The Iron Lady’s ancient outlook

By Ronald M. Horvath | Jun 16, 2010

Margaret Thatcher, former conservative prime minister of Great Britain, once said, "There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families." How wrong she was is evident in the latest thoughts on the evolution of both humankind and society.

Actually, a recent article in the New York Times claiming discovery of Neanderthal DNA in the genome of modern, non-African humans may explain Ms. Thatcher's inability to recognize the forest for the trees. Neanderthals, it seems, though gifted with large brains and much of the talents and innate abilities of homo sapiens, lacked the ability to socialize in any groups larger than those of immediate family or clan, and were therefore too isolated for any real advancement beyond their cave-dwelling existence. Daniel Adler of the University of Connecticut writes that it is the "development and maintenance of larger social networks, rather than technological innovations or increased hunting prowess, that distinguish modern humans from Neanderthals."

Society, therefore, was the one thing Neanderthal lacked and it may have led to their stagnation and extinction. Matt Ridley, in an article in the Wall Street Journal, explains what he calls "a new idea, borrowed from economics, known as collective intelligence: the notion that what determines the inventiveness and rate of cultural change of a population is the amount of interaction between individuals."

Mankind, it seems, started out as rugged individualists, foregoing any larger society than a close circle of kin, at least in the Neanderthal stage (Ms. Thatcher's perfect world). But progress, in the form of change and invention, is the result of the interchange of ideas when there are numerous minds to influence, foster and exchange those ideas. The typical Neanderthal's life was a mean and narrow existence, and a short one, because it was also a lonely one.

"We don't accomplish anything in this world alone," said former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Neanderthals failed because of a lack of community in which to exchange ideas in the mix and match manner necessary for advancement beyond the primitive. Ideas, like all media of exchange, work best when passed from one mind to another gathering influence from among many minds. "The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas," said Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling, and that means lots of minds.

Ridley puts it in a way that we can all understand. "The process of cumulative innovation that has doubled lifespan, cut child mortality by three-quarters and multiplied per capita income nine-fold -- worldwide -- in little more than a century is driven by ideas having sex."

Of course the more minds concentrated in a given area the better. "We tend to forget that trade and urbanization are the grand stimuli to invention," writes Ridley, "far more important than governments, money or individual genius ... The sophistication of the modern world lies not in individual intelligence or imagination. It is a collective enterprise." Certainly, the world's 40 largest city-states, home to some 18 percent of the world's population, produce two-thirds of global economic output and nearly 9 in 10 newly patented innovations.

And the most prevalent collective enterprise is society itself. That society may have been the invention of modern humans who, like Native Americans, may have lived in larger groups, coming together several times a year with related clans or tribes where news, gossip, and ideas could be exchanged and therefore moving the whole of their community -- or their society -- forward, to the invention of agriculture, the building of cities, the specialization of labor, the centralization of authority, and to nationhood.

All this, of course, goes against Ms. Thatcher's narrow vision. The hyper-individualists of the political right want to believe that each of us is a world unto himself but the modern world has only come about because the most important "each" is the one included in "each other." No "one," or series of "ones" is responsible for the march of progress. It is always "we." It is the coming together of disparate views and perspectives that produce the cacophony of debate from which springs the invention of the new.

Individuals are born, live and die, but society goes on, a river of human existence. Human kind is made up of individuals just as a great river is actually made up of raindrops, but only the river has the power to carry itself forward. Each of us, as individuals, has a right to determine our own destiny, to plot our own course, but none of us can ever be free of the society in which that destiny will be realized.

But the subject of the Neanderthals' contribution to our modern human genome may actually explain much of our current political conflict. With their emphasis on individuality, small government, local sovereignty, a lack of concern for anyone outside their closed circles, and an over-defensiveness about territory, could modern conservatives have more than their normal share of Neanderthal DNA? Conservatives' disdain for cities and love for rural areas thinly populated with "real Americans" certainly reflects Neanderthal tastes. Could Ms. Thatcher's social blindness be the result of a small part of her having never left the cave?

In the end the rugged individualists are doomed to obsolescence. Society, with all respect to the Iron Lady, does indeed exist and because it does so do we, and the whole modern world in which we live as well.

Ronald M. Horvath lives in Camden.




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