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Life is unfair. Deal with it.

Jakob Fugger, the first documented millionaire, understood that in order to survive, he’d have to encourage competition between others. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Jakob Fugger, the first documented millionaire, understood that in order to survive, he’d have to encourage competition between others. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“But that’s not fair” is a line I’ve gotten used to. It is thrown with much ease by my older daughter pretty much every other day, eyes welling up with tears, when I decline to concede to some request that sounds unreasonable.

Now, any man who has daughters can tell you this much: the creatures know they can wrangle anything out of their father if they know how to manipulate the lacrimal glands. Evidence has it that this makes me (and other men who cave in to unreasonable demands from their daughters) a very stupid man. Because, fact of the matter is, life is unfair. And you bloody well learn to deal with it.

I’m tempted to tell her that. In bouts of exasperation, I say it in as many words. But I’m not sure she gets it. I suspect she thinks of me of as an idiot who can be manipulated. And she’s damn right. When I’m gone though, she’ll remember me as a good man who indulged her.

But I did not articulate that in as many words because if I did, in her head, she would think me an idiot. It isn’t a conclusion I arrived at independently, but on the back of poring over a now iconic speech by writer and historian Will Durant, who had said, “Nothing is often a good thing to do, and always a clever thing to say.”

To that extent, her imagining me an idiot is what I suspect is commonly called the “generation gap”. It is embedded in our biology and history. It repeats itself. Over. And over. Again. And again.

So, to amuse myself and that I may understand the irony of it all, I picked up The Lessons of History, co-authored by Will and Arial Durant, perhaps for the nth time. It is, to my mind, among the most compelling 100-odd pages ever written by anyone. This time around, with an eye on the next time she throws the “that’s-not-fair” line at me, I wanted to be pretty sure about my “life-is-unfair-deal-with-it” line of argument

But it wasn’t just her who needed to be told that. I needed to be told that as well in no uncertain terms, in a firm voice. The effusiveness in my tone over the last few months must be contained and perspective is needed. By way of example, I have wondered a few times if I may have gone over the top in trying to imagine what may the world look like as artificial intelligence and machine learning takes over. Have I gushed too much and sounded too effusive?

The Lessons of History, a book published in 1968, the culmination of a lifetime studying the subject, always puts me in place. The precursor to the essays in it is beautifully called Hesitations, where the Durants write: “… Our conclusions from the past to the future are made more hazardous than ever by the acceleration of change. In 1909, Charles Péguy thought that the world has changed less since Jesus Christ than in the last thirty years; and perhaps some young doctor of philosophy in physics would not add that his science has changed more since 1909 than in all recorded time before.”

It is difficult to miss the irony here. And that is why I had to open and dive right into the third chapter on biology and history. Because as the authors writer there, “The laws of biology are the most fundamental of history.” It contains three lessons.

Lesson No. 1: life is competition

One of my favourite songs is John Lennon’s Imagine:

Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try

No hell below us

Above us only sky

Imagine all the people living for today

The song goes on.

You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope some day you’ll join us

And the world will be as one

I’ve sung it often in my head and like so many million people out there, thought what a lovely place it would be if the world could live to these lines. But the truth is that tens of thousands of years of history embedded in our biology suggests they will remain just that—the imaginary thoughts of a dreamer.

Instead, the Durants, in their certain tone, put it this way: “Competition is not only the life of trade, it is the trade of life—peaceful when food abounds, violent when the mouths outrun the food. Animals eat one another without qualm; civilized men consume one another by due process of law. Co-operation is real, and increases with social development, but mostly because it is a tool and form of competition; we co-operate in our group— our family, community, club, church, party, ‘race’, or nation—in order to strengthen our group in its competition with other groups.”

“Competing groups have the qualities of competing individuals: acquisitiveness, pugnacity, partisanship, pride. Our states, being ourselves multiplied, are what we are; they write our natures in bolder type, and do our good and evil on an elephantine scale. We are acquisitive, greedy, and pugnacious because our blood remembers millenniums through which our forebears had to chase and fight and kill in order to survive, and had to eat to their gastric capacity for fear they should not soon capture another feast.”

“War is a nation’s way of eating. It promotes co-operation because it is the ultimate form of competition. Until our states become members of a large and effectively protective group they will continue to act like individuals and families in the hunting stage.”

