“He wondered about people in houses like those. They would be, for example, small clerks, shop-assistants, commercial travellers, insurance touts, tram conductors. Did they know they were only puppets dancing when money pulled the strings? You bet they didn’t. And if they did, what would they care? They were too busy being born, being married, begetting, working, dying. It mightn’t be a bad thing, if you could manage it, to feel yourself one of them, one of the ruck of men.”
George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying
In the book Psycho Darwinism; Dr Christopher R. Badcock (oh he of the perfect name) synthesizes the works of Freud and Darwin’s theories on natural selection. As part of the study, they create a computer program to simulate the effects on society of three types of person: altruistic, tit-for-tat and the purely selfish.
Game theory already predicates that a tit-for-tat approach is generally the most successful. When you’re walking down a street and find someone walking directly towards you, your brain fires up. The pair of you realise that you cannot walk at one another without potential pain and/or embarrassment; so you both attempt to move out of the way. All done with little conscious thought involved. The only unfortunate thing being, that you both generally choose the same direction and still bump into each other.
In the computer simulation a number of scenarios were tried out. If society only contained the selfish alone, they would eventually turn on one another for resources. Likewise, if the world only contained the altruistic, everyone would die to help one another before themselves.
The world where we all do unto others as they do unto us, i.e. the tit-for-tatters; is a chaotic place. Balance is hard to find, as should one group respond in a selfish manner, it spreads like a water drop on a tissue to the rest; acting in much the same manner as a virus.
The same situation happens with the altruistic and the tit-for-tat group; but in reverse to the selfish, with the same poor outcome. The vast majority of people fall into the tit-for-tat group; neither purely altruistic nor entirely selfish.
We humans are not filled with envy and greed; we’re generally a mixed bag of great hearts and small wallets. We’re animals and spent a long time in competition which one another for resources. That is what is inbuilt; a lack of altruism via need. But as everyone is aware; the vast majority are not greedy, just concerned that they can look after themselves and their families.
The simulation, as predicted, works best when there is a balance in the groups that make up our society. A small amount of pure altruism, together with a dash of avaricious greed and the vast majority responding to others as they respond to you. A buffer zone of tit-for-tat forever keeping the urge for suicide and murder at bay. Neither virus spreading too far as to threaten extinction.
“The ancients knew that the world was very old. They sought to look into the distant past. We now know that the Cosmos is far older than they ever imagined. We have examined the universe in space and seen that we live on a mote of dust circling a humdrum star in the remotest corner of an obscure galaxy. And if we are a speck in the immensity of space, we also occupy an instant in the expanse of ages.”
Carl Sagan, Cosmos
The world is changing. Countries and people are connected more than ever. The job market has become more fluid. Globalisation, the process of opening the world to trade, communication and other essentials for providing a safer world is distorting the face of everything we know. We don’t know who we are or where we stand. Or even if we will have a job next week.
Working people are concerned about their job security, the ability to provide for themselves and their families. Parochial politicians would have you believe that the struggles are because of local immigration; or that we spend too much on making sure the most vulnerable are cared for. The picture is much larger; it is one on a world scale. The troubles we are having here in the UK are mirrored in the poverty and corruption elsewhere in the world.
Globalisation is an ongoing process and is far from complete. The world is going to continue to change and unless our politicians, leaders, thinkers and business people start to consider more than simply the world as it lies now, but also what it will look like in 20-30 years, we may find ourselves horribly unprepared.
We do not know how the world will look in 20 years time, but we can have an influence on it right now; by having a considered and longer term vision. The wealth gap between the rich and poor is widening. Entrenching the attitude of us against them, to not cooperate; is a recipe for disaster. Much like the computer simulation of only the selfish; we will turn on one another for more.
In some ways we already have. A Chinese company who make components for the major mobile phone companies, technology that has become ubiquitous to our way of life; has previously installed suicide nets to stop the over-worked and stressed employees killing themselves whilst on shift. We are not paying attention to our actions; others are suffering for our wants.
