Impact Points

November 10, 2008 | 1 Comment

Category: Activism, Biology, Political, Society

Among evolutionary biologists, there is an ongoing argument revolving around the specific location or levels among hierarchies of animals (gene, individual, group, species, multispecies community, etc.) where evolution most powerfully occurs. Richard Dawkins and the reductionist sociobiologists focus on the gene as the central station where selection has its greatest impact. Dawkins advocates suggest that no train leaves the station, no gene lives to procreate, that hasn’t first been provided clearance by an environment. Good genes can carry many passengers, many individuals that profit by owning them, and it is the genes that decide how individuals evolve.

Stephen J. Gould was Dawkins’ opposite. Instead of suggesting that evolution occurs at a single location, Gould argued that evolution was influenced by selection at multiple levels at the same time. Biologists often have a favorite scale of selective influence. Classically, evolution was believed to occur at the scale of the individual.

This argument is not an arcane argument. Recent discussions in evolutionary developmental biology focus on the influence of the environment on the individual before and after birth. A consensus is emerging that the environment does not just influence evolution by killing individuals that can’t compete, but that the environment helps install the useful features or characteristics that an individual will exhibit to survive. With the environment so influential at the beginning and end of life, it becomes less clear how the individual is defined. As the individual becomes defined by environmental influence, it becomes necessary to define the environment, which is a very multiscale, multilevel affair.

Dawkins would argue that a gene acquires a proclivity to take environmental cues into account. It’s still about the gene. From an evolutionary developmental biological perspective, the Dawkins view becomes nonuseful. There seems to be many scales integral to evolution. What predictive power is offered by just focusing on the one?

I observe a similar argument in play as political organizers and social change advocates seek the best way to achieve social transformation. Individuals often focus on a particular scale or level within society as the place most vulnerable to outside impact or deliberate intervention. This selection often has to do with the number of resources at an individual’s command.

The far Left or hard Left advocates agitating as low as is possible, signs in the streets. With the fewest resources, the far Left has least access to power. They can touch people one by one. Media attention is as close as they can get.

The Progressive or soft Left seeks strings that they can pull. Relationships are established with elected officials, often by working on their campaigns. They get to have conversations with those elected officials. They can threaten withdrawal of support.

Some advocates of deep and lasting social change choose to work for liberal, elected officials, and these advocates seek to influence legislation by influencing the legislator.

Many are lucky enough to exhibit talent with words. As free lancers, bloggers or employees of mainstream media, authors pen opinions and observations that can influence legislators and voters.

Perhaps most of the Left believes that what most influences elected officials is the money they receive. Those with the resources can make sizable campaign contributions, seeking to offset what corporations contribute. At the highest level of the intervention hierarchy are those with money that can marshal the support of others with money, and these allies can get the focused attention of an elected official.

I hear arguments supporting one level or another. As an organizer, I hear most often that it’s feet in the streets that make the biggest difference. This argument would be equivalent to a Dawkins argument in evolutionary biology. It’s odd to associate a reductionist position with the American Left, but when a Leftist suggests it’s only demonstrations that make a difference, that Leftist ignores the same thing that the reductionist ignores–the influence of the environment on all levels of a multilevel, evolving system.

Observing a biological system and seeking to influence a social system are not equivalent interventions, even though in both systems a multileveled environment is in play. Most of us on the Left, seeking change in society, carry an underlying faith that society is evolving toward equality, quality of life and equitable distribution of resources. By most evaluations, no such social teleology has its equivalent in biology. Still, there are those that believe that biology has goals.

With the forces of change engaged at all levels, it is difficult to evaluate where intention lies.


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This entry was posted on Monday, November 10th, 2008 at 7:37 am and is filed under Activism, Biology, Political, Society. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
1 Comment so far

  1. Carl Davidson on November 10, 2008 7:57 am

    It’s not only organized money and organized ‘feet in the street.’ Most important of all, in this period, is organized voters on the micro level, organized into your own ‘base community’, ie, local environment, then network these, horizontally and vertically, for wider impact. Since we don’t have all that much ‘organized money, the latter two are more important to us. Obama and MoveOn.org, however, showed the way to organize large numbers with small amounts of money to maximum impact.

    Have you read John Dewey’s ‘Experience and Nature’? It’s a mother lode on some of this in relation to philosophy and education, how people learn. So is the work of George Herbert Mead, the mother lode on how we come to have social selves.

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