THE BLOG
08/26/2013 02:26 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2013

Social(organ)ism

Socialism, in modern American context at least, is a very dirty word. To some extent, that's perfectly legitimate, because human experimentation with socialism has incorporated extravagant flops from boondoggle to calamity. The rise and fall of the iron curtain resides in this space, as do the pertinacious human rights repressions of China. So, too, perhaps does the economic crisis in Greece and a great many more historical follies besides.

And there is a good basis for this failure in biology. Whatever one may think of Karl Marx as a philosopher, or even political scientist, he was clearly quite ignorant of paleoanthropology. Our biology was shaped by the long span of adaptation to survival in small, scattered tribes. We were certainly willing to work on behalf of others who were willing to work on behalf of us, but these were all people whose faces we knew. These were people, and before that fellow apes, who shared our cave, or our tree.

We were, like most social predators, ill disposed to other clans with faces unfamiliar. The deep imprint of adaptation cannot exonerate us of our most egregious historical transgressions, but it can help account for them. We are territorial and defensive, suspicious and xenophobic. We tend to infer that those who look least like us may like us least and pose a threat of harm. We may, on that basis, be inclined to swing our club first and ask questions after.

Homo sapiens is the dominant species on the planet (with the possible exception of cockroaches, poison ivy, and/or rats) with good reason. We got here with blood on our hands. We are not the kind of species likely inclined to work hard and share with someone we don't know personally, who may be loafing, and laughing at us, on the horizon. Karl Marx must have had a highly unusual group of selfless friends to have ever thought otherwise.

But then again, maybe socialism isn't really such a dirty word after all. It has come to denote the complete absence of private property. But at its etymological origins, it connotes sharing the fruits of labor. The same span of human adaptation that argues against socialism also argues for it. We are, biologically, social creatures -- rather unfit to survive otherwise. Tigers are effective loners. So are male polar bears. Homo sapiens, clearly, are not. The groups of our long prehistory were admittedly small, but they were always groups, both social, and socialistic. The lone Homo sapiens was apt to wind up as lunch for a more effective loner.

So socialism is in some ways a dirty word only because we have used it so badly. It is dirty because words are rather like boots: Wear them around long enough, and in the wrong places, and they inevitably get dirty and start to smell bad. The vernacular thus requires its version of boot polish routinely, and new boots periodically -- to keep the air between us untainted by connotations, unintended. In the modern American vernacular, Socialism smells very bad indeed. Its connotations reliably exclude Robin Hood, while including the likes of Stalin.

The trouble with continued use of a word that has been abused is that it proceeds to abuse understanding in turn. Socialism is now something of an epithet, an aspersion cast all too readily even when entirely invalid. When we indulge ourselves this way, we generally blind ourselves to moderate choices, retreating to the poles of antipathy. In almost any context, we do this at our peril. In social context, all the more so.

Human beings, quite simply, need one another. The scientific literature on the importance of social bonds to the length and quality of our lives is consistent, compelling, and decisive. The insight certainly isn't new -- John Donne told us of it centuries ago, and indelibly at that. But we have allied modern research to venerated rhetoric, and the case is now closed. Love, and more generically our connections to one another, makes the short list of factors that most powerfully influence our medical destinies.

Yet as evident as our interdependence is all around us, it is that much more so within us. At its very foundations, biology is socialistic -- surrendering the independence and privacy of parts for the greater good of a more elaborate whole. The transition from prokaryotes -- primitive, single cells without nuclei -- to eukaryotes -- the nucleated cells of which we, and much of nature are comprised -- involved the incorporation of one originally autonomous organism into another. The energy generators of our cell biology, our mitochondria, are another example of the same phenomenon; as are the energy converting chloroplasts of plant cells. Mitochondria have their own DNA, distinct from that in the 23 chromosomes we had long thought to constitute the full recipe for "self."

But while these incarnations of interdependence are salient for the intimacy they denote, they are quantitatively trivial in comparison to our reliance on a more autonomous horde. The bacteria that populate our bodies outnumber our cells by an order of magnitude at least. Human cells, per se, and human DNA, are both little more than rounding errors within human skin as compared to the aggregated contributions of resident bacteria. Predictably, the influence of these bacteria on our physiologies and well-being is expansive, to a degree we are just beginning to understand.

And we are also just beginning to recognize that even this assemblage is still only part of a greater whole. The ascent of Homo sapiens to our current dominance may owe as much or more to adversaries as to the allies within our clans. What didn't kill us, in other words, try though it might, made us stronger -- and the manifestations of that strength refashioned the world.

This, too, played out within us as well as around us. We adapted to rival clans and stronger predators; our immune system did much the same. Old foes -- such as various parasites -- may in fact be necessary friends, because their absence unbalances us. Our understanding in this area is only nascent now, but likely to develop quickly. We already know enough to say with conviction that it doesn't merely take a village to raise a human being; it takes a village just to be one.

Biology, like all science, endeavors to cast its light into the corners of our ignorance, dislodging shadows. The light at times is feeble, at times misdirected -- but the intent is illumination. In contrast, ideology throws a shroud of shadow over what we are unwilling to consider or believe, no matter the evidence. All too often, common ground and the chance for common cause are thus enshadowed.

Interdependence does not require submission, or capitulation; the occasional hand up we may all need somewhere along the line need not be a handout. I certainly hope I have the bifidobacteria and lactobacilli I need within to help me digest my breakfast; but I have no intention of letting them decide what we're having. There clearly are more things in heaven and earth in shades of gray and other hues than a reality pinched to the black and white of competing ideologies accommodates.

Speaking of heaven, I have no particular expertise on the topic. Maybe no one really does, since nobody here has been there. But the most erudite guesses all seem to exclude commerce and capital -- profits, losses, and property rights. As I understand it, the almighty really owns it all, and shares with the deserving throng. If that doesn't rise to the prevailing definition of socialism, I'm not seeing the distinction.

And therein lies the ultimate conundrum regarding our interconnections. The very social concourse we denigrate on earth, we aspire to in heaven.

Socialism is a dirty word, perhaps deservedly so. But the real trouble resides with our persistent use, and misuse, of a word we made dirty. Vocabulary so encumbered is like bathwater we refuse to drain; it takes on an opacity that quite obscures the baby.

Left, right, and center, we are, inescapably, social organisms. That reality has roots in evolutionary biology, and practical implications branching throughout epidemiology, and culture itself. Like baby and bathwater, dirt and boot, "social" and "socialism" have become excessively and perilously conjoined. With biology to guide us, we would surely benefit by better distinguishing between the two.

-fin

Dr. David L. Katz; http://www.davidkatzmd.com/

www.turnthetidefoundation.org

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