Is Patriotism Self-Organizing?

Scott has been writing a lot about patriotism and recently emailed me suggesting that it would be interesting to consider that subject from the perspective of self-organizing systems.

Scott asks:

Are we genetically predisposed to work together in large groups for the common good of the group? How large the group? Are we genetically predisposed to organise ourselves into large nations?

One of the problems I have with discussions about patriotism is that there is no adequate definition for the term. In my mind, patriotism is more of an amalgam of several other, more general, properties of man. One such property is that human beings tend to work together in groups. Doing so gives the group greater overall strength. This occurs frequently in nature, with packs of wolves, flocks of birds, schools of fish, and so on. It is clear that there is some sort of evolutionary advantage to working together in a group. So this particular property of man acts as a selection mechanism. Those who stubbornly act alone cannot compete with others who are cooperating. Over the millenia, man has become more and more likely to work together in groups.

It’s interesting to consider, though, that this property developed spontaneously. It is an emergent property of a self-organizing system – evolution. It’s also important to remember that no single property exists in a vacuum. The property we’re talking about, the tendency for humans to work together in groups, is interconnected with several other properties: communication skills, loyalty, physical strength, and so on. The point is that the group is configured more efficiently than the individual. An individual needs to be good at several activities in order to survive. But individuals who are part of a group can specialize, and other members of the group will take care of any shortcomings. Being a self-organized system, it is also constantly improving on itself. It does so through a continuous reproduction and selection process.

So what is the optimal size of the group? There is no answer to that question, but lucky for us, this is exactly the sort of question nature is designed to answer. Just as nature has selected people who work in groups, it will select groups which work more efficiently. Part of what makes a group efficient is the group’s size.

It seems obvious that the larger the group, the better, but as the group gets larger, it begins to experience scaling problems. In a small group, communication and coordination between the members is important, but can be accomplished with relatively simple means. As the group gets larger, it becomes more important and much more difficult to coordinate. Governments and nations arose out of the need for a useful framework for large groups of individuals (and large groups of groups, as it were).

There are, of course, several competing forms of government. Some are better than others, but the important thing is that governments allow for large scale collaboration. They institute laws and regulations which are intended to make the group operate more efficiently. Currently, it seems that governments which employ democratic mechanisms are the most successful. Depending on your view of things, there is considerable room for improvement though. To quote Winston Churchill:

“Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.”

Large scale collaboration is difficult. It quite often produces poor results (see groupthink) and those who are adept at recognizing such properties can exploit them. However, it is a matter of tradeoffs. Human beings don’t so much solve their problems as they trade one set of problems for another (with the hope that the new set is more advantageous than the old).

Humanity has imposed patriotism on itself because of nature (not in spite of it), and it has done so because all of the alternatives we have tried could not compete with a system that exhibits “patriotism.” Scott writes:

I would suggest that the patriotic field will prove to be just as ephemeral as the first born sacrifice field. The fact that a field flourishes does not mean that the field is more beneficial to human survival than a field that does not flourish. Witness the ravages of war, racism, or the pollution of the environment. There exists in the space of potential fields, one which governs us to view humanity as a single species who share one fragile planet. Whether this field will ever find a hospitable environment remains to be seen.

Personally, I think patriotism is here to stay. It may be further refined by the evolutionary process, but it is quite clear that human beings benefit from working together in groups, and as long as that is the case there will exist people who seek to exploit such instincts. The real question here is whether the current situation is the most efficient possible configuration of the system, and how to improve the system of collaboration. The idea is to keep expanding the group’s size until the point in which all of humanity is a member. To a certain extent, we are proceeding along those lines with things like international organizations and globalization, though there is, again, considerable room for improvement (this is, perhaps, because there is also considerable room for improvement in individual governments – the problems of the smal writ large). Patriotism would still exist in such a system, though it probably would not operate in the same way it does now.

Scott wonders whether or not his ideal world will ever find a hospitable environment. This is the wrong way to think about the problem. The environment is governed by nature which is continuously seeking to maximize efficiency. If it is hospitable to a specific configuration, it will gravitate towards that configuration (it would be an attractor).

Again, this subject is enormous, and the discussion above is a very high level analysis. Take it with a grain of salt. I’m still trying to get my head around the general concept of self-organizing systems. Part of that is that I see it operating everywhere, probably sometimes where it is not…

2 thoughts on “Is Patriotism Self-Organizing?”

  1. Good post. I’m gonna have to read up on this self-organising system business. I agree that you have to apply theories as universally as possible to test their durability.

    Thanks for the link. Been doing christmas so not checked on the blog for a few days. i’m going away for a couple of weeks so i’ll be off the radar until mid january. i’ll catch up on your posts when i get back.

    merry xmas


  2. No worries. Things are busy around here too. I’ve actually been meaning to add a couple of notes to this post. I sort of used “patriotism” and the human tendency to gather in groups as synonyms, which is obviously wrong. So there will probably be some additional stuff the next time you check this out…

    Self-organization and stigmergic systems are truly a bewildering topic. I’ve been reading up on it a lot lately, and trying to see various systems in that light. It’s an interesting perspective.

    A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you too:)

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