One major misconception about evolution is that it finds the best possible, permanent solution to a problem. Sure, evolution has managed some long term success stories; sharks for example have changed little in the past several million years because they managed to become optimized for their environment very early. But summa summarum, most evolutionary solutions only make a temporary appearance before disappearing into the mists of time, 99.9 percent of all species that have existed are now extinct.
Then again evolution isn’t about finding the best permanent solution, it is about finding the best solution to a problem right now. Further, evolution works by tweaking the apparatus it has available either by finding unique recombinations of current tools or slight modifications to already working systems.
It’s that idea of not being a permanent solution that’s makes the idea of human ideas driven by meme oriented mental evolution is so scary. Take for example politics (Please!).
If you were to define the most important characteristic in a successful politician what would you choose? Honesty? Integrity? Intelligence? The foresight not to attempt to have sex in airport bathrooms?
I would argue, wrong on all counts. The most important factor is the ability to be elected to public office. That is proceeded by an ability to get support and funding to run for office in the first place. An inherent likeability, a willingness to lead, a certain lust for power are all key ingredients. None have directly to do with the ability to do a good job. And often that is why we see politicians at every level of government spiral out of control, spouting foolish nonsense because understanding problems isn’t what they are good at; getting elected is.
The most important characteristic in modern politicians is getting into office. Once there, baring any major screw ups on your part or on the part of your political party, you will probably be able to stay in office. That is the trait being selected for. The people supporting democracy, journalists, pundits, lobbyists and bureaucrats are all under a similar selectivity. Journalists are selected not for necessarily writing the truth but for writing things people read (look at Judith Miller). Successful pundits need not produce truth but appropriate platitudes. Lobbyists work incredibly hard to keep the system functioning for their benefit. Most bureaucrats work hard (and for the most part honestly) to achieve their local goals; whether those goals are well meaning or well placed is another question. I’m not claiming these people are corrupt. They are simply perfectly adapted to the systems and enviroments they inhabit. That is the point.
(Note: this is similar to the effect that usually chooses managers in modern companies. The skill (or luck) in generating short term successes, either by impressing the appropriate bosses or producing above average statistics one or two quarters in a row is an important part of moving up corporate hierarchies. The people who have advanced in that manner have a tendency to pick similar people to work for and with them. Thus the system perpetuates itself. The memes get replicated.
The army works in much the same way as can be seen in Fred Kaplan’s must read NY Times piece.)
Now think about the American Revolution and of origins of the modern democratic meme about 250 years ago.
There were a number of factors which led to the success of the American Revolution but perhaps the most important is that it really wasn’t necessary in the first place. Despite what most hard core Conservatives might think, people living in America already had more freedoms than the people in England. As a whole, as a population, even the people in England weren’t suffering any more than the French, the Prussians, the Spanish or any of the other populations in Europe. Oppression is a relative term. If revolution was always a direct consequence of oppression, the medieval feudal systems wouldn’t have lasted for centuries. It was the meme of liberty that caused the unrest leading to the separation of America from her motherland, not any oppressive taxation or real misrepresentation.
That same liberty meme was far less successful elsewhere.
France, the next country to become infected with the virus of democracy, revolted not simply because of the idea, but because the economic system collapsed and the meme was able to move in and take over as a dominate thought. Because the underlying social structures were in such bad shape, the liberal reforms that worked so well in the U.S. were unable to grow in France. Thus you find the Terror and Napoleon’s bloody dictatorship following a popular revolution instead of a time of consolidation and lawmaking like in the U.S. And looking back, far more revolutions follow the French path than the American one. Imposed Democracies work even less often: (
Iraq *cough Weimar anyone?)
Democracy was an idea attempted both in ancient Greece and republican Rome but it stilled died out twice. After 1750 years of dormancy, enlightenment thinkers began again to toy with the idea at the beginning of the 18th century; selectively breeding the meme if you will, honing it to perfection. In the U.S. Constitution, those thinkers produced a thoroughbred capable of winning races for centuries to come.
Ultimately, it turns out that during the Industrial Revolution and modern period, democracy as a system is more effective an authoritarian methods at generating wealth and power. Thus democracy managed to spread across the Europe. Slowly, often after several attempts, most countries developed a system of democratic values reflecting some measure of popular support for their government.
Other systems got tried. Stalinist communism for example, more resembled the authoritarian systems that preceded it than the liberal or socialist ideas it pretended to promote. Fascism is another example. A populist mix of authoritarian ideas and democratic preaching that has become a staple factor somewhere in the world since it’s rise in Italy and Germany.
Now, remember, evolution is blind. It wants a solution to today’s problem. It is trying to fill the niches in today’s fitness landscape. The question is: is democracy the best system there can be? Churchill put it best when he quipped, “democracy was the worst system of governance except all those other systems which have been tried from time to time.”
Let’s go back to the racehorse analogy.
The best racehorse bred at the end of the 18th century would probably be a very good horse today. But would it be able to win modern races? Probably not.
People assume democracy is somehow different. That ideas that worked well in largely agricultural, pre-industrial societies can hold up against the test of time. This is the very core of much of Libertarian ideology with it’s accompanying worship of the American Founding Fathers.
This resilience to the travails of time doesn’t necessarily follow from an evolutionary viewpoint. Like a species destroyed by a virus, democracy could be brought down, not because it isn’t good, but because the social and technological landscape changes. The fittest political system need no longer be defined the same way.
The memes used by politicians, pundits and pollsters have become far more sophisticated. The breeding techniques if you will for creating the perfect politician, the perfect party, the perfect movement are becoming better and better. Unfortunately, these techniques have little to do with solving the problems society is faced with. These techniques have little to do with producing long term solutions to permanent problems. They are about solving the most important problem of the day: surviving into the next electoral term; winning the next election. Having an effective politician who changes things for the better is just an added bonus; a spandrel if you will. It is really isn’t the ultimate goal anymore.
I can’t think of a time when I have heard or read about politicians repeating the line “I take full responsibility for..:” whatever it is they’ve screwed up most recently. Why have we been increasingly subjected to this litany of responsibility? Because under earlier mutations of democracy, the very mistakes and misdeeds being repeatedly purpetrated today would have been followed by a resignation and discrace yesterday. Today the person simply stays put or moves horizontally and seamlessly from the public to the private sector, to produce the same mistakes there before moving back to the next step up the public ladder several years later.
Western democracies, led by America, are slowly devolving into something far different from what they were conceived to be. It really isn’t clear whether this change can be reversed or even slowed. I don’t like this idea. It is however a feeling I simply can’t shake.
The symptoms of sickness are clear. An ever widening gap between the haves and the have-nots; the willingness of the rich and leadership classes to literally, physically separate themselves from the rest of the populuation. Think gated communities and charter schools. Are these the precursors to modern castles and monasteries in tomorrow’s incarnation of a feudal system?
Perhaps the most troubling thing isn’t the idea that democracy might collapse but that mankind might even manage to create a new dark ages, a time when learning and science dwindle away. The difference in losing civilization today as opposed to any previous time in mankind’s history is that this time it is likely to be permanent. The easily accessed reserves of metals, coal and oil have been harvested. These are perhaps the most important keys to moving from pre to post industrialization. If civilization falls, it will be a long time, geologic time, before it ever returns.
So. Think about it.
Is democracy slowly following the Dodo into extinction? Can it adapt without mutating into something unrecognizable as democracy? Or was the idea of liberty, a government by and for the people just a dinosaur waiting for the next meteor to strike?