HUMAN CHOICE

The Genetic Code for Social Development

by

Harlan Cleveland

Garry Jacobs

Robert Macfarlane

Robert van Harten

N. Asokan

 

Work-in-progress on a general theory of development
presented and discussed at
The Global Century

The 1998 Vancouver Assembly of the
World Academy of Art and Science

Published by

The World Academy of Art and Science

University of Minnesota

130 Hubert H. Humphrey Ctr.

301 19th Avenue South

Minneapolis, MN 55455 USA

 

Copyright 1999

Harlan Cleveland

Garry Jacobs

 

Table of Contents

Foreword
1  Human Choice: The Genetic Code for Social Development
2  Human Choice: Afterthoughts
3  Engines of Development
4  Toward a Comprehensive Theory
About the Contributors

 


Foreword

At the 1994 Assembly of the World Academy of Art and Science in Minneapolis, we released for the first time a report prepared by the International Commission on Peace and Food entitled Uncommon Opportunities: An Agenda for Peace and Equitable Development. On that occasion I expressed to the Assembly my view that the report is the best of the genre of international commission reports. Among the many interesting recommendations contained in the report was the need for an international collaborative effort to formulate a comprehensive theory of social development. The Human Choice paper is a product of a collaboration between myself and four colleagues at the International Center for Peace and Development, the successor organization to the Commission, in California, and The Mother’s Service Society, a social science research institute in India, to sketch the framework of such a theory.

There are many reasons why I feel an effort of this type is both necessary and possible. Presently we are in the midst of a major global financial crisis that pointedly expresses the limitations in our present understanding of development. The application of current economic theories in Eastern Europe has produced very disappointing results. Despite the remarkable developmental achievements of the past five decades, more than half the world’s people remain in poverty by one definition or another. The accelerating pace of technological progress means that, if we are unable to improve our development strategies, the inequalities between rich and poor and the resultant social tensions will only increase. Finally, it is evident to me from my experience working in the field on development issues in North America, Asia and Europe that a fragmented approach to development viewed from the narrow perspective of one social science discipline or one aspect of one discipline dangerously oversimplifies the complex phenomenon that development is. More integrative ways of thinking about ‘development’ interconnecting every discipline are very much needed.

Social development is the product of the application of the powers of mind to organize the physical materials, social activities and mental ideas of humanity to achieve greater material, social, mental and spiritual experience. The approach outlined in this paper gives central importance to the role of organization in development, organization as defined in the widest sense as the orderly arrangement of human activities to achieve greater productivity, efficiency, innovation and creativity.

The paper identifies five major spheres in which organization promotes social development: The physical organization of human communities around productive centers, beginning 10,000 years ago with the invention of agriculture and the establishment of sedentary communities, towns and cities, which became concentrated centers of economic activity; the organization of technological know-how and inventions into a cumulative body of knowledge regarding the handling and processing of materials to produce goods and services; economically, the organization of social activities and institutions to increase the efficiency, coordination, productivity, quality, reliability, regularity and speed of human actions related to production and distribution of goods and services; the organization of information into understandable, useful and easily accessible forms and systems; and science and education that organize society’s accumulated knowledge and provide delivery systems by which it is recorded, validated, preserved, codified and communicated to future generations.

Chapter 1 of this document consists of the paper presented at the 1998 Assembly of the World Academy of Art and Science. Chapter 2 is a summary of discussion of the paper at the Assembly on November 4. Chapter 3 is an essay applying the concepts to the themes discussed during three workshops on economics and development conducted as part of the Assembly. Chapter 4 is material presented at the Assembly on the distinguishing features of the theory. Comments by a number of participants in the Vancouver Assembly are noted in chapters 2 and 3. A listing of all named contributors will be found at the end of the volume

Harlan Cleveland, President

World Academy of Art and Science


 

Human Choice

The Genetic Code for Social Development

by Harlan Cleveland and Garry Jacobs

 

 

Looking back on the prodigious accomplishments of the 20th Century, we can see an enormous “development” of technological inventions, economic activities, political and social organizations, and material riches – accompanied by a whole new range of problems and challenges – emerging from the relatively less complex and accomplished centuries that preceded it.   Looking forward to the century just ahead, we are bound to wonder what humanity may yet accomplish, what new challenges are in store, and especially what ultimate limits there may be to the creative processes that drive these changes.

