How did we end up here?

Mike Berger writes on SA today in the context of a six million year causal chain in mankind's development

The DA in wider context

My broad intellectual interest post-retirement has been the scientific contribution to understanding human collective behaviour, or politics for short. I was fortunate enough to enter the field more-or-less at the same time as EO Wilson's controversial and influential book 'Consilience' was published. He took the general view that 'science' was the key to bringing different disciplines, including those traditionally regarded as belonging to the humanities, out of their intellectual bunkers into productive interaction with one another.

Not surprisingly, many scholars were extremely comfortable in their bunkers and resented the temerity of scientists invading their hallowed terrain. Consilience received the same virulent rejection in some quarters that CP Snow's 'The Two Cultures' had encountered a few decades earlier. Still, with the passage of time, the ideas popularised by Consilience are beginning to merge into the mainstream but not without 'bittereinders' manning serious pockets of resistance or simply disinterest.

Furthermore, it appeared that the business of integrating science into the manifold and complex world of politics was proving much more difficult than early optimists expected. Massive increases in knowledge about the biology and psychology of individual humans and even the dynamics of small groups, did not readily lead to useful models of vastly more complicated human societies. It seemed that agent-level information and concepts had limited pay-off in grasping (never mind predicting or effectively influencing) the operations of immensely complex, non-linear, hierarchical human interactions.

Not surprisingly many other approaches were invoked in trying to develop a useful political science. One such was game theory in which the interactions of agents of various levels of complexity could be modelled in various imagined contexts. Complex systems also became an important area of investigation for mathematically inclined biologists and political theorists. The digital and broader technological revolution created the opportunity for massive amplification of data collection and manipulation.

This, for instance, laid the foundation for scenario construction and political analysis as reflected in the recent article by Frans Cronje in Politicsweb (6 Feb) and by a small flurry of books on the options for South African which appeared over the past decade. Such work introduced more rigorous methodology and essential detachment from the passions evoked by the national political soap opera. Nevertheless, even as proponents of this approach will admit, the reliability of their predictions fall way short of conventional hard science of simple physical systems.

In the last couple of decades a fresh approach to combining traditional historiography and mathematical modelling has been making waves by its seeming ability to predict cycles of serious social and political instability. This work, for instance, has appeared as 'demographic structural theory' (Goldstone) and 'Cliodynamics' (Turchin) and is a thriving, evolving interdisciplinary field drawing on economists, historians, applied mathematicians, archaeologists and assorted others.

This material virtually never appears in the general media which constrains the frame of reference of even educated citizens. I came to the field far too late to become a serious participant and at best can be categorised as an enthusiastic amateur. Furthermore, the terrain itself is immensely broad and expertise can only be achieved through some serious specialisation. If I have any advantage it would be one of breadth which automatically implies a degree of shallowness.

Let me stake out my broad position. Whether you regard it as destiny or chance, the human species is unique. We are unique in terms of our consciousness and with that the entry of values and ideas of beauty, ethics, hope, pain, disappointment and loss into the world - and perhaps into the Universe.

But such 'philosophical' notions aside we are unique in another important sense. It is now becoming apparent that humans represent a major transition in biology, perhaps equivalent to the jump from single cells to multi-celled organisms. Our species on the other hand, have further transitioned into a superorganism based on cultural evolution driving cooperation between large numbers of relative strangers supported by biological adaptation and genetic change. We're still at a relatively early stage of that radical transformation but have profoundly altered our world and ourselves in the process already and may well continue to do so ever more fundamentally.

The new laws governing this remarkable transition still remain to be worked out in detail but it seems that we are in the novel situation of being (semi-) conscious agents of change and simultaneously the raw material on which impersonal laws operate to create an evolving, complex global society. We cannot escape this Catch 22 (other than by suicide). It seems to me a more dignified and useful response to try to understand the processes that govern us so that we can help steer the superorganism, of which we are individually a tiny component, into directions most favourable to life, including our own.

Some recent research is specially enlightening in terms of this perspective; in particular the branch of cultural evolutionary studies pioneered by Boyd and Richerson back in the 1980s and 1990s, now being carried on by their disciples. I will try to summarise very briefly what I understand as the salient issues.

The human species was inaugurated about 6 million years ago, probably somewhere in East Africa, with the descent of an ape species, not too dissimilar to modern day chimpanzees, from the trees into an increasingly terrestrial habitat. In this new abode they were exposed to significantly higher levels of both resource opportunity and predation threat. It appears that the change of physical terrain may have provided the necessary context for the survival of an initially small (genetic) mutation conferring an enhanced ability and predisposition to copy 'significant' others within the band of terrestrial apes.

This was very much a road less-travelled, but over the next 6 million years or so this early step in enhanced social learning and social bonding cascaded, via a self reinforcing sequence of cultural and biological changes, into modern humans and the complex world they have created.

The fundamental genetic adaptation was not so much an increase in raw intelligence but rather a capacity and instinct for high-fidelity copying of significant others. Thus was born our conformity instincts triggered especially by prestige and status (celebrity in modern parlance) and by other cues signifying competence and confidence together with preferences for co-ethnics and co-gender models.

