Human Actions and the Evolution of the Social Organism
I have been meaning to talk about this aspect of Neo-Hobbesian social theory for a while, but have been slowly developing the best way to convey it. Central to all the behavioral sciences is looking at the actions of humans. The human super-organism is of course comprised of individuals who make it up. These individuals are all contributing to it in some way. This essay looks into this more deeply. It is a great question as to how humanity became a civilized urban species. For millions of years our ancestors were not urban, colony dwelling animals but rather nomadic sparsely populated pack animals. Somewhere along the way humanity decided to take the leap into civilized living, thus creating an entity greater than itself: society. And society functions in its aggregate as its own independent super-organism.
The genetic hardware which enabled humans to become an urban species is probably from our history as a group animal. Being a pack animal, humans evolved living in groups (usually no more than about 30 people) where they were all interdependent on each other and on the group. The psychology of all pack animals is to put the group ahead of themselves, and the personal goals of the individual members (like wanting to become pack leader) were all fed back into strengthening the pack. For example, an individual may want to become pack leader for purely selfish reasons of wanting more power, but if he is an effective leader, then the group as a whole benefits from having a strong and capable leader. If of course he is a bad leader, another power seeking individual may displace him with the support of the group.
It is through mechanisms like this that human DNA equipped us to be able to live among each other, and more importantly, to cooperate with each other and share the risks and rewards that the group has. It is this pooling of risk and rewards among the members of the group which creates a social organism that functions as a single unit. We know that we are all in this together and therefore we must work together. In effect the individuals become merely cells in a greater super-organism- the pack. This pack can outlive the individual members of the group and becomes an entity in and of itself. This in essence is where the tribe emerges, and perhaps it was tribalism where civilization emerged. Different groups of humans acknowledging a common heritage and creating a de facto alliance at least in the sense of a shared culture and tradition.
Over time this evolved and expanded beyond tribes to become cities, and then nations. The “pack” in which we lived expanded from small groups of about 30 to large cities of thousands and eventually even millions of people. Ironically as our groups grew larger we in fact became less communally oriented, while the small group of 30 may have a system of sharing everything, larger civilizations eventually adopted private property. We gained more independence and isolation while we were simultaneously becoming more connected. The adoption of private property versus pure communal sharing was most likely a result of simple logistical impracticality, when in a group of thousands of humans, it becomes much harder to delineate the sharing of things. While a small tribe may have a communal store of spears from which people may grab and put back from time to time, in a large community there is much less incentive to let people borrow your goods as there is a much greater likelihood that you will not get it back. Furthermore, there is also the fact that we humans are not evolved to be able to know thousands and millions of people on an intimate level. Our genetic hardware is still geared towards us knowing, living and working with a smaller group of people. In the small tribe of 30 everyone knows each other very well, but in the city of 1 million this would be an impossibility. As such we have kept a greater distance from each other, and instead of interacting and distributing resources on a discretionary and communal basis. In the small tribe of 30, I know everyone’s unique personal characteristic, I know what they like and what they don’t like. If they approach me I have a good idea of what they may ask since I know them extremely well. Of course in the city of 1 million I couldn’t possibly know what the intentions of others are, so to compensate we have adopted a rules based approach taking the form of a social contract. I may not know all my fellow countrymen personally, but I do know that they are subject to the same codes I am, and thus I have at least some expectation of how they may act and what they can do to me.
These momentous changes are in fact an adaptation humans made in response to a new change in circumstance. And indeed the evolution of humanity from a nomadic pack animal to a bustling, metropolitan hive-like super-organism came from adaptations, piece by piece, happening over millennia in response to the pressures of reality.
The human super-organism has survived because of its ability to adapt and to adopt when new changes occur. The process which has occurred has been a natural selection of sorts, the same mechanism by which biological evolution occurred. In biological evolution, random mutations of genes are accumulated over time by their effectiveness in the natural world in which the organism lives. Although the mutations may be random, and many of them are in fact useless or even harmful, those ones which do provide adaptive benefit will survive and be passed down.