 

            Whether we look backward or forward, we face the same puzzling questions:  What is the essential nature of human development?   By what process does it occur?  What factors speed it up and slow it down?   What conditions are essential or detrimental to it?   Through what stages or phases does it pass?   What are the sources of its problems and its failures?   And, probably most important, what is the role of the individual human being in human development?   

A Rough Parallel
 

             We have come to believe that there are illuminating parallels between the development of life forms and the development of human societies.   Exploring these parallels may put the puzzlement in a useful perspective, and perhaps provide a usable framework on which more satisfying social theory can be constructed.  

 

            The process of physical creation has given rise to a hierarchy of material and biological forms – from the infinitesimal atom and molecule to the living cell, differentiated organs and multi-cellular life forms of increasing complexity and capacity for adaptation.  The process of social creation gives rise to a similar hierarchy of forms.  But society is a field of life, not matter; of activity, not the sum of living organisms but their constantly changing interactions.  The social forms it creates are not patterns and arrangements of material substance but patterns and arrangements of human activity – not “architecture”  but something more like chemical reactions in a liquid solution.

             “Human activity” arises from individual human acts that (like atoms that link into chains to form molecules) combine to form more complex chains of human activity.  Combinations of human activities join together to constitute basic social systems capable of performing completed units of work  (for example in production, trade, transport, communication, defense, or governance), analogous to the combinations of molecules that form living cells, the smallest complete units of what we call “life.”  

 

In society, groups of differentiated systems join to create organizations capable of performing specialized types of work – commercial, scientific, educational, artistic, social, political, etc.   This may be seen as roughly parallel to the joining of differentiated cells in biology to form specialized organs that perform specialized functions in the human body.   At a higher level of complexity, a wide range of specialized organizations combine to form a society which can perform (never perfectly) the essential functions required to sustain a social order in which human beings can live and work and play together.   In a similar way, a wide range of specialized organs in the body combine to form a living organism that can (never perfectly) sustain the interrelated functions essential to biological existence.

 

There is thus a rough parallel between the development chain in biology that leads from atoms to molecules to cells to organs to the adaptive living organism, and the chain in social development that leads from individual acts to human activities to systems to organizations to the adaptive living society.

 

Productive social activities generate material wealth and its accompaniments.   But the real product of social development is not the organization of material forms out of material substance as in biological processes;  it is the organization of social forms out of the substance of human activities.   Underlying that social process is brainwork -- the mental development of individuals using their information to create knowledge and ideas, marrying their individual thinking to the individual thoughts of other individuals and thereby creating together a complex, functional, and therefore productive organization of human activities – which is social development.   

 

“Development”  is in its essence organization – the organization of material processes through the ideas we call “technology;”   the organization of social processes we call systems, procedures, conventions, commerce, law, and governance;  and the organization of mental phenomena – the data-with-context we call information, the  rational processes called knowledge (sciences, practices, and professions), which combines with nonrational intuition to produce what we call “wisdom.”

 

It is the thoughtful organization of social existence, the essence of “development,”  that makes possible progressively higher levels of efficiency, quality, productivity, complexity, comprehension, choice, creativity, mastery, enjoyment and accomplishment.

 

Usable Human Energy

 

            Energy, in various forms, is the force responsible for these physical and social processes.   All creative, synthetic processes require an investment of energy.   The physical energy for the development of biological processes is absorbed from the environment in the form of heat, light, and chemical compounds.   Vast amounts of energy are stored in molecular and atomic bonds;  it can be released and utilized to build larger organic structures.   And this molecular energy pales into insignificance compared to the enormous reservoir of energy pent up in the bonds between subatomic particles.

