SOME ASPECTS OF HUMAN SOCIETY:
TRAITS AND ASSOCIATION
The biological perspective
The female octopus, guarding her eggs, will not eat (32). When the eggs
hatch, she dies, her strength so depleted that she could not forage even if her instinct were to do so. Given the limited supply of hiding places in her environment, essential for the survival of octopi, she must die if there is to be room for the generation which
she and her sisters have produced. Does she "know" that her
of forage is a commitment to self-destruction? Man is conscious of the
meaning or significance of suicide. He usually prefers a different
end. The parent's continued life is valued not only for the nurturing of
the young, but also for its own sake. Mankind does not relish the
prospect of dying to make place for the young. Man seeks to escape the
constraints of Nature. He accepts the food-cycle of organism devouring
organism; except when the virus, microbe, or parasite seeks to include
Man's living body within that cycle. A realistic understanding of living
Nature may lead one to stand in awe of its processes. It is difficult to
love them when one is the sacrificial victim (71). Our romantics
are enraptured, and properly so, by the beauty of trees and hills seen at a distance; they rarely
look closely at the savagery of the food-cycle taking place beneath them.
Life depends upon resources and resources are located within space, vertically and horizontally. For the fish and the bird, the vertical dimension is as significant as the horizontal. Man has extended his grasp to include the
vertical, though for the most part his life is conducted on the surface of the planet. How he shares the milieu and how he communicates so as to make sharing possible, is the underlying question of social ethics and the
social sciences. The sharing of a space, whether one thinks of a country,
or a room, involves norms. Theorists
visualizing the complete removal of the territorial aspect of law overlook
the fact that a room is as much territory as a country (33). When two
persons are present in a room, there must be norms of coexistance. If the two make regular shared use of that room, these norms will be translated into the specifics of the space in question.
There is much less "sharing" of space in Nature than one might
assume from a superficial observation. A
bird and an animal may pursue the same vegetation and frequent the same territory but the sharing may exist by virtue of the bird's ability to alight and retreat. If two persons are to occupy the the same relatively confined
area, they must enter into some sort of relationship governed by norms mutually accepted or imposed by
external authority (34). Nature also provides
us with many examples of
symbiotic relationships between differing species, or the common occupation of a specific area by differing species which seek differing forage. Even in
these cases, however, one micro-territory--the nest--can only be occupied
by one creature or family within a
given range of size (a bobcat nest may also house fleas, but not another
brood of bobcats). In the warrens of social animals, there are preferred places and these tend to be the prerogative of preferred members. Social animals claim territory on a group basis.
Some degree of territorial assertion is common to all living organisms. Solitary animals lay claim to a specific territory and make contact with other members of the same species on two occasions, border disputes
(usually decided by show of strength, rather than a fight to the death) and mating. Within its territory a solitary
animal avoids the within the species patterns of dominance and submission more characteristic of social
animals. Human hermits are often persons who seek by their life-style to escape the dominance/submission
patterns of society. (Perhaps dominance/submission is too strong and we might use instead the terms pre-eminence/deference). Paradoxically, the city is often conducive to a certain type of hermitry, as any
apartment-building resident has occasion to know.
Amongst social animals, the patterns of dominance/submission vary greatly from species to species. In some species, the position of weaker (subordinate) members seems very uncomfortable -- but life outside the pack would be impossible and they must bear their lot or die. There may be quite complex patterns of leadership (for example, amongst wolves, when the dominant male and female are mating another ordinarily submissive
member will take over leadership of the hunt). Human societies commonly
permit different members to exert leadership for specific functions: the
king has his role, the priest another, and neither presumes to tell the doctor how to do his job, in its purely technical aspects.
It should be clear, from all the foregoing, that the biological perspective is not, for Man, just an academic
matter. Nature has its mechanisms to encourage the utilization but not complete depletion of the resources available to a particular species. If a species completely depletes its resources, it will die. The mechanisms of
conservation include death and disease. For certain species, such as the rat and octopus, these include fratricide. As human history shows, Man is all too capable of fratricide.
