Survival of the fairest?

Greed, in the immortal words of Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street, is good. Or, as we were told over and over again in this country during the heady days of the Bubble, we just needed to free our “wealth creators” (usually code for neo-gombeen gamblers jetting in from their tax havens) to, well, create ‘wealth’.

We all now know only too well how that played out. While the bubble may be in tatters, the ideology that underpins it – that of striving for relentless economic growth while accepting without question the ever-widening income inequality between the elite and the rest – has remained surprisingly intact.

This is perhaps because we have become so inured to both that we’ve lost the capacity to even consider that alternatives, perhaps even better ones, may exist.

“It’s ideas that determine the directions in which civilisations go,” said philosopher John Ralston Saul. “If you don’t get your ideas right, it doesn’t matter what policies you try to put in place.” One particularly toxic idea that has come to dominate how we organise our societies is that of the primacy of Homo economicus – Economic Man – the idea of humans as rational and narrowly self-interested actors who have the ability to make judgments toward their subjectively defined ends.

Adam Smith famously articulated this idea when he wrote: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” In modern economic theory Economic Man took on a more specific meaning of a person who acted rationally on complete knowledge out of self-interest and the desire for wealth.

Economic Man turned out to be a latterday Frankenstein who escaped the laboratory of academic economics and laid the world to waste in not much more than a century of relentless self-interest, insatiable consumption and heroic hubris. That’s what happens when you get your ideas wrong. But what of the alternatives? Try observing a group of small children carefully dividing out a bag of sweets and you get a clear sense that individual greed may be more a learned than entirely innate tendency.

There are powerful countercurrents of cooperation and empathy that run deep within the human psyche, and for very sound evolutionary reasons, as the article below, by Natalie Angier of the New York Times, elegantly expands….

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AMONG the Ache hunter-gatherers in eastern Paraguay, healthy adults with no dependent offspring are expected to donate as much as 70 to 90 percent of the food they forage to the needier members of the group. And as those strapping suppliers themselves fall ill, give birth or grow old, they know they can count on the tribe to provide.

Among the !Kung bushmen of the Kalahari in Africa, a successful hunter who may be inclined to swagger is kept in check by his compatriots through a ritualized game called “insulting the meat.” You asked us out here to help you carry that pitiful carcass? What is it, some kind of rabbit?

Among the Hadza foragers of northern Tanzania, people confronted by a stingy food sharer do not simply accept what’s offered. They hold out their hand, according to Frank Marlowe, an anthropologist at Durham University in England, “encouraging the giver to keep giving until the giver finally draws the line.”

Among America’s top executives today, according to a study commissioned by The New York Times, the average annual salary is about $10 million and rising some 12 percent a year. At the same time, the rest of the tribe of the United States of America struggles with miserably high unemployment, stagnant wages and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Now, maybe the wealth gap is a temporary problem, and shiny new quarters will soon rain down on us all. But if you’re feeling tetchy and surly about the lavished haves when you have not a job, if you’re tempted to go out and insult a piece of corporate meat, researchers who study the nature and evolution of human social organization say they are hardly surprised.

Darwinian-minded analysts argue that Homo sapiens have an innate distaste for hierarchical extremes, the legacy of our long nomadic prehistory as tightly knit bands living by veldt-ready team-building rules: the belief in fairness and reciprocity, a capacity for empathy and impulse control, and a willingness to work cooperatively in ways that even our smartest primate kin cannot match. As Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology has pointed out, you will never see two chimpanzees carrying a log together. The advent of agriculture and settled life may have thrown a few feudal monkeys and monarchs into the mix, but evolutionary theorists say our basic egalitarian leanings remain.

Studies have found that the thirst for fairness runs deep. As Ernst Fehr of the University of Zurich and his colleagues reported in the journal Nature, by the age of 6 or 7, children are zealously devoted to the equitable partitioning of goods, and they will choose to punish those who try to grab more than their arithmetically proper share of Smarties and jelly beans even when that means the punishers must sacrifice their own portion of treats.

In follow-up research with older children and adolescents that has yet to be published, Dr. Fehr and his colleagues have found a more nuanced understanding of fairness, an acknowledgment that some degree of inequality can make sense: The kid who studies every night deserves a better grade than the slacker. Nevertheless, said Dr. Fehr, there are limits to teenage tolerance. “ ‘One for me, two for you’ may not be too bad,” Dr. Fehr said. “But ‘one for me, five for you’ would not be accepted.”

