24 May 2008

Pattern is real

No single chemical reaction is life, but you are alive. Every chemical compound, every element, every individual reaction, exists independent of life.
The thing that makes life is simply the organization of those chemical reactions, so that they—pretty much entirely, though the interactions get complicated—make copies of themselves.

The life we have now is, without exception, the result of life that got copies of itself into the future; this is where the competition and the "nature red in tooth and claw" comes into it. It's also where the co-operation in groups comes into it; you and I are multi-cellular life, with many individually specialized cells and all sorts of pattern-copies from other organisms and, way back there, very probably the merging of different organisms to get the eukaryotic cell. But the essential thing is that patterns of organization are subject to selection based not on inherent efficiency or elegance but how well they do in the context of a great many other patterns of organization.

Unless you really need to find the breath of God in this somewhere, none of this is the least bit controversial; the thing that makes dirt and air and water into life is the specific organization of the dirt and air and water.

The same thing applies to social organizations; they compete with one another to get copies of themselves into the future. The mutation rate is higher, the way the patterns are created is relatively free of heredity, but we can still look at the organizations of human social co-operation and see that they have births and deaths and descent with modification, and are recognizable as themselves between the birth-analog and the death-analog.

So now I get to the 'just what is going on with the Chinese Communist Party" question, where some notice has been given to how this allegedly (and actually) autocratic and absolutist organization with a poor human rights record is doing such a good job of disaster relief, while the US government did such a very bad job of this with New Orleans.

The answer to this is (I think) pretty obvious; the Chinese Communist Party considers everybody in China to be part of the organization; they may be awkward, problematic, in need of education, and so on, but they are all minimally subject to the Party; there isn't anybody outside of that span of responsibility. This isn't true of the current US administration; it's scope of belonging is very narrowly defined by questions of wealth and belief. So there's the idea of responsibility in the one case, and not in the other.

The other part of the answer is that the Chinese Communist Party has—just—the living memory of the Long March, and the deep-seated cultural awareness after two centuries of horrible wars and foreign occupation, that everything can always be lost.

The US? Not at all; they have a national myth of victory, of being the good guys, of always winning. It does not occur as a normal part of their discourse to notice that they can cease to exist. So disasters are by definition temporary setbacks; the government cannot lose legitimacy, there will be no rebellion in the provinces, and lasting doom will not occur. Nobody in China believes that; what little information in English comes out seems to suggest that the wide majority are completely terrified of that happening, however variously likely they regard the possibility as being, and so willing to accept a great deal of autocracy as a trade off towards making sure that doesn't happen again.

Leaving aside the actual Sauron-cuddling moral status of the USG, and going with the public myth of being the good guys, this is the difference; morals don't matter, but the pattern of organization sure does, and if you know you cannot fall, are eternal and immortal and dwell in the special favour of God, nothing is urgent, because nothing carries with it the risk of death. (Or truly meaningful loss.)

So, really, it's all about patterns of organization and how well they do in competition with each other; the trick, if you like individual human rights, is to come up with a stable pattern of organization that supports those individual rights and out-competes those patterns of organization which do not.

How do you out-compete a meritocratic autocracy that's figured out—conceptually, though the implementation struggles—the rule of law?

Not a trivial problem.

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