 

            The energy for social development is only at the margin physical energy derived from material substances in the environment.   Most of it is what might be called subjective human energy, physical, vital-emotional and mental energy produced by individual human beings taking thought and interacting with other human beings, producing in turn the collective energy of human aspirations in society.

 

            The generation and accumulation of usable human energy is as necessary to social development as the storing of food energy is to the development of biological organisms.   As the molecules of organic material are a storehouse of energy that is released for development of life forms by metabolic processes, so human beings (with their thinking caps on) are a vast storehouse of potential physical, psychological, mental, and spiritual energy that is released for the development of society by thought that leads to action.  Society develops when some of the energy thus released is channeled into more complex and potentially productive forms of human activity.  

 

            Both material and social forms consist of energy bound into fixed patterns. As the bonds that hold together molecules and atoms contain a reservoir  (for practical purposes unlimited)  of potential energy formed during the processes of their initial formation, so the learnings, opinions, attitudes, beliefs, convictions, motives, and values that direct individual and collective human activities constitute an immense reservoir of psychological energy.  

 

Much energy has of course gone into the creation of social behavior patterns in the past. The release and utilization of that energy has been heavily constrained by systems of control and hierarchical power.   With lighter constraints, it might be released and channeled into new, more productive patterns organized in ways designed to use rather than ration human choice.    The enormous magnitude of this potential energy is revealed both by the unyielding resistance to change and the explosive revolutionary forces that are sometimes released at the points where societies break with established traditions.

 

            The human body seems to develop only when it absorbs more energy than is required to support the minimum needs for survival and activity measured by prior experience.   This excess energy may spill over in random, even dysfunctional, physical activity;  it may be stored as an increase in the physical mass of the body;  or it may be channeled  for the further healthy development of the body’s structure.  

 

So, too, human societies develop when they accumulate more energy than is needed for the maintenance of things as they are.   The excess social energy may likewise spill over as unproductive or even destructive human activities;  it may be directed at the horizontal expansion of productive activities at the existing level of development  (a “more and more of the same” strategy to which the term “growth” has come to be applied);  or it may be used to elevate the organization of society to a higher level of complexity, a more expansive release of the power of individual human choice, a larger and healthier productivity – to which we think it’s useful to apply the term “development.” 

 

* * *

 

            Excess social energy is an essential but not a sufficient condition for development.   The onset and speed of physical and biological reaction depends on such factors as seed crystals, catalysts, essential nutrients, the frequency and intensity of interaction between elements, and conducive environmental conditions.   In a roughly similar way, the onset and speed  of social development depends on the seeding and spread of new ideas in society, the growing awareness of new opportunities, social aspirations and attitudes toward change, the catalytic role of individuals, the presence of essential resources and instruments, the frequency and intensity of social interactions at critical moments in time, and the social preparedness and support for new activities.

 

            In the first half of this century, we saw a huge outpouring of human energy devoted to organized cruelty, mutual homicide, and physical destruction -- brought about by dedication to what were widely regarded as human purposes.   In the second half of this century we have seen, on balance, a tremendous outpouring of human energy the world over that has been mostly released in a very different social climate.     This climate has produced – on balance -- greater physical security, more widespread political freedom, broader social opportunities for more people, more competition in increasingly global markets, new systems (both physical and intellectual) for rapid computation, communication, and transportation, the rapid global spread of information and education, the encouragement of individual initiative for personal advancement, and more active cooperation for mutual benefit.

 

            As light, heat, pressure, enzymes, and hormones serve as conducive conditions, catalysts, and reactants for biological processes, peace, democracy, education, markets, and freer access to technology and information act as conducive conditions, catalysts, and reactants for the social process.

 

* * *

 

            The evolution of new biological characteristics in a species is believed to begin with minute favorable mutations in a single cell or organism.  Transmitted to offspring of that individual through the reproductive process, these mutations provide a competitive advantage to subsequent generations.   As the mutant gene is the instrument of biological evolution, the pioneering human initiative – doing what has not been done before – is the instrument for social development.

