This book is about evolution and emergence. The author points out that nothing in biology makes sense except in the context of evolution and extrapolates that variation, selection and environmental pressures can explain much of how developments in human societies happen. He makes clear that he is not talking about “social Darwinism” or any of the deterministic ideas so often badly used a few generations ago, but societies are indeed subject to evolutionary principles. Science tells us what is, but not what ought to be. Einstein said that your theory decides what you can observe, determines what is even within the decision universe. When things do not make sense in our theory, our model, we often do not perceive them at all.
Theories and mental models determine what we can see
Our dominant model of society has been physics, machine like. Evolutionary interactions are not important in this model. But the physics model is only a sub-set of complex human societies, which do indeed evolve. Our mistaken assumption is often that we assume direction and planning, when this is not necessary in emergence. Evolutionary pressures give direction and incentive, but they are not planning.
You can often do before you understand
He points out that you can have competence in doing something w/o comprehension of how or why it works. This is a very simple but very profound idea. And very often competence precedes comprehension. A big mistake of the “new math” I learned as a kid is that they tried to make us understand before we used math. As I learned math later, you just practice until it makes sense. It does not make sense first, except maybe for those few prodigies among us.
Some things are designed, others develop and some just happen
The author makes a distinction among things that are designed, those that are developed and those that are just created by conditions or randomness. He tells a story about hiking in the woods. If you hear a crash and look up to see a bolder rolling towards you, appropriate action is to get out of its way. This is a physical and not an adaptive force. Now consider the same crash. You look up and instead of seeing a rolling bolder, you see a charging grizzly bear. Your appropriate response is surely not the same. Your response to the bear is developed, interactive. Your response to the bolder is mechanical. Now consider a snowflake. It seems designed, but it is merely the result of conditions. A snowflake is not designed or developed to do anything. It just is.
In a prescientific world, people believe that everything has meaning, that everything happens for a reason, because they believe they live in a designed world. This is a comforting view even, especially, in life’s hardships. This idea is the basis of our believe in the balance of nature. It is comforting to think that there is some sort of default condition, something nature would return to if we “let nature take its course.” It also allows us to criticize the “sin” of others against nature.
Nature, however, is not and never in harmony. It is always out of balance, disturbance dependent and always becoming. Traits exist because of historical processes: contingencies and random events. Outcomes are influenced by environmental factors and constrained by many of them, but the outcomes we observe are not destiny.
Adaptive better than adapted
An organism that is perfectly adapted to its environment is fragile because environments inevitably change. Being adaptive is better than being adapted. This goes for human and “natural” environments. I put natural in quotes, since what we call human and natural are just subsets of the total. They are not distinct except in our formulations.
As I was listening to this part of the audio book, I was spraying some of my pine trees to fight an outbreak of turpentine beetles. I was changing environmental conditions in hopes of frustrating the breeding and population expansive of these little nasties. My own land ethic informed me that it was the right thing to do; it also constrained how much I put on. I wanted to do the minimum. The decision was informed by science that told me that the chemicals I used would produce an outcome I desired. Had I not observed the affected trees, or reacted in the way I did, the forests would be different in a small way. If the beetles could think it through, they would call me a contingency, maybe a constraint.
How can altruism emerge?
The author explained how altruism could emerge from organisms in competition with each other. Individual organisms would have incentive to benefit at the expense of others. But the unit of evolution is not always only the individual. In isolation, selfish individuals will enjoy advantages over their more generous competitors. This does not happen in group settings. Selfish individual beats generous individual, but cooperative groups beat selfish ones. Cooperation can develop because it helps the group. The danger is cheaters and free riders and human groups and all social species, have developed systems to catch cheaters and freeloaders. I often say that reciprocity, not generosity, is the basis of civilization. This is evidence.
Humans are very cooperative
Humans are extraordinarily cooperative compared with any species besides social insects. It is amazing that we can (usually) walk safely among strangers and get the things we need from them w/o the need for coercion or deception.
A big problem for all sharing and social societies is the “tragedy of the commons,” whereby each individual has incentive and even pressure to take as much as he/she can from commonly held assets, even when everybody can see that the resource is being depleted or destroyed. This is illustrated in common pastures and fisheries. There are examples of successfully overcoming the commons problem. The most common effective method is to create stable property rights, but the author also gives examples of groups that were able to figure out how to share. These are usually bottom up affairs that emerge rather than are imposed. They allocate the resource in ways that member consider fair and they have mechanisms to detect and punish freeloaders and cheaters. One size does not fit all, and they need to adapt to change. This can be hard, and some do not make it.
Evolutionary process need not be random. We humans can “intelligently design” the process, if not manage all the parts. The key is the goal. We do not specify, cannot know all the steps. Think of the process like a toolbox. When the plumber or carpenter shows up at your house to fix a problem, he has a box of tools with different ones appropriate to different tasks. He does not specify which tools before assessing the problem, but he is reasonably confident that his abilities and tools will be sufficient for the task.
The book finishes with a discussion of mega-societies and super organisms. An individual body is made up of “cooperating” cells. They work for the common good. Those that do not are problems, cancerous. Similarly, social insects form super society. The author thinks that humanity could be moving in this direction and thinks it would be a good thing.
I was with him for much of the book. The ideas make sense and I believe that emergence is the most powerful factor at work in our world. I do not share his enthusiasm for humanity becoming a super organism. As we said about, science can inform us about what is and what could be, but our values determine what ought to be. I just don’t see an ant hill or a beehive as a laudable goal for humanity. I prefer a little more disorder and even suffering if that is the price of freedom
But that is my main caveat. I found the book very informative. There are lots of things I did not write about, such as his discussion of epigenetics or cultural learning process. Those are worth topics too, but I did not want to write a whole outline. Read the book. It is worth the effort.