Healthy Societies Are Efficient

Efficiency isn’t everything, but healthy societies and people need it.

If you want the deep explanation of why that’s true, read about Charles Darwin’s observations of birds (finches) on the Galapagos Islands off the coast of South America.

Each island had a slightly different environment and food sources. On each island, the birds’ beaks had evolved to a shape most efficient for getting food on that particular island. Earlier birds with inefficient beaks had died out, so efficient beaks enhanced the survival of the birds that had them.

Humans are not birds, but the same principle applies: traits that enhance our survival are likely to predominate, while those that harm our survival are likely to vanish. That’s why, for example, we have the basic concepts we do: male and female, people and things, and so on. Those concepts work. Faddish and incoherent concepts such as “transgender” do not.

For societies, it’s efficient for people to have a stock of shared concepts, words, and cultural references that help their people communicate. Societies that have those things are more likely to survive and prosper than societies without them.

For example, a friend of mine recently joked that the future might be worse than the present. I replied simply, “Sufficient unto the day …,” and he knew what I meant. It was a reference to a verse in the Bible:

“Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” (Matthew 6:34)

To the extent that people have shared cultural touchpoints, their societies are not only more efficient but also more harmonious. My reference to the Bible both communicated my meaning and signaled to my friend that we were members of the same “in-group,” which inclines us to help and cooperate with each other.

I recently encountered a similar cultural touchpoint in studying the Chinese language. One speaker said “gèng shàng yī céng lóu.” It translates as “go up to the next level,” and means to improve, strive, or reach a goal.

But as they say in television commercials, “there’s more.” Someone who grew up in China would recognize the phrase as a reference to a poem from the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), titled “Climbing the Stork Tower:”

The white sun
Sinks behind the hills.
The Yellow River rushes
Forward to the sea.
To get a view
Of 300 miles,
Go up the tower
One more story of height.

Tr. by Edward C. Chang

When Chinese people use that phrase, they both communicate efficiently and signal their membership in same in-group. It strengthens their society and encourages cooperation.

China has its shortcomings, just like every country that has ever existed. But it cares less about appeasing malcontents and humoring the mentally ill than it does about building a strong society of people who work together for the common good. The Chinese have learned a lot from us, but to promote social solidarity, we could learn a lot from them.

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Human Relations, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Society and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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