A Study of the inherence of altruism in us
by Hazel Anna Rogers
Why be kind? I have dwelled long over this statement, questioning why it is that I specifically choose not to allow egoism to cloud my everyday judgements. It seems logical that I should wish to advance myself and pursue my own avaricious pleasures for the purpose of power, and why not? Why don’t I aim at ultimate power over my fellow humans, rather than waste my time being nice for no obvious gain?
Before delving deeper into such a question, I must admit that I was quite the skeptic of the “inherence of altruism in the human” that I will discuss in this article. In day-to-day living, I would say that I am inclined to believe people are intrinsically good, or at least not evil per se, but with regards to altruism I would argue on the subject of psychological egoism; even if not materially, are we not rewarded through self-gratification? Perhaps I am being too cynical. Does it matter if we are rewarded or not? Indeed, being kind is good in itself, is it not? Without some level of cooperation, kindness, and “selfless” acts of care to our kin and, to some extent, our foes, it doesn’t seem as though we would have progressed in creating a functioning civilization that is not perpetually at war with itself.
Evolutionary game theory suggests that empathy “might be responsible for sustaining such extraordinarily high levels of cooperation in modern society”* Certainly, in considering such a statement, one must consider why simple evolutionary empathy would uphold cooperation with strangers so effectively. Altruistic acts, as I’m sure you have experienced, instill one’s reputation as a morally “good” character that can be trusted and relied upon, so one would have reason for maintaining their own empathic tendencies, or even increasing their proliferation of such predispositions to ensure the forward trajectory of community and civilization as a whole.
*(Arunas L. Radzilavicius (Postdoctoral Researcher of Evolutionary Biology, University of Pennyslvannia), The Conversation, Biologists Think They’ve Found The Secret Ingredient That Made Civilization Possible, on Science Alert, April 14th, 2019).
Ira Byock writes in her novel The Best Care Possible: A Physician’s Quest to Transform Care Through the End of Life (Avery, 2012) of anthropologist Margaret Mead. Allegedly, Mead suggested to one of her own students that the most significant evidence of the emergence of civilization was the discovery of a 15,000-year-old fractured and healed femur on an archaeological site. Such an injury would have taken at least 2 months to heal, a luxury no other animal can afford to take. This healed bone implies the altruism of early humanity, of empathy between human and human to not leave one another behind. Arbitrary definitions of what distinguishes a so-called “Cradle of Civilization” (a site where civilization is believed to have emerged) have indeed proved popular, whether they be the evidence of public buildings, historic architecture, writings, a class-founded system of agriculture…but these seem all to implicate materiality as the foundation of a cooperative working model of civilization, rather than the evolutionary phenomena of the intricate mind of man.
I suppose here I must distinguish the word “civilization” from whatever notions you might already have about it. To be “civilized” is a much-argued concept. Prominent American anthropologist Helville J. Herskovits propounded in his 1948 Man and His Works that “Cultures are sometimes evaluated by the use of the designations ‘civilized’ and ‘primitive’. These terms have a “deceptive simplicity and attempts to document the differences implied in them have proved to be of unexpected difficulty.” I must wholeheartedly agree. I think this statement is part of the reason that I am so taken by Mead’s own theory – her hypothesis rejects the prejudices associated with the words “civilized” and “barbarous” that frame our concept of how civilization began and what defines its progress. Her concept implies that we should redefine our ideas about humanity’s modern evolutionary trajectory as something entirely material or identified by Western-centric social norms, like modesty, politeness, cleanliness, and (ill-defined) intelligence. Such prejudices about what is “barbaric” as opposed to what is “civilized” can be observed in theologian John Henry Newman’s writings: “By ‘barbarism’…in itself is meant a state of nature; and by ‘civilization’, a state of mental cultivation and discipline…Brutes act upon instinct, not reason” (Lectures on the History of the Turks, in Their Relation to Europe, 1908, p. 163). I am sure you have had your own experiences of presuming such value-judgements; using the term “Third World Country” or believing the lyrics of the infamous “Band Aid” Christmas song – Do they know it’s Christmas Time at all – all such views instill the idea that a Christian-based, high-functioning, capitalistic society is an indicator of progression and evolution for humanity. Is this not, as philosopher Jay Newman suggests, “substituting moralizing for describing?” (Two Theories of Civilization, Philosophy, Vol. 54, No. 210, 1979, p. 480). Newman also indicates that one could argue that “human society is degenerating rather than improving. Many an historian looks to the glory of ancient cultures and condemns the ‘sterility’ of our own” (ibidem, p. 482). After all, it is clear that we are by no means more peaceful here in the Western world than in other areas of the planet – our class system is discriminatory, our society is geared around individualistic interest over community support, and conflict is rife both at home and in our political interventions abroad.
Here I shall come back to that initial idea of kindness. Journalist Suzanne Harrington comments on modern-day altruism by referring rather sardonically to the current coronavirus pandemic: “Our initial reaction to the first global pandemic in over a century has been individualism rather than collectivism – panic buying, hoarding, profiteering” (We humans are programmed for kindness, here’s how to stockpile it, Irish Examiner, March 2020). She has a very pertinent point here. Regardless of how innate kindness and empathy are to us as a species, upbringing, cultural values, and self-interest can sometimes rise above these traits in times of crisis.
