Monday, April 01, 2013

London, that gut of tapeworms

  Sethren, today let us weep for ourselves.
  Evolution was once thought of as the survival of the fittest.  But fittest for what?  The fittest to survive.  We now know that it is the environment that selects who or what survives.  Things change, people change, animals change, viruses change like buggery.  The shivery, scratchy phlegm-hoiking cough you caught on the bus this week is changed, subtly changed, from the antigen that lured your immune system, already weakened by a diet of  MadamMiMi’sMeatyBits and their attendant medicaments, into such an exhausting war of attrition the week before last.  And all these things, people, animals, pathogens, are part of our environment.  Other people are a huge part of the environment in which each of us lives.
What has that to do with this day of weeping?
  Competition.  The struggle for survival.  We compete for resources, we human beings.  Our recent history, just the last fifty thousand years, is a tale of murder and war, fought for the earth’s ever dwindling resources.  That fits with the survival of the fittest.  But it’s not uniquely human.  Chimpanzees have wars, albeit very small ones.  What is so distinctive about our species is not war, but cooperation.  Helping each other.  Two people lifting a stone or a pole because it is too heavy for one.  A multitude of people, over days  or decades or centuries, building a stockade for animals, or a hut, or a city, or a mosque.
  How to explain this altruism in evolutionary terms, sethren?  First let us note that “cooperation” is a term of wide remit.  “Get down on the fucking floor, face down, arms wide, legs apart, while we gaffa-tape your mouth.” And then, whatever duty of the State is thereby being prosecuted by whatever contracted agency, deportation or merely the modelling of the proper order of society, “Thank you for your cooperation”; because respect for human dignity will have been written into the contract.
  Among mammals, cooperation is usually involuntary on the side of one party, and unexamined on the side of the other.  Mammals do not photosynthesise, plants do it for them, then they eat the plants.  But wolves do not eat plants.  They get the moose to do that for them, and then they eat the moose.  This is what we might call asymmetrical cooperation.
  And in these pairings there is an evolutionarily stable strategy.  Except maybe we shouldn’t call it a strategy, because it is not at all clear who or what is strategising.  Maybe it is an evolutionarily stable cycle.  In engineering it has a name, which I have forgotten.  You know the thing, sethren; you have a bi-metallic strip, it makes contact in an electrical circuit which causes it to heat up. Because it is bi-metallic, one side expands more than the other.  The strip curves.  It breaks the circuit.  The strip cools down. It straightens.  It makes the circuit.  It heats up.  Tell me when you get bored.
  There are few wolves and thousands of moose.  The wolves go forth and multiply.  There are too many moose and they eat all the, whatever it is that moose eat.  Lichen?  Birch bark?  Just at that  time the wolf population is peaking.  The wolves are eating a huge amount of moose, though the scragginess of the meal is becoming a problem.  And then there is a scarcity of even scrag of moose.  The wolf population plummets.  Meanwhile the lichen (or birch bark [or maybe those red fungi with white spots that the shamans eat {remember that fact, sethren, for I have read somewhere that — a thought has come to me here, sethren, it could be that I am confusing moose with reindeer — I have read somewhere that the reindeer herders on party nights drink reindeer piss for the hallucinogens from Aminata muscaria which the reindeer eat, to whit, muscinol, muscazon and ibotenic acid.  So if you ever find yourself at a loose end on the tundra, without the comforts of designer psychotropics bought with bitcoin, oh we should be so lucky, off the Internet, remember reindeer piss, and be happy for a while}]) — meanwhile the lichen, you may recall is doing well.  The small population of moose that have survived begin to eat plentifully, just as the wolf population, because of the scarcity and general scragginess of moose, has plummeted.  We are back where we started, and the evolutionarily stable cycle starts again.
  The great and holy Nick Cave, one of the true prophets among us, sings The Weeping Song.  And sethren, I have not yet pronounced, wherefore should we weep.
  In human beings we have cooperation, and when the time comes, I will give indications as to where we should look for its origins.  But work needs to be done, difficult work, before that will be possible.
  Here I must warn you, sethren, of heresies, atavistic, obscurantist and deeply in error.  The Strüngmann Foundation Conference gave rise to a paper by David Sloan Wilson, Human Cultures are Primarily Adaptive at the Group Level.  Sethren, when Christians tried to iron out the little problems with consistency that their Faith was undergoing in the Third Century CE, dilemmas which were up to then being resolved by extermination, genocide, torture and immolation, they called a conference at Nicaea in 325 to agree exactly what of Christianity was so, and what was not.  The Nicene Creed was the result; you know, "I believe...", and then whatever the fuck it is they believe, that was all knocked into shape at Nicaea.
  It appears that the Strüngmann Foundation Conference has done the same for the twin branches of the religion Sociologyandpsychology.  I kid you not sethren.  What they have tried to do is keep the creed, and most of the Pentateuch, of Psychologyandsociology (like the BBC I try to maintain balance) and cram Darwinism into it.  It is a sad sight, sethren.  Like most religion, it is full of circularities.  I may return to it in time.  But meanwhile I shall just forward to your mobile phones the following paragraph from the paper by David Sloan Wilson:

