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Human Choice: The genetic code for social development

Development Theory in the Social and Life Sciences

Looking back on the prodigious accomplishments of the 20th Century, a near infinite plentitude of technological inventions, economic activities, political and social organizations, and material riches have emerged from the relatively less complex and accomplished centuries that preceded it. A whole new range of problems and challenges has accompanied these achievements. Looking forward on the century to come, we may well wonder what further accomplishments await humanity, what new challenges they will pose, and what ultimate limits there may be to the creative process that drives these changes. Regardless of whether we look backward or forward, the same questions arise: What is the essential nature of human development? By what process does it occur? What force accomplishes it? What factors propel and retard it? What conditions are essential or detrimental to it? Through what stages or phases does it pass? What is the source of the problems and failures that it generates? And, most importantly, what is the role of the human being in this process? These questions have been the subject of endless debate, but at present we seem no closer to a consensus answer.

A parallel between the development of physical life forms and the development of society may help put these questions in perspective and provide a useful framework on which more satisfying social theory can be constructed. In exploring the parallel, we may begin by comparing the results of the two processes. The process of physical creation has given rise to a hierarchy of material and biological forms—from the infinitesimal atom and molecule to the living cell, differentiated organs and complex multi-cellular life forms of increasing complexity and capacity for adaptation. The process of social creation—which we term development—gives rise to a similar hierarchy of forms. Society is a field of life not matter; of activity, not just the sum of the living organisms that it contains or comes into contact with. The social forms it creates and of which it is constituted are patterns and arrangements of human activities, rather than patterns and arrangements of material substance.

Organization as the Essential Nature of Development

The hierarchy rises from individual human acts, which like atoms that link into chains to form molecules, combine to form more complex chains of human activities. Combinations of different activities join together to constitute basic social systems capable of performing complete units of work for production, trade, transport, communication, defense, governance, etc., analogous to the combination of molecules to form living cells, the smallest complete units of life. In society, groups of differentiated systems join to create organizations capable of performing specialized types of work—commercial, educational, scientific, social, political, etc., on a parallel to the joining of differentiated cells in biology to form specialized organs that perform specialized functions in the body. At a higher level, a wide range of specialized organizations combine to form a society and perform all the essential functions required to sustain human social existence, just as a wide range of specialized organs in the body combine to form a living organism that can sustain all the essential functions for biological existence. Thus, there appears to be a clear parallel between the development chain in biology that leads from atoms to molecules to cells to organs to the adaptive living organism and the chain in social development that leads from individual acts to activities to systems to organizations to the productive society.

Productive social activities generate material wealth and its accompaniments. But the real product of social development is not the organization of material forms out of material substance as in biology: it is the organization of social forms out of the substance of human activities; in the same way that the product of mental development is the organization of information, ideas and knowledge out of the substance of thought. Social development results in the creation of a more stable, complex and productive organization of human activities. The product of human development is an increasing organization of the physical, social and mental life of humanity—organization of material processes as technology; organization of social processes through systems, procedures, conventions, law, government and commercial institutions; organization of mental processes as information, science, and other branches of knowledge.

It is helpful to view development as a process, rather than as any given set of outcomes. It is the process by which human social activities are organized at higher and higher levels. The progressive organization of social existence, which is the essential character of development, makes possible progressively higher levels of efficiency, quality, productivity, complexity, comprehension, freedom of choice, creativity, mastery, enjoyment and accomplishment.

Energy as the Driving Force

What then is the force responsible for this creative process, both physical and social? It is energy. All creative, synthetic processes require an investment of energy. The physical energy for the development of biological forms is absorbed from the environment in the form of heat, light and chemical compounds, which store vast amounts of energy in molecular and atomic bonds that can be released and utilized to build larger organic structures. This molecular energy pales into insignificance in comparison with the virtually infinite reservoir of energy pent up in the bonds between subatomic particles. The energy for social development is not physical energy derived from material substances in the environment. It is subjective human energy that comes from people, the collective energy of human aspirations in society.

