Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society by Nicholas A. Christakis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I've had a lot of love and interest in the social sciences over the years. I thought I was really into psychology until I fell in love with sociology. This led me to be a huge lover of SF in general, but concurrently, I read all about utopias, planned communities, shipwrecked sailors building their own natural communities, and all the kinds of political, social, and even biological foundations that any of these could arise from.
And then I read this book.
Christakis, a man with titles galore, has done a very thorough and interesting job in breaking down the fundamental similarities between all societies, starting from the same place that I began my research and taking it further... like communities in online gaming. But he doesn't stop there. He goes into the inherently social nature of animals, focusing on the features that are similar across the board.
Anyone who has ever had a cat or a dog will recognize the intelligence, altruism, cooperative natures of other social creatures. The same is true for dolphins and whales, elephants and the whole simian hoard. Just watch Animal Planet!
It's easy to see we're all more alike than different. And that's the main point. We're all biologically, genetically set-up, to want certain things. Some of those things conflict with each other. Culture and social structures put a modifier on the worst aspects of those conflicts and reinforce cooperation... but cooperative structures can be gamed. Members within it can cheat and steal and reap the benefits of the cooperation without giving anything back. And then the reaction comes. Punishment, more self-modifiers, and a flip-flop between aggression and cooperation. Richard Dawkins explains this very well in the Selfish Gene, and in a lot more convincing detail, but Christakis is quite good for all that.
We create societies based on our biological "social suite". These are features that cross all boundaries of culture because they're hard-wired in us. I'll steal the list from Bill Gate's review on this book:
1. Individual identity
2. Love for partners and children
4. Social networks
6. Preference for your own group
7. Some form of hierarchy
8. Social learning and teaching
The final takeaway from this book DOES give us hope, oddly enough. These are all positive features of not just humanity but of a lot of the animal kingdom.
But here's the trick: Any time a culture or a social structure tries to break this social suite by denying even a single aspect to it, things tend to fall apart. Social learning rather implies that. And some, like preference for your own group, can be conflated into a major us vs them that can lead to aggressive war parties our world wars.
BUT... when social divisions are crossed, or given aspect in an umbrella from that captures commonalities across the divides, cooperation CAN be reestablished. People have seen this countless times. Giving aid to enemy soldiers on the battlefield, or the Red Cross. Charitable organizations. Doctors Without Borders. Or perhaps we ought to remember that countless unrelated people flocked to the twin towers to help those in need. We DO have a lot of evidence of altruism in our social lives, but this is mitigated against our perception that there are thieves among us.
I personally see a failure of cooperation going on all around us. It seems more glaringly obvious to me every day. And for good reason. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. The grand majority in the middle are getting pushed down to the poorer side. Mistrust is everywhere because of the thieves.
I suppose the big question is this: can we learn to cooperate once more to root out the real thieves and reestablish the fundamental social suite that we need to thrive?
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