Friday, February 24, 2012

Converging interests - individual and community

I just wrote a review of Robert H. Frank’s book, The Darwin Economy, for the Danish Newspaper Politiken, and it gave me a reason to re-consider some of the mechanisms behind the never-ending quest for growth, which seems to be driving our civilization into the ground.

Why do we always want more? Why can’t we just enjoy the stuff we have already acquired, rather than racing on without even taking the time to fully savor what we have?

As Robert Frank points out, it’s due to Darwinism. We are always in a battle with each other for position; the one with the highest position gets to reproduce. The crucial point is that position is relative, not absolute. Even though we are wealthy and have no objective needs, it’s not enough if those around us have even more. Even though a company makes a decent profit, it needs to make the most profits in order to attract investors. …And so the race is on.

It continues, even if pursuing our individual wealth means that we start to undermine the foundation for the entire community – as evident in the environmental degradation and depleting of natural resources. Apparently, as individuals we can’t help pushing our consumption to the absolute limit of what’s available.

On the one hands this is a great mechanism to keep humans evolving, and not growing complacent. We are always under pressure, and it keeps us fit. It’s a drive deep within us. We’re programmed to be ambitious rather than content.

But, it creates a growing conflict between the individuals’ immediate goals and the long-term good of the community. We may become stronger as individuals, but as a species, we can end up very vulnerable.

Robert Frank argues that we need the state to tend to the interest of the community as a whole. The state can tax harmful activities and thus steer individuals towards types of growth that don’t undermine the community. Furthermore, the state can invest the taxes in projects that create benefits for the entire society, but which we don’t have sufficient incentive to spend money on as individuals.

I’d like to go a bit further with the Darwinian perspective. The problem, as outlined, is that evolutionary pressure works on the individual, rather than at the species level – and this leads to conflicting interests.

One solution would be if we moved up a level, becoming a global organism.

We would continue to be individuals that act and think independently, but we would be much more conscious of how our actions fit in relation to the interests of the whole of mankind. We would - almost as second nature – have a clear understanding of our role in the community, and it would affect how we act as individuals.

One might assume that the stronger community would mean that we would build values that go beyond our own narrow and immediate interests, and that we would be more willing to subordinate our individual agenda and personal interest for the good of the whole system.

At a very general level, I believe that humanity may indeed be moving to a different level of Darwinian selection. We are becoming so tightly connected, so interdependent and our fates are so intertwined as a community, that we are, in effect, becoming a coherent organism. We are at a stage of evolution, where it is not only an issue of which persons get to survive, but whether we as a species can continue here on earth. Unless humanity proves fit for the current conditions, other types of life will take our place.

This sounds pretty far-fetched, but actually, it wouldn’t be the first incidence of such a Darwinian quantum leap. In their book The Major Transitions in Evolution the biologists John Maynard Smith and Szathmary Eörs described how living organisms have taken qualitative leaps upwards in complexity, when several separate but interacting organisms have become linked so closely that at some point they began to function as one.
Examples of this where when single cell organisms merged to former more advanced multicellular organisms, or when organs merged to former more advanced bodies.

As far as I can see, this movement towards larger levels of coordination is a constant trend throughout history – although there may be periodic setbacks.

So what does this imply?

It means that we will see more global coordination, global laws and decision-making.

It means that as conditions become tighter and tighter coupled, individual freedom and consumption will be much more contingent upon what the community can handle and accept.

It means that the distance from what is good for the individual and what is good for the community becomes shorter.

It means that we – as individuals, companies or nation states – will have to give up some sovereignty to the community we share our fate with. This requires trust and faith in the common project.

It means lots and lots of conflicts along the borders between those that we feel are inside the circle of our ”organism” and those outside it.

And it challenges us to define where we draw the circle of inclusion – although, in many cases, it’s doubtful whether we can decide who we share fate with, or if the lines simply emerge from necessity.

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