It’s hard for people to live together in amity, and to go on doing so. But, says Colin Tudge, that is our only hope for long-term survival in a tolerable condition – and despite appearances, it is far from impossible.
The goal of this College – which I presumptuously suggest should be the Earthly goal of all humankind – is to create
Convivial societies within a flourishing biosphere.
So why don’t we?
Many have argued that human beings are a hopeless case – too selfish, too fickle, too treacherous to achieve conviviality for any length of time – to create societies that truly are harmonious, and just, and allow individuals to be personally fulfilled, and live the lives they want to live. Yet we surely need not give up on ourselves. True, there are more wars at any one time than most of us can keep track of and in the world’s richest country there are more people in jail than there are full-time farmers but, despite appearances, as Steven Pinker points out in his monumental The Better Angels of Our Nature, there is less chance of dying in war these days and less violence overall than through most of recorded history. Furthermore, most people, when asked, tend to say that what they value most of all is a peaceful and harmonious life, with family and friends, and a satisfying job with time to relax. Everyone wants enough material wealth to keep the ship afloat, and everyone wants respect, but only a few seek to be rich beyond the dreams of avarice and only a few want truly to be dominant – and since the desire for wealth and power is so rare, and does not necessarily lead to happiness, and is generally so damaging to the rest of us, the obsession with wealth and power may reasonably be seen as a pathology (even though wealth and power are what we are urged to strive for).
Overall, the world right now really is in the balance. We could all but wipe each other out with all-out war, or at least make life intolerable, in effect for evermore. As James Lovelock has pointed out – he who framed the concept of Gaia – we probably don’t have the capacity by some orders of magnitude to destroy all life on Earth but we could reduce it to a very sad shadow of its present glory. Yet we could, if we really got our act together, still create a life for ourselves – for humanity – that truly is convivial: fulfilled, harmonious, secure; and we could still keep the rest of the biosphere in good heart if we took it seriously enough (as will be discussed in a later essay). This is after all what most of us would prefer and the desire for something better is a very good start.
So what exactly is conviviality?
What does conviviality entail?
There seem to be four main ingredients. At a functional level, conviviality requires cooperativeness. In intelligent creatures like us, cooperativeness must be underpinned by compassion; and true compassion seems to require some measure of empathy. Finally, for all kinds of reasons, we will never achieve true conviviality until and unless we strive for equality. Even if there is some disparity of income (which in truth is inevitable) the poorest must never be too poor to live with dignity, and the rich must never be so rich that their wealth encroaches on everyone else, and all must be respected.
Let’s look at the components of conviviality one by one:
Human beings need to work together. We depend on each other. Robinson Crusoe in Daniel Defoe’s early 18th century novel was marooned on an island and forced to live on his wits – but he would not have survived without the artefacts he rescued from the wreckage of his ship: things made by other people. As John Donne observed about a century earlier, “No man is an island”, even if he’s wrecked on one. Taken all in all, human beings are not merely social – creatures who seek each other’s company. We are eusocial, meaning “good and properly social”, like ants and termites. We don’t just gang together. We need each other – because in us, as in ants and termites, there is and must be division of labour. We need, in short, to cooperate.
Cooperativeness should be win–win. Those who agree to work together, and do so, waste no time in fighting or on posting sentries to keep each other at bay. All their effort can be devoted to the task in hand. Furthermore, a team can be and often is far more than the sum of its parts, as is obvious in all walks of life, from brain surgery (where would the surgeon be without someone to ply him with swabs and forceps?) to football. Two heads (or more) really can be better than one. The Amish, working together, can build houses fit to live a whole life in, in a day. Cooperativeness, in short, can be maximally efficient.
It’s odd, then – perverse! – that the people with most power in the present world (in effect, an oligarchy) maintain as a matter of dogma, to which we are all supposed to subscribe, that we are most efficient, and achieve most, when we compete. Given the resources squandered in war, and on defence in case of war, and on duplication, and on secrecy and espionage, it is obviously not so. Rivalry – preferably friendly rivalry – may be a spur to greater effort and hence to greater achievement but common sense suggests that rivalry of the to-the-death kind that is now the basis of the world’s prevailing economy must be counter-productive and the state of the world demonstrates that it very obviously is. When rural societies are working well, which they often do, farmers may compete to plough the straightest furrow and at least in the world of P G Wodehouse to raise the fattest pig, but when the chips are down – when a barn catches fire, say – everyone rallies round. Often in traditional villages there were two or more pubs (which sometimes, curiously, stood side by side) and if a landlord ran out of whisky he borrowed a bottle or two from next door. The ethos now at least as preferred by the powers-that-be is for each to take over the others, or at least to hasten their demise, and for all the survivors to be owned by a conglomerate.
All this is obvious, so why doesn’t everyone cooperate as a matter of course? Why do so many people – particularly those in high places – make such a virtue of competitiveness? Some answers at least will emerge over the next few pages. But the simple answer is that although cooperativeness is obviously good for society, and humanity, and the world as a whole, and in the long term is the only viable strategy, a few people – always a minority! – aspire above all to dominate the rest and for this they do need to be competitive. Then, once they have become dominant, they impose their mind-set – their competitiveness – on the rest of us. Right now, as never before, the ultra-competitive ruling minority has created a world in which it is very difficult to survive without being ultra-competitive. These people have convinced themselves and striven to convince the rest of us that this is good and necessary – “There is no alternative”, as Margaret Thatcher infamously put the matter. Such thinking can all be explained rather well by game theory, as outlined later. In the end, the problems of humanity lie not with the moral or intellectual shortcomings of humanity but with logistics.
Some animals, like ants and termites, achieve extreme cooperativeness by hard wiring. In effect, their genes tell them what to do, with very little flexibility. For human beings, however, flexibility is our stock-in-trade and the key to our success. We can assess situations and make judgements. We are hard-wired to some extent of course but to a very large and usually to a decisive extent we can choose how to behave. If and when we cooperate it is because, at some level of our conscious or unconscious being, we feel predisposed to do so. Zoologists are now beginning to appreciate what “animal-lovers” have long maintained: that many other species can and do weigh things up, and make choices. Pigs, dogs, elephants, horses, monkeys, hyaenas, meerkats, squirrels, crows – the list goes on and on – are far from automata.
But choices can be difficult. Cooperativeness is indeed the best strategy not only to achieve conviviality but simply in the interests of long-term survival. But the stress is on “long-term”. True cooperation depends on give-and-take and on trust – each individual trusting the others not to cheat. If we are street-wise and lucky we can survive – as many people do, and other creatures too – as free-loaders: cashing in on the efforts of others while contributing nothing worthwhile in return. In the short term it can pay us to be downright treacherous – to bash our erstwhile ally on the head, or otherwise renege, and run off with the spoils that both have worked for. This happens, of course, all too often – but, given that we have a choice, why doesn’t it happen all the time?
There are various practical reasons why not, as again is most clearly analysed by game theory, and as discussed later. But one immediate reason is that we (and surely many other animals too!) have evolved or been otherwise endowed with the faculty of compassion; and compassion indeed is commonly perceived as the chief of all virtues. We don’t routinely knife each other in the ribs largely because we don’t want to. For most of us – the kind that we commonly call “normal” – the very idea of it is repellent. And one of perhaps many reasons why we don’t want to knife each other is that we don’t want to cause pain. By the same token, when other people are in pain or otherwise suffering most of us feel the need to help. The compassionate feeling that we don’t want to cause others to suffer, and want in general to alleviate their suffering, is underpinned by empathy.
Empathy implies the ability to gauge other people’s moods and even literally to feel their pain. Empathy comes, we’re told, in two guises. In cognitive form it simply implies the ability to judge what others are thinking and feeling without necessarily caring. Affective empathy implies that we infer or indeed feel what the other is feeling and do care: we feel the need to do something about it.
The two forms, cognitive and affective, are not closely connected. Conmen and other kinds of crook may have wondrous insight of a purely cognitive kind into the minds and feelings of others – and use that inside knowledge to exploit. People who are truly nice do feel each other’s pain and also feel impelled to do something about it. But they may not always be the best judge of what’s appropriate (for the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions).
Research by Francoise Wemelsfelder of the University of Edinburgh shows that the faculty of empathy can and does extend across species. She asked people at large to look at pigs and say how they thought the pigs were feeling: happy, depressed, exultant, what you will. The results correlated very well with physiological measures of mood and wellbeing, such as levels of adrenaline or corticosteroids. David Hume suggested in the 18th century that animals are capable only of the crudest emotions – rage, fear, lust – but animal lovers have always known that this is not true, and science now is catching up. At the San Francisco State University Professor Hal Markowitz showed over many years that animals supposedly as dim as ostriches may display the subtlest of emotions, down to and including a feeling of triumph when they solve some puzzle. Before Markowitz and Jane Goodall and Frans de Waal and others, such claims were considered to be crass: hopeless anthropomorphism. Now, more and more biologists accept that we can never hope to understand animals (whatever “understand” means in this context) unless we employ some anthropomorphism. We should perhaps begin within the premise that other animals are like us until proved otherwise – and not, as has been the norm, set out to show as a matter of doctrine that they are really just clockwork mannequins, however subtly they seem to behave. All such observations have tremendous implications for animal welfare, to be discussed elsewhere. They tell us too that subtlety of emotion and the faculty of empathy are not peculiar to us, special human refinements evolved or gifted to us over the past million years or so, and are not the creations of civilization, but are embedded deep in our biology.
