Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Science supports ancient wisdom

Amazingly, the real answer to our endless political and social failures may be found among the religious leaders of millennia ago. The problem is, perhaps, that the way they communicated their insights does not obviously translate into practical solutions that modern rational people can accept. That is a pity because as I shall attempt to show, these ancient insights coincide with the conclusions of some very up to date and even scientific understanding of the way people behave, what they need and how they are motivated and interact with one another.

I have elsewhere asserted that the purpose of politics (the business of collective decision making) is to maximise the prospect of all people achieving their maximum potential - as full human beings, to flourish and blossom as humans. This is far from easy and we are very far from achieving it now.

My starting point to finding a better solution has been to take the purpose stated above as the definition of the problem, rather than any surrogate, examples of which include maximising freedom or wealth or whatever. These are always over-restrictive, but by starting with the flourishing of all human beings, we begin with our focus firmly on, well, us - what it is to be human, our strengths, weaknesses, needs and our potential.

Focussing on human beings rather than econometrics or contracts is the first disarmingly simple insight that the ancients pointed us towards. In modern terms, this means starting with human psychology, behaviour and even biology, but not excluding more subjective understandings of what it is to be human: literature, poetry, stories, personal experiences, music, drama and all other arts should play their part because it is only with the full arsenal of our collective mental abilities that we can build the full picture of a human being that we need. I cannot say much about those things, but I can comment on the contribution of science.

The science of behaviour understands that all species can be described by their own unique species-character. As the eminent behavioural scientist Edward Wilson points out, human behaviour would be regarded as so aberrant among ants that any ant displaying it would surely be criminally insane (anthropomorphising for dramatic effect). Conversely, of course, any human displaying ant-character would be regarded as at least odd and most likely end up receiving psychiatric treatment (if they were lucky enough to live in a society where that was available). An extreme example to illustrate a point, but it is worth emphasising - at the most basic level, we all share human species-character and it is unique to us - homo sapiens.

What then is this unique and unifying character? Well, the most striking feature to me is that humans are psychologically and therefore socially very adaptable indeed. Unlike ants (or the abstractions of people used in economic and political models), we are most characterised by our ability to adapt to the social, psychological and therefore cultural environment in which we live, so we adopt and display very different characters depending on our circumstances.

Because a constant feature of human character is interaction (sociality), people everywhere and throughout history take part in networks of interactions in which they both influence and are influenced by each other. This kind of network is by now much studied and comes under the scrutiny of complex systems science. Though it is more usually applied to interacting machines (e.g. computers), species in an ecosystem, neurons in a brain or abstract agents (in theoretical studies), it is also used in the study of human society. Those who study these complex networks of interacting agents have found that they always give rise to 'emergent properties'. These are features of the system as a whole (agents plus their interactions) and constitute new phenomena at the system level - making the system more than the sum of its parts.

In the case of human interactions, this extra system property which emerges from all the interactions is identified as culture. Thus we can interpret culture as the result of very large numbers of interactions among people, which act to reinforce their behavioural responses. A classic illustration of this phenomenon comes from the 'games' used in the study of economic behaviour - usually called game theory. In most of these examples, a particularly successful behaviour, which may be displayed only rarely at first by a few agents, will spread through the natural effects of 'rewards' and 'punishments' (points representing success or failure in individual interactions). The usual outcome is one in which all agents eventually share in common the successful behaviour. This might be achieved by eliminating those which fell below a certain credit of points, or more naturally for human beings, by their learning from their mistakes and from each other in their interactions.

Of course that is just an abstract over-simplification of human culture, but it does serve to illustrate several important principles. Firstly, culture is a natural emergent property of human social networks, it is not naturally or usually a deliberate invention imposed by the most powerful people. Where the latter has occurred, it was generally reversed whenever the power or influence enforcing it was defeated (more on this later). Secondly, it generally pays to behave in line with the culture, to go with the flow, as this reinforces an individual's success. Once a culture is established, any new individuals born into it will take on its characteristic behaviours, else they lead difficult lives. Thirdly, this reinforcement of individual behaviour by the culture, in turn reinforces the culture itself, since it is made up of nothing more than the sum of behaviours of its members. This gives cultures a tendency for vicious or virtuous circles, what system scientists call positive feedback and psychologists call reinforcement and what makes economies grow.

In a nutshell, before you get bored with all the technical language, what I am saying is that we can organise society to promote selfishness, or to promote selflessness and through the workings of emergence, that is how people will be. We presently live in a global experiment along these lines. Unfortunately, the behaviours being promoted in our global society are those of selfishness, since it is the trait of competition which is most valued in modern life. The reason for that is that many years ago, economic theorists realised that competition led to optimal efficiency and business leaders, longing for such efficiency, did everything they could to promote this trait.

We desperately need to find a way to re-orientate our system because powerful feedback forces are already at work making life a misery for all. Given the complex-system nature of society, the best place to start is with yourself and those whom you influence ... just like the ancient religious leaders said.

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