The Make-It or Take-It Alternatives

From the point of view of evolutionary history, the processes of random mutation and environmental selection can be approximated by the anthropomorphicized rule - "The continued survival, and proliferation of my genome over the long-term, is A Good Thing." This rule-of-the-game is simply a paraphrase of the evolutionary truism "procreate or become extinct". From an evolutionary perspective - survival is good, and extinction is bad. From an evolutionary perspective, the individual creature is important only in so far as (and to the extent that) that individual passes along their genome to the next generation.

With this rule as the basis of evaluation, each creature will find in its environment certain resources or circumstances that are better than others. Fresh water is better than salt water by the standard that fresh water will positively contribute to "The continued survival, and proliferation of my genome over the long-term". Whereas salt water will contribute only negatively (ignoring exceptional circumstances). Any creature that successfully pursues positive contributions, will be more likely to pass along their genome. Any creature that persistently pursues negative contributions will be less likely to pass along their genome, and sooner rather than later will become extinct.

Value - (noun) "1. Worth in usefulness or importance to the possessor; utility or merit. 2. A principle, standard, or quality considered worthwhile or desirable. 3. That which one acts to gain or keep." (verb) "1. To rate according to relative estimate of worth or desirability; evaluate."

Values are good things. This is a truism regardless of whether you believe in absolute or relational values. Many people consider "value" to be a measure of worth on some absolute scale independent of the valuer. Meaning that things, actions, or circumstances can be valuable in and of themselves. Other people consider "value" to be a relational concept requiring a valuer. Meaning that the concept of value is meaningless without the specification of "for whom" and "for what purpose". The fundamental difference is that those who believe in absolute values also employ the word "value" in its relational sense. Whereas those who believe in relational values do not admit the existence of absolute values. Both notions of value can be addressed to a certain extent by employing the relational notion of value.

For the purpose of this discussion, therefore, I will restrict the notion of "value" to its relational meaning - with the "for whom" being the creature in question, and the "for what purpose" being the increase in the likelihood that the creature will successfully pass along its genome. Even those who consider Moral Values to be Moral Absolutes, having nothing to do with procreation and survival, will have to admit that there are things, actions, and circumstances that any creature will create or encounter that can be considered valuable to that creatrue for the purpose of procreation.

The fundamental evolutionary challenge for any creature is to acquire sufficient positive contributors (values) to be marginally more successful at procreation over the long run than the competition. The tactical day-to-day challenge for any creature is to identify and accurately evaluate (value) those aspects of the environment which ought to be regarded as actual or potential positive or negative contributors (values). Failure in this competition leads to extinction - sooner for the individual's own genome, and possibly later for the entire species. Thus we can say that any creature ought to value those aspects of its environment which contribute positively to "The continued survival, and proliferation of [the creature's] genome over the long-term". And any aspect of the creature's environment that actually does, would, or may potentially contribute positively to "The continued survival, and proliferation of my genome over the long-term" is a value worth pursuing. Or at least worth the time and effort to evaluate the cost-benefit trade-offs involved.

There are two dimensions across which one can examine how particular creatures approach the evolutionary game. For the sake of discussion, lets refer to them as the "overall strategies" dimension, and the "daily tactics" dimension. There are two fundamentally distinct overall strategies that can be employed for the acquisition of values. You can Make-It or you can Take-It. Across the other dimension, there are also two fundamentally distinct daily tactics that can be employed. You can Gather up what values you can find readily available in the environment. Or you can Create new values out of lesser values or from otherwise valueless circumstances.

In addition to these two dimensions for considering the various ways of approaching the game, we can also examine the game from an inter-species perspective and an intra-species perspective. From an inter-species perspective, both carnivors and herbivors follow a Take-It strategy. While the photosynthesis employed by plants would be classified as a Make-It strategy.

Particular behaviors, as well, can also be classified seperately from the overall species strategy. A mole-rat digging a warren is using a Make-It / Create strategy. A chimp using a twig to fish termites out of a mound is using a Take-It / Create strategy because the chimp is taking both the twig and the termites, and becuase the chimp transforms the twig into something of greater value by stripping off the leaves. A whale-shark, being a solitary grazer, employs a Take-It / Gather strategy. A wolf pack cooperating in the hunt to bring down an elk, employs a Take-It / Create strategy.

