Human Choice: Afterthoughts
Parallels with Biology

The Human Choice paper draws a parallel between evolution of biological forms and development of social organization. Cleveland explained how the topic arose and why it was presented to Academy Fellows for discussion. “In the course of preparing a paper on social development theory, we were struck by some of the very interesting parallels between the process of social development and the process of biological development and evolution. Although the authors’ primary focus is on economic development, we thought that an exploration of these parallels would be a most appropriate and interesting exercise for the Academy’s diverse membership. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a group more qualified to examine a subject that crosses lines drawn not only between scientific disciplines, but between science, the arts and spirituality as well.”

The parallel with biology evoked a range of responses from the physical scientists and raised a number of challenging questions for social science research. Indian biologist Pushpa Bhargava said that he was highly skeptical of another attempt by social scientists to draw parallels with biology. "I read the paper with a very critical mind, looking for fallacies, and I must confess that I found the biological facts cited and the analogy both valid and fascinating.” He referred to failed efforts by Herbert Spencer and others to draw such parallels in the last century. “Perhaps that has blinded us to the possibilities and too long deterred us from exploring these relationships.” He observed that in biology for every law that governs the functioning of simple organic systems there is a counterpart in more complex systems, such as the human being. “The prospect that these laws may hold true for social as well as biological functioning warrants very serious examination.”

Extending the parallel still further, Bhargava placed before the Assembly a list of additional questions that need to be explored: Referring to concepts in the paper comparing the role of the genetic code in biology with the role of social values, aspirations and attitudes in development, what are the building blocks of the “social genetic code” and what determines its composition? How is the code organized? What are the mechanisms for transfer and transmission? Is there such a thing as a sustainable social genetic code? Taking the parallel further, “The genetic code in biology only determines capabilities, not abilities,” he explained. It is not deterministic. To what extent is the same true in society? “Finally, I would like to inject a note of caution by pointing out that the genetic code of the cell does not contain all the information needed to make a cell, only that required to make its constituents. We still do not understand the mechanism that determines cell structure.”

Jose Furtado of the World Bank found the parallel “absorbing and stimulating, but in need of some clarifications. I liked the comparison between the biological and social fields, but it may be inaccurate to create a contrast by referring to the biological as purely physical or material or lacking in consciousness. As Gautama Buddha so clearly put it: ‘Life sleeps in the mineral, moves in the vegetable, walks in the animal and thinks in the human’.”

Drawing upon lessons in biology, Furtado suggested that the theory should bring out the stimulative effect on development of the tensions generated by interaction with external influences, in the case of social development by interactions with other individuals, communities and societies. “I found the evolutionary parallel requiring some strengthening of its dynamic framework. In nature, variability occurs in a tension field where adaptation to a particular 'niche' is selected for by mutation, competition, isolation or some external force (e.g. predator-prey) within a 'stable' environmental setting; where stable and unstable conditions co-exist; where each species changes its environment and thereby enables others to emerge, occupy a new 'niche' and co-evolve; where competition and cooperation occur at the same time but perhaps at different planes; where cooperation in some form exists either between different morphs of the same species (e.g. ants), or between different co-evolving species (e.g. symbiotic or predator-prey). When this environmental setting has been saturated and the tension field made full, evolution moves through an unstable transition (chaos) to a different level. In this manner ecosystems have evolved from one level to another, organized or mature systems have 'captured' disorganized or immature systems, and 'stable' environmental settings have also shifted (e.g. anaerobic to aerobic). Human societies are somewhat similar: when tension fields abound, creativity and innovation also abounds. It is not just the question of having accumulated energy, but also a tension field. A zoo where animals are well fed (i.e. possess surplus energy) but without natural tensions/challenges is devoid of much creativity.”

Morley Lipsett pointed out apparent differences between biological and human processes. “Human development happens as an internal process in a context and with a history. It takes place in collaboration with other organisms, not in isolation. Biological development is deterministic, whereas human development is not. Social development is highly chaotic. It is not predictable, as the Russian experience since 1985 makes abundantly clear. How are we to deal with the uncertainties of social development that are beyond our control?”

