Opportunism Rules… A serf’s point of view.
A tree falls in the forest. Death of one tree, opportunity for others as light penetrates to the forest floor and a flurry of saplings reach towards the sky. One or two of them will survive, the rest will die in the shade, too slow to dominate the skyline.
In another geographic zone, a desert environment, there’s the Cactus plant that grows in a cleft of rock, and, less known, the Desert Marygold that grows down Mexico way, germinating in sand in a circular pattern; it’s a clever coloniser, taking advantage of a passing rain squall or a few drops of moisture, its hairy leaves blocking UV rays.
Opportunism rules, in the plant world as in all living species, fish, fowl and mammals, including those that burrow, herd or flock, or we versatile humans. Every living thing impelled to seize the day, Carpe Diem
Opportunist trial and error underlies the evolutionary activities of all living things obliged to respond to signals of fight or flight or food availability in their environment in order to survive. Opportunism became an evolutionary theory with Charles Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species,’ and over a century later, Richard Dawkins,’ ‘The Selfish Gene.’ Darwin’s evolutionary theory held that all life is related and descended from a common ancestor. His theory of Natural Selection is a process in which a species’ random mutations are preserved when they support that species’ survival.
Herewith from Darwin’s autobiography, (p118):
‘In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement, Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long- continued observation of the habits of animal and plants. It at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it. In June 1842 I first allowed myself the satisfaction of writing a very brief abstract of my theory in pencil in 35 pages; and this was enlarged into one of 230 pages; which I had fairly copied out and still possess.’
Richard Dawkins argues in ‘The Selfish Gene’ that it is not the living species, plants, animals and humans, that are the replicators of Natural Selection, our lives are much too fleeting. Our genes, however, survive forever, well almost forever, and they, not us, are the natural candidates for basic selection.
Living species are just survival receptacles for our genes, the master programmers, programming for their own survival. Hence the book’s title, ‘The Selfish Gene.’ Not that a gene can be a conscious, purposeful agent, it is blind natural selection that makes it behave as if were purposeful. And here’s the thing, Dawkins finds that genes are not just selfish, they must also be cooperative. In the making of a human child or other forms of life, each gene has to cooperate in the embryonic development with other genes. No one gene, acting alone, can create a child’s arm or leg or the making of the human eye.
Dawkins says that ‘Embryonic development is controlled by an interlocking web of relationships so complex that we had best not contemplate it.’
He makes an analogy involving a rowboat and oarsman to illustrate how genes may be selfish and cooperative at the same time. The rowboat is the body of the organism, the oarsmen the genes. Each oarsman needs the other oarsmen to fill a rowboat so that he can win a race, hence he has a selfish aim. But in order to win he must cooperate to make a good fit with his team, which is what genes do, collaborating to ensure a body’s survival. Dawkins uses this analogy to show how examples of cooperation in nature can mask selfish motivations.
Dawkins also identifies a second replicator that he calls a ‘meme,’ that has evolved much later than genes in our world’s evolutionary history, mainly through human transmission. Memes are those ideas, theories, catch phrases, songs, technical processes etc that make up changing human cultures.
Dawkins’ memes argument is yet another theory identifying the changes in human creativity setting us apart from other living species that resulted from language development beyond signalling.
This development allowed momentous trial and error opportunism, development of tools, invention of the wheel by an unknown genius, development of the arts by people, inspiring paintings like Michelangelo’s fresco’s in the Sistine Chapel, writing and Shakespeare’s tragedies, architecture and Brunelleschi’s dome on the church of Santa Maria del Fiore, sublime music like Beethoven’s symphonies, mathematics and working out directions when lost at sea, engineering like Brunel’s suspension bridge over the Avon River, and there’s agriculture, including Norman Borlaug’s wheat developments that saved more than a million people from starvation… and yes, we know, other developments less propitious.
Lots of implications may be drawn from the drive of opportunism as a basis of life, implications of how human cultures may best allow for this evolutionary fact and respond to its political ramifications, issues of freedom and control.
Freedom, Control and Us.
Writing in 1938 and in the dark days of World War 11, when it looked like Hitler’s attempts at world dominance might succeed, Karl Popper’s two-volume book, ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies,’ gave a reasoned appeal for upholding the open society of rational argument against the fascist propaganda and violent actions of Hitler’s Germany. His book expresses Popper’s felt need to critically examine totalitarianism in its various guises and to defend the values of open, democratic society that were being threatened.
In ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies,’ Popper examines the flawed doctrine of historicism, that supposedly conforms to laws of development – equating the Social Sciences with physical nature. Historicism is the doctrine of historical necessity and human destiny, expounded by Plato, Hegel and Karl Marx and still influential today, Plato formulating an ideal republic based on his theory of forms, Hegel combating liberalism in the authoritarian state of Prussia’s King Frederic William III, and Marx in industrial England, arguing inexorable laws of social development and class war.
Popper speaks against the influence of powerful leaders invoking destiny to support their authoritarian theories. He argues the importance of checks and balances to control the power of governments over their people, and favours open society for the citizens, who best know their own interests, and who only require that freedom to be constrained where it impinges on the freedom of someone else.
In the preface to his book on Plato, Hegel and Karl Marx, Popper says:
‘If in this book harsh words are spoken against some of the greatest among the intellectual leaders of mankind, my motive is not, I hope, the wish to belittle them. It springs rather from my conviction that, if our civilisation is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men. Great men may make great mistakes; and as the book tries to show, some of the greatest leaders of the past supported the perennial attack on freedom and reason. Their influence, too rarely challenged, continues to mislead those on whom civilisation depends, and to divide them. The responsibility for this tragic and possibly fatal division becomes ours if we hesitate to be outspoken in our criticism of what admittedly is a part of our intellectual heritage. By our reluctance to criticize some of it, we may help to destroy it all.’
Plato’s Noble Cause Corruption.
In Popper’s first volume, ‘The Spell of Plato,’ he describes Plato’s blueprint for a utopian society, a return to static tribal society. Plato wrote ‘The Republic,’ as a response to his belief in the inevitable decay of all things from their original perfect form. Plato believed that it was only possible to break this ‘law’ by establishing an authoritarian hierarchical State which he formulated based on his myth of the metals in men, gold, silver and bronze, where only a philosopher king selected from the gold caste should rule.
Here’s the result of living in Plato’s hierarchical State:
‘The greatest principle of all, ‘ says Plato, ‘is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him do anything at all on his own initiative; neither out of zeal nor even playfully. But in war and in the midst of peace – to his leader he shall direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up or move, or wash, or take his meals, only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.’ (The Spell of Plato. Chapter 1.)
Raison d’Etat and Hegel.
If you listen to Hegel, things can’t go wrong in the powerful State. ‘The Universal is to be found in the State.’ writes Hegel…’The State is the Divine idea as it exists on Earth.’
Where Plato saw history moving away from perfection towards decay, Hegel teaches the reverse, an historical trend towards a self-realising higher good.
Motivated by self interest, official philosopher of the authoritarian rule of Frederick William III of Prussia, Hegel debauched language and logic to support his historicist dogma. Hegel replaced logic with his own form of argument that he called Dialectics. Employing sophistry, Hegel argued that contradictions in an argument do not matter. He argued this by claiming that contradictions are ‘welcome in science’ as a means of scientific progress. He doesn’t add that this is because contradictions in science point to flaws in and these flawed theories with their contradictions can now be eliminated from the ongoing enquiry. Hegel focuses on the phrase, ‘welcome in science’ and omits the rest. He is turning the argument on its head, he is claiming that contradiction is welcome in argument, per se. This destroys criticism in argument and by doing so Hegel makes his own philosophy secure from critical attack.
Popper concludes that we need to take Hegel’s false doctrine seriously because it has had incalculable influence on fascist and Marxist political philosophies and is still very powerful in the social and political sciences today. (O.S. Vol 2, p.30.)
‘It is tempting to dwell upon the similarities between Marxism, the Hegelian left wing, and its fascist counterparts,’ says Popper, ‘Yet it would be utterly unfair to overlook the difference between them. Although their intellectual origin is nearly identical, there can be no doubt of the humanitarian impulse of Marxism. Moreover, in contrast to the Hegelians of the right wing, Marx made an honest attempt to apply rational methods to the most urgent problems of social life. The value of this attempt is unimpaired by the fact that it was, as I shall try to show, largely unsuccessful.’ (O.S.Vol 2. p81.)
