Only the Strong Survive - A flawed way to view the world? - Joe Abittan - Elliot Liebow - Tell Them Who I Am

Only the Strong Survive

In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow included a short conversation about war he had with a homeless woman. The short conversation ended with the following quote from his conversation partner, “Some people believe that only the strong will survive. Can you imagine going through life believing something like that?” This line is almost a throwaway line in the book, and honestly within context the line seems relatively unnecessary and distracts from the larger point Liebow made with the larger conversation. However, I think the question is an excellent one to think about.
Our world has just wrapped up the 2020 Olympic Games, delayed one year by the COVID-19 pandemic. I watched a decent amount of track and field and caught a few commercials that reflect the general idea that most people have about the Olympics and the Athletes competing in the games. That typical notion is not far off from the idea that only the strongest survive, a message that is a little grating at a time where the pandemic is making another surge, right when we all hoped it would begin to fade away. Nevertheless, numerous commercials encouraged us to strive toward greatness, to be our best, to be strong, to persevere, and to overcome – by purchasing a new Toyota, using an American Express card, or doing/buying whatever the commercial was advertising. With this year’s Olympics, the idea was perhaps a little muted but still present – only the strong survive.
To live with this mindset is effectively to see the world as zero-sum. It is to see the world as split between the strong and the weak, the fit and the unfit, the survivors and everyone else. It is also to be constantly weary of not being enough and fearful of no longer being strong and able to survive. This mindset works within athletics and the Olympics, where people are pushing for gold medals and world records, but it doesn’t fit with life in modern, complex, and cooperative societies. As the woman that Liebow quotes seems to suggest, this mindset can be counterproductive and unhealthy in the real world.
A zero sum mindset means that you have to get all that you can, because if anyone else takes more than you, you are directly harmed. The strength of others is constantly a threat to you – potentially a mortal threat – since you can only guarantee your survival by being the strongest. This mindset also seems to dismiss the poor, the weak, and the disabled. It excuses a lack of concern for them, because our concern must be on making ourselves as fit as can be, and those who are weak are hopeless and helpless. Only one can win gold. The medal can’t be split among all, and trying to help those who you compete against means that you sacrifice your own strength and won’t end up winning in the end. An athlete who stops to check on a fallen competitor doesn’t get the gold, doesn’t get the world record, and doesn’t get the glory.
If instead we chose to believe in human rights, community, and the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats, then we have to abandon the idea that only the strong survive. We have to come together as a society and help each other all survive and pursue happiness in our own ways that allow us to work together. We have to create systems and structures that are positive sum, so that we increase the size of the pie, rather than compete for smaller and smaller slices as the strong take the most for themselves. To live in modern society we have to find ways to engage the disabled, to empower those who have been left behind, and to cooperate and coordinate together to make life better for all of us. In the end it is a less stressful and less threatening way to live, even if it means we will miss our individual glory of standing atop the podium, the strongest survivor of them all.

Generous Leadership

We tend to select leaders who see the world in a positive sum. We like leaders who can look ahead and project a way to create a rising tide that will lift all boats. We want leaders with empowering visions of the future and shared prosperity for all. We don’t want greedy leaders who are cunning, ruthless, and don’t care to share their bounty with the rest of us.

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson tie ideas of generosity and charity to leadership. Being charitable, giving away of lot of money, and investing a lot of time into something, shows that a person is willing to put others first, is willing to sacrifice something of their own for the good of society, and genuinely cares about other people and not just themselves. The authors write,

“This helps explain why generosity is so important for those who aspire to leadership. No one want leaders who play zero-sum, competitive games with the rest of society. If their wins are our losses, why should we support them? Instead we want leaders with a pro-social orientation, people who will look out for us because we’re all in it together.” 

Leadership is challenging because people don’t want to follow someone who is acting in their own self-interest. For all of us, it is a challenge to get beyond our own desires and to think about what is needed beyond our immediate concerns. To be a leader requires thinking beyond ourselves and having other people in mind when we decide what we are going to do, how we will use our resources, and generally how we will orientate our lives. We can’t be a leader if we are setting out to just be more than or better than others. People will see through us and our leadership will never take off.

The Challenge of Trying to Enlarge the Pie

I often feel that we are moving so fast toward the future that we are advancing beyond our means. I think we are in some ways exceeding the capacity that we have evolved to fit, and this is creating great challenges for humans across the globe. We have new technologies, new social structures, and new understandings of our places in the world and in the universe more broadly that exceed the type of living that we evolved to succeed within.

 

A passage from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain highlighted this for me. They write, “Despite the fact that it’s possible to cooperate, politically, in ways that “enlarge the pie” for everyone, this is the exception rather than the rule – especially for our distant ancestors. In most contexts, for one coalition to succeed, others must fail. Importantly, however, members within a coalition can earn themselves a larger slice of the pie by cooperating – a fact that makes politics such an intoxicating game.”

 

The line about our ancestors being incapable of expanding the pie for everyone is important. Without much technology, without shared languages and translation, and in a state of constant threat from nature, it is easy to see why our early ancestors were limited to a state of competition with each other for social status, sex, and resources. There simply were too few humans, too few easily accessible resources, and too few scalable technologies for everyone to be sufficiently comfortable and connected.

 

We now live in a new world, where literally 7.5 million people in the San Francisco metropolitan statistical area are constantly thinking about ways to build new technology to scale to improve the lives of all people, not just the people they are connected with. We understand that our actions can have global manifestations, and that we need global solutions to address climate change and other existential threats. Our technology and ways of thinking have surpassed the world our ancestors lived in, and have created a new game for us to play, however, we are still stuck in the zero-sum mindset of our ancestors, asking what we can do to get a bigger share of the pie for our narrow coalition.

 

Understanding why we fall into thinking about narrow coalitions is important. Recognizing the way our brains work and why they are limited helps us see new potentials. Understanding how we can change our thoughts and how we and others will react in a world that offers so much more is key to actually living up to our new potential as a global species.