The Evolution of Selfishness
Against Idleness and Mischief by Isaac Watts
How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!
How skilfully she builds her Cell!
How neat she spreads the Wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet Food she makes.
How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!
How doth the little honey bee
In self-defense excel!
She gives her life for one small sting
Yet hath she spent it well!
Children in the 18th and 19th centuries were expected to memorize the poem Against Idleness and Mischief by Isaac Watts and to emulate the selflessness of the honey bee. The cloying sweetness of the self-sacrificing worker bee was irritating to Lewis Carroll, who wrote this parody concerning a more predatory and self-interested species:
How doth the little crocodile Improve his shining tail And pour the waters of the Nile On every golden scale. How cheerfully he seems to grin, How neatly spreads his claws, and welcomes little fishies in With gently smiling jaws.
Of course, the Lewis Caroll poem misses the point. The crocodile in his parody is exploiting other animals -- not crocodiles. It is the altruism of the honey bee in her attitude to her fellow bees that inspires humans to long for a brotherhood of man -- a spirit of all for one and one for all similar to the creed of the three musqueteers and a sharing of resources sometimes known as socialism.
Individual bee collecting pollen on behalf of the entire hive
Against Idleness and Mischief -- last two stanzas
In Works of Labour or of Skill
I would be busy too:
For Satan finds some Mischief still
For idle Hands to do.
In Books, or Work, or healthful Play
Let my first Years be past,
That I may give for every Day
Some good account at last.
Wikipedia entry on bees
Throughout recorded history, rulers, theologians, philosophers and teachers have tried to instill the unselfishness of the honey bee into human populations. If we all behaved like bees, it has been argued, then we could pool our resources and no one need ever be hungry. The strong would protect the weak, and the young would shelter the aged. However, true unselfishness, as manifest in the apiary, does not actually work this way. Truly unselfish living means not overstaying your welcome:
- each honey bee lives only so long as it is useful to the hive and is discarded as soon as it no longer serves.
- honey bees are expected to commit suicide in the service of the hive by stinging any perceived threat and dying in the process
- shirkers -- or anyone too sick or weak to keep working -- are promptly executed by enforcer honey bees
Queen Bee and Attendants
The Mother of All Bees
Why aren't honey bees more selfish? Why do individual bees not consider their own survival as more important than the survival of the hive?
The answer is simple: there is no mechanism of natural selection to favor the reproductive success of selfish bees within the hive. (There is, however, a mechanism that allows rogue bees to leave the hive and become independent -- more on that below.)
Individual honey bees within the hive do not produce and rear their own young. Reproduction is a collective undertaking. If a honey bee behaves in a more selfish way -- eating more honey than it produces when doing so jeopardizes the success of the hive, the hive may perish because of it, and the genetic traits that might have led to this behavior are not going to be replicated. If a bee behaves in a way that serves the purposes of the hive, then the hive is more likely to prosper, and more bees of this sort will be produced in the future.
Honey bees behave like collective entities, because they reproduce and rear young collectively. Nature brings selective pressure to bear on organisms based on reproductive success. That is why natural selection operates upon the hive as a whole, and not on individual bees.
This is also why honey bees are not individuals in the more colloquial sense of that word.
Bees and Communication
Self-Awareness in the Wikipedia
Honey bees have complex social organization and they are even able to share information with one another about the location of good sources of pollen. Despite this, there is no reason to believe that bees are self-aware.
One of the little understood aspects of communication is that it is not necessary to understand the difference between "self" and "other" in order to transfer information from one being to another. We do not need a theory of mind in order to decode or encode information.
While a theory of mind is useful if you are planning to deceive another individual, it is of no use whatever when all are working cooperatively at predetermined tasks and when the motivation for completing the task is completely internal.
Honey bees are motivated to work by an internal compulsion. A bee that does not have this compulsion is defective and is discarded by the hive. Sometimes the bees who are responsible for killing a defective worker are called "Enforcers", but their job is not to motivate workers by fear of punishment. Defective workers are eliminated in the same way that a defective part is replaced in a machine.
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Most animals carry any surplus they have acquired on their person in the form of fat, to be consumed later during leaner times. Bees produce a tangible surplus outside their person -- honey -- and this makes them easy prey to other species who would enslave them.
