If life works more by tracking environment than by climbing up a ladder of progress, then contingency should reign. [Wonderful Life 300.]

This remark by paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould refers to evolution, not daily life, though it is not immediately obvious why it should not apply to both. Just as some people are conceited enough to imagine our species to be the culmination of evolution, some have the same attitude toward democracy. Gould argued that contingency rather than fitness in some absolute sense is closer to the real explanation for why humans even came into existence. Might democracy also just happen at the moment to fit some arbitrary and temporary contingency, some quirk in the socio-political environment? Gould asked what evidence exists suggesting that the species that survived the Cambrian were “qualified” to do so by superior fitness and answered, “None.” What evidence is there that democracy is more fit to survive than other forms of government? A French line of thinking argues that Europe is returning to feudalism. Emergent, self-organizing Muslim rebels show many signs of learning faster than Western armies or Western democracies. Is human governance climbing a ladder of progress or just tracking the environment? To the degree that the latter is true, democracy may go the way of Hallucigenia.

But the analogy with evolution breaks down with the recognition that we are watching and tinkering with the evolution of governance. Perhaps the key question is whether we are doing so primarily to ensure that democracy becomes the fittest method of governing by maximizing its ability to learn and adapt in order to balance faith to its principles and survivability or, on the other hand, whether we are watching and tinkering for, e.g., private gain. The possibility of, say, elite warping of democracy for self-enrichment is an extreme case. The evolution of democracy could also be influenced by perfectly sincere efforts to perfect democracy that end up making it more fit but only for the current environment…at the fatal expense of long-term fitness. Leaving aside the obvious evolutionary example of Tyrannosaurus Rex, a social example is the trap so well explained by Mark Elvin that Chinese farmers had gotten themselves into by the 19th century: they had maximized the benefits of traditional manpower-intensive agriculture in response to an exploding population that China could, just barely, feed itself as long as everyone focused on traditional agriculture. The system worked but left no excess resources for shifting to machine-based agriculture; China was trapped in the old-fashioned system and thus suffered greatly when times changed. One could be excused for wondering if Western democracies today are becoming trapped in an addiction to parliamentary procedure and petty argumentativeness at the expense of actually dealing with real social problems.


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