Is a more humane society possible?

Our adaptive capabilities for a more humane civilisation are hamstrung by the need to survive on the surplus ladder 

March 08, 2022 12:15 am | Updated 01:08 am IST


e | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

When one looks at the literature on social change, two paradigms seem to have dominated the social sciences: the Marxian pre-occupation with the dynamics of surplus generated by unequal positions in the societal process and Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel’s momentous findings on evolution.

Both these processes, namely, the generation of surplus and evolution, are autonomous, inevitable and continual. The notion of surplus value, initially conceptualised as surplus earned by the capitalist from wage labour, is now generalised to land-use changes, technology, economics, politics, geopolitics, weaponisation of trade, derivatives, etc. — the entire gamut of social change. Implications of the surplus generated impact even fashion and culture. Surplus, those at the top of the surplus ladder, and the uses of surplus determine social change.

As for the theory of evolution, the selective effect of adaptive capability, there are many variants depending upon discipline focus, as also intra-discipline focus and choice of problems for research. I had minimum or no knowledge of biological processes in my early days as a sociologist. Having entered the sociology discipline with post-graduate learning in economics, my interest in macro development problems led me to Talcott Parsons’ action theory, also based on a variant of the theory of evolution but with many limitations. One of the more important limitations is with regard to the conceptualisation of ‘functional imperatives’ in the evolutionary process. We know now that there are different, and often unknown, ways of coping with the functional problems of an organism.

Prescient thinking

In the early 20th century, another variant of the theory of evolution and explanation of social change began to emanate from the University of Chicago. This is more relevant in the context of the enormous research and everyday findings of the mapping of the anatomy of the brain and transmissions from neurons, which are currently being researched. George Herbert Mead’s Mind, Self and Society foresaw this knowledge system in the early 1900s. The story of evolution of behaviour guided by instinct evolved to communication through gestures to symbolic interaction and now to a digital world. But Mead’s conceptualisation of the “self” as “I”, the subject, and as “me”, an object to the subject, was prescient thinking in 1934. The mind evolves through conversation between the “I” and the “me” and social change takes place through evolution of that conversation. Further, Mead foretold that “I” is unique and unpredictable in response. Today, we are told that every person has not only unique fingerprints but also unique brain anatomy. Based on their research at the University of Zurich, Professor Lutz Jäncke and his group have found that life experiences change the anatomy of the brain. A combination of genetic factors and life experience result in unique brain anatomy for each individual. Conflicting/competing signals from the region of the brain — memory, instinct, technical knowledge, tradition, emotion and even mere absent-mindedness — result in action which cannot be predicted. Mead spoke of the social system as a game, where everyone knows the rules but no one can predict how the game will be played. It is not possible to predict which signal or combination of signals from the mind will win and set the course for societal change. It is the cybernetic system of communication with control and feedback with the addition of free will. The organism has a mind of its own.

Besides bringing in the factor of unpredictability (which brings all attempts for general theory of social change such as E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology or Parsons’ and other action theories to a brick wall), Mead made one more basic contribution to our understanding of social evolution. His framework for the evolving organism does not interact merely with other organisms, but also the object world (which was denied by Parsons et al.). Observation of the environment and the physical world is also a psychic event: the sun and the stars, the shadows and darkness in the branches of the trees, the architectural landscape and now the change from the rainbow to only saffron hues which are changing the mindset of India. It would seem that humanity has to decide what to do with the surplus generated by continuous capitalisation and the evolutionary history of trauma of past experiences embedded in the brain anatomies which burden individuals. The adaptive capabilities of communities and society to a more humane civilisation is hamstrung by the need to compete to survive on the surplus ladder and also wipe off the pathology of pain from the memory neurons. Indeed, both are difficult endeavors.

Ratna Naidu is a sociologist. This piece was enabled by conversations with Vinod Nair on the biology of the mind and brain anatomy

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.