A Darwinian foundation for South Africa’s choices

Mike Berger writes that politics is still mainly played according to the old rules of our species

The idea that the biological world can be used as a metaphor for the organization of human social systems is not new. One of the most erudite and prolific modern proponents is Peter Corning who has written extensively on the potential synergies of cooperation within society drawing on concepts derived from the study of functional biological systems.

While appealing in its moral promise and apparent simplicity it has been and will continue to be a very difficult if not impossible project. It’s worth examining for the insights it yields if not for immediate political guidance.

Assuming for the moment that the modern state in its political, economic and civil complexity is analogous to any even moderately complex biological system, we can define the minimum requirements for continued viability. Putting it simply they are energy, information and purpose. The creation of order requires energy and complexity and cohesion needs a sufficiently accurate and robust information transfer between its components. Finally, importantly and obviously, a functional system must recruit these capabilities in order to accomplish meaningful work.

Biological systems have developed a wide variety of energy sources and methods of extraction plus exquisitely accurate and interactive internal communication systems to ensure that all components are appropriately engaged in sustaining behavior ultimately required for survival and procreation. In a Darwinian world purpose is constrained and driven by the overriding need to maintain a competitive net reproduction rate.

This is also true for social organisms and collectives. This perspective immediately raises a number of interrelated important philosophic and practical issues as, for example, how does a sense of aesthetics serve a Darwinian purpose? (Funnily enough that is a relatively easy question to answer). More centrally, on a more obviously practical level in social species the good of the individual may conflict with the good of the social collective. Which gets preferential attention?

Clearly humans are a social species which means that over the course of evolutionary time it has paid off to sacrifice some immediate self-advantage for the common good. But two other things are equally clear. Firstly, that over time and with changes in technology and other causally significant variables the optimum size and complexity of the social group has increased substantially from the archetypal hunter-gatherer group of our ancient ancestors. It is also equally apparent that this expansion in size and complexity has been dearly bought and that the collective can be challenged and exploited by individuals and, more commonly, by sub-groups devoted to a more narrow definition of self-interest.

A great deal of thought and empirical research has been devoted to these issues and their ramifications. They are amongst the most pressing of our era but in general we conduct our politics with little explicit attention to the basic theory and the vast body of relevant data. In short, politics is still mainly played according to the old rules of our species: via unexamined emotional triggers, short-term self-interest, conformity impulses and preferences influenced by largely unconscious, context-specific social-cultural values.

Whether increased awareness and insight will enhance our political performance for the general welfare is an open question. It would seem intuitive at first glance that an increase in knowledge would manifest in ‘better’ outcomes but that may not be true; or at least the relationship between knowledge/insight and outcome is more complex and unpredictable than might be supposed.

But with this background it is worth setting out some of the broad challenges facing South Africa, and democracies worldwide in the most general terms possible. Starting with the national state as the highest form of social organization which has wide popular buy-in we can see that on either side of that there are forms of wider and lower social organization.

Higher forms include supra-national regional associations of various kinds (e.g. the European Union) and even such dubious transnational associations as ISIS. On a lower order of complexity are a number of fragmented polities which consist of semi-autonomous groups organized around ethnicity-culture, kinship or even simply criminal enterprises – sometimes a combination of these ties.

But taking the national state as the currently normative form of political organization we find that too is in a state of uncertainty and transition with various forms of democracy and authoritarianism in competition. The various motivations, combinations and permutations of political organization are considerable and in a state of flux globally.

In the best of all possible worlds I would probably choose a social democracy of some kind as the optimal form of political organization which optimizes individual welfare, opportunity and personal freedom within a minimally coercive structure sufficient to maintain a collective identity, efficiency and purpose. But history and realism forces us to acknowledge that in the real world such an ideal has proven extremely difficult to achieve, perhaps requiring special and almost unique pre-conditions.

And even then it is increasingly clear that sustaining such complex, multi-dimensional cooperative political enterprises in the face of disintegrative internal impulses and external challenges is extremely difficult. Those polities which have achieved an approximation to the ideal will doubtless try to maintain stability by using the tools and institutions which have served them in the past. Others will try to take a more fundamental look at the options open to them. The future is likely to be messy.

What about South Africa which is on the lower rungs of the social democracy spectrum? From the perspective of this article we only have one significant political formation, the DA, which explicitly endorses in word and also, imperfectly of course, in deed the principles of an inclusive national democratic state. The other parties more-or-less openly serve the interests and perspectives of sub-national groups and, conspicuously in some cases, the ambitions of their ruling elites.

This characterization holds water whatever pragmatic or expedient political calculations one is prepared to consider in the context of historical and current South Africa. Furthermore, whether one bases choice on fundamental objective analysis or intuition or identity or self-interest preferences, minimal longer-term rationality demands that that we do not degrade the social, economic, intellectual and political resources of South Africa to the point at which it tips the country into the political depths. It is also clear that such apparent rationality criteria do not always apply in politics.

ADDENDUM: I have written this article to set the stage for a deeper interrogation of the specific choices confronting South Africa at this moment in our history. It is at a level which will neither satisfy the philosopher-scientist at the cutting edge or the traditional political commentator-practitioner. So to ground the debate in specifics my next article will attempt to address the question ‘Is South Africa ready for the DA’?

Mike Berger