A diversion – but one that may prove to be of pivotal significance: what is the mechanism of empathy? It is peculiar, after all, that we (and some other animals) can judge what others are feeling to the point where we may share their feelings, just by observing them, and often do so with no more than a glimpse. Scientists as a matter of habit and also in the interests of “rationality” seek explanations that are based on mechanisms they already know about; in this case, neurological. “Mirror neurons” offer one explanation. The idea is that when one set of neurons fires in some suffering individual, the equivalent set of neurons fires in some observer. Yes – but why? What’s going on? We can readily devise stories that seem to explain the facts, such as: signals from the eyes of the observer feed in to the brain and then are relayed to the neurons that evoke emotion. That idea seems perfectly plausible in an arm-waving way – but is it true? Is it adequate? Some after all are now suggesting that signals pass within and between organisms by various quantum mechanisms, including tunnelling and entanglement (as described by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden in Life on the Edge (Bantam Press, 2014)). Once we admit such mechanisms we are obliged to take seriously the idea of telepathy – and why not? Perhaps in 100 years telepathy will be buried once and for all among the curiosities of science, along with phrenology and the transmutation of metals. But perhaps tomorrow’s scientists will wonder how it was that today’s intellectuals could have been so blind to what by then might seem so obvious, just as we may wonder now why early 20th century Earth scientists were so eager to dismiss continental drift.
Whatever the mechanism, though, it’s clear that empathy is a fact.
A gentleman from Goldman Sachs recently opined on British TV that, despite appearances, the economy of the world is now becoming more egalitarian. True, reality does sometimes run counter to appearances. But no-one can argue that the world is becoming more equal – more fair, more just – without recourse to statistics of a most recondite kind that are frankly implausible. A whole raft of analyses show that since neoliberal (“free market”) economics began to take over the world in around 1980 the poor have grown poorer and the middle classes have stayed around the same while the rich have grown incomparably richer. Oxfam reported in the run-up to the 2017 World Economic Forum at Davos that just 62 people now own as much as the poorer half – 3.5 billion people – of the whole world’s population. Milton Friedman, a prime mover in the neoliberal economy, has himself acknowledged that whatever else the market may do, it does not deliver social justice.
The plea for greater equality – like the general desire for conviviality – isn’t just a matter of altruism, or indeed of what can more broadly be called morality. Again, to a significant extent, it is an exercise in enlightened self-interest. As Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson argue in The Spirit Level (2009), everyone benefits from greater equality. The rich in a more egalitarian society may be less well off financially than they would be in a society without constraints, where the poor simply languish, but by all other measures of wellbeing, including the elusive “happiness”, the rich as well as the poor are better off when equality is the goal.
Nothing, though, however intrinsically desirable, need be taken to extremes. We need not suppose for example that everyone should earn (or otherwise be endowed with) exactly the same amount. Some need more than others – if they have children, for example. Some deserve more than others because they work harder (at least they do if they work for the good of their fellow citizens). Some simply prefer to do very little except think their own thoughts, and are well content to earn very little (“drop out of the rat-race”). But, as many a report has suggested, no-one should receive less than they need to live with dignity, and no-one should earn more than 10 or, at most, 20 times more than the average. At present billions live in extreme privation, not least on the streets of some of the richest countries, and the richest are richer than the average by a thousand- or even a million-fold. This makes no sense of any kind.
So where does that leave us? Clearly, the position is not all bad. Niceness is vital (despite what some intellectuals have been telling us) and people are at least able to be nice; and niceness is in our nature – inherited, in essence, we might reasonably infer, from our pre-human ancestors. But are we nice enough? Aren’t we also – demonstrably – capable of extreme nastiness? Where does the balance lie? So to a question that philosophers, theologians, biologists, and people at large have been asking for millennia: are human beings basically good (nice) or bad (nasty)? What indeed are human beings really like?
The nature of human nature
It’s helpful to approach this question – what are human beings really like? – through evolutionary psychology. This, basically, is the idea that our behaviour, like that of all other animals, is shaped significantly by our genes; and that the genes that influence behaviour have been selected by natural selection, just like the genes that help to shape our bodies. Darwin first suggested this. At least, he did not think in terms of genes (such thinking is “neo-Darwinian”) but he did suggest that behaviour must be shaped at least to some extent by natural selection, like all aspects of our being.
Evolutionary psychology has caused much controversy – but largely, I feel, like so much of what’s important in life, because it has been misconstrued. Much hinges on what people – both the evolutionists themselves, and their critics – think genes really do. Thus it has commonly been assumed (by both some biologists and their critics) that genes are inflexible dictators that “determine” what form the body must take and how the mind works. Given that we are born with the genes we will have throughout life, and we can’t do much about them, this thought is very threatening – and capable of gross misuse. Is it really the case that our genes, over which we have no control, determine our thoughts and attitudes? Doesn’t this reduce us to robots? What happened to free will? What happened to humanity? Some people in authority, too, used the idea of “genetic determinism” to condemn their fellow citizens out of hand. Many a young man and not a few young women have been written off as “a bad lot”, fit for nothing except borstal and general degradation, because it has been glibly assumed that they have “bad genes”. The whole idea of “genetic determinism” takes us back to the early 19th century vogue for phrenology, reading character from the shape of the skull, when a person could be hanged because their eyes were too close together (though I’m not sure that ever actually happened). It is also seems to echo the early 20th century obsession with eugenics, which has not entirely gone away. Phrenology and eugenics we now know were bad science and led to very bad practice, politically and morally. Let’s not drag all that up again.
But modern evolutionary psychologists do not envisage that genes “determine” behaviour in the (fairly) simple way that they determine the colour of our eyes. Genes in general, as is now known, are in constant dialogue with the rest of the cell, which in turn is very much a part of the whole organism, which in turn must respond to the whole environment – in effect to the rest of the cosmos. Genes are responsive, in short. They are also subject to “epigenetic” controls (as outlined in III.1: “Nutrition: the Paradigm Shift”). Neither, for good measure, are they solely responsible for our inherited features. Biologists and non-biologists alike through much of the 20th century drew a distinction between “nature” (identified with the genes) and “nurture” (upbringing, from conception onwards), but now the distinction looks largely nonsensical. Genes and their surroundings are in constant dialogue from the time of conception – and indeed before that because the genes in the parent sperm and egg are themselves influenced, via epigenetic mechanisms, by the environment in which they themselves were produced. It isn’t true, as Hollywood movies are wont to tell us, that anyone can do anything they want if they are determined enough. I could never have run as fast as Usain Bolt even if I had trained for six hours a day, and neither can anyone else apart from Usain Bolt even though some people do train for six hours a day. Neither can most people play the piano like Alfred Brendel, even though some who by ordinary standards are immensely talented try very hard to do so. Our genes do set limits on what we can do. But within those limits, depending on our surroundings, our upbringing, and our own will, we still have tremendous flexibility. Indeed our genes are designed, or have evolved, to enable us to be flexible. To envisage genes as rigid and immovable despots is to insult them very badly (and, of course, ourselves).
In short, with the modern view of genes and how they really operate I see no reason why evolutionary psychology should not be accepted as a serious player in all attempts to understand the human condition. As the American geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously observed, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” – and that goes for human biology too, which has a lot to do with human psychology and sociology and hence with all that we do.
One very big idea that came on board from the 1960s – not exclusive to evolutionary psychology but a very necessary part of it – is that of “gene-based selection”. Darwin envisaged that natural selection must operate primarily at the level of the individual. It’s individuals, after all – whole organisms – that must battle it out with the environment at large. Some later biologists suggested that natural selection operates largely or primarily on whole societies, or on whole species. But the moderns suggested that natural selection operates most forcefully and universally at the level of individual genes. It was this idea that Richard Dawkins summarized in 1976 in The Selfish Gene.
