Thursday, November 15, 2007

Natural Law and Societal Evolution

I made a point in this post and in this one that I've been meaning to return to. Specifically: it seems to me that the rise and fall, growth and decline of societies across history occurs by mechanisms very similar to those accepted in the theories of biological evolution.

No, I'm serious. Hear me out on this one....

Evolution needs two things to occur. First, it needs a source of variation: some mechanism whereby a system can spawn variations of itself. Second, it needs a source of selection: some mechanism by which variations that are less fit for survival are eliminated.

In the theory of biological evolution, variation is provided through genetic mutation, which introduces random changes into the genome; and selection is provided through the process of natural selection, in which less fit members of a species are just that much less likely to survive to reproductive maturity to pass on their genes. Over time, those mutations that make an organism better adapted to its environment get passed on; and those mutations that make an organism less adapted to its environment eventually get edged out, as the organisms carrying them are out-competed by their rivals. And the standard line is that this process needs no reasoning intelligence to guide it. (Remember that point--it will come up a bit later.)

But notice: similar mechanisms exist in human societies as well. People--individually and collectively (as societies, as states, and as nations)--have worldviews (religions, traditions, institutions, and outlooks) that affect their actions. But the actions of the people strongly affect how likely they are to pass their worldviews on to their progeny. Because of this, some worldviews inherently don't get passed on very well, and some do.

A few examples will illustrate this point. The American religious group known as the Shakers believed in strict celibacy--even between husband and wife--and managed to create a society that successfully upheld this ideal. Because of this, they produced no offspring, and could only grow through conversion. As a result, the success of the movement was highly, highly dependent on conditions in the surrounding society from which they drew converts. While they had little difficulty attracting new converts in the early 1800s, this changed as the social mores and economy of the United States changed during the century. According to Wikipedia, there were only twelve honest-to-goodness Shakers left as of 1920, and only four left as of 2006.

On the other hand, consider the Jewish Kosher Law. This law outlaws many kinds of meat, limiting them to meat from cloven-hoofed cud-chewers (cows, sheep, goats, deer, antelope, bison, water buffalo, and--believe it or not--giraffes), certain kinds of fish, certain kinds of birds, and a smattering of insects (grasshoppers, locusts). Note that this list effectively rules out everything else--including pork, shellfish, rabbit, ostrich, escargot, and eel (no Unagi, I'm afraid). The Kosher Law also gives certain rules as to how the animals should be slaughtered, and how the food should be prepared. Now, I'm not going to claim to know why God chose to limit the foods they were permitted to eat. But we can note, through modern eyes, that these restrictions actually produce a fairly healthful diet. Someone maintaining a Kosher diet is much less likely to wind up getting Trichinosis or liver flukes, because the diet avoids the foods most likely to harbor the parasites.

As a result, ancient Jewish society would tend to be made more healthy by following this diet. And in turn, this would help its population growth, thus bestowing a survival advantage upon the society. Again, I'm not sure that this was part of God's reasoning--it might have been, or God may have had a whole bunch of other reasons. But for the sake of this argument, let's pretend for now that the Kosher laws were given for health reasons.

Now consider this: how much did the ancient Jews understand about microbiology? How much did they understand about germ theory?

In fact, it's highly unlikely they would have made the mental connection between the dietary laws and their improved health. I doubt they even noticed they were healthier than they would have been. After all, the ancient Hebrews wandering in the desert didn't have much of a scientific tradition. I don't read much about double-blind dietary studies in the Bible (although the first chapter of Daniel comes pretty close; but that wasn't until centuries later).

The point to be seen here is that obeying a Natural Law brings benefits--even if the Natural Law is not even recognized or understood. And disobeying a Natural Law brings penalties, regardless of whether people understand what happened. It is the obeying of a Natural Law that brings the benefit, not the understanding of the Law (except insofar as understanding the Law causes people to start complying with it).

So let's go back to the evolutionary model: societies are made up of humans with their own worldviews. And these worldviews change over time, pretty spontaneously. New religions and new philosophies are dreamed up; fads come and go, both in the world of fashion and in intellectual life; societies have collective experiences (wars, famines) that change the ways they think about their existence. All these changes constitute the variation that I mentioned earlier, that was one of the mechanisms required for evolution.