As we have noted, the food-cycle, and the varying patterns of dominance/submission amongst social animals, are two of the salient features of Nature. Man has not achieved the capacity to escape either of these modes of Nature. Yet the slow evolution of ethical consciousness, reveals men who are uneasy with the implications of the
food-cycle(65). This is reflected
when the primitive
hunter apologizes to the spirit of a slain animal. It is reflected
in the philosophy of vegetarianism (though recent evidence tends to indicate that vegetation also has "feelings"). It is also reflected in the philosophy of societies and government agencies which seek to enforce a more humane treatment of animals.
The slow evolution of ethical consciousness further reveals an erratic but
powerful unease with the dominance/submission syndrome (65). This
is reflected in the inconsistent but persistent attempt of various
human societies to establish social structures emphasizing consensus and participation rather than more harsh styles of governance. The picture is very complex, however, since a group may evidence consensus and
participation in its internal governance yet portray a domineering
attitude in its relationship with other groups. Thus a stated aim of the pre-Revolutionary reformers of the Thirteen Colonies was to secure, in the colonies, the same power of assemblies enjoyed by the mother parliament. This claim was not, however, to be extended to the
councils of Indian tribes.
As we turn our attention more specifically to the web of human society, and throughout the present book, it should be clear there is a bias somewhat against the dominance/submission syndrome. It should immediately be
acknowledged that some individuals vary in competence and that some prefer
a position in society of submission or deference. Such individuals, prompted by a complex interaction of individual psychology and social environment, may prefer the security of having a dominant partner or elite make decisions for them.
Democratic and consensus systems likewise involve the problem of the discontented minority or the Individual who cannot be brought within the consensus. These problems are mitigated in a democracy to the extent that an
Individual does not find himself in the minority on all issues; the
discontent with majority decision in one aspect
of life is balanced by the satisfaction of agreeing with majority decision
An over-simplified and unsophisticated biological perspective can readily lead to philosophies of the Social
Darwinist variety, reflected at the extreme in the "living space" and "national superiority" themes of Nazism. A more sophisticated perspective observes the wide range of possible life-styles within the animal kingdom, and
the relatively transcendental flexibility of Man.
Homo sapiens is one species (though future developments in genetic engineering give us the uncomfortable ability to make, and unmake, "human" families incapable of natural interbreeding). The flexibility and mobility of Man gives him greater possibilities of moving from one social environment to another, within the compass of human society. To this extent, he has the relative potentiality of moving from one pattern of social sub-system to
another. Man also has a relatively greater ability to convert the material substances of Nature into usable resources, and to extend his space; and to these extents, to mitigate the social constraints of finite resources and
territory. Electronic technology, we should add, can be
used to entrap the individual and intrude upon his personal
"space" or privacy; or it can be used to expand the living "space" available to him -- as when we make an armchair voyage abroad.
Resources and exploitation Systems
We shall return to the theme of mobility and voluntarism later in this chapter. At this point, we must ask ourselves whether resource limitations make impossible the achievement of global equity, in the face of the demands of groups and individuals throughout the world? The answer is complex. At a given point in time, and a given
capacity of technology to utilize resources without raping them to depletion, we are faced with a zero-sum game. To give to one is to deny another. Estimates vary, but a ratio frequently mentioned is that, at present, some six percent of the world population is utilizing forty percent of extracted resources.
Within the advanced-technology countries, resource utilization has given
all members of society a larger access to material and cultural opportunities than prevailed in previous centuries. This is not necessarily the same thing as asserting any pronounced equalization between Income-groups within such societies. The aggregate level of prosperity, however, has risen so that virtually all classes have benefited as compared with historic consumption patterns. Even the poverty family in America will have a television set -- something that would have been an incredible luxury for the wealthy family of a previous generation.
