The Perils of Sociobiology

The study of community ecology and animal behaviour is a fascinating pursuit because there are myriad ways in which populations sustain themselves and adapt. It is also fascinating to apply this knowledge to the behaviour of humans. However there is the risk of false correlations, as human society is in many ways a different beast, for example describing behaviour as ‘natural’.

The question of how humans society appears similar and how it differs from the society of other primates or pack animals is interesting. Organisms that live in groups benefit from cooperation in various ways. In evolutionary terms there are mechanisms which serve to promote such behaviour, indeed behavourial traits become part of the evolutionary process. Perhaps the key difference with modern humans is that we no longer live in closely related groups, human society is now global, resources are moved around the globe via international trade.  How individuals share resources is no longer a simple transaction, for example very rarely does someone give a sack of grain in exchange for a computer program)

Whilst humans can be described as a single community, there are sub-divisions, some genetic (race) others behavioural (communities of people who think in a certain way, such as religious groups). However the distinctions are increasingly blurred. The process of evolution perhaps only occurs in interaction between behaviours.

In any cooperative action for mutual benefit there is the ‘free-rider’ problem. Any rule based exchange system can be manipulated for the gain of an individual or group of individuals within the community. In evolutionary terms, this is useful as this may result in innovative behaviours to solve problems, indeed many natural societies tolerate a certain degree of such behaviour. There are also mechanisms for controlling anti-cooperative behaviour, so these behaviours come with a cost. For example the free-rider is shunned, excluded from social benefits. In natural systems such deviant behavoiur is tolerated as the deviant is a family member and there specialised behaviour ultimately contributes to the sustainability of the group.

In a globalised human society, the free-rider will often be something outside of a communities control, an agent on the other side of the world for example. As such any social control mechanisms of anti-social behaviour are curtailed. In a glabalised market, for a consumer to detect free riders and negative market forces upon them is also difficult.

Furthermore the post-industrial economy has made transactions so complicated, that the ability to control, to reign in free-riders is curtailed. Modern capitalisms concern is maximising profit for the individual or corporation, often without making an equal contribution to the needs of the community. Essentially whole industries of free-riders have been created. It is the proponents of the free-riding mentality (a behavioural trait) that are in positions of power and control in society, whether as governments or large corporations. There is little social control of the free-riders anymore, the ‘free-riders’ are in power. The individual lacks influence, often having no choice but to work for a free-rider to be able to obtain food and shelter and often work harder than they would if they were to build their own shelter and grow their own food.

Humanity has created some useful devices for facilitating mutual cooperative behaviour in society, such as religion, nationality and democracy. However the power and influence of these agents has been in decline in the Western world. what is the consequence of this? Is humanity ceasing to be social animals or a global society, as individuals shun familial or local groupings to join wider global groups that are antagonistic to their familial and local groups?

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