Sunday, August 23, 2009

Lobbying and Evolution

Just in case you have other things going on in your life besides reading my blog (LOL), let me summarize the last three weeks' posts for you. At all levels of government, lobbying is ubiquitous, influential, and dominated by wealthy special interests (frequently corporations) that spend literally billions of dollars every year to promote primarily short-term, profit-oriented outcomes designed to benefit only themselves (sometimes at great cost to others).

Surely another case in point is redundant. But major newspapers scream with examples on practically a daily basis. According to the New York Times (8/19/09), a noon rally the previous day in Houston -- the first of about 20 planned -- was designed to "organize resistance to proposed legislation that would set a limit on emissions of heat-trapping gases..." Despite its "everyman" flavor (the master of ceremonies was a local rodeo announcer), among the participants was James T. Hackett, CEO of Anadarko Petroleum, and many employees of oil companies were bused in from their workplaces. (No doubt their pay was docked for taking more than 30 minutes for lunch.) Who's behind it? A group called "Energy Citizens." Who's behind that group? The American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's main trade group. If you're surprised, go to your room. (Wait! On second thought, if you're surprised, you are already spending too much time in your room.)

Here, finally (was that a sigh of relief I heard?), is my primary point. As we all know, evolution favors "survival of the fittest." With exceptions that will be introduced in weeks to come, normally survival of the fittest means behavior designed to favor the life and well-being of an individual organism. In this manner, the probability of that organism's passing its genes on to another generation increases. [Caveat: evolutionary theory can be complex; the ideas presented here are essentially accurate -- but far from comprehensive. I intend only to relate those points specifically relevant to whatever hypothesis is being described at a given point in time.]

This system worked effectively for homo sapiens in its early days thousands of years ago, when survivability meant essentially staying warm, dry, well-fed, and safe from intruders bearing spears and clubs. The last two in particular often required strength, speed, agility, and a hostile attitude toward those inclined to inflict casualties and/or steal precious resources. As a consequence, nature "selected" for future generations the kinds of behaviors that are primarily self-directed and oriented toward immediate needs. The welfare of society-at-large and the longevity of the planet did not figure into the equation. It wasn't necessary 10,000 years ago.

But evolution, for all its genius, is a notoriously slow process. According to one theory, if organisms with a beneficial mutant gene produce 5 percent more offspring, it will require about one thousand generations before virtually all organisms in that species inherit that gene. Given that one human generation equals about 25 years, it follows that even a mutation that produces substantially enhanced probability of reproductive success could require some 25,000 years to effectively permeate the species.

What we have, then, is a world that has changed exceptionally rapidly over the last 300 years or so, creating an entirely new set of survivability issues, inhabited (at least in this country) by people who have institutionalized lobbying as the legal embodiment of selfish behavior that is no longer adaptive.

For these reasons, mankind has been described by some evolutionary biologists as a "walking fossil." "Our psychological adaptations consistently produce maladaptive thought, emotion, and behavior in our modern environments." (Reference available upon request.)

And it's likely to get worse before it gets better. The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether to lift what little restraint remains on the amount of money corporations can spend directly on elections -- and the people who claim to know about such things are placing their bets on a 5-4 vote in favor of doing just that. It might not matter a great deal, as we have already seen that corporations find legal ways of exerting enormous influence over politicians. But I see no reason to make it worse.

Will human beings be able to avoid the cataclysmic events that could be the consequence of the evolutionary "mismatch" between our stone-age brains and the modern, global, high-tech, polluting world? Will global warming, for example, result in massive political, social, military, or social unrest? Will the continued aggrandizement of wealth by those already wealthy eventually lead to upheaval? (Are we immune from such phenomena? If you think so, you may be spending too much time in your room -- but probably not reading history books.)

Please comment on this series of posts on lobbying, evolution, and their interactive relationship before global warming melts your keyboard.

1 comment:

  1. These posts on lobbying are such an eye-opening and extremely well done series. You are hitting the nail right on the head, especially with this last post. The prevalence of lobbying is so much that we really can open up the newspaper on any given day and, just by reading between the headlines and looking closer, see how much power lobbying groups for the special (monied) interests have that are pushing along the system at hand.

    Take this example as recent as an article on Monday in the San Francisco Chronicle titled "Facts Are First Casualty In Health Care Debate" on the raging and mostly inaccurate health care "debate"/hysteria wave rolling across the country, and it shows just how true and relevant your posts on lobbying are:

    "Through June 30 of this year, the health care industry - which includes doctors, nurses, HMOs, and other groups - had spent more than $263 million to lobby Congress, which is on track to surpass the $484 million it spent in all of 2008, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that charts the influence of money on politics."

    The question is how does one not feel completely powerless knowing these facts? What can be the best way to grow real lobbying power for the grassroots social causes helping those in need that are without access to the seemingly endless funds that the interests on top possess?

    On another note, have you ever thought about writing a book on this subject? Of course, I know you have plenty on your plate already with "I Pledge Allegiance: To What? The Paradox of 'Me'", which I am eagerly awaiting.