The Selfish Gene is a catchy but also a most unfortunate title. We might logically conclude, after all – as many people very obviously have concluded – that if we or any other animal are possessed of selfish genes then we must ourselves be selfish. “Selfish gene” might be taken to mean “a gene that predisposes to selfishness”. But in truth, as Dawkins himself has subsequently gone to great lengths to explain, it can and generally should lead us to the quite opposite conclusion. Indeed, one of the principal champions of gene-based selection, the Oxford biologist W D (Bill) Hamilton, pointed out that gene-based selection enables us to explain the evolution of altruism – the demonstrable fact that animals (not just humans) often risk or even sacrifice their own lives so as to help others. Actually, Hamilton only explained kin selection. Individuals are most likely to run risks to help their own relatives, and particularly their own offspring. One’s relatives, after all, share a great many of one’s own genes. A gene that encouraged altruism in a parent is quite likely to be present in the offspring so by helping the offspring that gene would be helping replicas of itself to survive and multiply – which is the fundamental biological imperative. But by variations on a theme of gene-based selection later evolutionary psychologists have also sought to explain how it is that altruism is often extended to non-relatives too. Some, too, including some evolutionary biologists, have pointed out that intelligent creatures (which ought to include us) can in principle, and indeed in fact, override the presumed imperatives of our genes, by the exercise of will. We are not slaves to our genes, in short, selfish or otherwise; and in practice by behaving “selfishly” genes may prompt the individuals who carry them, human or otherwise, to risk their lives to help others. Sound biology and morality are far more comfortable bedfellows than is often supposed. We can take heart.
This discussion could go on and on (and indeed it does) but I want for present purposes to establish just three points. First, evolutionary psychology should be taken seriously – once we throw out old-fashioned ideas of “genetic determinism”. Secondly, genes are now known to be immensely flexible, and responsive, and subtle, so “nature and nurture” in truth are in constant dialogue, each always influenced by the other – two sides of the same coin. Thirdly, “gene-level selection” is a powerful idea that helps to explain the evolution of unselfishness in all its forms: altruism, kindness, cooperativeness. (Dawkins’s evocation of the “selfish gene” really has been most unfortunate.)
All this leads to another of Bill Hamilton’s big ideas: that of “the parliament of genes”. Gregor Mendel, who did not use the term “gene” but triggered the modern science of genetics nonetheless, proposed way back in the 1860s that individual hereditary “factors” (what we now call genes) are to a large extent at least passed on independently of one another. So a pea (his best-known work was on garden peas) could inherit a gene for wrinkled seeds from one parent, and for green seeds from the other parent; or a gene for smooth seeds from one and green seeds from the other; or wrinkled and yellow; or smooth and yellow. All combinations are possible.
Seed colour and texture in peas have a very simple genetic basis while behaviour is very obviously influenced directly or indirectly by hundreds or thousands of genes, but the same principle applies: to a very significant extent, a gene that predisposes us to any particular form of behaviour might be inherited together with others that may pull in the same general direction, so that they reinforce each other, or in opposite directions, so that they moderate each other. So we finish up with a mixture of influential genes, full of contradictions: a parliament indeed. The parliament in each and all of us is almost bound to include some that predispose us to behave aggressively, at least in some circumstances; and others that encourage us to be passive, perhaps even in the same circumstances. All this is largely conjectural because scientists have not yet identified most of the genes that we might suppose may influence behaviour. But they are identifying more and more such genes – some that bring out the motherliness in mice, for example, and others that predispose them to neglect their offspring. Enough is known, then, to know that it is not silly to suppose that particular genes influence particular quirks of behaviour, or to conclude that each and every one of us has presumably inherited a fine old mixture, battling it out within the genome, like parliamentarians.
All these ideas between them, essentially those of evolutionary psychology, at least help us to make sense of the complexities and the contradictions of human behaviour; why different people behave so differently; why each of us can behave so differently at different times; why indeed some people are on the whole nice, and others generally aren’t, and even the vilest psychopath can be nice some of the time and even the saintliest of us can snap. (Jesus showed anger in the temple when he turned over the tables. But then, the Bible commonly speaks of “righteous anger”. Hmm.)
So now we have at least the outline of a biological (genetic, evolutionary) explanation of why it is that different people (and different individual animals) may have such different characters, and why all of us are able depending on circumstance to be nice or nasty, or even to be nice or nasty in the same circumstances at different times and at different stages of life. First, we inherit different combinations of genes (of a kind that influence behaviour) from our parents. Secondly, throughout life, different “suites” of genes are switched on or off so although we have the same overall set of genes from mewling infant to slipper’d pantaloon, we are functionally different at different times because different sets of genes come on- or off-line as time passes. Thirdly, our genes are very sensitive to what’s going on around them – very responsive to circumstance. Finally, too, of course, genes by themselves do not exercise total, final control over all that happens. For example – and crucially – genes do help to make brains but once the brains are formed they have their own rules.
But although this kind of account gives us some insight into the mechanism of the mind – the raw materials that we have to work with – it doesn’t really explain human nature. It doesn’t tell us why human beings, acting individually, in groups, or as entire nations, behave as we do. Our behaviour really is flexible, and to a very great and usually decisive extent we can choose what to do – so why do we so often behave badly, destructively, when we know we could improve the world by being nice, and constructive, and that by improving the world we would also, in the end, benefit ourselves? Why, right now, led by governments whom we elect, and intellectuals who are feted for their cleverness, and commercial companies which, we are told, can survive only by doing what we want them to do, does the whole world seem hell-bent on self-destruction? Why, when the reality of this, and some at least of the solutions, are so obvious?
Here we can invoke another set of ideas from 20th century science: those of game theory. I am not of course suggesting that science can tell us all we need to know, in this or any other context. But I do suggest that as a ground rule in all matters, it is always worth seeing what science has to say. Science – robust knowledge as far as this is possible of the material world – is not the royal road to omniscience but it is a vital component of what can properly be called wisdom, as many a sage from Ibn Rushd to Thomas Aquinas to the present Dalai Lama has insisted. Again, the material and the non-material world can properly be seen as two sides of the same coin. So:
Game theory was first dreamed up by the Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann in the 1930s as a robust way of working out the best strategy in any kind of interaction – of conflict or cooperation – between two or more players. Together with Oskar Morgenstern he extended the idea in 1944 in their Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour. Since then the basic idea has been extended this way and that by many hundreds of researchers and applied to military strategy, politics, and economics. In the 1970s the English engineer turned biologist John Maynard Smith applied game theory to problems of biology: animal behaviour, ecology, evolution. The leaps-and-bounds advance of computers these past few decades have enabled game theorists to create computer models by which to simulate interactions of endless subtlety – of the kind that we experience in real life, almost as intricate as those described by Shakespeare and Chekhov and all truly serious writers. Models that seek to make sense of evolutionary problems have been further helped by the ideas of gene-based selection. The general aim is to quantify the advantages or disadvantages of any particular course of action in any particular circumstance. To a significant extent this means calculating whether any particular gene will be more or less likely to survive and replicate if its owner decides to fight and risk injury or death, or to run away and hope for better luck next time.
One well-honed and very simple model that nonetheless seems to have huge explanatory power is that of doves and hawks. Doves are conceived as peaceable and passive creatures (They are mythological doves, in short – the kind that come bearing olive twigs. Real doves can be very feisty. The ones outside my window give the magpies a fine old run for their money.) Hawks are taken to be all-out aggressors – attack, attack, attack!
The game – the computer simulation – is played by assigning arbitrary but realistic scores to all the players, depending on outcome. Thus we might assume that if all the individuals in a society behave as doves, always polite and always seeking to cooperate rather than to fight, then each might score six points out of a possible ten. This might not seem great from a personal point of view, but it is not to be sneezed at. If there are 10 individuals in the group then the total happiness score for all of them all together is 10 x 6 = 60 (we might call it the total happiness index).
Suppose, though, that on to this idyllically peaceable if not exactly exciting scene comes a hawk. He (let’s assume it’s a he) then bashes all the doves out of the way – pinching the best food, the best nesting site, and the likeliest looking female, or females, for his mate(s). The doves, being doves, give him carte blanche. The lone hawk, able to fill his boots, then has a happiness rating of 9 (let’s knock a point off just to acknowledge that life is never perfect). So he is far better off than any of the doves were when they were all behaving dovishly. Ergo, in the short term at least, at least in a society of doves, it pays to be a hawk. However, the doves are far worse off than they were before the hawk turned up – so their individual rating drops to two. So the total happiness index for the whole group falls to (9 x 2 =) 18 + 9 = 27. Clearly, the total happiness index for an all-dove society is far higher than in one with an importunate hawk.
The hawk, however, pinching the best of everything, enjoys the greatest reproductive success. Like begets like (in general) so the number of hawks increases. Assuming the total population does not grow (it is limited by the resources) the proportion of hawks also increases. But this isn’t good for the individual hawks. When there was only one hawk, he could take what he wanted without opposition – no risk, no fights – and so his happiness rating was very high. But if there is more than one hawk then every now and again, each hawk finds as he swaggers in to grab the spoils that he encounters another like himself, who fights back. Whoever loses the resultant scrap might even be killed and his personal happiness score will then fall to zero. An all-hawk society is an impossibility: one long punch-up. Nature really would be red in tooth and claw just as Tennyson (two decades before Darwin) said it was, and the result would be chaos: entropy. (We perhaps should note too, in passing, that real hawks don’t behave like metaphorical hawks any more than real doves behave like metaphorical doves. Real hawks know when to give way, like any sensible beast. But metaphorical hawks make the point.)
