“Biosocialism”: A New Social Contract for a Species in Peril

I call it a Biosocial Contract (or “Biosocialism” in short).  And no, it’s very different from all the various the “isms” of the 20th century:  Socialism, Capitalism, Liberalism, Conservativism, Communism, and others.  Let me explain.  

Biosocialism is rooted in evolutionary biology and “the struggle for existence,” as Darwin famously characterized it.  It addresses the fundamentals of the human condition and the biological imperatives for life on Earth.  It is also informed by the emergent, rapidly growing science of human nature and what we are learning about the complex psychology of our species.  Equally important, it draws on the lessons of our history (and pre-history) as a species – for we dare not ignore its many important, sometimes tragic teachings.  In other words, Biosocialism has a scientific and empirical foundation.  More important, it offers us a new prescription for how to navigate our way through the turbulent and dangerous waters that lie ahead for our species.  Here is just a brief summary. 

Whatever may be our perceptions, aspirations, or illusions, the basic, continuing, inescapable challenge for all living organisms, including humankind, is biological survival and reproduction.  Life on Earth is first and foremost a contingent, always at-risk “survival enterprise.”  Accordingly, every organized human society is quintessentially a “collective survival enterprise” – a complex, interdependent combination of labor (a “superorganism” in the lexicon of the biologists) whose primary purpose is to provide for our basic survival needs.  And it is these biological imperatives that define the ultimate priorities for every society.  

It may also come as a surprise to learn that the collective survival enterprise in humankind entails no less than fourteen distinct categories, or domains of “basic needs.”  These are absolute requirements for the survival and reproduction of each individual, and of society as a whole over time.  Furthermore, we spend much of our daily lives involved in activities that are either directly or indirectly related to satisfying these needs, including (not least) working to earn a living and contributing in various ways to help sustain the collective survival enterprise.   Perhaps least obvious but most important are the requirements for reproducing and nurturing the next generation.  In fact, our basic biological needs cut a very broad swath through our economy and our society.  (These fourteen needs categories are discussed in some detail in my 2011 book, The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice.)

One implication of this biological reality is that we are all indeed “created equal” with respect to our basic survival needs and our intense interest in satisfying them.  We are all stakeholders in the ongoing collective survival enterprise.  In effect, we are all participants in a biologically grounded, transgenerational social contract.  This idea was eloquently expressed more than 200 years ago by one of the great “Whig” conservative political theorists, Edmund Burke, in his classic essay, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Society is indeed a contract... [But] the state ought not to be considered as nothing better than a partnership in trade...to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties.  As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained by many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.  Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society.

Burke argued against permitting unrestrained freedom and free rein for personal self-interest, as opposed to our obligations to society.  He stressed that it is better to adapt time-tested institutions and practices that embody the wisdom and experience of the past, rather than to abandon them and start from scratch with abstract principles – and perhaps lethal conflict.  Burke also emphasized the idea of a common good.  However, he was not just defending the status quo.  He also penned one of the enduring axioms of political theory, an insight that has all too often been forgotten: “A state without the means of some change, is without the means of its conservation.”

In contrast, modern conservative (capitalist) theory is primarily an economic ideology.  It stresses individualism, “free enterprise,” private ownership of “the means of production,” and a minimal role for government.  In the idealized capitalist model, an organized society is essentially a marketplace where goods and services are exchanged in arms-length transactions among autonomous purveyors who are independently pursuing their own self- interests and competing with one another.  This is all for the best, or so it is claimed, because it will, on balance, produce the “greatest good for the greatest number” (to use the mantra of utilitarianism).  The common good is simply the sum of all our individual interests.   A corollary of this is that there should be an unrestrained right to private property and the accumulation of personal wealth, because (in theory) this will generate the capital required for further economic growth.  More growth, in turn, will lead to still more wealth.

The classic expression of this model, quoted in virtually every introductory Economics 101 textbook, is Adam Smith’s invisible hand metaphor.  As Smith expressed it in The Wealth of Nations, “man is…led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.  Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it.  By pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it…. In spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity…[men] are led by an invisible hand to…advance the interest of the society...”  

Of course, modern capitalist societies do not, on a whole, operate this way, and humans don’t uniformly act in this way.  In fact, what has sometimes derisively been called “utopian capitalism” ignores many of the factors that shape real-world economies.  It also discounts the pervasive and inescapable influence of wealth and power in shaping how real economies work.  And, not least, it’s profoundly unfair.  It systematically favors capital over labor, with results that are evident in our skewed economic statistics and widespread poverty.  Senior economist John Gowdy candidly acknowledges that capitalist economic theory “not only describes how resources are allocated, it provides a justification for wealth, poverty, and exploitation.” Or as Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates put it in an interview, “markets only work for people who have money.”

Socialism arose as a kind of antidote to this model.  The roots of socialism can be traced back to the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s moral outrage against the economic conditions in pre-revolutionary France and his vision of transforming an oppressive feudal monarchy into small, cooperative communities of equals.  As Rousseau famously expressed it: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”   However, the modern socialist impulse – and the term “socialism” itself – was inspired by a similar revulsion against the brutal and exploitative working conditions in the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the factory system in the 19th century.

