BIG BODY HEURISTICS
ARE CORPORATIONS REALLY ALIVE?
(Are they now our dominant species?)
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The following pieces introduce the diversity of voices we seek and celebrate here. They range from brief to complex, from learned to personal. The only question is, "When you meditate on Big Bodies (or the possibilities of this conference), what thoughts, reflections, or visceral emotions come to "mind"?
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As our conference organizers stated it early on, our main challenge is "to offer an easily understood description of a whole new [as yet unrecognized] category of being." I would like to spell out and refine a bit some of the questions that seem to me implied by this very exciting challenge. (I am greatly looking forward to the experience of exchanging ideas via cyber-communication. As an old Univ. of Chicago College product, I regard serious discussion as the highway to understanding. We need all the help we can get from each other--and we might just contribute to a sort of quantum leap in understanding what is going on!)
First, an observation. Many conference participants are intensely and admirably political people. They are interested above all in "what is to be done" about corporations (and other related Big Bodies). They customarily engage in moral/political discussion. Other participants, among them myself, may be partly political people but also "scientific" people. They are interested above all (though NOT exclusively) in new ways of understanding corporations and other Big Bodies. They customarily engage in analytical discussion. Obviously the two types of discourse overlap and interpenetrate, and cannot ultimately be separated. Nonetheless, we will probably find that participants of the first type wish to address questions of Good and Bad, etc., about corporations, while participants of the second type point out that in biology there are no good or bad species, and the primary goal must be to understand how corporate bodies function. It will be essential in our discussions, I think, to make clear on which level we are speaking; otherwise confusion and needless argument will arise. Maybe we will even need to label our utterances as "P" or "S"?
That said, here is my current list of fundamental questions on which I seek enlightenment (I am, needless to say, curious about much else):
If we can arrive at firm answers to at least some of the above questions, it should be clearer what needs to be done. Maybe we will even have raw material for a Manifesto: "A spectre is haunting planet Earth . . . !"
- *ARE corporations living organisms? If they are not living, strictly speaking, what features do corporations share with what all agree are living organisms?
- *Can we treat charters and bylaws as "corporate DNA/RNA," which specifies the obligatory behavioral parameters of the corporation?
- *Do corporations have "metabolism"? (in the strict biochemical sense--what is their food, how does their digestion work, what are their products/wastes?; in a social sense; in a useful figurative sense?)
- What is the nature of boundary "membranes" in corporations?
- Can we speak of the nervous systems of corporations?
- How extensive are the parallels between corporations and
- (a) colonial or compound organisms (Portuguese men-of-war, slime molds and other plasmodia),
- (b) large organisms made up of once free-living bacterial cells--plants certainly and presumably animals.
- *What are the basic different types of corporation, now and in history--can we construct a taxonomy? (Some are elephants, but there are also a lot of mice . . . ) Have clear corporate types (species) evolved?
- Do corporations "breed"?
- Can we see evolutionary trends in operation now?
- Can we see systematic correlations, between e.g. corporate size and negative ecological or social impacts?
- What analytical scales are available for analyzing corporations:
- (1) global economy, populated by a few hundred very large corporations, thousands of quite large ones, and probably hundreds of thousands of smallish ones;
- (2) national groupings--corporations and their associated governments;
- (3) individual corporation: its overall macrostructure, gross behavior, history, etc.;
- (4) microstructure: the internal workings of the corporation;
- (5) "cellular": the sub-organisms (humans) of which the corporation body is composed.
- *And lastly, what good can it do us humans to understand corporations better? Can we, at least in theory, bioengineer their DNA and thus change some of their most antisocial behaviors?
(ASTERISKS** mark those questions which seem to me most basic.)
Richard Grossman of POCLAD (Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy) offers erudite perspectives:Nothing is more common than for men to think that because they are familiar with words, they understand the idea they stand for. ......
- -J.H. Newman
Those whose conceits are seated in popular opinions need only but to prove or dispute; but those whose conceits are beyond popular opinions have a double labour: the one to make themselves conceived, and the other to prove and demonstrate. So that it is of necessity with them to have recourse to similitudes and translations to express themselves.
- - Owen Barfield
I have found the writing unexpectedly difficult, although its ideas and intentions are simple and straightforward. But one cannot go straight forward unless the way is clear, and the way is allowed. One struggles to gain the right perspective, focus, and tone - and then, one loses it, all unawares. One must continually fight to regain it, to hold accurate awareness. I cannot better express the problems which have challenged me, and which my readers must challenge, than in the splendid words of Maynard Keynes in the preface of his General Theory:
The composition of this book has been for the author a long struggle of escape, and so must the reading of it be for most readers if the author's assault upon them is to be successful - a struggle to escape from habitual modes of thought and expression.The ideas which are here expressed so labouriously are extremely simple and should be obvious. The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.Force of habit, and resistance to change - so great in all realms of thought - reaches its maximum in medicine, in the study of our most complex suffferings and disorders of being; for we are here compelled to scrutinize the deepest, darkest, and most fearful parts of ourselves, the parts we all strive to deny or not-see. The thoughts whoughts which are most difficult to grasp or express are those which touch on this forbidden region and reawaken in us our strongest denials and our most profound intuitions.