Even this very simple model makes quite a few points with huge political and moral implications. It tells us that a society in which everyone behaves decorously and cooperatively can provide a good (and eminently fair) environment for everyone. But it also shows that such a society is vulnerable. If some aggressive alien walks in, or some erstwhile dove mutates into hawk, then there is nothing to stop the lone aggressor from taking all he wants, and so he does, very much to the detriment of the rest. This, I would say, is a fairly good description of the state of most societies through most of history, and especially of the modern world, shaped as it is by the ultra-competitive “free” market, where the spoils are to the most aggressive. The present world is ruled by oligarchies and to be an oligarch in the modern economy you need to be aggressive and indeed ruthless, in fact if not in demeanour, and aggression and ruthlessness are nasty rather than nice. In short, most of us are nice most of the time, and almost everyone prefers to be nice, so in a true democracy, reflecting the will of the people, niceness ought to prevail. In practice, though, nice people are ruled by nasty people, or at least by people who feel obliged to behave nastily. This, I suggest, is the central tragedy of humankind; made clear by the simplest of game theory.
Crucially, too, though, the model tells us, hawks cannot afford to become too numerous. If there are too many stroppy individuals able and eager to fight back then indiscriminate aggression becomes too dangerous. Hence, despite their success, the hawks must always be in the minority. To put the matter more positively: the doves, who might seem so feeble, should always outnumber the hawks. So one feels that if only the doves would get their act together, and take on the hawks, they could win, as many a revolutionary has pointed out as he, and sometimes she, urges his or her fellow citizens or peasants to rise up. But of course, in rising up, the doves must put their dovishness on hold – and often, if they succeed, revolutionary doves fail to recover their erstwhile dovishness. As the historian Lord Acton observed, “All power corrupts.” Hmm.
Of course, no-one in reality is 100 per cent dove (witness Jesus in the temple) and no-one is an absolute hawk (Hitler was nice to dogs and to some human beings). Each of us with our personal parliament of genes can at times be somewhat dovish or somewhat hawkish. Depending on our particular apportionment of genes and our upbringing, some of us are more “naturally” inclined to be doves while others slip readily into hawkishness, but to a large extent, we can decide how to behave at any one time. As Henry V put the matter, “In peace there’s nothing so becomes as man as modest stillness and humility, but when the blast of war rings in our ears then imitate the action of the tiger. Stiffen the sinews … etc”. The choice is ours. Provided we are not too heavily stressed (which robs us of our judgement) we can choose to switch from one to the other (and all points in between).
Somewhat more complex than hawks and doves and again hugely instructive is the prisoner’s dilemma.
I have never yet seen a presentation of the prisoner’s dilemma that is truly convincing, but the gist of it is that if two people agree on some course of action, and they both stick to it, then both do pretty well: let’s say they each score 6 on the happiness index, giving a total happiness index of 12. If both cheat, then they both do badly. Each one scores 2. Total 4. If one cheats and the other is honest, then the cheat walks off with all the spoils and so scores 10 on the happiness index – while the honest one is left in the lurch and scores 0. Total happiness index: 10 – but very unfairly skewed.
So if both parties are honest, their combined happiness is maximized, and both do reasonably well. If both parties cheat, then they both do badly and the total happiness is very low. If one cheats and the other is honest, then the total happiness is less than maximal – but the cheat does very well and the honest one loses out entirely.
So, leaving aside the morality of the thing, is it more advantageous to cheat or to be honest?
The question is simple enough but the answer (as is generally the case with simple questions) is endlessly complicated. Honesty can bring a modest reward (if the other partner is honest too) or it can be disastrous (if the other person cheats). Cheating will bring a very poor reward if the other person cheats too – or may be very advantageous, if the other person is honest.
In real life – as is always true in real life – the answer to the simple question is, “It all depends.” If B is straight as a die, and can be trusted, then it pays A to cheat. He can be pretty sure that B will play the game. But if B is a somewhat dodgy character, and liable to cheat, then A might be better off cheating, just in case. But real life does not end when the game ends. If A cheats and B is honest and suffers badly, then when B recovers he seeks revenge. One night when A is serving rum and cokes in his new bar in Spain, B creeps up behind him with a piece of four by two. If B is killed because of A’s double-cross, then B’s mates go after A, and so begins a vendetta.
In short, in real life, the outcome will always be a mixture of good and bad, no matter what anyone does. If we are interested in total happiness, however, then the best bet is for everyone in the society to be honest. In short, in general, morality pays. This can be seen as one of the messages of the Sermon on the Mount. If you are honest, and generous, and kind, then you may well be taken for a sucker. But if everyone is honest, and generous, and kind, then the result is wondrous. Perhaps, then, the best bet for any one individual is to risk being a sucker, and hope that by being honest, generous and kind, he or she will set an example that others may follow. If they do, then life truly can be wonderful.
Conceptually similar is the tit-for-tat scenario. If you find yourself in the company of someone whom you fear might be dangerous, who may knock you on the head when your back is turned and pinch the deeds to your house or your dinner money or whatever it may be, should you wait for him to strike the first blow or get your retaliation in first? All sorts of complexities come into this, including the observation that violence begets violence. That is, if you launch a pre-emptive attack that is not immediately fatal, then the other guy will be very likely to fight back, perhaps with interest, and the result is violence which may result in your own death and is in any case unpleasant. If you take a chance, and wait for him to strike the first blow, he might not strike at all and all will be well.
So, if in company with someone of unknown temperament and intent, how should you behave? A great many computer simulations suggest that the best tactic, the one that minimizes the chances of violence and generally produces the best outcome in the long term, is not to strike the first blow, but always to retaliate if the other strikes first. The rule is, never attack pre-emptively – i.e. without provocation – but always retaliate. That way the potential antagonist should soon learn that if he leaves you alone he will be safe (which is very useful to know) but if he strikes first there will always be trouble. One further twist: if retaliation is always followed by retaliation then we have vendetta, of the kind that in real societies may go on for centuries, generation after generation. The best or perhaps the only way to end a vendetta is for one side to decide not to retaliate, even when attacked. Then the opponent has no excuse to attack again, and may not do so. As Mario Puzo describes in The Godfather, the old-style Mafia (whose stock in trade was protection, rather than drugs and human trafficking) did conduct some spectacular vendettas but also knew how to end them, when it suited. The Godfather might be read as an extended exercise in game theory (as indeed may any of Shakespeare’s history plays).
Several salutary and realistic points emerge from all this hypothetical discussion. First, the short term may well be at odds with the long term. Thus, in the tit-for-tat scenario, if the first blow struck is fatal then it is game over (or so it may seem for the time being). But if the one who is attacked survives, then he will retaliate in the fullness of time. Similarly, the prisoner who gets 10 years while his partner breezes off to Spain will be released eventually, and then will come looking for blood, with 10 years’ resentment behind him. The victim of a pre-emptive attack that proves fatal will doubtless have relatives, or cronies, who also will come looking for blood. Then there’s the matter of reputation. The prisoner who betrays his mate proves himself to be untrustworthy, and nobody will ever quite trust him again – which is not a good position to be in. For traditional businesspeople their reputation for trustworthiness was their greatest asset. I am told that in the old-style City of London the biggest deals could be decided on a handshake. Now the handshake has largely been superseded by the 1000-page contract, drawn up by very expensive lawyers, which more lawyers then scour for loopholes.
Unfortunately, there is an asymmetry in all this. The long term may be more important than the short term – if only because the long term lasts longer – but the long term depends on the short term. For those who lose hands down in the short term there is no long term. The long term is a lot of short terms joined together. So peace may always be preferable to war but if one person or nation is peaceful and another is aggressive then the peaceful ones are swept aside. This is the perennial dilemma of pacifists – “the pacifists’ dilemma”. Of course it is better from all points of view not to fight because fighting is dangerous and foul but if, by being pacifist, you are destroyed – and your loved ones and everything you care about are destroyed as well – then what price pacifism?
Clearly, what really matters is trust. There can be no long-term peace, whether at a personal or at a national level, unless each of us is reasonably confident that our own attempts to be peaceable and generous will not be taken advantage of; that we will not, by being nice, simply make life easier for those who are not.
All this, I suggest, reveals rather graphically – quasi-mathematically, indeed – the genius of Jesus Christ. At least as portrayed in the New Testament, he was the greatest moralist of all, driven by an absolute conviction and vision of what is right. But he was also a fine games theorist. Thus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7) he tells us:
5:2: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the Earth.”