Just that I may put that into perspective, on the back of some conversations with a few people on the current narrative playing itself out, a few questions come up. I have no answers to any of the questions thrown up by the following statements:

1. There is a stand-off between India and China

2. For all purposes, India has ditched the Middle East and has embraced Israel. Unprecedented.

3. The European Union is in shambles and is going the right-wing route.

4. In the US, if we were to ignore Silicon Valley, right-wing politics led by the Donald Trump narrative has taken over the discourse.

Whatever is going on? Was this inevitable? Because when looked at from one prism, a few things seem clear.

There are historical precedents to coalitions built on the premise of equality like the European Union. It inevitably fragments. When birth rates stagnate and migration increases, levels of unrest goes up.

Then there is no taking away from that Trump came into power because large parts of the United States of America sound lost, their narratives are not being told or reported in the mainstream media and the nation is steeped in debt. He is talking the language of the debt-ridden.

China has crossed a tipping point by exploiting natural resources in Africa—the equivalent of the US and Europe taking over large parts of West Asia in their hey days. It is a nation that now needs a new narrative to establish complete hegemony over the current discourse.

But a potential deterrent to counter China is India, which has demographics on its side. If I were the Chinese premier, I would be petrified of India. When looked at from an Indian prism, the times have changed. If there is a time to step up, it is now. And if it be on the back of nationalistic rhetoric, then so be it.

All historical precedents say that when nations arrive at a tipping point, nationalism peaks and so-called old friends make way for fresh narratives. “New leaders” who are inevitably “outsiders” storm the bastions and face resistance from the establishment and intelligentsia. They are much reviled as well. Some pointers to why this happens will emerge in the second lesson.

As for me, I have no answers because I am no expert on foreign policy nor have any machinations on the inner workings of the bureaucracy. But I have sought time with somebody who has. He has stated explicitly I have got it all wrong. I want to know why. Because the lens I am looking through emerges from the intersection of biology and history.

Bacteria of all kinds, for instance, live in our body. Many of them are harmless. And a lot of them are, in fact, essential, like those that exist in our gut. They cooperate so that we survive. There are times though when these micro-organisms go out of control and compete for resources within our body. The outcome can include death, until antibiotics are introduced. The equivalent of nuclear warheads in the real world.

What everybody agrees on is that antibiotics were one of the greatest discoveries mankind ever made. Much like nuclear power. When deployed, antibiotics can kill bacteria. In excess, they can create a new class of super bacteria to compete with it. Much like nuclear energy can solve most of the world’s problems, it can also annihilate. The issue is, who is to decide how to use it? When? In what context? Where do you draw the lines?

While the debate on nuclear weapons is much reported on, the one around antibiotics isn’t. Fact is, the theme is the subject of much debate. The most recent report I read was around September 2016 when antibiotic resistance came up at the UN headquarters for discussion, with India and China at the centre of it all, competing to take over the discourse. Whoever would have imagined!

From the microscopic to the macroscopic, life is competition.

Lesson No. 2: life is selection

In the two odd decades that I have been reporting and writing on business, I have been a vocal supporter of capitalism and free markets. That said, I have also had the rare privilege of witnessing from close quarters how some of the most ridiculous of creatures get to be top dogs at their organizations by being either vicious or because the right sperm found its way into the right egg, fused to form the perfect zygote at just the right time and expelled a creature into fortune. The laws of heredity at work. Deserved or undeserved is for beer room banter.

But this is the truth. And history is littered with precedents like these. Heard of a creature called Jakob Fugger? The first documented millionaire. His biography makes for a compelling read. At his peak, his biographer has it, he controlled 2% of the world’s GDP. Ironically though, when his peasant grandparents first got to the gates of Augsburg in Germany to flee the Black Plague from their native village, the German record keepers had no clue what second name to give them because they did not understand the Italian these peasants spoke in.

And so, for the heck of it and a good laugh, the bored folks there wrote in Latin, “Fucker Advenit”. Literally translated, “Fugger arrives”.

It continues to be that way in the Augsburg city archives. But the Fuggers, as they went on to be called, have had the last laugh. They prospered in Augsburg by beginning to dabble in the then fledgling textile business. One thing led to another until, over the next two generations, they went on to bankroll everything and everyone from Emperor Charles V, who had almost gotten bankrupt to the Vatican, the revolution led by Napoleon, and expeditions to trace trade routes to find America and India.

