In my previous post, I suggested that, if we want humanity and the current level of biodiversity to survive, we must become more than super-apex predators. If we don’t, then the natural checks on apex predators — famine, dehydration, disease, natural disaster, or self-destruction — will result in mass extinction, including our own species. And, we know this is quite possible as it has already happened at least 5 times on our planet.
How do we become more than super-apex predators? Well, to answer that, a good first step is to better define the problem.
The problem is the pervasiveness of super-apex-predator logic, which can be summarized with three principles: greed is good; might makes right; and hoard. These principles grow out of being organisms, apex predators, and, super-apex predators, respectively. They work together to enable the alpha individual and alpha group to gain power and, with that power control systems. Super-apex predator logic has the unintended consequence of creating highly fragile systems, as the primary mechanism of control involves reducing diversity and complexity, which eventually will lead to collapse. To get out of this, we can’t keep using super-apex predator logic to solve our problems. We must develop an approach that de-centers super-apex predator logic and, instead, use an approach that centers our actions and sense of purpose around the health of the systems we are a part of.
Let’s unpack this a bit…
First, greed is good. While there are many possible places where this idea could claim to be seeded in Western thought such as Greek ideas about becoming the ultimate version of oneself or Bernard Mandeville’s notion that “private vices yield public benefits,” I think it can be linked to a potentially uncomfortable truth: life desires itself. Organisms do what they can to live and propagate. Organisms that don’t do this die. To be a living organism is to, on some level, be greedy (private vice). Greed becomes good when competing interests of different organisms balance each other out (the Circle of Life, if you will), resulting in more strong, resilient systems (public benefit). The value of competition is clearly observed across various arenas, such as evolution, markets, political deliberations, meritocracies, and the like; competition is one mechanism that strengthens systems, and competition is driven, in part, by greed, thus making it good.
Second, might makes right. Again, this notion has a long history, but it can also be viewed as an outgrowth of being an apex predator. The story of White Fang, which is the story of an apex predator learning the “natural laws” of the world, is one that teaches the ways and advantages of might makes right as a guiding principle. The story starts with White Fang learning about the might of nature, particularly the might of his mother and the might of the ecosystem to control him via experiencing famine. Driven by famine, White Fang and his mother subjugate themselves to an alpha that is beyond nature, humans. These “gods,” first a Native American, then an abusive colonizer of Alaska, and, finally, a gold-rush miner, each enact their over-powering might over White Fang to tame and subjugate White Fang to their needs and biddings. The wisdom of might makes right is that, if the alpha can support survival of the subjugated, then there is benefit, even when the subjugated organism experiences great pain (which was common for White Fang until the final “god”).
Might makes right underlies hierarchies. Organisms, including humans, are highly sensitive to status and their relational power to one another, highlighting the importance and influence of social hierarchies. Getting groups of organisms to work together is a highly effective way to gain control over systems. Doing so often can be done, not by making “the best” decision on what to do together but, instead, just making a “good enough” decision and then acting on it together. For example, it is often more important for a pack of wolves to work together on something (e.g., let’s take down a large animal) than choosing the best option from many choices (e.g., let’s deliberate on this specific bison over that other bison). Thus, might makes right enables efficient decision-making of a group, which can result in one group out-competing another group.
Third, hoard. Organisms have a general desire to stash and stow away resources, such as birds or squirrels storing away nuts for the winter. Hoarding, thus, is valuable for survival. Hoarding becomes problematic when apex predators do it as super apex predators. When humans seek food today, we do not merely take what is needed; we take everything that is possible, including re-architecting the ecosystem to produce more of what we want via agriculture (we hoard). Hoarding is one way we overcome the checks on us by our ecosystems — famine, dehydration, disease, and natural disaster. If we have more than enough of what we need then, when bad things happen (i.e., the checks on us by ecosystems) we will weather them. Hoarding is also a useful strategy for one apex predator group to outcompete another. If one group has more “might” they will win a fight. Thus, having a hoard of resources to draw from enables one group to overtake another. Hoarding can also involve destroying resources, such as the military tactic of scorched earth, which can be summarized as, “if I can’t have it, no one will.” When the thinking is purely about the survival and competition of the apex predators, it is logical to destroy everything so that “the other” won’t “win.”