5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”
5: 39: “If any should strike you on the cheek, turn to him the other also”.
And, perhaps most remarkable of all:
5:43–44: “You have heard it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say unto you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
Finally he counsels:
5:48: “Be perfect therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Four-and-a-bit centuries later St Augustine tells us:
“If any one will piously and soberly consider the sermon which our Lord Jesus Christ spoke on the mount, as we read it in the Gospel according to Matthew, I think that he will find in it, so far as regards the highest morals, a perfect standard of the Christian life.”
(From: Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount)
All in all the Sermon on the Mount is highly counter-intuitive – but in game theory terms it makes perfect sense. At least, it makes perfect sense if we are prepared to play the long game, because game theory tells us and in any case we can easily see (and this is common sense, not counter-intuitive at all) that each of us individually and the world as a whole have a far better chance of survival, and life will be far more agreeable, if we can avoid strife. Loving your enemy and turning the other cheek are risky but – and this is at the heart of Christ’s whole message – the risk is worth taking. The competitiveness and aggression that now prevail and are official strategy may well be an even bigger risk. They might indeed be a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Already they have taken us to the brink.
There are caveats, however. First, Jesus really did believe that the Apocalypse – the end of the present world followed by judgement – was imminent. He also believed that our Earthly life is merely preparation for eternal life to come, preferably in Heaven but perhaps not. Extreme passivity is a risk and may prove fatal – but if we believe that the whole world is due to end in any case, and that our life is merely a prelude to an eternity of bliss (if we have faith, and/or are righteous, and/or are extremely lucky) then this Earthly life begins to seem trivial, and death loses its sting.
Secondly, it has often been pointed out that timely violence can pre-empt and prevent far greater violence. A madman with a machete threatening small children has to be put a stop to. So too, sometimes, do mad dictators with big and battle-hardened armies. Sometimes shoot first and ask questions after seems the only sensible policy. I once attended a seminar with the Dalai Lama in which he was asked in a general way – “Is it ever good to do a bad thing, to prevent something even worse?” The Dalai Lama replied: “It is never good to do a bad thing but sometimes in reality we are obliged to choose between the lesser of evils. Always ask yourself, ‘What is the most compassionate thing to do?’.”
That answer seems to serve very well. The general rule that seems to emerge from all sides – biologists, game theorists, religious leaders – is to avoid violence unless there really is no option – unless violence really is needed to avoid even worse. Conviviality, though, requires trust, and non-violence. It is worth risking a great deal – including loving your enemies and turning the other cheek – in order to keep that ideal alive. In short, the Sermon on the Mount is the gold standard – and if we truly desire to make a better world, then we should always aspire to the gold standard even though, in reality, we are more or less bound to fall short. To combine the sentiments of St Paul and Robert Louis Stevenson, it is good, and necessary, always to travel in hope of an ideal state, even though we may never reach it.
One last thought: in these post-Enlightenment times, those in power seek to solve the world’s problems with algorithms – sure-fire formulae which, once in place, will do all that needs doing without further thought, and without recourse to messy, subjective moralizing. Neoliberalism – the free global market – is conceived as the all-purpose economic system based on “objective” principles that will solve the world’s problems forever. We just have to light the blue touch paper and the market will take care of all our problems – democratically, since the producers and traders can survive only by doing what the consumers (us) want them to (or so the myth has it). The most highly paid and commonly the best-known scientists are those who seek “magic bullets”, able to cure diseases or destroy pests once and for all – and sometimes, to be sure, magic bullets have worked (the extinction of smallpox with an effective vaccine adroitly applied truly is a triumph). So the buzz has got round, especially in the highest circles, that the market and science must be given their head (provided the science is geared to the demands of the market). Moral philosophy must be reduced to cost-effectiveness, for then it can be quantified like everything else; and the metaphysical underpinning, rooted in woolly ideas of transcendence and oneness, and reliant on intuition, must be consigned to the compost heap, along with all the other trappings of religion (except on ceremonial occasions, to show what serious people we are).
But the neoliberal algorithm clearly doesn’t work, or not at least in the best interests of humanity and the biosphere as a whole, and neither does any other economic formula, taken in isolation. And although we can always use more science we seem to have enough right now, at least to solve our most pressing material problems, including those of food and farming. In fact, what is needed above all is the very thing that in this hard-headed age is being neglected and sometimes derided: serious moral thinking and feeling, preferably reinforced by metaphysics in various guises, which in practice, at least in the present world, means religion. Clerics of the world think on, and unite. Your time has come, if only you would get your respective acts together and stop squabbling among yourselves. Morality and a sense of transcendence must override algorithm.
So what hope is there for us and for our fellow creatures?
There are good things going for us. Notably, and very encouragingly, modern science largely in the form of evolutionary psychology has been telling us these past few decades that human beings are basically nice – or at least, most of us are, most of the time. Most people would certainly prefer to be nice, and would be if only we weren’t too stressed, and if only we didn’t feel that others would take advantage of our niceness. Our proclivity for niceness isn’t merely superficial. Evolutionary theory and a growing dossier of observation of animals as well as people tell us that niceness is deeply embedded in our biology.
Many strands of modern genetics tell us too that although genes are huge players in our lives, they are not the un-listening, unswervable, tin-pot despots that they tended to be portrayed as until recent decades. They are eminently responsive to the surrounding conditions; and in intelligent creatures, as we are supposed to be, the final arbiter is, or should be, the brain. In principle at least, the will can override our gene-based instincts, although in this as in all things life works most smoothly when nature and nurture work together. Ideally there would be no nature–nurture conflict.
Yet, despite this head start, we have contrived to make a world that is dysfunctional – so much so that many sober-sided thinkers including scientists and popes, and even some brave and radical politicians (of the kind who usually get side-lined) have long been pointing out that if we go on as we are then to all intents and purposes we’ll have had our chips. So what’s gone wrong, and how can we put it right?
Evolutionary psychology and game theory seem to throw light on some of the basic obstacles. First, the genes that influence our behaviour – a whole host of them, working in many different ways – really do form a “parliament”. Some predispose us to be nice – pacific, cooperative, compassionate – while others incline us to the complete opposite: aggression, self-centredness, treachery. In most of us, most of the time, the nice genes prevail. Were it not so, there could be no societies at all, or indeed no functional families, and like all living creatures, we need societies, and without a family in the form of parental care none of us could survive infancy. So of course we are predominantly nice – or at least nice enough to form functional groups.
But I keep using the word “most”: most of us; most of the time. All of us are capable of nastiness; and some people, commonly seen as psychopaths or sociopaths, are very inclined to be nasty – utterly self-centred; indifferent to the suffering of others; keen not to fit in and be a member of the gang (“be in t’ band” as they say in Lancashire), but above all to dominate.
So this raises two problems. First, we need to attend to ourselves: as Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer put the matter – “to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative”. This is partly a matter of will: we can individually to a large extent simply decide to be nice. But also – given that our genes, representing our in-built “nature” – are extremely responsive to our surroundings, we can in theory and demonstrably in fact seek to accentuate our own innate niceness by manipulating conditions in ways that encourage us to be nice. The present world, it seems, is all too inclined to take the nice guy for a sucker. This, though, is where the Sermon on the Mount comes in. We have to be prepared to take a few personal knocks in the short term in the hope of creating conditions that will favour niceness in the long term. Here, game theory comes to our aid. The tit for tat model shows that if we don’t retaliate to aggression then the aggressor is quite likely to stop aggressing.
Secondly, it does seem that in a few people, the bad genes tend to prevail most of the time. A few people almost never feel compassion for anyone apart perhaps for their old mother or their brother, and are absolutely indifferent to the sufferings of humanity at large or of our fellow creatures. I don’t know whether such people should be called “evil”. Theologians have been arguing this point in principle for millennia – whether we can be held responsible for in-built traits that presumably were conferred by God, and whether we can be called “evil” if our innate badness is beyond our control. Let’s not go there. Let us simply acknowledge that some people are predisposed to behave unsociably, and employ sociality and charm only to further their own ends.
Here game theory plays us several nasty tricks. First, those who are inclined to be aggressive, and get their blow in first, may well succeed in the short term. They may well put their rivals out of action and grab all the spoils for themselves. Secondly, game theory (and common sense and common observation) show that in the long term too much aggression by too many people is bound to bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. But in this there is unfortunate bias. The long term is influenced by the short term, but the short term is not influenced by the long term – unless, in all our actions, we keep the long term in mind. In practice, a lot of people much of the time are inclined simply to do whatever seems most expedient in the short term and let the long term take care of itself. Furthermore, the short term may not be all that short. Agriculture makes the point. Thus, the industrial farming that now prevails is obviously hideously destructive, and therefore “unsustainable” (an overtired term but it will have to do) which means that measured on a geological or even on an anthropological time-scale it is definitely short-term. But the Earth is big and forgiving – far more forgiving than we have a right to expect – and although we have been abusing it more or less since agriculture began, and have positively ravaged it in the past few centuries, it still comes up smiling, or at least in large part is still functional. For politicians and economists if not for anthropologists and biologists a century is a very long time, so to them, the short term looks like the long term. Thus, many people in high places simply don’t see the problem. They don’t need to be “in denial” because to them, there is nothing to deny. In the short term, aggressiveness and the desire to dominate are all too likely to prevail; and so they do, not least, or especially, in agriculture, the thing we absolutely can’t afford to get wrong.