Over time, the socialist movement led to a rainbow of different reformist models.  These ranged from incremental social legislation like that advanced by Britain’s Fabian Society and its supporters to the radical proposals of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who was hostile to the whole institution of private property: “Property is theft…. Property is despotism,” he proclaimed.  Proudhon aspired to an egalitarian redistribution of wealth.  Overshadowing all of these and other early socialist writers, however, was Karl Marx and his long-time partner Friedrich Engels, whose “scientific socialism” predicted the ultimate replacement of capitalism with egalitarian “communist” societies.  While the Marxist model inspired the 20th century political revolutions in Russia, China, Cuba, and elsewhere, the incremental Fabian model (and Edmund Burke’s model) played a major role in shaping the modern democratic welfare states and the many mixed capitalist-socialist societies that exist today.

To simplify a bit, the ideological conflict between capitalism and socialism can be boiled down to a choice between individual self-interest and “free” competition (and property rights) versus social cooperation and the common good, often with the state serving as an instrumentality.  Biosocialism transcends this dichotomy.  It is focused on the biological problem of survival and reproduction and the inextricable relationship between our basic needs, the well-being of the collective survival enterprise, and the pursuit of social justice – or “giving every man [or woman] his due,” according to the philosopher Plato in his classic treatise on social justice, the Republic (380 B.C.).  Karl Marx, to his everlasting credit, addressed the social justice issue with his famous slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."  However, this will hardly suffice.

Biosocialism proceeds from the biological (and psychological) reality that every society involves a social contract, a Biosocial Contract as Burke appreciated, and that social justice is vital to its legitimacy and ultimate success.  Moreover, the emerging multi-disciplinary science of human nature in the 21st century provides us with some clear guidelines about what constitutes social justice.  (An overview of this research can be found in my book, The Fair Society.)  There are, in fact, three distinct normative principles that play a vitally important role in our social relationships.   They represent the goal posts, so to speak, for a Fair Society.  These principles are (1) equality with respect to our basic survival needs; (2) equity with respect to “merit” (or “just deserts”); and (3) reciprocity – giving back for the benefits we receive from others and society.  As I explain in my 2011 book, these three fairness principles – equality, equity and reciprocity -- must be bundled together and balanced in order to achieve a stable and relatively harmonious social order.  It could be likened to a three-legged-stool; all three legs are equally important.  Together they form the normative basis for the Biosocial Contract.

Under Biosocialism, our basic needs must take priority, but it is also important to recognize the many differences in merit among us and to reward (or punish) them accordingly.  It is well documented that the principle of “just deserts” also plays a fundamental role in our social relationships.  Our capitalist system at its best does a good job of providing rewards for merit, but at its worst it perverts that principle.

In addition, there must be reciprocity – an unequivocal commitment on the part of all of us (with some obvious exceptions) to help support the collective survival enterprise.   We must all contribute a fair share toward balancing the scale of benefits and costs, for no society can long exist on a diet of pure altruism (or debt, for that matter).  We must reciprocate for the benefits we receive from society through such things as our labor, the taxes we pay, and public service.

It should be stressed that this vision is emphatically not an unattainable ideal.  There are some real-world examples.  What has been called the Nordic Model – including especially Norway, Denmark and some other Scandinavian countries – encompasses full employment at decent wages, a relatively flat distribution of income, a  full array of supportive social services, extensive investment in infrastructure, excellent free education and health care, a generous retirement system, high social trust, a strong commitment to democracy, and a government that is sensitive to the common good, not to mention having a competitive capitalist economy with high productivity and deep respect for the environment.  Yes, capitalist!  To top it off, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund (a financial reserve earmarked for pubic needs) currently totals about $1 trillion, a huge nest egg for such a small country.

The political/policy implications of Biosocialism are, very briefly, as follows.  Going forward, a universal “basic needs guarantee” must become the moral foundation the “common good” -- for every human society.  This objective speaks to the fundamental purpose of the collective survival enterprise, and it represents perhaps our greatest ethical and political challenge.  In addition, our economic systems must be subordinated to serving the common good, while also fairly rewarding merit.  This will require a major paradigm shift to what has been referred to as “stakeholder capitalism.”  Finally, our often dysfunctional, corrupt, or even “captive” governments must be reformed and revitalized as instruments for achieving a Fair Society under the aegis of the “public trust” -- an ancient legal principle that has recently re-emerged in our political dialogue as a fundamental governmental obligation.  (For more details, see my 2018 book on Synergistic Selection: How Cooperation Has Shaped Evolution and the Rise of Humankind, and my forthcoming new book, Superorganism:  A New Social Contract for Our Endangered Species.)

In sum, Biosocialism and the Biosocial Contract differs greatly from traditional Capitalism, Socialism, Liberalism, Communism, Libertarianism – you name it.  It is grounded in the biological realities of human nature and the human condition, and it prepares us for the challenges we face as a species going forward.  We can no longer indulge the polarizing and divisive ideologies of the 20th century; the stakes are too high.  It is time to re-frame our ideological debate with real-world assumptions, and realistic solutions.  Reality will, in any case, have the last word.    



Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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