Mindbloggling

Current ideas about cultural evolution and the creative processes that power it.

Is Loyalty Destructive?

Can our leaders be relied on?

Elected officials are expected to behave in ways that will enhance the economic prosperity of their municipalities or nations. They are obliged to represent the concerns of those who elected them (not to mention those who pulled the strings that hoisted them to power). To do otherwise would be disloyal.

To the extent that there is a genetic basis to this kind of loyalty, it is clear why it would be selected for. One might imagine that the chiefs of tribes who did not defend the interests of their people left fewer offspring. And a similar reasoning can be applied to the extent that it is cultural in origin. One might imagine that cultures in which loyalty was expected from leaders fared better than those in which leaders were not expected to make their peoples' interests a priority. Thus the loyalty of leaders to their people is biologically and culturally adaptive. But our biological and cultural traits evolved prior to the global environmental changes we are currently witnessing. They evolved prior to any need to "think globally" at all. Do we have the kind of psychological makeup that it will take to solve global problems such as climate change?

I was thinking about this today as I went for a long walk today in the hills near where I live. I stopped on a high cliff overlooking the lake, and sifted through some stones and twigs. It occurred to me that every present that will get unwrapped this Christmas—every doll and book and shiny gadget—started off as this: a hunk of something that got extracted from the earth, a part of the natural world. It's impressive the variety of stuff we've pulled out of this planet. We're endlessly creative and intelligent. Whatever problem we've faced in the past, we've eventually found some gizmo to conquer it. I descended the hills and found myself in a throng of people lugging stuff and shouting inanities into neuron-zapping cell phones, and wondered: should we put our faith in the hope that someone will manage to come up with a new gizmo that will reverse the carnage being wrought to this planet as a result of all our other gizmos? Should we be counting on those who have attained positions of power by promising nations that they will continue to prosper from the production of gizmos to do what is best for the planet?

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If climate change meetings such as the United Nations meeting that wrapped up today in Durban are attended by individuals who represent the concerns of specific countries, and these concerns are often at odds with those of the planet as a whole, how much hope do we have that decisions reached will be in our global best interest? The UN website states that it will "provide a forum for its 193 Member States to express their views". With all due respect, the representatives of Member States are obliged to—and have probably evolved a psychology that makes them very likely to—put the needs of their respective countries front and center.

I'm no expert in loyalty, nor politics, nor climate change. But studies of creativity have taught me that, once in a while, a non-expert brings a fresh perspective to an issue that contributes toward a solution. The idea I've been thinking about is definitely "half-baked", and perhaps even ridiculous, but I think this issue is important enough to go out on a limb. It's the idea of a "planetary parliament" of sorts to address global issues. It would explicitly NOT consist of individuals who represent individual countries. It would consist of individuals whose primary allegiance is not to any country but to the planet as a whole.

Given that even country-wide elections are hard to pull off, a planet-wide election seems unlikely. So the next thing that came to mind is a test that candidate PP representatives would have to pass to determine whether they have adequate knowledge, social skills, global awareness, and so forth, and importantly, the requisite objectivity to solve problems in a way that minimizes distortion stemming from allegiance to a particular country, or a particular cause. While I'm at it: one proposal I'd put forward to this Global Parliament is promotion of the four-day work-week. Gross Domestic Product would suffer, but as far as I can see we could expect more jobs, less pollution, and more free time.

Bottom line: I'm not convinced we have the kind of evolved psychological makeup that leads us to approach global issues in the best way possible. We are relying on political leaders—people who have managed to convince nations that they will stand up for their interests—to cooperatively make and decisions and carry out actions that are in the best interest of the planet. Perhaps its not so crazy to entertain the idea of a governing body consisting of individuals whose primary allegiance is to the global wellbeing of our planet. 

 

Liane Gabora, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia.

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