The Problem Is Social Organization

For a long time I’ve kind of puzzled over why my intellectual interests seemed so disparate. Part of it is that I truly find a wide variety of areas of study very interesting. It seems logical to me–each of those different areas of study have large numbers of people who are fascinated by them, so it seems empirically demonstrated that each is interesting in its own right. But beyond the mere dilettantish interests, I have a trio of particular fields that envelop me most of my attention: political science, economics and evolutionary theory. For years I have believed that these three fields are very closely related, and have taken comfort in knowing that there is a small core of other folks who agree, but I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on just what the link is.

I have often said political scientists are just ethologists–ethology being the study of animal behavior–and that our particular animal was homo sapiens. Or more directly, I said I studied human behavior. But that always felt near the mark without being quite on the mark, and I remained just a bit mystified about what really defined my interests. A couple of weeks ago–over a decade into my professional academic career–I had one of those delightfully intense (and always irreproducible) blinding flashes of insight: My interest is social organization. It’s a relief. Now I can succinctly define my interest without lots of hemmming and hawing and caveats: How do social animals organize their societies to promote harmony and well-being and minimize conflict?

The reason why “human behavior” didn’t quite satisfy is that it’s not all behavior I’m interested in, nor is it solely humans that interest me, but social organization in and of itself (including, although to a lesser extent, the haplo-diploid insects). And political science and economics, or put more prosaically, government and markets, are differing (but inter-related) ways of structuring social organization (and this also accounts for my interest in the work of Lin Ostrom, who studied “self-governance” systems that fall between purely market-based and purely government-based approaches for organizing groups).

The proximate cause of this insight was a new book I bought, published just last year: Edward O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth, a marvelous book about the power of sociality in enabling species to thrive in a wide variety of environments, far exceeding the more solitary species in total numbers of individuals, even though being a minority of species.

I’ve been planning to write this post for a couple of weeks, and so it was particularly good timing that just today I received my copy of Violence and Social Orders, by Doug North (Nobel Prize winning economist), John Wallis (another economist) and Barry Weingast (a political scientist working in public choice theory). The book came out in 2009, and I’ve known of it for a while, but just finally got around to ordering it. And having read only the preface, I realize that this book, too, perfectly encapsulates my interest. Here is their outline, in brief.

This book lays out a set of concepts that show how societies have used the control of political, economic, religious, and educational activities to limit and contain violence over the last ten thousand years…The conceptual framework articulates the internal logic of the two social orders that dominate the modern world and the process by which societies make the transition from one to another (the original society preceding these was the foraging order characteristic of hunter-gatherer societies)…the natural state. Natural states use the political system to regulate economic competition and create economic rents; the rents order social relations, control violence, and establish social cooperation…the open access society…Open access societies regulate economic and political competition in a way that uses the entry and competition to order social relations.

It’s all coming together now. Why I find it so interesting to study the social organization of militaries,* gangs, and co-ops; why I love Frans de Waal’s books about chimpanzee social order; why I’m intrigued by my colleague’s arcane work on ethnic voting patterns in the parliaments of the Austro-Hungarian empire; why the concept of bureaucratic culture as a primary driver of bureaucratic performance in the absence of monetary rewards and punishments captures my attention; why the intro to political science book I’m writing (slowly) begins with the idea of social organization and its gains and risks, before talking about politics or government; and why politics per se doesn’t interest me nearly as much as it does the average political scientist. It even explains why I’m stuck uncomfortably in a moderate libertarianism, valuing markets so highly, but unable to dispense with the idea of government as something distinctly more than a mere night watchman state–I see the value, as well as the risks, in each form of social order, and see the (at least theoretical) possibility of the two being used to control the downsides of the other (while, of course, I also see the more than theoretical possibility of the two being used to control the benefits of the other).

It’s a good moment. I’m enjoying it. And the clear focus is going to make it a lot easier to write the book I’ve started.

