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« Why can't we give love that one more chance? | Main | How is representative democracy working out for us in the modern world? »

February 07, 2008


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Leo Laverdure

An interesting question, not often asked. After all, one of our strongest foundational myths tells us that America is the "city on a hill" that has a special, exceptional role to fulfill in the world. Since this plays to our vanity and gives us license to throw our weight around internationally, why should we question it? I look forward to additional posts on this topic, especially concerning the alternatives that might work better than representative democracy.

A secondary question would be, assuming we can find alternatives that appear superior on paper, how could those alternatives be brought about? Under what circumstances could they be tested with real people faced with governance decisions impacting their life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness? And why would the governed, including not only anti-intellectuals but also those suffering from the I'm-supposed-to-know-everything syndrome, agree to this governance? I suspect we would have to experience a society-wide breakdown far greater than any malaise we might now feel. If so, such a situation would be ripe for other less desirable alternatives, too, especially totalitarianism. Or do you foresee an evolutionary path to the better alternatives?

George Mobus


Your last question/sentence sums it up nicely: "Or do you foresee an evolutionary path to the better alternatives?"

That is where I am headed.




I'm pretty sure this wheel has already been invented ...

It seems to me our evolutionary past suggests an answer, a social model that was tested in real life, by real people, for 190,000 years or so. It seems to me that one thing that makes a species, a species, is that its members evolve a characteristic way of life. I'm pretty sure homo sapiens evolved a characteristic way of life, an evolved, characteristic way of life available to examine, to study, and to learn from.

Since our current experiment, with its manifest side effects, has only been going on for 5% of our species' time on this planet, I strongly suspect that our species-specific, evolved social behavior is still encoded in our brains, still in our gene pool, and still available for us to use if we ever decide to end or modify our recent experiment.

I had an interesting conversation about this with a primate scientist a few months ago:

Along those lines, a few years ago I had a brief opportunity to chat with Spencer Wells, whose reconstruction of human genetic history I find fascinating. I was reminded of that chat when I read this new conversation with Wells at ScienceBlogs:

I'm pretty sure we can find useful clues about our future in our evolutionary past and our evolutionary present.

Fascinating topic! Thanks for bringing this to our attention.


George Mobus

Spot on etbnc! We need to understand our evolutionary past in order to grasp what has worked and what might work.

My suspicion, however, is that humans have continued to evolve, sympatrically through various forms of sexual selection and assortative mating. I rather suspect that Homo sapiens sapiens is actually quite different from what we were prior to agriculture and animal domestication. We know this is the case for things like lactase production in adults. But I will be blogging in the near future about a few other less obvious behavioral aspects that may have evolved over the last 10k+ years.

More importantly, I am looking at some possible futures for human evolution given our current genetic endowment and selective forces that may soon come to bear.

Rather than going BACK to some long-ago social order based on Pleistocene or early Holocene cognitive and emotional capacities I am interested in looking forward at potentials and possible scenarios. To assuage any worries that I am embarking on inventing a new social order (we've see quite enough of that), I must say this exploration is based on principles of emergence and hierarchical cybernetics rather than beliefs or ideologies. I am interested in evolutionary development of more efficacious governance of society that is reflective of exactly the kind of evolution of the human brain. To whit: the brain evolved much stronger strategic layer controls (prefrontal cortex explosion about 100k ybp). Our forms of government, coupled with market economies and capitalism, are barely out of the coordination layer. But more on that later - I don't want to give away the punchline.



I think it allows to me to introduce some "sympatric" evolutionary ideas of my own. Some things that are interesting, in that they wouldn't seem to be needed for basic survival first.

Musical ability, and appreciation of music. There must have been some pretty strong selection that was probably unrelated to a narrow view of fitness.

A tendency towards religious belief. This looks like on a small scale that it helps with social cohesion, but on a large scale we have seen some serious effects.

A tendency for reckless pursuit of power -particularly among males. For a large part of our history this sort of behavior must have paid off genetically. I suspect that 99% of the time it was detrimental, but in those rare cases where the individual wins the struggle for power, the number of available females became quite large -and generally the male descendents also had access to large numbers of concubines. If this is true, it should be disturbing, for it means that some pretty destructive tendencies have been favored by evolution.

David Horton

Dean Inge said "Democracy is only an experiment in government, and it has the obvious disadvantage of merely counting votes instead of weighing them" which is sort of what you are saying in this excellent post. The problem of course is deciding what weight one does give, and who is doing the weighing. As you say, at various times in history (and today) different groups (women, youth, workers, slaves, different ethnic groups, non-land-owners, former convicts) have had no say in government because they were not perceived, by those in power, as deserving a vote. Curiously, of course, in no case was the actual ability to vote based on intelligence or knowledge an issue, if it had been the ruling classes would mostly have had their own vote taken away.

And democracy? Well, I think largely subverted now. Those who want to obtain power have learnt how to do so, and how to retain power, by manipulating the levers (sometimes literally in the case of Diebold voting machines) of democracy, including the knowledge base, and therefore retaining a facade of democracy while undermining it. Sadly America inherited such a poor electoral system compared to those in most western democracies, that its elections seem easier to subvert than elsewhere.

George Mobus

The exploration of the adequacy of democracy, especially representative democracy, will be continued in the next post. My big question is: Is democracy an appropriate form of governance when the environment of the governed system, indeed the system itself, has become so complex and fast-paced?

The question boils down to a concern that our world has evolved beyond the capacity of a democratic process to manage.

Stay tuned!


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