- - O.W.S. (Dr. Olivia Jacks)
Randy Hayes, president of the Rainforest Action Network, cuts crisply to the corporate chase."Democracy is simple -- of the people, by the people, and for all life. We shall stop the "of the corporation, by the corporation, and for the corporation" death syndrome. However, humans should not forget -- nature bats last. People power, as a humble part of the web of life, is the combination we need to be working for ferociously."
Master of the virtual universe, Howard Rheingold (author of Virtual Reality" and "The Virtual Community") meditates on the messages and means inherent in our medium here, and its potential power in a post-corporate world.I agree with David's conviction that there are few tasks more important to the future of humane life on earth than the redesign and rebuilding of the gigantic corporate bodies, state and corporate, that emerged in the past century. Although the inhuman scale of technological endeavors, and the disruptive impacts of globalization are part of the big bag of problems we need to solve together, I believe technology can play a role in the solution as well as the problem. Group communication tools, used knowledgeably, can help us in the process. The tool is not the task, and the tool has certain built-in characteristics (we can't see or hear each other unless we want to upload pix or sounds, so our communications are filtered through the written word), but I think many-to-many communication can play a role in brainstorming, debating, organizing, and communicating what we learn from those processes. Assume a group of people who each have a different chunk of knowledge that is essential to an important task, but these people are widely separated by geography, and find it impossible to communicate in real time. Assume they know how to identify important issues, frame questions, find evidence, debate and inquire together, and to use the knowledge they discover together to plan and organize activities that take place in real time in the physical world.
I know that many who are involved in this conference are skeptical of claims that computer-mediated-communication have any potential as tools for grassroots organizing, and I agree that it is always smart to greet claims about technological capabilities with critical eyes. However, I believe the kind of communities and civilizations we have today are the products of a process of co-evolution with our tools that we have only begun to understand. Before we discovered the knowledge necessary to understand disease, only a couple of centuries ago, people died and suffered needlessly . The ugly effects of tool-dependence, and the beneficial effects of tool-reliance, are both part of the same phenomenon. The crucial factor is awareness. Perhaps toxic technology use is like a disease, and we do not yet fully understand it. We are only beginning to become aware of how our tool use shapes our lives.
In regard to many to many communication and the notion of virtual communities, I believe the most important question is whether we can learn to use this new medium as a way of exercising and hence strengthening the public sphere -- the web of communications among citizens that ought to be the bedrock of democracy. Mass media are few-to-many. The Internet affords many-to-many communication. That doesn't mean that simply using the tool will lead to anything more democratic. But knowing that the tool can be used, learning how to use it, evaluating how it can be used well by citizens, is an opportunity we can't afford to ignore.
The Internet is not only e-commerce and porno. Citizens are talking, planning, organizing, publishing, problem-solving. Perhaps there is a literacy to be learned here.
I wrote at greater length about the notion of virtual community and community in a recent update to my book, The Virtual Community, which is being reissued this summer by MIT Press. The role of the Net in the public sphere is discussed in the last part of the chapter.
I will be travelling, and I don't like to travel with a computer -- one of my small gestures toward the goal of trying to be where I am instead of cyberspace when travelling. So my participation will be limited. Hence, I wanted to issue this invitation to approach the use of this medium with an open mind. Play with it. It's a different kind of discourse than strictly face to face or epistolary forms and takes a little practice at first.
Prophetic polymath Meg Wheatley, author of "Leadership and the New Science," contemplates emergence and counsels vigilance in our quest for corporate change.Any study of living systems brings you face to face with the phenomenon of Emergence. Nothing in our past analytic techniques prepared me to understand emergence, or how to deal with its effects. Large systems emerge from small, localized but connected activities. What emerges is never predictable from studying the localized events, and always is not only surprising, but stronger in influence than any individual or localized grouping. Once a meta-system has emerged, it wields disproportionate influence over the system members whose actions gave birth to this system. We begin by making localized decisions, but end up trying to act within a system that is not only new and different, but far more powerful than us.
This seems to me to be the world we're living in, called Globalism, or Informational Capitalism, or the Global Casino -- whatever we term it, we're in the presence of something we didn't know we were creating when we first began this new, interconnected, global economy.
Once we truly appreciate that life emerges, I believe it leads us to practice much greater levels of awareness and watchfulness. If we're not in the question of "what is emerging?" we'll not notice that capitalism today is not the same as pre-web capitalism, or that corporations today are in no way like the corporations of ten years ago. The only way to track emergent phenomena is to stay very present, very observant, and to be in conversations such as this one.
