Darwinism and the Paradox of Altruism
During the mid 1800s Charles Darwin upended both the scientific and religious worlds by releasing his seminal theory on biological evolution. Darwinism states that all species of organisms arise and develop through the natural selection of small, inherited variations that increase the individual’s ability to compete, survive, and reproduce. Since then Darwinism has been a foundational part of our world, science and elsewhere. However social behavior, specifically altruism, has posed a bit of problem for Darwin and his universal theory.
Every altruist has their own motives, of course – some are emotional, responding to fellow humans in desperate straits, while others are more rational, thinking about the kind of society they’d like to live in and acting accordingly. Does that imply a level of self-interest? Selfless acts often attract accusations of hidden selfishness, suggesting they’re not really altruistic at all. This wasn’t the problem for Darwinism. After all, humans have culture and religion and moral codes to live by – maybe our altruism was more to do with that than biology.
It was altruistic ants that posed a particular problem for Charles Darwin. Natural selection is often described as ‘survival of the fittest’, where fitness means how successful an individual is at reproducing. If one individual has a trait that gives them a fitness advantage, they will tend to have more offspring than the others; because the advantage is likely to be passed on to their offspring, that trait will then spread through the population. A fundamental part of this idea is that individuals are competing for the resources they need to reproduce, and fitness includes anything that helps an individual reproduce more than the competition.
But as Darwin observed, ants and other social insects are not in competition. They are cooperative, to the extent that worker ants are sterile and so have literally zero fitness. They ought to be extinct, yet there they are in every generation sacrificing their own reproductive ambitions to serve the fertile queen and her drones. Darwin suggested that competition between groups of ants – queen, drones and workers together – might be driving natural selection in this case. What was good for a nest competing against other nests would then outweigh what was good for any individual ant.
Group selection, as this idea was known, was not a very good solution, though. It didn’t explain how the cooperative behaviour evolved in the first place. The first altruistic ant would have been at such a huge disadvantage compared to the rest of its group that it would never have got the chance to breed more altruistic ants. The same was true of humans – natural selection was intrinsically stacked against any altruistic individual surviving long enough to pass on their altruism. (The Story of George Price)
This left a paradox: the evolution of altruism appeared to be impossible (under Darwin’s definition) … yet clearly altruism had evolved. If this couldn’t be resolved, what would it mean for the whole idea of natural selection?
Luckily, a young man called Bill Hamilton came to the rescue with a slightly different solution in 1964. He proposed that altruism could have evolved within family groups, whether genetically or through shared environmental habits and tendencies. An individual altruist would seem to be at a disadvantage, but that was not the whole picture because other individuals who shared the same genes associated with altruism would all influence each other’s “inclusive fitness.” We see this in human families also, as parents instinctively sacrifice themselves to protect their children, the upcoming generation. In fact, to not do this is considered socially malevolent.
Evolution and the Community
Hamilton’s extrapolation of Darwinism, while seemingly radical – made complete sense. By choosing to open the door to new thoughts on evolution – we’re not necessarily kicking Charles Darwin to curb, but expanding on his work based on new levels of research and observation. Consider it letting the theory of evolution evolve. Any scientific discovery should be looked at not an end – but rather the journey down a new road to another level of enlightenment.
The same should be said for social sciences and economic philosophy. We’re still relying on the theories and assumptions of Adam Smith and Thomas Hobbes from the 19th century – with our politics following. Why shouldn’t our thinking in this area evolve also. The societal conditions faced by the inhabitants of 1800s are nothing like that we face today in 2017. To assume the models developed then would wholly apply now is naive … if not just intellectually lazy.
“I believe that the community – in the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures – is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.” – Wendell Berry
If we espouse Hamilton’s idea that evolution can occur in family units as well as in individuals – what’s saying we can’t take it a step further and extrapolate to that of the community unit. In fact, while technically ants socialize as a family, being from the same queen, they also (if not more) act as an active part of a community.
Recognizing that your community is an evolutionary ecosystem is fundamental to its prosperity and even survival.
If we view our community as an evolutionary unit, then we must look for and address the components that can either contribute to its sustainability or to its demise. A community is really nothing more than the accumulation of individuals and the interactions between these individuals. Every member of your community is unique and adds to its fabric. Everyone has something to offer and everyone should be heard – no matter their age or social standing. If they are not included int he conversation – they still will be heard and it may not be in a socially accepted way (e.g. crime). Prejudice, bigotry or even indifference hurts not only them, but us as part of the overall community. All of our actions, or lack there of – have collective consequences.
