Listen to “Tea Party” ideologues single-mindedly pursuing their agenda of deep cuts in social governmental functions and you can’t escape the conclusion that there is a larger agenda lurking in the background:  a relentless push to return to the go-go days of 19th century America, regardless of the fact that this happens to be the 21st century. Just consider a few facts; the GDP per capita in 1900 was $4096, and in 2010 -$47,284 (IMF figures). In other words, our economy is about 11.5 times bigger. The U.S population was 76 million in 1900 and is 285 million in 2010, almost a four fold increase. Why should any thinking person try to shrink the government to 1900 size? The President has proposed reducing revenue as percentage of GDP (in other words, shrinking the government) to Dwight Eisenhower’s time, as a compromise –but that was not enough for radicals in congress. Are they stupid or just plain dense? Probably. As the Wall Street Journal, hardly a bastion of liberalism, put it: candidates like Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell are damning testimony to our present political thinking. But the people pulling the strings behind the zealots are not stupid at all. The Koch brothers and their creation “FreedomWorks” yearn for the “good ol’ days” when there was no EPA to restrain their coal interests, no strong unions to offer a counterweight to rapacious capitalism at the expense of the public, no Department of Education, not even a Federal Reserve –in other words, no institutions of a modern society. The reigning philosophy of the times was Social Darwinism, the idea that those who “made it” deserve their station in life, and those who didn’t are simply inferior in their physical or mental capacity to compete, hence they deserve their lot. Courtesy of laissez-faire capitalism of the 19th century and its philosophical cousin of Social Darwinism we got the robber barons and the Great Depression.

What does Biology teach us?

The simplistic view of Natural Selection’s “survival of the fittest” as a dog- eat- dog unrestrained competition has never been Darwin’s view. He was quite explicit that cooperation has a powerful survival value in nature, even more so than naked aggression. In fact, natural selection imposed severe penalties on non-cooperators. Let’s examine a few examples.

In the May 2011 issue of The Scientist Steve Wiley, the lead biologist for the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, authored an article titled “If Bacteria Can Do It…”. He points out that you can judge survival strategies by the success of the species through the eons of evolutionary challenges. Please note: I didn’t use the individual organism as the only subject of natural selection. “A more nuanced view that natural selection theory reveals is that behavior such as altruism can benefit genetic lineages even when it does so at the expense of the individual.” Altruism in bacteria? You bet. Of course, this behavior cannot be the result of bacteria analyzing the options; it is genetically determined, and the consequences of not cooperating is unequivocal –extinction. Why are we looking to bacteria for evolutionary wisdom? Simply because they are the most successful organisms on Earth numerically and in terms of biomass. In a given ecological niche bacteria rarely live by themselves –they form communities in which one bacterial species generates as waste the substrates that another species needs to survive. Their waste products are use, in turn, by other bacterial species in a complex food chain. What a great demonstration that survival requires a balance between the needs of the individual with the well-being of the group, both within and across species.

Is this unique to bacteria? Absolutely not. Just consider the most “primitive” multi-cellular organisms, like sponges. These are not just an agglomeration of cells. These are communities of cells, with each cell specializing in a task that benefits the whole community. What if the cells that specialized in the digestive task stopped cooperating unless they got a bigger allocation of the digested food because after all, they are the “nourishment creators”? Too stupid to contemplate.

What about social insects? Consider the huge nests of termites, or the endless procession of thousands of army ants, or the division of labor among ant species that farm fungi? Their cooperation is a subject of numerous studies, and their numbers attest to their evolutionary success. And the most fascinating insect society, the honeybees, never cease to amaze with every new discovery of their communication skills, cooperation, and the strict enforcement of community discipline. A worker bee daring to lay her own eggs in defiance of the rules? The members of the hive will simply eat the larval offspring. How enlightened; they don’t kill the wayward bee –a waste of a contributing member of the labor force. They punish by eliminating her larvae, and contributing in the process valuable protein to the community diet.

Some restraints on asocial behavior are not as in-your-face- blunt as in bees. The alpha male baboon throws his weight around to keep the rest of the males from mating with the females of the troop. He may have his way for a couple of years, but the penalty is chronic stress, chronically elevated stress hormones with all the accompanying adverse consequences –lowered immunity, susceptibility to infections, reduced physical fitness, shorter longevity. The amazing thing is, like us humans, they never learn. They still vie for the alpha job, they still “think” they are above the laws of natural selection, and they still pay the price in the end.

What about us, the “thinking” species Homo sapiens? Altruism and cooperation is hard wired in our brains. As Darwin put it, which band of hunters is more likely to succeed, the cooperative one or the one that is made up of uncooperative ego- driven individuals, consequences be damned?

What does history teach?

History is rife with examples of “over my dead body” ending in, well, dead bodies. But probably none as stark as the Israelite zealots taking on the Roman Empire at the end of the first century C.E. Why would they do this crazy thing? The Romans never interfered with the local religions in their empire, and specifically allowed their client-king Herod, to build the Second Temple that was one of the marvels of the ancient world. The answer is reminiscent of today’s politics: Herod wasn’t “pure” enough for the zealots, the self-appointed guardians of the faith (he was only a convert). Complete independence was a non-negotiable demand, and any talk of compromise was deemed as treason punishable by death.  The results are well known: exile and pogroms, culminating 19 centuries later in the holocaust.

To paraphrase George Santayana, those who ignore the natural laws of cooperation and altruism and the historical lessons of tolerance and compromise are doomed to pay a stiff price.

When will they ever learn?

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.


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