On Social Competitiveness and Human Nature
As a species we combine social solidarity and shared culture with a strong competitive spirit. In a way these variant behaviours represent the true yin and yang of the human psyche, collectivism versus individualism or social cohesion versus self-betterment. One could argue that our social and technological reality would never have progressed without these instincts. Idealists have long envisaged a collectivist society devoid of competition at all levels in which our only motivation in life is to further the greater good of society as a whole and all rewards, both material and spiritual, are shared equally. Yet no modern society has achieved these egalitarian aims. As much as many of us may preach equality, at a personal level we remain highly competitive in our social interactions and choice of partners. All too often we preach social compassion in public, but practice social exclusivity in private.
Our technology inevitably relies on prior art or the acquired body of human knowledge accumulated over successive generations, while our social fabric and mores have evolved through centuries of experimentation and gradual adaptation. Social solidarity starts in the family where mothers and fathers sacrifice their body and soul to ensure the survival of the next generation and care for their living forebears. As societies evolved from small hunter-gatherer communities to larger fiefdoms and eventually nation states after the agrarian revolution, we had to share resources and infrastructure with a wider group of people with a common set of cultural traits and values. Yet societies remained profoundly unequal and riven by strong class chasms that prevented social mobility. If you were born a peasant and had to till the land from an early age with a rudimentary diet that stunted physical growth, you stood little chance of progressing to the professional classes or nobility, except potentially through marriage or adoption. The industrial revolution disrupted the feudal class system and later led to the expansion of state education and growing demand for a new class of literate and technically qualified workers. Much of the political debate since has revolved around two contrasting ideals:
- Equality of opportunity: Here we allow healthy but peaceful competition in social interactions and in the labour market, but the state intervenes mainly to ensure a level playing field for all children by funding universal education and providing a social safety net to prevent extreme poverty. However, this principle cannot guarantee equal success, which may depend on inherent aptitudes and biological differences, e.g. success in athletics may depend on training and diet, but also genetically determined physique.
- Equality of outcome: Here the state intervenes proactively to ensure everyone can attain the same socio-economic status through positive discrimination and massive investment to help underperformers. This principle identifies the least successful as victims of purported oppression, exclusion or prejudice. Here we should distinguish between giving everyone a fair chance to prove their worth and rewarding incompetence or demotivating excellence.
In truth neither approach has worked. As long as we have vast differences in wealth and culture, it will remain practically impossible to ensure a level playing field. The rich can always buy homes in the most exclusive neighbourhoods, shield their offspring from the worst aspects of today’s anti-intellectual hedonism and hire childminders and private tutors. On the other hand the last 50 years of social engineering and positive discrimination in Western Europe, especially in Scandinavia, have failed to yield the results many envisaged in the 1960s. Men and women are not the same, at least according to most recent neurobiological research. Women continue to prefer people-oriented and caring professions rather than more technical or object-oriented professions, as revealed in one of the world's most gender-egalitarian countries, Norway. Likewise not everyone is academically gifted. Many of us are much more hands-on and prefer learning through a mix of practical experience and social osmosis. We can’t all swat away for hours on end to pursue a career in engineering or scientific research, because the acquired knowledge would remain too abstract for many. Indeed that’s problem with much of academia. They can develop mathematically correct theories and extrapolate internally logical conclusions based on selective facts or epidemiological data. The theoretical approach that drives so much of modern corporate and government policy making has one major flaw. It fails to take into account all factors that are either unknown or considered irrelevant. Back on planet earth simple practical people take such unknown and unforeseen factors for granted. Our daily experiences often defy academic theories, but are still dismissed as mere anecdotal evidence until they appear in an official report. So who’s right? Theoreticians or practical laypersons? The answer is both in different ways. An academic may envisage a nanochip with a processing capacity greater than a human brain. A layperson may suggest that analogue human brains do not work in the same way as digital computers and they’d be right, but of our knowledge is fuzzy, i.e. based on a collection of associated concepts. However, cybernetic luddites have repeatedly been proven wrong. Advanced speech recognition, natural language processing, satellite navigation and even self-driving cars have long passed the proof-of-concept stage and promise to transform our lives. Cumbersome desktop computers gave way to more compact laptops, soon superseded by forever more sophisticated and versatile mobile devices in the form of smartphones, tablets, e-readers and watches. Academics may better understand the potential of cybernetic technology, but they fail to get to grips with the disruptive technology’s impact on the lives of millions of ordinary people, who may soon be rendered either redundant or completely subservient to corporate control.
