Being the giant mitochondria of that planet we call ours

A few words in the editorial

I had one day of break from writing (family occasion), and now I am plunging my brain back in that evolutionist bath I have been taking for the last few weeks. I am thinking about the fundamental mechanisms of social change. In terms of social construction and demolition, we have three basic tools, as a social species. Firstly, we can define and attribute social roles; secondly, we can collectively produce group identity; thirdly, we can arrange patterns of access to the most valuable resources. As strange as it might seem, this is it. This is our entire toolbox, as it comes to engineering one of the most vital systems in our existence, namely our society. Now, as I take that evolutionary stance I have been developing recently, it is all about sex and reproduction. In the first place, we reproduce ourselves: human organisms. A new human organism is born through the interaction of two older organisms: the female and the male. The female organism mixes its own genetic material with that supplied by the male organism, and grows a new specimen out of this mixed genetic material. The male is specialized in packaging and disseminating its own genetic code.

Preferences make structures. The more stable and complex are those preferences, the more complex and stable are the resulting structures. I explain. We, humans, as many other social species, form networks and hierarchies. It is possible to form a hierarchy by sheer force, where the stronger simply impose their will to the weaker. Still, hierarchies made just by brute violence are usually unstable, see gangs in prisons, for example. For a hierarchy to last, and thus for a whole social structure to maintain its cohesion, we need something more. In management and sociology that something is frequently designated as ‘leadership’. There is a whole evolutionary theory, represented, for example, by professor Jordan Peterson from the University of Toronto, whose point is that hierarchies are based on sexual and reproductive preferences. In the process of sexual reproduction, males and females get chosen for mating. That choice has a pattern in it: certain individual characteristics are much more preferred than others. Individuals who possess a relatively large repertoire of desirable characteristics become more valued as members of the society, and acquire higher a position in social hierarchies.

Whilst this is a coherent theory, there are some impolite facts, which just come and contradict it. I know it, believe me. There are impolite facts who come and contradict my own, beautiful theories, all the time. Facts just don’t know how to behave. Facts are weakly socialized. Anyway, the most important fact that comes and puts its muddy shoes on this precise table is the multitude of hierarchies. If we are in a tribe of chimps, the hierarchy is simple and unique. Chimps can do with a single mechanism of hierarchy-forming, based on a single preference function in mating and reproduction. On the other hand, we, humans, we tend to live in much larger communities than chimps, and in those large communities we have many hierarchies in parallel.

Interestingly, the long historical perspective shows us a gradual change in the multitude of human hierarchies. Hunters-gatherers lived in small groups, essentially structured in a single hierarchy. As they settled, farming cultures appeared, and hierarchies started to breed. In the very beginning, it was a distinction into religious hierarchies and the military ones. Then, business started to generate its own hierarchy. At a certain point, the ability to maintain a relative stability in those basic hierarchies gave rise to another, different hierarchy, the political one. Political leaders have usually been selected for their ability to maintain law, order, and smooth running of the business. Political hierarchies combine the capacity to muster complex social support, mostly observable as legitimation (consent that this is the Best President of All Times, earlier having existed as divine support for the ruler) combined with economic power. The feudal society was probably one of the most internally differentiated in terms of coexisting hierarchies. With the advent of absolutism, that flurry of coexisting and mutually overlapping hierarchies started to simplify. The constitutional state brought with it a further simplification, based on the essential distinction between formal hierarchies, regulated by positive law, on the one hand, and the informal ones, based essentially on custom and private preferences, on the other hand.

In some respects: yes, we are a simplified version of the most complex society known, the feudal one. Still, hierarchies are not all of society. There are networks of cooperation, too. Here, we come back to social roles, group identity, and access to resources. In a complex social structure, every individual has like three sets of coordinates: a set of social roles, another set of appurtenances to social groups, and finally the set of effective and enforceable claims on resources. Social change means, at the most fundamental level, that social roles, group identities and access to resources get reshuffled. Social change is also a process of transformation in the set of hierarchies in place. I am going to take a risk and connect these two dots: social change means a double rearrangement, one inside hierarchies, and another between hierarchies. By the way, isn’t it fascinating, how hard it is for us, humans, do describe our own social structures? In physics and chemistry, we make those sharp distinctions between different particles and molecules. Even in biology, when we essentially describe the living matter we are made of, we easily get to distinctions between types of cells and tissues. Still, when it comes to apprehending our social structures, we leave the world of simple distinctions. It looks as if defining the elementary particles of a society was much harder than defining the elementary particles of universe. Intriguing.

Anyway, the whole point of evolutionary theory in social sciences seems to be the possible translation of the evolutionary mechanisms, observable at the biological level, into the social reality. There is a twofold intuition behind it. Firstly, we can coherently assume that the fundamental biological mechanisms of selecting the mating partner, and thus forming an elementary hierarchy of mating partners, can be reproduced in more complex forms. We use the fundamental patterns, wired in our brains, to form big social structures. Secondly, most cases of social change are those of gradual emergence and progressive diffusion, ultimately ending in absolute domination, of one structural pattern (individual roles, group identities and access to resources) to the expense of another one. It suggests some kind of generational change, on the one hand, as well as some kind of rivalry between species, where the fastest breeder wins, on the other hand.