 

            Development is induced by pioneering individuals who introduce new or improved forms of organized activity that provide an adaptive advantage over what has gone before.   These initiatives are imitated by other individuals and their neighbors and the organizations they influence;  they spread by social diffusion, multiplying through society until the most successful lose their novelty and come to be accepted as conventional wisdom – soon to be supplanted by new ideas tested by new individuals but diffusing in similar ways.

 

            The pioneering individual is often credited by society with fresh discoveries, inventions, and initiatives.   But the knowledge, intuition, and ultimately wisdom that guides these fresh actions are drawn from the subconscious collective wisdom of the society of which the individual feels a part;  it is expressive of the society’s will for progress in a particular direction.   The individual is the conscious instrument for the expression of a subconscious will;  sometimes the individual has to find a new society—as Albert Einstein and others did earlier in this century – where the collective subconscious will is compatible with his or her individual creative urge.

 

            The generative process is often a product of trial and error experimentation, individual intuition and persistence.  But sometimes it’s done by conscious implementation of a conceptual understanding.   A classic example in U.S. history was the idea that led the U.S. Congress to authorize land grants to States and establish colleges that focused on agricultural science, and also establish an Extension Service as a conduit for scientific innovations to reach farmers in every county of the United States – a string of 19th Century innovation-inducing policies that made American production of food and feed a 20th Century success of global importance.

 

            In similar fashion organizational innovations – from the invention of money to the proliferation of financial services to the current explosion of the Internet – may initially spread by informal imitation, then later gain widespread recognition and be systematically disseminated throughout society. 

 

            In analogous ways the discoveries of scientists anywhere, once repeated and validated by an increasingly international scientific community, come to be accepted, taught, and learned as elements of the organized body of scientific knowledge.   On the shoulders of these discoverers, practitioners of medicine and engineering and other professions develop ways of using the scientific insights in ways not imagined by the pioneering individual scientists in their laboratories.

 

            In every field of human endeavor, the actions of individuals (some isolated, some organized in research universities and other think-organizations) are transmuted into organized activity of their societies.   After a time, this activity may become so fully accepted as a norm that it no longer requires the active support of government subsidies or sponsorship by private corporations or foundations for its sustenance.   It can then mature from formal organizations to informal institutions or social conventions passed along by family or social tradition and eventually integrated in the cultural values of a society as a way of life – as elementary education now has in most national societies, and technological inquisitiveness in many.

 

***

 

            Both biological and social processes depend on the accumulation of knowledge.  The knowledge that guides biological development is contained in the genetic codes of the species.  Unchanging genetic instructions would mandate a multiplication of sameness, even if excess energy is available;  only changes in the codes, by mutation or otherwise, result in “development,”  that is in the evolution of new characteristics in the species.

 

The knowledge that guides social development is contained in society’s accumulated store of information, skills, attitudes, opinions, beliefs, and values.   It is the acquisition (always in the first instance  by individual human beings) of more relevant information, more analytical knowledge, more insightful intuition, and thus more usable wisdom that leads to the development of social organizations that come closer to matching the much greater complexity of the real social world outside our heads.

 

Absent this “higher” knowledge-intuition-wisdom that generates fresh creative social ideas, excess energy in a society will tend to produce not new dimensions of human activity but at best repetition, copywork, the spreading of already familiar activities rooted in “settled” concepts.   It may even generate new excesses, new imbalances, new forms or degrees of unfairness that unsettle settled societies.   What it won’t produce is innovation, creative new ways of doing old things better, or doing what’s never been done before.

 

Evolution as Organization

 

            Both material and non-material resources are essential for biological and social processes.   In biology, the knowledge encoded in DNA molecules, genetic information, is a non-material resource.   In social development, reliable information, scientific discoveries and technological innovations, economic theories, social systems, and wide ranges of skills, social attitudes, beliefs, and values are also non-material resources.

 

            In both arenas, the relevance and the productivity of the material resources crucially depend on the quality and availability of the non-material resources.   Bacteria and human beings are composed of the same atomic elements;  but differences in the knowledge content in their respective genes bring about very different results.   The rational use of information, the power of intuitive thinking, and the capacity to stir them together to produce practical wisdom—that is, complex ideas you can do something with—have a profound effect on the productivity of material resources in social development.   

