A blog post

Sociology: “The tragedy of the commons” – or, why does biology need social research?

Posted on the 09 March, 2011 at 6:56 pm Written by in Research

The tragedy of the commons

Douglas J. Futuyma in Evolution (see blog post Futuyma: Evolution, March 7, 2011)  writes on “the tragedy of the commons” and how this problem of individualism versus collectivism is found in nature too and how it can be escalated by selfish gene type of adaptations (p 415).

The tragedy of the commons, as Futuyma correctly states, consists in the depletion of common resources due to individualist behaviour. For example, each boat or fisherman may profit by the largest catch, but this behaviour threatens the longer-term resource. Fish stocks like North Atlantic cod are threatened.

The tragedy is an interpretative dilemma, a situation involving different social rules (individualism and collectivism). It is not just a fact issue. It has to do with theories and rules of social behaviour.

For example, the tragedy of the commons was described in Marx’s work, especially regarding how the upper class tends to delimit communal trends in the lower classes. Whatever the view, one  cannot drop the social connections in the argument, the tragedy has to do with power (just like the tragedy of “social darwinism”, briefly acknowledged by Futuyma p 631). Interpretative knowledge of human behaviour is clearly needed. This is where gender research comes into view.

By the way, Evolution is the kind of book gender researchers can only dream of. It has 750 or so big A4 size pages in colour print with an illustration (photo, graph, model) every second page. It is pedagogically presented, with a big glossary, excercises,  and an accompanying web site. A teacher’s wet dream, in my area.

Futuyma cites Oscar Wilde, arguing that human life is about meaning, not just utilitarianism, and he warns against using evolution theory for racism (p. 631). I could have wished for more, regarding the critique of Social Darwinism, but it is there, in terms of “race”, if not so clearly in terms of “gender”.

The tragedy of the commons is a process partly explained by social class, partly by “race” (ethnicity / centrality), partly by gender, age and partly by other ranking systems, as mapped by the social and cultural sciences. The lower class is usually more associated with the commons, as are the young, the women, and so on.

Selfish gene types can perhaps develop through selfish or short-sighted societal developments, and possibly correlate or interact with these (cf Jared Diamond: Collapse). Whatever (and however) the biological interaction, the material on sociocultural variation is strong, as well as a more common tendency in human society. The tragedy of the commons, in a more moderate form, that common property is often neglected, was noticed by Aristoteles already. The ‘corruption’ of communal power is a theme in early historical texts. Some societies are fairly well able to put the commons in the middle, others aren’t. Obviously, social systems including class and gender issues are important for understanding if the “neglect tendency” associated with the commons is to develop into a major issue, a tragedy (or catastrophe), or not.

I am writing as a researcher within the field of gender research. I work with recognition also of the limits of current gender research. These include a women-centrism that reflects today’s society and culture in general, perhaps an over-culturedness, a lack of male students and researchers, and much else. These weaknesses are understandable at this stage – this is a small, emerging field. Beyond weaknesses, the more important question is, does the field of gender studies have an important message for biological research?

Unlike some feminists, I would not say, so far, from my attempts to read up in biology, that the answer is a “resounding yes”. I don’t agree with some gender research ideas in the direction that biology or evolutionary psychology have “nothing to say”. I think these gender researchers lack a distinction between gender differentiation (where biology has a lot to say), and gender stratification (less, but possibly some, to say).

Even if there is no “resounding yes”, gender research does have an important message for biology, extending the understanding of social behaviour and the need for interpretative knowledge,  and a potential to clear up the understanding in these disciplines. It does have a good case, especially, if gender research is angled towards gender equality (gender stratification), not just “what is gender” (gender differentiation).  It has a case, especially, extending the critique of Social Darwinism from “race” to more general democratic and social learning considerations, including “gender”.

One research theme that stands out from my reading of Futuyma’s book, along with others, relates to discrimination of reproduction. This can be found in some outright forms, parents eating their children, and similar, in biology. But can we find an overall group tendency, or is this quite specific for human society? Women, in known human populations, are usually the ones  ending up with the main costs of the tragedy of the commons (cf. John Lennon 1972 (Yoko Ono 1969): “woman is the nigger of the world”). Is this a fairly uncommon case? Human societies, especially socially stratified societies, have a tendency to disempower or devaluate reproduction and regeneration, compared to production, which seems less common among animal societies (even if these may have pro-male ranking too).

Although Futuyma is quite clear, in line with e g Kuhn and Wallerstein (not mentioned), in his critical emphasis on biology as research development, often contrary to current societal power and economic interests, he seems somewhat stuck “within the closet”. He correctly argues:

“Science is not a collection of facts, contrary to popular belief, but rather a process of acquiring understanding” 612 “the hypothesis is provisionally accepted” 612 – this is in line with Kuhn, but does not mention him, as part of debate against creationism. Intelligent design (creationism) is “not testable” p. 613. He goes on to say:

“A theory, as the word is used in science, doesn’t mean an unsupported speculation or hypothesis (the popular use of the word). A theory is, instead, a big idea that encompasses other ideas and hypotheses and weaves them into a coherent fabric. It is a mature, interconnected body of statements, based on reasoning and evidence, that explains a wide variety of observations. ” p 613

I like his arguments, and his definition of theory as a big idea, although he goes on to argue that “biology has few theories” – a doubtful sentiment. It has in fact a lot of theories, but usually implicit, and it needs better interpretative knowledge.