Those who are unusually aggressive, and acquisitive, and self-centred can properly be classed as psychopaths – or, more simply, as gangsters, even if they don’t sport greasy Stetsons and designer stubble. The theory of hawks and doves tells us that gangsters are bound to be rare, which of course is good for the rest of us. But again, a quirk of what can reasonably be called game theory plays us yet another nasty trick.
For those who want to dominate do dominate. While most of us are content to do our thing – raising chickens, running a corner shop, teaching seven-year-olds to ride their bicycles, healing the sick – a few see everything we do as grist to their own mill; a potential empire; a market opportunity. They ask how chickens or indeed all farming, or retail, or education or health care, can be used to maximize wealth and – which is the real point! – to concentrate that wealth into the hands of the entrepreneur and his or her cronies. I do not want to condemn all entrepreneurs (we need a few) or to insult everyone in power (many are very good and talented people who truly are on the side of humanity) but it is the case that many are in high places simply because it was their ambition to be in high places. In other words, there is a higher proportion of psychopaths and gangsters in positions of great influence than among the populace at large – and this seems to me, and to a lot of commentators, to explain a great deal of what’s wrong with the world. There is a growing literature on all this, easily checked out on Google. Stalin and Robert Maxwell are good examples of psychopaths in their respective spheres.
Two further factors make the position even worse. First, we, human beings, are primates; and as primates we have a very strong, in-built inclination to follow those we perceive to be our leaders. (So too do many other mammals, including dogs and meerkats.) This doubtless has survival value in the wild or it would not be so. Wild beasties, like soldiers in war, must often make instant decisions and haven’t got time for democratic discussion. Unfortunately, very clever people seem just as inclined to follow their leader as the rest of us. So it is that all too often intellectuals finish up working for psychopaths, and are content to do so. Intellectuals are very good at myth-making, and can always invent reasons why it is good or necessary to work for some gangster. Of course, some intellectuals are gangsters in their own right. Joseph Goebbels comes readily to mind. Contrariwise, intellectuals who emphatically are not gangsters, but truly care about the welfare of their fellow human beings, seem to achieve positions of real influence only under very special circumstances. Mahatma Gandhi, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Vaclav Havel come readily to mind. More on this in Part IV.1.1: “How should the world be run, and who by?”
Secondly, those in power are able to control the channels of information – and of course to employ intellectuals to help them to do so more effectively. Academe as a whole is increasingly controlled from above by “the powers-that-be” while individual tycoons own whole streams of newspapers, and governments like Britain’s increasingly hand power to the corporates, apparently in the belief that this is the best way to run the world. The ideas that suit the rich and powerful and their political and academic allies are then rained down upon the rest of us; and only those who make a deliberate effort to do so escape the deluge.
The Enlightenment of the 18th century (or really from the late 16th onwards) of course has much to commend it, including the formal recognition and development of ideas such as freedom, democracy, justice that is truly just, and rationality in general, not to mention science and the music of Bach. But there is a bad side too. Rationality has sometimes been taken not simply as a component of wisdom but as the sole reliable source of knowledge, to the exclusion of all else. Rationality has been equated with materialism. Science has been presented to us virtually as the royal road to omniscience, and high-tech to omnipotence. All other ways of looking at the world have been seen to be obsolete, “primitive”. All non-western societies and cultures have been seen to be inferior. Often we have given ourselves carte blanche just to sweep aside traditional ways of thinking, sometimes piously insisting that this was for their own good. All this has been seen as “progress” which – another Enlightenment novelty! – has been seen unequivocally to be a good thing.
Out of all the unfortunate outcomes of Enlightenment thinking (or at least of over-extended Enlightenment thinking) two are particularly threatening; and both now dominate the world. The first is neoclassical economics, which has given rise to neoliberalism; and the second is an uncritical technophilia. Both are, or will be, discussed elsewhere (in Parts IV and V) but need brief mention here.
Neoclassical economics formally began in the 18th century with the premises that people in general are made happy by material wealth and that the more we have, the happier we will be. Combined with the Enlightenment idea that moral good may be seen as “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”, it seems to follow that maximization of wealth is morally good (as well as being convenient). From this arose the idea that maximizing wealth is all that we are morally obliged to do. One of the pillars of the Scottish Enlightenment, Adam Smith, completed the neoclassical analysis by suggesting that if traders in the marketplace simply operated in their own best (material) interests then somehow or other an “invisible hand” would ensure that everything worked out for the general benefit. After all, traders can succeed in the end only by doing what people want and those who cheat will soon be exposed and they will lose all their customers.
Neoliberalism grew up in the 1960s, particularly among Chicago-based economists including Milton Friedman who felt that Adam Smith had indeed hit the nail right on the head. If only we gave the market a totally free hand then the invisible hand would indeed sort everything out. Friedman argued that Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, which was supposed to help the US to recover from the awful depression of the 1930s, had in fact held things up by seeking to control the market. If only he had reduced the rules that control the market (“deregulated”) and left the free market to do its thing the recovery would have been quicker and reached a more satisfactory endpoint. And here was the irony. Roosevelt and others interfered with the market for moral reasons. They saw that it needed to be controlled if general suffering was to be reduced. But, said Friedman and others, this was yet another good intention that paved the way to hell. They would have done more good by not interfering – in other words, by not seeking to be moral. Thus the idea arose or at least was made official that economists should not function as moralists (even though most of them up until the 1960s, including Adam Smith, saw themselves as moralists as much as economists). The market, under neoliberalism, in effect is seen as a magic bullet, a sure-fire formula, an algorithm, which needs only to be applied. Neoliberalism achieved the status of global norm when Thatcher and then Reagan adopted it circa 1980. We have had plenty of time since then – nearly 40 years – to see if the algorithm does indeed work in the public interest and for the good of the biosphere, and although people in high places continue to cling to the doctrine, most of us would conclude that it very obviously does not. But neoliberalism is very good for oligarchs, as discussed a little later; and whatever is good for oligarchs tends to prevail, precisely because oligarchs have power (and a higher proportion than normal are psychopaths).
The second great and pernicious and materialist post-Enlightenment idea is that science can tell us all we need to know and that high-tech can solve all our problems. Extrapolating even further, those in power tend reflexly to invoke big or high technologies as the natural and necessary answer to all problems. Often, perhaps more often than not, small-scale, locally based, and traditional technologies aren’t given a chance at all, and tend to be swept aside even when they have been shown to work. So much for the claim that modern strategies are “evidence-based”. Thus it is assumed in high places – it’s an idée fixe – that the world cannot produce enough food except by industrial methods practised on vast estates, even though (as will be discussed at length in Part II) the complete opposite is the case. In particular it’s assumed that we need GM crops and livestock and that GM technology does no harm even though it’s been shown time and again that GM crops outstrip conventional kinds only under special circumstances; that they are never necessary; and that GM technology has a great many drawbacks. Similarly, the standard response to flood control in Britain is to build bigger walls and drains at huge expense with commensurately huge profits although many a study and centuries of experience suggest that flooding might be reduced by 70% or more just by more sensible farming (where “sensible” largely means “commonsensical”). Whatever reduces flood, too, should also reduce the risk of drought.
But big and esoteric technology is assumed to represent “progress” – even though, in truth, biology-based solutions tend to be far more subtle and may deploy science of a far higher order. The reason for this is partly the Enlightenment mind-set – big-scale and high-tech are obviously human creations, products of the mind, whereas biological solutions are rooted in nature which is seen ipso facto to be wild, and hence primitive. But the bigger reason is that big-scale tech and high-tech in general are easily turned into wealth, because they give rise to “products” that can be sold. Even more to the point, the means to provide high-tech and big-scale tech can be controlled by just a few people. That is, wealth and hence power are centralized. Centralization of power and wealth is the road to oligarchy; and oligarchs favour ideas and strategies that reinforce their own ascendancy. The solutions provided by centralized, industrial technologies may well be less beneficial to people at large and the biosphere than the de-centralized, traditional kind but few people in high places seem to realize this. Even if they do, the underlying philosophy of neoliberalism provides a duck-out. The dogma has it, after all, that in the end the world is best served when producers and traders simply look after their own interests. So although GM may not be good in net for the world as a whole, those who provide it can claim that they do more good by not trying to do good than they would if they did. This is convoluted thinking to be sure, not to say twisted, but in the absence of ecological appreciation or of morality, it’s the standard view.