Such learning predispositions were coupled to transgenerational accumulation of know-how and also group-specific norms which served to maintain group-based bonds and cooperation against the enormously powerful but divisive pull of selfish or kin-based instincts.

Thus, to simplify a remarkable but still evolving scientific story, we can visualise the outcome of this six million year causal chain as follows:

- A unique capacity and predisposition to model behaviour and social norms based on omitation of significant others. This ultimately led to a prolonged childhood, improved communication and eventually spoken and written language, more formalised instruction and a vast accumulation of diverse culture-specific beliefs, norms, skills and tools.

- A massive increase in cooperation between non-kin but still constrained by powerful group (tribal) identity markers, context and cultural norms.

- Much larger brains, improved memory systems and capacity for reflection, abstract thought, organisation of knowledge, verbal and other forms of communication. These cognitive skills are still closely tied to powerful emotions centred on status, conformity, 'tribal' identity and selfish motivations created by our evolutionary landscape over millions of years, but especially the last few hundred thousand in small hunter-gatherer bands.

- A host of physical and physiological changes which supported the primacy of cooperative and cognitive strategies, tool use and innovation/adaptation in our species .

- And, fundamental to the development of social cohesion and cooperation, is a rather nasty emotional predisposition to punish norm violators, or supporters of norm violators. Paradoxically, without such instinctive moralistic aggression driven by group selection under harsh selection pressures (including inter-group conflict), humans would never have been able to achieve their characteristic group-based cooperative/altruistic tendencies.

It may be worth rereading these points since they're important to understanding the existential dilemmas of human life. To look at it another way, while we are powerfully predisposed to learn from others in our environment these adaptations evolved under very different conditions to our rapidly changing current circumstances. Thus they are relatively crude instruments for selecting the best and most appropriate ideas amongst those circulating in meme space and are prone to all sorts of malfunctions and distortions.

Even more, some of the root genetic predispositions created by our eveolutionary past are significantly incompatible with some of our preferred cultural adaptations in a changing world. In short we are prone to error and possible dissonances between lagging biology and current ideology, flaws which can be fatal to good political decisions.

More generally I would argue that the rapid spread of digital communication technology, the rise of social media, the power of new scientific technology including robotics and more sophisticated targeted weaponry, advances in medicine with massive increases in population numbers, massive global inequalities of all kinds and enormous complexity are stressing the hell out of our capacity to adapt. Even in a loosely coupled world such threats rapidly become globalised rather than confined to failing states.

We forget the prolonged and bloody process whereby Europe embraced democracy as a cultural means of stabilising vast numbers (tens of millions) of people with different histories, backgrounds and economic power within nation-states and then within more loosely coupled, supra-state organisations like the European Union so as to avert catastrophic inter-state conflicts. Even now after centuries of painful adaptation the cultural-political apparatus is creaky and is being destabilised by stresses arising from migration, global inequalities and competing ideologies.

South Africa is historically way behind this adaptive curve and is additionally seriously plagued by similar massive economic inequality, profound ethno-cultural-historical faultlines, substantial population pressures (including a youth bulge) and a weak and corrupt state. Such an environment is highly polarising and constitutes fertile soil for the rise of militant ideologies and power-hungry opportunists alike. Furthermore, I would argue the modern communication environment is an additional destabilising factor, at least in the short-term.

These conditions broadly mirror the global scene. Crime both local and international thrives in these conditions. Mass migration stresses stable democracies and precipitates ideological conflict between elites. Suicidal terror and instumentalised brutality is on the rise both internationally and locally. Co-existing with these trends is the most remarkable explosion of technological innovation and wealth accumulation seen in human history. South Africa too reflects this paradox.

Returning to home base, Frans Cronje in Politicsweb paints one potentially hopeful South African scenario which, however, rests upon an economic revival in order to spark increased inter-group cooperation, educational reform and upliftment of the lowest rung of our population out of dire poverty.

But we can only do this by stepping outside our current cycle of action-reaction; a tall order on our current predicament. Such spirals breed unrealistic fantasies and dysfunctional combinations of nihilism, cynicism, militant ideologies and the pursuit of short-term self-interest.

Against these impulses, as noted by Frans Cronje there is a general consensus that there can be no place at the top for Zuma and his cabal if South Africa is to claw its way back into a more hopeful trajectory. Whether this perception will impress itself upon the squabbling factions within the ANC we'll find out soon enough.

That's step one. More importantly, step two is throw your weight behind the DA and don't get distracted by the media noise around the party at the moment. It has the right pedigree, the right institutional culture and the right economic approach to the complex needs of South Africa. I'm far from naive. The DA is now a mass political party, thank goodness, and is not immune to factionalism, to silly errors of judgement, to the temptations of expediency and corruption, to laziness and simple incompetence. In short, it is made up of humans like the rest of us.

But without the DA's vision and institutional culture, South Africa will lose its political rudder. Remember at the heart of success and failure lies the capacity of the people to select the right political memes for the job at hand at the right time. Ensure that the DA is at the seat of power where and when it counts. And remind it when necessary that we're the boss.

Mike Berger