* I’m a big fan of Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey/Maturin (Master and Commander) novels, and it’s not just for the action and adventure, but the unfamiliar social world of the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic era.

About James Hanley

James Hanley is former Associate Professor of Political Science at Adrian College and currently an independent scholar.
This entry was posted in Politics in General, Research Blogging and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to The Problem Is Social Organization

  1. Dr X says:

    Is your book intended for a scholarly audience or broader than that?

  2. James Hanley says:

    I’m trying to write it in a popular style. I’m intensely irritated that there are pop econ, pop evolution and even pop physics and chem books out there, but no good pop political science. I don’t know if that’s because there’s no consensus in discipline, or because we’re too insecure in our own field’s development to dare go pop yet.

    In an ideal world I’ll make my fortune, but in this world I just hope I can find someone willing to publish it. To a large extent, I’m writing it just for myself, come what may.

  3. michaeldrew says:

    There’s a lot of pop politics stuff out there, so maybe there’s just not much market left over for the sciency end of that market (though I think a pop poli-sci niche can probably be found if one looks hard enough). In any case, I’m excited to one day read this book, through whatever market segment it might reach me.

    Also: howdy! I’m glad that you’re having an intellectual up-time during the period of your disengagement from you-know-where. Funny how that works, huh?

  4. James Hanley says:

    The pop politics stuff is shit from top to bottom.

  5. lancifer666 says:

    Sounds like an interesting project.

    How do social animals organize their societies to promote harmony and well-being and minimize conflict?

    Many social animals species have been formed by evolutionary processes that benefit the survival of the species at the cost of the agency of the individual animal. (The diploid/haploid insects being the most stark example. Although it’s not like the nonsocial insects are living lives of carefree personal freedom.)

    The social evolution of the great apes (our closest relatives) seems to fall somewhere between large predators and herding herbivores as far as individual freedom is concerned.

    I know which end of that spectrum I would personally prefer.

    I’d rather live ten years as a big cat than twenty as a wildebeest.

  6. James Hanley says:

    I’ll mention the haplodiploid insects briefly, with nods to E.O. Wilson, to emphasize the net value of sociality.

  7. lancifer666 says:

    Sociality certainly has evolutionary survival advantages for the species. And survival advantage is the property that ultimately defines evolution.

    But as a (so far) non-reproducing individual animal I am an evolutionary failure (at least to my personal chromosomes). I guess I may contribute to the survival and breeding potential of other members of our species but, to be honest, that has little personal value to me.

    So if I never reproduce (which is looking more and more likely) and I don’t contribute to the breeding potential of other members of our species is my existence to be encouraged or even tolerated by society at large? If so, why: if we are being totally scientific as to the advantage to our species.

    If I was an infertile male drone in a bee hive they would push me out into the cold cruel night (with a sting or two to hurry me along) and be done with me, rather than waste hive resources to maintain my useless existence.

    I think you have to cross into the very nonscientific world of “ethics” and “morality” to come up with a reason to sustain or even tolerate individuals that do not contribute to the evolutionary success of the species.

    Of course from my point of view as a self interested individual there is no conflict there, except to be suspicious of the motives of other individuals and “society” as a whole. If we are being objective and rational, and not emotional and sentimental, as an individual entity I don’t have to be beholding to evolution, or concerned about its non-directed goals.

    My personal agenda and prerogatives are no less “worthy” than those of the evolutionary process. Why should the evolutionary success of our species be a societal priority at all? In fact I would argue that our system of governance was prefaced on the idea that the needs of the social collective cannot usurp the interests of individuals and the further we get as a society from that idea the more ant-like our society becomes.

    Oh, and E.O. Wilson, while being a brilliant scientist and myrmecologist, has some other beliefs that I find rather unscientific and over wrought.

  8. ppnl says:

    Sociality certainly has evolutionary survival advantages for the species. And survival advantage is the property that ultimately defines evolution.”

    Actually the point of a haploid/diploid species is that sociality does have benefits to the individual. In the long term it may not be beneficial to the species. But that’s ok because in evolution benefit to the individual trumps benefit to the species with most doubting that the species level has much effect at all.

