The input of biologists in public policy can help us understand the disruptions of human progress; one example of this is ‘the bourgeois strategy’.
I am pre-publishing this sequence of essays here and in social media to elicit comments and other feedback. They will form the framework for my next book, Darwin, Dada, Dalí, Duke, & Devadevàya.
Human progress is accelerating. That isn’t entirely good.
We think of progress in positive terms, and eventually it is. In fact, if it weren’t beneficial in the long term, then it wouldn’t really be progress.
But in the short term, progress frequently causes large problems. Biologists understand this immediately: new species, or even small changes in existing species or in the environment, create ripples through the ecosystem. Large changes, however, create major and even catastrophic problems, which can be more tsunami than ripple. Major biological shifts result in massive numbers of deaths, and even extinctions.
In the same way, human progress is disruptive, and dangerous. It threatens our beliefs, it threatens our markets, and it threatens our lives. In fact, many of the largest modern threats we face today are the by-products of progress: globalization, pollution, nuclear war, overcrowding, overharvesting, habitat destruction, and global warming.
Not surprisingly, just as in biological progress, human progress also causes extinctions. We have seen large numbers of animals and plants go extinct throughout the history of human progress and expansion. As our ancestors moved from trees, to hunting and foraging, and into the cities, many species went extinct. Many others currently face possible extinction.
Biologists in Public Policy
I propose that these patterns aren’t mere coincidences between biology and public welfare. In the modern world we are running into problems— and opportunities— that do not simply parallel biological processes; I will argue that human progress conforms to many of the same rules as biological progress. This open up new possibilities, and even obligations, for biologists in public policy.
At first glance, that may seem old hat: biologists have been advising political and industrial leaders on public policy for decades, in areas such as the environment, toxicology and product safety, medical applications, and even certain ethical issues. I am suggesting something beyond that, however, something new. I believe that biologist are uniquely poised to provide insight and remedy for much larger social problems.
Reflect that, short of extinctions and other catastrophes, our progress presents yet other threats to our security and stability. One example which the biologist can understand better than most, is the current challenge of increasing equality, with the expanding inclusion of many groups who historically have been ostracized and even persecuted.
Law of the Jungle
Equality itself is a very recent concept, and represents a major shift from the first 10,000 years of civilized history. But it is equally a shift from the 3 billion years of natural history which preceded civilization. Previously, in both savanna and citadel, the only law was ‘might makes right’. The law of the king was not all that different from the law of the jungle: ‘justice’ was whatever the powerful wished it to be. The bear could take your food, your shelter, or your life.
So could the king.
Few people, however, are aware of just how brutal life was in the past under both predator and prince. The biologist may not have considered the similarities between the two, but they will not surprise her. Nor will it be difficult for her to envision how easy it would be for us to slip back into the struggles and horrors of the past, and to understand how very thin and fragile the veneer of civilization is.
The Bourgeois Strategy
Beyond that, however, biologists in public policy can also shed light into the social crisis created by that expanding equality. A key insight comes from behavioral ecology and game theory, in the situation of the ‘bourgeois strategy’: the current animal controlling a territory or other resource will fight, perhaps to the death, to retain that privilege.
The bourgeois strategy is what we are witnessing in modern politics and business, in two variations that bookend one another. At the macro end of the spectrum, kleptoplutocrats and multinational conglomerates protect their wealth and status by whatever means necessary, including sacrificing our lives, and even fomenting war.
At the micro end, workers react with their own version of the bourgeois strategy as they will also protect their meager wealth and status with force. This response is particularly strong in the authoritarian personality, who becomes furious and menacing toward both newcomers and new ideas.
As he attacks change, the authoritarian personality looks very much like the badger protecting its foraging grounds. That is certainly understandable. What is not so understandable is a growing problem in today’s world: in his anger, the authoritarian personality will also uncritically and blindly follow the same corporate kleptoplutocrats who are obviously deceiving, manipulating, and exploiting him.
The Authoritarian Personality
To the casual observer, this secondary, submissive response to brutal authoritarian leaders would seem irrational. The biologist, however, can quickly reason out how this behavior might be the best response, as viewed through the lenses of survival, and the bourgeois strategy: in an environment where the struggle to survive is real — as it was for our very recent ancestors — the authoritarian personality will seek to protect his advantage, however modest.
And so he will tightly ally himself with the most powerful strongman around. In so doing, he will blithely become irrational and hypocritical in his thinking, words, and actions. Those of us who are not threatened only see his contradictions. In contrast, the biologist will recognize a primal response. To the authoritarian personality, this is not a polite debate. This is a fight for survival, and hence, a fight to the death.
So as small as the mouse might be, he will still defend his patch within the vastly larger territory of the tiger. True, the tiger might devour him at any point, but the mouse is wagering that the fat cat is pursuing larger prey, and larger conquest. If the mouse just stays out of the way of the tiger, the carnivore will protect him from yet other predators, those that might not find the mouse too small for a good meal.
This parallel between humans and other animals is an important point. As we will see going forward, for all of our supposed sophistication, humans often play the same games as other organisms do. When biologists analyze why non-human animals, and even plants pursue these strategies, we often find that the human explanation for identical behaviors is not rationale, but rationalization. We are not always so advanced as we think.
Fortunately, by engaging biologists in public policy, we can begin to understand not just the problem, but possible solutions as well.
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‘The Golden Spiral’ courtesy of PSDDude.
da Vinci War Chariot courtesy of Wikimedia.org.