Saturday, April 07, 2007

Sociable Darwinism

Natalie Angier is a wonderful science writer. She recently reviewed David Sloan Wilson's Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives. (Click here for all my posts about this book.) She says that according to Wilson
all of life is characterized by a “cosmic” struggle between good and evil, the high-strung terms we apply to behaviors that are either cooperative or selfish, civic or anomic. The constant give-and-take between me versus we extends down to the tiniest and most primal elements of life. Short biochemical sequences may want to replicate themselves ad infinitum, their neighboring sequences be damned; yet genes get together under the aegis of cells and reproduce in orderly fashion as genomes, as collectives of sequences, setting aside some of their immediate selfish urges for the sake of long-term genomic survival. Cells further collude as organs, and organs pool their talents and become bodies. [Emphases added.]
In other words, commons and cooperatives are bottom up constructions, like almost everything else. In much of human history, however, the mechanisms that commons use to govern themselves have sometimes been taken over by tyrannically/dictatorial forces to make the commons a top-down structure serving those who control the governance mechanisms. Of course since it happens, that too is part of nature. But it's worth recognizing that commons are fundamentally bottom-up creations.

Angier goes on paraphrasing Wilson as follows.
The conflict between being well behaved, being good, not gulping down more than your share and being selfish enough to get your fair share, “is eternal and encompasses virtually all species on earth … . [I]t is predicted at … a fundamental level by evolutionary theory.” How do higher patterns of cooperative behavior emerge from aggregates of small, selfish units? With carrots, sticks and ceaseless surveillance.

Humans are equipped with all the dispositional tools needed to establish and maintain order in the commons. Studies have revealed a deep capacity for empathy, a willingness to trust others and become instant best friends and an equally strong urge to punish cheaters, to exact revenge against those who buck group rules for private gain.

[Emphases added.]
What strikes me about all this is how contradictorally centrist it is. It's the implicit wisdom of the broad political center. People are fundamentally good — but let's not do away with our police force. We now have science to back up that instinct.

The larger lesson is to understand the naturally occurring mechanisms that have been successful in establishing well-run commons and then to apply them both to our current commons and to the new commons we continually find ourselves building.

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