On an evolutionary time-scale, the presence of the inter-species Take-It strategy generates what is known as an "arms race". Consider the cheeta and the gazelle. The cheeta, being a solitary hunter, follows the Gatherer tactic and the Take-It strategy. The gazelle has the values that the cheeta wants to take - the proteins and energy of the gazelle's flesh. The gazelle reacts defensively to the cheeta's Take-It strategy by developing a faster mode of flight. The cheeta's use of the Take-It strategy does not allow it to have everything its own way. The cheeta, in order to avoid becoming extinct, must react to the gazelle's evolving defensive strategy by evolving a faster mode of gathering. Over evolutionary time, the cheeta has invested a considerable amount to become a sufficiently fast sprinter to overcome the gazelle's defensive response. Over the long run, the Take-It strategy is not as efficient as it might first appear.

While the inter-species perspective can be entertaining (it can lead to some interesting discussions on how to classify particular behaviors), it is the intra-species perspective that will prove most useful for the purpose of this paper. From an intra-species perspective, food (either in the form of light for photosyhthesis, or in the form of other species) is simply "out there" for the gathering. The Take-It strategy within the intra-species context, applies only to the taking of values from other con-specifics.

From this perspective then, the Make-It strategy can be generalized as usually either very labour intensive (the Gatherer), or very intellectually intensive (the Creator). Under normal circumstances, the Gatherer must work hard and long to bring home sufficient value (such as food). The Creator, on the other hand usually does not labour as hard, but requires planning, foresight, cooperation, and perhaps tool innovations. The Gatherer collects what is readily available in the environment. The Creator rearranges the environment to make values that would not otherwise exist. Whether muscle-power or brain-power intensive, the Make-It strategy means creating more value out of stuff with less value.

On the other hand, rather than expending the time and effort necessary to collect or create the values needed, one can simply take them from someone who already has them. However, the Take-It strategy, while superficially involving less time and effort for success, generally involves considerably more risk - especially in the longer term. In an exactly parallel evolutionary reaction, persistent intra-species employment of the Take-It strategy will also generate an "arms race". No one likes to have the values they have gathered or made simply taken. Most creatures will react in some defensive manner. The more persistent the taker, the more defensive the takee is likely to become. The more resources that have been invested in the initial acquisition of the values involved, the more resources will be invested in the defence.

Even though human society evolves at cultural speed, rather than at genetic speed, and individual human behaviors even mor quickly, the principles still apply. There are over 6 billion people on the planet today. That means that there are over 6 billion different human genomes competing in evolutionary terms. Now it may not matter to you whether your particular genome makes it into the next generation (or the one after that). But if it doesn't then the future will belong to those for whom it does. This means that, like it or not, the evolutionary meaning of "Good" and "Value" as outlined above does have meaning for you. Like it or not, you too are playing the evolutionary survival game. And it is a winner take all game.

And what that means, is that the Take-It and Make-It strategies, and the Gatherer and Creator tactics, also apply to how you deal with daily life. I am sure you will have no trouble at all in picking out some typical ways of earning a living that fit neatly within each of these four categories. You might even be able to pick out particular individuals who fit neatly.

The Take-It strategy has some interesting ramifications within the context of human culture. The Take-It strategy involves taking things of value from others without adequate compensation. This is usually called "Theft", or "fraud", or "extortion". In general, you will find that all behaviors that fulfill the Take-It strategy are deemed illegal in any culture. The exception would be for those circumstances where the humans that are the takees are not considered "people" by the culture involved. Slavery, for example, is legal only in cultures that regard slaves as "less than people". Between "people", in all cultures, practicing the Take-It strategy is seriously frowned upon.

