Of Hornets and Honeybees

(Individualism vs Collectivism, 31 Oct 2012)

Gregory Gillette ·

In under a minute the Asian hornet can decapitate over 40 helpless victims. It does so with skull-crushing mandibles so powerful it need not even resort to its lethal stinger, capable of killing humans with a potent neurotoxin. This creature, a triumph of evolutionary perfection when taking on enemy hordes could easily be described as the spartan of the animal kingdom. For creationists, this must be proof God has a sadistic side.

But what about the poor honeybees? As you can witness yourself on National Geographic’s website, the puny European honeybee simply keels over at the mere thought of the Asian hornet. But where there is a collective will, there is a way. The Japanese honeybee has had longer to deal with the hornet threat than its European counterpart. It has learned that the hornet dies when exposed to temperatures exactly three degrees fahrenheit cooler than those the bee itself can withstand. In an astounding feat of cooperation and behavioural evolution, several hundred bees ambush the smug invader creating a humming ball of certain torturous demise, suffocating and cooking the hornet alive.

What does this have to do with us though? Humans, it seems, have out-evolved evolution and have no more natural predators. We have become our own greatest threat and naturally, we are bored. We await only the intellectual apocalypse prophesied by Mike Judge.

Although on the other hand, we are not yet invincible. There are threats that operate much like the honeybee, mocking our evolutionary perfection. Microbial pathogens and viruses of various shades, so small, so insignificant, and yet as a mass they bring attention to our collective mortality. To add to the comparison, the more time they spend with us, the surer their ability to take us down. And yet this past year we very well may have cured malaria, and found a vaccine for AIDS. As long as those in the pharmaceutical and financial worlds cooperate, these could be out within a relatively short amount of time.

To help emphasise the magnitude of these advances, the WHO ranks AIDS and malaria as the number three and five causes of death in low-income countries, and AIDS as number six globally. However, the Seattle-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has more recently suggested we may have been underestimating malarial deaths. The newly suggested figure of 1.2 million killed annually by the mosquito-borne virus would put it into close contention for the number ten spot, and number one or two in low-income countries given the virus’s geographical distribution. These initiatives are reducing the impact of the last major involuntary causes of death. The distinction is important because the other leading causes (heart and lung disease) are often related to smoking, which there might be only so much we can do to prevent — although the WHO disagrees.

Behind the discoveries of these revolutionary contributions to global health are individual scientists. And they deserve all the credit in the world for their discoveries as stories of individual ardency and commitment. Women and men who put in enormous and the most worthwhile kinds of efforts for the betterment of us all.

But adding a little bit of context helps to further amplify the impression of recent breakthroughs twofold. Firstly, history shows how we constantly innovate on previous work, taking the baton of technology and understanding another level further. Secondly, with the wider lens of the present it becomes almost overwhelming to contemplate what science collectively has been carrying us forward with. Just consider the fact that we recently put a nuclear-powered robotic laser on mars and solved the universe (only one of which is mildly hyperbolic).

But the insignificant backs of humanity do not need a pat. Hybris does not suit us and to the best of my knowledge we have not yet developed a nuclear fusion resistant brand of wax. Perhaps then there is a lesson in humility to be learned from the purveyors of wax, the honeybees.

Collective action, focused and rationalised, can overcome our greatest challenges. We compete with these challenges for the sake of improving, and we know that competition can be a strong driver of innovation, but innovation is moot until it is scaled up. Until we actually put malarial remedies into the hands of the suffering millions and vaccinate the next generation against HIV, scientific breakthroughs are better described as interesting curiosities. Individualism however remains a rather powerful political ideology. It has become nearly interchangeable with populism in western countries. The problem though, is not so much the threat to any particular national fabric (anybody can get behind a concept they get to define), but rather the obstacle this poses to ambition. Specifically, the ambitions that humanity only on the scale of a nation, or greater (or indeed very, very special private companies working very closely with governments) can facilitate.

In those terms, looking at the human race in its entirety, we are evolved to the point of the hornet, and yet our survival depends on being the honeybee. Fetishising self-indulgent pseudo-archaist fantasies seems to have become popular; one need only witness the rise of libertarianism. While this movement has produced perhaps the most honest and consistent politicians, it has failed to make a case for moving forward, only one for stagnancy.