“In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” ~ IroquoisConfederacy
We must confront the societal questions that threaten the long-term sustainability of our communities – not just the immediate issues affecting the adult population . Far too often communities concern themselves only with protecting the status quo. This may not even be intentional. Informal power cliques that continue on by monopolizing public office and solidifying their positions of influence restrict the accension of new blood and new ideas in the community. For these civic leaders, they view the pain of changing greater than the pain of staying the same. Public policies, ideals and conventions are there to be preserved – often at all costs. New ideas meant to provide opportunity to new or young residents are resisted if not outright rejected … just because: “if it ain’t broken, then don’t fix it.” Unfortunately for those not in the top echelons of the ivory towers of power – it is broken. This needed new blood will either retreat into the shadows occupying a lower hung on caste system … or move somewhere else where opportunity is more available and their assets are welcome. Neither alternative is conducive to the prosperity and sustainability of the community.
Enter Darwinism! Those communities that embrace ideas from other diverse sources and talent with different experiences will evolve, sustain themselves and flourish. Those that “hold on to yesterday” will whither away. These communities and their residents will suffer from isolation, and lack of economic and social opportunities as they put forth precious time and resources resisting rather than embracing. By the time the pain of staying the same becomes more than that of changing … it may well be too late for them.
However hard it may seem for community leaders, they need to be willing to loosen their grip on power and traditional structure. They need to realize that what they invest in the outliers of power and influence today will be the capital that builds the future of the their communities in the future. Without this investment – the homes, businesses and everything else they’re trying to hold on to will be yet another example of the dark side of evolution – decline and eventual extinction.
We still need structure, but that structure needs to be flexible … and directly participatory. Our current form of local representative governance is seldom more than an ego-driven career path for the few. We need a structure that is more a platform; one of inclusion and participation. This platform must be designed to identify the needs and opportunities of the local community it serves while addressing them using whatever resources are available … whether monetary or not. Think of this “resource maximization” drawing from the times of our grandparents when neighbors and community members were treated as extended family and relied on as the primary “safety net.” This was a time when no one had the luxury or sitting by idly expecting a city council (who meets once a week) to act on their best interest – assuming they even took the time or had the ability to know what those interests were.
Biologists say trees are social beings. They can count learn and remember. They nurse sick members, warn each other of dangers by sending electrical signals across a fungal network and for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through roots. (Marije van Zomeren)
To find a model for organizational structure built around resource maximization and decentralized civic participation and collaboration, we need to look no further than our backyard – in nature. One of nature’s most effective means of sustainability is the Rhizome. The Rhizome is a modified subterranean stem of a plant that is usually found underground, often sending out roots and shoots from its nodes. Rhizomes develop from axillary buds and grow perpendicular to the force of gravity. The Rhizome also retains the ability to allow new shoots to grow upwards. If a Rhizome is separated into pieces, each piece may be able to give rise to a new plant … and a new node of above ground activity.
A rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles … the rhizome connects any point to any other point, and its traits are not necessarily linked to traits of the same nature; it brings into play very different regimes of signs, and even non-sign states … The rhizome operates by variation, expansion, conquest, capture, offshoots. A rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo. (A Thousand Plateaus)
This phenomena of decentralized activity in Rhizomes was best articulated in the philosophy or Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in the ’60s. Rather than using the organizational structure of the root-tree system which charts causality along chronological lines and looks for the single origin of “things” and looks towards conclusion of those “things;” a Rhizome continually establishes connections between threads of meaningful communication, organizations of power, and other influences (including arts, sciences, and social struggles). The planar movement of the Rhizome resists chronology and formal organization, instead favoring a Nomadic system of growth and proliferation. In this model, influence and application spreads like the surface of a body of water, spreading towards available spaces or in the application of community – maximizing the resources available to it, regardless of the type. This is a perfect alternative to the governmental morass of dysfunction we’re currently immersed in.