    As for your failure to reproduce, it may or may not be beneficial to the species but evolutionarily speaking it is devastating to you. From the point of view of everyone else unrelated to you your failure to reproduce is good. It is only your kin that see you as a failure. Evolutionarily speaking that is.

    Well, your mother may take your failure a little more personally.

  9. Michael Drew says:

    Hmm, that seems like it would cover A LOT of books. …In any case, I hope you’re doing well.

  10. Matty says:

    Lance, I think you may be confusing levels of explanation here. Natural selection – the part of evolution that ‘wants’ you to reproduce – operates largely at the level of individual genes not the species. Traits are not favoured by evolution because they benefit the species but because they benefit their own continuance.

    To the extent any entity can be said to loose out from your not reproducing it is your own DNA not the human race, unless of course you know that your kids were going to benefit all of mankind.

  11. ppnl says:

    “Lance, I think you may be confusing levels of explanation here.”

    Ironically he seems to have unconsciously latched onto group selection which is E. O. Wilson’s gig. I can but gene selection, I can buy selection at the organism level and I can even buy selection at the species level.

    I have trouble with Wilson’s group selection. Even if there were a mechanism robust enough to drive it it would be subverted and blown away by the undeniable power of kin selection.

  12. Dr X says:

    Forgive me if you already know about what follows, but just in case, it’s vital that you sign with a successful literary agent who deals in the kind of work you’re proposing–popular publications by academics. That should be done sooner rather than later–before most of the book is written–to make sure that the work is a salable property. If you can’t convince a successful agent, there is virtually no chance you’ll find a major publisher.

  13. James Hanley says:

    There’ll be no classic group selection in anything I touch. Wilson’s argument about the group level is that individual adaptations that help the group survive thereby help the individual (on average) to have the opportunity to live long and healthily enough to reproduce. So an individual-based tendency to contribute to the group can have net positive payoffs to the individual. There is, of course, a tradeoff, and there’s always an incentive to free-ride. But behavioral economics has demonstrated that people are willing to–seemingly irrationally–dole out altruistic punishment, so it’s quite possible that in the smallish groups that were our environment of evolutionary adaptation free-riding was difficult enough to get away with that having too strong a tendencies towards it may not have paid off particularly well in evolutionary terms. That’s all speculative, though.

    But anyway, sociality as an evolved trait must be explained, and the explanation is its net benefit (on average) to individuals’ inclusive fitness. So if it’s that beneficial to the individual, there must be some net value in contributing towards the continuance of the group–and those groups with such individuals are more likely to thrive, hence grow in population, and consequently their members’ descendants more likely to pass their genes down through subsequent generations than any similarly situated group that lacked that altruistic tendency. That’s the only group selection in Wilson’s argument, and it’s pretty solid, because it’s not really about what’s good for the group, but what’s good for the individual.

  14. lancifer666 says:


    Actually the point of a haploid/diploid species is that sociality does have benefits to the individual.

    Well, I guess that is all in how one defines “benefits”. If you consider being born a sterile slave that does not get to even see daylight and is discarded or sacrificed at the first sign that it can’t contribute to the hive or be used as material for a living bridge then we may have very different meanings for the word “benefits” and perhaps even “individual”.

    But as I said, it’s not like non-social insects are contemplating the richness and fullness of their lives either.

    I recently saw a program about mole rats (which are neither moles nor rats) and it was striking how their societies were not entirely dissimilar from those of social insects.

    But other than these poor subterranean bastards (and perhaps a few other social rodent species) even the most humble of the mammals have some freedom to make at least some choices in their meager existences.

    In my estimation the beasts with the most freedom are the solitary carnivores and omnivores. An adult male leopard does pretty much what ever the fuck he pleases. I know that scientifically and evolutionarily speaking this is subjective. But I doubt there are many people that would say that they would rather be a worker ant than a leopard, even if you told them that their chances for surviving their full expected lifespan was greater, and that their genes would be propelled to the next generation, if they were an ant.