A sense of fairness is both cerebral and visceral, cortical and limbic. In the journal PLoS Biology, Katarina Gospic of the Karolinska Institute’s Osher Center in Stockholm and her colleagues analyzed brain scans of 35 subjects as they played the famed Ultimatum game, in which participants bargain over how to divide up a fixed sum of money. Immediately upon hearing an opponent propose a split of 80 percent me, 20 percent you, scanned subjects showed a burst of activity in the amygdala, the ancient seat of outrage and aggression, followed by the arousal of higher cortical domains associated with introspection, conflict resolution and upholding rules; and 40 percent of the time they angrily rejected the deal as unfair.

That first swift limbic kick proved key. When given a mild anti-anxiety drug that suppressed the amygdala response, subjects still said they viewed an 80-20 split as unjust, but their willingness to reject it outright dropped in half. “This indicates that the act of treating people fairly and implementing justice in society has evolutionary roots,“ Dr. Gospic said. “It increases our survival.”

David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionary theorist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, sees the onset of humanity’s cooperative, fair-and-square spirit as one of the major transitions in the history of life on earth, moments when individual organisms or selection units band together and stake their future fitness on each other. A larger bacterial cell engulfs a smaller bacterial cell to form the first complex eukaryotic cell. Single cells merge into multicellular organisms of specialized parts. Ants and bees become hive-minded superorganisms and push all other insects aside.

“A major transition occurs when you have mechanisms for suppressing fitness differences and establishing equality within groups, so that it is no longer possible to succeed at the expense of your group,” Dr. Wilson said. “It’s a rare event, and it’s hard to get started, but when it does you can quickly dominate the earth.” Human evolution, he said, “clearly falls into this paradigm.”

Our rise to global dominance began, paradoxically enough, when we set rigid dominance hierarchies aside. “In a typical primate group, the toughest individuals can have their way and dominate everybody else in the group,” said Dr. Wilson. “Chimps are very smart, but their intelligence is predicated on distrust.”

Our ancestors had to learn to trust their neighbors, and the seeds of our mutuality can be seen in our simplest gestures, like the willingness to point out a hidden object to another, as even toddlers will do. Early humans also needed ways to control would-be bullies, and our exceptional pitching skills — which researchers speculate originally arose to help us ward off predators — probably helped. “We can throw much better than any other primate,” Dr. Wilson said, “and once we could throw things at a distance, all of a sudden the alpha male is vulnerable to being dispatched with stones. Stoning might have been one of our first adaptations.”

Low hierarchy does not mean no hierarchy. Through ethnographic and cross-cultural studies, researchers have concluded that the basic template for human social groups is moderately but not unerringly egalitarian. They have found gradients of wealth and power among even the most nomadic groups, but such gradients tend to be mild. In a recent analysis of five hunter-gatherer populations, Eric Aiden Smith of the University of Washington and his colleagues found the average degree of income equality to be roughly half that seen in the United States, and close to the wealth distribution of Denmark.

Interestingly, another recent study found that when Americans were given the chance to construct their version of the optimal wealth gradient for America, both Republicans and Democrats came up with a chart that looked like Sweden’s. There’s no need to insult the meat in the land of lutefisk.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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8 Responses to Survival of the fairest?

  1. seafóid says:

    We are living in another gilded age where plutocrats take the hindmost.
    What the financial crash has taught us is that most of them, unlike Oréal women aren’t worth it.
    check out the “Börsenstimmung” graph on the right. It’s a measure of optimism in the Swiss stock market and is all over the place.

    Obscene pay deals are driven first and foremost by the banking industry and rely heavily on
    “the opacity and complexity of credit derivatives – especially mortgage-related securities such as collateralised debt obligations – let deception, overpricing and ultimately fraud flourish. From this black box came the bulk of revenues and bonuses.”

    The answer is transparency
    Get it all out on a spreadsheet. Let the people know.

    The FT is pathethic :

    “Indeed, the best hope of restraining wage increases among top earners lies not in the state, but in shareholder activism. ”

    I wouldn’t mind if people got paid a little extra for performance but the financial system is broken. And so is the model of share ownership.

  2. Barry Ryan says:

    We as a species have lost the war against our darker angels. The billionaires have won – they control everything, big business, the media, advertising, politics, you name it, they own it. A more unsavoury bunch of sociopaths, psychopaths and good old fashioned fanatics you would struggle to contemplate in your very worst nightmares, but these scum are running the entire show!