The generation and accumulation of surplus energy is as essential to social development as the availability of stored food energy is to the development of biological organisms. As the molecules of organic material are a storehouse of energy that is released for development of life forms by metabolic processes, human beings are a vast storehouse of psychological energy that is released for development of society by social processes. Society develops when some of the energy released is channeled into ever higher, more complex and productive forms of activity. As the bonds that hold together molecules and atoms contain an unlimited reservoir of potential energy that has been absorbed during the process of their initial formation, the opinions, attitudes, beliefs, convictions, motives and values that direct individual and collective social activities contain an immense psychological energy. This energy has gone into the creation of social behavior patterns in the past and can be released and channeled under the right conditions into new, more productive, more organized patterns. The enormous magnitude of this power is revealed by the unyielding resistance to change and the explosive revolutionary forces released at the points where society tries to break with established tradition.

The human body develops normally only when it absorbs more energy than is required to support its minimum needs for survival and activity. But this excess energy may spill over in random physical activity, be stored as an increase in the physical mass of the body, or be channeled for further development of the body’s structure. So too, society develops when it accumulates more energy than is needed for the maintenance of its current level of existence. But the excess social energy may spill over as unproductive or even destructive activity, be directed for a horizontal expansion of productive activities at the present level of development—to which we apply the term ‘growth’ to distinguish it from an upward movement of development—or be invested to elevate the organization of the society to a higher level of complexity and productivity—to which we apply the term ‘development’.

Essential Conditions for Development

Excess energy is an essential but not a sufficient condition for development. The onset and speed of physical and biological reactions depends on seed crystals, catalysts, essential nutrients, the frequency and intensity of interaction between elements, and conducive environmental conditions. So also, the onset and speed of social development depends on the seeding of new ideas in society, awareness of new opportunities, social aspirations and attitudes to change, the catalytic role of individuals, the presence of essential resources and instruments, the frequency and intensity of social interactions, social preparedness and support for new activities.

In recent decades we see a tremendous outpouring of human energy the world over that has been released by a new social climate. This climate provides greater physical security, political freedom, social opportunity, competition, systems for rapid communication and transportation, education and information, and actively encourages individual initiative for personal advancement. As light, heat, pressure, enzymes and hormones serve as conducive conditions, catalysts and reactants for biological processes, peace, democracy, education, access to technology and information act as conducive conditions, catalysts and reactants for the social process.

Role of the Individual in Initiating Development

Biological evolution is believed to begin with minute favorable mutations in a single cell or organism that are transmitted to offspring of that individual through the reproductive process and provide a competitive advantage to subsequent generations. As the mutant gene is the instrument of biological evolution, the pioneering human initiative is the instrument for social development. Development is initiated by pioneering individuals who introduce new or improved forms of organized activity that provide an adaptive advantage. These initiatives are imitated by other individuals, spread by a multiplier effect through society, gradually gain acceptance and recognition by the collective, and eventually get organized in the society so they can be actively transmitted to its members. Thus, organizational innovations, such as money, banking, franchising or internet conferencing, may initially spread by informal imitation, then later gain widespread social recognition and be systematically disseminated throughout society, just as the discoveries of science, once repeated and validated within the scientific community, are accepted and incorporated within the organized body of scientific knowledge. Through this process the new activity is transmuted from the action of isolated individuals into an organized activity of the society. At a later stage the activity may become so fully accepted that it no longer requires the active support of society for its sustenance. It can then mature from a formal organization into an informal institution or social convention passed on by the family or social tradition and eventually integrated in the cultural values of the society as a way of life, as technological inquisitiveness and education have in some societies.

Both the biological and the social process depend on knowledge. The knowledge that guides biological development is contained in the genetic code of the species. Even if excess energy is present, in the absence of these genetic instructions no development can take place. Changes in that code result in the evolution of new characteristics in the species. The knowledge that guides social development is contained in the society’s accumulated store of skills, information, attitudes, opinions, beliefs and values. The acquisition of greater knowledge leads to the development of more productive social organizations. In the absence of higher knowledge or fresh creative ideas, excess energy may lead to unnecessary repetition and expansion of activities at the existing level or even generate excesses and imbalances in the social system, rather than being absorbed and creatively utilized for development to a higher level. Although the pioneering individual is often credited by society with fresh inventions, discoveries and initiatives, the knowledge that guides these fresh actions is always drawn from the subconscious collective knowledge of the society and expressive of the society’s will for progress in a particular direction. The individual is the conscious instrument for the expression of that subconscious social will.

