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  • by Walter C. Clemens, Jr. and Stuart A. Kauffman
  • 9

Skeletons of a chimpanzee, left, a modern human, center, and a Neanderthal are displayed during media preview at the Hall of Human Origins of the American Museum of Natural History, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2007 in New York. (Dima Gavrysh/AP)

Which works better — rugged individualism or mutual aid?

Republicans champion self-reliance. Most Democrats also extol hard work — but agree with former President Bill Clinton that “we’re all in this together.” This view, Clinton told the Democratic National Convention in September, “is a better philosophy than, ‘you’re on your own.’ ”

The science of evolution supports the notion that self-centered autonomy generally leads to dead ends. Survival requires mutual aid. Today’s life scientists see that evolution is not the Jack London-social Darwinist version of nature that many Republicans embrace. To be sure, individuals and entire species compete for scarce resources, but all of life — from the biosphere to the econosphere — is filled with mutualisms that facilitate a diverse abundance.

Complexity scientists point out that humans evolve in ways that defy prediction. Synergy and serendipity often trigger positive change. Each step in evolution generates an adaptation from which new functions can emerge. Every innovation arises from and builds on what preceded it. Each successful mutation creates an “enablement” from which new possibilities arise.

After early man mastered fire, some huddled together, deepened their communications, and launched a division of labor. Some continued to hunt and gather while others planted and harvested. In time, conditions permitted some to produce writing, mathematics and technologies facilitating still larger and more complex communities. These processes were not planned or foreseeable. No one could predict that Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with electricity would lead to a world dependent on and linked by electronic networks. No one could foresee that main frame computers would lead to handheld computers and social networking.

What does all this mean for politics? Caution and hope. We cannot know what will happen or even what can happen. We cannot foresee or plan for adjacent possibilities. Instead, wise policies will foster conditions in which human co-creative potential can fructify.

The United Nations Human Development Index seeks to measure and expand the range of human choice. It tracks the extension of life spans, education and income per capita. The United States ranks fourth on this index, thanks to its comparatively high income, but compares poorly with Norway and other countries that use their wealth more efficiently to bolster health and education.

Some governments do not want their citizens to exercise more choice. Most Americans, regardless of their political persuasion, favor better health, education and incomes for everyone. But then they debate how best to pursue these goals. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, for example, laud private initiative. They challenge Abraham Lincoln’s view that government should do for the people what people cannot do for themselves.

Social Darwinists praised rugged individualism in the late 19th century, but modern science backs cooperation to create and share values.

Social organization and government should open doors for everyone — not throttle opportunity. The unbridled quest for personal profit rarely contributes to public well-being. Yet in recent decades, conservative orientation has helped the wealthiest Americans become richer, while most of the rest of the population loses ground.

In their new book, “Why Nations Fail,” MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and Harvard political scientist James A. Robinson warn that countries falter when leaders are too focused on extracting private gain from public goods and resources.

Networks of mutual aid have long been preconditions for social progress. As Clinton put it in his DNC address, “advancing equal opportunity and economic empowerment is both morally right and good economics, because discrimination, poverty and ignorance restrict growth, while investments in education, infrastructure and scientific and technological research increase it, creating more good jobs and new wealth for all of us.”

Social Darwinists praised rugged individualism in the late 19th century, but modern science backs cooperation to create and share values.

The 2012 election gives Americans a choice. They can vote for a party that favors a winner-take-all society or one that seeks to expand both opportunities and responsibilities for all citizens.

This piece was co-written by Stuart Kauffman. A former MacArthur fellow, professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Kauffman now teaches at the University of Vermont.

Tags: Election 2012, Mitt Romney

The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.

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  • MrLongleg

    Great article. It explains scientifically why the Republican approach is wrong and cannot and will not work. We need a combination of self responsibility and mutual support to move tis country forward.

  • LeonardNicodemo

    Cool article.

  • J__o__h__n

    Is this another reason why Republicans don’t believe in Evolution?

  • Steve

    Since evolution is a non-directed, non-purposeful, non-intentioned, random series of oops, and mistakes, I’m curious– why on earth would I want a government that is the same?

  • midtempo

    This article isn’t scientific at all. The headline and the picture present the article as an interesting scientific analysis, but the article just equates Romney to a Neanderthal and Obama to the Modern Man. This is rather juvenile.

  • Steve

    “The unbridled quest for personal profit rarely contributes to public well-being. Yet in recent decades, conservative orientation has helped the wealthiest Americans become richer, while most of the rest of the population loses ground.”

    and yet it’s the democrats, as much as republicans which are on the forefront of this practice of greed, avarice and covetousness that is doing this very thing of lining their pockets at our expense!! please explain how that the democrats are somehow less guilty….

  • Steve

    “We cannot know what will happen or even what can happen. We cannot foresee or plan for adjacent possibilities. Instead, wise policies will foster conditions in which human co-creative potential can fructify.”

    Strange…. really?!? I was under the distinct impression that this is exactly what our founding fathers did in their day. We may not be able to foresee with a high degree of accuracy, very far– for technological advances, and the ethical problems that will be faced as a result– but we can reason though and plan for adjacent possibilities.
    They gave us enough freedom to learn, and grow from the experience. Seems that their “lack of” foresight allowed for exactly what is said cannot possibly be.

    I say that with the proper perspective– we can indeed do exactly what evolution’s perspective does not allow for. The problem then becomes– do we possess the courage as individuals, and as a people to face that perspective with our arms, and minds open enough to consider the consequences of ignoring it, simply because some find it inconvenient?

  • http://everydayscholar.tumblr.com/ Adam Mandeville

    It’s important to note the fallacy that Romney accomplished everything on his own. Romney had a rich and powerful dad, but his father relied on the government to attain his wealth. (He didn’t forget that lesson and was a much more moderate Republican.) No one grows up in a bubble, but somehow, Republicans think that once they’ve reached a certain amount of wealth, they’re entitled to all of it.

    In evolutionary simulations, the extremely selfish people try to extract as much as they can out of the altruistic people until the altruistic people cut them off. The people who are too altruistic get taken for all they have and don’t survive either. Those who survive both struggle for their own survival and help others along the way. It’s a balance. It’s unnatural to try to mold selfish Republicans into altruistic figures, but they need to be reminded that they did not create their wealth solely by their own intelligence and abilities. They needed the government and they need to learn to give back.

  • http://www.facebook.com/curiousdwk David Kimball

    Science deals with What and When. The intuitive mind deals with Why and How. These articles should know that if they are dealing with Why and How, they are not dealing with science. Just because the subject matter may be scientific, that does not mean that the conclusions or statements are scientific. Science deals with observation and conclusions which can be useful for predicting future events. Saying that evolution supports communitarianism over rugged individualism is story – not science. It is not based on observation but rather association and perhaps correlation. It cannot be useful for predicting individual events nor even macroscopic events.

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