Physicist and philosopher of science Stephen Toulmin cautioned against the application of biological terms with reference to social phenomenon, arguing that there is a danger of being misunderstood. “The carefree transfer into your ideas about human nature and responsibility of terms that have quite precise meanings in their natural science contexts will only embroil you in disputes with the scientific community of kinds you don't intend. For example: you can't use the phrase ‘genetic code’ in the way you do, without being understood as taking sides in a highly contentious dispute about ‘sociobiology’ that you have no need to involve yourselves in, above all on the side you will be misunderstood as supporting…”

“Elsewhere in your discussion of ‘development’ generally, likewise, you will be misunderstood as ignoring some of the central insights of Biology in a post-Darwinian age. Similar problems arise out of your choice of terms used in Physics, in a way that hints at (but does not document) genuine analogies between social or cultural development and physical phenomena: a word like ‘energy’, for instance, carries implications for a physical scientist quite different from those that are required for your project. You may understandably object that natural scientists cannot be allowed a monopoly over these words, but that is not what I am arguing for. I am just advising you that, as matters stand, your chosen style of exposition runs the risk of losing you, or even antagonizing, half your potential audience in the Academy.”

Several other participants also commented upon the parallel between the physical energy needed to drive chemical reactions and the growth of organisms and the “social energy” of human beings that fuels the development of society. “I liked the reference in the paper to investment of energy for creativity,” Furtado said. “However, all ecosystems from the microcosm to the biosphere function and grow because of an external energy source for continued creativity and growth—either fossil, nuclear or renewable.”

Alluding to the Darwinian law of “survival of the fittest”, the paper argues that as society advances along the continuum from a vital to more mental stage of development, unbridled competition is increasingly complemented by various forms of cooperative behaviors needed to build a modern complex society and there is an increasing tendency to actively support weaker members who could not survive on their own. Furtado pointed out that the role of competition and cooperation in biology may more closely parallel the view in the paper than the authors realized. “When Darwin and Wallace put forward their ideas it included both competition and cooperation. There were many examples of mimicry, symbiosis, co-evolution, etc. In natural populations, the weak are also retained as supernumerary, submissive individuals by the dominant.”

General vs. Clinical Theory

The discussion on development theory suggests that the common insufficiencies of theorizing have earned general theories something of a bad name, even among theoreticians and philosophers of science! This may be particularly true in the social sciences, and especially in the field of economic development. Was it not just a few years ago that we were heralding the miracle of the Asian Tigers and searching for theoretical generalizations from their experience that could be practically applied to spur development in other less robust countries? In the midst of the current financial crisis, no one speaks of an East Asian formula today. Nor is the reputation of economic theory much better in Eastern Europe where failures and disappointments have far outnumbered the successes and accomplishments that advocates of the theory promised when these nations eagerly embraced free market models. Some of the recommendations made by these advocates assume that free markets function in ways that are not practiced in their own countries.

Stephen Toulmin argues persuasively both in person and in his writings of the need to reconcile the Platonist drive toward universal theory with an Aristotelean attention to the specificity of times, places, circumstances and events. He calls for a humanizing reconciliation of the exact sciences with the needs of society, a reconciliation of the quest for formal theory with the need for practical relevance. The preoccupation of social sciences such as psychology and economics with formulation of abstract theory, he believes, only serves to remove them further and further from any practical social context in which they may be relevant. “It is better to focus on ‘clinical’ theories, those which are derived from a specific context. We need to think of processes, not a common process. We have lost the certitudes of the absolute in favor of knowledge in a context.” At the same time Toulmin said he was intrigued by the practical insights the theory generated when applied to a variety of specific clinical contexts.

Can such a reconciliation be achieved only by abandoning the quest for valid theory? The authors maintained that the real problem with social science theory today is not its attempt to generalize but its attempt to divorce social studies from human beings. “Professor Toulmin is right to reject abstract theory as currently put forth,” Robert Macfarlane responded. “The economic models and mathematical formulas of econometricians perpetuate Descartes’ body-mind dichotomy. They are based on the premise that development is the product of objective external conditions. They take into account every conceivable factor influencing economic activity, except the most important one—human beings. Their formulas need to be humanized by incorporating concepts such as social awareness, preparedness, aspiration, attitude and energy.”

A general theory of behavior or development?

The effort to formulate any form of grand synthesis in the social sciences raises eyebrows and invites skepticism for a number of reasons. Are not the more mature physical sciences still searching for just such a unifying synthesis within their own realm? Are not the individual fields of social science lacking even a semblance of integrated theory within their own narrow boundaries? Why then should we even consider such an ambitious enterprise at this juncture? It does not follow from Newton’s integration of theories in physics into a logical system, Stephen Toulmin explained, “that the totality of science—comprising the discoveries of physics, biology, and all other sciences—itself forms a similar, but more comprehensive system.”