For the human society this occurs through the actions and behaviors of the individuals and institutions which make up society. It is true that there is some genetic evolution as well, however the transition which humans made from pack animal to urban colonist has been far too rapid to have been triggered by genetic change alone. The group animal background of humanity certainly provided it with the hardware to live and function in a group setting, but the overall evolution of society has come from its own natural selection of actions and behaviors being adopted.
The environment is a central part of natural selection. It is in fact what decides whether an adaptation succeeds (and thus survives) or fails. For purposes of analyzing society, the environment is in essence, the universe. This of course includes the conventional understanding of the environment as the natural world (weather, climate, geography, etc). However it also includes the human world as well as the natural world. Many if not most social theorists including and especially economists make the mistake of viewing man as someone unique in this world. The natural world is outside of man, and it is man who enters it and homesteads it and turns it into something useful for him. Man in essence is conquering the environment, and everything which he creates is not a part of it, but rather only a part of him.
This view is entirely incorrect. Man is both subject to the environment yet a part of it at the same time. Natural selection at the end of the day only allows the strong to survive. What is out there testing to see what is strong or not is the environment. Humanity is capable of creating actions which then enter into the environment, and bounce back to effect it. This of course is not something that is unique to man. A great example of this in biological evolution is that of sexual selection. Sexual selection refers to those traits which are passed down and selected purely out of their utility in attracting a mate. A sexually selected trait provides no survival benefit outside of it fitting into the “mating culture” if the animal itself. Peacocks evolved their enormous displays from this mechanism. The peacock’s display serves no strategic advantage outside of mating. The peacock females started to prefer the males with larger displays, and over time this reflected in the sexual traits being passed down. This action of females preferring males with large displays had in effect made them a part of the environment which was shaping their natural selection. Peacocks could be both subject to the environment and yet a part of that environment which they were subject to.
And humanity too is the same way. Outside of sexual selection of genes, we also create the environments which shape our behaviors. The growing of the population and the larger groups which we found ourselves living in changed the environment which we were living in and thus changed our behaviors regarding things like possessions. Our technology also changes our environment which then changes us. We create economies and markets which take on a life of their own. The stock market, though driven by humans making decisions, becomes an alien force to the very humans who create it. The Dow jumps up and down like a wild bull in a barnyard, and nobody knows where it is going next.
Thus our own actions are in fact interactions with the environment, however at the same time when we interact with our environment we are adding to it, and creating new forces which we must deal with. This makes a feedback loop which allows the human organism to adapt and change, and it is continually changing.
This next part will focus on human actions and how they affect society as a whole. The early marginalist economists devised that all economic activity came in fact from the actions of individuals. Each individual is out to increase his utility or pleasure by undertaking whatever tasks he desires, the sum of all these humans interacting is what we call the economy. However, at the base of it, is just the small minute actions of individuals, buying a candy bar, looking at homes, calculating the cost benefit of buying a car. It is from these micro-calculations that the economy emerges.
While neoclassical economics obviously shares many of the traits of a Neo-Hobbesian approach, I still reject many of their primary conclusions. The most glaring flaw in methodological individualism that I see is that it simply deduces all economic activity down to the actions of individuals. The rationale they say is that since all economies are just comprised of individuals, those are the things we should be looking at, keeping it firmly grounded in micro-economics.
However this is not true, humans create institutions and groups which create actions of their own. Although it is true that the subjective preferences of individuals lead them to form things like corporations, a corporation also exists as its own entity separate from the motives of the individual members. As noted earlier, as pack animals, humans have evolved to interact with each other so that when they do form associations and groups with each other, the group takes on a life of its own which is separate from that of the individuals. Just as the tribe comes before the person, the corporation comes before the worker. Sociological and psychological research has shown that people will put their own desires aside for the cohesion of the group. As the health and cohesion of a corporation may be vital for the economic security of a worker, he is more willing to put his own personal preferences aside to allow the corporation to achieve greater cohesion and stability. It is this subordination which allows a group to take on a life of its own, it no longer just a vehicle for its members to achieve their desires, but rather an entity into itself which functions as an “artificial man” which seeks to secure its survival and success.
