From Altruism and Selfishness, to Organisms and Societies

The following is an excerpt from: Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1987). The tree of knowledge: The biological roots of human understanding. Boston, MA, US: New Science Library/Shambhala Publications. pp 997-999

Altruism and Selfishness 

A study of the ontogenic couplings between organisms and an assessment of their great universality and variety point to a peculiar social phenomenon. We can say that when an antelope stays behind and takes a greater risk than the others, it is the group which benefits and not necessarily that antelope. We can also say that when a worker ant does not reproduce but goes about getting food for all the offspring on the anthill, once again it is the group which benefits and not that ant directly.

It is as though there were a balance between individual maintenance and subsistence and the maintenance and subsistence of the group as a greater unity that encompasses the individual.  In fact, there is a balance between individual and group in natural drift as long as the organisms through their structural coupling into higher-order unities (which have their own realm of existence) include the maintenance of these unities in the dynamics of their own maintenance.

Ethologists have termed “altruistic” those actions that can be described as beneficial to the group. They have chosen a name that evokes a form of human behavior charged with ethical connotations. This may be so because biologists have long lived with a view of nature as “red in the tooth and in the claw,” as a contemporary of Darwin said. We often hear that what Darwin proposed has to do with the law of the jungle because each one looks out for his own interests, selfishly, at the expense of others in unmitigated competition.

This view of animal life as selfish is doubly wrong. It is wrong, first, because natural history tells us, wherever we look, that instances of behavior which can be described as altruistic are almost universal. Second, it is wrong because the mechanisms we put forward to understand animal drift do not presuppose the individualistic view that the benefit of one individual requires the detriment of another.

Indeed, throughout this book we have seen that the existence of living organisms in natural drift (both ontogenic and phylogenic) is not geared to competition but to conservation of adaptation, in an individual encounter with the environment that results in survival of the fittest. Now, we as observers can change our frame of reference in our observation. We can consider also the group unity which individuals are a component of. In doing so, we see that the group necessarily conserves adaptation and organization in its realm of existence. In that group as a unity, individual components are irrelevant, for they can all be replaced by others that fulfill the same relations. For components as living beings, however, their individuality is their very condition for existence. It is important not to confuse these two phenomenal levels, to fully understand social phenomena. The behavior of the antelope that stays behind has to do with conservation of the group; it expresses characteristics proper of antelopes in their group coupling as long as the group exists as a unity. At the same time, this altruistic behavior in the individual antelope as regards group unity results from its structural coupling in an environment that includes the group; it is an expression of conservation of its adaptation as an individual. There is no contradiction, therefore, in the antelope’s behavior insofar as it expresses individuality as a member of the group: it is “altruistically” selfish and “selfishly” altruistic, because its expression includes its structural coupling in the group it belongs to.

All these remarks are valid also in the human realm; however, they must be modified according to the features of the language as a mode of human social coupling. We shall see this later on.

Organisms and Societies

Organisms and societies belong to one class of metasystems; these consist of aggregates of autonomous unities that can be cellular or metacellular. An observer can distinguish the different metasystems of this class by the different degrees of autonomy he sees possible in their components. Thus, if he should put them in a series according to the degree of dependency of their components (in their embodiment as autonomous unities) on their participation in the metasystem they form, organisms and human social systems would be at the opposite ends of the series. Organisms would be metasystems of components with minimum autonomy, i.e., components with very little or no dimension of independent existence. Human societies, however, would be metasystems of components with maximum autonomy, i.e., components with many dimensions of independent existence. Societies made up of other metacellulars, such as insect societies, would be located at different intermediate points. The differences between these metasystems, however, are operational. Given some transformations in the respective internal and relational dynamics, they can move in one direction or other within the series. Let us look now at the differences between organisms and human social systems.

As metacellular systems, organisms have operational closure in the reciprocal structural coupling of their component cells. The central feature in the organization of an organism lies in its manner of being a unity in an environment wherein it must operate with stable properties that permit it to conserve its adaptation, whatever the properties of its components may be. This has a basic evolutionary consequence, viz., the conservation of adaptation of organisms in a particular lineage selects, recurrently, stabilization of the properties of their component cells. The genetic and ontogenetic stability of the cell processes that constitute the organisms of each species and the existence of organic processes that can eliminate abnormal cells reveal that this is so.

In human social systems, the case is different. As human communities these systems have operational closure, too, in the structural coupling of their components. But human social systems exist also as unities for their components in the realm of language. Therefore, the identity of human social systems depends on the conservation of adaptation of human beings not only as organisms (in a general sense) but also as components of their linguistic domains. Now, the evolutionary history of human beings is associated with their linguistic behavior. It is a history wherein that ontogenic behavioral plasticity is chosen which makes linguistic domains possible and wherein the conservation of adaptation of human beings as organisms requires their operation in those domains and the conservation of that plasticity. Just as the existence of an organism requires the operational stability of its components, the existence of a human social system requires the operational (behavioral) plasticity of those components. Just as organisms require nonlinguistic structural coupling between their components, human social systems require components structurally coupled in linguistic domains, where they (the components) can operate with language and be observers. Consequently, essential to the operation of an organism is the organism itself; from it results limitation of the properties of its components. On the other hand, central to the operation of a human social system is the linguistic domain that its components generate and the extension of their properties – a condition necessary for the embodiment of language, which is their realm or domain of existence. The organism restricts the individual creativity of its component unities, as these unities exist for that organism. The human social system amplifies the individual creativity of its components, as that system exists for these components.

Coherence and harmony in relations and interactions between the components of each particular organism, in its development as an individual, are due to genetic and ontogenetic factors that restrict the structural plasticity of its components. Coherence and harmony in relations and interactions between the members of a human social system are due to the coherence and harmony of their growth in it, in an ongoing social learning which their own social (linguistic) operation defines and which is possible thanks to the genetic and ontogenetic processes that permit structural plasticity of the members.

Organisms and human social systems, therefore, are opposite cases in the series of metasystems formed by the aggregation of cellular systems of any order. Among them we have (besides different types of social systems made up of other animals) those human communities which, because they embody enforced mechanisms of stabilization in all the behavioral dimensions of their members, constitute impaired human social systems: they have lost their vigor and have depersonalized their components; they have become more like an organism, as in the case of Sparta. Organisms and human social systems cannot be compared without distorting or negating the features proper to their respective components.

Any analysis of human social phenomena that does not include these considerations will be defective, for it negates the biologic roots of those phenomena.


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