Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Essentialism, Collectivism, and Scarce Resources

Humans have several default ways of thinking. We are essentially tribalist, and we are essentially essentialists. Exceptions do exist, but mostly we have to unlearn tribalism and essentialism, as they are species-typical ways of thinking. It could be possible to be one or the other, without being both. One could recognize "our tribe" vs. "their tribe" and not think there is something essentially different about "them" that makes them "them" other than simply being a different group of individuals. Or consider the fact that we think of a door as having an essence that makes it "door-like," but we do not have an us-them relationship with doors. What is the difference? As my friend Michael Beeson pointed out in a Facebook conversation, it boils down to the competition for scarce resources. If we believe the world to be a zero sum game, it makes sense to want to get rid of groups competing for scarce resrouces. Tribes hate tribes who are competing against scarce resources. Racists hate other races who are competing against scarce resources. Under Marxism, the proletariat have to overthrow the bourgeoisie because the latter control all the scarce resources that are supposed to belong to the proletariat. Democrats hate Republicans, and vice versa, because both are competing for the scarce resource of political power. It becomes easier to compete against these tribes if we further essentialize them. If we have an essence that make us "us," and they have an essence that makes them "them," and we (of coruse) are good, then not-us must be not-good. Once you get rid of zero-sum thinking, though, these collectivist ideas collapse, since one comes to understand that cooperative competition creates a positive sum process that can enrich everyone without anyone losing, meaning group is not pitted against group. If we can get beyond collectivist/tribalist thinking and beyond essentialism, we can get beyond the kinds of destructive ideologies that have dominated human history. In other words, as Ernst Mayr observes in Populations, Species, and Evolution (1970), we have to replace essentialist/typologist thinking with population/individualistic thinking:
The asusmptions of population thinking are diametrically opposed to those of the typologist. The populationist stresses the uniqueness of everything in the organic world. What is true for the human species, that no two individuals are alike, is equally true for all other species of animals and plants. . . . All organisms and organic phenomena are composed of unique features and can be described collectively only in statistical terms. Individuals, or any kind of organic entities, form populations of which we can determine the arithmetic mean and the statistics of variation. Averages are merely statistical abstractions; only the individuals of which the populations are composed have reality. The ultimate conclusions of the population thinker and of the typologist are precisely the opposite. For the typologist, the type (eidos) is real and the variation is illusion, while for the populationist the type (average) is an abstraction and only the variation is real. No two ways of looking at nature could be more different.
He further points out that
The replacement of typological thinking by population thinking is perhaps the greatest conceptual revolution that has taken place in biology. Many of the basic concepts of the synthetic theory, such as that of natural selection and that of the population, are meaningless for the typologist.
We all need to move from typological to populationist thinking, and not just in biology. It is relevant for our social thinking, as our social processes are exactly that: evolutionary processes. The mechanisms are, to say the least, highly similar. Anyone who truly understands evolution cannot be an ideologue for long, as ideological thinking is typological thinking, and thus violates the populationist thinking of someone who truly understands evolution.
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