The biological instability of social equilibria (abstract)

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This is an abstract to The biological instability of social equilibria.

Biological Mechanisms Precluding The Establishment Of Social Equilibria:

Social Role Blindness, Population Cycles and Their Effect on The Periodic Emergence of Conflict and Disaster


Presented at the 1987 Winter Conference of the E.S.S. (European Sociobiological Society) on 1011 Januari in Jeruzalem by Popko P. van der Molen, Dept. of Developmental Psychology, State University of Groningen, Netherlands


✰✰ <level 2>   In this paper a mechanism is discussed which thwarts any systematic attempts to prevent and put a permanent end to conflicts between social groups and organizations.

From the social psychological and personality psychological literature it appears that there are certain aspects of our behaviour which we are remarkably unaware of. And a rational attitude by the actors towards this behaviour usually poses great difficulties. This is for instance expressed in the the ordinary patterns of social attraction and repulsion.

The mechanism in question is implemented at the level of learning as well as on the genetic level, and it probably operates in most socially living mammal species. For illustration some experimental and empirical evidence will be provided, from animal- as well as from human psychological research.

Basic to this model are the notion of involuntary incrowd-outcast selection reflexes and the notion of a "trait dimension" which may be described as "readiness to comply with a submissive role". This dimension is correlated with a great amount of social behaviour and small amounts of thing-oriented, individualistic and explorative behaviour, and it is by definition of great importance for the distribution of social roles and for the social structure in a group. It determines e.g. the "the likelihood of drifting into an outcast position" versus "the likelihood of assuming a compliant and socially accepted subordinate position".

Parallels can be found between this trait dimension and established dimensions from personality-psychological research e.g., Adaption-Innovation, Satellizer versus Nonsatellizer, Conformity, Person- versus Thing-orientedness, etc.

The notion that the likelihood of becoming an "accepted" incrowd-subordinate, versus the likelihood of becoming an outcast-type subordinate, is identical to the behaviour trait "Self-willed and Thing-oriented versus Compliant and Social", and that it also can be shown to have a genetic basis, has some remarkable and important consequences.

It does imply that within social units there is a continuous selection against self-will and in favour of compliance. But since there must be some overall (genetic) equilibrium in a population as a whole, it also implies that between, or outside of social units, a selection force must exist in the opposite direction. Following this line of thought, a theoretical model of cyclic social changes does emerge, which could account for quite a variety of phenomena, from periodic migration waves in lemmings and other rodents, through problems of ossification in ageing industrial companies and other organizational structures, to the periodic rise and fall of political states.

Whereas such periodic changes in social structures bring about a range of unpleasant and catastrophic revolutions at all levels of social organization, they probably have evolutionary significance by periodically enhancing a spatial spreading and a reshuffling of genes.

The evolutionary relevance of this mechanism could explain our remarkable lack of rationality and awareness concerning processes of social attraction and repulsion. These mechanisms are for instance responsible for what is probably the most conspicuous dimension in psychological analyses of social behaviour, i.e. the positive/negative or evaluation dimension (e.g. good vs. bad). The idea is discussed that such a specific area of ignorance may have a function in safeguarding socialrole automatisms against rational enquiry. These automatisms, in turn, may be seen as crucial for the maintenance of periodic changes in social structures, including population waves and social turnover catastrophes.

Such a theory of social cycles in socially living mammals in general, based on involuntary incrowd-outcast selection reflexes, may in part still be speculative. But its relevance for understanding the deeper roots of population movements and of the automatically and inexcapably arising periodic conflicts between social groups and structures such as clubs, associations, societies, companies, political parties, nations, and so forth, is such, that in the present age of pending large scale conflicts and nuclear disasters we can simply not afford to not investigate its consequences and possibilities.


Previous versions of (parts of) this contribution were presented at the European Sociobiological Society Congress of januari 5 & 6, 1985 in Oxford, England, and at the 1981 General Meeting of the New Zealand Genetic Society at Lincoln College, Canterbury. Abstr. published in the N.Z. Genetical Society Newsletter No.7, dedicated to the memory of Cyril Dean Darlington.


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