by Dean Wallraff

The Body Politic


Society is a wave. The wave moves around, but the water of which it is composed does not.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

The analog between the structure of society and the structure of our body is ancient. It's explored in some detail in Plato's Republic. The analogy is surprisingly complete. Highways are like arteries, with trucks like blood cells carrying nutrients where they're needed, and carrying away waste products. Residential streets are capillaries. Cops are antibodies, policing the bloodstream for intruders. The network of communications — telephones, televisions, computers — is like the neural system. Our defenses — airplanes, submarines, missiles — are like the defenses of our body, ready to be called into action by the nervous system on short notice, when the body is threatened.
     Look at how much these major structures in our society have changed since Plato's day. The highways, the computers, the missiles: these are all new. Human beings aren't evolving physically any more (or at least, the rate of physical evolution is very slow compared with our cultural evolution). The lives of individual humans haven't changed much since Plato's time (see "Millennium"). But evolution is occurring at a tremendous rate at a higher level.
     This is not so strange. The cell evolved 3 or 4 billion years ago; it was the first form of life. It took until around 600 million years ago to evolve to the point where it could serve as the building block for a complex organism built out of cells. As soon as this happened, the cell effectively stopped evolving, since evolution occurred so much faster at a higher organizational level: the level of the structures of living things built of cells. It's as if the end toward which cells developed was to become an adequate building block for larger structures.
     And then those multi-cellular organisms developed until they became adequate building blocks for structures at a higher level — humans are general building blocks for societies. Man evolved around 350,000 years ago. To be good building blocks for societies, men need large brains that can process information, so that larger information processing organisms can be built from aggregations. They need the capacity, in the form of hands and brains, to use tools, to allow physical structures at the higher level to consist of something more than just physical human beings. And they need their capacity for complex communication. As soon as humans evolved to this point, their physical evolution effectively stopped (again, because evolution occured much more quickly at a higher level).
     Civilization is the realization of this higher structure. We got there in stages, each taking much less time than the last. We were hunter-gatherers for around 300,000 years, then we became farmers about 9,000 years ago, and civilization arose around 5,000 years ago. The industrial revolution started about 400 years ago and the information revolution 30 years ago. The steps leading to civilization all involve major changes in human life. Once civilization was established, the changes continued, at a higher structural level (that of society), at a higher rate, while human life has remained relatively constant.
     Since the start of civilization, societies have competed with one another for survival, and this process has caused the evolution of society. Cultures prevail or are overcome in the process, but the real competition is between ideas — the principles of design for society — just as the competition in biological evolution is between design principles for organisms.
Religions and political systems are examples of systems of such ideas. We're seeing now the end of a struggle between capitalism and Marxism as design principles. The aim of this process is to make society more efficient, more effective in competition with other societies. The aim is not to improve the quality of human life, although the quality of life has to be reasonably high for a society to be efficient.
     Should we derive our personal human values from this highest level of evolution? Should we hold that it is a virtue to advance the cause of progress in efficiency of society? No. This progress is as likely to do me harm as good since improving the quality of human life is not its main objective. My values are all selfish, in a sense (see "The Temple at Delphi"). This evolution does, however, completely determine what conventionally passes for morality, since moral principles such as "Thou shalt not kill" and "the life of each human has infinite value" are in reality organizing principles designed by the evolution process to make society efficient. I don't feel bound by this morality, though, as a practical matter, I do have to fit in with it since I live in society. I also feel that my morality should be such that society would be a reasonable place to live if everyone had my morality.
     I've always thought of the ancient war between Athens and Sparta in these simplistic terms: as a contest between a society organized to make the lives of its citizens rich and full and many-sided, so that its values would make them stronger human beings, so that they would have a lot to fight for, and a lot to lose, and a society whose sole aim was war and conquest, where the quality of the individual life was unimportant. It's too bad that Sparta won.

Copyright © 2000 - 2008 by Dean Wallraff. All rights reserved.