The Struggle for Survival: Conflict and Creativity
By Jessica Flack, research fellow at the Santa Fe Institute

Conflict is a prominent theme in The Road. It is evident in the ashen landscape, in the bands of marauding men, in the disagreement between father and son about whether to help fellow survivors. Whether conflict—in human societies or in other types of biological systems—is a wholly destructive force or plays an important role in driving the evolution of social and biological complexity is a much-discussed topic of conversation among Cormac McCarthy and his colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute.

The Road provides a lens through which we can examine what the world might be like if conflict were allowed to escalate unchecked or if our attempts to control it failed. The potential for destruction on the scale described in The Road often results from what in evolutionary biology is called (borrowing from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass) the Red Queen effect—essentially an "arms race" between competing organisms, in which each competitor builds up a comparable arsenal (think of horns, stings and teeth) such that neither one gets the upper hand. If the cataclysm described in The Road was caused by human conflict (the possibility that it resulted from nuclear war immediately comes to mind), it is likely that the severity of the conflict was a product of a Red Queen process.

The conflict and the ensuing arms race should not be seen as solely destructive conditions—they are also sources of creativity and invention in the sense that the organisms are required to constantly evolve new strategies to keep themselves in the game. What this suggests is that conflict can be both destructive and constructive.

If conflict can have constructive consequences, then wholesale suppression of it might not be the best idea. The potential costs, however, make it critical to get the balance right. A fitting example of the dual costs and benefits of conflict and the ethical complexity it gives rise to can be seen in the history of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. Spearheaded by the United States during World War II, the Manhattan Project assembled a team of scientists to develop a nuclear weapon in advance of similar objectives being pursued by the Axis powers. Although the development and use of nuclear weapons resulted in an accelerated end to World War II, it did so at great cost to humanity and irreversibly changed the nature and scope of war. However, the science and scientists driving the Manhattan Project made many important discoveries, including the development of the Monte Carlo algorithm for simulating chain reactions and vastly improving our understanding of computation. Both of these tools are of fundamental importance in the new sciences of complexity pursued by the Santa Fe Institute in peaceful applications, an institute that grew from the ashes of what we might think of as destructive creativity.

About the Author
Jessica Flack is broadly interested in whether there are architectural principles governing the evolution of structure in biological and social systems. Jessica is pursuing the possibility that, if such principles exist, they will be found by comparing construction processes—the processes by which ordered states arise and persist—in a diverse set of systems that includes single-celled organisms, multicellular organisms, and complex, coordinated aggregates like animal societies. Single-celled and multicellular organisms are relatively well studied from this perspective compared to coordinated aggregates. In recognition of this deficit, Jessica's research is devoted to the study of construction processes at the social level, largely using as model systems animal societies characterized by triadic and higher-order interactions.

The Golden Rule, selfishness, altruism and other themes from The Road


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