    So, I believe, an argument can be made that the freedom of the individual animal, and thus its quality of life, is inversely proportional to the amount of sociality of its species.

    Of course, as I said, this is rather subjective, because none can say that ants aren’t continuously blissful and, conversely, that leaopards are secretly miserably in their solitude.

    But using the evolutionary success a social species as an analogy for the sociality of human societies, for the purpose of advocating for more or less sociality, is equally as unscientific and specious.

  15. lancifer666 says:

    James Hanley,

    But anyway, sociality as an evolved trait must be explained, and the explanation is its net benefit (on average) to individuals’ inclusive fitness.

    But as I said above define “benefit”, and “fitness” for what? If you define this as perpetuation of the species, a full lifespan completion of the individual organism or even the propagation of the individual’s genes then there is an argument that parallels between human sociality and, for instance, the sociality of diploid/haploid insects are useful.

    But if you are speaking from the conscious perspective of the individual animal all of those “benefits” and “fitnesses” could be completely counter to the experience and quality of life of that individual animal.

    (*WARNING* Star Trek analogy ahead.)

    If you are a member of the Borg that lives out it’s full lifespan and the Borg is perpetuated into all corners of the universe until the universe ultimately succumbs to heat death, is that proof that complete and utter sociality, at the expense of individual free agency, is a “successful” result?

    Should we then conclude that such a result would be desirable?

    Excuse me, I have small prey to hunt down and kill. Then I’m going to take a long nap and look for a willing female.

  16. lancifer666 says:


    I know that there are only a few people reading my posts (no offense intended to the popularity of your blog) but I still recoil when I see my gaffs and grammatical mistakes.

    I have spell check enabled but I still wish you had a preview feature.

    I guess I could copy my remarks into a Word document and then back into the comment box. In the mean time try not to think me a complete illiterate.

  17. ppnl says:

    “So if it’s that beneficial to the individual, there must be some net value in contributing towards the continuance of the group–and those groups with such individuals are more likely to thrive, hence grow in population, and consequently their members’ descendants more likely to pass their genes down through subsequent generations than any similarly situated group that lacked that altruistic tendency.

    No actually if there is benefit to the individual a trait will survive even if it is detrimental to the group right up to the point that it causes the extinction of the group. The peacock tail for example is detrimental to the peacock species and makes it more likely to become extinct.

    Wilson’s argument is that within groups selection will select for selfishness but competition between groups will select less selfish groups. This may be true but competition between groups is a slower process than in group selection. Not only that but groups are composed of genetically related individuals so kin selection becomes a powerful driver for less selfish individuals. And so contra Wilson cooperation is driven by selection inside the group rather than between groups.

    Look at an elephant herd. They are close social animals that cooperate to protect the herd. But they are a family unit composed of closely related individuals. You have mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers protecting their own. Kin selection is a powerful driver here. Why do you need group selection?

    OTOH it is hard to explain the termite.

  18. ppnl says:


    Evolution defines benefit as simply the differential rate at which you pass on your genes. I agree that this narrow definition has limited applicability to other domains. Yet that definition of benefit is what created you.

    “So, I believe, an argument can be made that the freedom of the individual animal, and thus its quality of life, is inversely proportional to the amount of sociality of its species.

    I suspect that both types of animals enjoy their life just fine. After all neither got to choose what they were. They were born with the ability to succeed at what they are and presumably enjoy it. They would also probably be unhappy being forced to live as the other. Character is destiny and neither the leopard nor the ant are free.

  19. lancifer666 says:


    Character is destiny and neither the leopard nor the ant are free.

    Says who, you? You have drifted into philosophy and have posited an unsupported conclusion. And this kind of nihilistic answer renders all of existence meaningless and thus we can just go back to distracting ourselves from our pointless existences or admit it and commit suicide.

    I’m not saying I did any better, but at least I admitted my conclusions were subjective.

