The World Is on a Collision Course With Itself

Darwin’s Finches

Almost 200 years ago, in 1831, Charles Darwin embarked on his now famous journey aboard the S.S. Beagle. This was the journey on which he visited the Galapágos Islands and formalized his theory of evolution via natural selection. (The idea of natural selection was actually hypothesized earlier by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck.)

Everything about the fauna on the islands, Darwin noticed, was simultaneously familiar and exotic. Animals typically diminutive in mainland environments were much larger on islands, and animals typically massive in mainland environments, much smaller. This made Darwin wonder if there were something about islands that gave way to the unique physical traits of the species he was observing, like the Galapágos’ famed giant tortoises.

Evolutionary biologists have since theorized that islands’ status as inversions of mainland ecosystems can be explained by their comparative lack of resources. Megafauna like elephants can’t grow as large on islands because they don’t have access to the same nutrient sources offered by mainland ecosystems. Similarly, small mainland species — rodents, for instance, or tortoises — grow much larger on islands because their growth isn’t constrained by mainland ecosystems’ larger predators.

Further research has examined how evolution itself differs between island and mainland ecosystems. In a 2006 study titled “Morphological Evolution Is Accelerated Among Island Mammals,” biologist Virginie Millien analyzed the differences in rates of evolution between island and non-island species. She analyzed a total of 88 species, and noted that while rates of evolution among all of the species (island and mainland) slowed over time, the rate at which it slowed for island species was slower than the rate at which it slowed for mainland species. Put another way, island species evolve faster than mainland species.

The study analyzed the parallels between the evolution of true island species, like the Galapágos Tortoise, and mainland species whose evolution is speeding up as their natural habitats become more island-like. Humans are largely responsible for this conversion, given our role in both habitat destruction (deforestation, construction, etc.) and climate change.

There is further value in exploring how evolution on islands differs from evolution in mainland ecosystems, however. The evolution of fauna on islands resembles the evolution of ideas on a digital island: the internet.

I was led to this idea recently after reading Jesse Weaver’s fantastic piece, “A Unified Theory of Everything Wrong with the Internet.” The entire piece is worth reading, but this paragraph gets at the crux of the argument (emphasis added):

We engage [with the internet] through glowing, personal portals, shut off from the physical world around us. When we engage with our devices, our brain creates a psychological gap between the online world and the physical world. We shift into a state of perceived anonymity. Though our actions are visible to almost everyone online, in our primitive monkey brains, when we log in, we are all alone.

Weaver’s hypothesis is simple, yet profound: our behavior when we imagine we are alone is free of the constraints that govern it when we know we aren’t, and thus evolves in unpredictable — and often, radical — ways. Weaver illustrates this with the metaphor of a driver protected by the perceived barrier of the car. When we drive, we are insulated from the consequences of our behavior. We drive recklessly, even as we yell at those who do the same. We blast our music, dancing and singing in a way we never would in public. This is entirely attributable to perceiving ourselves as anonymous behind the wheel of a car.

Drawing a historical comparison here is difficult because perceived anonymity is a modern phenomenon. It is notable, however, that a hallmark of historically successful societies has been civic engagement and a consequent lack of perceived anonymity. In other words, societies thrive when everyone provides a check against the behavior of everyone else. In these societies, radical ideas are rejected by the masses and pushed to the fringes. Mainstream ideas, on the other hand — or those that are useful to the largest number of people — are approved by the masses and eventually find their way to the median, where the majority of people exist.

On the internet, though, this dynamic — crucial to the success of societies the world over for centuries — is inverted.The ability of fringe ideas to proliferate unchecked by the masses has birthed radical internet subcultures on both the left and the right.

When we engage with the internet, our behavior evolves like that of island species. We are free to wander in whatever way we might, unchecked by the lack of anonymity in a pre-internet world. Fringe ideas on the internet, like the tortoises Darwin observed in the Galapágos, evolve faster and less predictably than they otherwise would. Eventually, they dominate the ecosystem in ways they never could in a pre-internet society. Similarly, mainstream ideas — like mainland megafauna on islands — perform comparatively worse on the internet because the attention that would normally fuel them is more diffuse.