A corporation is fully capable of making its own independent calculations of cost/benefit, and it can in every way function as the capitalist consumer of marginalism. This of course occurs at all levels of society, households do this, as do schools, churches and government. To only focus on the individual is to miss that our groups are capable of functioning as individuals and that they too are having input into the economy and society.
It is this reason that I believe that neoclassical economics has had a major blind spot in understanding human society. The normative recommendations of neoclassical and Austrian economics for complete laissez faire have not been reflected in the real world. If this were in fact the true and natural economic model for man, why has reality looked so different? This glaring inaccuracy has led many to libertarianism, which is ultimately a conspiracy theory of sorts, which tries to explain away the apparent disparity between neoclassical predictions and real condition as the result of a power hungry government which seeks to use coercion to interfere with the “natural” way of things.
They are at least partially right in that government may have something to do with it, however they are still missing the main picture. By erroneously concluding that the economy is driven merely by individuals and not individuals plus the groups and institutions they create, the neoclassical and libertarians are not seeing the true nature of how humanity operates. In reality it is much more complex than what they make it out to be. Society is in fact individuals and groups acting in response to the environment they live in, and those actions in the real world become a part of the environment around them, which then alters the environment in a way that creates a new action in response. This self-repeating cycle creates an economy which is in fact dynamic and evolving.
And we should in fact expect humans to create firms, groups and governments, it is in our nature to band together to form a unit which is greater than ourselves. And in its totality, what we see is a society which in and of itself is functioning as one giant organism. The individuals who make it up are the cells, the institutions are its organs. Like a simple neuron cell, the individual human may not know that she is a part of a greater organism, nor is it her intention, like a cell in the human body she simply seeks her sustenance and meets her own needs, however since her own needs are dependent on the group she should be subtly seeking to reinforce and strengthen the greater body. And just like how a worker is subordinate to his corporation for the good of the corporation, humans too will act in subordination for the greater good of our society.
This of course is blasphemy to many in the English speaking world. We have been trained to see things from a Lockean perspective which elevates the individual to the highest level. Neoclassical economics with its methodological individualism is really just a part of this cultural bias which distrusts any notion of a collective body. And there is of course the rhetorical aspect as well, nobody in America wants to be told that they are in fact subordinate, and should be subordinate to the greater good. But nevertheless, an objective look at society clearly indicates that this is the case all over the world. Even in our capitalist system, workers in a firm are still subordinate to the greater body of the firm. Capitalism is no more individualist than socialism is.
But the individualist may still be in denial, and he may say “we do not need coercion to make it work because humans willingly work together.” This too is a Lockean idea that humans willingly work together, and it is true that to some degree this occurs. Yet this still is fallacious in that it assumes that individuals working alone are able to create the social cohesion necessary for society to exist. Once again the individualist is missing the part where our groups and institutions come in, for they in fact have helped to create this cohesion and reinforce it. Our governments were created by human action in response to environmental pressures which needed stability, their existence does create stability, for the same reason described earlier of how social codes allow the man in the city of 1 million to be able to trust and feel safe around the fellow citizen who he has never met. The stability created by governments has in fact mended with the environment, so as to create an environment where individuals do have more stability. Thus it is a fallacy to look at the market place and say “the merchants, buyers and traders here are all private entities, the government is not doing this, therefore we do not need a government to have commerce.” This fallacious interpretation ignores the fact that commerce emerged in the environment which government helped to create through its very existence.
The individualist who still sees man as the homesteader conquering his environment is looking at it the wrong way. Humanity is an organism whose actions, individuals, and institutions are part of the environment as well as reacting to it. If one fails to see this dynamic and complex interplay it would make sense that fallacious theories about human society could emerge.
- This crudely made picture was created to at least give the reader a mental image of how I envision this process. The actions of human, however minute or random, become part of the environment around us which then help to further shape us. It is in this way that the human super-organism has allowed itself to evolve and refine itself.