Political philosopher Ruben Nelson enthusiastically supported the quest for a unifying, human-centered theory of development. “I believe that such an integration is possible when we focus on the fundamental process governing social change. It is the change in human consciousness that expresses as the creation of new forms in society.”

Political scientist Lincoln Bloomfield was also among those who felt that the broad outline of theory presented in the Human Choice paper did, in fact, qualify as a promising framework for an integrated social theory. “This is the best effort of our age to synthesize disciplines.” At the same time, he was quick to claim exemption for his own field. “Political science is an orphan. There is no theory of international relations or foreign policy. It is hard to develop a field theory of political behavior when the field consists of 185 countries. Predictions are almost inevitably wrong. Pathologies in the political field are unique to this field, not applicable to other fields described in this brilliant theory. The concepts will apply to every level up to the international organizations. We have to accept as a given that pathologies exist in the behavior of nation states when it comes to issues of war and peace. No amount of theorizing can change the fact that at the end of the day both peace and war are possibilities.”

In response, Robert van Harten sought to clarify that the authors of the paper were not proposing a general theory of human behavior. “Behavior is a very broad field that encompasses all aspects of human activity. Our effort focuses on development, which is only a subset of behavior. It concerns the process of change in society, the essential conditions for social change, the role of individuals in initiating those changes and, most importantly, the role of social organization as the mechanism for supporting, assimilating and propagating those changes. It is one thing to try to predict the general direction of development in society and the stages and steps it will progress through. It is quite another to try to predict how each person, group, organization or government will behave at the next moment. We may chart with a fair degree of accuracy the course a medical student needs to take to obtain a degree, but that does not mean we can predict what each individual student will do during four years of post graduate study.”

Is development a universal or culture-specific process?

A hidden current ran through the discussion on development theory and re-emerged at many points during the subsequent discussions on the Global Century without ever being formally put on the table for discussion. Is this concept called ‘development’, which we so lightly and effortlessly toss about, an objective process that passes through discernable, universally common stages that we can recognize by objective criteria? Or is it rather a purely subjective interpretation of changes being wrought in society that mean different things at different times in different countries and cultures?

This debate seemed to polarize the group into scientific objectivists and cultural subjectivists. The objectivists tended to assume—without feeling the need to discuss—that the process of material and technological development which has reached its most advanced stages in the West is a universal process that all countries are transiting and that the stages of advance for all will be more or less the same. Nelson regretted the pressure for political correctness that prevented this view from being projected strongly for fear it would be denounced as another form of cultural imperialism. “There are very clearly discernable stages of the development process common to all countries,” he argued. “We should not hesitate to state the obvious that some countries are further advanced on this path than others, which does not imply any form of superiority. It is a temporal fact that can be ascribed to many circumstances of history.”

It is difficult to deny that the transition through three waves of social development which Toffler and others describe progressing from rural agrarian to urban industrial to post-industrial information society has and is taking place around the world, though at varying speeds and to a varying extent. On the other hand, many Fellows from developing countries, supported by a number of environmentalists, artists and student participants, objected to a unitary conception of development valid for all as a cultural imposition.

Andrzej Sicinski forcefully expressed this perspective. “We live in a cultural reality. Our thought processes must take into account differences in culture. The cultural dimension is lacking in the paper. It is too individualistic and neglects systems of values, systems of ideas and systems of language that differ from culture to culture.” Tony Judge supported this view. “It is arrogant to think that we know how to choose the right model for other societies. We could be making dangerous assumptions not valid in practice.” Stanley Kalpage, a chemist from Sri Lanka, sided with the cultural perspective. “Culture is very important. Science is not the ultimate basis on which we should build development theory.” Brian Locke, an English engineer, suggested that we need to “recognize a range of goals and values for development.” Physicist Alvin Weinberg felt that the paper “provides a useful language or set of categories in which the subject of development can be examined,” but he too stressed the question of values. He wanted clarification about the mechanisms and criteria that are employed by society to decide how scientific resources are utilized.

