Modern Money and the Altruistic Gene

By J. D. Alt

In his recent book The Social Conquest of Earth, Edward O. Wilson lifts a corner of human history and reveals what appears to be a hidden mechanism of its intricately complex guidance system. It shouldn’t be a surprise this inner clock-work is genetics. What is surprising is to see the relationship between this genetic mechanism and the monetary debate that is unfolding as we speak.

In (extremely) simplified form, the guidance system described by Wilson is this:  Human societies are composed of individuals who are dominated (at any given moment) by one or the other of two genetic traits—the “selfish gene” or the “altruistic gene”. The selfish gene leads individuals to take actions benefitting their personal selves. The altruistic gene leads individuals to take actions benefitting the social group to which they belong.

The interplay between these two genetic traits creates the following dynamic of social evolution:  Within a given social group, the selfish gene will always competitively dominate (and defeat) the altruistic gene. However, when there is competition between two social groups, the group with the most active altruistic genes will always dominate and defeat the group with the most active selfish genes. In terms of reproductive success then, natural selection is continuously choosing the selfish gene of individuals within any group while, at the same time, it is choosing the altruistic gene in groups that out-compete other groups. The tension and interplay between these two competitive dynamics is what guides the course of human history.

What is fascinating to contemplate (and in some cases observe) is how the altruistic gene—so vulnerable to domination and defeat within every social group to which it belongs—nevertheless has succeeded in driving and organizing a level of social cooperation that is unprecedented in the history of the earth. Human history thus shows that, in spite of overwhelming setbacks to individuals, in the long run the altruistic gene is the more powerful trait. The election we are about to have in the U.S. appears to be an operational moment of this genetic guidance system. The change in course will be nuanced, but it will be interesting to see which gene, at this particular juncture of our evolution, will be selected.

Even more interesting, I think, is the question of what role Modern Money (once the mainstream politicians and economists begin to understand and accept it) will begin to play in this social guidance mechanism. The impact, I think, could be huge for several reasons:

First, it seems clear that the concept of limited “dollar” resources—which has been an implicit theme in human endeavors for most of history—drives and motivates the selfish gene in extraordinary ways. The quest for control of a limited and finite wealth almost defines its dominating posture and obsession. At the same time, the theme of limited “dollar” resources shackles the altruistic gene with a narrative that continuously deflates every effort it puts forth: we cannot afford to ___(fill in the blank). We cannot afford to build quality housing for every family. We cannot afford to provide a public or community college education for every qualified citizen. We cannot afford to provide universal health care. We cannot afford to build and operate high-efficiency public transit. We cannot afford the research and development necessary to create alternatives to fossil fuels. We cannot afford to build sewage systems that won’t dump raw effluent into our waterways when rains become torrential (as just occurred, by the way, in our nation’s capitol). We cannot afford low pesticide farming, or comprehensive food-safety inspections, or neighborhood daycare centers, or co-housing retirement villages for anyone who is too old to take care of themselves but too young to be finished with their life. We cannot afford any of it.

When MMT begins to take root in the mainstream minds of economic thinking, its message that the concept of limited dollar resources is a false premise (that, in fact, a sovereign nation issuing its own fiat currency has unlimited dollars available to spend as it chooses) this message is clearly a potential tool of enormous power for the altruistic gene. Not only does it remove the divisive and false choices the limited dollar argument foists upon society, denying the selfish-gene one its most effective and clever gambits, it places the opportunity for great deeds and actions clearly in the hands of those who wish to benefit society as a whole.

Yes, this also creates the likelihood of great corruption. But Edward O. Wilson seems to be saying to us that the corruption—no matter how insidious or painful it may be—will, in the larger scheme of things, be merely an incidental cost of great social achievement. It is better to undertake great projects, even though they my be milked by cheats and villains, than to undertake no projects at all.

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