Actions and Natural Selection
This next part will focus on natural selection as how it has helped to shape human society to enable our complex civilization to emerge from a group of nomadic pack animals. The natural selection of human society works in this way: the environmental pressures cause humans and their institutions to act, which then in turn changes the environment, creating new pressures which lead to new actions. The actions of the human super-organism are the aggregate of the actions of individuals and groups.
Let’s go back to earlier where I mentioned that the individual is to society what the individual cell is to the human body. Though focused on his own selfish desires, he is contributing to the whole. But what if he decides to do something that is harmful to society as a whole? Surely there is no magical force which could stop him. And indeed, individuals as well as institution are capable of acting in ways which hurt society as a whole. If it spins out of control, the “bad” actor can in fact become like a cancerous cell, continually diminishing the health of society as a whole. All of us have been “bad eggs” from time to time, yet most us still manage to be “good” most of the time. The individualist would say that this is evidence that Locke was right, that humans are intrinsically group oriented and good. Of course the Hobbesian realizes that this is not true, if humanity was naturally a capitalist civilization dweller, why was it a nomad for millions of years? If we truly evolved to have this as our natural state, why was the transition from hunter-gatherer to civilized in a matter of only a few thousand years? Far too soon for the slow pace of genetics to catch up. The Hobbesian understands that it was a change in environmental pressures which caused this change in behavior, and indeed it is the environment which makes the average civilization dweller a “good” citizen now.
Of course there are people who will decide to take advantage of the vulnerabilities of others, violate the social contract, steal, rape, rob, terrorize. And they will continue to do so until they are stopped. This capacity for being a rogue does exist in all of us to a certain extent, it is the environment we live in which can bring it out. Long ago societies realized the vulnerabilities of living in a large group. In the city of 1 million it is much harder to regulate harmful behavior than in the group of 30. The action of rogues put a strain on society, which eventually would create an environment which was quite hostile to the wellbeing of society. This environmental strain begged a response from the humans subject to it, and thus citizens used collective power to create groups whose sole jobs were to maintain security and prevent wrongdoing. This of course is the police power of government which emerged. Government and police power made it so that the criminal was made aware that the environment had changed, though he may still try to terrorize other individuals, eventually he would be hunted down by this authority and punished. Just like how white blood cells help to destroy the harmful entities in the human body (including cancer cells), the government and police power do this in society. And through their action they have actually created a new environment, which sends its signals to the criminal that a force exists which will hunt them down if they disobey by the rules.
Because the government police power has changed the environment, it can achieve effects without even having to lift its fingers. Simply because it exists, all men are put on notice that they could be subject to its punishment should they do something which harms society. Now it is true that the police power could be used for abusive purposes, and this has happened multiple times in the past. However, through natural selection, a bad police power is in fact bad for society, creating an ill environment much like the criminal. Eventually these actions do in fact necessitate a response, whereby the actions of others respond to create a newer and better environment. And the instances of which a police power becomes rogue are rare. As the government is a social institution which works for the people, it is less likely to be corrupted by the selfish desires of its members than an individual would. Those instances of government brutality are often whenever the members have attained too much individual power. A police force can still have power and be egalitarian as long as the power of its individual members is controlled.
Over time as new challenges present themselves, new laws and entities emerge to respond to them, and these new entities only further change our environment, which creates new changes and new responses. This evolutionary cycle causes us to adapt new behaviors, and to be adaptable, and over time, as our actions multiply, we slowly change from a simple, nomadic and isolated species, to one which is fully urban and fully connected. And in total, it becomes something which is completely different from what it was before.
Our society is subject to evolution, and hopefully I have illuminated some of the mechanisms by which our society evolves and changes and adapts. However what is perhaps most remarkable of all is that all of these things have still maintained a strong society. Humanity remains a super-organism, one in which we all play a role. We could have disbanded centuries ago, but yet we remain in-tact. Though humans are naturally group animals we are by no means evolved create large colonies like ants do, but yet that is exactly what we do. Although the foundation of society is individuals acting in their preferences, society as a whole has taken on a life of its own, a super-organism which ensures its own survival.
