Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Imagining the Future: Social Units

In a simplified model of an ideal world, we would have units of population that could meet my basic criteria:
  • Everyone can at least meet their basic needs (food, water, clean air, shelter, clothing, health care, safety)
  • Everyone has basic freedoms (speech, association, mobility, access to accurate information)
  • No one is contributing to species extinctions, including ours
What might these “social units” look like?

Various estimates have been made about the minimum number of people required to viably reproduce, in the context of sending humans to other planets. The numbers seem to converge at around 160 people, with some latitude based on the number of females in the group. Reproduction directly affects the species extinction condition, since, in the worst case, we would have only one social unit alive, and it would be responsible for all future generations.

In Nature, species are adapted by evolution to ranges of environmental conditions (“niches”) where they can optimally survive and reproduce. So are we, but we have much more flexibility by virtue of our ability to learn. Some portion of the accumulation of knowledge and technology built over the several thousand years of learning by specialists enabled by civilization would supplement each social unit's physical and mental (biological) capabilities and constraints to determine what kinds of environments (ecosystems) it could inhabit. The size of the social unit would also affect this, since everyone's basic needs would need to be met.

Maintaining basic freedoms while restraining behavior that could exterminate other species would be enabled by nurturing and training. The basic psychological substrate for basic values and learning would be created by fostering empathy and curiosity (see “Imagining the Future: Enforcement”). Teaching basic knowledge, applicable to all conceivable environments and social situations, would minimize the chances of taking damaging action while enabling individuals to meet their personal needs and coordinate their activities with others to do what they can't individually achieve and improve the chances of the social unit's continued survival. Developing curiosity into successful learning would provide the flexibility to adapt to unforeseen conditions. Demonstrating the usefulness of the basic freedoms in furthering both the realization of values and the ability to meet basic needs would reinforce their continuation.

Depending on the complexity of the social unit's environment and the individual characteristics and experiences of its members, there will be specialization of knowledge, ability, and physical circumstances across the group. This specialization will become more pronounced if the number of people grows, perhaps to a point where it splinters into subgroups. This dynamic needs to be managed so that competition doesn't result in violation of the basic criteria; for example, social constraints on population growth may need to be observed until or unless a suitable environment can be found where the additional population can meet the criteria.

1 comment:

Bradley Jarvis said...

Here are some interesting facts associated with the number of people I suggested for the population of a social unit: 160 is close to 168 = 24 x 7 (one hour per person per week); at what the World Wildlife Fund defines as the minimum sustainable ecological footprint (see the newly released Living Planet Report 2010), the footprint of a social unit would be one square mile for 152 people (and not much less for 160); and 160 is within the range of "Dunbar's number," which is the maximum population for healthy social relationships (thanks to David Braden for catching that one).