What he understood and nobody else did was that he was lucky to be selected. To survive though, he’d have to encourage competition. If everyone competed among themselves, they’d stay distracted from his stated goal of amassing wealth. Morals, values and ethics, as we understand it in contemporary discourse, be damned. It did not matter to Jackob Fugger. Only the colour of money did. This colour earned the Fugger family a coat of arms from the reigning monarch and legitimacy from the papacy. Until date, this legacy continues in Europe, albeit now as a classy one.

After he died, unhappy as history has it, this legacy continues to exist in well preserved monuments, chapels, foundations, trusts, and goodwill—all of which are still the bones of contention by a fractious clan who continue to survive on the back of the fortune he left. What they don’t get is that, unlike their forefather, they ought to be clannish and compete against other forces if their generations are to survive into the future.

Again, when looked at from a microscopic perspective, it is nature and biology at work. History has all of it documented. The Fuggers’ genes competed hard to be selected.

“In the competition for food or mates or power some organisms succeed and some fail. In the struggle for existence some individuals are better equipped than others to meet the tests of survival... Nature loves difference as the necessary material of selection and evolution; identical twins differ in a hundred ways, and no two peas are alike.”

“Inequality is not only natural and inborn, it grows with the complexity of civilization. Hereditary inequalities breed social and artificial inequalities; every invention or discovery is made or seized by the exceptional individual, and makes the strong stronger, the weak relatively weaker, than before. Economic development specializes functions, differentiates abilities, and makes men unequally valuable to their group. If we knew our fellow men thoroughly we could select thirty per cent of them whose combined ability would equal that of all the rest… ”

“Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies. Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically… To check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed, as in Russia after 1917. Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom; and in the end superior ability has its way. Utopias of equality are biologically doomed, and the best that the amiable philosopher can hope for is an approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity.”

Ought it surprise? No. Because their contemporaries can be found in every part of the world. India included. Their roots can be traced from paths as diverse as opium to textiles. But their names are now literally inscribed in gold and uttered in hushed tones. Whether they implode or create more gold is something they can figure out if they choose to open the textbooks of history and look at the lessons of nature.

Lesson No. 3: life must breed

To compete hard and make it through the selection process, life must breed. A lot. But as competition declines, the inclination to select among the prosperous also declines. With it, decline is inevitable.

The Durants have documented it clinically after a lifetime of studying civilizations of all kinds. “Nature has no use for organisms, variations, or groups that cannot reproduce abundantly. She has a passion for quantity as prerequisite to the selection of quality; she likes large litters, and relishes the struggle that picks the surviving few; doubtless she looks on approvingly at the upstream race of a thousand sperms to fertilize one ovum. She is more interested in the species than in the individual, and makes little difference between civilization and barbarism. She does not care that a high birth rate has usually accompanied a culturally low civilization, and a low birth rate a civilization culturally high; and she (here meaning nature as the process of birth, variation, competition, selection, and survival) sees to it that a nation with a low birth rate shall be periodically chastened by some more virile and fertile group... If the human brood is too numerous for the food supply, nature has three agents for restoring the balance: famine, pestilence, and war.”

When looked at from a very pragmatic prism and in the current nature of things, if the birth rate in the US and Europe hadn’t declined, immigrants from other parts of the world, India included, couldn’t possibly have hit their shores and made it past the natives. There was an economic imperative to import talent.

But now the economic imperative to keep so-called foreign talent is high. But the problem with Anglo-Saxon power is that they don’t have the numbers on their side. That is something which by a quirk of fate now exists in this part of the world. It includes all kinds—the competent and the incompetent.

Within these, the competent will compete to surface and try elect themselves to the top. They will try their damndest best to dislodge the incumbents. The Durants make no attempt to answer it. Instead, they pose a question upfront.

“… In and after the 1492 the voyages of Columbus and Vasco da Gama invited men to brave the oceans; the sovereignty of the Mediterranean was challenged... The Atlantic nations rose and finally spread their suzerainty over half the world. Westward the course of the empire takes its way, wrote George Berkeley about 1730. Will it continue across the Pacific, exporting European and American industrial and commercial techniques to China, as formerly to Japan? Will Oriental fertility, working with the latest Occidental technology, bring the decline of the West?”

The irony again isn’t lost on Will and Arial Durant. That is why they conclude the essay on biology with a wry line: there is no humourist like history.

Charles Assisi is co-founder and director, Founding Fuel.

His Twitter handle is@c_assisi

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