When humans domesticated honey bees, they exploited the social organization of the bee to serve their own ends. If bees were not already in the habit of deferring gratification and creating a surplus, they would not be such easy targets for exploitation by humans.
However, even exploiters have got to take into consideration the basic needs of the population they are enslaving. A bee keeper who takes all the honey and leaves none for the hive to winter on will find that he has no bees come spring.
Langstroth's Hive and the Honey-bee
Honey bees are an example of "eusocial insects". Eusocial insects include wasps and ants. What they all have in common is the following:
- the creation of a food surplus outside their own bodies
- specialized roles for different members of the group
- collective reproduction and child-rearing
- a high degree of genetic uniformity within the group
Most insects are not eusocial, and in fact, not all bees are! An example of a non-social bee sub-species is the "cuckoo bumble bee". This particular sub-type of bumblebee has lost the ability to gather pollen. All female cuckoo bumblebees reproduce their own young, and there are no specialized roles among the cuckoo bumblebees.The alkali bee (Nomia melanderi Cockerell) is a non-social ground-nesting bee that has been extensively used to pollinate alfalfa. Large populations of such bees can exist side by side and yet not work cooperatively. Each has its own nest, gathers its own pollen, and produces its own young.
It seems that just as eusocial insects depend on a surplus, specialized roles and collective reproduction, those who give up the creation of a large surplus also discard specialized roles and collective breeding.
Why is it that when we think of bees, we automatically tend to think of the eusocial ones? The answer is obvious: because of the surplus! We crave honey. Individualist bees are good pollinators, but they don't make much honey. Therefore, they are less likely to be exploited and enslaved.
Individualist bees are not enslaved by humans precisely because they do not allow other bees to enslave them. This is something to keep in mind when thinking about our own social organization.
So, which came first, solitary bees or eusocial ones? This is the sort of chicken and egg question that will be answered differently depending on your context.
If read in a broad context, the answer will be "solitary insects came first, so a pre-bee would have been asocial." Read in a finer context, the answer may be: "eusocial bees are the precursors of solitary bees, because the first actual bees were eusocial. Pre-bees don't count."
If we want to see the big picture, though, the answer is: it comes in cycles.
The Cyclical Social Evolution of Bees
pre-bees ==>(communal)==> eusocial bees ==> (communal) ==> solitary bees
Genetically Identical Bees can have Different Social Structure
A difference in social organization precedes genetic differentiation between groups of bees. First they behave differently and only later, with time, do genetic differences between different populations begin to appear.
Genetically identical bees have been found living side by side in the same physical environment, with one group engaged in egalitarian communal living (each female producing her own young, but sharing chores with other females) and the other living under a strict eusocial regime with a full caste system under the rule of a single fertile queen.
We see a lot of eusocial bees becoming solitary, but we seldom see this pattern of egalitarian communal living. Richards, von Wettburg and Rutgers discuss the reason for this in their article entitled A novel social polymorphism in a primitively eusocial bee: "Why then is the cooccurrence of communal and eusocial behavior in halictine bees so rare, especially given the large number of halictine reversions from eusocial to solitary behavior? A communal transition between solitary to eusocial colony cycles is likely to be unstable and should disappear rapidly. As in any type of society based on mutualism, communal societies are open to cheating by nonegalitarian members. If dominance hierarchies associated with reproductive skew are formed, the colony ceases to be communal. This means that attempts by some individuals to dominate reproduction will tend to promote either the evolution of caste-based societies (eusocial or semisocial) or the founding of solitary colonies in which females can simply avoid cheaters, so communal, casteless societies would tend to be transient."
Are squirrels social? Yes and No!
Social Animals in the Wikipedia
Throughout nature the choice of social arrangement is dependent on a myriad of factors, but some rules hold firm. No animal has a society that can operate at a deficit. If the bee hive is not sufficiently productive to support the bees, then the colony collapses. Individual bees may or may not survive, but those who do survive make alternate social arrangements. Communal living pays off only so long as individual members of the commune are well served by the communal arrangement. Situations that encourage pilfering are replaced by situations where pilfering is deterred. Unstable arrangements are transient. Stable arrangements tend to last.
