The idea that human society can be compared to a single organism has a long pedigree, from Aristotle’s Politics to Hobbes Leviathan. Words such as “corporation” (derived from the Latin for “body”) and phrases such as “body politic” reveal how useful this comparison is.

Yet, the analogy is deeply ambivalent. It is alluring to be part of something larger than ourselves, with a higher purpose, to which we can both contribute and be nurtured by (like the UNION the Federalist Papers offered). But it is threatening to be expendable for the common good, like our bodies routinely sloughing off skin cells or citizens being compelled to fight wars for kings.

Either way, society as an organism is no longer just a metaphor. Everything that we call an organism is a highly cooperative society of lower-level elements, so much that we see the whole more than the parts. In modern evolutionary biology, the concepts of “society” and “organism” have truly merged.

This degree of cooperation requires mechanisms to suppress disruption from within, which are never completely effective. Even multicellular organisms, after hundreds of millions of years of natural selection, remain vulnerable to cancers that spread at the expense of the common good and ultimately lead to their own demise.  Indeed, our own destructive behaviors, which benefit lower-level units at the expense of the global common good, are the societal equivalent of cancer.

Can a human society be an organism in the benign sense while avoiding the dark side? Yes, and there’s an argument for why the human social organism must be that way. Biologists distinguish between two types of organism. In one type, called fraternal, the lower-level units are genetically highly related, such as the cells in our body. Highly self-sacrificial behaviors routinely evolve in these organisms, such as programmed cell death.

In the other type, called egalitarian, lower-level units are not necessarily genetically related. The only way for them to cooperate is to insure that the benefits and costs are fairly distributed. Nucleated cells evolved in this way—as symbiotic communities of unrelated bacterial cells. The genes in our bodies strictly regulate their expression for the common good and their fair transmission to the next generation. Biologists even call this regulation a “parliament of genes”.

The human social organism is of this variety. In our distant ancestors, the members of groups were not necessarily close kin. Productive cooperation depended upon being very good at enforcing fairness. That was the original human “Constitution”, which turned tiny groups of hunter-gatherers into UNIONS, capable of out-performing less cooperative groups or thriving better in harsh environments.

Nearly everything that is distinctively human is a form of cooperation made possible by enforced fairness.

But evolution doesn’t automatically make everything nice. Our fairness-enforcing moral instincts are adapted for small groups and can fail in larger groups. The suppression of disruptive self-serving behaviors is never complete. Leaders are prone to abuse their power. And cooperation within groups can become a form of collective selfishness in battles against other groups.

Ten thousand years of cultural evolution has impressively expanded the scale of human cooperation to levels that could not have been imagined by our distant ancestors. But that only expands the scale of destruction as nations, giant corporations, and other leviathans battle for dominance, heedless of their cancerous effects on the whole earth. Achieving the final rung of cooperation, a UNION that encompasses the whole world, will require becoming wise managers of cultural evolution.

Read the full series “Darwinizing the Federalist Papers” below:

  1. Preamble
  2. On the Origin of Socialist Darwinism
  3. More Perfect UNIONS Must Regulate Their Parts
  4. The Human Social Organism and a Parliament of Genes
  5. Morality Regulates Our Social Physiology
  6. The Darwinian ‘Struggle for Existence’ is Really About Balance

Image: “Human Hive” by Julia Suits

Published On: July 25, 2019

Publius

Publius

In the spirit of the Federalist Papers, Publius is a collective pseudonym for the group of people organizing this collection of essays.

One Comment

  • Steve Davis says:

    A parliament of genes?

    Come on now.

    This excellent series of articles will not be helped by borrowing meaningless throwaway lines from a dreamer with a tenuous hold on reality. More to the point, Hamilton’s work was prompted by his fascination with eugenics and served the cause of individualism; it had nothing in common with these articles.

    Here’s the context of Hamilton’s babbling; “First, there had come the realisation that the genome wasn’t the monolithic data bank plus executive team devoted to one project – keeping oneself alive, having babies – that I had hitherto imagined it to be. Instead, it was beginning to seem more a company boardroom, a theatre for a power struggle of egotists and factions. I was having to imagine, in parallel with others, a kind of parliament of the genes ..My own conscious and seemingly indivisible self was turning out far from what I had imagined…I was an ambassador ordered abroad by some fragile coalition, a bearer of conflicting orders from the uneasy masters of a divided empire…As I write these words, even so as to be able to write them, I am pretending to a unity that, deep inside myself, I know does not exist.”

    And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

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