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

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Property, The Biology

The ideas of property and ownership seem so completely obvious that at first blush there seems to be nothing much to consider: ‘This is mine, that is yours and that is pretty much the end of it.  Sure, there might be a dispute about a particular thing, but it is still a dispute about who the thing belongs to, not the nature of ownership itself.’ 

Much of, especially, the western world has come to believe that all manner of things can be and should be owned by individuals; many people, often those who own very little, become genuinely frightened by the idea that private ownership may not be absolute.  And there are those who are benefited by periodically tickling that fear. 

The idea of property and ownership is a fundamental way of relating to the world around us forming the most basic designs of our worldview.  From a purely intellectual position it can be realized that such views have histories, are only the present state of our ideas and will be replaced in the future with other ideas.  Such a recognition can be uncomfortable, but is necessary. 

First, what are the origins of our present notions? What is the idea of property and ownership anyway? Human behavior is an incredibly complex amalgam of the Primate Pattern of instincts and behavioral propensities and the products of the Consciousness Order processes – often in conflict [1]. This is where we must begin. 

Every organism must protect the space in which it lives and which provides its essential needs.  The many designs of such protections are fascinating in their own right from secretions put into the soil by plants that inhibit the growth of other plants to the evolution of the male lion as the very essence of territorial and community domination.  These designs also establish the basic functional conception of property: the organism has the use of the space and resources that it can protect, either passively like a tall tree collecting sunlight before it can get to the shorter plants or actively like chimps guarding their frontier from the intrusions of a neighboring clan. 

Humans bring with them the Primate Pattern of behaviors and the instinctual designs, now acting as behavioral propensities, evolved over the millions of years of our history.  We are no tabula rasa.  While many of us have come to prefer thinking that humans are independent of the rest of life, we are really another phenotypic expression of 30,000 or so genes evolved for certain ecosystem relations.  The failure to consider these basics will result in wrong conclusions every time; like trying to tune a piano while ignoring (or denying) the harmonic relationships of the strings. 

What humans bring to the equation is an outsized capacity to protect space and resources.  In addition, humans have adapted their communities to many environments changing not only the relationships between individuals, but the size of communities, the ways of acquiring essential needs and the adaptive designs of their belief systems that record and pass successful behaviors on from generation to generation. 

A result has been that the idea of property has been through many iterations, many different adaptive forms, that function to relate community behavior to the ecosystems in which we have lived.  Of course, each community culture has held its view to be natural and correct, and even sometimes seeing other conceptions of which they become aware as incomprehensible, silly, subversive, even evil. 

When communities were the primary source of order and power, property was primarily communal.  As technology gave individuals greater capacities, and property could be protected by individuals, more aspects of property could be privately held.  But this simplifies too much. 

I have read a number of economists touting the private property behavior of “primitive peoples” as though this proved the correctness of their post-Lockean conception of property while not understanding another dimension of property as relationship.  Just to mention it here with further consideration later: private property can be thought of as a relationship and as such we should realize that relationships can be of varying qualities; some are abusive, some are fructifying, some are distant, some are expansive and inclusive, some are narrow and rejecting.  That a piece of property (real or personal) can be identified with an individual tells almost nothing about the social habit with which it is held. 

As humans expanded their capacity to protect space and resource sites, both as communities and as individuals, they produced behaviors that organized how these community properties were to be used.  In today’s conceptual structure we call these behaviors religion or primitive religions or pantheistic religions. 

The original role of what we (confusedly) call religion today was to serve as a device mediated by the Consciousness System of Order to adapt community behavior to the environment, to select, store and pass on effective community actions.  Obviously a very important part of these belief systems were the community, family and individual relationships to the land space and resources of the land space. 

Since there were many different environments lived in and many different relationships adaptively designed, the concept of property has, over time, taken many different forms – all “correct” for their occasion.  However, when humans discovered agriculture, and population and power exploded, new forces began to drive concepts of property; faster and always in ways that expanded human capacity, but not always in ways that maintained sustaining human adaptations to the ecosystem.  The consequence has been that humans took on the concept of overcoming what were now seen as restraints of the environment rather than as information about how to sustain and use its natural beneficence. 

In this new world, property took on a decidedly different form eventually becoming in the West: 

Property is that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe.”   John Locke’s view interpreted by William Blackstone in Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765 – 1769) 

How this happened and what it means for us today is vital for us to understand to take on challenges to our very survival.  How we think about property is pivotal.

[1] The Consciousness System of Order is an essential concept.  Discussions of this idea are sprinkled throughout these essays.  It is considered more fully in The Madness – Part Four

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