    If the world has to literally burn down to finance their third Lear jet, fourth ocean-going yacht and fifth peroxide bride, then that’s a price they are quite prepared to pay.

    Everyone is shocked and appalled that the News of the Screws in the UK has been phone hacking for years, including destroying evidence in a child murder case. But who pulls the strings of the editors who engage in this form of profit-driven violence against society? Yes, the billionaire Murdoch, a repugnant anti-democrat to his crooked fingertips.

    Was it JK Galbraith who put it so well that a ‘belief’ in mega-capitalism is the bizarre expectation that the very worst of people will do the very worst of things – in the common good!

  3. For more on the (complex!) science behind co-operation, I can recommend Supercooperators: Evolution, Altruism and Human Behaviour or, Why We Need Each Other to Succeed by Martin Nowak. This is a fairly high level, “popular science” version; if you want to roll up your sleeves and see at least some of the naked maths, there is also Nowak’s earlier textbook Evolutionary Dynamics.

    There are no silver bullets here; but maybe it suggests that there genuinely are some possible sustainable futures for human(e) civilization (even if getting there from here is still going to be horrible…).

    Enjoy – Barry.

  4. John Gibbons says:

    As the title of a forgettable James Bond movie put it, The World Is Not Enough. Look at Murdoch and the corporate cancer his organisation has spent the last 40+ years spreading throughout the world. The systematic poisoning of the well of public and political discourse and the cheapening of just about everything that makes a society worth living in. All for profit and power and more profit; neither of which sociopaths like him (and lots of corporations are run by equally amoral, rancid characters) can ever – ever – get enough of.

  5. John Gibbons says:

    @Barry (R)
    Well put. Unfortunately, I think you’re on the money, so to speak. Corporations have metastasised into planet-killing automatons, managed in most cases by Type A bullies and egomaniacs. Perhaps ’twas always so? The Catholic Church is the world’s oldest corporation, and is corruption writ large. A good model for the autocratic transnational corporation, beyond regulation or control, free to plunder at will, and dodge all social obligations (such as paying its share of tax) along the way…

  6. John Gibbons says:

    @Barry McM
    Good to hear from you, it’s been a while! I might give the naked maths a skip, mind you, but your other recommendation sounds intriguing. Am currenty reading ‘Down to the Wire – Confronting Climate Collapse’, by David Orr. Aim to post a review here shortly. Maybe you’d consider reviewing the Nowak book for us? JG

  7. Paddy Morris says:

    This, ah, ‘fair and balanced’ blog by Adam Curtis of the BBC is worth a read in light of current events: ‘Rupert Murdoch: A Portrait of Satan’

  8. seafóid says:

    I have very little faith in the ability of our political/business elites to grasp the severity of climate breakdown. The News of the World and euro crisis show how decision making works under pressure. There are so many people who don’t know what they are doing. Timewasting is one of the worst failures. 30 years ago we could have followed a different economic path. Now we have less options.

    Anyway here is the Euro mess and flawed decision making in a crisis :

    “If Europe’s policymakers take the prime minister’s words to heart they will conclude that the

    time for a strategic retooling of the eurozone is approaching.

    This will be done in one of two basic ways. Europe could opt for greater fiscal union, first de facto and then de jure. Cost-effective guarantees and transfers, rather than just loans, would stabilise the region’s debt dynamics through the aggressive use of a unified European balance sheet. In return, individual countries would sacrifice a significant amount of national sovereignty and fiscal policy discretion.

    If this is politically impossibleto implement, and I suspect it may be, Europe should opt for a restructuring of the debt of the weak peripherals, recapitalising the ECB, protecting the payments and settlement system, countering other collateral damage, and restoring conditions for growth. At some stage, this could even involve a country taking a sabbatical from the eurozone – but not the EU – in order to regain the policy flexibility needed to restore competitiveness.

    Neither of these approaches is easy or pleasant to implement. Each involves significant dislocations and requires skillful damage containment – a consequence of delaying necessary but difficult decisions. But the alternative of continuing to muddle along with a discredited approach would have even higher costs, and would quickly undermine the institutional integrity of the eurozone as a whole.

    Mr Papandreou is right.It is “crunch time” and Europe is at “a fateful juncture”.The longer European officials dither, the smaller the scope for catching up with the spreading crisis.

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