And of course, societies are in competition with each other; states are in competition with each other; religions are in competition with each other; and individuals are in competition with each other. The borders of every nation on earth have moved forward and backward over time. Empires grow for centuries, then fail--often because of their own internal decadence. Entire industries rise and then go bust. Religions start small, then occasionally grow huge, then sometimes (as in the case of the Zoroastrians) begin to dwindle in numbers to the point where everyone else sees them more as a historical curiosity than anything else. This ebb and flow of society, this cultural competition, becomes the engine of selection, which is the other mechanism required for evolution.

So both of the mechanisms required for Darwinian evolution exist among human societies. And what does that mean?

Well, here are some ramifications:
  • Societies tend to adapt over time to the niches they inhabit. And societies that don't adapt go extinct.
  • A great part of this adaptation is expressed through the worldviews of the society as a whole, and of its inhabitants individually.
  • If a society has existed with any degree of stability for many centuries, there's a pretty good chance that its institutions and worldviews are in compliance with Natural Law.
  • As I mentioned before, theories of evolution hold that a guiding intelligence is not required--that is, species become adapted to their niches quite nicely purely through selection of beneficial mutations. This would hold true of human society as well. A society may be completely superstitious, constructed of institutions that were assembled haphazardly, embodying traditions that no one understands, and that no one ever did understand, and this society can be quite successful, thank you very much.
  • This is because a society doesn't have to understand the Natural Laws in order to obey them. A society may feel a need to educate their children, based on some cockamamie story about frolicking gods and nymphs that happens to show up in their national mythology; nevertheless, they will still enjoy the benefits that accrue to an educated society, even though their reasons for providing this education weren't driven by Reason in the least.
  • There's a pretty good chance this means that we don't know what all the Natural Laws are. We're already obeying them, because if we weren't, our society would already have collapsed. But we can really only determine empirically what the Natural Laws are by performing post-mortems on societies that have already collapsed, and figuring out where they went wrong.

And here's the scary one:

  • When social reformers decide that their society is corrupt, and start planning to throw out all existing traditions and institutions and rebuild it from the ground up, it's time to emigrate. There's a good likelihood that they don't know what all the Natural Laws are, and their reforms will destroy the very things that keep the society habitable. Textbook examples of this include the French Revolution and the Bolshevik Revolution.

As I said in my post on Neuroticism I linked to above, reason is overrated. Reason certainly has its time and place, but it's very important when using reason to understand what its limits are. We don't know what all the Natural Laws are. We can be pretty sure that our society has been in compliance with all or most of them, by the fact that we still exist as a functioning nation after the last two-and-a-quarter centuries; but we don't necessarily know how our traditions and institutions have gone about complying with these Natural Laws.

To give one example, cited in the other linked post (The one about demographics): Much of Europe right now is set to have steep drops in population. In Russia, the average woman will have 1.1 children in her lifetime, resulting in a natural population decline (not counting immigration and emigration) of nearly 50% with every generation. While the rest of Europe isn't quite that bad, several nations are close--Italy, Spain, and Germany are all set to have significant decreases of their native populations within the next generation. These kinds of population decreases are unprecedented in history, without something like war or plague or famine causing them. What will this do to their societies? We don't know for sure. My own suspicion is that Europe is going to become a fairly unpleasant place to live before the end of this century.

How did this come about? In a very small nutshell, the Twentieth Century was a disaster for Europe. Between World War I, World War II, Communism, the Cold War, and the ends of the great overseas empires possessed by the European nations, much of Europe reached the end of the century in a highly wounded state. These nations had lost faith in, among many other things, their ancestral religion (which hadn't prevented the catastrophes). Europe rejected many of its traditions and ancient institutions, driven by the desire of getting away from the mistakes of the past once and for all. And when they rejected these traditions and institutions, their society began to drift; old values were no longer being passed down. Many of the mechanisms that ordinarily pass on these values--such as family and the Church--were dying off; and the schools were increasingly pushing a new set of values that rejected judgmentalism and moralism. The result of this is that the very thought of having children to bequeath a legacy to the next generation is seen as nativist, nationalist, unsophisticated, and just plain weird. In short, the things that Natural Law requires for a healthy society, are the very things that this new system fights.

There's enough material here to do a book-length treatment, but it's getting way too late. Natural Law is telling me that I have to go to bed. I'll return to this topic some other time....

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