04 July 2008

Transcending evolution?

Over 99 percent of the species that ever walked, flew, or slithered upon this earth are now extinct. This fact alone appears to rule out intelligent design. When we look at the natural world, we see extraordinary complexity, but we do not see optimal design. We see redundancy, regressions, and unnecessary complications; we see bewildering inefficiencies that result in suffering and death. Sam Harris, Letters to a Christian Nation (page 75)

In a infinite universe the best way of making policy would simply evolve. In what used to be a diverse world, it certainly looks as though the worst ways of making policy - those that destroy or enfeeble part or all of their population - are on the defensive or even on the way out. The liberal countries are generally more prosperous, and the more fortunate citizens of failed states can migrate to those that manage their affairs better. If someone had to choose the type of real-life society in which to live, given the whole range of past and current societies, and without knowing what their status within that society would be, they would probably choose a western liberal democracy.

But, tempting as it is to believe the opposite, it doesn't follow that these societies will persist, let alone improve. A glance at history is all that's necessary to see that there was nothing inevitable about the rise of liberal democracy: if Hitler had put off his invasion of the Soviet Union or had developed atomic weapons before the US.... Similar warnings should be heeded today. There's nothing inherent in our current policymaking system that says, for example, that we can successfully avoid environmental or social catastrophe, or that any society that remains after such an event would be more pleasant to belong to. The suffering and death to which Mr Harris refers can mean the suffering and death of the entire planet. In an infinite universe, there will always be other planets that actually do evolve the best policymaking system - which might look nothing like the liberal democracy that is our current best effort.

All this is to say that there is a case to be made for deliberate intervention rather than waiting for evolution to do its work: for stipulating that one of the outcomes we want to see is the survival (at the very least) of our species and actively targeting that outcome. Our past experience barely equips our policymakers to acknowledge global threats, let alone to respond effectively to them. The threats come from too many different sources and have too much uncertainty attached. There is no inevitability that our curent systems can deal with them.

So there is a strong argument, I believe, for something like Social Policy Bonds that reward people for ensuring that no social or environmental catastrophe occurs. Such bonds could be redeemed after a sustained period during which no huge upheaval, however caused, led to large numbers of people being killed, injured or made homeless. Holders of such bonds would do their utmost to prevent social and environmental collapse. The issuers of the bonds could include global bodies (such as the United Nations), using funds raised from the world's governments. To me, this targeting of a universally desirable outcome, is far preferable to waiting millennia for evolution to come up with better systems than we have now, especially when our planet itself and every living thing on it might in the long run be merely one of those unsuccessful mutations that doesn't survive.

No comments: