As freedom unfolds this year in the Arab world, we can enjoy watching a beautiful fractal develop another level. What do fractals and the Arab Spring have to do with each other? Let’s first talk about fractals and morality.
A fractal is a “rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole,” according to Benoit Mandelbrot, one of the pioneers in the field.
Morality has been summarized as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” A central idea here is cooperation.
It occurs to me that morality — in the sense of cooperation — is like a fractal: composed of many nested parts, with the parts at each level similar to the ones at other levels.
The first protocells may have been composed of only two types of molecules: a fatty-acid membrane with RNA inside. The molecules weren’t doing much, but they were cooperating to form something which would later mutate into the cells we know today.
Modern cells display more developed cooperation, with specialized organelles providing energy, reproduction and other functions.
Building up from there, we have the body, again composed of specialized, quasi-independent parts in cooperation.
Fractal levels continue, including the family, the neighborhood, the town, the state and the nation — all based on the cooperation of somewhat autonomous agents. Religions display similar characteristics.
These fractal levels developed over time, elements of one level (e.g., the town) coalescing into the next (the nation-state). I say that this, like any fractal, is beautiful to contemplate.
The latest development has been called the Arab Spring. Across the Middle East, peoples are re-forming their governments along the cooperative model of democracy. That’s one level of progress — one fractal level.
Above that we have the international community dealing with one of the last beneficiaries of the Arab Spring, namely Libya. As Fareed Zakaria has observed, the United States, under the skillful leadership of President Obama, has engineered better balance between us and the Europeans to bring the Gadhafi regime to heel. Most surprising and encouraging of all has been the Arab League’s role in disciplining one of their own.
What’s next? Interplanetary cooperation? Galactic? Hmm… There is a resemblance…