Living as a node in the evolutionary mechanism

Commentary by Jim Walker, 01 Jan. 2000


"The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades"
-Song title from Timbuk3

Looking back from the human invented time frame of the third millennium, I find it humbling to reflect on just how swiftly human culture has evolved. Only a few thousand years ago, all humans lived as nomad hunter-gatherers. Once humans learned how to cultivate crops, we became self sufficient and settled in agriculture producing lands. Our social organizations developed from families, bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states within an instant in evolutionary time frames.

According to Jared Diamond, probably all humans lived in bands until at least 40,000 years ago, and most still did as recently as 11,000 years ago. Tribal organization began to emerge around 13,000 years ago. Chiefdoms and kingdoms arose around 5500 B.C.E. in the Fertile Crescent. State governments arose around 3700 B.C.E. in Mesopotamia .

As of 1492 C.E., most of the world still lived within chiefdoms, tribes, or bands. Few humans lived within state governments. But today, only 500+ years after Columbus, the majority of humans live within complex state government systems.

The world human population has doubled from 1960 to an astonishing 6 billion people living today. That's an extraordinary change for human culture and most of those humans fall within the range of state government control.

But other systems have begun to take control, not only of our lives but of the government systems from which we live. Few social scientists write about it, and even fewer sociological theories aim to explain it.

For most humans, corporations have more control of their lives than do religions or state governments. Think about it. Most people work for a company or corporation. Most people's waking lives get spent during company time. Our food , medicines, medical care, recreation, entertainment and money get controlled by private or public corporations. Virtually all information received (even government checks, statements, etc.) including mail, faxes, phone calls, email, books, or computerized information get produced through or from some corporation. As I look around my home, virtually everything I see comes human made from corporate decisions. Even living things such as cattle, pets, grains, fruits, and vegetables come out of artificial selection, now controlled by corporations.

I feel embarrassed to say that I have never met a political or religious leader, but I have met my past corporate presidents. I've received far more memos from company policies than I have from governments or religions combined. I see morals and behavior being driven by corporation influence far more than religions or ideological systems. When I worked, I could not bring (for good reasons) weaponry, cameras, tape recorders, or subversive documents into the business. I could not wear what I wanted, nor did I have free speech or even a guarantee of a job. Anything I invented or patented was owned by the corporation I worked for.

Even the information I get about my government gets mailed from some corporation. For all I know, the entire history of mankind could have been invented by corporations in some grand conspiracy! I doubt this, though, because even corporations get run by people, and I've yet to see a large number of people keep a secret very long.

If for one moment you think that state governments still sit at the head of our social structure, think again. Although states may set standards and have some control over certain business practices, the thrust has been the other way around. Political campaigns, lobbyists, health, military weaponry, and environmental concerns have more to do with agreeing with corporate concerns than does the other way around. If, say, Lockheed Martin develops a technologically advanced fighter, who do you think will purchase it and who will benefit the most? With the trend to unite world trade and corporations merging across government boundaries, our world kowtows to corporate concerns far more than political or religious ideologies.

All of these social systems (band, tribe, chiefdom, state) develop in the form of a directional hierarchy. By that I mean that the system above assimilates the system below. Tribes consist of bands, chiefdoms consist of tribes, etc. Today, we can find examples of bands existing within our American culture (families, gangs, cults, etc.); chiefdoms (religions, mafias, terrorist groups, etc.). Most corporations still fall within a state hierarchy, at least in public imagery but this could reverse in the near future.

Interestingly, a system that falls beneath a higher system does not necessarily need to live compatibly with the one above. In fact many systems of differing hierarchical levels come in conflict with each other. Terrorist groups for example, may work within a larger system in an attempt to destroy the one above while the larger system tries to destroy the one below. Other systems assimilate lower systems without conflict, many times without the lower system even realizing its assimilation.

Which brings us to ask the question: As social systems evolve, do there exist systems so high on the hierarchy level that we have no awareness of them?

As an analogy, Lynn Margulis suggests that biological bodies evolved from simpler bacterial entities. Plants appear green because their intended victims, the chloroplasts began as oxygen-producing cyanobacteria resisting death by ingestion. Our cells consist of evolved bacteria living in concert with each other. Even brain cells may have originated from a microscopic alliance between hungry killer bacteria (spirochetes) and their potential archaebacterial victims. But those cells that interact with themselves have no contact with the body-whole. Cells sit at a hierarchical level far below any range of communication to the body at the top level. Do hierarchical systems exist above our own social systems? Even if they exist, can we ever know if they exist?

I can't even begin to speculate on possible top levels, but perhaps we can see ghosts of our closest possible controllers. As a possible candidate, the internet has erupted onto the surface of the earth in the form of wires, cables, and electromagnetic pathways. If the internet could be lit up and viewed from space, it would resemble an electronic fungus growing on the surface of the earth. Each neuron (human) in its structure represents a node. Although people, and corporations own pieces of the structure (computers, switches, routers, cables), no entity owns the internet as a whole. Corporations and people use the internet for the benefit of themselves, not for the internet as a whole. There's simply no religion, government or corporation that could possibly control all of it, much less understand it holisticly. Yet this information system has the ability to communicate to most humans on earth. This evolutionary machine cannot help but change our social structure as we know it.

