The Orderly Anarchy of Nature, Dixit Dawkins

February 23, 2007

It is well known that nature has been the source of inspiration or outright supply of much of our human technology. There is very little avenue of discovery that has not already been trodden by other species, sometimes more efficiently, sometimes less. But I would like to submit that nature has more to teach us about politics than we might think; and here I am not alluding to the persistent comparisons between a certain politician and certain species of chimpanzees.

All life on this planet came from common ancestors. That much is an ironclad fact, for it still stands after more than a century of constant potential falsifications. How that process of evolution works, if it has a leisurely tempo or a staccato one, is still under debate and yet to be discovered. This should not overly concern us in this context.

What can this possibly have to do with politics? Market Anarchist Theory tells us that a centre of coercive control leads to twisted incentives, immorality, and ultimately a dysfunctional society. Although it is a vast oversimplification, one can reduce it to the sound bite "absolute power corrupts absolutely." Insofar as control is desirable at all, it must start from a foundation of moral agency.

Obviously, moral agency does not apply to the vast majority of the animal kingdom. Most organisms, including humans to a certain extent, are moved by instinct. Only the extreme complexity of the primate brain has managed to somewhat break that mould. We cannot say that species have politics, except in the most metaphorical sense. We cannot say that ants are communists or that beavers are capitalists, and such ideas merely serve to feed wanton anthropomorphism. In the animal world, there is no such thing as voluntary action or coercion, only instinct.

No, this is not what I mean by nature informing politics. The phenotype--the concrete expression of the genes--cannot tell us anything about dynamics. To understand where the real cooperation resides in evolution, we must look at the level of the genotype. It is the genes that are selected for, that survive and perish, and the organism is a giant machine dedicated to the reproduction of those genes. This is shown, for instance, by Hamilton 's Rule: when one organism's "sacrifice" can further the reproductive capacities of siblings to a great enough degree, adaptations will tend towards it as a most optimal strategy.

This is not, by far, an original view. It has been popularized most notably by Richard Dawkins, popularizer of science and leading man in the movement against religion and faith. It is as the former that I quote him here. In his masterpiece Unweaving the Rainbow, he devotes a chapter to analyzing the good and bad metaphors used to describe cooperation in nature. While discussing this, Dawkins makes an interesting analogy:

. . . the point I am making is that genes, for all that they are the separate units naturally selected in the Darwinian process, are highly cooperative. Selection favours or disfavours single genes for their capacity to survive in their environment, but the most important part of that environment is the genetic climate furnished by other genes. The consequence is that cooperating suites of genes come together in gene pools. Individual bodies are as unitary and coherent as they are, not because natural selection chooses them as units, but because they are built by genes that have been selected to cooperate with other members of the gene pool. They cooperate specifically in the enterprise of building individual bodies. But it is an anarchistic, 'each gene for itself' kind of cooperation.

Unweaving the Rainbow, pp. 217-218, emphasis mine

One should not unduly read politics in Dawkins' comments, since he is, after all, a supporter of democracy. But he inadvertently points to a profound truth, which is also the central insight of all of science and social organization: to paraphrase Proudhon, that atomistic processes are the genesis, not the end result, of order. This is both a central insight and very difficult to understand for people who can only understand the simplistic model of centralized control as a means to achieve order, and I suggest that this also applies to the misunderstanding of Neo-Darwinism and Market Anarchy as well.

The idea that "selfish genes" (in a metaphorical sense of course) could achieve, after millions of years, adaptation on the scale of a human body, with all its complexities and interdependency, is mind-boggling. So is the complexity and interdependency of the market. Although he sadly may not realize it, the fact that millions of people come together every day to contribute a tiny little part of the whole that manufactures such mundane items as pens and pencils all the way to nuclear reactors, as dramatically illustrated by the famous essay "I, Pencil," by Leonard E. Read, is just as awe-inspiring as the other items in Dawkins' book.

Not only do genes, only moved by the law of survival and gradual improvement, cooperate to an astonishing degree, but they also organize themselves, either through new innovations in genetic change (such as body symmetry or sexual reproduction), or through the organisms themselves (as ants' nests eloquently demonstrate). Dawkins himself describes a sublime example of how basic individualist self-interest can lead to intricate cooperation networks, in chapter 10 of Climbing Mount Improbable, the complex relationship between wasps and figs.

Evolution also resolves some public good problems, even at the level of the organism. A great number of species provide for their common defence with alarm call systems, sometimes very detailed ones. Some species of birds have vast communal nests with dedicated rooms. These things cannot make no sense if we start from the premise that central control is necessary in order to effect public goods. In the end, we can look at ecosystems, which also have no central control, only the adaptation of species to fulfill various necessary roles.

We know about the Reciprocity Limit in Market Anarchist, which is to say, that primitive Market Anarchist groups are limited by the amount of repeated contact individuals have with each other. We now know that the Industrial Revolution, thanks to widespread division of labour and new modes of communication and transport, cracked the Reciprocity Limit and created the amazing markets from which we now benefit. The Limit explains why genes and organisms of other species do not cooperate as much as humans do, post-Industrial Revolution. Dawkins inadvertently notes this phenomenon as regards to genes:

It is not the genes of any given individual that cooperate particularly well together. They have never been together before in that combination, for every genome in a sexually reproducing species is unique (with the usual exception of identical twins). It is the genes of a species at large that cooperate, because they have met before, often, and in the intimately shared environment of the cell, though always in different combinations. What they cooperate at is the business of making individuals of the same general type as the present one.

Unweaving the Rainbow, pp. 213-214, empasis mine

As for the State, comparisons with actual parasitic species might be fruitful, but no non-human parasite, to my knowledge, has the ability to convince its victim that it is acting in its best interests. This is a distinctly human invention.

Evolution, therefore, is the ultimate expression of cooperation through adaptation. We must, therefore, see the term "Social Darwinism"--which should rather be called "Social Neo-Darwinism," if one is to follow with the times--in quite a new light. The general public objects to "Social Darwinism" on the grounds that the strong dominate and the weak perish. This is, on the face of it, true, but not in the way they think. Certainly strength in the evolutionary sense cannot be physical strength, otherwise the humble earthworm, or the frail hummingbird, would never survive. In the long-term view, strength is the capacity to keep flourishing in the face of changing circumstances, in short to adapt, and weakness is the incapacity to keep flourishing. Physical strength is only one way to adaptability.

The same is true of societies and cultures. Social institutions and systems that try to control the individual lower the adaptation potential of that society, and institutions and systems that try to support the individual and cooperation heighten that potential. And whatever affects the potential of a society affects the life of every single individual within that society.

Some may reply that, despite cooperation, "nature is red in tooth and claw." This is correct, but not a detriment to the process of evolution. Even humans have not yet found a way to transcend the need to harvest vegetable and animal prey for food (at least, not until we invent synthetic meat). Predation is a necessity of biology, and we humans have mastered that down pat. We just haven't quite mastered the cooperation part yet.

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Francois Tremblay's picture
Columns on STR: 12

Francois Tremblay blogs at Check Your Premises, is co-host of the Hellbound Alleee Show and has self-published a book called The Handbook of Atheistic Apologetics.