Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

I don’t know how many science fiction movies include the speech about how the human race must evolve further if we are ever to learn how to live together in peace. To the philosophical ear, this line is actually comical since it assumes that conflicts arise because of human nature and could be transcended if human nature changed. But the laws of competition are logically prior to the emergence of any animal species. We can no more escape the rules of the game than we can get 2 + 2 to equal more than 4 by dint of hard work, sincerity, and spiritual enlightenment.

In computer simulations of competitive situations, Core War addicts and their academic equivalents have never come up with a general strategy better than what they call Tit for Tat, a straightforward program of retaliation against the aggressive actions of the others. That’s the best you can do if you have no knowledge of what the others are going to do. There is a kicker, however. If all or most of the others are practicing a strategy similar to Tit for Tat, one can do better by postponing retaliation a little and thus verifying that the actions of the others have not been misperceived as they will inevitably be misperceived from time to time in any real situation. Indeed, a society of creatures that follows the modified Tit for Tat rule will out-compete a society following the pure Tit for Tat rule. The trouble is, there are always barbarians at the gate.

All of this is exceedingly abstract, but—therefore—explain a great deal of biology and, alas, history. Societies that practice some degree of mutual forbearance often prosper. In material as well as moral terms, civilization really is better than savagery. Enlightenment can never actually achieve escape velocity from the State of Nature, however, because the habit of reason necessarily weakens immunity to the thugs, eventually providing an irresistible temptation to predators internal and external.

Liberal societies have a hard time believing that their enemies aren’t just making a mistake. Believing that they can be better than their world, they fall into the sin of pride and get the bum’s rush. The thugs also suffer from vanity, believing that their strategy, which, after all, is stupidity itself, reflects talent or genius. When the victims finally fight back, the aggressors are always surprised and oddly hurt—the memoirs of Hitler’s last days in the bunker catch this tone of self-pity perfectly.

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