Sunday, March 14, 2010

A Darwinist Against Social Darwinism: I

Not By Competition Alone. Frans de Waal on the Origins of Altruism and Empathy

As I've stated in earlier posts, I see no particular reason for us to pit science against religion. Some people consider that a self-deluding dodge, but I really don't have a problem with Darwinism. I have no problem accepting the Theory of Evolution, although I do have strong concerns that if left philosophically unchecked, if misconstrued or narrowly construed, if taken exclusively as the basis for ethics and morality, it can lead to Social Darwinism and eventually towards Eugenics. We've seen ample evidence of this within the past 150 years.

In this present age full of apologists and polemicists I find Frans de Waal a breath of fresh air. He mitigates my fears towards Darwinism to a certain extent. If only there were more spokesmen like him coming from that side.

De Waal is a primatologist who teaches at Emory University, where he also heads up the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. I first became aware of this good-natured Dutchman last year when I read his book Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. In that work he presented his thesis, based upon his long study of primates, that morality is not limited to humans alone and that certain traits we share with other primates such as kindness, altruism, and empathy have biological origins built upon the principles of natural selection. In the book he also takes to task and debates several philosophers and evolutionary psychologists such as Robert Wright, Philip Kitcher, and Peter Singer, who tend to argue (I think) that de Waal anthropomorphizes animals, and that what he (and we) call morality and altruism is really self-serving behavior at its very root, and that our selfish genes in a sense "trick" us into thinking we are doing something good for someone else when we are really just looking after ourselves. In one particular chapter I thought he did a terrific job arguing against the bizarre Peter Singer, an ardent advocate of animal rights, that animals don't have "rights" per se, but that people should find it imperative to treat them ethically and with dignity in any case.

This past year de Waal has expanded on his general theme in The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society. Following a decade of war, terror, the failure of various institutions and the ruination of the Western financial sector due to greed, speculation, and deregulation, he ponders the lessons we humans might want to take from nature and from evolution, as properly understood, rather than improperly understood.

I know he's a scientist, a skeptic in matters of faith, an agnostic at the very least and probably an atheist, but I appreciate his tone and his irenicism. I have a feeling that he, as one of a large Dutch family of seven children if I recall correctly, is willing to engage with people of faith and good will quite differently from the likes of evolutionary fundamentalists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens,who've inherited that specifically English strand of virulently knee-jerk anti-Catholicism, which, if my perusal of the comboxes attached to recent articles on Catholic topics in The Times and The Guardian indicates, is very much alive and well there.

An excerpt from The Age of Empathy:

We are group animals: highly cooperative, sensitive to injustice, sometimes warmongering, but mostly peace loving. A society that ignores these tendencies can’t be optimal. True, we are also incentive-driven animals, focused on status, territory; and food security, so that any society that ignores those tendencies can’t be optimal, either. There is both a social and a selfish side to our species. But since the latter is, at least in the West, the dominant assumption, my focus will be on the former: the role of empathy and social connectedness.

There is exciting new research about the origins of altruism and fairness in both ourselves and other animals. For example, if one gives two monkeys hugely different rewards for the same task, the one who gets the short end of the stick simply refuses to perform. In our own species, too, individuals reject income if they feel the distribution is unfair. Since any income should beat none at all, this means that both monkeys and people fail to follow the profit principle to the letter. By protesting against unfairness their behavior supports both the claim that incentives matter and that there is a natural dislike of injustice.

Yet in some ways we seem to be moving ever closer to a society with no solidarity whatsoever, one in which a lot of people can expect the short end of the stick. To reconcile this trend with good old Christian values, such as care for the sick and poor, may seem hopeless. But one common strategy is to point the finger at the victims. If the poor can be blamed for being poor, everyone else is off the hook. Thus, a year after Katrina, Newt Gingrich, a prominent conservative politician called for an investigation into the “failure of citizenship” of people who had been unsuccessful escaping from the hurricane.

Those who highlight individual freedom often regard collective interests as a romantic notion, something for sissies and communists. They prefer an every-man-for-himself logic. For example, instead of spending money on levees that protect an entire region, why not let everyone take care of their own safety? A new company in Florida is doing just that, renting out seats on private jets to fly people out of places threatened by hurricanes. This way, those who can afford it won’t need to drive out at five miles per hour with the rest of the populace.

Every society has to deal with this me-first attitude. I see it play out every day. And here I am not referring to people, but to chimpanzees at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, where I work. At our field station northeast of Atlanta, we house chimps in large outdoor corrals, sometimes providing them with shareable food, such as watermelons. Most of the apes want to be the first to put their hands on our food, because once they have it, it’s rarely taken away by others. There actually exists respect of ownership, so that even the lowest-ranking female is allowed to keep her food by the most dominant male. Food possessors are often approached by others with an outstretched hand (a gesture that is also the universal way humans ask for a handout). The apes beg and whine, literally whimpering in the face of the other. If the possessor doesn’t give in, beggars may throw a fit, screaming and rolling around as if the world is coming to an end.

My point is that there is both ownership and sharing. In the end, usually within twenty minutes, all of the chimpanzees in the group will have some food. Owners share with their best buddies and family, who in turn share with their best buddies and family. It is a rather peaceful scene even though there is also quite a bit of jostling for position. I still remember a camera crew filming a sharing session and the cameraman turning to me and saying, “I should show this to my kids. They could learn from it.”

So, don’t believe anyone who says that since nature is based on a struggle for life, we need to live like this as well. Many animals survive not by eliminating each other or keeping everything for themselves, but by cooperating and sharing. This applies most definitely to pack hunters, such as wolves or killer whales, but also to our closest relatives, the primates. In a study done at Tai National Park, in Ivory Coast, chimpanzees took care of group mates wounded by leopards; they licked their mates’ blood, carefully removed dirt, and waved away flies that came near the wounds. They protected injured companions and slowed down during travel in order to accommodate them. All of this makes perfect sense, given that chimpanzees live in groups for a reason, the same way wolves and humans are group animals for a reason. If man is wolf to man, he is so in every sense, not just the negative one. We would not be where we are today had our ancestors been socially aloof.

What we need is a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature. Too many economists and politicians model human society on the perpetual struggle they believe exists in nature, but which is a mere projection. Like magicians, they first throw their ideological prejudices into the hat of nature, then pull them out by their very ears to show how much nature agrees with them. It’s a trick we have fallen for for too long. Obviously, competition is part of the picture, but humans can’t live by competition alone.

In Part II, Frans de Waal will straighten out Milton Friedman, Enron's Jeff Skilling, and Richard Dawkins.

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