Monday, November 30, 2009

Diagonal Economy 4: Compatibility with Human Ontogeny

Humanity evolved into its current biological state in a far less hierarchal social and economic environment.  However, it is important to recognize that our world, our culture, and our economy are not now strictly hierarchal, and have never been strictly non-hierarchal.  Hierarchy is a matter of degrees, and humanity has been surrounded by a shade of gray when it comes to hierarchy.  Manuel de Landa, in his “1000 Years of Non-Linear History,” does an excellent job of illustrating this spectrum—from geology to “primitive tribes” to modern financial systems, there has always been a mix of hierarchal and non-hierarchal structures.  I belabor this point now because, in the past, my arguments have often been criticized as advocating for the impossibility of a purely non-hierarchal system.  That was not, nor is it now, my intent.  Rather, I hope to show that the degree of hierarchy in our current system is problematic for many reasons—here, that it is incompatible with our ontogeny, our evolutionary course of development—and that we will realize many benefits in a system that is less hierarchal.

The core argument—unfinished, but that I’m developing in this post—is that our biological selves will be more compatible with a less hierarchal civilization, and that our civilization will be more sustainable and egalitarian as a result.  How do we know what is best for our biological selves, anyway?  I’m operating here on two theories: 

First, that human civilization is subject to several evolutionary mechanisms, not merely DNA as is commonly thought.  These are:  DNA, our biological “hardware”; our psychological programming that operates on this hardware but that is the product of our upbringing, our environment, and our conscious choices (see Leary’s “imprints” and Robert Anton Wilson’s work on “meta-programming the human bio-computer”); and our cultural programs (both cultural “software” such as religion, morality, political systems and “hardware” such as our geography and built environment).  While I’m quite confident that it’s possible to rapidly breed changes into our DNA (and, in fact, I think this is currently happening due to social stratification and absence of any serious survival challenge in Western societies), I think that approach is too morally dangerous to consider further (though I’m open to opposing views here).  Therefore, I’m operating on the assumption that our DNA is a fixed constraint.

Second, I’m operating on the broad assumption that much of our physiology and brain hardware operates best in environments, and under conditions that are roughly analogous to the environment in which we evolved.  For example, we find more satisfaction in creative problem solving and start-to-finish handcrafting than we do in pushing the same button on an assembly line 8 hours a day; we are able to handle roughly 150 personal relationships fluently (Dunbar’s number), significantly beyond which, or below which we tend towards psychological symptoms of alienation and depression; we respond physiologically better to fire light than fluorescent; etc.

Admittedly, there’s a lot of room to dispute these assumptions an their application, and I have far from offered a rigorous proof of their validity.  I’m not arguing that we must abandon hierarchal institutions because their dissimilarity to the environment of human ontogeny is the sole cause of our impending downfall (though I do think it is a major root cause of the critical Problem of Growth).  Rather, I am arguing that we should at least explore the potential to improve human civilization by modeling our environmental conditions after key elements of our ontogeny.  And that’s where the Diagonal Economy comes in.

First, a quick note on what metric I’m using for measuring quality of life:  optimization of median happiness within a permanently  sustainable framework (in terms of human, not geological or cosmological time scale, aka several thousand years +).  I don’t claim that this is an objectively measureable value, but only that, for now, this is the subjective value I’m keeping in mind when considering the appropriate balance of hierarchal and non-hierarchal systems with relation to human ontogeny.

In one example, our levels of material consumption may be so “sticky,” so difficult to voluntarily abandon even if we are aware of the long-term consequences, because this consumption acts as a coping mechanism for alienation from our ontegeneological environment.  Conversely, reconnection with key ontogeneological features may address the Problem of Growth (that our civilization is structurally biased toward an unsustainable perpetual growth) by making us happier with less.  The distributed economic production that will characterize the Diagonal Economy has the potential—if we consciously make this a goal—to make our networks of personal relationships more aligned with that in our ontogeneological environment.  Similarly, it has the potential to allow all, or at least many more of us to be self-employed, to work on more flexible schedules, to work at more cohesive and fulfilling tasks, etc.  To the extent that these features make us more satisfied with our lives even with less material consumption, it may also allow us to “work” less (less consumption to pay for) and “play” at our hobbies, our families, our communities more, which will act as a positive feedback loop further strengthening our happiness and the cohesiveness of our personal connections.  This feature can certainly be seen in “primitive” societies, and also in many modern but poor societies (e.g. Cuba or rural Brazil) where familial and community bonds remain strong.  However, absent powerful, networked economies and broader awareness of these forces, these examples are easily supplanted by expanding hierarchal systems.  The Diagonal Economy provides the promise of sufficient networked strength to resist such advances of hierarchy, and also to gradually grow within geographic areas currently controlled by hierarchal states.