Few aspects of human nature are as socially competitive as our mating or sexual bonding strategies. Sex is both a social taboo and something we all intimately crave, when we’re in the mood and with the right partner. Recreational eroticism has deep biological roots that ultimately seek to maximise our chances of passing on our genes and thus our cultural influence onto the next generation. We can transfer our cultural influence through adoption or through our life’s endeavours, but until recently the biological family remained the primary means of preserving one’s legacy for posterity. Naturally sexual desire is psychologically complex. Our erotic urges are much more powerful than our need to conceive more offspring than we can reasonably bring up. Such urges, especially among young men, merely satisfy hormonal impulses and boost our sense of self-esteem.
We thus have both sexual selection, a process that affects all sexually reproducing species, and erotic selection, in which we choose to win the affection and favours of the most affable mates to enhance our status or our gratification. Players in this game may vaunt their physical desirability or their socio-economic status. A young woman may delude herself that she has just fallen in love with her affluent married boss, with whom she first slept while attending a business conference together. A sociologist would ask why some women fall for guys 20 or 30 years their senior, who are way beyond their physical prime and have other family commitments, rather than men in their age group. Numerous studies have shown that women actively pursue the most successful men, who are inevitably both a small subset of all adult males and are likely to be older than most attractive women, typically aged between 18 and 30. Believe it or not there is no shortage of heterosexually inclined young men who would like to mate with attractive females in their age group, but not enough females who aspire to mate with low-grade males who have yet to prove their worth. This explains two key differences between male and female mating strategies even in cultures where both promiscuity and contraceptives are socially acceptable. A young man can boost his self-esteem and thus gain a higher status merely by virtue of scoring with a physically attractive female. By contrast young women target high status males, or at least those perceived to have a high status. In other words young men would be happy to score with most younger women, provided they are not grotesquely overweight or suffer from some other hideous bodily imperfection. Indeed some low-status young males are so desperate for sexual encounters they can easily reassess their physical desirability criteria and make do with almost any potential partner available. Young women tend to be much pickier and effectively disregard most men in their age group. As a result a minority of alpha-like males get a disproportionate amount of female attention. Luckily nature does provide some checks and balances. Not all women pursue the high risk strategy of targeting alpha males. If a woman seeks commitment, affection and economic security from a relationship, a mildly successful beta male is more likely to reciprocate, and more important, stay loyal. However, given women and men differing erotic needs, an open sexual market tends to empower females more than males. Men create most of the impulsive demand, while women control the supply. To make matters worse a strong cultural preference for males in much of the Middle East, India and China has led to a growing imbalance of males and females at birth. Worldwide we have 1.06 males under 15 per female of the same age group. In China that ratio rises to 1.2. Indeed male homosexuality may be a reaction to both biological and economic imbalances. Sex may well be more fun when both partners understand each other’s erotic needs, do not seek to gain other favours in exchange and need not worry about unwanted pregnancies or potential parental responsibilities.
Attractive women can thus play two games: reproductive selectivity and erotic selectivity. The former is fairly easily to understand in purely sociobiological terms. More successful men are not only better able to provide for their offspring’s economic needs, they are also more likely to pass on better genes. By contrast erotic selectivity rewards men who best meet women’s other emotional and economic desires. Put another way, we could describe wealth and power as the ultimate aphrodisiacs.
Undoubtedly environmental factors play a significant role in determining available opportunities, cultural outlook and socio-economic success in life, but we’d be foolish to deny natural physiological and indeed neurological differences among human beings. When it comes to partner selection, nature can be very cruel. Culture may affect which attributes are most valued by members of the opposite sex, but some players will always be at a relative advantage in the mating game.
The old saying goes it’s not what you know, but who you know , but at the end of the day some of us do require some hard skills that extend beyond social networking and communication. Many modern professions ranging from marketing, sales, project management, recruitment to psychotherapy, policing, social monitoring, public relations, media presentation and entertainment depend primarily on advanced social skills. These mean our ability not only to interact with people from different walks of life and cultural backgrounds, but identify their weaknesses and predilections in order to modify their behaviour. People managers need enough technical expertise to win the trust of their more practical team members and see their projects to a successful completion, but their main task is to ensure workers not only comply with business requirements, but do not hold the business to ransom. That’s why many technical tasks are assigned to teams with multiple layers of management rather than to one to two competent engineers, who may get the job done faster and more efficiently. If business managers can keep engineers focussed on circumscribed fields of endeavour, they can hide the full implications of their projects from well-paid technicians, e.g. technology developed for medical purposes could be adapted for military use.
Ironically as we depend more and more on technology whose inner workings few of us truly understand, the world’s major tech companies are busy investing more in psychoanalysis and social engineering than they are in hard science.