Collectives vs Individuals: A Stand Alone Comment
IS INDIVIDUAL FREEDOM AN OBSTACLE TO DEVELOPING GROUP STRENGTH?
Preface: This post began in my mind's eye as a comment on an article I read recently, but grew in the writing to a length that made it impractical to post in the comment thread of that article.
So, I borrowed a concept originated by Sara Jacobovici, namely, that of a "stand alone comment". I believe Sara's introduction of this social media device is truly brilliant and should be acknowledged as such. Thank you, Sara.
"We love to move freely, but not on the expense of our survival and abilities to build strong human communities..."Ali Anani, PhD in Against Authenticity and Free Movement, on beBee, April, 2017
In his eloquent and deep-thinking piece, Against Authenticity and Free Movement, Dr. Ali Anani voyages to where few men have gone before. In doing so, he raises a question well worth contemplating, but also likely to stir controversy, given the current state of society and world politics. And I, for one, sincerely appreciate his fortitude in setting off to explore this path of (self?) discovery.
Nevertheless, I have to say I strongly disagree both with several of Ali's fundamental assumptions and with his (implied?) conclusion ― here's why ...
Dr. Anani assumes that the ultimate objective of a living "community" is survival.
He couples that assumption with the observation that some organisms (in his example bacteria) become more resistant to destruction when they form into what are effectively organic cooperatives ― in the case of bacteria, into biofilms.
Dr.Anani, who often explores concepts, theories, and systems through metaphors, provides us with a fascinating overview of some research on bacteria and biofilms. He then goes on to draw a comparison between bacterial collectives (biofilms) and human collectives (communities).
Finally, Dr. Anani concludes, at least by implication, that the survival potential of human communities is significantly enhanced when the members of such communities forego a measure of individual freedom (and identity?) in the service of strengthening resistance to destructive outside forces.
" What is truly amazing the understanding of bacteria to the benefits of forming a biofilm. The community of bacteria forming a biofilm is more stress resistant than any individual bacterium. This film is more resistant to ultraviolet light and is far more resistant to antibiotics."Ali Anani,PhD in Against Authenticity and Free Movement, on beBee, April, 2017
Which is to say that strong community organization yields synergistic strength that is more than simply the sum total of the individual strengths of its members.
And which might be true, but which, I submit, misses a critical point in this particular context.
The history of humanity is one of the constant evolutionary development (however you may define "evolution") of the individual and the valuing of the individual and his or her innate right to life and well-being.
This has been true right throughout recorded history, from the earliest introduction of the concept of law in ancient Egypt through Greco-Roman times, the early Judaic-Christian and Muslim era, the cultural developments in Eastern Asia, the European Middle Ages and the Renaissance, right through to the modern world.
The march has been inexorably toward placing increased value on the individual and his or her place in the phalanx of humanity.
Admittedly, this trait is in distinct contrast to the traits possessed by the enduring organic collectives of the world, whether they are composed of bacteria or insects...
Indeed, if one asks which group of organisms dominates the Earth in sheer numbers and is the most resistance to destruction, the answer has to be insects.
And this could lead (or mislead) some thinkers to look to the social structures of insects as a superior model for improving human social groups (communities and societies).
For instance, colonizing insects such as Honey Bees are often taken as a paradigm of collectives. In Honey Bee colonies, there is a single queen, a relatively small coterie of drones, and a vast mass of workers. Only the queen is necessary as an individual to the survival of the colony, while the drones have some importance in fertilization, and the worker bees have very little individual significance for the colony. Indeed, the workers and even the drones. to some extent, are interchangeable and readily sacrificed to the survival of the collective. ( https://agdev.anr.udel.edu/maarec/honey-bee-biology/the-colony-and-its-organization/)
There is no doubt that, In some respects, this makes bee colonies (collectives) stronger and more durable than human communities when it comes to long-term survival.
However, I suggest we should in our thinking guard against being mesmerized and thereby misled by the use of the metaphor... for there are several aspects of the social structure of bee colonies that few, if any of us would really want to accept.
In his article, Dr. Anani tells us that "The weak individual bacterium emerges as very strong in a community." But as I see it, this is not exactly correct.
The weak individual is not made stronger, as an individual per se, by the collective ― whether a bee colony or a bacterial biofilm is involved. It is only that individual's probability of survival which is made greater by membership in the collective.
Moreover, the collective doesn't give a gnat's ass about any of it's "lesser" members, and it will sacrifice as many as necessary of those lesser members in suicidal defense of the collective, quickly and entirely without remorse. Witness, the behavior of colonies of Africanized Honey Bees, also known as "killer bees", which are individually not as strong as North American honey bees, but which attack in such huge numbers and with such suicidal frenzy that many of their victims are actually suffocated, not stung to death.
Thus, it might initially be attractive for some to believe that, as part of a collective, an individual can achieve things great that might not be achievable outside the collective. But, again, that is to misunderstand or at least gloss over the true nature of collectives.
In strong collectives, only the interest of the collective, driven by the elite or elites of the colony (or by some dumb and blind innate algorithm), has any effect upon the response generated to danger or the direction the collective takes in terms of its development.
Understanding the true nature of collectives requires first understanding the concept of a "superorganism"...
Over the last several decades, biologists, zoologists, and other scientists have begun to conceptualize collectives such as bee colonies as what they call "superorganisms".
More and more scientists have started to view insect collectives as composed of many individual members, but acting in and reacting to their environment as a single large organism.
To my mind, the most appropriate metaphor ― or more accurately, the best simile ― for such "superorganisms" is none other than... the human individual.
Viewing the human individual in this way ― with the brain/mind being compared to the "queen" in a bee colony, various critical organs to "drones", and the mass of body cells to workers ― makes the most sense to me in this context. The metaphor fits very closely, right down to the fact that the human body has the innate ability to sacrifice body cells in defense against attack by bacteria, viruses, and other organisms, both micro and macro.
If you have a predilection for exploring metaphors, framing the comparison in this way yields some insight into why there is a naturally oppositional relationship between a human individual and a social collective. The precise nature of that opposition is beyond the scope of this discussion, and it will have to be explored at a later time and date.
Suffice it now to say that each of us is already a collective. This does not, of course, preclude us from banding together to cooperate and collaborate in the achievement of common objectives and goals.
At this point, I am satisfied simply to suggest to you this alternate way of looking at organic collectives ― one that does not make the mistake of dismissing out of hand the primacy of the individual in human society.
As I see it, history demonstrates that to do so leads to some form of elitism or, worse, totalitarianism, at both the right and left ends of the political spectrum. It also leads not to an improvement, but to a general degradation of social viability.
To submerge human individuality into a collective modeled on natural non-human social and faux-social systems would inevitably take the human out of "humanity." ― Phil Friedman
Postscript: This is not a didactic, but rather, as I mentioned earlier, a reflection stimulated by Dr. Ali Anani's recent article. I also recommend to you several essays that touch on social organization by Dr. Milos Djukic, with whom I've discussed and argued these issues during the years since we first met online in the group Writers 4 Writers on LinkedIn.
Your comments and criticisms are both invited and welcomed, as are those of Dr. Anani. For this is about conversation and the exploration of ideas about collectives versus individuals. So, please feel free to join in, having read Dr. Ali's article and this one. Cheers! ― PLF
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About me, Phil Friedman: With 30 some years background in the marine industry, I've worn numerous hats — as a yacht designer, boat builder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I am also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation.
In a previous life, I was formally trained as an academic philosopher and taught logic and philosophy at university.
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