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Individualism Reconsidered

The biosphere as a whole works because any single agent is held in place and in check by the entirety. This is partly because the whole is much larger than any part and can absorb and circumscribe its influence. More importantly, its influence only develops in the first place under conditions to which many other agents have contributed and are able to adapt. This mutual adaptation and co-evolution takes place slowly and incrementally, in equilibrium, limiting the effects of parts. This means that the actions and significance of any part can only be defined and understood in terms of the whole—in terms of the actions and responses of other agents, upon which the individual organism implicitly depends. It also means that the actions of an individual are at every step restricted and countered by those of other individuals, in a system of mutual restraints. In a sense, there are no individuals; all arose together and none could exist without the others. In contrast, humans use technology, hyper-organization, and vast alliances to distort the power of individuals over their fellows, and this also magnifies the collective power of the species to impact the rest of the biosphere and aggravate the adjustments the planet must make to us. Culture alters the time scale of change from the ultra slow pace of biological evolution to the catastrophically rapid pace of technological advance. The biosphere may simply be unable to adapt to changes initiated by people fast enough to maintain equilibrium. Multiply these factors and you have the astounding fact that a single human individual may be in a position to do things that seriously affect all of life for generations to come. The fact that technological society can throw nature out of whack means that her accumulated responses may not be incremental or in equilibrium, but may produce delayed, sudden, unpredictable and huge effects.

RELATED TAGS: [holism, biosphere, co-evolution, cultural versus/and biological evolution, individual power, evolution and/in equilibrium, no free lunch, justice and sustainability]

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