Sunday, 5 June 2016

Humans are not Wildebeest - why stampedes don't work outside Serengeti

For the last millions of years the wildebeest have been migrating every year from Serengeti in the south to Masai Mara in the north in search of new grass.  Primarily it’s their genes that drive the wildebeest as well as hundreds of thousands of zebras, gazelles and assorted other herbivores to set on the round trip to Mara.  This annual ritual not only guarantees food to the herds but also safety in their sheer numbers. Straying out is a sure recipe for death for the outliers either by starving or becoming one for the carnivores.  So it makes immense sense to a Wildebeest to join the stampede.

More often we humans  don’t exhibit traits any different from  the Wildebeest  in our natural instinct to follow the herd.  Farmers of a particular topography tend to grow the same crop year after year. Students flock to the most popular course in the campus and entrepreneurs set up the businesses which attract most subsidies and investments. And you bet sure it pays. In the short run that is. For the fact that the basic economics principle of the Demand and the Supply dictates that in the long run the glut  result in falling demand and thereby diminish the incentives to the entire herd.

Why would a stampede guarantee uninterrupted survival to a species for  millions of years but diminishing returns to the other?  What makes humans so different that the natural law of the animal kingdom fails to protect the most advanced species on the planet?  How come a mere economic principle defies the fundamental law of the nature?  

This seeming paradox has a simple answer. Humans are greedy.  It is not a case here to debate whether greed is good – as Gordon Gekko declares in the movie Wall Street  - or evil but simply to investigate if it indeed plays any role in stampedes actually being unprofitable in the long run to us Homo Sapiens.

And for that investigation we will have to take a detour. A rather long detour through some two and a half million years of evolution of the Mankind.  I am not an anthropologist. Neither am I a sociologist. I would still like to venture into this unfamiliar territory to ferret out an answer that is not just plausible but convincing and logical. History has witnessed a very skewed evolution of humans over the past two and a half million years.

Let's take a look at the archaeological and the historical progress of mankind. 

Archaeological / Historical Period*
Year from
Year to
Time elapsed
             (in yrs)
Percent (%)
If the last 2.5 mn years were just one day                      (in seconds)
Stone Age
2,500,000 BC
3300 BC
Metal Age
3300 BC
600 BC
Historical Age
600 BC
1400 CE
1400 CE
1800 CE
Industrial Age
1800 CE
1975 CE
Digital Age
1975 CE
(* the Archaeological / Historical ages represented here may not be accurate or precise but are mentioned only to elucidate the argument being put forth in this article. Similarly mention of  Digital Age and its beginning in 1975 is arbitrary )

The above table is self explanatory and it will be obvious to the reader that if we were to imagine that the total time it took for us humans to evolve from being just apes (or whatever else we were) to 2016 were one day then the mankind has rapidly progressed from the Metal Age to the present only over the last 184 seconds or just about 3 minutes. What is more amazing is the fact that the real explosive evolution to the modern times has happened only in the past 7 seconds since beginning of the Industrial Age.      

How come a species meanders for 99.86% of its evolution at a languid pace and suddenly shakes off its stupor and rolls at a break neck speed in a fraction of that period. I can’t think of a better explanation than the greed of humans. Greed to possess more meat, more cattle, more gold, more land, more comforts. Somehow there must have been a dramatic genetic mutation that made Man use metals, bronze and later iron, to augment his abilities and the rest is history.  Somewhere along that greed must have evolved into an urge to possess finer, non material aspects such as curiosity, knowledge, creativity and of course in modern times energy.  The greed has helped us rush from the Metal Ages to the period of Renaissance to the Industrial Age and to the current Digital Age.   It  has also shrunk the time humans are taking to propel themselves into more advanced forms of civilizations one after the other.    

As every coin has a flip side, sure does the greed too.  The human evolution is not as smooth as the above table would make us believe.  And more relevant to our discussion, it hasn’t been without hiccups either. Greed has its faults and it certainly extracts its price. Mindless greed has caused  flops at the best of the times and disasters at the worst.

Charles Mackay in his classic book ‘Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds’ has  chronicled several follies committed by the peoples of Europe in  17th and 18th centuries. These were  the result of the hysterical societies which seemed gripped by mass hypnosis. They simply seem to have suspended reason and joined the bandwagon because everybody else was doing so.  So the 17th century saw Europe engulfed in Tulip Mania which at one point shot the prices of Tulip bulbs to hundreds of thousands of pounds at the current value. Needless to say that the market for the Tulip bulbs eventually crashed sending  several into bankruptcy. But we don’t need to go that far back to discover the perils of such hysterical bandwagons. Dot com bust around turn of the century and Subprime debacle of the last decade are proof enough that human greed has no expiry date. This also explains otherwise confounding phenomenon of  entrepreneurs  herding around wallets, hyper local, on demand businesses  in India in spite of obvious downturn of fortunes due to overcrowding. 

So while wildebeest will continue their stampede into the future forever, our species will have to keep inventing newer ways to satisfy its greed. 

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