head down hoping they won’t be next
The coastal managerial elite, which is the Revenge of the Yankees.