Unlimited Productivity of Resources

Both material and non-material resources are essential for biological and social processes. In biology, the knowledge encoded in DNA molecules, genetic information, is a non-material resource. In social development, the availability of reliable information, technology and scientific knowledge, efficient social systems, a wide range of skills, appropriate social attitudes and values are essential non-material resources.

In both fields, the productivity of the material resources varies according to the quality and availability of these non-material resources. The bacteria and the human being are composed of the same atomic elements, but the knowledge content in the genes of the two species brings about two very different results! The application of information and higher orders of knowledge have an equally profound impact on the productivity of resources in social development. The application of mental resources has already demonstrated that the productivity of basic material resources such as land, water and oil can be multiplied exponentially. Varying degrees of knowledge in the form of technology enable society to convert sand into bricks, glass, fiber optic cables or intelligent microprocessors and convert petroleum into lamp oil, plastic, cloth or life-saving pharmaceuticals. Natural resources are finite, but their potential use value and productivity is unlimited. Human attitudes, opinions and values are other mental resources that determine how creatively and effectively society responds to challenges and opportunities, such as the threats posed by environmental pollution or the unprecedented potential of the internet. In this sense, mind, the human being, appears to be the ultimate resource that determines the productivity of all other resources.

Hierarchy of Infrastructures

As the evolution of larger, more complex material and biological forms presupposes and depends on the prior formation of lower levels of organization—atomic, molecular, cellular—and lower orders of species; so too, the evolution of larger, more complex social organizations occurs on the foundation of lower levels of organization that serve as essential infrastructure for their emergence. This infrastructure exists at three levels: the physical organization of transportation and communication; the social organization of legal, financial, commercial and educational institutions; and the mental organization of information, technology and scientific knowledge. These three levels of organized activity serve as essential infrastructure for the development of progressively higher levels of economic activity. As the evolution of higher order species requires development of increasingly complex and differentiated organs, each further stage of social advancement requires a quantitative expansion and qualitative improvement in the organization of these infrastructures.

Physical, Vital and Mental Stages of Development

The evolution of biological forms has progressed from the most primitive physical organisms to vitally animate plants and animals to the emergence of mental man. Primitive organisms, guided by the instructions in their genetic code, utilize all their energy and adaptive capacities for physical survival. More complex organisms in which physically acquired genetic capabilities are supplemented by instinctive and learned responses to environmental stimuli possess a greater range of adaptive and productive responses. Ultimately the evolution has given rise to highly adaptive organisms capable of mental conscious self-awareness and systematic organization of knowledge. Genetics and instinct still play an essential role, but life experience and the systematic transfer of knowledge through family and formal education elevate adaptive and productive responses to levels inconceivable in lower life forms.

The same evolution from physical to vital to mental occurs in societies. Primitive societies are physically bound to the land and largely limited in the range of their activities to those essential for self-defense and survival—agriculture, hunting and craft skills. The social structure at the physical stage is rigid, rooted in the past and resistant to change, much like the genetic code that endlessly reproduces inherited instructions without alteration. Later societies become more vitally active, more animated, mobile and productive. Less of their energy is required for survival; more is available for investment in a wider range of activities that result in exploration, invention, greater productivity, recreation, the arts and religion. Social structures become more flexible and adaptive. There is greater social mobility, competition and opportunity for individual initiative outside established patterns. Society displays an increasing capacity for change and an increasing speed of response to external opportunities and challenges and to the successes and failures of its own experience. At a still later stage, society acquires more mental attributes. Science and technology develop, education becomes important, ideas, laws and ideals assume the authority once accorded to the strong leader or tradition. Individuality of thought and action are accepted and encouraged, even when they contradict conventional habits and beliefs. Competition begins to mature into cooperation. Productivity soars, surpluses abound, and the excess social energy pours into the development of ever newer, more complex forms of organization—technological organization of material processes, social organization of life processes, mental organization of information and knowledge. The mental society displays a far wider range of adaptive responses and creative initiatives.