Some animals are social and others are solitary. Some animals care for their young until maturity, and some do not. Many insects, fish, and reptiles tend to lay eggs and then disappear, leaving their young to fend to themselves. Most birds and mammals take responsibility for young, providing them with food and shelter until they are mature. In some species, males and females form partnerships for the rearing of young. In other species, care for offspring falls primarily on one of the sexes and not the other. Many social animals live in groups and have dominance hierarchies.
Most forms of communal living found in nature revolve around reproductive and rearing strategies, and partnerships between and among members are dissolved if they do not serve this purpose well.
Some species of squirrels live communally and others do not. Factors that help to determine whether resources are pooled or kept separate may include the size of the habitat, the availability of food, and overall population density.
The Size of Prairie Vole Social Units is dependent on population density -- not food supply
Chimpanzees cooperate with non-kin
Surplus and the provisioning of young among chimpanzees
Chimpanzees are our closest relatives. They are self-aware and highly intelligent. They use tools to harvest ants and to break nuts open. They live in social groups, and they have dominance hierarchies that determine status within the group. However, chimpanzees maintain no food surplus, and hence they have no well-defined caste system, specialized roles or forced labor. For this reason, it is also impossible to enslave a chimpanzee. Chimpanzees can cooperate with humans, but only if they choose to, (It is impossible to force a chimpanzee to do something he does not wish to do over the long run.) The same is not true of human beings.
No matter how low the status of a chimpanzee within the group, he never gives in! He may submit to a more dominant male to avoid a physical beating, but he never agrees that this dominant individual is his true superior. His head is bloodied, but unbowed! When the Alpha is too busy to notice, lesser males mate with females they have been forbidden to touch.
Because of the resilience of each individual chimpanzee and the resistance that they offer to any long term domination, the dominance hierarchies never become a eusocial caste system. For this very same reason, no surplus can ever be accumulated by a group of chimpanzees. "Saving some for later" is not part of their psychology or their mode of life.
In the literature on chimpanzees, the word "surplus" does appear, but it's not used to mean creating food stocks now for a later use. It's more like the present disposition of "food that is too much for one person to eat". Females who break nuts will provision their children with excess nuts. Occasionally, all the males go and hunt together, and some of the meat is shared with females in return for sexual favors. But these instances of social cooperation are occasional rather than habitual. By and large, every chimpanzee picks his own fruit and eats it. Those higher in rank get to pick more and better fruit, but no adult chimpanzee picks fruit for any other adult chimpanzee. Each individual is responsible for supporting himself.
Mothers and Hunter-gatherers
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Human beings who live in hunter gatherer groups enjoy a similar freedom to that of the chimpanzee. Hunter gatherers must carry their own weight, and that of their dependent children, and hence the accumulation of a surplus, whether in the form of worldly goods or even just body fat, is highly curtailed. Each hunter-gatherer adult is responsible for himself, and women must carry their small children on their backs. While there is a spirit of benevolence, and women sometimes help to care for other women's children, this type of mutual help is occasional and not habitual,and every child has a special attachment to its own mother.
Because there is no surplus in hunter-gatherer societies, there isn't any social stratification. Yes, there are leaders, but these leaders rule by personal charisma alone, and nobody is required to follow. Each individual can make decisions about his own food gathering and live with the consequences. If he chooses to follow a leader, it is only because he believes the leader is right in that particular instance.
Agriculture and Social Stratification
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With the invention of agriculture, humanity underwent a very big social upheaval. Food could now be stockpiled, and this surplus led directly to extreme social stratification. A caste system arose in almost every pocket of early civilization:
Social pyramids that were wide at the bottom and met at a single point at the top were the rule throughout early history in most "civilized" places across the globe.
The "middle class" that everybody is clamoring to belong to today is the second social stratum that I listed above. Clearly, not everybody can be middle class, and still have it be the "middle class"!
We can see that the socially stratified civilization that sprang up with the discovery of agriculture shares some of the features of the social organization of honey bees:
- creation of a surplus
- specialized roles or castes
Notably absent is the feature of collective reproduction. (Yes, there were eunuchs and harems, but that trend never really took off!)
Because the reproductive function of "civilized" humans is not all that different from the reproductive function of chimpanzees and hunter-gatherers, human beings never lost their individualist streak completely.
