EDITORIAL, 24 Dec 2018
People often wrongly interpret the process of natural selection – which drives the evolution of living species – by the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. However, the latter phrase can be highly misleading – for two reasons. One reason is that ‘survival’ may be wrongly understood as ‘survival of an individual’, whereas the correct understanding should be ‘survival and continuation of a species’. The second reason is that a criterion of ‘fitness’ is left unspecified in the second phrase. If these two potential errors are avoided, ‘survival of the fittest’ can be brought into agreement with ‘natural selection’.
To avoid the first of these potential errors, we must focus our attention on the species rather than an individual member of a species. In modern terminology, this would mean that – even in this ‘age of the individual’! – attention must be paid to the health of communities.
The second potential error, however, requires a little more effort to avoid. We need a definition of ‘fitness’ that is ‘natural’ – a definition, in other words, which is consistent with the process of birth, nurture, growth, decay and death. Indeed, since this process captures the true and natural meaning of life, we need a criterion of fitness which is consistent with all of life.
A summary view of the process of evolution can provide us with useful guidance.
If the earliest single-celled organisms had not been extremely fit in a biological sense, the advent of life on this planet would have been short-lived. Even today – some four billion years after their emergence on earth – single-celled organisms are doing rather well. In their ability to adapt and to reproduce, these organisms are truly unmatched. Anyone doubting this statement need only consider the emergence of varieties of drug-resistant bacteria in hospitals around the world.
The fitness that these organisms have demonstrated for so long – and continue to do so – can be described as economic use of available resources of sustenance. It is reported that when amoeba are placed in a Petri dish containing a sugar solution with varying concentration, the amoeba move towards regions of higher sugar concentration. Presumably, that organism finds it easier to survive and grow where the sugar concentration is higher. Reproduction follows as a natural consequence.
In general, smaller and therefore less specialized species are economically fitter than larger and more specialized species; termites are economically fitter than the wild ass, for example. A similar argument applies also to species of algae, plants, fish, crustaceans and so on. Plants are economically fitter than animals because they can make direct use of sunlight and water – both abundant resources. Plant seeds are much more durable than animal eggs, and one plant produces far more seed than a single animal produces offspring. Thus the criterion of economic fitness is seen to hold true in nature.
Throughout the long period of evolution, the criterion of biological fitness has driven the process of natural selection. But biological fitness is necessarily also economic fitness, in the sense of efficient use of life-sustaining resources. Any lack of economic efficiency is punished, either directly by forces of nature, or indirectly by competing individuals of the same or other species.
The broad evolutionary process as outlined here prevailed on earth for billions of years – until about a hundred thousand years ago and the emergence of Homo Sapiens.
Today the ostensibly dominant species on the planet is ours, Homo Sapiens. The actions of this species are having a major impact on our biosphere, and therefore the newly coined term Anthropocene is being used to describe the geological epoch starting with the industrial revolution.
In the Anthropocene epoch, it appears very likely that the only bigger land animals which will avoid extinction or near-extinction will be the ones reared by humans as livestock, for economic reasons – as serving the human economy. These are animals such as cattle, poultry, horse, camel … and so on.
Being more adaptable, smaller animals – on land and in water – will thrive even when not reared by humans. They also provide essential ecological links in agriculture and in the rearing of livestock. In this way, the smaller animals will survive and thrive ‘under the radar’ of human economic activity; from the point of view of planned human economic activity, their role will be indirect.
The entire ecology of planet earth will become affected to a very large degree by the economic activity of Homo Sapiens. But the natural criterion of biological fitness will continue to apply to lower organisms which live ‘under the radar’ of human economic activity. These lower organisms will continue to adapt naturally to human-moderated eco-systems; being less specialized, they will be biologically fitter than humans themselves. Indeed, throughout the period of evolution, it has probably been never the case that the dominant large species have also been biologically the fittest ones.
By adopting ‘heavily protected lifestyles’ using their enormous intellect and ingenuity, Homo sapiens create conditions which diminish their own biological fitness. However, as we have noted, in a very fundamental sense biological fitness also has to be economic fitness. If a person spends, for example, a million dollars a year to live in a luxurious and protected environment, then from the point of view of biological fitness the million dollars a year may well be an enormous waste of resources.
From this perspective, recent economic theories are seen to be the pathetic works of limited human intellect failing to understand living economics – the economics of Mother Nature. We may say that a few millennia of greed and lust often disguised as religion and civilization is going against the grain of four billion years of natural economics which has worked so successfully.
One imagines arrogant Victorian-age gentlemen – puffed up with early discoveries of science and easy loot from colonies – announcing proudly their project of ‘conquest over nature’. A couple of hundred years later, as we enter the Anthropocene era, it appears that the conquest will be illusory and short-lived, as long as the deadlier unnatural forces of greed and lust remain unconquered.
The economics of death, powered by greed and lust, is thus pitted against the economics of living nature. It is not very difficult to predict the outcome. In the near future, given that enormous amounts of greed and pride have been driving the economics of death, it can be predicted that all that misdirected energy must burn itself out before a semblance of sanity is restored.
