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6.10.2011

Social Species and Doom

There is a catch-22 with being a member of a social species.
Social behaviors like altruism and cooperation are excellent for the survival of such species, maximizing available resources and distributing Darwinian fitness more uniformly within the group.
But there is a down side. When the population exceeds sustainable resource consumption, the same social behavior distributes the resource exploitation among the group.

Think of the behavior of the overall population as an averaging of the behavior of all the individuals. When the resource infrastructure is sustainable, everyone benefits from some people doing more altruistic resource gathering and sharing than others. But when the resource support base is exceeded, the harvesting drive trait is still prevalent.

Such conditions begin to "select" for more modest natural resource consumption, but it takes a few generations for those traits to become dominant, and population collapse due to resource mismanagement often occurs first. Unfortunately, the demise of the population is not specific to the more exploitative individuals in that population, but is also distributed evenly.

Humans face this dilemma now, as we simultaneously reach and exceed peak capacity in both fossil fuels and water (both required for food creation).

The possible saving grace for the human population is culture, rare to non-existent in other social species. We have the intelligence and technical ability to change our behavior collectively, very rapidly. We could theoretically shift away from non-sustainable resources and do quite well.

Culture also allows us to rapidly spread ideas (often called "memes" to distinguish rapid cultural transmission of behavior from slower genetic transmission). We have the ability to spread protective memes throughout the human species. But as with genes, there is great variability in the available memes.

Science can help us figure out the most creative and productive memes for avoiding a population collapse. But science memes are in a struggle with ideological and mythological memes that have deep roots in human history.

And if said history is any indicator, in general our cultural memes will not act fast enough to counter our genetic drives. Most of the great civilizations that "disappeared" did so following a period of natural resource exploitation and mismanagement.

We may be doomed to repeat history.

Science gives us hope, but scientists have to be responsible and culturally aware and relevant. They seem to strugle with this.

REFERENCES

"World on the Edge" by Lester R. Brown

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