Balance of nature, politics and society, off topic:
We used to have the phrase “balance of nature.”  The observation was that foxes needed something, we’ll say rabbits although they are rarely what a fox eats, and would starve without it.  But if you removed the foxes (assuming no other predators), the rabbits would become overpopulated and starve.  But in fact both survived and seemed well fed.  I can no longer think about population size without thinking fertility, but that was not the usual attitude.  It seemed a nigh miraculous balance existed and was robust against most disturbances. 

We no longer hear about nature’s “balance” because nature is obviously very much off balance these days.  But there was a time when the idea seemed self evident.

For a couple of years, now I have given a lecture at a science fiction convention.  This year there was a mix up and I was not scheduled.  I’m on the schedule for next year.  My topic was the fitness of the universe for life.  Of course there is plenty of interest in the fitness of life forms, but they are nothing without an environment. 

Most people who think about it are struck by how nicely the universe is poised to accept life.  Many things have to be right that are.  In particular there is something called the “fine structure constant” that has to be just right.  It is a function of a few other fundamental constants, which seem to be rather unrelated, but when ground through the equation come out as this conveniently placed but rather arbitrary looking fine structure constant.  People didn’t talk about it much.  It has since been revealed that the fine structure constant varies over the known universe, so we are not quite so lucky as we thought.  There might be an enormous real – although shrouded from us – region where we could not survive.

For a year I looked at everything about the universe that might have made us feel at home, and when I wrote it up it appeared to me that the universe was survivable, but was not so hospitable after all.  There was no reason why there had to be life, even if it was possible.  Yet here we are.  There had to be some undiscovered principle to encourage us.  Since it was a science fiction event I speculated on what that principle might be and how it might be a setting for a story line.  Life and mind enduring I plan to toss the result your way in a year. 

While I was writing the matter up, I was struck with something about Darwinian evolution.  It is competition.  It is pure competition.  There is no cooperation at all except when that cooperation results in the advantage of other life forms that share many genes with the one cooperating.  Then there is “altruistic punishing,” pretty much limited to people I guess.  It is the curse of the apple, of the knowledge of good and evil.  It turns out that if people sense somebody else is doing wrong they will go out of their way to make life hot for him.  In traffic total strangers will line up door by door across three lanes of a three lane road and hold their positions for miles if they think somebody wants to get by going a trifle faster.  They will do more extreme and dangerous things.  Anything to punish the evil doer.  (That’s my observation.  Usually these things are tested by getting volunteers to play games in which it is possible to choose whether to cooperate.)This is thought to have something to do with maintaining the functionality of a human society.  But these things are exceptional.  By and large Darwinian evolution is all about competition.

But there are those foxes.

So I was forced to consider that life depends on cooperation as well as on competition.  There must be both in some form or another.  Our standard view is distorted. 

Then there is the political sphere.  Now many years ago there was a country called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR.  They were communists.  They seemed to be a threat because they seemed to want to export their communist ways to the rest of the world.  And communism is all about cooperation.  That is what stuck in the craw of the real world.  We didn’t like that.  We believed in freedom.  So we resisted them at terrible cost. 

Somewhere along the line we lost track of freedom and our position became capitalism.  And capitalism is all about competition, unbridled competition.  Eventually communism, I suspect for demographic reasons – they tended to break up communities and ship people around in the name of cooperation so that of course their mating strategy was more than usually random and their birth rate suffered – the USSR collapsed. 

That seemed to validate capitalism.  Suddenly capitalism was the only thing.  Competition was king.

But that’s silly.  A society does best if there is competition along side of cooperation.  It is a matter of striking the right balance.  And like nature, we are very unbalanced. 

When I was a child a construction worker (in that time and place usually a Black man) might make a dollar fifty an hour or say $3,000 a year.  It doesn’t sound like so much now, but it was survivable then.  And generally his wife would work, too.  She could do housework for white women.  The typical white household could not afford her every day, but there were plenty of white folks to go around, so the family income was maybe $6,000 a year.  Meanwhile the owner of a successful business or a doctor might be earning $20,000 a year.  That was enough to higher help full time.  The wife would not work.  I can remember three rich families, two White, one Black.  They were, or were thought to be, millionaires.  At 2% interest they could live as well as the doctor and not have to do a lick of work, but they did work and lived more splendidly than the rest of us.  And of course there were a few town characters who made less than minimum wage and it was more or less the hobby of people to keep them alive.  But with trivial exception, we were all middle class from an economic standpoint and from a social standpoint as well.  Everybody worked.  Everybody lived in a detached home.  Everybody married and stayed married.  Everybody concerned themselves with the education of the children.  Income tax was graduated so that the more money you made the harder you had to work to make the next dollar.  And if you made little, there was a legitimate chance you might be able to increase that, or at least you children could.  There were plenty of bad things, of course, but not everything was bad.

Nowadays they say that half the wealth is in the hands of 1% of the population.  The middle class, once the only thing in sight, has become an endangered species.  It’s great for consumers, but only if they have a job.  But it is no longer true that a child can expect to be more prosperous than the parents. 

What happened?  Competition happened.  Some got very wealthy.  Others went into relative and finally absolute decline financially.  Meanwhile the sturdy work-hard love-long learn-deep middle class values are less in evidence.    

We now have a couple of revolutions going on at the same time.  One can only guess and fear about the future, but today they are named “The Tea Party,” which is resisting government intrusion and pretty much seems to want a clearer field for competition and the “Occupy Wall Street” movement which seems to want to challenge capitalism at its root. 

I think it is clear that we have moved in a direction nobody would want to go.  It seems to me that the problem is that there has been a competition between competition and cooperation and competition won.  But we need both.  I wish somebody I could vote for would say that.

And of course there is the matter of society, of social group.  Once in this country social groups were a matter of course.  They are no longer.  Of course one can only sympathize with the Balmiki people who traditionally were obliged to work at such things as carrying human waste away in buckets on their heads with no expectation of more interesting work for them or their children forever. 

It seems to come down to a sort of competition-cooperation balance again.  The social order must be robust enough to assure a sufficient number of people marrying kin so that the population does not simply die out, yet it should be flexible enough so that individuals have a chance to improve their own sense of happiness and to contribute more to the value of the overall society. 

Just a thought.

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