There are a number of reasons that humans gather together in groups. But two of the more important reasons are self-defence, and mutual cooperation. Like every other social species, human evolution discovered long ago that we are better off in groups. We can defend ourselves against predators more effectively in groups. We can gather more values in groups. And we can even make better values when we cooperate. (There is, of course, an upper limit to group density. But we will ignore that factor for the time being.)

The Take-It strategy is sufficiently disruptive to all these benefits of being a social animal that the employment of the strategy is universally penalized by all social species. Theft is universally retaliated against. With the exception of the human species, the only way that a social creature can consistently employ a Take-It strategy is to do it by stealth. Either the thief does so subtley, so that the victims he deals with do not associate the theft with the thief. Or the thief must constantly find new victims from whom to steal. In most non-human species, thievery is almost always a relatively rare opportunistic action. And it occurs in inverse proportion to the species ability to remember and recognize the culprit. In species with a good ability to recognize the culprit on re-encounter, thievery is much rarer. And it is almost always associated with the open employment of violence and the expression of dominance.

Which brings us to the Human Species. The existence of thievery in humans can be traced to similar practices in the other primates. In small groups, humans practice thievery in almost exactly the same way as is practiced by chimpanzees, other apes and other primates in general. Thievery is almost always a consequence of a violent display of dominance. And is only rarely the consequence of raids by solitary thiefs. But unlike our primate cousins, humans are the only species that practices an organized social culture of violence supported thievery.


When you examine the alternatives from the perspective of the individual (human or creature), the choice between a Take-It strategy and a Make-It strategy comes down an evaluation of the costs and benefits involved. And from an evolutionary perspective, those costs and benefits must be denominated in probabilities (or potentialities) that the alternative under examination will (or will not) contribute to "The continued survival, and proliferation of my genome over the long-term". The benefits are the values to be gained, and the evaluation is whether the benefits are sufficient. The costs of the Make-It strategy are the time and effort necessary to Gather or Create the values in question. The costs of the Take-It strategy are the risks and retributions that the victims may impose. Notice that the costs of the Take-It strategy are entirely dependent on how the prospective victims are likely to respond.

When you examine the alternatives from the perspecirtve of the victims, the calcualtion becomes more complex. Here, the trade-off is between the resources committed to defense, to retribution, and to outright loss. The victim has three options to evaluate. The victim can expend resources in erecting defenses against theft. Or the resources can be invested in retaliation and retribution. Or the victim can choose to do nothing, and simply write off any stolen values as a loss. Which ever alternative is chosen, the resources involved are not available for direct investment in "The continued survival, and proliferation of my genome over the long-term." (Although they are, of course, an indirect investment in this goal.)

From the perspective of the victim, there is one tactic that has proven to be highly advantageous. Somewhere in their evolutionary history, humanity's ancestors discovered that there is strength in cooperating groups. Not only can a group of cooperating individuals mount a much more daunting defence against theft, they can cooperate productively in the creation of greater values than they could working alone as individuals.

There is one caveat to this tactic, however. The members of the group must not engage in theft from each other. One of the fundamental purposes of the group is to defend the members of the group against theft by non-members. It would certainly defeat the purpose of the group, if members indulged in the Take-It strategy within the group. The whole point of being a member of the group is to avoid being a victim of theft. So members of the group watch each other carefully. And individually, humans have evolved to be quite adept at remembering the people we have dealt with before, and how the exchange turned out. We do not easily forget someone who we feel has taken unfair advantage of us. Our memories prove to be long when grudges are involved. We may forget the face of the many who trade fairly. But we will remember well the one in a thousand who we feel has cheated us.

The dynamics of group cohesion are well documented, in social mammals and primates as well as in humans. Reciprocal altruism, exchanging favours, building alliances, and the dynamics of power politics are all fundamental primate behaviors. But the societies built by Homo sapiens differ remarkably in the absense of a strict pecking order.

From this basis has evolved our human social organizations. We gather in groups to mount a collective defence of our individual values. And we cooperate in groups in order to create greater value for each, than we could possibly achieve individually. To maintain these benefits, we watch each other closely for cheating, and quickly expell any group member who resorts to theft from others of the group.

This then is the evolutionary basis of Morality and Ethics.

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