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Marxists and Marmots

by Thomas Riggins Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010 at 2:29 PM
pabooks@politicalaffairs.net

Animal studies indicate that cooperation is better than individualism.

FRIDAY, DECEMBER 10, 2010

Marxists and Marmots

Thomas Riggins

How often do we hear that socialism sounds like a good idea but it doesn't work in practice because of human nature. This is an old refrain. People are by nature selfish and so competition is the natural outcome with the most talented and aggressive people reaching the top and the mediocre masses down on the bottom. But suppose it is really the opposite. Suppose those who engage in friendly cooperation really are closer to what nature intends. In a cooperative society maybe even the victims of aggressive actions still have a better chance to thrive than they would in a completely competitive environment. Maybe the Ayn Rand world is not the world for us and socialism is more natural after all.

A recent article in Science Daily (12-8-2010) may provide a clue to the answer to these speculations ("Social Relationships in Animals Have a Genetic Basis, New Research Reveals"). Scientists at UCLA have been studying marmots living in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Marmots are rodents who are a genus (Marmota) of the squirrel family (Sciuridae). Some marmots have a propensity, so we are told, to chuck wood and are known as woodchucks. Others can predict the weather (groundhogs) according to some.

The marmots I am linking to possible socialist ideas are the yellow-bellied marmots (M. flaviventris) studied by the scientists. The name refers to fur and not to their lack of valor.

The scientists found "that having many friendly interactions gave marmots fitness benefits--these marmots reproduced more," said Amanda Lea, one of the researchers and lead author of the paper. "Over a lifetime [about 15 yrs], a marmot that is very social will have more offspring than a less social one." Hmmmm. I wonder how much this applies to humans. This is one way of putting the "social" into socialism.

But the scientists also found out that some marmots are the victims of aggression from their fellow marmots. Those who do not respond in kind, that is those inclined to turn the other cheek pouch, also have a better survival rate. So it seems that "a marmot that is getting picked on frequently" also will have more offspring. It is the family unit as such that is really important. Tolerating aggression as well as strengthening friendly cooperation keeps marmot society functioning. "Those relationships are important for social stability and reproductive success. I believe these ideas are generalizable well beyond marmots," said the study's co-author Daniel T. Blumstein.

What is important is that these behaviors have a genetic basis and are passed on through the generations. If such behavior is common to mammals as such then humans also have these inborn tendencies for cooperation and tolerance. These genetic traits are, I think, much more in accord with the ideals of socialism than the ruthless free market world of Ayn Rand and other capitalist apologists.

Thomas Riggins is the the associate editor of Political Affairs online.

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