The ability of fringe ideas to proliferate unchecked by the masses has birthed radical internet subcultures on both the left and the right, many of which are complicit in everything from cyberbullying to outright terrorism. It is hard to view the most virulent of these subcultures — many of which promote vicious and ugly behavior, especially towards women and minorities — as anything other than deplorable. Still, it is worth considering that the reason we abhor them has less to do with their existence than with their exposure to others. Put another way, we generally abhor the ideologies of many internet-borne subcultures because they don’t exist in vacuums. When they meet — and they do meet — things can get ugly, and bad things can happen in the real world.

Take 4chan. Best known as one of the internet’s first truly anonymous message boards, 4chan has since become infamous as a haven of so-called “conservative” thought, though the content that appears on it can hardly be placed along any mainstream political spectrum. For years, this community bred in isolation, evolving norms and memes deeply departed from the world outside its digital confines. As David Auerbach writes (quoted in Kill All Normies by Angela Nagle):

[‘A-culture,’ or ‘anonymous chan culture’ is defined by] the constant hazing of n00bs through argot and complex conventions and elite technical knowledge [that] polices the boundaries of the subculture to inoculate it from massification.

Memes like LOLcats and Pepe the Frog were borne of 4chan’s irreverent isolation. If it stopped there, it might not be worth remarking on. Unfortunately, it didn’t.

Photo by Jamie Dubs/KnowYourMeme

Angela Nagle details how clashes between 4chan’s island-like culture and that of “normal” society have played out. In 2010, users of one of 4chan’s most radical threads, 4chan/b/, collectively decided to cyberbully an 11-year-old named Jessie Slaughter after discovering a video she had posted of herself speaking in “gansta-rap style.” The situation escalated when her father took to the internet to defend her with a video in which he threatened to call the “cyber-police.”

Similar to what might happen to a tormented, underdeveloped preteen who harmlessly lashes back out at the older, stronger bullies, Mr. Slaughter’s response only served to invoke more torment from the trolls. As Nagle points out, “…in their emotionally undeveloped way, lack of internet-culture knowledge is always license on 4chan for any level of cruelty.”

Similar instances of bullying have since taken place across the internet. Unlike the situation with Slaughter, however, the groups that lash out do so most often because they perceive themselves threatened, and it takes remarkably little to set them off. An excellent example is the role one feminist games critic played in the lead-up to the #GamerGate controversy. The controversy is described by Wikipedia as “…a manifestation of a culture war over cultural diversification, artistic recognition, and social criticism in video games, and over the social identity of gamers.”

Prior to #GamerGate reaching its zenith, feminist games critic Anita Sarkeesian self-published a series of YouTube videos meant as gentle, accessible critiques of many games’ seemingly anti-feminist natures. The critiques were not calls for censorship or outright bans of any of the content — in fact, quite the opposite. Sarkeesian, being a female gamer, structured her critiques to avoid alienating the majority of the gaming community, and those she’d desperately need on her side if any structural changes were to be made.

As Nagle notes, it made no difference.

What resulted from Sarkeesian’s release of her video series can only be described as unimaginable personal abuse. Comments are now disabled on most of her videos, but those posted were nothing short of violent and and flagrantly sexist rape and death threats. Her entire online presence — her social media outlets, her Wikipedia, her website — was, if not hacked, vandalized. Even today, searches for her online yield everything from interactive games that allow the player to physically beat her, pornographic images of her being assaulted by video game characters, and videos/commentary created with the sole purpose of discrediting her and ruining her career. Sadly, she’s far from the only one.Ideas bred in ideological islands have caused physical harm in the real world.

Some might respond with the critique that while what happened to people like Slaughter and Sarkeesian is awful, it stopped short of physical abuse (though it included physical threats). While this is true, it ignores the psychological trauma that accompanies being accosted continuously by people you’ve not only never met, but also cannot identify or find, and thus have no recourse against. Even if Sarkeesian and Slaughter had avoided the internet entirely, the threats would’ve continued. Similarly, withdrawing from the internet would not have let them escape from the real world, which would have never appeared the same way to either of them again.