 

            This human ability to think has already demonstrated that the productivity of basic material resources such as land, water, and fuel can be multiplied exponentially.   Various forms of technology, which is organized and replicable thinking, enable us to convert sand into bricks, glass, fiber optic cables, and intelligent microprocessors, and to convert petroleum into lamp oil, plastics, clothing, and life-saving pharmaceuticals.  Imparting to physical resources some capacity to replicate human thinking can not only make them more useful but can change their physical characteristics.   A Swiss aluminum executive suggested the close connection between materials and information technology in a memorable short aphorism:   “The smarter the metal, the less it weighs.”     

 

            Natural resources are in some sense finite. But their use value and productivity are limited only by the limits to the capacity of human beings to think, to relate thoughts to each other, to build more useful thoughts on the thinking of others, and to imagine what has never happened yet.    The human capacity to learn both from experience and from theorizing, by which people develop attitudes, opinions, and values and other mental resources, determines how creatively and effectively a society responds to challenges and opportunities – such as the environmental effects of human activity or the unprecedented potential of the Internet.   In this sense the human mind and spirit appear to be the ultimate resources that determine the usefulness and productivity of all other resources.

 

* * *

 

            The evolution of larger, more complex material and biological forms depends on the prior formation of lower levels of organization – atomic, molecular, cellular.    The evolution of larger, more complex social organizations likewise occurs on the foundation of more limited, less complex kinds of organization, which are indeed the necessary “infrastructure” for their emergence.

 

            There are essentially three kinds of infrastructure, three levels of organized human activity, each heavily depending on the others for its own functionality.  One can be illustrated by the physical organization of transportation and communication; another by the social organization of legal, financial, commercial, and educational institutions;  yet another by the mental organization of information, technology, scientific knowledge, and spiritual insight.   All these are needed for the achievement of progressively more complex forms of economic activity.   As the evolution of higher-order species requires the development of increasingly complex and differentiated organs, each further stage of social advancement requires a quantitative expansion and qualitative improvement in the organization of the social infrastructures.

 

* * *

 

The evolution of biological forms has progressed from the most primitive physical organisms to vitally animate plants and animals to the emergence of mental and spiritual humans.    The more primitive organisms, guided by the instructions in their genetic codes, use up most of their energy and adaptive capacities for physical survival.  In more complex organisms, the physically acquired genetic capabilities are supplemented by instinctive and learned reactions to environmental stimuli.   They consequently possess a greater range of adaptive and productive responses. 

 

By now, evolution has given rise to highly adaptive organisms capable of systematic ordering of knowledge, conscious self-awareness, and connecting with spiritual forces that cannot be rationalized.    Genetics and built-in instincts still play an essential role.   But the systematic transfer of knowledge through family and formal education, followed by life experience that includes not only what happens but what is dreamed and imagined, elevates the productive and adaptive and even prophetic responses to levels inconceivable in prior life forms.

 

A similar evolution from predominantly physical to more vital to increasingly mental and spiritual occurs in societies.   The movement across this spectrum should not be seen as linear, nor is it usefully described in well-marked “stages.”   In “primitive” societies, people are more bound to the land, quite limited in the range of human activities to those essential to self-defense and survival – agriculture, hunting, craft skills.    Social structures are typically rigid, leadership is hierarchical, and traditions tend to be rooted in the past and resistant to change, analogous to a genetic code that endlessly reproduces inherited instructions without alteration.    Still, there is some margin for the exercise of imagination and intuition, for changing spiritual experience, and for the development of more complex forms of organization; in some degree, change is the law of life in all parts of the human family.

 

In what we like to think of as more highly-developed societies, there is certainly more room for vital activity, more animation and mobility, and higher productivity in more complex systems.   Less of most people’s energy is required for survival.  More is available for investment in a wider range of activities that result in trying new things, finding new places, meeting new people, inventing what didn’t exist before, reading more widely and writing more boldly, developing greater productivity, trying new forms of recreation, learning arts and crafts, searching for unfathomable spirits in nontraditional ways. 

