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Post Origins of Capitalism; on Human Adaptability
Created by John Eipper on 07/13/17 3:39 PM

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Origins of Capitalism; on Human Adaptability (Luciano Dondero, Italy, 07/13/17 3:39 pm)

I think that Eugenio Battaglia (12 July) may have a point when he queries whether the origins of "capitalism"--or whatever we want to call what appears to be a "natural" way of making deals among humans involving private property, agriculture, money and city walls--goes as far back as Jericho (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jericho ).

I would like to make a more general observation with respect to this discussion: we should keep in mind that not everything which is natural is also good or positive or desirable.

Among human behaviors which are widespread across many societies and many ages one can find rape, theft, murder, corruption, nepotism and cannibalism. By the way, many animals share these proclivities.  And of course we suffer from diseases like smallpox, heart failure, arthrosis and cancer, which are also definitely natural occurrences.

Not to mention earthquakes, volcano eruptions and big rocks falling from the sky and generating mass extinction-level events, like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, which by the way produced conditions favorable for the emergence of our very own species some 60 million years later.

It might be useful to consider a few things about Homo Sapiens.

What distinguishes us from other species on the planet is our extreme ability to adapt our behavior to suit the environment around us.

We are the only species that inhabits almost every nook and cranny of planet Earth. (Ants and other insects are also fairly widespread, but there are many different genera and species of them while there is just one species of humans.)

Because a crucial component of any environment are animals that want to eat us (predators), animals that we want to eat (prey), and especially other individuals like ourselves (peers), we humans have developed an uncanny capacity for large-scale cooperation, while maintaining our individuality and striving to fulfill our own desires and aims.

This means, for instance, that any attempt to "organise" a society according to high-falutin' principles that go against the grain of human nature is doomed to failure: any utopia with collectivist traits implodes from within (eg. communism in the USSR and China), or simply fades away (eg. the kibbutz movement in Israel).

But humans have also been able to build societies where some of the least palatable components of human behavior are regarded as crimes, are legislated and fought against, and are more or less diminishing.
Furthermore, even though we are highly individualist beings, we humans manage to accomplish feats of cooperation that rivals those of ants' super-organisms.

And our human conglomerates are not made up of clones or of closely related individuals: we succeed in associating complete strangers to undertake hard and dangerous activities, witness what occurs in any emergency situation.

While this is certainly mediated by our culture, and by a societal ethos that encourages solidarity and taking care of others, there is a clear evidence that this is also in part innate, ie. it is in our genes.

A book that sheds a fair amount of light on this is The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker (2011); very controversial as it posits that violence has been diminishing over the centuries, not in absolute figures, of course, but percentage-wise.

JE comments:  Luciano Dondero points out a paradox:  "natural" is not necessarily good, certainly when it comes to human behavior, yet "unnatural" social experiments don't work, either.

Francisco Ramírez argues against the "natural/unnatural" distinction when discussion economic organization.  Read on...

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