Thursday, October 13, 2011

Is there a fractal nature to human failings?

I started to write a reply to CT's very interesting response to my last post, but realised that I had started rambling about sustainable human flourishing again. So I promoted my response to a post where I could unravel the thread a bit more easily. This is the result...

Edit: Before I go any further, some friends complained that I lost them with this post... I suspect that the word "fractal" started their eyes glazing over before they even started, so I'll try set that straight. What is a fractal? Well, to help get the picture (pun intended) here is one of the most famous and beautiful fractals, thanks to the mathematical legend Benoît Mandelbrot (who died late last year - a terrible loss)
The Mandelbrot Set: Click to see zoom sequence (Wikipedia)
Now that sure is beautiful, but why did CT write about human nature being fractal?
So here is the fundamental problem as I see it. I see Human nature as being fractal. Say tomorrow we rounded up the "1%", stuck them in a space-ship, and shot them off into space. Does that mean that the 99% that are left are suddenly happy, free, and equitably compensated? No, in all probability, 1% of that 99% will step into the power-vacuum, and set themselves on top of the new pyramid... You can keep going until there are 100 people left - and you can be sure that one of them is going to be an arrogant power-grabber type person - the "1%".
So, any proposed fix, or new economical model, has to not only take into account the statistical distribution of human nature, but also it's fractal nature. Any model that ignores the fact that you will always have a "1%" is doomed to (eventual) failure. 
To understand what CT is on about, you should understand that a fractal is not only a beautiful picture, it is very special in its mathematical properties - As you can see in the animation, if you break a fractal up, you will end up with pieces that are effectively smaller copies of the original.

So do you get the fractal thing now? Ok - let's get back on track then...

Now, CT makes an interesting point (and I love the Douglas Adams allusion), but it is a point that I personally believe is too down on humanity because it implies that the current woes that we face are some kind of inevitable punishment for innate human failings. 

I admit that this is a commonly posited idea, but if we reflect deeply on it, we find ourselves on a slippery slope that doesn't take us anywhere useful (unless we are a religious demagogue, of course, but that's a different post... ;-)

I will certainly concede that there is a seemingly innate human drive towards leadership and power. There is also little doubt that there is a fractal-like nature to this. In any given group of people, most people quite like to be led, but given the opportunity and a power vacuum, someone will always step up to lead.

There is a fundamental flaw in CT's conclusion though that I suspect results from mistakenly equating leadership and power with greed and corruption. 

Sure, we can look at this from a recent historical perspective and there will be a pretty high correlation between leadership/power and greed/corruption. This does not imply, however, that all leaders are necessarily greedy and corrupt. (I suspect that if you look at truly great leaders, you'll probably find quite the opposite)

In fact, if we reflect on the current pitiful state of the world in terms of great leaders vs. greedy corrupt arseholes, then there seems little doubt that we have too many of the latter and not nearly enough of the former.

I also think that if you go beyond history to reflect on this in terms of the evolution of human consciousness, human societies, human ethical systems, etc then the opposite will be true there too. It is only in very modern times that excessive greed and corruption could have imparted any significant Darwinian advantage on an individual or group… In strictly evolutionary terms, there have not been enough generations since then to have significantly skewed the gene pool towards greed and corruption - not even to 1%… 

So, to me it seems unlikely that we can reasonably justify away greed and corruption as any kind of innate or genetic failure - My hypothesis is more simple... I suspect that people learn to be greedy, corrupt arseholes by emulating other people who have been allowed to get away with being greedy, corrupt arseholes.

So, I don't deny that there will always be a 1%, and I would never suggest that we ignore that fact. I also don't propose that we try to build any artificial restrictions on the 1%. I propose instead that we try find a natural solution that breaks the unnatural cycle that in very recent history has bestowed power and leadership on greedy, corrupt arseholes (instead of expelling them from civil society!) 

Rather than blaming human nature for our failures, we can transcend those failures by simply rediscovering our human nature.

All we need to do is ensure that children born today have human role models to emulate in their formative years instead of greedy corrupt arseholes. That way, those who are lucky enough to become the most powerful leaders in tomorrow's 1% will know what makes a great leader.

Sounds simple enough... Hmm, anyone have any ideas about how we can implement it...?


  1. Actually, I almost posted a follow up to my original comment, but eventually I deleted it as it started to sound a little elitist! ;^> I actually think that it is more like 1%/98%/1% - The one percent that are the "leadership and power" side, and the 1% that are on the "greed and corruption" side, and 98% are the followers - variously being tugged on direction or the other depending on how the 1%-vs-1% struggle is going.

    So, how do we, the "good" 1% (and that does sound a little elitist, but I do put myself in that camp) manipulate the 98%, reduce the influence of the bad 1% - without becoming the thing you hate? And I'm sorry Jamie, plenty of the easy answers to that question do go down the religious demagogue path... It is far to easy to use the ends to justify the means... (not proposing mass-manipulation as a solution, just pointing out that it is one of the easier ones...)

    And really, trying to map out any human conflicts using a 1-dimensional measurement is such a gross over-simplification that it is bound to be very limited in usefulness. Now if someone would come up with a snappy slogan for the protesters that used a decent basis of n-dimensional matho-politics, then I would be onboard! ;->


  2. You might be onto something Chris - you elitist you ;-) I think that there might be something in a small edit that I just made - to add "(instead of expelling them from civil society!)" above...

    I'll think about this some more but right now I'm about to jump on a train to London for work, so no time right now. Thanks mate.

  3. By the way, I was thinking about this some more while riding home from San Francisco yesterday, and I suspect that the fractal elements of human nature might reach as far as history. I am not convinced that there is a great increase in greed and corruption in "modern times" (although I am not sure what you consider modern exactly). Really, the idea that the 98% get any say in things at all is a very recent occurrence (in historical terms), and I think that just shows the 1%-vs-1% battle in a different light, but it has always been there.

    The difference between the stated goals of the Catholic Church, and what went on during the Crusades, and the Inquisition, is one great example. If you want a less religious example, look at the History of the Russian Revolution, and in particular, the power exchange between Lenin and Stalin.

    In fact, that last example is so apt to what we are discussing, I may need to go and re-read my early 20th century Russian History again. I have a hard time convincing people that there are a lot of parallels between that period of Russian History, and the current state of America (too many emotional ties to "Commie-bad/Democracy-good" brainwashing). The Communist state was founded with such great ideals, but failed dismally. Was it a failure of the system? Or a failure of human nature?