 

In “developed” societies, social structures can become more flexible and adaptive.  There can be greater social mobility, competition, and opportunity for individual initiative outside of established patterns.   In such societies, some people display an increasing capacity for change, and an increasing speed of response to external opportunities and challenges and to the successes and failures of their own and other people’s experience.  

It is also typical of the more “developed” societies to grant a higher social value to brainwork, and spread the opportunity for mental development much more widely.   Scientific research and technological innovation come to be at a premium;  formal education is more widely available, and encouraged for longer periods of time;   laws, ideas, and ideals muscle their way into spaces earlier reserved for strong leaders and inherited traditions.   Individuality of thought and action are more often accepted and encouraged, even when they contradict conventional habits and beliefs.   Competition tends to mature into cooperation. The report by the “Group of Lisbon” called this “the limits to competition.” Productivity soars, surpluses abound – partly because information, unlike natural resources, expands as it’s used and gives rise not to exchange transactions but to sharing arrangements in a new kind of commons.   The excess energy pours into the development of ever newer, more complex forms of organization – technological organization of material processes, social organization of life processes, mental organization of information, knowledge, even intuition and wisdom.  

 

The predominantly mental society thus displays a far wider range of adaptive responses and creative initiative.    And yet . . . every society that calls itself  “more developed”  has lots of people who try to resist mobility and change, discourage creative imagination, suppress deviations from the norm, lead by command and control, cling to tradition, and turn aside from new choices and chances.   We are not describing a new reality;  we’re suggesting a way of thinking about “development” that finds in the biological analogy not only tested patterns but possibilities for which we still lack clarity of doctrine or real-world role-models.    What this way of thinking does suggest, however, is a sense of direction, which in the 1990s is increasingly conspicuous by its absence.

 

Danger of Imbalance

 

            One troubling aspect of social process is the evident tendency of social development to generate unanticipated and unwanted excesses, side effects, and untoward reactions:   environmental damage, overpopulation, destructive applications of technology, economic crises, and social conflicts.    Comparable backlash – debilitating mutations, overpopulation and even extinction of species, devastation of natural habitats, cycles of scarcity and plenty – arise in biological systems as well.   So we need to consider whether these problems in biology and society have a common source – and whether at least part of the difference is that biological systems have been better than human systems at self-correcting.

 

            We have already mentioned that, in both biology and society, an essential condition for development is the presence of more energy than is required for repetition and survival.   The “surplus”  creates an imbalance in the existing system that can have one of three results.   It can lead to an increase in activity at the present level, it can stimulate development to a higher level, or it can produce overload and breakdown.

 

            Development problems arise when more energy accumulates than the existing level of organization can absorb or support.   In biology, the exposure of genes to excessive radiation may result in fatal defects, since the excess energy damages the organization of genetic information.   A excessive intake of food energy, beyond what the body needs for its normal activity and development, can overload physiological systems and lead to a wide range of health problems.  

 

            The incursion of energy in society that is beyond the carrying capacity of the social organization can have a similar effect.  

 

The East Asian financial crisis resulted from a very rapid expansion of domestic financial activity coupled with a rapid expansion of international financial markets, without the requisite development of effective organizations for  monitoring and regulating what is mostly a confidence game at either the national or the global level.  The opening up of Russian society following the breakup of the USSR – introduction of democratic institutions, dismantling of centralized planning, liberalization of foreign trade and domestic prices – released enormous energy within the society and subjected the economy to intense competitive pressures.  In the absence of essential political, legal, administrative, financial, and commercial organizations needed to guide an uncentralized market, the sudden liberation of energy had devastating results.  

 

The modification of one element in a biological system can generate imbalances in the total organization of the system that lead to breakdown and disintegration.  As an example, the excessive or insufficient development of one organ in the body can lead to disease.   Eliminating an animal predator can result in a chain reaction of overpopulation and depletion among lower-level organisms in the food chain and degradation of their natural habitat. 