At the foundation of this evolved, altrusitically-based society are its Front Porches – physical hubs of civic gathering and serendipitous engagement. The goal is to take the principles of resource maximization and provide the conduit to incorporate them with the naturalistic examples of the Rhizome organization articulated by Deleuze and Guattari. This result is a platform or space for community engagement and sustainability built around informal but operationally significant gatherings, otherwise know as Front Porches. While these Front Porches can form anywhere, say even in your garage, the ideal locations will be in the locally owned businesses of our communities.
Rather than myopically obsess on economic growth as almost all civic governments do, a Front Porch network will focus on destroying the silos that retard our communities’ evolution while improving its inhabitants physical, cerebral (avenues to self-actualization) and spiritual health. People will gravitate towards what they want to do … and in turn do what they do best. This lifestyle of self-management of interests and activities will not only benefit them, but also their community. Lives based on economic status will be replaced by those of self-actualization, self-efficacy and well-being. Civic participation and altruism will elevate them and empower them to evolve as humans – individually and collectively.
It will be the priority of these Front Porches to create environments in our communities that nurture hope by empowering avenues for us to engage with our world and express our creativity through a Solutionist mindset – letting the inherent benevolence inside us bloom. By making “helping others” our societal norm and expectation … we will supplant that of the hopeless climb up the ladder of our current economic caste system; countering the tribalism and jingoism that has reared recently shown itself to be in vogue.
Evolution through Diversity-Driven Serendipity
Rather than abide by a top-down governance model run by those embedded in the status quo (often of sustained mediocrity) – we must create platforms of serendipity where civic matchmaking happens organically through interaction uncovering commonalities between the participants. Think of a synergistic mixing bowl of opportunity; indirect, organic relationship building.
What if we designed our communities around the idea of maximizing engagement from those in the streets? The more engaged our residents are … the more empowered they would be. They would feel more in control of their health and their futures. Imagine if a chance to engage, whether it was physical, mental or social was just around the corner. What if our physical security and well-being was not dependent on government assistance or the whims of a fickle market driven economy. What if our neighborhood was our safety net, a safety net that knew best in our time of need. What if the streets of our community became melting pots of diversity-driven serendipity – places where curiosity was bred. What if engagement, well-being and self-efficacy was how a community measured itself, not obtuse economic activity often distorted through the one-dimensional filter of irrelevant statistics. And what if getting up in the morning was a chance to nurture our hope … and engage with others to help them do the same.
Breaking Free of the Pendulum
It’s easy to just bash our present political economic situation and run the other way, rose-colored glasses in hand – ready to embrace the polar opposite. We saw this with the election of Donald Trump. Anything was better than Hillary Clinton and the establishment, however bad that might have been or not. We see it in economics with the pushback against neo-liberalism … for good reason. But does the answer lie on the other end of the pendulum and minimum basic income? Does it lie free college education for everyone, even though it’s becoming more apparent traditional college may not be the best alternative?
We need to be brave and think differently, not just vacillate between Smith and Hobbes or Marx. Not that those and others icon of the past don’t have positive offerings to contribute. But they don’t live today. Society changes, as does the economic conditions and requirements that forms it. And with that so must our ways of looking at the best way to patch together a workable societal strategy for all. We need to grab from the past, morph together solutions … and try them out. Not all will work. But some parts of the some of them will. And then we take those and combine them together with new ideas – all specific to our individual locales often brought to the forefront by our newly embraced outliers. Jeff Bezos from Amazon calls this Day 1. Everything is always in beta – always in search of improvement. Always evolving. Never focusing on maintaining the status quo.
Bill Hamilton showed us how we need to accept alternative ways of looking at our world; even down to the most basic level – Darwin’s theory of evolution. I propose we take it further to the community. We don’t live in silos. While genetics play a vital role in ability to sustain ourselves individually and collectively … so do the interactions with those we share a physical space with. Any efforts to nurture empathetic and altruistic behavior is evolutionary beneficial.
It’s not enough to wait for a societal evolution to take place and expect other to generate the change we need. We can’t expect to sit back and reap the benefits from it after-the-fact. We need to all need to be our own local Bill Hamiltons, think differently … and usher in these evolutionary changes ourselves. We must look at our responsibility as being more than a periodic trip to the voting booth only to perpetuate yet another ineffective version of status quo.
Because we have reached a time when “the pain of staying the same has become greater than the pain of changing.”
Special thanks to John Caswell for inspiration on this post.
- Rebuilding Alexandria
- Growing an Evolved Society
- Front Porches
- Ask yourself: “If not me … then who?”