The Whole comes first
As I mentioned earlier, the original impetus for the creation of a police force is the complaints and desires of like-minded people to create an environment which is better for them. There is no doubt that selfish, subjective and personal goals underlie the bulk of human action and the institutions which it has created. However the survival of these institutions is not from their ability to satisfy the needs of individuals (as the individualist may tell you). For the purely selfish actions will eventually come into conflict with the goals of the collective. An action which only meets selfish needs may survive for a short period of time, but eventually it could become useless or even harmful to the super-organism as a whole. Human society has survived because it has allowed for natural selection to reinforce those activities which benefit the super-organism as a whole.
This of course is where the higher collective intelligence of humanity emerges. By living in a society we are all dependent on the success of that society for the wellbeing of our lives. We all have a stake in its outcome and so we all naturally want to see it work, and oppose those behaviors which hurt it. However, at the same time, as individuals, we have our own selfish desires as well. And these selfish desires will inevitably come into conflict with society as a whole. Human beings are still ultimately selfish creatures, and while we value society we value ourselves more, and if we can do something that we enjoy, we will do it. Now very few humans actually want to do an act which will fatally wound society, however many of us do “small” acts which alone will not kill it, but in its aggregate could.
Speeding on the highway is one crime which nearly everyone commits from time to time. One person speeding will probably hurt no one, however, if everyone disobeyed traffic laws it would make travel unworkable. This same goes with things like shoplifting, drug abuse, discharging weapons in a populated place. One time won’t hurt, but if everyone did it, society could die by death by 1000 paper cuts. And of course since we humans are selfish we naturally give ourselves license to break these rules, even if they are rules that we generally agree with. If we can get away with it we will try it. And by doing this we are creating actions which can alter our environment.
The human super-organism would cease to exist if it could not curb selfish behavior, and of course it uses things like the power of culture and the force of law to help curb these bad behaviors. However over time a new pattern emerges. The human society, through natural selection, eventually learns to target those behaviors which are a threat to it, while encouraging those which are beneficial to it. Human morality and culture and sociology is slowly refined over time more and more to fit within this model. We are trained to like the things which are good for society, and not like the things which are bad for it. Of course at this point in time it is not perfect, like I said our genetics have not caught up to our present situation, so for now we still rely on police to stop drunk drivers and kids throwing bottles at cars. But eventually we may reach a point where our behavioral genetics make us fully equipped to live in a way which benefits the human super-organism as a whole.
And even today of course we are trending that way, our behaviors are unbeknownst to us shaped to benefit the whole. The super-organism has managed to create an environment whereby out actions serve to increase it. We are not simply individuals helping individuals, but rather individuals who are serving a greater collective. By helping other individuals we are in fact helping the collective. By engaging in capitalist behavior to increase our money hoards we are in fact engaging in production and distribution of resources which are strengthening society. By engaging in socialist behaviors and charity and welfare we are also doing this. Those behaviors which do not better the super-organism are wiped out by natural selection, and the ones which remain only remain because they benefit the super-organism. Even those activities which appear to be private and self-interested are in fact not, the fact that you get individual pleasure from it is but a mere pleasant coincidence. We really all work for the collective, and just like the individual brain cell that is pumping out signals and breaking down proteins, most of us are completely unaware of this.
The police in fact do not work for us, they work for the super-organism. The citizens are not the consumers of government services, rather it is society which is the consumer. The consumer of the capitalist production is not the actual benefactor of the capitalist’s production, rather, the capitalist is merely providing the necessary resources to the cells so that they have the energy and resources to continue to serve the whole. The whole comes first, it always has and it always will. Our actions are merely a part of its direction, we are but cogs in the wheel, the super-organism is the star of the show.
Now I realize that what I have just told you may be radically different from the rhetorical upbringing many of you had, and in fact some of you will be shocked and offended and convinced I am wrong. If you feel you can prove me wrong I would gladly appreciate that you give me feedback. And even if you don’t want to give me feedback, I urge you to think about this theory and see for yourself the evidence which exists for it. For centuries the west has taken the erroneous individualist perspective on things, however the individualist perspective is the wrong one. Humanity, along with its societies and economies is a collective endeavor, and should be viewed as such.