By Autumn Rose
In Part I of this treatise we reviewed a sampling of law codes representing societies around the world and covering almost 4000 years of history. From this review we discovered that all the codes prohibited a uniform set of destructive acts. All punished violations of those prohibitions with greater or lesser severity. All regulated commerce, the use and transfer of property, and sexual conduct and marriage. All of them assumed the existence of a Deity or Deities, and all attempted to be fair in formulating and applying the law, with one exception: Until recent centuries no law code recognized the equality of all human beings, and modern codes still struggle with the concept.
Given the uniformity of the concerns expressed in legal codes in all times and places, it seems logical that those concerns must have a single source, and equally logical that that source must be humanity’s shared social nature. But what is the source of our social nature? The thesis of this work is that we are part and parcel of the larger natural world, that we respond to the same imperatives operating in the rest of Nature, and that those imperatives are the source of our social nature. What, then, are these imperatives -- these “natural laws” in which human social law is embedded?
The most fundamental natural laws are those of mathematics, physics and chemistry. These laws govern all matter, both organic and inorganic -- but our concern here is with the organic, with life. What we are seeking are the laws (in addition to mathematics, physics and chemistry) that apply to all life, both animal and vegetable, and from the simplest to the most complex -- including us. In the course of this search we will speak of groups and individuals, groups being anything other than individuals - e.g., species, ecosystems, kin groups, communities, nations, and so on.
The first and most basic law of life is simple: Survive! This imperative applies to both individuals and to groups. For individuals, of course, survival is ultimately a lost cause. Most lifeforms live only for a season or less, and even among more complex species individuals rarely survive beyond their useful life. At its simplest, “useful life” refers to the ability to procreate. In socially organized species it includes as well the ability to contribute work for the good of the group, which ability diminishes with an individual’s age. But however hopeless their quest for survival may ultimately be, individuals are programmed to extend their lives as much as possible and frequently fight hard to do so. The impulse to survive is undoubtedly the strongest biological impulse.
What are the methods of survival? We have mentioned procreation, which is the chief means by which groups survive --and then there is acquisition. There can be no survival without nourishment, shelter from the elements and protection from danger, and means must be found to acquire these necessities. For plants, acquisition is almost entirely a passive process. A plant can stretch roots down into the ground and leaves up into the air to collect nutrients, but it cannot relocate under its own power from the place where it is rooted. If that place does not supply its needs, it probably will not survive to reproduce. Animals, with their power of locomotion, can venture abroad in search of sustenance and safety.
And what are the methods by which lifeforms acquire what they need? By competition and cooperation. We sometimes hear the expression “It’s a jungle out there,” which is based on the premise that life in the wild is a state of unbridled and brutal competition. There is competition, of course, but also a great deal of cooperation occurring in Nature. Some of it is unintentional. A honey bee probably has no plans to assist a plant with its reproduction, but it does so anyway in the course of flitting from flower to flower to feed. Plants likewise probably have no idea that the oxygen they expire enables animals to breathe, and we have only recently understood that the carbon dioxide animals exhale helps to support plant life. In the more complex forms of animal life, however, at least some cooperative acts may be consciously chosen. We used to believe that all non-human behavior was instinctive, but studies in the past few decades have revealed that more animal behavior than we imagined is learned, either from parents or from individual experience. Do wolf packs organize themselves to run down their prey in a certain way because they are genetically programmed to do so, or because they remember that that’s the most efficient way to do it? Whatever the answer, there is no question that animal groups in the wild practice cooperation. On the other hand, such groups usually have an alpha male, a position that has to be competed for. This is only one example of how competition and cooperation both contribute to a group‘s survival.
It hardly needs saying that we find innumerable examples of both in human society. Each has its positive and negative applications. Competition among individuals has the positive effect of elevating the ablest among us to useful positions, but when it goes awry it can be destructive, as in the case of war. And cooperation loses its usefulness when it becomes mere mindless conformism. Ironically, social groups sometimes organize (cooperate) for the purpose of competing. War is one example of that. Politics is another, and team sports another still. It often happens that an individual may be in conflict (competition) with the very group or groups on which he is dependent. When an individual’s personal interest conflicts with the interests of those around him, or with the common good, he may commit acts that are disruptive of life in his vicinity, sometimes even criminal. Obviously the interplay of competition and cooperation in human society is complex --more complex, perhaps, than elsewhere in Nature. Nevertheless, it is an expression of the same impulses that operate in the rest of Nature.
But what is the connection between these natural impulses and the legal codes we cited in Part I? To answer that, we will return to a consideration of our fundamental imperative, survival. Like individuals, groups seek to survive, and the most cursory examination reveals that social groups regard a measure of order as essential to that survival. Order brings with it an expectation of predictability and safety, which produce in turn a sense of security --and the more secure an individual feels, the less likely he is to disrupt the social order.
Repeatedly in human society, instances occur where cooperation is desirable but absent, and other instances occur where competition is undesirable but present. Both situations are destructive of order and need to be remedied, and manmade laws have been the answer for thousands of years. So societies have a goal, survival; a strategy, the maintenance of order; and a tactic, laws that maximize cooperation and minimize the harmful kinds of competition.
One question remains: Is the human desire for order really a reflection of Nature?
Contemplating such natural phenomena as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, we may well wonder if Nature and order have anything to do with each other. But then there are those previously mentioned laws of mathematics, physics and chemistry. Even hurricanes and earthquakes and the like unfold according to these most fundamental of natural laws.
We began Part I of these reflections by citing the will of the Gods and Goddesses, and we will finish here by doing the same. In view of the undeniable truth of the observation that concludes the previous paragraph, we may fairly say that the Gods and Goddesses of Nature do indeed ordain order --but not too much of it. (And even in this we humans reflect Nature at large.)