Macfarlane proposed a third view to reconcile the divergent positions of the scientific objectivists and cultural relativists. “Is it not possible that both views are true? There do appear to be some common stages to the process of development that thus far all societies have chosen to transit. That does not make technology or material prosperity a Western concept or a Western goal. The quest for physical survival and material security and the adaptation of technology to improve the quality of human life are universal. At the same time, it is undeniable that every society must find its own path to attain these goals and that the relative value accorded to individual initiative and concerted group effort varies widely from culture to culture.”

He went on to explain that these two opposing views can be reconciled by focusing not on the goals of development, which may vary from place to place, but on the process by which human beings pursue their goals and values, whatever those goals and values may be. In formulating their approach to development theory, the authors of the paper were trying to elucidate a universal process of human action, a process of social creation, not a particular economic or technological strategy. “Social preparedness, surplus energy, pioneering individual initiative, imitation and diffusion, formal organization of new activities by society, propagation of new knowledge and skills through an educational system, transmission of values through the family are basic elements of the development process regardless of the social goals or cultural values the society may pursue or the historical period in which they pursue them. Macfarlane added, “We can reconcile these different views if we accept that development consists of three interrelated aspects: a commonalty of stages, an individuality of cultural values, and an essential identity of the underlying process by which human beings modify the organization of their activities to function more effectively.”

What then of the authors’ central thesis that social development has a clear direction, that it moves invariably from the survival of the collective to the emergence of the individual? American businessman Walt Stinson concurred that the direction is evident and irreversible, regardless of which society we examine. “Tradition societies insist on conformity to ensure their survival. Development provides people with choices in their lives and gives them the opportunity to develop their full potential. Modern progressive societies insist on the maximum development of individual potentials, because they recognize that it is only by generating better educated, more informed, inventive, adaptive and creative members that the social collective can realize its own fullest potential.”

Physicist Ivo Slaus had the last words on this issue. “There is simply no question. The urge for greater individual freedom is universal and freedom means human choice. Greater freedom of choice is releasing enormous creative energy in societies everywhere, a productive energy we have never before witnessed in history. It has awakened human aspirations. It has set individuals and societies in motion. Never again will people tolerate the subjection of the individual to the arbitrary authority of the collective. The genie is out and it cannot be put back. If anything, humanity is still just in the process of awakening and has yet to come into its own full power and status.”

“Our view is not that the value of individualism should or would eradicate the interests of the social collective, only that a society which actively fosters the development of individuality is beginning to emerge,” N. Asokan, a co-author of the paper clarified. “Martin Luther paved the way for the emergence of individuality in spiritual matters. It took a few centuries for political individuality to emerge with the development of democracy. Today the social pressure to conform in thought and behavior is still so great in all societies, even among intellectuals, that true social individuality is hard to find. Culture-specific values may alter the precise relationship between the individual and the collective in different societies in ways that will enable them to retain a stamp of cultural uniqueness in the midst of an emerging universal culture. But the progressive emergence of individuality in society is an historical imperative for humankind.”


Some participants pressed for an explicit inclusion of the biosphere in the theoretical framework. Susantha Goonatilake concurred: “The theory needs to take into account the interaction between biological and human systems.” Mohammed Kassas conceives of sustainable development as the interaction of three interdependent systems: the biosphere or physical environment, a technosphere of human-made capital that includes the technology and physical infrastructure for development, and a sociosphere consisting of social, political, economic, cultural, religious elements. “The paper is an advanced step in understanding the sociosphere. We need a theory that incorporates all three systems and their complex interactions,” he said. “We must view human beings as biological entities, sociological entities, political entities, economic entities and technological fixers.” Heitor Gurgulino De Souza of UNESCO said “the theory needs to take into account the carrying capacity of the environment.” Carl-Göran Hedén stressed the importance of the technosphere: “Technology is rushing away at a pace which human society cannot keep up with. How does the theory address the gap between the availability and applicability of technology?” he asked.

Furtado sees the need for increasing linkages between socio-economic, bio-physical and cultural factors. “The future for environmentally sustainable development will lie in adaptive management strategies and co-evolution between the bio-physical systems and the socio-economic systems at all levels from local to global. This will demand some changes not only in institutions such as decentralization, but also changes in values to frugality, in enhancing local capabilities and in capturing global benefits at the local level. There will be an adaptive accommodation of cultures and values through the media network, between mass and local/specialised movements and cultures, which will both strengthen and popularize local cultures very much like the impact of the circum-polar network based on Canadian satellite communications on reviving Inuit and Inuvalit cultures while taking them into the modern age.”

In response to concerns that environmental factors may have been omitted, Garry Jacobs clarified that in formulating the theoretical framework the authors were trying to avoid the type of compartmentalization of development that arises from viewing it as a composite of several independent or interdependent fields. “Of course, environmental factors are a critical aspect of development, as are technological and cultural ones. Our objective was to find the common denominator and integrative center from which all can be viewed as aspects of a unified whole. The subject of the theory is human development, not development of technology or the biosphere for their own sake. Therefore, we have tried to identify the process that human beings utilize to make changes in their way of life. Obviously, their awareness of the environment, their attitudes and values regarding it are important determinants of the types and quality of the development decisions they make. We are trying to arrive at a perspective that places human beings at the center and sees their relationship to each other, to the biosphere and to developments in every field of social life as expressions of their consciousness. Some may argue that humanity is not the ultimate center at all, that some spiritual reality rightfully should occupy that place. Still human development will have to be defined in terms of how human beings perceive that spiritual reality, value it, and seek to discover or relate to it.”

Relationship between theory and practice

Several participants wanted to turn the discussion to applications of the theory so that its relevance could be judged in practical terms. The Academy’s American President, Walter Anderson, queried, “The paper is abstract. What are the implications of the theory for development policy and strategy?”

Stinson explored some of those implications: “As a businessman I can immediately see the relevance of the theory to practice. What intrigues me is to what extent the theory of social development seems to fit the development of business organizations as well. The importance of releasing social energy is fully confirmed by my experience as an entrepreneur and manager. Without generating surplus energy, no new idea even gets a listening, no change initiative gets off the ground. The higher the energy level, the greater our capacity to create, innovate and implement. It is also apparent that energy by itself is not sufficient. There has to be an aspiration for something more. As ironic as it may sound, there are many people in business who are quite satisfied with where they are and what they have achieved and feel no real urge to strive for more, if that requires changing the way they do things. So it is clear that preparedness in terms of energy and aspiration are critical for development, both of companies and societies.

“Other concepts from the paper also strike me as extremely practical. It refers to the need for a genetic code to set the direction for development. In a company that code is determined by the ideas, attitudes and mindset of the owner or people at the top, either informally or as the result of a formal strategic planning process. It is a matter of human awareness and human choice. Without that sense of direction, surplus energy has nowhere to go but into the existing channels of activity. It may generate expansion at the present level, but it cannot elevate the company to a higher level. Pioneers play the same role in companies and industries as they do in society. All new initiatives originate with individuals and spread by imitation and acceptance.

“I see great relevance in the emphasis of the theory on the essential role of organization in channeling the surplus energies in more productive ways. Too often in business we try to generate new initiatives based on enthusiasm that are not supported by development of new or improved structures and systems. The results, if any, are usually short-lived, unless the organization is elevated to institutionalize activity at a higher level.

“Finally, the role of values in business directly parallels the role described in society. Values represent the quintessence of what we have learned about success. Our ability to pass on and inculcate those values in our people is a critical determinant of our success. Personally I believe that the highest and most powerful value is a commitment to maximum freedom for the full development of every person in the company. The more I am able to liberate human energy and increase the options for people to exercise their own discretion and ability, the more successful my company becomes.”

Jacobs summarized some of the implications of the theory for formulation of effective development strategy. First, the theory suggests that development initiatives will only succeed in areas where the society is fully prepared for change, i.e. where the society has accumulated surplus energy, is aware of opportunities, and feels the urge, but does not know how to effectively express it. Where the awareness is lacking, then the focus should be on education or demonstration and encouraging pioneering individual initiatives. As long as awareness is lacking or attitudes are not conducive to change, patience is the best strategy. Premature initiatives foisted on an unripe society are likely to backfire, making further advances much more difficult. In fields where pioneers are already successful, strategies should focus on encouraging imitation and diffusion of the new ways until a critical mass builds up to release a multiplier effect in society. Where all these conditions have been met, then the emphasis should shift to the building of organizational mechanisms to support and spread the new activity. But the form of organization must be suited to the social context and should be a natural extension of it, not an artificial transplant of foreign institutions. When organizational supports are in place to support individual initiative, strategies that impart the necessary knowledge, information and skills to the population will be most effective.