Producer/Parasite Theory

I would like to suggest another "endogenous" theory that should concern smug residents of every civilization. Parasitic behavior is a common part of Nature. All grazing animals are parasites of plants, for example, and all carnivores are parasites of plant‑eating animals and smaller carnivores. Plants are therefore the original non‑parasite "producers" since their "livelihood" is based on sunlight, carbon dioxide in the air and nutrients in the soil, all of which are non‑living and "free" for the taking.

Some animal species rely entirely upon parasitism of another species, the way a leech parasitizes fish. Parasitism also exists within a species. Humans, having conquered Nature more thoroughly than any other species, created opportunities for a variety of individual "strategies" for prospering and replicating that are fundamentally intra‑species parasitic. I will rely upon a common sense definition for producer and parasite behaviors, but if you're having trouble think of a tribe that marauds a neighboring tribe, killing some of them, stealing their crops and possessions, burning their shelters, and taking prisoners for later use as slaves. The victor's rewards are from theft instead of production, and therefore it is a form of parasitism. Or think of a merchant ship on the high seas being pursued by a pirate ship, overtaken, commandeered, causing precious cargo to change "ownership." 

I contend that each person inherits a repertoire for many survival strategies, and that the environmental setting (including the social component) elicits from the individual those strategies most likely to work best (based on the experience of ancestral generations). Strategies are "chosen" automatically from among a repertoire of brain circuits whose basic architecture was created by the genes. The process for choosing which behavioral circuits (modules) to activate is itself contained within brain circuits, created by genes.

I also contend that it is possible to assess strategies as belonging somewhere along a spectrum with "Producer" at one end and "Parasite" at the other. An individual person may engage in behaviors belonging to one type, then, in response to a change in the setting, switch to behaviors of the other type. Some people may engage in mostly producer behaviors, while others may engage in mostly parasitic ones. If the same person could be born into the world at different times, he may be mostly producer‑oriented in one setting yet be mostly parasite‑oriented in another. 

I will refer to the dynamical interaction of an individual's Genome with Environment to produce the person's specific Phenotype (expressed behavior, as well as expressed anatomy and physiology) using the term GEP (Symons, 1979), and described in Chapter 6. Over generations the physical and social Environment changed many times, and to the extent that specific environment "types" repeat, the Genotype would tend to provide for brain circuits that elicit an appropriate repertoire of possible behavioral Phenotypes suitable for each environment. If, for example, the climate in one locale alternates between two types, for which two different ways of life are adaptive, it is likely that the Genotype will eventually provide for the required pair of behavioral Phenotypes within each individual. Whereas the anatomy and physiology are relatively fixed, behavior can be elicited in response to perceived conditions, and it would be an oversight on the part of the genes if they did not provide for this adaptive flexibility.

Michael Gazzaniga has suggested (1997) that the brain's large repertoire of responses to social or physical conditions is analogous to an immune system, which has a large repertoire of immune responses to a very large number of pathogens. Because our ancestors survived exposure to many pathogen types, our immune system is "prepared" to respond appropriately to each specific pathogen that our ancestors survived. In any single individual's life only a few pathogens will challenge the immune system, so only a small portion of the immune system repertoire is made use of. By analogy, an individual's lifetime involves a small number of environments and these will elicit a small portion of behaviors that reside within our immense repertoire of possible behaviors.  Each behavior type is “poised” for release by the appropriate social environmental stimulus. 

Although individuals must have the capacity to switch from one behavior type to another in response to perceived conditions, thresholds for the switching must vary. Thus, some individuals are predisposed to be one way versus another. This complicates analyses that strive to understand the role of producer/parasite behaviors in leading to the rise and fall of civilizations.

As an aside, any modeling of the penetration of a gene into a gene pool is complicated by the large number of phenotypic measures that must be taken into account for determining an individual gene carrier's fate. Not only is an individual parasitic or productive, but he is more or less intelligent, resourceful, immune to infections, physically strong, etc. All phenotypic variables can be relevant to the fate of the genes making up the individual's genotype, and any study of the strength of environmental cues to elicit parasitic behaviors will have to make use of multiple regression statistical  analyses. 

Another feature of this dynamic deserves comment. Genes exist for thousands and millions of years, typically. The individuals they construct are just temporary residences, meant to survive within a variable environment and compete with other individuals for future genetic representation. Thus, if a person is parasitic, and prospers, the real beneficiary is the gene (or genes) that predispose the individual to behave in parasitic, gene‑serving ways. The individual is sometimes the loser, in an individual welfare sense, in spite of the gene‑winning ways of those that made him.

