23. On Social Evolution

Evolution is an ongoing process. It has not stopped because we have bigger brains and more complex societies. Our physiology has been changing over the past 2-3 millennia, from losing opposing toes to gaining opposing thumbs, from longer arms and shorter legs to shorter arms and longer legs, and so on. Although we are all now virtually the same (except for a few superficial changes according to our environments, changes such as hair and skin colour) we continue to evolve socially. The smaller and simpler social groupings of early tool-making man evolved into larger, more complex societies. Eventually, perhaps due to the pressure on resources, newer groups branch off from their mother cultures to develop and become new societies in their own right.

Historically, the Pilgrim Fathers escaped religious persecution from their mother culture in 17th century England, creating a newer and more advanced industrial society. The English convicts transported to Australia didn’t have much choice but they founded a newer, more modern society with their drive and will power. Dutch protestants divorced themselves from their Catholic brethren to become a new social grouping in the north of Holland. Sub-groups have emerged from mother groups ever since a few tribal leaders decided to leave Africa 60,000 years ago.

Now we have emigrants escaping by boat to Europe and Australia in search of freedom and economic gains. The major difference between the earlier new societies and today’s migrating groups is that those who leave Africa or Indonesia now only find other societies to which they must adapt. There is no more virgin territory available to start a new life. Ever since those first migrations 60,000 years ago (and perhaps even before) we have been changing locations and environments, evolving by adaptation. Those who stay behind continue to evolve and adapt but perhaps without the dramatic changes seen in the earlier daughter groups.

Self-examination, self-reflection or self-realisation give us access to our developing consciousness. They have become fundamental to our social evolution. They have allowed us to leave older, more rigid social organisations and create (or join) newer, more advanced societies. These allusions to self become evident when we face scarcity of resources or traumatic social upheavals. Do we move or do we stay? What is best for our survival? As a result we have learned to be prosocial. We began to see the benefit of caring for those in our group as well as ourselves. Where there is little or no self-examination or self-reflection leading to prosocial behaviours we descend into an ‘every man for himself’ ethos.

The hopes and dreams of the Pilgrim Fathers created an advanced, democratic society. The USA is by no means perfect. Selfishness and greed manifest themselves continuously, as we have seen on Wall Street in New York with mismanagement of bank assets (see here for reference). The effect of American democratic institutions however, when they function properly, is to give individuals within the group or nation the illusion of control. They feel they can rely on their elected legislators to maintain the balance between self-interest and group cohesion. I have chosen the word ‘illusion’ carefully. Perhaps the illusion of freedom of choice is all that is necessary.

Might we develop from this an argument suggesting that prosocial sentiment creates a sense of stability and balance in a society? Put simply, does prosocial sentiment create a more evolutionarily successful society? While some older societies survive with what we might call an ideologically locked mind-set, the newer, daughter societies prosper from their  adaptability to new ways of thinking such as we have seen in the Americas, in Australia or in northern Holland. Obviously, there will be a blurring of the lines. Some newer cultures will bring old mind-sets with them. Some migrants from older cultures refuse to leave their learned behaviours behind. Older cultures, it can be argued, must adapt to new ways of thinking, to new cultural paradigms or they will fall by the wayside as social dinosaurs. Perhaps those migrants currently leaving Africa or Indonesia have already seen this coming. According to Daniel C. Dennett (2004),

The more we learn about what we are, the more options we will discern about what we try to become. Americans have long honoured the “self-made man,” but now that we are actually learning enough to be able to remake ourselves into something new, we flinch. Many would apparently bumble around with their eyes closed, trusting in tradition, than look to see what’s about to happen (see here for reference).

More soon.


About johnderonde

UK-based charity worker in Tanzania
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