The price of this prosperity, however, has been relatively diminished access to fresh air, free pasture, free game, and other less tangible benefits of Nature; and the importation of resources from less-developed countries at levels of return which the latter regard as exploitation. (Some historians of nutrition would also, no doubt, argue that the diet of the frontiersman or yeoman farmer was better balanced than the life-style of TV-dinners and snack-counters.)
A zero-sum game can be avoided by expanding the range of payoffs so that
players are rewarded to some extent or another. Man can perhaps extend his technology so that the re-fabrication of solid rock and shifting sand replaces the utilization of more finite mineral, animal and vegetative resources. He can reduce his
population growth, which strains those resources. It is conceivable that contemporary and future modes of distribution may even permit him to reduce population levels to historic figures without loss of the economies of scale imparted to production during the era of the Industrial Revolution to today. Relative global equity is
possible with a complex readjustment of technological capabilities and
value systems. We desperately need an ethic wherein adoption and the vasectomy has higher social prestige than child-bearing (it being a tragedy of
present society that we encourage the least-prepared to be the
most-prolific). We need, in the wealthier regions, an ethic where
frivolous consumption is considered anti-social rather than Instinctively
desirable (65). And we need a
technology capable of
utilizing, and recycling, the inert materials of the earth and perhaps beyond.
Meanwhile, mankind as a whole rests at the apex of a food-cycle. The proportion of vegetarians amongst us would undoubtedly increase if we knew that animals were conscious of their fate in the slaughter-house. Man is the supreme exploiter. Within society, the individual sees himself in a series of overlapping systems, with limited ability to influence some and almost none to influence others. To somebody at the apex of a particular system, that system may be seen as the rational organization of men and means towards a desired end. To somebody at the base of the same system, from which there may be little ready escape, that same system may seem exploitative of his labours and one in which he has little voice.
The individual finds himself at the apex of one system, the base of another. An employee may feel he is abused relative to the satisfactions of management, yet he also benefits by an operation which is based on the
resources of another country exported at what the latter considers
starvation royalties. To the black in America, on welfare, the United
States may seem a system dehumanizing large segments of its own
population. But that same black has a standard of living surpassing the
bulk of mankind, and the tea he may drink is produced by the sweat of an
even more impoverished East Indian. The barriers for the latter to
emigrate to America are formidable. Many Quebecois assert they live in a
colony within a colony. The Haitian immigrant, however, may feel that
Quebec landlords are a facet of an exploitative society, with him as the
Centers/hinterlands and the multinational corporation
Resources are not only materials. We also speak of human resources. The
spatial equivalent of hierarchy is the center/hinterland
relationship. Resource utilization systems, expressed in spatial terms,
tend to show us a pattern similar to the model portrayed in our section From telephone to Telesphere. Systems
overlap, and a world in
which centers -- for specific functions -- were somewhat randomly distributed around the globe, would be a vastly more equitable world than the one in which centers tend to cluster in a few countries.
The historical picture has been one in which the center has been accused
of draining off the resources of its hinterland. The defence of the center has been that without its existance, the hinterland would not be efficiently exploited for the benefit of all involved in the system. The wheat farms of the Canadian prairies feel they are exploited by the Wheat Board and grain brokers of Winnipeg. The dairy farmers of upstate New York feel the same way about the distributers of New York City. New York at one time felt itself the exploited hinterland of Britain, with its best brains and resources drained to feed the cultural and economic life of London. New York itself is now accused of draining the economic and cultural resources of a large hinterland which, in some respects, transcends the borders of the United States.
There is, however, an important distinction to be made between a system
within a taxation-immigration jurisdiction, and one which transcends the borders of such jurisdictions. Within a taxation jurisdiction, a ready mechanism exists to facilitate the redistribution of profits throughout a system, so that the hinterland benefits along with the center in this as well as other respects. Similarly, within a jurisdiction permitting internal mobility, the hinterland resident is free to migrate to the center if doing so gives him greater personal opportunity. Equitable distribution of profit and mobility of labour is much more problematic in a trans-jurisdictional system; and the draining of human resources to a center leaves the hinterland depleted of its cultural richness.