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Homo symbioticus

Einblicke in das 3. Jahrtausend. By Joël de Rosnay

Joël de Rosnay: Homo symbioticus. Einblicke in das 3. Jahrtausend, Gerling Akademie Verlag, München 1997, ISBN 3-9803352-4-0

L’homme symbiotique, Editions du Seuil, Paris 1995


19.08.1999 · Reviewed by Richard Resch


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Is the whole more than the sum of its parts? By using the metaphor of an organism, Joël de Rosnay invites his readers to think about our civilization’s next stage from a different perspective. He asks what insights we can gain about our future by looking at how forms of organic life develop and organize themselves. In his view, with growing interdependence, there is a new hybrid form of macro-life in the making, at once biological, mechanical and electronic in nature. We are the single cells of this evolving „superorganism." Our economies, markets, factories, power plants, organizations, streets and communication networks are its organs, neural networks and metabolism. Its foods are carbohydrates, fossil fuels and electricity. The Internet is portrayed as the embryo of a global brain that will achieve the integration and multiplication of a collective intelligence through the effects of synergy. Quantum leaps in its evolution will come from inventions in computer and communication technologies, as well as from path-breaking developments in the field of human/computer interfaces.

Unfortunately, the „macroorganism" is ill. Global warming is its fever. Acid rain, growing rubbish dumps and environmental pollution are the illnesses of its digestive system. The hole in the ozone layer is its skin cancer. The problem stems from a vicious circle into which economics and ecology are locked, a self-enforcing mechanism of the unpriced consumption of non-renewable natural resources and the free disposal of waste. Rosnay identifies the root cause of the problem in the egocentric and parasitic behavior enforced by orthodox economics, which is solely based on the satisfaction of individual interests. All the individually rational actions taken together lead to collectively undesirable outcomes. Man as „individual genius and collective idiot". Thus, the central challenge for the coming millennium will in Rosnay’s mind be to combine economics and ecology to create a life-friendly equilibrium by establishing a symbiotic relationship among man, man-made technology and the natural environment. To achieve this, policy-makers need to create a virtuous circle so that individually rational behavior leads to collectively rational outcomes. Traditional economics will have to make place for a new „meta-economics," which functionally integrates economy and ecology to create the basis for sustainable developments. The central economic indicator for this new ecological economics then must be GDP minus the cost of used-up ecological capital.

How can this look in practice? The policy priorities for the future identified by Rosnay, such as stabilizing the world population, reliance on renewable resources and pricing ecological damage all require heavy regulation on the cost of individual freedom. In his view, today’s politics takes a too short term direction. It is forced to function too much to satisfy the egoistic needs of individuals, interest groups and nations. What is needed thus is a fundamental value change, a „new humanism," away from competition and ego-gratification towards solidarity, and away from conquering and exploiting nature for growth towards equilibrium and sustainable development. According to Rosnay, this will be mostly part of the evolution of the new stage of civilization. The connection of brains over the future networks will amplify the sentiment of belonging to a wider community, and the development of a collective intelligence through the use of networks will be an important factor in the solving of the complex problems. The rest is education and regulation that helps to establish a self-enforcing sustainability. For Rosnay, the computer is not only an integral part of our macro-organic and symbiotic development, but also the ideal instrument to monitor, understand and steer the complex processes involved in it. Computing power makes the simulation of the complexity of organisms, society and the ecosystem possible in real time..

However, Rosnay offers no real argument for a true egoist to change his behavior and give up some of his egoism. The general posture of the egoist is that every action is right, if it is beneficial for himself. The benefit of others has no intrinsic, but only instrumental value to him; that is only, if it is in some way connected to his own benefit. What does sustainability mean to the egoist? Does he care about future generations or other parts of society and the world? If others do not behave egoistically, it is even more rational for the egoist to do so if he is not sanctioned for it. That way he can benefit from the common good without bearing his share of the cost. As a result of this free-rider problem, the common good will always be underproduced. Rosnay believes that the growth of knowledge and interdependence is apt to correct this view, with the „new humanism" appearing deus ex machina. His argumentation gives way to a new form of biological determinism to describe social life. This results from his heavy reliance on chaos theory as his theoretical framework. The basis of chaos theory is the belief in strong causal relationships, which are perceived as chaotic only because of their complexity. If all the variables and constants were known, accurate calculations of reality could be made. But the mere prospect of the greater common good does not necessarily provide sufficient motivation for individuals to give up enough of their individual freedom voluntarily. Not everybody is an egoist, but people generally do act for their own immediate well-being, although they know that they may ultimately even harm themselves or others. They smoke, eat lots of high-cholesterol food, drink and drive, waste energy and freshwater, evade taxes and so on. Distant gains and harms are discounted for the very fact that they are distant. Potential risks and dangers may unconsciously be suppressed. This is a natural part of everyone’s psychology. The step from individually rational to collectively rational behavior is still a very big one. Rosnay implicitly admits this when he argues in favor of regulation and education: if it was immediately obvious to people in what way they should act, they would not need to be regulated and educated to embrace his „new humanism.".

In sum, the book offers many interesting insights and brilliant in-depth analysis of various problems. Its very virtue is its perspective, which allows the combination of various sciences that otherwise deal with specialized problems in an isolated manner. Viewing the whole planet as a cybernetic machine of interlocking circular causal mechanisms points the eye of the reader to systemic failure. Using the model of an organism to portray civilization is not an entirely new idea. Its roots go back to ancient Greek thought. Gregory Stock has used it similarly to Rosnay in his book „Metaman: The Merging of Humans and Machines into a Global Superorganism." Rosnay’s lucid style and his extensive usage of catching examples and analogies drawn from a wide array of fields makes his book excellent and joyful reading for those who want to understand the cybernetics of auto-catalytic, circular causal and self-selective mechanisms. However, in its conclusions, it goes a step to far.
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