I was just watching a kind of Chinese Godfather, quite good but having bouts of graphic violence—New World, on Netflix Watch Instantly—and I got to thinking about how you rise in such an organization—or, indeed, in politics, in the business world, wherever.
Setting aside pure luck and favoritism, advancement means getting to know people—not merely acquaintances, and probably not friends, but to know a lot of people very well so that you know how they will respond to various things, what pleases them, what they fear, what they want, and all that. And not just individuals along: you have to learn who wields the real power in each group, and how the groups are connected and what influences them. You have to know whom to stroke, whom to ignore, and whom to fight.
It takes a lot of knowing, and that is probably why those who achieve power and position generally are older: while there are books on negotiating and managing and the like, the practical skills, naturally enough, require practice.
And it struck me that what is being learned are patterns. Our pattern recognition engine has to work overtime—that is, for a long time—to suss out the complex patterns of a large organization, including the outside influences on it.
I realize that patterns turn up everywhere, but much of our learning and culture is pattern-based: when you learn a game (say, Go or Chess), you learn the rules that govern allowable patterns, and then you play games until you start to recognize patterns, at which point you start to learn. And as you learn, you are discovering more and more complex patterns—some you know, some you’re just starting to work out, some remain to be discovered. And the board games are simple compared to the complexities of a large organization and all the patterns, internal and external, that are learned in order to achieve a prominent position in the organization.
Obviously, our pattern-recognition abilities are formidable, and I got to wondering why. Pattern-recognition at some level occurs as the basic level of life, as proteins “recognize” molecules and all the subcellular making and matching patterns goes on. But take it up to the level of vertebrates: animals clearly recognize and use patterns to some degree: predators use the patterns of their prey in order to hunt.
In animals there is not the kind of conscious recognition we bring to patterns—not that this matters, but I’ll grant that—but the question is how did we get so very good at patterns, so that we can speak (patterns), make music (patterns), appreciate music (patterns), and so on?
Well, being able to learn/recognize any pattern is an evolutionary advantage over not being able to learn/recognize one, so as soon as the ability appeared, it would encounter strongly favorable natural selection. And the more patterns the organism can recognize, the better off it is in comparison to its more limited fellows. Thus it would seem that pattern-recognition-capability would advance quickly, with the ability to recognize more patterns generally a benefit.
So in modern humans we have advanced pattern-recognition ability, which means we can recognize extremely complex patterns involving many aspects (visual, lingual, action, context, etc.), but of course the more complex patterns take longer to work out.
I imagine someone will throw up Alexander the Great, but of course the pattern he created was quite fragile—lack of sufficient experience in making/recognizing patterns?—and it all fell apart when he died: making a pattern that would endure was not something he achieved.
And it was an excellent movie. Truly is a Chinese Godfather of a sort. And during the movie, the viewer has to work out the patterns in play. Worth seeing, but watch out for the violence: not a kid’s movie by any means. If you see the movie, you’ll understand why the above occurred to me.
And, it occurs to me, human culture is a way to preserve and pass on the patterns we’ve worked out (some of which correspond to reality, some of which do not).