Do these controlling elements of corporate power and unseen systems sound rather incarcerating and freedom limiting? They certainly do, and they could very well control us (and many cases do control us) as long as we fall prey to their power through ignorance. If you object, you may find yourself in conflict with the system. So which gives the best approach? Should you become a government dupe, corporate slave, a node in the electronic fungus, or should you fight the system, become an antagonist or a terrorist? I suggest an alternative approach.

If you observe evolution, the entities who survive the best seem to adhere to cooperation rather than brutal combat. A biological body protects and extends the life of cells. Better to be a cell than a solitary bacteria. Animals, at least the mammalian kind, survive better in some form of social organization (herd, families, bands, etc.) The same goes with people living in governments and corporations. They provide better ways to survive, better health, and more intellectual stimulation.

Just as biological germs tend to become tamer through evolution (bubonic plague bacteria, AIDS, etc. have evolved less dangerous strains), so do dangerous social institutions tend to become less violent. No longer do we live within Holy-war controlling religious governments, but we still have powerful religious beliefs influencing wars and hatred. If the same analogy holds for social evolution, then we should see a decrease of these most dangerous belief-systems. This is not to say, of course, that other even more unforeseen dangerous systems may arise.

So as an individual, should I submit myself to the control of the powers above for the sake of my best survival? Should I hand them my wrists and let them cuff me as their corporate slave? Of course not. As contrary as it may seem, the evolution of cooperation allows more freedom for the human than ever before in history.

Fortunately, I no longer work for a corporation or a state. I own no religious beliefs nor do I belong to any belief system. Yet I have more control over my life than I did while young, and I live in relatively peaceful terms with existing systems. I also live in a world that provides me with more choices, better food, entertainment, and a longer possible life span than humans could have ever hoped to achieve in the past.

Instead of them using me, I have learned to use other systems for the benefit of myself, while at the same time living in harmony with them. In my youth, I put my life in their charge, working weekly to develop accumulated wealth. My income today, like millions of other people, derives primary from corporations from investing in their stocks or bonds. Most of my social contacts, information and entertainment comes through corporations, libraries, and the internet, but only as I request it. In short, I have more control over my life by cooperating rather than by not cooperating.

In spite of past human nature to live in social groups, I don't live in a band or tribe, and I own no religious or political belief. Nor do I have a desire to do so. I chose not to live in within a family structure but instead opted to live as an individual within the hierarchy as a self controlling cooperator (me). And there's more people like me today than there were yesterday. This is contrary to how humans had to live only a few thousand years ago.

Many think that those ancient social systems are somehow ingrained into our evolutionary heritage and cannot be denied. After all, look at the rise of religious and political beliefs in the last century that have produced ideologically driven wars. Of course much of the violence comes with the weaponry that advanced with the technology. Jared Diamond observes that government organizes the conquests and religion justifies it. But the rise in superstition and ideology correlates with the information spread about them. Considering the technological advances in communication systems, this should surprise no one. But who controls the spread of superstitions better than corporations and religions who benefit from the profits made from them? But what does superstition do for human freedom except stifle it for a promise of rewards in a future afterlife? Just how many more millenniums will it take to convince Christians that maybe Jesus won't come back? How many more thousands of blurry UFO photos, without a shred of physical evidence, will convince believers that maybe something has gone wrong with their evidence gathering?

Has there ever been a time in history where a concerted effort went toward teaching our youth about rational thinking, how to tell the difference between what's outside one's head and what's inside, or how to notice the fallacies in an argument, or how to enjoy themselves? The evolution of the internet provides a possible means to direct human attention toward workable systems rather than superstitions that benefit only those who invent them. No longer will those who spread superstitions have the only say. The internet allows discussion, argument without fear of violence, and a medium to present facts.

Within a few dozen years, the few remaining hunter gatherers will probably vanish from the earth. All humans will have forever escaped from their past and will live within hierarchical systems. With ever changing technology driven by scientific advances, we will have the ability to modify and design genetic life, create intelligent systems, perhaps even independently thinking & feeling cybernetic life forms. Our human nature will evolve at light speed compared with past biological evolution. Can humans evolve out of freedom-threatening beliefs entirely? Perhaps no present institution will teach our children how to reason, but the internet, satellite information systems, and cellular devices will bring information directly to people, not from corporation or religious desires, but from individuals sharing their lives. The experiments of differing living styles should produce an evolutionary arms race. Some will survive and some won't but I find it unlikely that the ancient freedom-depressing religions and political belief systems will survive in their present forms.

The future looks bright. I enjoy and cherish my life, even as a node in the mechanism of evolution, because it offers me more choices and more freedom. Into the millennium and beyond!