 

Something like this occurs in social development when progress in one field is not supported by proportionate progress in related fields.   In the 1950s the introduction of advanced medical technology led to reduced mortality rates, rapid population growth, and food shortages in many developing countries.  This occurred because advances in the organization of public health were not balanced by proportionate advances in general education and rising affluence, which have everywhere led to reduction in the numbers of children per family, or by increases in food production needed to feed a larger population.   Environmental degradation has been quite directly caused by rapid development of industrial organization unmatched by a proportionate development of systems for monitoring and restraining pollution.   Another near-universal story has been the introduction of powerful chemical pesticides into countries with low levels of general education, resulting in excessive use and unsafe handling.

 

Both biological and social systems are thus vulnerable to the dangers of imbalance.   The real difference between them seems to be in their response to the problems when they arise.  

 

            Within modest parameters, biological processes are extremely effective in responding to temporary imbalances – by rapid “early warning”  (automatic feedback of information about a growing imbalance) and “self-correction” – and restoring order to the system.   But when the imbalance exceeds the adaptive capacity of the existing level of organization, the response tends to be inadequate – because it is self-directed by a body of genetic knowledge that responds and adapts, at best, slowly and incrementally to environmental opportunities and challenges.

 

            In contrast, a human society has at least the potential of taking thought and doing something about a disaster before it gets on what engineers call a runaway to maximum – by acquiring conscious knowledge and starting timely action to minimize or even design ways around the excesses and negative fallout of development plans and projects.  The recent reductions in pollution and environmental degradation are examples both current and choice.

 

            This capacity to foresee danger and take adaptive measures seems to increase as societies evolve from largely “physical” toward more “mental” forms of civilization.   In societies preoccupied with physical resources and their possible scarcity, the social tendency is to respond to an incursion of “surplus” energy by struggling to preserve its inflexible, tradition-bound organizations, maintain things the way they were.  As the mix changes and “vital” and “mental”  elements become more prominent, a society is more likely to respond first by adapting existing organizations to do more-of-the-same better, and then to think up new workways and forms of organization that bring into consultation many more people and improve the odds of absorbing all the energy in  coping with needed change.

 

            Some social theorists claim that the law of “survival of the fittest” holds true for social as well as biological systems.   Thinking about social development as a progression from predominantly “physical” toward predominantly “mental” – not mutually exclusive categories, rather a changing mix of both – helps clarify the issue.  

 

The Darwinian law does appear to hold true toward the “physical” end of the spectrum, as the collective struggles to ensure its survival but cares little for the individual.   The strongest become leaders, the weak are abandoned, exploited, or left to fend for themselves.   

 

But as information is more widely spread and more people are equipped to use it for the common good, the survival of the collective comes to be clearly the best way for the individual to survive and prosper.   The collective makes increasing efforts both to meet the basic needs of all its members and to open opportunities for individuals to pursue a variety of ends of their own choosing.    In practice, where it has been seriously tried, this emerging way of governance, rather than weakening the viability of a society, has resulted in enhanced social coherence and greater productivity at the same time.

     

Self-Conscious Choices

 

            One lesson from this analysis has profound meaning for the future of “development” in every society, and in that larger unit, global civilization, which is becoming relevant for more and more purposes.  

 

            As physical science has discovered a virtually unlimited reservoir of energy within the molecule and the atom, the phenomenal social creativity of the past century seems to point to a source of energy, for practical purposes unlimited, in human society as well.   The source of that energy is the individual human being.   Under conducive circumstances, the human individual demonstrates an astonishing capacity for imagination and new creation – of new and improved material inventions, of communication networks, of social organizations and ideas, and of ways to interact with forces beyond reason and knowledge.     

 

            As physicists are trying to find appropriate material technologies to harness safely the energy within the atom, the challenge to social science is to invent the appropriate technology of social organization to release and constructively channel the near-infinite potential energy and resourcefulness of the human being, and of human beings cooperating with each other.