Theoretical Basis for Development Problems and Failures

One troubling difference between biological and social processes appears to be the tendency of social development to generate unanticipated and unwanted excesses, side effects and reactions, such as environmental pollution, over-population, destructive applications of technology, economic crises and social conflicts. However, similar types of problems—debilitating mutations, over-population and even extinction of species, devastation of natural habitats, cycles of scarcity and plenty—arise in biological systems as well. Therefore, we need to consider whether these problems in biology and society have a common source.

We said earlier that the generation of surplus energy is an essential condition for development in both biology and society. The surplus creates an excess or imbalance in the existing system that can have one of three results. It can lead to an increase in activity at the present level, it can stimulate to development to a higher level, or it can generate an overload and breakdown in the balance of the existing systems. Development problems arise when more energy accumulates than the existing level of organization can absorb or support. In biology, the exposure of genes to excessive radiation may result in fatal defects. The excess energy damages the organization of genetic information. An excessive intake of food energy, beyond what the body needs for its normal activity and development, can overload physiological systems leading to a wide range of health problems. The incursion of surplus energy in society beyond the carrying capacity of the social organization can have a similar effect. The East Asian financial crisis resulted from a very rapid expansion of domestic financial activity coupled with a rapid expansion of international financial markets without the requisite development of effective organizations for monitoring and regulating transactions at the national or international level. The opening up of Russian society following the breakup of the USSR—introduction of democratic institutions, dismantling of centralized planning, liberalization of foreign trade and prices—released enormous energy within the society and subjected the economy to intense competitive pressures. In the absence of essential political, legal, administrative, financial and commercial organizations needed to support an uncentralized market system, this sudden liberation of energy had devastating results.

The modification of one element in a biological system can generate imbalances in the total organization of the system that lead to breakdown and disintegration. For instance, the excessive or insufficient development of one organ in the body can lead to disease. The elimination of an animal predator can result in a chain reaction of overpopulation and depletion among lower level organisms in the food chain and degradation of their natural habitat. A similar phenomenon occurs in social development when progress in one field is not supported by proportionate progress in other related fields. In the 1950s, the introduction of advanced medical technology led to reduced mortality rates, rapid population growth and food shortages in many developing countries. This occurred because advances in the organization of public health were not balanced by proportionate advances in general education, which leads to reduction in the number of children per family, or in food production needed to support a larger population. Environmental degradation has arisen because the rapid development of industrial organization in most countries has not been supported by a proportionate development of organizational mechanisms to control pollution. Advances in technology frequently generate problems when the organizational structures and social capacity to regulate their use are insufficient. Thus, the induction of powerful chemical pesticides into countries with low levels of general education has resulted in excessive use and unsafe handling.

Both biological and social systems are susceptible to problems. On further reflection, the real difference between them seems to lie in their response to the problems that arise. Within certain parameters, biological processes are extremely effective in responding to temporary imbalances and restoring order to the system. But when the imbalance exceeds the adaptive capacity of the present level of organization, the response tends to be inadequate, because it is directed by a body of subconscious genetic knowledge that responds and adapts, at best, slowly and incrementally to environmental opportunities and challenges. In contrast, society has at least the potential of acquiring conscious knowledge and initiating timely actions to minimize or eliminate the excesses and negative effects of development. The recent reduction in pollution and environmental degradation is an example. This capacity seems to increase as society evolves from the physical to the mental stage. In societies where the physical element predominates, the social tendency is to respond to an incursion of surplus energy by struggling to preserve its inflexible, tradition-bound organization and maintain itself in its present form. When the vital element predominates, the society is more likely to respond by adapting its existing organizations to the new conditions in order to expand its activities at the current level of development. When the mental element becomes prominent, society responds by creating new types and levels of organization capable of absorbing the energy and elevating the social capacity to a higher level of development.