Libertarianism has a long and wholly valid academic tradition of course. Hayek wanted to set markets free so that they could be corrected naturally and with minimal impact. Schumpeter made the case for creative destruction because he valued the innovation that individualism is anathema to. John Locke suggested we organise with “life, liberty and private property” in mind — which is basically the recipe for America — the greatest innovating entity yet created. Finally, we have Ayn Rand to thank for divorcing God from individual enterprise and the accumulation of wealth. This sheds light on the absurd dichotomy present in the modern conservative psyche, and why the school of libertarianism is an entirely different entity from the current brand of political “libertarian”-inspired conservatism.

It is this mentality, which truly poses a threat, and which dangerously equates the utilitarian collectivism of healthcare and scientific progress to a Soviet straw-man. But it seems that these movements are the result of the application  to the political field of a brand of libertarianism without quotation marks. The translation seems to be nearly as successful as that of radical collectivism.

And so how does the language of political libertarianism spread? The appeal of these movements must have roots then that lie beyond critical monetary theory and philosophy. Somehow this modern political discourse has been derived from an all-purpose political fantasy — and not a new one either. In the current debate, the narrative has been constructed that the government is a symbol of collectivity and must be dismantled. It seems to call upon the inner optimist, the one that says “I” can do anything. It neglects to highlight its own deeply concealed pessimism: that “everyone else” is an obstacle. By not defining the other however, or by simply calling them the ones in power via the middleman of government, It functions in an identical manner to every other form of populism: it presents a nondescript scapegoat.

This innovation in political strategy is similar to the principal behind the assured success of the Twilight formula. That is to say, libertarianism and other individualistic ideologies promise exactly however much space you think you would need to improve your life. They allow you fill in the blank of obstacles to success (which may in reality include factors such as EQ and IQ) with whatever an individual finds a suitable explanation for mediocrity.

This results from an extrapolation, a thought experiment: imagining oneself individually, one can consider the necessities of survival; a very manageable thought for anyone — and something obsolete within a society. Survival then can justify attitudes contrary to social harmony but which may appeal subtly to the individual such as exclusion, self-determination, violence, and self-absolution. It should come as no surprise then when fanatically racist groups embrace such ideologies (pronounce that word as Bill Clinton would please). The programme of such groups, cloaked as promoting civil liberties results rather in promoting the freedom to limit the freedom of another, and in practise, the hateful marginalisation of others for plainly nominal reasons.

In the mind of the dude rancher though, the one who wishes his fate were entirely his own, racism is acceptable because the trust coefficient is necessarily higher in the wild. Somehow, superficial categorisation seems to serve the purposes of making it to your next meal. The desire to reduce humanity to a raw, uncivilised form seems then simply more like the fruition of an unindulged child-like diversion —  a want to live as John Galt in some dystopian film or novella perhaps. It does not however explain why this would ever be a good idea if we had the civilised alternative that day in, day out proves to give us longer lives full of all the gadgets science can think up.

Before concluding an important clarification must be made however due to the nature of linguistics and the frequency of ambiguous semantics. The advocacy of cooperation, and the (hesitant) use of the word collectivism, in criticising individualism, does not imply an assault on identity. The idea of collaboration, even at mass levels need not and dare not become anathema to self-determination, or individuality in terms of art, culture, and identity. You may be yourself until yourself necessarily limits another. The opportunities provided by the positive freedoms that exist in the circumstances of society, then stand to outweigh the negative freedoms of reduced interaction.

Collective action is necessarily then an enabling factor since the only freedoms lost are to be destructive to knowledge and act with irreverence to others. If you still demand the right to express hate, I counter that I want the freedom to explore the universe with colleagues of any background in a non-threatening environment. The options of lifestyle, self-perception, fulfillment, and socio-economic opportunity are always greater with the safety and sanctity of society. The advances of medicine, technology, culture, and the command of mutual respect fostered by pressurised and organised interaction means that things are possible that are not even fathomable in an individualised reality. We can be hornets, and act like honeybees.