The Human Game

Essay WIP.

I find myself thinking about an Alan Watts lecture, that you can find on YouTube titled The Human Game. And he talks about how when people are born into the world, we don’t tell them, “Hello, welcome to the world, we’re playing a bunch of games here, and here are the rules,” and so on. We take it very seriously.

I was reflecting about something related to this when I walked out of the shower yesterday afternoon, I think, and I looked out of the window and I saw all the buildings in the distance. I live in Singapore, in a HDB flat, which is a sort of box of boxes, stacks of apartments, a lot like containers stacked on a container ship. And I found myself thinking about the forces that made this happen – “this” meaning me, being in a home, in a housing estate in Singapore. What went into the building itself? What about the ecosystem that the building is a part of? What about the laws and regulations and housing policies and so on? What about the Singapore government? What about my parents, my ancestors (from India, and from earlier than that)?

It all started with the big bang, and then the sun, and the Earth,  and then at some point life (either on Earth itself, or visited from a meteor or comet or something), and then life evolved over time from single-celled organisms to birds and reptiles and mammals… and eventually we had bipedal creatures; monkeys, apes, nomadic bands of humans.

At this point the game is still pretty easy. You’re in a small-ish group of people, you spend almost all of your time looking for food, avoiding danger, and having sex. This is what our minds are optimized for, and we haven’t yet adapted fully to the much more complex games that we play today. We fought, we killed, we fucked, we scavenged, we hunted, we ate. We groomed one another, comforted one another, mourned our dead – all of this we can see in our monkey cousins today. We may have had some primitive sort of religions. This was the “Paleolithic” era – 99% of human history. People used stone tools.

At some point things got more complicated. We learned to manipulate things in our hands. We made tools, we made up language, we sang songs, we danced. We learned to make fire, we learned to control it, we learned to cook. We began to shape the environment. And here things start to get a lot more complicated. This is at the beginning of civilization, roughly about 10,000-12,000 years ago. Once we had a food surplus, we could afford to spend less time looking for food and more time doing other things. Little tribes of families would emerge. Hierarchies. Over time these would get consolidated to become hamlets, villages, towns, cities. (There were people who lived outside of cities – bands of barbarians – and we know unfortunately little about them.)

With the age of cities came all sorts of complexity – legal systems, laws, systems of government, taxes, diplomatic relations with other cities, trade, economies. We learned to write, keep records. The birth of the bureaucrat. We domesticated animals, built houses and structures, cathedrals, aqueducts, sewer systems. Schools. Marketplaces. People would start to specialize, becoming craftsmen, and consolidated into guilds. We started having fashion and social classes. Capitalism. Technology began to develop. We had philosophers and intellectuals, people figured out maths and science, physics and chemistry.  Cities were “civilizing” – life was brutish outside of them, and bureaucratic inside of them. At some point we punished people by banishing them, exiling them, casting them out. And then at some point we started having jails and prisons.

At some point empires became a thing – cities with imperial ambitions would conquer and vanquish other cities, and consolidate them into greater empires. Colonization, slavery. Persian empire, Roman empire. Interestingly we seldom use the phrase “Chinese Empire” even though there have been many Emperors. We tend to say Dynasties instead – why is that? China today is called a Republic…

Anyway so over time people developed in-groups and loyalties… what about religion? And language? Broadly I find myself thinking that there are the eastern religions and the western ones. The eastern ones are more ‘continental’ – in fact when we say ‘religion’, that word itself makes me think of a church or a mosque – which are civilization constructs, very abrahamic. Cathedrals. We don’t think so much about pagans, witches, Sun worship, nature worship, ancestor worship. Tribal circles, shamanistic wilderness religions – going into the jungle, into the desert and so on. Buddhism and Taoism and so on might be philosophies or systems of principles etc rather than religions in the common sense.

How should religions be conceived? Religion seems to be… ways of making sense of the world. I think maybe it makes sense to think of “city religions”… systems of beliefs, patterns of control, rituals, sacrifice…

(I’ve been fascinated by the idea of how the metaphor for God or the Creator changes over time – the Christian god is described as a sculptor, who sculpted Man from Earth and breathed life into his nostrils – a sort of cosmic Geppeto. So whoever came up with that story was already familiar with sculpting, pottery, etc – and presumably that must have been a rather high-status job at the time. Before that we have older religions that use more pre-agrarian metaphors – a female god giving birth to the world. The greeks do this – Gaia giving birth to Uranus (the sky), and so on. The nordic religions have Yggdrasil, the world tree.)

Let’s pause for a moment to consider how the game would’ve been different for a human born at a different point in time.

If you’re born during the Paleolithic era, you pretty much have the same game as a monkey does.

If you’re born after 12,000 BCE, you’re probably born into a more complicated game. You’re part of a tribe, city, settlement, and you have a leader. You start playing more complex status games, maybe. You have a craft to practice.

When does this next change? For most of the time you’re ‘plugged into the Matrix’ of your particular circumstances – if you’re born into the Persian Empire, you don’t really have a choice about Zoroastrianism being your religion.

Kingdoms, nation-states… I find myself now thinking “Century of the Self…” – I guess we’ll continue there, somewhere.

I find myself asking, what’s missing from the above picture so far? What is it about my present experience that I find strange, fragmented, disorienting, etc, that the above doesn’t capture? Modern technology, modern capitalism, marketing, advertising, branding. Conscription. The Internet. Social media.

But those weren’t quite the things that I was trying to make sense of when I was starting out. I was trying to make sense of why I’m living in a box. Why I am this particular variable, this particular manifestation, what am I a part of? I’m like a single leaf on a twig on a branch on a tree in a forest, and I’m trying to make sense of all of that.

I guess I have to go back to my personal history. I was born in Singapore. My father and grandfather were from a village in Tamil Nadu. I’m not sure what part of India my mother’s side of the family was from. They speak Tamil too, so I can probably assume that they came from somewhere in Tamil Nadu too. Village folk. What’s the history of people in TN?

The Tamil people are an ethnic group, there are 74 million of us in the world – 63m in India, 3.6m in Sri Lanka, 1.5m in Malaysia, 250,000 of us in Singapore.

At some point there were ancient empires – Chera, Chola, Pandya. Dynasties.  Anyway at this point I’m pretty bored and will continue next time, maybe.


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