Autopoiesis, Ethics, and Strategy in Parable of the Sower / by Bryce Hidysmith

 "Iansã" Sculpture at the Catacumba Park, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

"Iansã" Sculpture at the Catacumba Park, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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Reading Octavia Butler makes me want to have children. Given that Parable of the Sower is possibly the most grimdark piece of fiction that I've ever encountered, this is kind of a strange feeling to have, but the book describes a mental perspective that is capable of producing organizational strategies that can carve out islands of care in oceans of violence. The cynical assumptions that it is fundamentally unethical to bring children into a dying world are subverted by the notion that it is possible to make dying worlds live through observation and communication informing action. 

Parable is a brutal depiction of a slow collapse to human society, where the only enemy is a coordination failure leading to the proliferation of zero-sum strategies, eventually culminating in the re-emergence of slavery with various contrived justifications, drugs that give one an effectively sexual high from watching fires leading to bands of arsonist raiders, and massive droughts rendering increasingly large swaths of the southeastern united states uninhabitable while state lines are redrawn as national boundaries. In the story as in reality, Humanity is a frog that is being boiled alive by its refusal to accept the complexity of the system that it lives within. Its telling that the hero of the book, Lauren Olamina, is a "sharer:" a hyperempath whose sensory capacities force her to experience the physical sensations she notices in others, good or bad. These overactive mirror neurons are described as a complication from her mother's addiction to another narcotic. This correlates Olamina state's to the state of others around her. The good of group is the good of her as an individual: a gardener-queen as a contrast to a fisher-king.

It's important to note that while Olamina is a hyperempath, she can still engage in violence. She can even kill. This isn't a story about nonviolence triumphing over violence in the short term; the book is nowhere near that naive. While Olamina is able to engage in violence, she experiences the pain she inflicts, and thus is incapable of developing the sadism that is adaptive for the vast majority of other characters in the world. These include her brother Keith who becomes some kind of pure zero-sum strategy early in the story, though the exact behaviors are left unclear. Effectively because of this inability to embrace zero-sum strategies, her response to the decline of her family's fortified cul-de-sac is to begin to stockpile books, weapons, monetary and concrete resources such as food and clothing. Furthermore, she begins to write the Earthseed Verses, a religious/philosophical text with the main tenet that god is change, and that the will of earth is evolutionary adaptation. The response of a great number of other individuals inside of her community is to either engage in cut-and-run strategy like her brother, or to dissociate and try and embrace what shot term benefit without pain that she can like the numerous addicts, religious fanatics, and denialists trying to act out twentieth century America family life in spite of the fact that the world is literally burning down around them. This is simply never presented as a coherent or possible option for Olamina.

Olamina understands that the fall of the cul-de-sac is inevitable, but that the end of this small village world is not the end of all possible worlds. She starts to embrace the notion that it might be possible to inherit the stars if she's able to fix the philosophical confusions and psychological coordination failures of her community. Because of her hyperempathy, Olamina is forced to embrace a collaborative, positive-sum strategy because the zero-sum strategies are against her very experiential nature. Her choice is made for her. She has skin in the game of protecting other people's skin. Olamina becomes over the course of the book an exceptionally competent empirical, self-taught, evolutionary psychological systems strategist, able to witness the complexity of the adversarial dynamics at play and counter them with avoidance, xenophilic collectivization, and, if necessary, bullets. Once the cul-de-sac is destroyed in a final raid, Olamina is able to notice the kinds of groups that will have natural allegiances with one another—initially by allying with a second ethnically mixed married couple to go with her initial band of a romantically attached white man and black woman, and herself a black woman dressed as a man to reduce the possibility of sexually motivated attacks. Once the initial reciprocal altruism of the band is established, their numbers swell as they move along the refugee trail north out of Los Angeles in search of increased water security.

By being the kind of strategist who has chosen (or, depending on the interpretation of the hyperempathy, been forced) to be the kind of person who takes care of orphans, Olamina becomes the kind of strategist who realizes that having young children with them increases the chances of peaceful settlements to trade with them and give them safe passage. She is both the kind of moralist who wants to take in escaped slaves, and the kind of strategist who understands that escaped slaves will make loyal and tenacious allies in their fight for both their freedom and the freedom of those who continuously help secure their freedom. Butler is also the kind of writer who is able to describe the kind of emotional damage that an escaped slave would go through—the two examples in the book are either broken and paranoid, or kind of an egoistic asshole for unnecessary reasons. Yet, this is presented by Olamina's narration as, effectively, an unpleasant but necessary puzzle to solve. A tone of intense pragmatism that would be called pessimism by fools pervades the novel. Yet, both pessimism and optimism are incoherent positions in light either of rationalism or empiricism, and Olamina's strategy employs both rational a priori analysis and empirical data collection in service of effective action. She has her band keep watch in pairs that would cause the least sexual infidelity anxiety among partners. She knows to not go after big scavenging opportunities. She deduces that integrating a new band member by making interdependent purchases of a rifle and its cleaning kit and ammunition by two parties is a good method for creating a collaborative spirit of survival. Along with resilience and adaptation, these seem to be sufficient virtues for any hero.

If the term was new and not loaded with Spencer's absurd Hobbesian fantasy of barbarians at each and every gate, I would call Butler's novel the perhaps greatest novel of Social Darwinist thought that I have ever heard of. Butler's model of strategy and morality is based on the notion that the two concepts must be interdependent and able to interface with an evolutionary game theoretic environment in order to have anything more than counterfactual relevance. One must make the discernment of the moral choice, and then make sure that the moral choice serves the agent who made that choice to make further moral choices. The best moral choices are ones that grant one further strategic capacity that can be used to maintain the effects of past moral choices, and able to take further moral actions. There must be an advantage to being a good person in order for one's devotion to the good to not be cheap martyrdom. The only moral strategies that can win are ones that are able to contend with amoral strategies—the laws of nature are fair, which means that they can be used to implement evil. One must embrace the process of implementation, "pray to ourselves, what else is there?" in the words of the book. Effective strategies must not degenerate; they must at least maintain initial capacity or generatively increase their capacity over time. They must contend with a process of continual, relentless change through continual adaptation and refinement—all while not losing the aim of a life fighting and laboring for. I believe that these traits are necessary and sufficient for a long-term positive-sum strategy to be able to triumph against short-term zero-sum strategies.

Morality and strategy, when combined as in the literary example of Butler/Olamina's Earthseed or as described above, constitute an autopoietic or "self-making" system of fractal collaboration, akin to those described by Maturana. An initial act of collaboration in a prisoner's dilemma environment serves as the initial insinuating incident. Once one has established a multi-agent (and thus self-reinforcing) reciprocal altruistic commitment to not defecting on trusted members of the network, then the network is able to grow to the size to whatever the maximum number of agents that a given agent is able to have a personal relationship with. At this point, the Earthseed community must undergo mitosis, as the individuals can no longer personally analyze trustworthiness. Provided that one is able to transmit a set of cultural norms that are able to then communicate the epistemology that generated the insinuating collaboration action to begin with, and those norms are able to be communicated through a set of sufficiently verifiable signals, then the initially personal community is able to authenticate agents or communities that have a sufficiently similar set of norms to blend the communities, however nothing is going to supplant the necessary personal reciprocal altruism networks at the core of the system, as those take the role of someone like a Hyperempath who is psysio-psychologically unable to engage in short-term zero sum strategies. I'm extremely curious what the next book in the planned but incomplete trilogy, Parable of the Talents will bring, but it seemed worthy to take down my initial assessments upon completing the book. My mind is alive, and I am confident in the ability to continue living and in the process of living create environments fit for further life.