Thinking purely from the perspective of an organism capable of being a super-apex predator who wishes to stay alive, super-apex predator logic makes sense. Life is a battlefield to be won. Indeed, super-apex predator logic has, in no small way, enabled Western societies to have so much influence on our environments and ecosystems, as clearly illustrated in Attenborough’s witness statement and the name of our current epoch, the Anthropocene. It has been a driver for economic development and the industrial revolution via stories like Minor Keith’s and many others.
Super-apex predator logic is pervasive and reinforced in Western discourse through the stories we tell, the political structures that support and enact the ideas, and the economic models that entrench and facilitate the flow of resources to those who best enact super-apex predator logic. Within Christianity, there are several stories touching on it: man is created in God’s image and will inherit the Earth, as acknowledgment of our might and divine right to define “good. God, the ultimate form of “might” makes things right through cyclical scorched earth actions (e.g., Noah’s flood, the Sacrifice of Jesus, the Second coming of Christ prophesied in Revelations). Within politics, hierarchy is foundational to how many of our political systems have been created, such as monarchies, oligarchies, tyrannies, and democracies that include a prime leader (e.g., President, Prime Minister) or prime group (the communist party in China). These political structures are justified through robust stories and narratives (i.e., ideologies) that legitimize the power and privilege of one group of people over others, such as Machiavelli’s strategies in the Prince (the ends justify the means) or Hobbes’ logic in the Leviathan (one group should have a monopoly on violence). Both used the desire for order and stability as justification for might makes right over others and the hoarding of resources among those in power so that they cannot be challenged. Within economics, capitalism is built structurally around the logic of survival of the fittest, competition, and the power of the “invisible hand” of the “free market” as the implicit check on power (much like how an ecosystem is meant to keep apex predators in check).
Within cultural storytelling, the most dominant narrative arc is that of the hero’s journey, which, when looked at from apex predator logic, could be conceived as a form of hero worship, with the hero (might) saving the day (right) from things like war, famine, or the like. This is also illustrated by the myriad metaphors and analogies embedded in our culture linked to war.
Within science, while there are some checks on might makes right with additional requirements to defer to replicable observation, logic, and tested hypotheses, as Thomas Kuhn illustrated in his famous book, the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, one pathway to a paradigm shift in science is the death of dominant scientists. Thus, it is the “might” of the elders in a scientific community that defines how things are known and what is worthy of being known and, thus, what is “right.”
In philosophy, Nietzsche offers a particularly robust articulation justifying super-apex predator logic. Nietzsche argues that humanity should not be subjugated to divine laws that are above humanity (God is dead) but, instead, that the purpose of humanity is to be driven by its desires and goals. The purpose of human life, for Nietzsche, is for all of us to engage in trying to become übermensch (supermen), with a clear recognition that the only way to create true supermen is through competition (what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger). Those who are on top, in this logic, are destined to lead and justified to lead. Thus, one way to interpret Nietzsche is to come to the conclusion that super-apex predator logic is the ultimate purpose of humanity, with übermensch’s ruling over all others.
The recursive feedback loop between ideology, politics, and economics that entrenches super-apex predatory logic is alive and well. They can be seen in confrontational politics leading us to never compromise in our politics or the exorbitant inequities in wealth that are favored and made possible through the current rules defining the “free market.” These ideas make perfect sense from apex-predator logic, particularly when justified by Nietzsche’s proclamation that the purpose of humanity is to conquer and the greatness of humanity is judged by the greatness of those on top. By this logic, the United States of today (late 2020) has reached the pinnacle of human achievement with our capacity to produce übermensch’s, such as Jeff Bezos.
In summary, apex-predator logic involves three principles: greed is good, might makes right, and hoard. Apex predator logic is normative and often the default way of thinking, acting, and interacting in society. It is reinforced through stories and ideologies, through political systems that enact the ideas, and through economic models that funnel resources to those who best enact super-apex predator logic. That is the problem.
 For this piece, I will be speaking from European and American cultural discourse and labeling this “Western” thought. I do this not over-generalize to other norms and areas of discourse where this might not be as prevalent or manifest differently.