Are we the selfish group then? Well, to put it simply, no. We, in the UK, have a National Health Service to serve all and a social security system to protect the vulnerable, sick and elderly from the storms of society. We understand the need for cooperation, even if only on a tit-for-tat basis. So why apparently do we act in such a seemingly selfish manner?
When the tit is unable to tat; there’s a piece of us that is relieved. In relief we shrug and forget and chalk it up to the few times we might come out on top. At least we didn’t shaft the altruistic. But we are exploiting others and that exploitation won’t be shrugged off. Do you shrug off someone over charging you, or hitting your car and driving away leaving no insurance details?
We need to be careful and considered, that we don’t overstep the boundaries of getting one up and metamorphosing into the selfish. Then we may well eat each other.
In Orwell’s, Keep the Aspidistra Flying; Gordon Comstock, the protagonist, tries as he might to make it as a poet. Shunning all material possessions and thoughts of money, he throws himself into his work. He lives a life of abject poverty, until having a damascene conversion.
Poverty is an uneasy concept in the West. We talk of relative poverty as opposed to absolute; the idea that some people are impoverished relative to society, or that some are impoverished outright. When initially I think of poverty, I think of the slums of Rio, the shanty towns of East Africa, the poverty in rural India or China. It’s hard to consider poverty locally, when globally it seems far harsher and more prevalent. However, it still exists locally and people should not have to go to a food bank to stave off hunger.
We are a globe. An excellent planet filled with over abundance of life, sustenance and variety; all sustained by being the perfect distance from the sun. Just enough distance not to fry, nor too far away to freeze. We could and do live and work just about anywhere. But, the global workforce has become easily out-manoeuvred; global companies and the richest few can hold countries to ransom, on a local basis. Whenever we talk of increasing income tax in the UK, the cry is ‘they’ll go elsewhere with their money and jobs’. Because they can. Workers aren’t quite so lucky to receive such preferential treatment. In the blink of an eye they could be jobless, homeless and even placed in severe danger.
In Europe, we have faced a refugee problem not seen since the end of WWII. Normal, everyday people are being uprooted through horrendous civil wars, such as currently happening in Syria. Through oppression and corruption; as with the authoritarian regime and secret police in Eritrea. Everyone needs to care for themselves and their family. Most of my family are immigrants in some way, escaping either the Nazis or the oppression of the Soviet Union.
Immigrants and refugees rely on the tolerance and acceptance of others; without they are prone to demonization and suspicion. We are all very much alike, whether from the UK, Syria, Mongolia or even France. We all have the same needs and desires, the same lack of altruism through need. There is no shame to have to move to feed your family, or keep them safe. It’s human.
“In a home it is the site that matters; in quality of mind it is depth that matters; in an ally it is benevolence that matters; in speech it is good faith that matters; in government it is order that matters; in affairs it is ability that matters; in action it is timeliness that matters.”
Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (Book I – VIII)
These are just a smattering of the issues we stand to face as an inhabitant of this planet. Global issues that require global attention. So what answers are there? What can we do?
Look to the future but not forget the history of how we developed as a species. Understand that the world is likely to undergo vast geographical changes. With population increasing, there is likely to be increased poverty and with it increased migration; yet the same attendant needs to provide for yourself and others even when your part of the world is failing.
To solve these issues requires cooperation. Embracing the world on its true scale; creating institutions that protect everyone worldwide, rather than only provide a forum for repressed anger, self interest or grandstanding. Demand more from politicians, demand vision and a plan. Not just for now, but for the future. And above all, demand more from yourself. Understand the nature of humanity, understand that we are not innately greedy, just survivors. Our nature demystified by Darwin quite some time ago:
“When on board H.M.S. ‘Beagle,’ as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species—that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers.”
Darwin, On the Origin of Species (1859) – The first paragraph.