Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Monday, June 05, 2006

Biologically feasible political systems

I often wonder what goes through the minds of those who propose utopian political ideals that turn out to become the worst of all possible dystopias, like Leninism or Maoism, or for that matter the extreme laisse faire capitalist conservatism. For it appears to me that these systems would work just fine, if only they didn't involve any human beings. And that raises an interesting question in my mind, and I hope, yours too. What sorts of political systems are biologically feasible for human beings? As Aristotle said, Man is a Political Animal, but what sort of political animal?

Any political system that relies upon purely rational behaviours, for example, is right out. It is often noted that economic and political behaviours are like the games of game theory - any system that relies on a rational outcome, is vulnerable to the free rider effect, as in Garrett Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons. Here's a case in which a shared common resource (the commons, on which each farmer may graze on sheep) is systematically destroyed. One farmer (the freerider) thinks to get an edge on his competitors and graze two sheep. The other soon find that to keep up, they must do this also. Eventually, the commons is overgrazed, but every participant in its destruction has acted in a rationally self-interested manner.

But worse than this, it may pay not to be rational. Suppose you have a Vulcan society. Each is given according to ability calculated rationally, and each accepts this, in that, as Spock said channelling James Mill and Jeremy Bentham, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. All it takes to subvert that little society, in the absence of draconian sanction, is for one member to act irrationally, and take their own needs as paramount. They will cause others to rationally reflect that if that is happening, there will be a point at which it pays individually to subvert the rational society.

Others, such as Marx, Engels and Lenin have argued that society should be just. A just society does not permit one person to own or control others or their means of production. But it turns out that the ordinary person doesn't see it that way (because of "false consciousness") and so there needs to be an elite (the political proletariat) that judges how things should go on their behalf. Good intentions. It led to the Gulag.

One could multiply examples almost indefinitely. The French Revolution. Jonestown. Finnish utopian colonies, the Philadelphians, the Colonia Dignidad, and a range of American experiments.

Why don't these work? Well, for one thing, it seems that they rely on a particular anthropology - of humans as rational, or spiritual, or open to free love, and so on, all of which are simply implausible as depictions of real humans. But it has for a long time been a Bad Thing to talk about Human Nature, which leads to Essentialism, Racism, Fascism (itself a utopian vision) and ultimately Blindness. But while there are a large number of apologetics for the status quo in the application of ethology to human society, sure enough, most of the time this has relied upon taking distant analogies from, among other things, gazelles, geese, wasps, bees, and caricatures of apes in order to argue that way. Few seem to have tried to argue from the observed and actual human ethological traits to what is a feasible human social structure.

Since I have no internal warning systems of professional suicide, I am going to try to sketch, very roughly, what I think these traits might be, and to discuss how this might affect our quest to form a decent and sustainable society. Feel free to chip in, either with criticisms or suggestions.

Our questions are these:

1. What sort of social animal are human beings? What are the basic social structures of the human animal "in the wild"? We might indeed wonder if there is such a beast as "in the wild" for humans.

2. How do these traits affect us in large societies? Is there something novel in our sedentary and urbanised lifestyles that we did not previously express?

3. Is our social nature constrictive? That is, can we establish a social order that escapes, modifies or completes our biological dispositions?

Others will come to mind.