A decade since the global financial meltdown, social and economic decay continues with regional conflicts creating tension around the world. The panic of 08 unraveled the demise of Western liberal democracy, a model of governance managed through control of the markets. The global crisis of legitimacy brought by the breakdown of the system exposed the forces that defined the contemporary world.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that ended elite control of communist states, the corporations that grew out of the United States arose as a new power. In a form of corporate-led globalization with neoliberal trade agreements creating Western hegemony of markets, colonialism that began in the Age of Discovery now carries on. Callous and aggressive parts of humanity clothed in civility, seek for control through the arms industry and extractive capitalism.
Now, mankind, with capability of nuclear power in its hands seems to pose a threat to its own existence. Is there a way to break the logic of conquest and free humanity from its destructive forces within? For centuries, philosophers and theologians sought for answers in the development of morality. In modern times, scientists and biologists took on this challenge to understand the roots of violence in human nature. Now, in the age of the Internet, imagination from computer science responded to tackle this problem. Bitcoin emerged in the middle of institutional failures and began showing mankind a way to redeem man’s selfishness.
Money as a token of reciprocal altruism
How did Bitcoin, this front-runner of cryptocurrencies find a means to account for man’s tendencies toward extreme selfishness? The invention of Bitcoin arrived through the accumulative efforts of many minds. Before Satoshi Nakamoto shared the vision of peer-to-peer digital cash in the white paper, there were pioneers who stepped into this uncharted territory. Nick Szabo, a legal scholar and cryptographer with his creation of bit gold inspired this breakthrough of computer science.
In the paper Shelling Out, the Origins of Money, published in 2002, Szabo traveled into the ancient past to trace precursors of money used by our ancestors. By gaining the insight of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins who saw money as a “formal token of delayed reciprocal altruism”, Szabo recognized the role of money in providing humans’ unique evolutionary advantage. Describing it as a “technology of cooperation”, he noted how early forms of money such as shells of clams solved the problem of the risk of cheating in the exchange of favor, where reciprocity won’t be made simultaneously.
Now, in this digital age, with the birth of Bitcoin, this tool for cooperation is replicated online. Satoshi, through engaging computer machines to work on mathematical puzzles of computation, found a way to check man’s selfishness that takes advantage of others’ good will. Bitcoin’s consensus algorithm enforces sets of rules across a network, by aligning incentives of all players and encouraging each to overcome selfish tendencies that prevent cooperation with a careful balance of risk and reward.
Puzzle of altruism
The genius of Bitcoin’s protocol was developed on this understanding of the origin of money that is deeply tied to evolutionary forces within mankind. At the core of this technology lies knowledge of human nature informed by evolutionary biology. Dawkins, who authored the influential book, The Selfish Gene renewed the theory of evolution by putting genes rather than individuals at the center. With the term ‘the selfish gene’, he explained how “a gene that didn’t look after its own interests would not survive”. With this gene’s-eye view of life, Dawkins appeared to have solved part of the riddle of human nature. Yet, he stumbled upon another when he recognized acts of kindness in nature. Altruism has been one of the greatest puzzles for many biologists.
Dawkins asked, “How can selfish genes support kindness?” Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection offered no incentive for organisms to help others. Dawkins went on, “If genes are striving selfishly to make more copies of themselves, how can a gene achieve this selfish objective by making their bearers act altruistically?” He contemplated how in the Darwinian struggle for existence, kindness toward others seemed to counter this programming.
Partial explanations were provided in the idea of kin selection. Inclusive fitness theory argues the reason for such behavior is due to a sharing of large percentages of genes among close relatives. Another is the idea of reciprocal altruism used to explain costly cooperation between non-relatives, with a tit for tat strategy of ‘you scratch my back and I scratch yours’. Here, altruism is widely considered by biologists to be part of a survival game for genes and nature has shown that the genes that return favor are more likely to survive. Yet, Dawkins pondered that when it comes to humans, there seems to be something more that goes beyond what these theories can explain, for helping occurs even among those who are not close relatives and is given to complete strangers who don’t return favors.
Paradox of human nature
In recent years, examples of altruistic acts emerged on the Internet with the waves of whistleblowers. From WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, we have seen individuals that acted on behalf of the public good at expense of their own well-being. These individuals demonstrated extraordinary courage, even risking their lives to protect not only the welfare of their nations, but all of humanity.
This presents an internal contradiction within humans; man is selfish and can be nasty, yet at the same time has a capacity for empathy and can act kindly to others. Dawkins found a way to embrace this paradox of human nature. He remarked how “selfish genes give rise to altruistic individuals” and asserted that the puzzle of altruism can be solved by using the concept of the selfish gene. He looked at altruism as misfiring of selfish genes and explained how “we have a lust to be nice, even to total strangers, because niceness has been hardwired into us from the time we used to live in small groups of close kin and close acquaintances with whom it would pay to reciprocate favors”.
