Evolution, Competition, Cooperation and Government

(Picture from here.)

One of the persistent memes that came out of the November election is “You didn’t build that”. I’m not going to go into how the meme is a lie how it is represented. (American Crossroads edited his statement and actually lied in the news. See here and here. But that is neither here nor there.)

Under the meme there is an exposed mind set. Let’s call it the Rugged Individual. The RI is the person that goes out there and does things: fights wars, builds companies, flies airplanes, protects the family, etc. These are not inherently bad things– not even wars. Certainly not companies, airplanes or protections. The image of the RI is that he does things without help. Implicitly, he does things in competition with other (Rugged) individuals. This is related to one of the tenets of evolution: organisms compete with each other (both within and between species) for resources and reproductive opportunities

If this sounds a little like capitalist rhetoric it’s because it is capitalist rhetoric. Adam Smith was well known in Darwin’s time and Darwin made good use of him. Matt Ridley has a nice article in The Spectator here. I’m going to quote a chunk of it:

“Locke and Newton begat Hume and Voltaire who begat Hutcheson and Smith who begat Malthus and Ricardo who begat Darwin and Wallace. Before Darwin, the supreme example of an undesigned system was Adam Smith’s economy, spontaneously self-ordered through the actions of individuals, rather than ordained by a monarch or a parliament. Where Darwin defenestrated God, Smith had defenestrated government.”

So let us return to the Rugged Individual meme. I’m going to dwell on the fallacies of this meme for a bit because they reflect difficulties in thought about evolution.

The RI competes with the environment and other RI for resources, reproduction and (probably) bragging rights. This is competition part of the evolutionary equation and it applies to hawks and human beings. Natural Selection operates by differential competition. That is, competition where one can “win” against (reproduce more than) the other.

But we have invisibly restricted the terms of debate. We have said the RI competes within the realm of Natural Selection. That is right and true and without argument. But we have not said that Natural Selection must compete by way of individual competition. This is the trap of the “You didn’t build that” meme. The implied statement beneath the meme is that denying the purity of individual competition and triumph denies the fact of individual competition and triumph. That by saying that an individual needed help along the way to achieve a goal somehow denies or trivializes the success of the individual that achieved the goal.

There are two other underlying components to the meme: 1) that it is possible for a human being to achieve a goal solely by his own efforts and 2) that the act of helping (which I will tag as “cooperation”) is somehow less important or (in some case) detrimental to success.

First, it only marginally possible for a human being to do anything without cooperation from society at large. Even the old Mountain Men had to get their gun barrels from somewhere. And for those hardy individuals who made their own guns they still had to get the barrel blanks.

Let’s face it: the idea of the completely independent human being is a complete myth and has no basis whatsoever in fact. Humans from birth must be reared and will die without help. We are not like cod larvae that are born independent from the egg and make their way forward on toughness and numbers.

Second, human cooperation is absolutely the thing we do best. It is the most important thing we do. It’s what we evolved to do. And it is what we do better than any other species on the planet.

(I’ve spoken about cooperation before. See here.)

Consider other forms of cooperation in the animal kingdom such as ants. Ants and bees make a deal. The individual workers decide they will allow reproductive rights to solely be the province of the queen and in return they protect that central source of reproduction. Mole rats do something similar. Bacteria cooperate by creating a protected environment in which they can flourish. All of them do this as a trade off between individual versus colony roles. In the case of ants and bees, the workers are physiologically distinct from the queen and males. The same is true for the mole rats though in this case each individual may well have the unexpressed ability to take on queen or male breeder roles but those roles are suppressed by the queen– a different mechanism to achieve the same roles.

Now consider human being cooperation. For one thing, a nation of 300 million people regularly delegate power to a smaller group. That group itself is responsible to the people that elected it and must cooperate with each other or (in theory) be mustered out. Now, add in that these organisms are intelligent and any one of them has the innate capacity to step into the delegated leadership roles. Add in that each human can and does change roles at a drop of a hat, from leadership to servant, from cooperative to competitive.

The miracle of the elephant dancing isn’t how well it dances but that it dances at all.

Humans, therefore, operate in a continuing dance between being competitive and cooperative, recognizing cues and opportunities to change instantly from one to another and sometimes even playing both at the same time.

Our ability to do this is written deep within us and may well be our heritage as complex organisms. Birds, bees and bacteria do the same dance (See here.) though to my mind without our human flair.  But they also compete. In geese, the males compete with each other for the favor of the female and once the bond between mates is established they cooperate beautifully with one another. That level of pair cooperation also resides in the heart of the flock. The flock also acts as a cooperative organism.

It is absolutely certain that as long as we’ve been genus Homo we’ve been cooperating.

Which brings us to government.

My Republican and Libertarian friends seem to vacillate between whether government is a necessary or unnecessary evil. Both of them agree that as a Big Government Liberal I’m missing the point.

I view government as those institutions that organize cooperative endeavors. This can include corporations, churches, federal/state/local government, armies, etc. Government in all its forms is a compromise between human competition and human cooperation.

Consider Garret Hardin‘s famous article, The Tragedy of the Commons here. Hardin is referring back to the practice of a group’s using a common acreage for herding– the “Commons” of the title. It was to the advantage to the group for everyone to use the Commons judiciously to avoid overgrazing. But it was to the advantage of a given individual to circumvent the common use to get more grazing for his livestock. This was pitting individual human gain (the RI above) against group gain. Each individual was, in fact, competing against all others in production and sale of livestock. Yet each individual was also cooperating with all others in the preservation of the common resource. The institution representing the group, be it village or church or just a bunch of families living near each other, failed or succeeded based on how this common good was balanced with individual good.

We can recast the Commons into what I would call infrastructure. While the Commons as an idea is probably as old as agriculture that’s not very old in terms of the evolutionary history of human beings. What would be infrastructure to nomadic peoples? Territory, possibly. Or access to unrelated mates for outcrossing from the group. Precious commodities such as flint or wild rice or specific plants. The institution in these circumstances might be as little (or as much) as authority and custom.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. It’s not a big step to go from a cooperative institution to a government. One can see the road from tribal customs to agricultural authority to kingships and bureaucracies to representative democracy. These are just different ways of managing infrastructure.

And you probably wouldn’t be surprised by how broad I would consider infrastructure: any common resource that needs to be protected from individual exploitation to the detriment of the common good. The SEC protects one aspect of the common resource of the free market. The FDA protects the common resource of trustworthy medical care. Oversight of the common resource of medical care makes good public health sense– bacteria know no class boundaries.

Hence, government is the natural outgrowth of our twin aspects of cooperation and competition. It preserves and protects the infrastructure in which the competitive nature of human beings can flourish.

For my own part, I think of myself as a Teddy Roosevelt Republican: government has to be big enough to manage the infrastructure that is its charge. We have a big country; it’s requires the efforts of big government.

The real problem as we go forward is how to manage scale. The 21st Century problem is how to manage problems that are only addressable by large institutions without having those same institutions broken by their very size.

But that’s another post.




Evolution, Competition, Cooperation and Government — 1 Comment

  1. I like the Catholic conception of subsidiarity that Jerry Brown recently expressed (of course, Brown would know about it). Basically, that things should be managed at the smallest, lowest, or least centralized authority capable of effectively managing them. Granted, it’s not even necessarily respected within the Church, but it is a good idea. More application of subsidiarity would be a Good Thing.