Finally, as also discussed elsewhere, we come back to the problem of the positive feedback loop, which makes the ruling oligarchy stronger and stronger. The loop can take many forms depending on time and circumstance. In Britain and similar countries right now the oligarchy includes the government, the corporates (and banks), and their entourage of complaisant intellectuals including an increasing slice of academe. The government, in neoliberal vein, has handed over as much as possible of the country’s affairs to the corporates, apparently in the belief that what is good for them must be good for all of us (a serious nonsense to be discussed in Part IV.2). The corporates then hire (employ, or give grants to) those intellectuals (mainly scientists and economists) who help develop ideas and technologies that will make them (the corporates) richer. The richer the corporates become the more they can support their intellectual helpers. The government meanwhile uses our (taxpayers’) money to prime the pumps. The government argues that for us (taxpayers) this is a good investment since the corporates plus supportive intellectuals between them create an excellent society in which we can all live in peace and comfort. The fact that there are crises in every sector that directly affects us (housing, education, health, transport, and of course agriculture) is not allowed to dent the belief that this is all for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Myth and dogma play a far greater part in our evidence-based world than evidence does, just as in all societies through all time. The net result is that the oligarchy grows stronger and stronger and stronger. The corporates finance the intellectuals who make them richer, which means they can spend more on intellectuals, and so on round and round and round; and the services and technologies that might truly improve human wellbeing and the security of the biosphere – such as social care and organic farming – are neglected, and indeed systematically derided; both presented as indulgences of the woolly-minded. Real life, the mythology has it, is tough, ruthless, and must be geared to wealth, which is perceived as the sine qua non and the real goal of all serious human endeavour.
Those who point this out, and the perniciousness of it, are commonly accused of conspiracy theory. There may be conspiracy or there may not – but in truth, no conspiracy is required. Natural selection is explanation enough. Those who go along with the ideas of the oligarchy may themselves become oligarchs, and grow stronger. Those who see through it – the destructiveness, the moral turpitude – are sidelined (no government or corporate grants for them!) or actively done down. Control of information delivers the coup de grace. The social media, which I suppose include this College, are growing apace, but they all pull in different directions, and we do not have the wherewithal to compete with the huge propaganda machines of the oligarchy – including, for example, lobbyists, who out-number parliamentarians several times over, and the glossy brochures from the GM companies from which agriculture ministers air-lifted into office derive their policies, and a public broadcasting service committed to neutrality which assumes that the neutral position must be the status quo.
It’s clear, too, that the personal qualities that are most likely to elevate individuals to the ranks of the oligarchs are not “gentle stillness and humility”. Whatever other qualities they may have, those who aspire to power must above all desire power. Of course, there have been some seriously excellent people in power from time to time, from England’s King Alfred (if we are to believe the history books) to Nelson Mandela. But all of them came to power under peculiar circumstances – almost always when the people they led were oppressed by some greater power, and felt the need to work together and to appoint a leader who was himself cooperative. But truly wise and altruistic leaders are rare. Power in general is a power game, and success comes to those who play the power game best.
So it is that in societies that claim to be democratic, and send young men and women to war in the name of democracy (which has taken over from Christianity as the moral cause that justifies all atrocity), the oligarchy grows stronger and stronger – though by means (elections, the free market) that are or can be made to look democratic. There is a greater proportion of psychopaths in high places than among society as a whole, and some of them can reasonably be called evil, if the term has any meaning at all. It is obvious, too, that a little evil goes a long way. Many basically good people finish up working for morally dubious organizations (including not a few corporates) for various reasons that they justify on moral grounds (including a never-quite-realized desire to reform the organization from the inside). Yet evil is not humanity’s main problem. Logistics is the main problem. Power goes to those who most want to be powerful, and such people do not necessarily, or usually, have the best interests of humanity at heart (and still less do they stop to consider the wellbeing of the biosphere).
The things we need to do to put the world to rights are the subject of this whole College. Clearly we need morality based on compassion, and politics and an economy that are fundamentally cooperative, and true concern for our fellow creatures and the fabric of the Earth (good science and a sense of transcendence, as discussed in Part I.4), and so on. Clearly too, all the endeavours that are needed are possible, because here and there, around the world, we can find them happening. The biggest question, though, is not what we need to do, or how to do what needs doing. It is – how can we break the feedback loop, the logistic quirk that seems to ensure that humanity as a whole will always be dominated by an essentially self-seeking minority, inveterately materialist, competitive rather than cooperative, for whom transcendence at best is for special days only and realism means what accountants call the bottom line?
But is there really any hope?
As always, the answer is yes. There is hope – and in any case, as St Paul insisted, hope is necessary. If we give up on hope, we really will have had our chips.
Hope is justified not least for the reasons spelled out with great scholarliness by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature, as mentioned above. For, he says, despite appearances, human violence has very significantly diminished over the past few thousand years. Though there are more wars at any one time than most of us can keep track of, and the World Wars alone claimed tens if not hundreds of millions of lives, and many have been unbelievably horrible even in the most recent times (Rwanda, the Balkans, Syria), there is now far less chance that any individual will die in war than at almost any time in the past. Torture, mutilation, slavery and public executions still happen of course but now they are illegal in most countries and outlawed by the United Nations and are generally frowned upon. But well into modern times – well into the “enlightened” 18th century and beyond – all the above were still normal practice. The Geneva Convention is often flouted but often it is not, and invading armies do not routinely slaughter, rape, mutilate, enslave, or even rob defeated peoples whereas in the Middle Ages and beyond all of the above were normal practice, positively to be gloried in. Clearly we can get better; and in this very important respect, demonstrably have.
So how has this happened? We can suggest all kinds of reasons and hope at least that some of the great moral leaders of the past few thousand years, both religious and “secular”, have made a difference. Pinker, though, hard-headedly, picks out three evidently helpful advances. The first is what Thomas Hobbes, in a book of the same title published in 1651, called Leviathan. Hobbes declared that what all societies need is strong government that is just – on the side of the people – but very definitely lays down and enforces the law; a government with the undisputed power of a Leviathan, conceived in the Old Testament as a sea monster, but here envisaged, like Superman, as an irresistible force that keeps us all in order and ensures that miscreants are punished. Without such a Leviathan on their side, people are obliged to take justice into their own hands. If somebody knocks out your teeth you either give in or bash his teeth in in retribution (“a tooth for a tooth”). But this leads to perpetual turf wars, never-ending border raids, vendettas, and indeed the much glorified mayhem of the Wild West; all fuelled by appeals to the supposed virtues of war – courage, chivalry, and all the rest, from Alexander the Great (surely a nasty piece of work!) to Billy the Kid. But once there is a judiciary in place, and police, we can leave our grievances to the authorities. I live in Oxford, as peaceable a city as you’ll find anywhere, but 200 years ago it was advisable or at least reasonable to carry a sword, for fear of robbers (who carried cudgels). To be sure, modern Americans like to carry guns (what Charlton Heston called “personal side-arms”) but there’s a lot of special history in there. This is not the norm worldwide (or even in America).
Secondly, says Pinker, the rise of international trade has had a huge impact. Once nations start trading with each other they become more and more interdependent, economically, and to that extent become allies. If you depend on another country to sell you stuff then it can be a good idea (in short-term, strictly economic terms) to invade them and take over their industries or their farming. A little judicious land-grabbing facilitated by back-handers and covert threats will do the trick. But if people actually buy your stuff then it’s best, probably, just to leave them be. The richer they are the more they can buy. On the whole, then, trade ought to reduce war and history suggests that this may well be the case.
Thirdly, we may thank the general rise of civilization. The more people gather into orderly groups in discrete and comfortable places known as cities, and the more that division of labour becomes the norm, as opposed to all-round peasant skills, the more we have to lose from any kind of disruption, and the less inclined we are to disrupt.
To some extent, then, things have been moving in the right direction. We might indeed see the strengthening of governments, the increase in trade, and the general rise of cities (which is what “civilization” really means) as grand examples of Adam Smith’s invisible hand: logistic trends that actually make life better. Some too will conclude that the improvements of the past few hundred years vindicate good old-fashioned conservatism, as manifest in traditional British Tories and traditional American Republicans. (The latter perhaps were most recently represented in the highest office by Dwight D Eisenhower – as in a quote I found in Wikipedia: “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.”) Law and order; commerce; a well-ordered city. What more do we want?
Yet of course there are huge caveats. We cannot assume that the trends we identify over the past few centuries will simply continue on their upward path for ever and ever. We cannot assume that the particular historical exigencies that have brought about improvement are some kind of all-time general formula, an algorithm that will solve our problems once and for all if only we continue to apply them, preferably with ever-increasing vigour.
