A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Human Collectives and Corporations

We are at a point in our domination of the world’s space and productive capacity that we are no longer allowed the option of unreasoned trial and error.  In essence, humans are working out our originating biological adaptations in the ‘normal’ way that that is done: to press options in behavior to their limits and to be judged by the biophysical reality for efficacy.  For most animals, primary adaptations evolve in integration with their consequences – they function in the same time-space, and work thorough the same systems of information management (the evolution of DNA/protein systems).  Even very powerful adaptations like the social hunting of lions is inhibited into balanced ecological relationships within which all parties benefit and compensate.  These relationships are genetically come to and expressed in the integrated behaviors and life-habits of 10s, even 100s, of species.

It is vital to understand that the human adaptation did not follow this pattern, but is new to the universe.  It is a new fully functioning system of order (what Susan Blackmore calls the 2nd replicator [1]) that, like the living order arose from the Physical System of Order, arose from the existing Physical and Living Systems of Order in very special circumstances.  Without going into this in greater deal [2] I will only add that the human adaptation has overpowered the integrating processes by not functioning in the biophysical time-space and working its information management through a completely new and rapidly developing consciousness system.  If we are to make sense of our place and predicament, this is where we must begin.  To analyze this situation without understanding its underlying principles is, as it is for any study, doomed.

One of the great issues facing us today is the variety and power of our collective actions, especially how corporations have come to seemingly dominate our ecological and social relationships.  We can accept them, we can reject them, but we cannot tame them unless and until we actually understand them as more than a historical process of economic units. 

There is a generally accepted understanding that corporations, to the extent that they are entities that act in some organized way, have different purposes than you and me.  Now, you and I can have many differences also: different values, beliefs and habits; there may be disagreements on issues like the value of human life and whether wealth is a private affair or correctly part of the commons; but, we can find points of agreement on the need to breathe the air, the pleasures of the physical life and many other practical living matters.  In fact, as living entities, we have in common far more than we could ever find to disagree about – that we might fail to realize the commonalities is just another common experience over which we could have a good chuckle. 

The common nature of our experience is strained as we come from greater and greater distances of experience.  I am a child a single-family farm in the Midwest, then raised in Florida’s rural racist society.  If you were ranch raised in the rural racist Southwest, we might find large areas of common experience assuming that we could see beyond the objects of prejudgment to the meta-experience of classifying ‘the other’ as inferior.  If you were a rural Black from Parrish, Florida or a Mexican from El Jaguey, Chihuahua, we would have to work harder to find common ground.  If you were an upper Amazonian Indian from a group with only the most minimal contact from beyond the forest, we would find deep levels of shared experience very difficult: but, importantly, not impossible. 

Humans working together in common purpose make up our various collective actions.  It would seem that by knowing about the people and their interests we could, with various charts and models, use our understandings and empathies to get a sense of the common purpose of the collective.  And yet, this seems not to be so.  Somehow, when in groups, humans can organize as entities with sets of behaviors that are not modeled by the actions of humans as individuals.  We have models for this in the living order: organs act with new and often potent behaviors compared to the behaviors of individual cells and these organs, collected into organisms, add new layers of complexity and possibility: the form and behavior of a hyena would never be predicted by looking at the functioning of an individual muscle cell.

Even closely examining a thousand cell types would not diminish the surprise should those cells suddenly materialize as 180 pound hyenas tearing at a wildebeest. 

This is not a new idea – it goes back as far as Herbert Spencer – and corporation as organism has been written about in some depth, though almost always either as descriptions of their historical growth process or as arguments about their efficacy, even if they are “good or bad.”  But these analyses most often miss the point that what we are dealing with is collective human action, the forms that collectives can take and the functioning of collectives as new forms manifest in the Consciousness Order. 

The collective behaviors of all other organisms find their way through the information management of the DNA/protein nexus.  Actions and consequences in the Living Order occur in the same time-space.  These two facts underlie the inherent order of ecological systems.  Human collectives are complex and are formed out of our biology on the primate pattern [3], on the one hand, and from the Consciousness System of Order on the other.  Our genetics brings pattern and expectation.  The Consciousness Order brings nearly unlimited option – anything that can be ‘thought of’ within the syntax and meanings of language and imagination. 

The speed of human action vastly exceeds the speed of any biophysical system and thus disconnects biophysical consequences from the actions.  More immediate, Consciousness Order based, consequences replace the biophysical ones; and we are off to the races!  The next essay will look more closely at the nature of human collectives. 

[1] Susan Blackmore has expanded on the work of Richard Dawkins, especially his ideas about cultural evolution.  Link to a TED Talk and her web site

[2] The ideas around Consciousness Order and the importance of a taxonomy of ordered systems is sprinkled through these pages.  This is one and this one,  more direct accounts.

[3] Our original collective has a long history as the ‘primate pattern,’ a general pattern of social organization analogous to the ‘herd pattern’ of hoofed animals.  Different species of primates have evolved and adapted that pattern to their own circumstances, but most primates live in what could be called, loosely, tribal societies.  There is sexual dimorphism, complex social hierarchy, group participation in the raising of the young, wide patterns of acquaintanceship – based in individual differences – generate most details of behavior, nascent cultural transmission of information (as opposed to strictly genetic transmission) and so much more.

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