Basic Stances — Social Organization: Heterarchy and Survival of the Fittest (Part 2)

The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming novel EcoGuerrillas.


We must get away from the two most insidious beliefs of modern governance—hierarchy and survival of the fittest—and instead we should champion their opposites—heterarchy and cooperative symbiosis. Our current society is explicitly ordered in hierarchical systems: local, state, and federal governments, for example, or employee, manager, and CEO. Of course hierarchy exists in nature as well: many mammals have alphas leading their groups. The difference comes in that humans can inherit their position, while other social animals must earn their leadership. When dominance becomes embedded in society, a host of problems arise, the most pernicious of which is a wide gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”


In hunter-gatherer societies, communities are not dominated by an individual: a hunting party has a leader, a shaman organizes spiritual activities, and a grandmother decides where the group will move next, for example. Usually age and achievement are the criteria for task-specific leadership roles. This is a heterarchy, a type of system in which elements “are unranked or when they possess the potential for being ranked in a number of different ways” (Crumley 1995, 2–3). Many successful natural systems rely on heterarchical organization. An oak tree, for example, has many cells that work together in order for the organism to thrive. No one cell directs the others. A school of fish is heterarchical, as is a beehive: the queen does not direct honey production, hive construction, or defense, she only lays eggs.

It would be possible to organize a human community in a heterarchical way. Indeed, direct democracy (not representative democracy) is an example of heterarchical organization. The entire governance structure of a community could be run through referendums and committees. Important tasks could be recognized through community-wide referendum votes. Committees to carry out the tasks (or propose solutions) could be formed, either voluntarily or by election if too many apply. This is just one possibility, and each community could design a different form of direct-democracy governance. Over time, a variety of successful strategies would separate themselves from the failures. By living in communities, instead of massive cities, people’s individual voices and votes will not be drowned out as they are currently in nation-wide elections.

On the national scale, communities can be organized heterarchically as well. Many modern countries, such as Germany, Italy, and Greece, began as city-states that banded together for mutual benefit. The small communities across the United States could certainly organize themselves on equal footing, but as each community is charged with being self sufficient, trade would be minimized. The community-states could decide to embark on a nation-wide project, such as space-travel, but we suspect it is more likely that neighboring communities will field athletic teams against one another and extended families will be formed across the borders.

Survival of the Fittest

The economist Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” which was later adopted by Charles Darwin. This maxim has been seized upon by proponents of laissez-faire economies and others in order to justify their social dominance over others; they saw themselves as the “fittest.” We need a bit of background to slay this exploitative Hydra. Darwinian evolution takes place on the individual level, that is, genes are passed from one individual to another. Thus in individualistic species, such as bacteria, snakes, and mice, this maxim largely holds true, and the best-adapted individual is likely to survive and pass on its genes to the next generation. In gregarious species, however, things get more complicated, and Ayn Rand’s selfishness notwithstanding, human beings are social animals, which are acted upon by the idea of “survival of the most cooperative,” as identified by Peter Kropotkin (1902), the Russian anarchist. This is a precursor to today’s theory of mutualism, or what most of us call symbiosis.

In a social species, the group that works together more successfully than its neighbors will have greater evolutionary fitness. Many types of cooperation take place between species. Almost half of terrestrial plants, for example, exchange nitrogen for sugar with a fungus growing on their roots. The Maya planted corn, beans, and squash together: the corn provided a trellis for the beans to grow up, the beans fixed nitrogen in the soil, and the squash covered the earth and choked out competing weeds. Indeed, humans have struck a bargain with domesticated plants and animals: in exchange for protecting them and creating beneficial habitats, plants and animals provide food and other benefits.
Many species, though, prefer to cooperate with their own kind. Indeed, the largest known organisms are aspens that share a five-mile-long root system and the honey fungus mushroom that is spread over two thousand acres of eastern Oregon. Herds of zebras, schools of fish, and rookeries of penguins band together for mutual protection. Packs of wolves and other predatory species hunt better together than alone. Most of our closest primate relatives live in social groups (the orangutan is the solitary exception).

Gregarious species have developed mechanisms to identify and punish “cheaters,” or individuals that benefit from the group without contributing. Developing these mechanisms, of course, is part of what makes a group successful in the first place. Humans, for example, often use moral systems policed by an invisible supernatural being to help reduce cheating. Working together is a solid strategy because, although you are unlikely to have huge individual success, you are assured of moderate success as part of a well-functioning group.

We must stop thinking of ourselves as individuals, take a step back from our egos, and look at the big picture: those of us in this together will stand a better chance of surviving than the individualists. Selfish and self-centered governance and economic principles have gotten us into our current mess. In addition to dismantling the physical causes of climate change, namely industrialized production and the use of fossil fuels, we must reform the social processes that allowed these forces to run amok. As we note throughout this series of essays, technology itself is not the problem, it is the dysfunctional social relationships created by rapid technological change that cause suffering and destruction.

Works Cited

Crumley, Carole L. 1995. “Heterarchy and the Analysis of Complex Societies.” Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association 6: 1–5.

Kropotkin, Peter. 1902. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. London: William Heinemann.


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