The Pill at 50 – Complex Systems and The Evolution of Social Institutions

I read an interesting article on the plane from Victoria to Calgary on Saturday. Excellent piece of journalism.

I share this not so much because of my interest in the history of birth control, but rather because of the way in which illustrates the complexity of social organisms, and how one thing leads unexpectedly to the next. This is consistent with complexity theory. Relatively small changes that deal with the basic rules on which the system functions can quickly produce spectacular mutations. Relatively small change in the degrees of choice exercised by individuals within the system are one of those basic issues.

Regardless of which side of the birth control debate one was on or how one feels about the way things have turned out in that regard, it would be agreed that the consequences of giving women more control over their reproductive processes have been vastly different and more far-reaching than was anticipated. The same will, I believe, be said with regard to many other cultural battles now being fought. As the choice genie is released from the bottle, we tend to change in ways that are unimaginable prior to its release. And once changed, there is no going back.

From my point of view, this is good (more choice = good). And I mean real choice, not the kind of faux-choice by which we are surrounded (you CAN choose not to use the pill, but if you do you will go to Hell, and if many people do, you will collectively destroy society. Do you really want to do that?). That is not the kind of choice I have in mind.

I recognize that many will disagree with me in principle. That is, many people believe that choice is good up to a point, but that there are many issues that are like birth control from the Pope’s point of view – dogmatic no fly zones. And so, the birth control case study provides us all with interesting food for thought in this regard. It dealt with an aspect of human behavior that not long ago most people believed dogmatically to be under god’s direct control, and therefore not to be tampered with. That belief has changed with spectacular speed in many conservative religious groups. This is one of many lessons from history that should make us wonder about the nature of religious truth. Any other kind of dogmatic, certain-to-be-true, truth falls into the same category.

That is, the same lesson can be applied to other ideologies – market capitalism or our particular brand of democracy, for example. I make no comment in particular about the utility (or lack thereof) of these belief systems, but note that they are invested with the kind of sacrality in our society that puts them largely beyond question. They should be questioned. Our environmental problems and the recent financial disaster are now shining much needed light into various dark corners in this regard.

I stop far short of advocating that we should all break every rule. There is a point at which chaos could destroy us. However, the historical and other evidence strongly supports the view that society becomes less violent and standards of living go up (not an absolute good, but the elimination of poverty and improving long term sustainable living standards are widely lauded goals) as people become better informed about the probable consequences of their choices and are released from dogmatic beliefs, such as you will go to Hell if you use the Pill. That is a dogma most people have rejected, and so it is easy to spot. Current dogmas are much more difficult, hence the value of the lesson presented by the Pill. It may enable some of us to identify and question some of our remaining dogmas. I have mine, and would love to root a few more out of my brain.

Another aspect of the article that stood out to me was the way in which the Catholic Church responded to birth control. By taking a hard-line position that was too far out of step with the lived reality of their membership, Catholic leadership lost a significant percentage of their flock. This was one of the principal issues that during the course of two decades converted Québec from the most conservative, religious place in North America to the most secular, irreligious place. Similar changes occurred in profoundly Catholic France, Italy and other European jurisdictions at more or less the same time.

Religious leaders who allow the gap between the world as they see it and the world as seen by most of their followers, to become too large risk losing their leadership mandate. It was during the 50s through the 70s that it became commonplace for Catholics to consider themselves full-fledged members of that faith while ignoring the Pope. As the pace of cultural change continues to accelerate as a result of burgeoning communications media, the issue of relative symmetry between leadership and followership will become increasingly important for conservative religious organizations. Politicians and business leaders are finely tuned to this issue because of their elected status. If they lose touch with their constituency, they tend to lose the next election. The few religious leaders who are subject to similar discipline act in the same sensitive fashion as do politicians. Unelected leaders (including most religious leaders) behave differently. The most inflexible, who tend to be the most isolated from information that questions them, tend to lose their mandates abruptly when the transition point finally comes. And ironically, the isolation and inflexibility that will do this to them will also make them the last to become aware of it.

Another irony is that these leaders tend to deeply wound if not destroy the institutions they profess to love. This is because inflexible leadership, based on dogma, causes institutions to fail to serve their members while preserving leadership power in the short term. Think birth control again. The members can be tricked into acting against their own interests for a while (decades or even centuries, in some cases). But when the time to account finally comes, change is wrenching. Think of the European revolutions that brought democracy into vogue, or what happened when the Berlin Wall came down. Huge social institutions were swept away. The more gradual change that occurs as a result of the democratic election process maintains more alignment between leaders and followers, and therefore allow institutions to evolve in a way that gives them their best chance to remain useful, and hence to survive for the long haul.

Holding the belief that any belief is beyond question is, ironically, the surest way to kill the institution that is based on that belief. And leaders who profess that belief, usually in defence of an institution, tend in the end to be found to be trying to preserve the ability to exercise power. This kind of leadership is another high probability institution killer.

Yet again, we up to our ear lobes in irony.


2 thoughts on “The Pill at 50 – Complex Systems and The Evolution of Social Institutions

  1. I like this observation: “Holding the belief that any belief is beyond question is, ironically, the surest way to kill the institution that is based on that belief.”

  2. When I was born: blacks were second class humans because of they weren’t valent in the pre-existense, women were strongly counceled not to take birth control, men were head of the household, penalties existed for violation of endowment oaths, and the Lamanites were considered to be the predominate ancester of the Native American. Change in Momon doctrine and theology has been happening at amazing speed so one can only wonder what’s next.

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