If we wanted to write a history of an animal species, such as the giraffe, it would be unthinkable to omit the role played by the animal's anatomic and physiological traits. These traits are fairly straightforward, and predispose the animal to specific ways of living. The behavioral capacities, predispositions and inabilities are no less important. They evolved in conjunction with the anatomical and physiological traits. We should therefore expect to find a compatibility (i.e., statistical correlation) among all three trait categories:  anatomy, physiology and behavior. 

The phenotype, or the way an individual organism is, consists of these three factors (anatomy, physiology, and behavior). For humans, behavior is probably a more important component of phenotype than for any other species (the immune response, a component of physiology, must be another important component). More genes must influence behavior for humans than for any other animal, which is supported by the emerging ubiquity of genes that influence the brain, amounting to as many as 50% of all genes by one estimate.

As a thought experiment, let us imagine that it is possible to measure each individual's "producer/parasite" score at a specific time, in a specific setting. For any population of humans living in a "society" consisting of many tribes that have at least some non‑antagonistic social contacts, it would then be possible to create a histogram of these scores; we could determine what fraction of the population was "productive" versus "parasitic." If we could keep track of the parasitic fraction versus time for a society we would note variations in the incidence of expressed parasitism. 

If we could also measure the per capita wealth of a society, the wealth parameter would also vary. Now, I allege that the two parameters, parasitism and per capita wealth, would be correlated. Moreover, I predict that they would be positively correlated, with a slight phase lag. Whenever a society reaches a peak in per capita wealth, parasitism is rewarded more than during the previous few generations; during the wealth peak parasitism will show its greatest growth.  I suggest that it is the "rate of growth of parasitism" that is positively correlated with per capita wealth. (For engineers who like sinusoidal curves, the fraction of the population that is parasitic is alleged to exhibit a phase lag of 90 degrees with respect to per capita wealth ‑ disregarding, for the moment, that the two traces are not sinusoids.) To investigate these speculations I created a spreadsheet model that incorporates wealth creation, parasitic gene payoff, and other factors, and have demonstrated that expressed parasitism does indeed lag the wealth trace. Chapter 17 has plots of "innovation rate" versus time, and population versus time. (In Fig. 17.14, and also 17.15, there might be evidence that parasitism rose as the population was rising, at the same time that the innovation rate was decreasing.)

The reason parasitism increases during "boom times" is that wealthy people are willing to tolerate the loss of small amounts to parasitism, whereas poor people will take measures to defend themselves from parasitic losses of the same absolute amount. An individual's actions are based on what effect it has on the genes in that individual, assuming the genes have experienced similar situations in the past and evolution has left mostly those genes that respond to situations "adaptively." If the genes in an individual do not benefit by allocating energy to a defense from parasitism, compared to the cost of that defense, they should not be expected to put up a defense. Thus, parasitic behaviors should be able to invade wealthy societies more easily than poor ones. 

This argument does not require that parasitic people "invade" a society from "outside." Rather, desperate individuals may "switch" from being mostly productive to being more parasitic. Also, individuals who are predisposed to being parasitic (have lower thresholds for responding to situations in parasitic manners) may flourish, while their less fortunate producer‑brethren flounder and produce fewer offspring. The first process can occur almost instantly, in a matter of years, while the second process requires generations to have an effect.

The previous argument assumed that within a society there was a wide range of wealth.  A society that achieves wealth by capitalist means is likely to create wealth disparities.  In America the wealthiest 1% now own 40% of the country’s assets, and the wealth gap is increasing at a frightening rate. Among the Western industrial nations America has the highest levels of wealth inequality within its borders (Phillips, 2002). This growing disparity within a society is frightening because it causes those left behind to feel forgotten, and “left out” – which resembles banishment from the tribe. And whenever people feel banished, the tribe that banished them is “fair game” for reprisal by the banished.  

The greatness of a civilization is probably correlated with its per capita wealth. When we refer to the "rise of a civilization to greatness," we may be thinking about the amount of activity devoted to the arts, science, and technology, and these are correlated with the availability of funds (patrons of the arts, etc.) for those activities, which is related to per capita wealth (consider the famous example of the Medici family’s patronage in fifteenth-century Florence, Italy).

I am assuming that our ancestors have experienced a sufficient number of boom and bust episodes that our genome has "adapted" to this dynamic. Although it is theoretically possible the genome has not adapted to boom/bust scenarios, to the extent that they have our present civilization’s zenith may be short-lived.  

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