The Explosive Rise in Individualism (John Stewart)

The Explosive Rise in Individualism (from Evolution’s Arrow – The Direction of Evolution and the Future of Humanity, by John Stewart, Canberra, Australia 2000)

Particularly in the last two hundred years, a significant proportion of individuals in more complex human societies has developed a strong capacity to use internal linear modelling to critically evaluate their own beliefs. Increasingly, this has produced a decline in the extent to which individuals are internally hard wired by inculcated beliefs to behave in ways that produce a cooperative and easily-managed society. For more and more individuals, god, tradition and duty are all dead. Their behaviour is now guided largely by internal reward systems that are mostly self-centered, except for the legacy of the kin selection and reciprocal altruism mechanisms. These continue to predispose us toward some cooperation within our families and friendship groups. But this aside, our reward systems tend to promote behaviour that advantages the individual – they largely ignore the effects of our behaviour on others.

This undermining of belief systems that previously helped organise social behaviour has led to the explosive rise in individualism of the last century. Increasingly, it has been left solely to external management in the form of government to manage self-centered individuals in ways that align their interests with those of the society as a whole. In large part, the rise of self-centred individualism has necessitated the massive increase in the size and scope of government that we have seen this century.

As the capacity of rulers for systemic modelling improved during the last 10,000 years, they were better able to cope with diversity and creativity within their societies (…) Improved ability to manage diversity and change also enabled governments and other rulers to establish the controls that have allowed large-scale economic markets to arise and flourish. At their heart, economic markets are made up of the same types of exchanges between individuals that underpin reciprocal altruism. An individual gives goods or services to another, and the other reciprocates with goods, services, or money of equivalent value. But the reciprocal altruism mechanism is incapable of establishing the types of exchanges that are essential to modern markets. As we have seen, reciprocal altruism cannot organise exchanges between individuals who are not known to each other and who may not deal with each other again. Rather than cooperate, strangers will pursue their own immediate interests by cheating in exchanges and by stealing. And without cooperative exchange between strangers, modern markets will not emerge.

So the reciprocal altruism mechanism was not responsible for the emergence of large-scale modern markets. Large-scale markets were made possible only by the existence of governments or other rulers and institutions. External managers could make market exchanges work by patching up the failings in the reciprocal altruism mechanism. They could do this by establishing a system of controls that prevented cheating and theft. Governments and other rulers and institutions typically developed laws and enforcement systems that punished cheating in exchanges, enforced contracts, and prevented theft by establishing enforceable property rights.