  20. Matty says:

    It could well be that leopards feel a great satisfaction in the freedom of a solitary life while worker ants feel miserable and enslaved. It may also be the such anthropomorphic concepts simply don’t work for other species. The truth is we don’t know what it is ‘like’ to be a leopard but we can study their behaviour in a mechanistic way even while recognising the limits of this approach. By analogy an observer could make a pretty good model of whether you are likely to go to work tomorrow morning looking at factors like what day of the week it is and have you booked time off without once asking if you enjoy your job.

    You seem to be reading into ethology a set of normative claims that are not there. Does forming groups increase the chance of genes for group formation being in the next generation is a very different question to should we form groups.

  21. James Hanley says:


    I haven’t figured out how to add a preview. If I ever figure it out, I will.

    As to “benefit,” I mean only the reproduction of an individual’s DNA. The haploid-diploid sterile workers get that benefit because the queen’s children are more closely related to them–share more of their DNA–than their own offspring would. And for non-haploid/diploid social critters, like us, the benefit is still individual reproduction. It’s statistically based, of course, not about whether every individual reproduces.

    But then for critters like us, lots of other things occur as a consequence of that reproductively driven sociality.

  22. Dr X says:

    @ Lance,

    “So, I believe, an argument can be made that the freedom of the individual animal, and thus its quality of life, is inversely proportional to the amount of sociality of its species. ”

    And yet, most people prefer group membership to isolation. They collect in families, friendship groups, armies, nunneries, churches and voluntary societies –each with constraining norms and expectations.

    Aside from the problem of anthropomorphizing, the difficulty I have with the idea that quality of life exists in inverse proportion to sociality is that there are attractions and resistances to freedom and conformity and these exist in shifting, dynamic tension. Conformity can be anchoring and stabilizing, but it can become stifling. Freedom can be exhilarating, but it can be frightening, overwhelming and destabilizing. So if we’re talking about quality of life in human terms, I don’t think we can ignore the conflicted quality of our experience of freedom and conformity.

    So let me reframe your question, Lance: Would I prefer the life of an ant, a leopard or a wolf midway in the social pecking order or the life of a leopard? I’d prefer the life of a wolf if we’re going to imagine what it would be like to live as an animal that somehow experienced human subjectivity.

  23. ppnl says:


    I did not intend to make any overreaching claim about free will so I don’t think I have strayed into philosophy. I’m only pointing out that a behavior selected by evolution and coded in genes is a poor example of free will. I have a two year old English bull terrier that is currently out back chasing squirrels. He is profoundly happy doing that. But this is not an expression of free will and his happiness is the very mechanism of his slavery.

    The problem with what you said isn’t that it is subjective but rather it is projective. You projected a view of freedom and independence and happiness on the cat and a view of slavery and misery on the more social animal. I’m simply pointing out that all animals are probably happiest being what evolution designed them to be. Cats are happy chasing small critters, cows are deeply content chewing their cud as the sun sets and to whatever extent ants can be happy they are happy furthering the interest of the colony.

  24. lancifer666 says:

    I (repeatedly) said that my observations about the relative sociality of humans and other species was subjective. My argument is that any such comparison is, of necessity, subjective. I openly acknowledge that making comparisons of different animal contentment within their social structures with human contentment in social structures requires anthropomorphizing.

    But if James is going to make analogies about the relevance of the solciality of animals to humans it should (IMHO) be done with the open admission of this subjectivity. He mentions social mechanisms that “control violence, and establish social cooperation”, but at what cost?

    In the context of human society, there must be some discussion of not only what is gained by greater social interactions and restrictions but what is lost.

  25. lancifer666 says:

    Dr X,

    Wolve’s lives are certainly preferable (to me at least) to that of ants, but there is a very rigid social order in a wolf pack. If you aren’t the alpha male or beta female you don’t have many options or choices.

    It isn’t a very egalitarian society. But of course this is just more anthropomorphizing.

Comments are closed.