Some social theorists have generated controversy by claiming that the law of survival of the fittest holds true for social as well as biological systems. The identification of physical, vital and mental stages in social development may help clarify the issue. The law does appears to hold good to some extent in societies at the physical stage of development. The collective struggles to ensure its survival but cares little for the development of the individual. The strongest become leaders, the weak are abandoned, exploited or left to fend for themselves. However, as the mental element becomes more active in society, this law is mitigated and increasingly replaced by a higher mental principle of cooperation. The collective takes increasing efforts to support the survival and develop the capacities of all its members, both weak and strong. Ironically, this tendency, rather than weakening the viability of society, has been accompanied by a disproportionate increase in the overall productivity of the society as a whole.

Power of Conscious Choice

Among the many possible implications of this view is one with profound importance for the future of society. As physical science has discovered a virtually unlimited reservoir of energy within the molecule and atom, the phenomenal social creativity of the past century seems to point to a source of infinite energy in human society as well. The source of that energy is the individual human being. Under conducive circumstances, the individual demonstrates a virtually unlimited capacity for new creation—creation of new and improved material inventions, social organizations and ideas. As physicists are grappling to find appropriate material technology to safely harness the energy within the atom, the challenge of social science is to discover an appropriate technology of social organization to release and constructively channel the infinite potential energy and resourcefulness of the human being.

The genetic code in DNA molecules governs the release and utilization of energy for biological development. Human choice is the mechanism for liberating and productively harnessing the potential energy in society. It is the mind’s decisions that release human energy and propel it into action. During the physical stage of social development that choice is exercised by the social collective and imposed on the individual by centralized organizations in the form of authority and tradition. It is the collective that chooses and develops, often at the expense of the individual. But as development proceeds into the vital stage, the power of the collective is counterbalanced by greater freedom and rights for the individual. Social organizations decentralize authority to permit more efficient use of resources and more effective response to opportunities. The mental stage extends this process even further. It gives rise to the emergence of uncentralized organizations in which authority is institutionalized as impersonal standards and very widely distributed to different parts and levels of society. Increasingly, freedom and responsibility for choice shift from the collective to the individual, exponentially expanding the range of individual choices. This culminates in new type of social organizations, such as the Internet, in which authority almost seems to disappear and individual choice reigns supreme. The greater the value that society accords to the individual human being, the greater the freedom of choice that it offers. As tradition was the technology for development of the physical society, individual choice is the technology for development of the mentally self-conscious society.

In modern societies the individual enjoys unprecedented freedom of choice, but there is no guarantee that the individual will chose wisely. The quality of those decisions is determined by the quality of information, education, knowledge, ideals, opinions, attitudes and values in the society. Modern democratic societies rely on the power of education, the media, access to information, and a free airing of alternative viewpoints as means to elevate the quality of individual choices. That society which learns how to encourage the fullest and most enlightened exercise of choice by its members has unlimited potential for development.

The emergence of mental consciousness in humanity has for the first time made it possible for a species to influence the speed and direction of biological evolution. Man, the mental animal, has acquired the capacity to unravel biological processes, decipher and consciously alter the genetic code of life forms to vastly increase the speed and beneficial results of biological evolution. Similarly, the mental society possesses the potential to acquire a conscious knowledge of social processes that will vastly increase the pace and quality of social development. A greater knowledge of the process of social development would enable individuals to exercise their choices more consciously and constructively for their own individual benefit and for the benefit of the collective. The revolution in biology that is now unfolding with so much promise could then be followed by an even more significant revolution in social ideas.

The parallel between biological and social development would be of limited value, if it were merely an analogy. But there is considerable evidence to suggest that these processes are actually various expressions of a single creative process, which applies not only to the emergence of biological and social forms but to the process of artistic creation as well. Could this, perhaps, point toward a truly unifying theory of creative processes applicable to all fields of science, art, knowledge, life and spiritual experience?


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