Response to "Thoughts on Ants, Altruism and the Future of Humanity"

[ This is an edited version of a blog comment on Brandon Kein’s Wired Science post here ]

The question of whether we will “break through” to a superorganism or collapse through any number of spiraling cascades or catastrophic events is the subject of Ervin Laszlo’s book, The Chaos Point, which I highly recommend.  In it, he gives a sweeping view of the complex evolutionary dynamic (focusing on human society), and makes a solid argument that we are at an inflection point in history right now, similar to the “saltation” that begat multicellularity.

As you point out however, even if we do emerge to a higher level of organization, this does not necessarily mean good things for the individual human.  Historically it seems that there has always been a tension between group interests and the survival/vitality of the individuals that comprise the group.  Cells within metazoa give up quite a bit of autonomy (and longevity?) for the greater good.  Humans within corporations or other organizations sacrifice personal desires, wealth, health, etc to be part of the collective.

Given the complexity of the human mind and human society relative the complexity of saltation precursors in the past, it does become a reasonable question as to whether we can have our cake and eat it too through a consciously engineered emergence that has “freedom and fulfillment as a foundation”.

Your idea is a good one, to “create a system — a culture — that rewards altruism, and altruistic individuals flourish; when they flourish, altruistic systems emerge.”  One thing we know about engineering emergence in complex systems though is that it’s not entirely controllable or predictable.  As I see it, the best we can do in reality is create to individual incentive structures which when played out in the collective have the desired result.  Then, over time, hopefully the values implied by the system become inculturated and thus self-sustaining, even if the external incentives were to be removed.

  • Rory

    Is it a sacrifice to give up roughly 8 hours of your life, 5 days a week, in return for the means to purchase the abundance of food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, health-care, technology (etc, etc…) that would not have been available to the more primitive cultures in history (by ‘more primitive’, I mean I could go back a mere 100 years, possibly 70, and point out how much better off we are now, let alone comparing with literal primitives).

    What I agree with, is your sentiment that the individual is often put in conflict with the system; that is, he doesn’t want to do what it want it wants him to do, and it doesn’t want him to do what he’s doing. However, such a system only exists, where a man is morally bound to the system, to the social group. Such bondage was certainly true in Soviet Russia, in Nazi Germany, even in pre-Thatcherite Britain (to a certain point – which we’re returning to with each bout of ‘Social Policy’).

    “As I see it, the best we can do in reality is create to individual incentive structures which when played out in the collective have the desired result.”

    The best we can do? I agree. But I don’t mean that such a system is ‘well, at least better than slavery’. I think there is the name for a system which is beneficial for all men – one which respects him as an individual, one which all men would choose, so long as they realised that they couldn’t live for the sake of any other men: Laissez-Faire Capitalism.
    It is best for everyone, because it respects the rights of everyone, allowing him to live his self-esteem, moral, rational life, seeing to it that he doesn’t betray his integrity, his mind, his values by having to conform to wants and needs that other men make on him.
    In short, it has the greatest incentive scheme in the world: your life.

  • gregorylent

    a yogi would say you mistake cause for effect, effect for cause …