We can see all around us how the Leviathan of government really can become monstrous. Kim Jong-Un rules with an iron hand but North Korea is not a happy place by most accounts and certainly, so most would agree, is not an encouraging model for the rest of us to follow. The Leviathan surely must at least be democratic, as outlined in IV.1.1. Kim Jong-Un, though, is an easy target. Very few countries, and certainly not Britain, can truly claim that their governance is democratic or that their government is devoted to the people’s wellbeing (and none takes the biosphere seriously enough).
International trade does indeed bring huge benefits. The Common Market, which became the EU, was founded in large part to ensure that the powerful nations of Europe became economically interdependent and so had more to lose from war than they had to gain; and although the EU has been quarrelsome, there have been no wars between its members though conflict, first between tribes and then between nations, was an ever-present threat in Europe and at times the norm for several thousand years. But we can overdo it. In particular, many nations, particularly in the Third World, have become so dependent on trade that they have all but sacrificed their indigenous agriculture. The folly and the horror of that were seen for example in the Irish famine of the 1840s (of which more elsewhere). Haiti has the climate and the people to grow everything in could possibly want but it has become dependent on US exports and when these were not forthcoming after the earthquake of 2010 the physical destruction was followed by famine. It need not have been so (as Bill Clinton acknowledged after a visit. Politicians learn on the hoof, if they learn at all, while the rest of us suffer). Almost all the countries of Africa that feature periodically on TV news in the throes of some foul famine could feed themselves through the worst of times, and in good times several times over, if only the crops that can actually feed people had not been replaced by cash crops grown for export.
As for civilization: of course, in general, it ought to be a good thing. The music of Bach, all of science, the Alhambra and the Taj Mahal are all products of civilization. But – another “but”! – many people these past few millennia have complained that civilization is altogether too confining. Religious mystics and romantic artists alike have commonly found it necessary to flee to the wide open spaces (although Wordsworth was enchanted by London and Blake was a city boy through and through). More to the point: civilization is commonly equated with progress. This in turn helps to explain the current neglect of agriculture. It is seen to be primitive, old-fashioned, and hence inferior: not simply to be neglected but to be actively done down. Hence the industrialization: agriculture conceived as a factory, and run along factory lines. Although the cities of London and Leiden and Amsterdam and Venice and where you will were largely built around their crafts, progress as now conceived is anti-craft. Craft is seen merely to be quaint, or an indulgence of the middle class. Progress requires that craft must be replaced by high tech and mass manufacture, and craftspeople by sure-fire bureaucratic formulae and machinery. Civilization qua progress has often been seen as the great liberator: freeing people from day-to-day chores and immediate want and enabling us truly to develop our own talents and our own selves; truly to be human beings. Yet, ironically (still more irony) it can do and is doing the precise opposite. By removing all of life’s challenges (in theory) and replacing skills with formulae, what we call progress is making humanity itself redundant. Civilization can be and often is the ultimate dehumanizer.
Clearly, too, although we have reduced violence (despite appearances) we have not in any worthwhile sense arrived. The world is still cruel, and horribly unjust, and in some respects getting worse. Despite what some in high places are telling us (lies have become normal: “alternative truths”) the inequality grows between rich and poor, and that really is a killer. There can never be true cooperation with such inequality, and without cooperation we’ve had it. There has never been any concerted concern for the biosphere, and the world as a whole now stands on the brink of ecological collapse, with mass extinction well underway, and global warming poised to deliver the coup de grace. So we may have got some things right, but there’s a very long way to go. As Winston Churchill said after a significant victory early in World War II, this, at best, is only the end of the beginning. Furthermore, all of the forces that apparently have helped to reduce violence – Leviathan, commerce, and broad-brush civilization – have serious drawbacks, and none can be relied upon to bring net benefit in the future. We haven’t yet found the means to create a better world – or at least, we have not found the means to apply the methods we do know about. It suits the people in power to maintain the status quo.
So what else is needed?
Back to Renaissance
We come back, inevitably, to the need for Renaissance. Nothing robust can be achieved ad hoc. We need to get everything right. We need to re-think everything from every point of view, and re-think every point of view from every other point of view. We need always to address the three fundamental questions: What is good? What is necessary? And what is possible? In other words, global strategy must be guided on the one hand by morality (what is right) and on the other by ecology (what is necessary and what is possible). Neither currently features prominently, or indeed at all, in the thinking of any powerful government. Given that this is the case, it is clear that we cannot afford to leave the world’s affairs to governments, even when they are elected – and still less to the oligarchy of government, corporates, and their attendant intellectuals. We, people at large, must take matters into our own hands.
Everything needs attending to – none more than education. Education to a large and increasing extent has become the precise opposite: training in the particular “skill-set” required to get a job with some organization that has wealth and power, be it Monsanto or HBOS. Such training is called “vocational” although “vocation” used to mean a calling (which is the proper meaning of the word) toward some noble undertaking, such as teaching or medicine or the church. It didn’t mean plugging yourself in to the market. Above all, the disciplines of morality and metaphysics need to be restored and brought to the fore. No economic or political system can work to the general advantage without a moral underpinning. Adam Smith’s invisible hand does not work, or certainly not reliably. And, I suggest, although not everyone would agree, morality to be truly robust must be underpinned by the metaphysical concept of transcendence.
One last caveat. We need to adjust conditions in ways that encourage people to be convivial – cooperative; compassionate – and not, as now, to fight each other to get to the top. We need, too, to create conditions in which people can be personally fulfilled. At the very least we all need good food, a comfortable place to live and a satisfying job. Some say these are basic human “rights” (although “rights” is a tricky concept) – yet for most young people in present-day Britain and for billions worldwide they are just dreams. The deliberate attempt to manipulate conditions to achieve some particular social end is commonly called “social engineering”.
Some people – especially the neoliberal zealots of the free market – argue that any kind of social engineering is simply wrong. We should just let people slug it out in the marketplace and see what happens. Que sera sera. According at least to Adam Smith, the invisible hand will ensure that all is well. Even if it isn’t – well, that’s life: good Darwinian biology – or so they seem to think – and therefore, apparently, it can’t be wrong, even if some people and our fellow creatures finish up with the short straw.
But even if we accept that social engineering broadly defined is necessary – for of course it makes sense to try to create conditions that are good for people and for the planet – we must also acknowledge that it can never be an exact science. We can never predict precisely how even our most well-meaning enterprises will turn out. In this, as always in real life, cause and effect are distinctly non-linear. Sometimes, for example, well-meaning – truly good – citizens have clubbed together to build a youth club, with ping-pong and Friday-night dances and all the rest, and the ungrateful little blighters ignore it, or cover it in graffiti, or even burn it down. Why so? The general answer is that people are very diverse, and all are complicated. Children who for the most part are bored out of their skulls and deeply frustrated are wont primarily to feel patronised when some well-meaning adult tries to do them a favour. It’s not hand-outs we want, they seem to say, it’s freedom! Respect! Status! To take what’s given as grace-and-favour is to comply, to accept the status quo and the subservience that goes with it. Then, as they contemplate the ashes, the well-meaning adults give up.
This kind of scenario is repeated a thousand times over in every generation in every context – and there are many other possible scenarios too, where for a whole variety of reasons things just don’t turn out as expected. Those who aspire to make the world a better place just have to accept set-backs – and must above all perhaps be self-critical. As many a sage has pointed out, the best way to help people is to leave them the freedom to help themselves and (some would say) never to give help until it is asked for. The art of parenthood is to let go. As is clear to see, though, we won’t make a better world by creating a general free-for-all and calling it the free market and pretending that this is in some way “Darwinian” and therefore OK. That is social engineering too, but of a seriously crude and muddled kind.
So where should we begin the Renaissance? Everything needs to be re-thought in the light of everything else, and a great deal needs to be restructured, but we can’t fire on all cylinders at once. We do need some kind of plan – what George W Bush called a route map, much as I hate to quote George W Bush. Serendipitously, we can begin most realistically with the thing that matters most of all – farming. We can start with the Agrarian Renaissance. As this website and the College in general will show, the Agrarian Renaissance has already begun – in thousands of pockets worldwide, in many different ways; proof, I think, that it can be done.
To succeed we need cooperation, which needs compassion, which needs empathy. Fortunately, human beings are eminently capable of all three. For most of us, these are our preferred options. Logistics is against us – the tendency of those who are not cooperative, or compassionate, or possessed of affective empathy, to rise to the top and then to exercise undue influence; to shape the whole society according to their own peculiar and unhelpful lights. Our own mistrust of one another is against us too. But once such problems are recognized, and spelled out, they can surely be overcome. Diagnosis is the first step to a cure. Overall, in this as in most things, our task is to create the conditions that make it possible, and preferably easy, to do the things we really want to do. That surely ought to be achievable.
Colin Tudge, 27 February 20