Civilization seems to have lost this paradox of human nature. Western construction of morality split an evolutionary force in nature into opposite tendencies. In efforts to attain virtues that are considered positive, humanity suppressed others that have been deemed negative and unworthy. Philosopher Jacob Needleman described how religious and moral doctrines of European cultures created a dualistic morality that “supports the radical separation of the good (however it is understood) and the evil (that which resists the good)”. He noted such morality becomes “ ‘moralism’ when it imposes a sense of good and evil that diminishes the interconnectedness of life”.
Duality of human nature with selfishness on one hand and altruistic attributes like empathy on the other, created an internal conflict within man. This made people pit one side of human nature against the other. This one-sidedness of a human view in favor of certain characteristics over the other led to the failure of self-honesty, making it difficult for us to truly account for our deeds. Selfish parts of ourselves that are denied and condemned become dark. Efforts to eradicate this force made it more hostile and cunning. The extreme selfishness created through society’s refusal to accept human nature in its fullness has become destructive. It began to pose a threat to civilization itself.
The value of networked individuals
Systems of governance based on political ideologies, incapable of holding the paradox of human nature, suppressed the dynamics of life. In the last half of the 20th century, the unresolved conflicts inside man have grown, dividing the world into two competing power blocks behind the Iron Curtain. In the grand struggle of power during the cold war, Western capitalism promoted the value of the individual over the needs of the collective, while communism forced people to place the interests of a community over individuals.
The centralized model of society, both in a form of capitalism and communism, has subverted the force of evolution, by using money as an instrument of control to regulate aspects of human nature. The state’s oppression of self-interests of the majority led to the concentration of power in a few hands, stagnating the development of a capacity for altruism. As ordinary people were held hostage by this political battle of governments, being kept in a loop of a death spiral, Satoshi found the perfect equation that could restore the paradox of human nature to end this war that is waged inside each person.
While the hierarchy of institutions divides human nature, breaking apart the value of individuality and the collective, decentralization unites them, creating a higher value of the networked individual. In Bitcoin’s open horizontal platform, what one does to oneself can be directly translated into what one does to others and vice versa. Everyone’s contribution enriches the whole network, while harmful behaviors bring loss for all. In this inclusive circle, contradiction between the logic of service to oneself and service to a group can now be reconciled. What an individual does out of one’s self-interests can become a communal act of giving because it benefits all in the network.
In this invention of free software, Satoshi liberated human nature that was bound up by intellectual property of the nation-state built on archaic knowledge of man. Centralized systems of politics are inherently undemocratic. In such system, the reform and progress of society often rely on the conscience of individuals who can demonstrate an extraordinary capacity to act altruistically to correct the imbalance of human nature. Whistleblowers are a canary in a coal mine, signaling the weakening of democracy. The risks and sacrifices that the system requires from these individuals become unsustainable. Assange has been kept in the arbitrary detention for 6 years in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, without access to medical care and sunlight. Manning was sentenced to prison for 35 years, while Snowden remains in exile, being called for execution by U.S. political leaders.
Evolve to solve
Now, Bitcoin brings a creative way to solve problems by opening the path of evolution. In this new paradigm, one no longer has to sacrifice one’s needs in order to act altruistically and one does not have to give up aspirations for altruism in order to preserve self-interests. Upon economic incentives of selfishness, a spiral staircase of Bitcoin’s DNA can emerge. The incentive structure that is built upon a realistic assessment of humanity allows individuals to connect with their own self-interests and through a transparent network engage themselves in holding each other accountable. By distributing self interests widely across the network, it makes the system much more democratic than the current centralized model of governance. Through each taking risks voluntarily, the system increases the rewards for networked value.
In the act of releasing a protocol pseudonymously online, the unknown creator of Bitcoin launched an open source development to build a new habitat for networked individuals. Responding to the good will of strangers, developers around the world came together to engage in a labor of love to work on Bitcoin. Those ambitious and adventurous ones among us all began investing precious resources to play the market. Greed of miners through the survival of the fittest mining markets has helped the network build a global level of security.
The darkness of the old world that has yet to be enlightened became tyrannical. Now, the imagination of computer science calls us all to align ourselves with incentives coded inside our own DNA and restore the balance of human nature. Each individual’s participation in the development of this technology helps Bitcoin maintain its mathematical precision. By laying the solid foundation upon the virtue of selfishness, blocks of cooperation can be built to further improve the workings of reciprocal altruism.
[Nozomi Hayase, Ph.D., is an essayist and author of WikiLeaks, the Global Fourth Estate: History Is Happening (Libertarian Books, 2018). Find her on twitter @nozomimagine. First published by CounterCurrent.org.]
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