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 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.