“Small human groups are much more cooperative than primate groups, thanks largely to the their ability to suppress bullying and other self-serving behaviours, a kind of social organization that evolutionary anthropologist Christopher Boehm calls “reverse dominance” (Boehm 1993, 1999, 2011).  If members of a group can’t succeed at the expense of each other, then their main avenue of success is to succeed as a group, compared to less cooperative groups. The competition might be direct, as in warfare, or indirect, as in producing more offspring that emigrate to other groups or form new groups. In the language of multilevel selection theory, reverse dominance suppresses within-group selection and magnifies variation among groups (especially through the establishment and enforcement of norms), making between-group selection the dominant evolutionary force.”

   I will merely point out here that in this paragraph he starts with an assertion of what he sets out to prove (and indeed what, among his group, he seeks to make permanent and unquestionable as an item of a creed).  It is completely circular, as well as masterfully obscurantist, a mish-mash of nominalism and fingers-crossed teleology.
  But sethren, I wander hither and thither, and the crowds are passing us in the street, and I have not yet said why we should weep.
  In 1945 in our country, men and women returned from war.  They were determined, so it is said, to build a nation of fairness and justice.  Things that were already evolving came to fruition; the National Health, universal education, a safety net for those who for whatever reason were not coping.
  During the war there was plenty of good hunting for carnivores, who were called in those days spivs; the black market made spivs rich.  By the end of the war gangsterism was rife.  The Americans, for their own inscrutable reasons, handed the administration of Italy over to the Italian-American mafia, based in Naples.  But gangs, armed with the vast quantities of weapons left over from the war, were thriving in London and Paris as well.  Spivs, now heavily armed, competing with utopian, nation building citizens.  Moose and lichen.
  However, the spirit of the age was for cooperation.  The mafia find it hard to get power where there are strong trade unions and strong local government (reference needed, I know).  Spivs did not thrive in the presence of strong cooperation.
  Until 1980.  By then industrial capitalism was atrophying, but for a while North Sea oil masked the deficit.  Since then we have had only spiv-friendly, spiv-rewarded governments, (think Tony Blair) feasting on the nations of Britain from that off-shore gut of tapeworms, London.  Trade unions and local governement have been systematically destroyed.
  And today the spivs have decided to jettison the carcase, sucked empty.  The North and the poor and the sick can be sucked out no further.  And so the Gut, slowly writhing in plump pale pinkness, is cutting off even the sustenance for survival, the National Health, The Welfare State, universal education; the common wealth will die.  And when it has, the spivs, the tapeworms, will be transported in suppositories to their true home, the America of Ayn Rand.
  And we stand on the Huddersfield ringroad, sethren, cold, hungry, destitute, a roof over our heads always a problem.  What next?
  Understanding next.  We have accommodated demons.  Tomorrow, action.  And no more weeping.

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