There is some kind of blurred landscape in the evolutionary theory: the concept of purpose. My private impression is that back in the day, when the Darwinian concepts, together with the modern empirical science, were elbowing and biting their way through the nearly fossilized world of philosophy based on Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, some kind of temporary compromise emerged between the two camps. The conservatives agreed to admit the existence of evolution in species, but there just had to be some kind of metaphysical cherry on the top o that cake, and the cherry was purpose. OK, we agree that them apes evolved, but they got to have a purpose in this. Our Creator must have assigned some purpose to all that process. This is probably how the bizarre, hybrid notion of purposeful evolution has emerged. The common-folk approach to evolution is precisely that: we evolve with a purpose in view. We evolve towards something. Today, the concept of intelligent design is probably the most manifest expression of this compromise between empirical science and metaphysics.

With time, I have become cautious in discarding metaphysics. At the first scientific sight, they just seem to be ignorance dressed elegantly. Still, many a metaphysical reasoning, like the philosophical notion of logos, for example, turn out to have a deeply rational side, with just too little empirics to make it fully accountable. On the other hand, any amount of empirics requires some linguistic meaning to be intelligible and there, man, metaphysical thinking just pops up from under every stone you turn. The notion of ‘matter’ as opposed to ‘energy’, or the distinction between ‘space’ and ‘time’, are quite illustrative examples. Thus, whilst the concept of purposeful evolution is obviously metaphysical, I am cautious in rejecting it, as there might be a sensible bottom line to it. I discard that notion to the extent that the purpose we usually ascribe to evolution is somehow strangely concordant with the current social ideas in fashion. When conservatives win the elections, they claim the purpose of evolution is a better world based on religion. When progressists have the upper political hand, they claim evolution has the purpose to create a better world based on science. All that sounds nice. I love the idea of a better world. Only one question: how the hell can we know what that better world will look like?

I am giving two examples, to illustrate my doubts about purpose in evolution: cereals, and electronics. This is a patent fact that cereals – rice, wheat, rye, and company – have become the foundation of settled societies, the prime food of farmers. We use to say that we farm cereals. Now, an annoying fact comes in and puts its dirty feet on the table, once again. None of the cereal plants is a champion of survival in the wild, undomesticated form. Wheat or rice, without human help, would have never stood a chance to become those huge monocultures, wiping out entire ecosystems made of other organisms. We made those particular plants much more successful, in purely biological terms, than they could ever become without farming. We use to think we farm cereals, but maybe cereals are farming us? Absurd? Well, review the facts once again. They feed us, we feed them. Additionally, we have put together a whole system of breeding them. I had an interesting insight once, in a museum. I tried to grind rye in a quern, a hand-propelled device to grind grains into flour. Bloody exhausting, really. The guide to that particular museum told me that before the introduction of mills, the water-powered or the wind-powered ones, grinding grains in querns was a tricky trade-off: you could very well expend more energy than you gained from flour. So we invented mills, which allowed us to grind grains more efficiently, which pushed us to grow more grains. Who farms whom, here?

Similar story with electronics. We use to think and say that we make and use electronics. Still, if you just compare the amount of energy we put into making and maintaining those microscopic microchips with the amount of energy we get out of their usage, the bottom line is not really obvious. Take China. They are literally flooding the world with electronics, but as a society they still starve slightly, 74 kilocalories per person per day, on average. You take Vietnam, and the gap between the output of electronics and the caloric deficit goes even deeper. The more electronics they make, over the last decades, the less they starve. They need to make electronics in order to have food. We consider electronics as a tool in our development, but it could very well turn out that we are a tool in the development of electronics. Sounds Matrixish and Terminatorish, I know. Still, look at the facts and think.

What is our evolutionary purpose, if any? In science, it is commonly assumed that purpose is rationally defined by function. We can set a purpose regarding something we are really good at. I would say that we, humans, are champions of energy. We excel at starving, for example. A human can outstarve most non-hibernating animals of comparable size, and even some microorganisms. Do you know that when we really mean business in fasting, I mean when we fast for many days, we can kill some bacteria in our bodies, and survive until the next meal? We can literally starve better than them. How would you call a machine, which can reduce its own consumption of fuel to a very low level, virtually zero, for many days, and still keep running, and still be able to jump, on demand, onto any new portion of fuel available? Very energy-efficient, probably. Class ‘A++’, in refrigerators. And smart, on the top of it.

We can starve and invent new ways of harnessing energy from our environment. Historically, we have been constantly meddling with combining many ways of transforming energy. Our muscle plus ox muscle, plus horse muscle, plus wind, plus water, plus Red Bull etc. It is all energy being transformed by our ingenuity. In the first year of undergraduate studies, students of psychology learn that emotions are very literally the energy system of our psyche. No emotions, no activity, sorry pal. Emotions are channelled chemical energy, on the other hand. Some neurons fire, they call some others on synapses, they gang up together, and they generate a complex biochemical state we call ‘alertness’, which then turns into ‘activity’. In order to do that, they need the emotional equipment, or the injection of hormones. Evolutionarily, the human frontal cortex, the source of individual intelligence, together with the power unit called ‘body’, could very well turn out to be among the most efficient tools in combining and channelling energy from many different sources. That could be our evolutionary purpose, if we have any: being the giant mitochondria of that planet we call ours. How do you like such a purpose? Frightening? Maybe. Still, if we are stubborn in assigning purposes to functions, this is one of the avenues we can very plausibly take.

Leave a Reply