Greed: A Social Ecological Take
I’ve seen the argument that greed is a biological phenomenon. I think that’s absolutely ridiculous. Greed may have roots in biology, but that’s because everything does. Sociality itself is a biological development that originated in the process of organic evolution, but, the social sphere emerged from the biological sphere to become its own thing. I’ll start with greed’s biological dimensions, then explain
why that st*ff is wr*ng greed’s social dimensions and how they relate to biology. while maintaining that it is a distinctly social phenomenon. But first, some definitions; Power - The tool that enables hierarchy and domination, usually obtained through ownership of the current dominant resource/the means by which that resource is produced. Hierarchy - The social structure that determines how a community organizes and values its citizenry, also determines how individuals will be treated and the conditions in which they’re likely to exist. Wealth - A collection of resources. Greed - The excess collection of resources.
The Biology of Greed
A quick history! Early peoples needed food, so they gathered fruits, vegetables, and meats and stored them in a secure place. Food storage sites were generally central fixtures to these early communities and housing was provided as needed, with the only expectation being that the supported individuals assist the collective when the time comes. As hierarchical society began to become clearer and more rigidly established, food production became a smaller part of society and became more technologically efficient. Currency became a more ingrained resource, and supplanted food and housing as the dominant resource, with other resources becoming commodities to be purchased using money. Material desires grew, and having both material wealth and excess food became a sign of success, the apex of survival. The development of power came with hierarchy, and having the greater wealth of resources gave one power to remain atop the hierarchy.
So the argument goes that people are greedy because they want to guarantee their own survival. This applies to land, food, money, and other resources that were or still are representative of an individual’s success. Greed, it goes, guarantees comfort. Having more than you need, more than you can use, ensures your safety in the world, in times of calm and in times of crisis.
Greed and the Social Sphere
The biggest problem with arguing for greed as a biological phenomenon is it requires an ignorance, whether intentional or not, of it’s relation to the concepts of power, wealth, and hierarchy. These are three distinctly social concepts that do not exist in non-human nature. “But a lion has more power than a deer!” Physically, yes, but a deer’s absence in that ecosystem will drastically alter said ecosystem. The deer, in that regard, has a physical power over the lion as well. Further, the lion does not have real social power, over the deer or other lions. There is no established ascendancy, nature has no monarchy, no hierarchy. Animals have no known concept of wealth outside of humans. Humans are the only species with an institutionalized society, having evolved beyond mere community arrangements and into an organized society.
Greed is a product of hierarchy and wealth. It is a desire for power and comfort. These are very distinct in that they rise from social evolution and not as a direct result of organic evolution.
The argument of greed as biological is funny, mainly because its a less thought out version of the argument of greed as a social occurrence. All you have to really ask are a few questions: If greed is biological, why does it rise with other social concepts? What is comfort and why does greed create/protect it? How does greed relate to individuality and communality? Does society reward greed? There are undeniable social dimensions when examining greed. To ignore these dimensions prevents one from fully understanding greed.
Greed: Distinctly Social
Greed is not a biological concept. It is a social concept that arose given the general direction of social evolution. As people began to move away from communal, group-oriented lifestyles into more individualistic lifestyles, they began to realize that accumulating vast amounts of various resources would give them an upper hand when it comes to survival and, eventually, comfort. Greed being used as a means for survival doesn’t mean that it’s biological, in part because of its concern with power and ultimately because the entirety of human history up until very recently was based on survival. People banded together and created society as a means of survival, and greed is a direct development of society. If we, as a species, still behaved in generally communal manners, we would not need greed. Greed has always been used as a means for an accumulation of power, with power being the end that determined survival.
Sources: This is all off the top of my head, but my worldview and understanding of this subject matter is largely influenced by Murray Bookchin, The Srsly Wrong Podcast, The Abolition Collective’s Abolishing Carceral Society. I wrote this post after reading my cousin’s facebook comments that disagree with me, Hillel Cohen’s “Are Human’s Naturally Greedy?”, and Richard Taflinger’s “The Sociological Basis of Greed”