4.1 billion years ago the first single celled life appeared on earth. After another 2 billion years, two of these cells combined to form more complex eukaryotic cells, such stuff as you and I are made of. Another billion years and groups of these cells got together to form multicellular life. Roughly half a billion years further on and groups of these multicellular organisms started to form hives, shoals, and herds. Evolution is accelerating.
The process was repeated with humans. Bands got together to form tribes, tribes got together to form city states, city states got together to form nations, nations got together to form trading blocs and global organisations.
The tendency for life to co-operate over ever increasing scales is not a fluke. It is driven by the logic of game theory: at all stages of evolution the potential is always there for co-operating groups to do better than competing individuals.
Today climate change is providing the stimulus for the cycle to repeat itself. The environmental crisis is a tragedy of the commons – all the economic benefits of burning fossil fuels accrue to individual nations, whilst the costs of global warming are shared by all. Thus as a competing nation the self-interested course of action is always to pollute more. And as Milinski demonstrated with his climate change game, countries aren’t going to do enough purely out of a sense of duty, even when the worst is threatened.
Make no mistake: our survival is at stake here. We have repeatedly failed to stay within the modest targets politicians have set themselves. Humanity’s only way out of the problem is to form a united global co-operative that spans the planet. Then the tragedy of the commons disappears. In many ways this is already happening. As the Ancient Greeks imagined, we must be as cells in the great body of humanity.
This is not an idealist’s pipe dream. This is the natural trajectory of evolution, something that has been achieved again and again at all stages of life on this planet.
I fully understand that some people don’t think this way, that some people only care about “them and their own”. Others have broadened this circle to include members of their nation as “their own”. But an increasingly vocal minority are waking up to the understanding that unless “their own” comes to mean humanity as a whole, then there won’t be any of “us or them” left at all.
Viewing humanity as one family does not require you to be a saint. No one’s asking you to give away all your possessions. The transition can be embodied by a few small changes. Animal agriculture is an environmental catastrophe, accounting for 15% of all man made emissions. That’s more than all the cars, trains, boats and planes combined. On the level of a unified humanity, eating meat is selfish behaviour. All the benefits of eating meat accrue to the individual, while we all pay the price.
Cancerous cells are cells that have stopped working for the whole organism and have started working for themselves. At the level of the individual organism cancer is cellular selfishness. Just as eating meat at the level of the global superorganism is individual selfishness.