Peter A. Corning. Biological Adaption In Human Societies: A ‘Basic Needs’ Approach

Peter A. Corning. Biological Adaption In Human Societies:  A ‘Basic Needs’ Approach

The ground-zero premise (so to speak) of the biological sciences is the assumption that survival and reproduction is the basic, continuing, inescapable problem for all living organisms; life is at bottom a “survival enterprise.” Whatever may be our perceptions, aspirations, or illusions, this tap-root assumption is applicable to the human species as well. Survival is the “paradigmatic problem” for all human societies; it is a prerequisite for any other, more exalted objectives. A key concept in biology is “adaptation” -- commonly meaning both the functional requisites for survival and reproduction and the specific means that are employed for doing so by a given organism in a given environment; an organism is, quintessentially, a “bundle of adaptations.” Although the term “adaptation” is also familiar to social scientists, until recently it has been used only selectively, and often very imprecisely. Here a more rigorous and systematic approach to the concept of adaptation is proposed in terms of “basic needs.” The concept of basic human needs has a venerable history -- tracing back at least to Plato and Aristotle. Yet the development of a formal theory of basic needs has lagged far behind. The reason, in a nutshell, is that the concept of objective, measurable needs is inconsistent with the theoretical assumptions that have dominated economic and social theory for most of this century, namely, “value-relativism” and “cultural determinism.”

Nevertheless, there have been a number of efforts over the past 30 years to develop more universalistic criteria for basic needs, both for use in monitoring social well-being (“social indicators”) and for public policy formulation. Here I will advance a strictly biological approach to operationalizing the concept of basic needs, which is referred to as the “Survival Indicators” paradigm. It is argued that much of our economic and social life (and the motivations behind our revealed preferences and subjective utility assessments), not to mention the actions of modern governments, are either directly or indirectly related to the meeting of our basic survival needs. Furthermore, these needs can be specified to a first approximation and supported empirically to varying degrees, with the obvious caveat that there are major individual and contextual variations in their application. Equally important, complex human societies generate an array of “instrumental needs” which, as the term implies, serve as intermediaries between our primary needs and the specific economic, cultural and political contexts within which these needs must be satisfied. An explicit framework of “Survival Indicators,” including a profile of “Personal Fitness” and an aggregate index of “Population Fitness,” is briefly elucidated. Although this framework has been under development for some years, it is stressed that there is still much work to be done and much room for improvement. Finally, it is suggested that a basic needs paradigm could provide an analytical tool (a “bio-logic”) for examining more closely the relationship between our social, economic and political behaviors and institutions and their survival consequences, as well as providing a predictive tool of some value.

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Keywords: Behavioral Economics, Evolutionary Economics

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