The Social Organism

Social Organism

We’re living in the epoch of the individual. One of the primary narratives of the last few centuries has been the continual expansion of civil liberties and democracy, and the desire to stand out is engrained in us from the moment we’re born. But today, as the long-term future of society is being placed at risk for the sake of short-term prosperity, we’ve begun to wake up to the necessity of protecting common needs from individual ones. Having spent so long ensuring the well-being of the singular, we’re just now beginning to rediscover that the plural holds its own special power – greater, as they say, than the sum of its parts.

It’s a basic tenet of biology that life is comprised of layer upon layer of discrete entities working together to make larger units: atoms gravitate together to form molecules, which combine into proteins. Instructed by our DNA, these proteins in turn create organelles, cells, tissues, organs and organisms. Traditionally, that’s where biology ends and the humanities take over. But there’s no reason the pattern should stop there. What if we began looking for signs of life beyond the physical body? In this sense, communities wouldn’t merely be collections of individuals, but entities in their own right, with their own needs, values, and cycles that transcend those of any one member.

This hypothesis has been dubbed emergence, and it has a dedicated following among biologists, programmers and chaos theorists (there’s even an entire journal dedicated to it). Examples of emergence abound in the natural world: unicellular slime molds group together and act as one organism when food is scarce, termite mounds self-regulate their temperature far better than any LEED-certified building, and flocks of birds in perfect formation change direction on a dime.

There’s plenty of self-organizing systems to be found in everyday life, as well, from traffic patterns to the stock market. But we’re just starting to understand the way these systems affect our well-being, and we’re beginning to realize that they could be a whole lot smarter. Take the corporation, a system that’s already legally recognized as an individual. Although corporations have become an enormously successful species in their own right, they don’t seem to be serving us, their creators, very well at all. When viewed as a single organism, our sprawling, homogenous, consumption-obsessed global economy suspiciously resembles a parasite – and a grossly inefficient one at that.

What would it take for us to become less like a virus and more like a colony of ants? For one thing, it entails an understanding of the connections between things just as much as the things in themselves. Rather than trying to create sustainable objects, we should be designing sustainable patterns and self-regulating networks. The web, especially the web 2.0, is a testament to the the power of emergence in action, and can provide us with insight into bringing evolving systems into the real world. How might our political system be reenvisioned as a democratic social network? How would we do business differently if we saw each firm as a member of a market-wide species?

Needless to say, the implications of the social organism are profound, and not entirely comfortable. Thinking of ourselves as mere cells in a larger intelligent creature is a serious mental leap, and it calls into question some of our most basic notions of identity and free will. But increasing our understanding of human interconnectedness doesn’t erase the enormous potential in each person. As we guide our shared world towards a more secure future, we’ll need to strike a healthy balance between competition and collaboration, the “I” and the “we”. The epoch of the individual, then, is far from dead – it’s just evolving into something else.

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3 thoughts on “The Social Organism

  1. Historicus says:

    Individuality is a moral engrained in each member of the modern human society. The morals of the members of a certain social framework can etymologically be understood as the customs or practices that sustain or justify the given society. The word moral is derived from the Greek world mores, which was used in describing the characteristic customs and formalities of the members of society. Interestingly, mor uses the same Greek symbol in the word ethos, or in modern colloquial, ethics. The ethical or moral code of a society then can best be understood as the customs and procedures that define a social organization and hence necessarily justify the social order. In other words, the praxis of a given member of society reflects the faith of the social framework and hence justifies the existence of the society.

    The ethos and mores of feudal society can be understood at ones social role in society. A member of this social order could be a guildsman, a clergyman, a nobleman, a yeoman, a peasant, etc. Whatever the role be, they all had in common a distinct practice in relation to the society as a whole, a responsibility to the community. If a modern human were to travel back to feudal Europe and ask a humble blacksmith why he is so conformed to the guild in every respect rather than expressing his individuality, rational reservations, and personal creativity, he would not have the slightest idea of what you would be talking about. This is because feudalism was characterized by the social entity and punctuated by paternalistic ethic.

    As the mercantilists escaped the march of history by branching off the main stem and spearheading the middle class revolution of commerce and trade while the yeomanry at home enjoyed the benefits of the enclosure movements, the ethos and mores of feudalistic paternalism and social cohesion could no longer support the psychological hedonism and insatiable acquisitiveness that characterized the economics of mercantilism. The old social and ideological structure decayed while the new individualistic and avaricious Protestantism began to take root. Protestantism was characterized by the rejection of predestination and legal moralism and enthronement of the belief that faith alone guarantees divine providence. The gross ambiguities of this antinomianism allowed God to become a capitalist. The watershed of individualism and psychological egoism were evident in the writing of the time. Thomas Hobbes went so far as to subsume the entirety of human history to a bellum omnium contra omnes, a war of all against all. In his Leviathan he took individualism to be the dominant characteristic of the human species, going so far as to say that at any time humans could revert to their “natural” state if a supreme sovereign failed to coerce humanity into social submission. His ideas became pivotal to political philosophy following the emergence of capitalism. Expressed historically hereinafter in Lock, Mill, Rawls, Hume, and all the way up to Marshal, Samuelson, and Mankiw.

    Individualism was the necessary revolution in the ethos and mores of capitalism. Members of capitalist societies characteristic customs and practices are based in individualism, that is to say, members of the modern social structure are under the impression that Margaret Thatcher was talking axiomatically when she said there is no society, there are only individuals. A statement that begs no inquiry into is brute fallaciousness and gross deprecation of history. However, regardless of the fallaciousness this cultural ethic, individualism is a necessary requisite to a capitalist system. The treadmill of production is driven by the profit motive that in the early development of capitalism is driven by the willingness of demarcated individuals to invest in capital and production, as competitive capitalism inescapably becomes monopolized, investment decisions become concentrated pari passu with the centralization of capital. In order for the treadmill of production to continue, corespective behavior is required between multinational conglomerate corporate investors. In essence the capitalist class becomes socialized while the working class remains in the mythical interpretation of reality. Not to say that capitalists become enlightened beyond what Joan Robinson calls the “first degree of self-consciousness”, that is, the awareness of social cohesion between humans in a neoclassical framework, but that capitalists realize the potential benefits of collusion, cartels, and gentleman’s handshakes. The manifestation of collusion within the individualistic capitalist framework, however, undermines itself in what is often referred to as the “tragedy of the commons” or the “prisoners dilemma”, for if one person stands on their seat they will get a better view, but when everyone stands on their seat no one gets a better view—hence the conspicuousness of a culture where everyone says at the time, “I’m an individual”. The economic consequence of such a framework is a capitalist class in constant turmoil from the contradictions of collusion within a self-seeking individualistic ideologue and a hoodwinked working class under the impression that humans have ceased to be a social creature.

    In nature variation amongst individuals is in fact advantageous to species, for useful habits can be pioneered by nonconformist individuals. Some members may be more adventurous, daring, and curious than others. Trying new methods and strategies for satisfying habitual tendencies, some particular genius may find out a new source of nourishment and the discovery is disseminated by imitation throughout the species. However, originality and individualism are useful to the society insomuch as they are the exception and not the rule. In the modern capitalist society individualism has transcended the rule and become ethical and moral requisites. At the least it can be concluded that if the coldly calculating psychological egoist is to go, capitalism must go too.

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