Ideas bred in these ideological islands have caused physical harm in the real world, too. In August of 2017, far-right and alt-right protestors — neo-Confederates, neo-fascists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and more — gathered in Charlottesville, VA, to protest the removal of Confederate statues throughout the United States in the “Unite the Right” rally. No sooner had it begun then counter-protestors showed up in droves. Almost immediately, chaos erupted. Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe declared a state of emergency, but even in spite of that declaration, tragedy struck. At approximately 1:45pm, a self-identified white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing one and wounding 19.

It was a profound moment in recent history. It clarified the depth of the cultural divide that had emerged within the American populace over the past decade or more. For years, the ideas that came to a head in Charlottesville were relatively dormant, relics to be glossed over in the history books I grew up reading, convinced as I was that the stories within their pages were beyond us, never to resurface. But they did, and it’s hard not to blame the mechanism that allowed these ideas to fester far away from the checks of broader society; the mechanism that allowed them to evolve and mutate faster than anyone thought possible; the mechanism that is undeniably responsible for the turmoil that characterizes modern civil discourse: the internet.

As Nagle notes in her book, the earliest members of chan culture had been exposed to — and convinced by — views of far-right fringe thinkers such as Gustave Le Bon, Ann Coulter, and even Nietzsche himself. Le Bon was famous for his deeply conservative take on the effect of the masses on society, which Coulter elaborated on. (Prior to Coulter, other infamous historical figures including Mussolini, Lenin, and Hitler had also found Le Bon’s work influential.) Nietzsche, of course, was famous for reminding us that the masses should be governed by a small minority of “higher men” to eradicate what he deemed as “the superfluous.” Put simply, he, too, was deeply suspicious of the power of median thought.The internet has always been a particularly fertile environment for the development of radical strains of conservative thought.

Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that the internet has always been a particularly fertile environment for the development of radical strains of conservative thought. In broad strokes, conservatism has always favored freedom from government oversight and extreme faith in the individual. The earliest days of the internet were characterized by the same freedom and the same faith. Viewed this way, the norms that have developed out of the internet’s isolationist, island-like infancy — norms that evolved for the express purpose of preserving the faith in the individual and that freedom from external governance that characterized those days — make sense. In retrospect, they, like the alt-right’s ownership of the internet’s darkest corners, seem all but inevitable.

Imagine an island, somewhere in some ocean, so small and so far from any other landmass that it would be impossible to find, let alone encounter. Imagine that the island contained an ecosystem dominated by a humanoid species carrying the most virulent strains of every disease known to man — strains that, were we to be exposed to them, would kill us in seconds. Alone in the ocean, never to be found, that island’s ecosystem — while terrifying — would present no threat. But were the humanoids living there somehow able to leave the island and seek us out, well, that would be a different story entirely.

It’s worth noting that in recent years (i.e., the last millennium), we humans were the threat. Writers and thinkers from Hawking to Harari have noted that encounters with humanity have led to the mass extinction of millions of species. For two tragic examples, look no further than the mass extinction of multitudes of megafauna when humans arrived in Australia approximately 45,000 years ago, and the extinction of the Dodo bird on the island of Mauritius less than a century after Dutch sailors first arrived there in 1598.

While some species have adapted to the changes, it’s almost impossible to believe that the evolution of new, better-adapted species is worth the mass extinction of those that existed previously. Natural selection happens, yes, and new species adapt to their environments, but it is nonetheless tragic when species without the ability to protect themselves are eliminated simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, defenseless against the perceived divine right of a species that carries sticks and walks on two legs to set foot, well, everywhere.

All of this is to say: There are certainly internet-borne ideas that are inherently problematic, but those ideas become infinitely more so when they are exposed to those with which they did not evolve. If we consider that the internet is quite literally a mechanism that births ideological islands and subsequently forces them to encounter one another, the turmoil we see everyday upon logging in begins to make an unnerving amount of sense.

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