Referring back to Mead’s theory, I would also like to comment that I consider it a blindly anthropocentric view to suggest that just because other animals cannot afford to stay and care for their wounded implies that we are more advanced than they are. This goes back to the idea of “barbarity” versus “civility” – in suggesting that we have more capacity for emotional investment and love for our own species than others do, we fail to examine and consider the horrors of unnecessary modern warfare, racism, sexism, homophobia, greed…all such traits and acts that do not seem to play such a significant part in the animal kingdom, save for fighting out of necessity to survive.
I suppose you might be wondering what I’m trying to say. Despite psychologist Dacher Keltner’s observation that humans have “remarkable tendencies toward kindness, play, generosity, reverence and self-sacrifice, which are vital to the classic tasks of evolution” (Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life), we continue to cultivate cruelty towards our fellow beings for various, and often senseless, reasons. Perhaps Mead was right in suggesting that by working together and caring for one another we managed to cooperate enough to create great cities, working infrastructures, and societal order, but I would argue that one sees such acts in the animal world too. Just acknowledging that we have altruistic traits does not feel like enough unless we use such traits for positive change.
Maybe it is dismissive to assume, like I did earlier, that we have only evolved to behave voluntarily altruistically for personal gain and gratification. The development of the human mind, including our ability for spontaneous and complex thought processes means that we could (potentially) very easily have given up on the simple acts of kindness that one sees every day in favor of the evolutionary advancement of humanity in a survival of the fittest sort of manner. Though I have alluded to the avarice apparent in some individuals during this pandemic, there were also many unmistakable acts of kindness towards communities and strangers from many persons throughout 2020. People played music from their balconies to bring others joy during confinement, people brought food to those unable to leave their homes, people gave up their time to help the homeless in their cities. These are surely acts that validate Mead’s concept, acts that give hope and meaning to human existence. Psychologist Jean Piaget observed that, upon playing marbles with some children in Geneva, that they developed frameworks defined by fairness, and that this altruism for their fellow game players was altogether instinctive. They understood that without rules one could not play fairly. Why would such a complex awareness of the rules of fair game playing endure in the human psyche if it wasn’t essential to evolution and the growth of civilization?
Many species have developed systems of community aid to create the ecological equilibrium that enables all beings to thrive independently of one another; trees use a system called the “Wood Wide Web,” a fungal grid that allows them to share resources and “talk” to one another; the Egyptian crocodile and the plover bird have a unique relationship whereupon the plover stands in the crocodile’s mouth and eats remnants from between its teeth, at once feeding the bird while also keeping up the dental hygiene of its croc companion. Human-animal relations have been just as important as our inner-species relations in our evolution; the domestication of cats is often seen as one of the most important aspects in the establishment of permanent agricultural settlements, whereupon the felines would help to protect grain from rodents to enable human survival, especially in the winter months; Buddhists consider humans and animals as spiritually and posthumously intertwined, and in East Asian Buddhist countries certain areas of land and water are protected from fishing and hunting, helping to preserve the natural habitats of the animals living there. The mutual unconscious understanding of all beings to uphold environmental stability seems almost too perfect a system to not have been executed and planned by a higher entity. In saying this, the idea of human superiority and kingship over the natural world is ever prevalent and is increasingly leading to the dilapidation of the divine balance that keeps the world from collapsing into chaos. Deforestation, excessive consumption of meat, the creation of more and more plastic that pollutes our lands and oceans, overfishing, fracking, natural fuel mining…all these issues implicate in us our other innate attribute aside from altruism: selfishness.
Anthropologist Melvin Konner purports that “Empathy is in us from the beginning, a kind of emotional-brain resonance enhanced by mirror neurons” (Why Be Good?, Center for Humans & Nature, Sep. 2015), but with all of the pain and suffering we induce upon our fellow species and other world-dwelling beings, how can we hope to progress any further than Mead’s femur-proof of civilization? What is to say we have progressed further? What really indicates the movement and evolution of a species? Is it intelligence, the intelligence we use to create more technology to spend our time using, the intelligence that produces quicker cars, the intelligence that makes tastier and unhealthier convenience foods that discourage us from cooking our own? All of these things are what we use our precious and best minds for, rather than solving the most pressing problems of our times: chronic illness, filthy water, deep poverty, poor education, and rampant discrimination. One must wonder how, if society as a whole is really so very empathic, why we have not dedicated all of our minds to creating a world of peace and love. We have the capacity, the resources, and the know-how to do so, but we still haven’t. I could continue going on this topic, and I am most certain that it would end up as a sort of anti-establishment, anti-whatever-you-can-imagine manifesto, but I’m sure you get the message. Whether or not society progressed as a result of our altruistic nature, and Mead’s lovingly healed femur, I believe we could all do more to share our kindness and love with others. I know I could.
Carl Kruse Blog Homepage
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other writings by Hazel Anna Rogers include Reveries of Starvation, Music, Memory and the Cloud, Neurosis in Santorini, and a poem.
The blogs last post was on the Winter Solstice.
To more kindness in the world. – Carl Kruse