falling off the edgeless earth

coming to terms with life improvisation

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Faulty natural analogies for human social life
I was trying to think of metaphors for society that I can use to explore different ideas about life choices. But none of the things that have come to mind are quite working.

The first image I had when I was thinking yesterday was one of a coral reef. Putting aside the idea of distinct species that mostly feed on each other, I thought it might be nice, because you have a nice contrast between different types of creatures. There are the coral polyps, which cover the main structure of the reef. You have armored crustaceans, elusive octopi, schools of fish, and sharks. I thought that might be a good parallel for different niches people can take in society.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the metaphor doesn't really work.

First, the structure of the coral reef is literally built on the hardened corpses of dead coral polyps. As much as we owe to the people who came before us, that idea is a bit too grim--I think that would be implying that people have to literally die off in order for society to advance, which is not a place I want to go.

I also thought I could put aside the idea of different species killing and feeding off each other, and just replace the predation with cooperation and exchange. That's a pretty big jump alone. What messes it up even more: the entire reef system ultimately gets most of its energy from phytoplankton. Agriculture and natural resources also power the human world, but that's sort of the wrong conceptual level. I don't want the metaphor to focus on the economic or biological flow of energy. I'm more interested in things like social norms and incentives affect individual choices and life trajectories.

Is there a good metaphor? I also thought of using a forest instead a coral reef, but I felt uneasy in similar ways. It was also less evocative than a coral reef, because having water as a medium better emphasizes a space of possibility with three dimensions.

Does the human social world resemble a natural ecosystem at all? If it does, maybe it doesn't make sense to take individual persons as analogous to individual organisms in the ecosystem. Maybe people are themselves like parts exchanged by entities on larger levels of social organization. Or maybe natural analogies for human society just doesn't work.

It makes sense that it doesn't help understanding to map a complex phenomenon onto another complex phenomenon, even if the second one seems more concrete.


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