However, religion and philosophy attempted to make up for this by creating moralities that condemned indviduals who rebelled against the system. We were told not to be "selfish", and the hope was that we would internalize this commandment. The text of Isaac Watts' poem "Against Idleness and Mischief" is just one of many examples of indoctrination in eusocial ideals.
Explanation of How the Size of the Group Protected is Balanced against Resources
- Liberty and Justice: Why, How and for Whom?
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Just as the evolution of the social behavior of bees goes through cycles, human social organization also cycles. Free market ideals that found their way into practice in 18th century America allowed many Americans to revert to a way of life more like that of the hunter-gatherer without giving up their surplus. Small farms and shops were run by individuals and families and balanced their books separately from others. The founding fathers chose a loose confederacy of states over a centralized government, and everything was based on the idea that each individual had a choice as to how to spend his time and how to invest in the future.
(Yes, there was slavery and Native Americans were dispossessed in the process of settling the wilderness. I am not condoning these practices. However, for those people in the "in-group" -- many of whom had been peasants and serfs in Europe -- this was an opportunity to stop being a worker bee and become a solitary bee, instead.)
Social trends in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have brought everything back toward collectivization and the ideals of Isaac Watt. The cycle looks something like this:
individual effort ==> surplus/castes ==> individually held surplus ==>redistribution
No doubt the cycling isn't over, and after the current fling with collectivization, survivors will move toward more individualized social structures. In the meanwhile, many are really baffled by the connection between the conditions that bring about the rise of collectivization and the reasons people suffer when eusocial ideals are the norm.
Whenever a particular socialist regime is held up as an example of the failure of socialism, proponents of socialism will reply that their ideals were violated by the regime, so it doesn't really count. National Socialism in Germany? That was a fascist regime, and fascism isn't socialism. Soviet Russia? That was communism, and communism isn't really socialism.
If you ask what the difference is between an actual instantiation of socialist ideals and the historical examples that we have, you will be told that true socialism is egalitarian. In other words, true socialism is like a commune where everybody works, and everybody is a full partner.
Communes are inherently unstable, but some have survived and prospered despite the odds. In order to thrive, communes require strict control over membership. Various religious orders, and not a few collective farms and kibbutzim have managed to function successfully, by retaining the right to expel unproductive members and by allowing disgruntled members to leave freely, along with their share upon dissolution. These mechanisms of self-selection and forcible ejection can sometimes work in a small group to keep a commune on track.
These are not mechanisms that can easily be put into effect when an entire country becomes socialist. When a citizen leaves, he can't take his share of the country with him. Forcible ejection of people who disagree with the current regime is not an option practiced by democratic societies. When a country goes socialist, none of the mechanisms for keeping a commune economically viable are available.
It then follows that strict central government, together with a caste system, are always put into effect. It is not the fault of the particular regime that this is done. It's the nature of reality.
The Spartan State
Often in discussions of the most suitable social organization, arguments against socialism are made by reliance on the failings that come from our very humanity. It's human nature, we tend to think, that prevents all the communitarian utopian experiments to fail. As it turns out, the reason egalitarian communes are short-lived is not a matter of human nature, or bee nature, or the nature of any particular organism. It's just nature. Period.
It doesn't matter whether the organisms in question are self-aware mammals or the most primitive of insects. It's got nothing to do with intelligence or self-denial.
Large communes where not all members know one another intimately are unstable, because they are too susceptible to cheating. In order to enforce any rules concerning sharing of resources, or maintaining standards of productivity, it is necessary for each commune member to have a veto in the acceptance of new members as partners. It is also necessary for each partner to be able to dissolve the union and take away his own share, in the event that being in the commune no longer serves his long term goals. When a commune is small, all of this is possible, and the knowledge that it can be done keeps all partners in check. But in a commune so large that most members do not know most other members, it is not practical to give each member a veto. A hierarchical organization with strong central control is required.
For this reason, solitary bees can prosper and eusocial bees can prosper, but communal bees who pool resources but do not have a queen or a caste system, tend to be only a transient phenomenon. For the same reason, monarchies and dictatorships, and Spartan city states can prosper, and nations with citizens who each balance their own books can prosper, but communes that are a great deal larger than a family have been remarkably short-lived.
© 2009 Aya Katz
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