 

            The genetic code in DNA molecules governs the release and utilization of energy for biological development.   Human choice is the basic mechanism for liberating and productively harnessing the potential energy in society.   It is the mind’s decisions that release human energy and propel it into action, for purposes and toward ends preselected by the human mind.  

 

As long as social organization is predominantly “physical” in character, choices about social development can and usually are made by a comparatively few people, acting for the collective through centralized organizations, often at the expense of many individuals outside the narrow circle of  “policy-makers.”   

 

As development moves along the continuum toward the more vital, mental society, the power of the collective is more than counterbalanced by greater freedom and rights for the individual.   Because more and more people are able to be better informed about the needs of the collective and about the complexity of social forces in play, it is natural for them to expect and demand a greater role in decision-making and for the leaders of social organizations to decentralize authority in order to delegate more widely more and more of the work – while trying to retain ultimate control in one way or another.

 

            But as the mix of people and functions shades over more and more toward the “mental” part of the continuum, and there is a growing premium on the brainwork, imagination, and creativity of individuals, new ways of getting things done come into vogue:   uncentralized organizations to cope with tasks so complex that no sensible individual could even pretend to be in charge, organizations in which authority is institutionalized as impersonal standards and systems that depend on initiative and creative imagination by many different kinds and levels of people who are able to be different, yet together.   Under these conditions freedom and responsibility necessarily shift from the collective to many individuals, expanding exponentially the range of individual choices.

 

            This process seems to culminate in the development of a new kind of social organization, the nobody-in-charge system where every citizen is in some measure partly in charge, each specialist no longer just responsible for being right about his/her own specialty but responsible also for the general sense of direction, the outcome as a whole.  The greater the value that society accords to the individual human being, the greater the freedom of choice it offers to each individual.  As tradition was the technology for development of the physical society, individual human choice is the technology for the development of the mentally self-conscious society.

 

            In post-modern societies, where information (analyzed as knowledge, integrated as wisdom) is the dominant resource, the individual will enjoy unprecedented freedom of choice.   That’s no guarantee of wisdom.   The quality of multiple individual choices is a complex function of the quality of information, education, knowledge, ideals, opinions, attitudes, and values in the society.  

 

Modern democratic societies rely on the power of education and the media to get the word around about what problems we collectively face, what opportunities are there if we pursue them together;   and, since unanimity is not to be expected on anything complicated or important, democratic societies rely also on the free airing of alternative viewpoints to help us collectively to make up our individual minds.   Those societies whose citizens are encouraged to engage in the fullest and most enlightened exercise of choice will have the greatest potential for development.

 

Single Creative Process

 

The emergence of mental self-consciousness, its wide spread around the world spurred by the development of global information technologies, has for the first time made it possible for a species to influence the speed and direction of its own evolution.

 

We are already the liveliest and most conscious actors in modifying our physical environment, sometimes inadvertently (the ozone layer, the “greenhouse effect”) and sometimes on purpose (weather modification, air conditioning).  

 

Now we human beings, the mental animals, are beginning to acquire the understanding to unravel biological processes, decipher and consciously alter the genetic code of life forms, and thus potentially decide, to some limited degree at least, who we want to be.

 

In similar fashion we are edging toward acquiring a conscious knowledge of the social processes that could vastly increase the pace and quality of social development, and spread its benefits much more fairly to the majority of humankind who are still disappointed spectators at the drama of development.   Certainly a deeper understanding of the process of social development, more widely spread to more educated peoples on every continent, will enable individuals to exercise their human choices with more sense of their meaning for their own futures and for the wider communities – including the widest, the global commons – of which they will be increasingly conscious (and therefore increasingly responsible) citizens.

 

            The parallels between biological and social development are intellectually intriguing and may be analytically useful.   But they are something more as well.   There is now considerable evidence that these processes are actually various expressions of a single creative process, which applies not only to biological and social forms but also to artistic and other nonrational human creativity.   Doesn’t this point toward a truly unifying theory of creative processes relevant to all branches of human endeavor, to both science and  art, to both practical and spiritual experience?    


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