How Humans Adapt

by Kelly Booth

This piece was originally published in Home! A Bioregional Reader, edited by Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright, New Society Publishers, copyright 1990.

What is the adaptive unit for human beings? Is it the individual? This doesn’t seem likely considering that humans are social animals and rely on social cooperation for their survival and well-being. Could it possibly be the state and its bureaucracies? It is doubtful that the government is capable of functioning like an adaptive organism. Could it be our modem mass society, so subject to consumer fads and fashions? Does this seem to provide the foundation for an adaptive social unit?

Unlike other organisms, humans do not have adaptive behavior fixed in their genes. They must learn it. But there is more to human adaptation than can be learned in the lifetime of one individual. Our hominid ancestors overcame this problem by having learned patterns registered in the customs of the group. There came to be stable groups with stable customs passed on from one generation to another.

The group became the unit of adaptation. The individual can only adapt by being a member of an adaptive community. If the individual is to act adaptively, the group as a whole would have to be like an adaptive “social organism.”

What would this “social organism” look like? What kind of society would it be that could act in an organized and adaptive way?

It is difficult to see how we can approach such large questions, but there are two sources that may provide us with some clues. One source is biology and our observations of the natural world. What are the features of organisms that enable them to adapt to their environments? The second source is anthropology. Some forms of tribal organization have lasted for at least 40,000 years, and a few features may be as old as one, two, even three million years. Clearly, these forms were sustainable.

Organisms live in place. They are very finely adapted to their particular habitats and vary from one place to another according to their circumstances. They are highly integrated. Every function supports every other function in a remarkable harmony. There is no conflict or competition between organs. Such integration occurs only at a certain scale. A cell, organ or organism can only be so large and still be integrated. To partly overcome this limitation, larger organisms are differentiated into many levels of organization. A mammal is not just a mass of undifferentiated protoplasm. It is made up of cells, tissues and organs.

Tribal societies show these same features of place, integration and scale. Each culture, as a whole, was adapted to a particular place. The individual member finds its place in the culture while the culture as a whole finds its place in the natural environment.

Many tribes had a high degree of integration and mutual aid. Customs and roles cohered into a mutually supportive whole. There were few institutionalized conflicts of interest, no hierarchies or classes. Integration was limited to certain scales. Tribes could only be so big and still maintain the kinds of communication necessary for a common identity. They were comprised of smaller organized groups, such as bands, in which more intimate face to face interaction went on. These smaller groups were also limited in size.

The parallels between tribal societies and organisms are not coincidental. Integration, scale and sensitivity to a particular place are essential features of all adaptation. It seems highly unlikely that a human tribe would have been able to adapt if there were competition between its parts, no limits on scale, or no sensitivity to the uniqueness of its particular surroundings.

Integration, scale and a sensitivity to place are emphatically not found in mass society. The mass does not adapt to a particular place. Instead, it tries to standardize all places. Its relations to its natural environment are coarse, crude and insensitive. Mass society is not integrated. There is exploitation, hierarchy and fragmentation. We find highly mobile individuals (or nuclear families) within an almost undifferentiated and unbounded mass extending to cover the globe. There is no sense of scale, or intermediate levels of organization.

In short, mass society does not have features essential for adaptation. It cannot be the unit of adaptation for human beings.

The unit that we are looking for is precisely the one that has been destroyed and devoured by modem industrial society. It is the small scale, integrated, self-governing community, having its own identity and its own customs which are adapted to its particular place.

(First published in The Catalyst, April-May, 1984.)

Kelly Booth is an erstwhile bioregional philosopher and community accountant from British Columbia, whose current preoccupations center around gardening and the eco-rock band, Zumak, for which he plays bass guitar. His head ached for many months following the third North American Bioregional Congress for which he acted as a successful financial comptroller—one of the reasons for his having since given up the financial arts.

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