I still don't know how we change an emergent system, although I've pondered this with colleagues for several years,. That's the critical question that I bring to this conversation, based on my understanding of biology, politics, and change. Once something powerful has emerged, with its disproportionate power, is there any way to change it from within the system? Or do we have to start over, with different initial conditions? Or do we nourish rogue systems based on different values, and hope they will suddenly emerge into something powerful?
Evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, co-author of "Unto Others - the evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior," meditates at luminous length on "How Big Bodies Evolve and Why it is Relevant to Modern Human Affairs."As a biologist who studies the evolution of big bodies, I am delighted that the concept of human groups as organisms is being taken seriously by the participants of this conference. This post will briefly describe the evolutionary principles and how they relate to big body problems in modern life. More detail can be found in one of the background readings for this conference and in my recent book with Elliott Sober, Unto Others, the evolution and psychology of unselfish behavior (Harvard University Press 1998).
1) For animals that live in groups, individuals can achieve evolutionary success along two broad pathways; a) by outcompeting other members of the same group (within-group selection), or b) by causing the group to outcompete other groups (between-group selection). The word competition is interpreted very broadly by evolutionists, including overt competition and aggression but also any adaptation that causes some individuals or groups to perform better than other individuals or groups. 2) The behaviors favored by within-group selection tend to undermine the adaptive organization of groups. Thus, the evolution of the group as an adaptive unit (a "big body") requires a process of between-group selection that is stronger than countervailing within-group selection.
3) A consensus emerged among evolutionary biologists during the 1960's that group selection, while theoretically possible, was so weak that it could be ignored. The human social sciences became dominated by a position known as methodological individualism at about the same time, although for somewhat different reasons. The last few decades could be called "the age of individualism" as far as scientific thinking is concerned, which has made the study of big bodies appear disreputable and even heretical.
4) Advances in evolutionary biology since the 1960's have radically altered the situation, although only now are they starting to attract a wide audience. Perhaps the most dramatic realization is that individual organisms are themselves big bodies, social groups of elements that previously led a more independent existence. You and I are living proof that higher-level selection can trump lower-level selection.
5) Big bodies require mechanisms that prevent evolution from within. Genetic and developmental processes are increasingly being viewed as an enforced social contract among our previously independent parts that prevents various forms of cheating.
6) Group selection has probably been a strong force, but by no means the only force, in human evolution. As the most behaviorally flexible species on earth, we have the capacity to employ both evolutionary pathways, exploiting our neighbor or intimately cooperating with our neighbor, depending on the circumstances. Behavioral flexibility does not mean the absence of instincts, however. There is probably an immensely complicated innate psychology that orchestrates both within-group and between-group facultative adaptive strategies.
7) Hunter-gatherer egalitarianism provides the clearest picture of the first human big bodies, which weren't very big. Hunter-gatherers combine a strong sense of community with an equally strong sense of personal independence that prevents exploitation from within. Human nature may include a willingness to participate in big bodies ONLY when there are sufficient safeguards against cheating and freeloading. When big bodies stop working for the common good, or even demonstrate the structural potential to stop working for the common good, individuals lose their commitment and join other big bodies or function as little bodies as best they can.
8) Human cultural history can be interpreted as a series of coalescing events producing ever larger big bodies, similar to the coalescing events of organic evolution. Really big human big bodies require cultural mechanisms that have an elaborate physiology of their own, but which are not independent of the innate psychological mechanisms mentioned above. Instead, the innate psychological mechanisms provide the building blocks from which innumerable cultural forms can be constructed.
9) Big bodies can be attractive or threatening, depending on how we look at them. Our longing for a sense of community and to be part of something larger than ourselves reflects the best of big bodies, which provide some of the greatest joys and comforts life has to offer. Corporations and governments should want to function as big bodies for less poetic reasons. On the other hand, big bodies do not eliminate conflict but merely elevate it to the level of between-group interactions, where it can take place with even more destructive force than before. In addition, the "harmony" that exists within big bodies can take the form of coercive social control in addition to warmth and togetherness. Idealists such as myself like to dream about the whole earth as a big body with a non-coercive physiology. Could such a dream come true? Nobody knows, but the only way to find out is to understand the big bodies of today with a cold eye and a warm heart.
10) I end with a plea for the scientific study of big bodies. The age of individualism made big bodies seem to disappear in evolutionary biology, the social sciences, and to a large extent the popular imagination. This conference and books such as The Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom and Nonzero by Robert Wright suggest that big bodies are returning to the popular imagination (see my review of these books in the next issue of Skeptic Magazine). However, big bodies will be nothing more than a fad until the scientific establishment takes them seriously again. Science is an exceptionally conservative culture (often for good reason) and it will take time for it to recognize the advances that have already taken place within its own ranks. In the meantime, businesses with an enlightened view of "research and development" and private foundations looking for important subjects currently neglected by federal agencies may well want to invest in big body research of the highest caliber.
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