We have heard about squirrels storing nuts in preparation for a harsh winter; and similarly humans also prefer to put something aside ‘for a rainy day’. Fair enough. But squirrels are not known to ‘go nuts’ over their stored nuts. Sadly, humans do go completely nuts over what they put aside – and they invent all kinds of stories about civilization, religion, race … et cetera … to camouflage their madness.
In the meantime, it may be noted that Homo Implacatus – the latter word meaning ‘discontented’ – is a more suitable name for the species which has wrongly been named Homo Sapiens.
A corollary of the above argument is that excessive economic inequality in human society is wasteful in a biological sense. Suppose person W – for ‘wealthy’ – consumes 100 times more resources than what is needed to meet his or her needs for a decent life, whereas person P – for ‘poor’ – consumes only half of what is required to meet similar basic needs. From the point of view of biological fitness, both A and B are missing out on the ‘the optimum middle’ which is consistent with natural sustainability.
It is often proclaimed that – just because he or she ‘commands more resources’ – person W must also be ‘morally superior’ to person P. However, in terms of human psychology, very little separates the two. The wealthier person has extra cunning, wealthier friends and relatives, and much more ‘freedom’ to be uneconomical in his or her utilization of resources. All other claims pertaining to moral or cultural superiority are, on critical examination, found to be self-serving and unsustainable.
None of the ‘extras’ available to the wealthier person contribute to his or her biological fitness. There is no fundamental reason why a poorer family cannot bring up its children well – and there is no guarantee that a wealthier family will always bring up its children well. Children’s upbringing is also an aspect of living economics, and love is a far more essential ingredient than material possessions.
A fairer economy would avoid excessive exploitation and extremes of inequality; it would also avoid any systemic negligence in the upbringing of the next generation. Such an economy would be in harmony with the living economics of nature, which has sustained life on earth from ‘day one’.
Sadly, that worthy goal remains out of reach as long as people proclaim loudly that ‘greed is good’.
We may consider a specific recent example. The subprime mortgage crisis in the US was caused by the fact that greedy but naïve people were cheated and exploited by greedy and cunning people. Naturally, the former were in much larger numbers, since that is a characteristic of economic exploitation. That entire episode of ‘mega-greed’ – including the ensuing government bailouts – damaged the overall economy of the country and worsened the deep schisms running through the society.
After studying such episodes of ‘mega-greed’, it would be difficult to argue that ‘greed is good’.
The so-called ‘modern science’ of Economics is totally out of sync with living economics, which is the true economics of Mother Nature. The ‘fake science’ of Economics keeps inconvenient costs out of its books of accounts, and always comes up with wrong diagnoses and wrong prognoses. Nonetheless, because of the ignorance and greed of political leaders, this ‘fake science’ rules the roost.
We must hope for a smooth transition from the economics of death to living economics. However, far too much psychic energy has already been invested in the unnatural theories which justify exploitation of nature, exploitation of fellow human beings, and economic gain through bloody conflict.
A painful denouement, or catharsis, is therefore inevitable – as has happened many times in human history. As before, such periods of violent house-cleaning are followed by rationalizations, often based on hoary books. A competition ensues among ‘scholars’ to show who is cleverer, or which hoary books have been proved right. Madness born of greed gets classified as ‘a higher form of civilization’.
Sadly, a morbid dance of greed and lust seems to be hardwired as one potential expression of the human genome. In any historic age, the actual expression of this potential is usually disguised as some form of ‘higher civilization’ – quite simply because the undisguised reality cannot survive the light of truth. Five thousand years of recorded human history vouches for this morbid potentiality; and possibly even the unrecorded prior period might have been no different in that respect.
We cannot naïvely expect that this morbid potential will not express itself in the Anthropocene era.
However, there will be one crucial difference from now onward – and a major reason for hope. That crucial difference is a far higher level of awareness, understanding and wisdom all around. We may call this a globalization of awareness, understanding and wisdom.
People around the world have suffered the depredations of the morbid potential of unrestrained greed and lust. Once people understand its true nature, they will be better able to devise defence mechanisms which are founded on creativity and compassion.
While the short-term outlook may appear bleak, over a longer term it may become much more difficult for the 1% to exploit the 99%. All myths of superiority – based on race, caste, ideology, nation, God’s will, religion, manifest destiny … or any other such blah blah blah – may be exposed and rejected.
The huge imponderable at present seems to be the following:
In the coming decades, which form of globalization will have more influence over human lives – that of finance, power and violence, or that of awareness, understanding and compassion? The latter would be in harmony with the living economics of nature, while the former represents the economics of death, which is nothing but camouflage for the greed and lust of Homo Implacatus.
Dr. Naresh Jotwani is a semi-retired academic living in India and a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. Apart from part-time engagements in engineering education and consulting, he engages in an in-depth, personal exploration of how Gautam Buddha’s profound discoveries and teachings can be applied to the acute problems of modern life.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 24 Dec 2018.
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