Athens & Sparta


Roughly 2400 years ago, the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, two Greek city-states, ended. Sparta won, but the war was a disaster for both sides, economically, politically, in loss of life, in damage to their culture and spirit.
     Athens had the most advanced culture of its day (in the west, at least). It was a democracy, run by and for its citizens, with a rich cultural life in music, dance, theatre, visual arts, literature and philosophy. Sparta, a warlike oligarchy, put the state ahead of its citizens. Spartan citizens were supposed to farm and fight, and not much else.
     As history this is a considerable oversimplification, but it illustrates a general question: does a state (like Sparta) whose raison d’être is competition (war) have a competitive advantage over a state (like Athens) that’s set up with the primary purpose of providing its citizens with the best quality of life? At first it would seem obvious that it does, but then comes the reflection that citizens might fight better when they’re happy and healthy, well-informed and in charge of their polity, when they have a life worth fighting for.

Biological evolution uses a simple process, simple enough to be almost crude: try making a random change in the organism, and if that random change gives it a competitive advantage in surviving and propagating, the change is kept; otherwise it’s lost. The process is very slow because changes are few, the vast majority of changes kill or disable the organism, and because it takes many generations for a successful change to establish itself.
     The competition between Athens and Sparta was part of an evolutionary process, but one that works very differently from biological evolution. The war can be seen as a competition of ideas – cultures and organizing principles. If we see this through the prism of the biological model, the war is a mechanism for evaluating the relative fitness of the two cultures, and the culture that produces the best results in war will be the one that survives.
     Ideas are the DNA of society, and the ones that make up morality are the most important of them. This is the real basis for morality. Theft and murder and the like degrade a culture’s evolutionary fitness, so we make up myths and philosophies against them.

The idea of the body politic dates from the era of the Peloponnesian war – it can be found in Plato’s Republic. A culture (a city) is comparable to the human body. People in the city are like cells in the body, with highways like the bloodstream, police like antibodies, the Internet like the nervous system.
     Nobody thinks that the human body is set up to provide quality of life for the cells that constitute it (whatever that would mean). Why should a culture be set up to benefit people, beyond facilitating their survival? Isn’t the criterion for a culture’s survival its fitness to survive, not the quality of life it provides to humans? I’m arguing not that we shouldn’t try to maximize our human quality of life, but that we may be forced to do otherwise. The evolutionary process doesn’t care about our quality of life but incidentally, only so far as it helps us win the wars and other contests.

There is a strategy in game theory called minimax, which refers to maximizing the minimal possible outcome. The idea is to make the move that gives the best end result if everything afterward turns out as badly as it possibly can. This keeps the worst of all possible outcomes from being catastrophic.
     The biological strategy that evolved humans is in a sense the reverse of this, the idea being to develop the minimal-quality biological unit that can be knit together to achieve maximal results. Biological evolution developed humans just to the point where they became good building blocks for the body politic. From this point on, biological evolution is inoperative for humans, since we adapt our environment to us rather than the other way around.
     It’s possible that, if left alone, biological evolution would have improved us considerably in a few more million years. We could be smarter, and temperamentally and emotionally more suitable for living and working together without so much conflict. But this didn’t happen, and can never happen. As soon as biological evolution makes a creature suitable as a building block for a large society, the other level of evolution takes over, and works so fast that biological evolution is grossly outraced. This process will happen wherever life is created. When we do meet other races from the stars, they’ll be just about as smart as we are, no smarter. Too bad.

Our body politic is rapidly developing its nervous system. The stages were: writing, printing press, telegraph, radio, TV, computers, data communications, Internet. We’re building a sort of global brain by connecting together computers. At the moment, a typical desktop computer has about a millionth of the raw processing power of the human brain but, doubling every year, it will take only 20 years for it to reach parity. The quality of the societal brain will be an important factor in determining which societies win out.
     As this body-politic nervous system grows and becomes more important, it will be harder and harder for humans to control. We have already become dependent on it in everyday, practical ways, and will become more so. As it gains a millionfold in raw power, new properties and abilities will emerge. Perhaps it will develop some sort of super intelligence; perhaps it will just get so complicated as to be impossible for anyone to understand.

The historian Arnold Toynbee identified 21 civilizations that have arisen on Earth, and proposed a cyclic theory of their birth, growth, degeneration and death. Gibbon’s long tale of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire reminds us of an aging lion, too feeble to defend itself any longer, who’s finally devoured by hyenas. This life cycle for cultures may persist, but cultural evolution is using a much quicker mechanism to effect change.
     The evolution of societies over time can be reduced to an evolution of their organizing ideas and principles through conflict, just as the evolution of humans and other organisms can be reduced to changes in DNA. The big difference is that societal organization can be changed on the fly, while DNA programming can be changed only by creating a new organism. And societies can be changed intelligently, with purpose, where DNA is changed randomly and stupidly, so the process is very slow.
     Culture evolution is driven by primarily by economics now. Economic advantage gives military and political advantages. Economic feedback loops such as markets are very quick, allowing agile evolution. Ideas that make money are the ideas that will prevail.

It’s tempting to see evolution in teleological terms, but biologists tell us this is wrong, at least for biological evolution. The complexity of homo sapiens is not the goal of evolution, just one of its byproducts, and not a particularly successful one. The biomass of ants and termites, not to mention bacteria, is far larger than that of mankind; in a strictly biological sense we’re less successful.
     We’re just a distant tendril on the tree of life, the far end of a process that tended by chance toward greater and greater complexity. We’re an amazing Rube Goldberg machine designed by a random process.
     But now that biological evolution reached this degree of complexity, the game is over for it, and a process that is much more teleological has taken over. Cultures strive to survive and dominate, and willfully change themselves in order to do so.

There is irresistible pressure from evolutionary force to evolve a more efficient society – a higher-level organism with humans (and maybe, in the future, computers) as its cells. A high quality of life for humans is important to this process only as far as it allows us to function better in the organism. We can’t go on strike for better living conditions if that reduces efficiency, since that would cause our society to lose the competition, and to be come re-organized in the more efficient way. The process of cultural evolution is inexorable, irresistible, impersonal historical force; it controls us, rather than the other way around. I don’t know if there’s anything we can do besides fighting underground skirmishes to make things more like Athens and less like Sparta.


Copyright © 2000 - 2007 by Dean Wallraff. All rights reserved.