Popper pays tribute to Marx identifying the importance of situational analysis and economic conditions as a basis for understanding human history, Marx’s materialism, or ‘economism’, says Popper, ‘is insightful but only so long as it is not sweepingly interpreted as the doctrine that all social development depends upon economic conditions, which is palpably false. The history of Marxism itself furnishes examples that clearly falsify Marx’ exaggerated economism, for example, it was Lenin’s ‘ideas’ expressed in slogans that became a driving force of the Russian Revolution. (p108.)
Popper argues that the historicism of Karl Marx is itself a strand of an intellectual tradition from Plato to Hegel, which viewed history as a process of necessity, whereby nothing we can do will avert what is to be. The arguments underlying Marx’s historical prophesy are invalid. ‘Marx ‘s ingenious attempt to draw prophetic conclusions from observations of contemporary economic tendencies failed.’ (p193.) The conditions of the working classes under capitalism did not worsen, leading to social revolution, as Marx predicted, instead they markedly improved. Nor did the State wither away, but conversely, its power, under Stalin, increased.
Popper is arguing maximum freedom for each individual citizen citing Immanuel Kant’s dictum that the freedom of man must not be restricted beyond what is necessary to safeguard an equal freedom for all.’ (O.S.Vol 2, p44.)
Popper’s critical attitude regarding the habit of deference to great men is supported by the American economist Thomas Sowell. Sowell describes his own experience in academia and working for government which taught him how many intellectuals are attracted to visionary thinking, he calls this ‘the vision of the anointed,’ which is based on confident idealism unsupported by checks on the data.
Thomas Sowell’s view of visionary thinking and the great man.
In his book, ‘A Conflict of Visions,’ Sowell identifies two conflicting visions that fundamentally apply to how we look at human nature. There’s the constrained vision of human nature, a view that human nature is fundamentally of a flawed and fixed nature. Then there’s the unconstrained view that human nature is a blank slate and human suffering lies in the failure of other people to remedy injustice, and there is no other reason for human suffering.
These two visions, Sowell observes, the constrained and unconstrained visions, can be seen throughout history from Adam Smith to Rousseau, from Oliver Wendell Holmes to Barrack Obama. The first places reliance on experience of the many, evolving over time, and the setting up of checks and balances in law to control monopolies on power- no single person is capable of learning everything by just figuring it out; whereas your unconstrained individual is less distrusting of State power and will argue that we just need someone to come along and fix the law. Sowell distrusts individuals who make their own constitutional interpretations as ad hoc decision making whereby we no longer have law.
Thoughts in conclusion…
Maximize the freedom of the individual, minimize the power of government, encourage creativity and entrepreneurship with some legal provisos against long term monopoly of an industry. We can’t predict the outcome of these trial and error actions but trial and error is Nature’s way and without it we would stagnate and die.
As with the natural world, the economist Joseph Schumpeter observed that our human economic systems involve dynamic disequilibrium. As he saw it, the profit earned by an entrepreneur is the cost of staying in business, which not only benefits the entrepreneur but benefits investors and others. For example, in the high-risk restaurant business, when the restaurateur succeeds, his employees and customers benefit also. However, when he doesn’t succeed, he and his investors have to pay the cost and not the rest of us. (Conversely, with the failed enterprises of governments, it is the citizens that pay the bill.)
Regarding minimizing government, government is not good at creating, other than red tape. And remember that government officials are opportunistic also… and rarely will their objectives coincide with ours.
Serf doing that unconstrained-vision-thing…
What to do? Reduce Government you cits, it’s in your own interest. Revisit those constitutional constraints on power creep. Something along the lines of setting up a lean and mean citizen task committee on the line of jury duty with some well respected retired legal expert as adviser, and a few politicians from conflicting sides of the political spectrum to assist. The task force to operate every few years, with different members, each time, tasked with identifying failure of checks and balances, actions not in accordance with the Constitution and suggesting ways of compliance. If judged legal, the task force’s findings to be acted upon within a set time and in a public manner.
The same process should be adopted, regularly, to see that our main public institutions are fulfilling their fundamental duties, specific questions, for example, concerning whether the Education Department or the Teacher’s Unions are over-riding key educational aims for students.
Curtailing power creep? Yeah – it sounds unlikely doesn’t it? There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip, between framed aims and finding means…but serfs think a way urgently needs to be found – and we have come back from the brink before.