Finally, and perhaps a bit more “new-age-y,” I intuitively feel that a return to an environment more similar to our ontogeneological environment will facilitate the further evolution of our psychological software—call it spirituality, call it perception or a shift in consciousness, call it the “occult,” whatever label fits, I think it will be very important for the long term trajectory of humanity to move closer, as a group, toward enlightenment because this may be the most effective safeguard against tyranny and unsustainability.  There have always been scattered individuals or small groups that have exhibited this ability, intentionally not defined here, but their minority status and frequent disconnection from economic power and resiliency have prevented a widespread political and economic shift away from growth-oriented hierarchal models and toward truly sustainable and fulfilling societies.  I think that the Diagonal Economy has the potential to combine those traits.  Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Aldous Huxley’s ultimate novel “Island” is an example of the potential of such widespread spiritual/consciousness advancement, and also the perils of such advancement when disconnected from an economic base (or, as with Pala, when tied to a Cartesian/geographic “state” identity).  In that sense, it may be valid to think of the Diagonal Economy as  Huxley’s “Pala,” but without defined territorial borders and closely integrated to a powerful, networked economic mode of production.


Al Eggen said...

Jeff, excellent post, looking forward to more on the diagonal economy. Some quick comments:

In my experience, having "enough" allows the freedom to do other, useful and rewarding things. However, if "enough" is to mean something more reasonable than having one level more riches than I have now, it will require a major basic change in our society's values. Then the diagonal economy can have some reasonable goals.

Another change required is a much closer connection to the natural world, to all of life. Lots of ways of looking at this, perhaps as part of spirituality. Certainly the essentially
universal elements of compassion, caring, inclusiveness found in religions - and in our DNA - but ignored by our society will be needed for success over 1,000 year time frames.

On the subject of DNA: don't even think of messing with it! Dangerous, sorcerer's apprentice stuff, even worse because potentially there's money to be made.

Joel said...

Hmm...not so sure I agree with your first sentence.

I was under the impression that some groups have doubled or quadrupled the number of amylase gene copies since their ancestors started building granaries.

Also, there seems to be the potential for a rapid shift in a population's genes when individuals begin to keep harems or to practice jus primae noctis.

That said, I guess I agree that most of our instincts were established in less-hierarchical times, and the bulk of the adaptation has been cultural rather than genetic.

Jeff Vail said...


I think that genetic evolution was continuing quite rapidly at the dawn of civilization--the rapid shift may have even accellerated genetic evolution right around the transition to agriculture, urban living, etc. However, to the extent that there is no longer a fitness-based impediment to surviving long enough to reproduce, genetic evolution (at least as far as I understand it) has now ceased. Admittedly, there are many instances today where this is not the case--third world countries broadly, or with regard to specific diseases even in first world countries. However, while there may be some genetic evolution continuing to compensate for things like specific diseases, it seems that there is little evolutionary pressure to evolve, for example, into a more intelligent, faster, or more perceptive species. For example, one can be well below average in all three of those traits in the US, yet still fully expect to live long enough to reproduce. In fact, for various demographic and societal reasons, such a sub-average individual may even be more likely to pass on their genetic material.

For these reasons, I think that it's fair to say that, generally, genetic evolution of the type that evolved the human species has stopped. It's an interesting discussion to talk about how and why our genes may still be changing, but I simply can't identify a selective pressure that could be "evolving humanity towards" a higher being, etc.

Of course, I'm no geneticist, and this is just my simple understanding based on limited reading and study. My guess is that, to the extent that we agree on what we mean when we say "evolution," we also agree that it has stopped. However, I would be earnestly interested in hearing opposing views...

Finally, re: harems or primae noctis, I think this may be a better example of breeding than evolution. You can breed a new type of dog in only a few generations, whereas evolution normally takes much longer than that. I *do* think that humanity is breeding into a broader spectrum due to demographic and economic factors (don't think we can call it speciation, at least not yet), but that's a different mechanism than evolution...

bryant said...

Hi Jeff,

As to the continuing evolution of modern humans, I would point you to an interesting and modest read by Gary Paul Nabhan called "Why Some Like it Hot". It is about food and how quickly populations evolve in response to local foods.

(Nabhan served as Director of Science at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and co-founded Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit conservation organization that works to preserve indigenous southwestern agricultural plants as well as knowledge of their uses.)Wikipedia