Genocidal Altruists: Are We ‘Naturally’ Violent? Altruistic? Both?

“We know that we are apes, but we cannot be classified simplistically as ‘naked apes’ or ‘killer apes’ or ‘moral apes.’…Our past is complicated; so is our present, and so will be our future.” – Paul Ehrlich (2000: 331)

“When we are bad, we are worse than any primate that I know. And when we are good, we are actually better and more altruistic than any primate that I know. ” – Frans de Waal

The Eagles headed back to their cabin feeling dejected after losing a tug-of-war contest to their rivals, the Rattlers. Along the way, one of the boys noticed the Rattlers had forgotten their flag on the baseball field, leaving it unprotected. Craig and Mason soon seized it, but struggled to tear it to pieces. McGraw then presented some matches and suggested they burn it instead. The group then hung the flag’s charred remains from the top of the backstop fence. Mason said, “You can tell those guys I did it. If they say anything I’ll fight ‘em.”

The above scene is from the psychologist Muzafer Sherif’s classic social psychology experiment at Robbers Cave, Oklahoma during the summer of 1954. Sherif divided twenty-two 11-year-old boys with comparable backgrounds into two even groups at nearby cabin sites, with the boys kept unaware of the other group’s existence.

After giving them a week to bond among themselves, Sherif introduced the groups to each other and announced that they would be competing for prizes in team sports and other events. Eventually the rivalry grew heated, and the boys turned to name-calling, flag-burning, and vandalizing each other’s cabins. The competition nearly escalated into serious violence, with sticks and rocks as potential weapons, before adults intervened.   

Sherif’s experiment is sometimes cited as a depressing warning of how easily people can slide into “us versus them” hostilities, even if the groups are formed rather arbitrarily, and even if we’re only talking about preadolescent boys with little at stake except ego and trivial prizes. There is truth to that warning. People can cling tightly to group identities, sometimes resulting in serious animosity toward outsiders.

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Facing Mortality

Oliver Sacks’ essay on learning that, at age 81, he has terminal cancer is one of the most beautiful things I have read. I hope that one day I can confront my own mortality with such perspective and dignity. Life is still beautiful.

Sacks concludes: 

There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

 

Over-thinking Love

Since yesterday was Valentine’s Day….

http://kevishere.com/category/love/

Love Models

Kata’s Story

We’ve gotten a lot of snow over the past week in our area, so after I got home from work this afternoon, I shoveled snow for my older neighbor down the street. As soon as I started, I heard someone yelling, trying to get my attention. It was yet another neighbor, an older woman I’d never met before, and she was unable to get her car up the steep, icy incline in her driveway.

She asked for my help, and detecting an accent, I asked where she was born. “Budapest,” she smiled. “If I had four-wheel drive, I could make it, but all I have is this shitty Kia. This driveway is terrible. When I bought this house, it was in September; if I had known how terrible it would be in the winter, I wouldn’t buy it. And I can’t leave the car here. It will slide back into the street. I also have a bad hip so it is hard for me to walk on the snow.” I chuckled at her forwardness and colorful language, especially for an older woman I just met.

I did my best to clear the driveway, chipping at the ice with a garden spade, and scattering some salt, but it didn’t work. She would attempt the climb, and then slide back down again. After several tries, she asked me to drive her car. I backed up into another neighbor’s driveway across the street to build as much momentum as possible, and it worked.

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Compromise and the Eternal Struggle

“There have been four sorts of ages in the world’s history. There have been ages when everybody thought they knew everything, ages when nobody thought they knew anything, ages when clever people thought they knew much and stupid people thought they knew little, and ages when stupid people thought they knew much and clever people thought they knew little. The first sort of age is one of stability, the second of slow decay, the third of progress, and the fourth of disaster.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                         – Bertrand Russell, Mortals and Others (1931: 106)

“Spare me the true believer.”       my father

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I recently found the below essay, “A Message to the 21st Century,” written by Isaiah Berlin. Apparently, he wrote it in 1994 after he was given an honorary doctorate degree by the University of Toronto. The heart of the essay is a warning against fanaticism, a reminder of the need to be aware of our own limitations, and the wisdom of the unavoidable need for compromise. We all have values that we hold more dearly than others, but they inevitably clash. Berlin advocated, wisely, that we seek balance among our values (freedom and equality, for example), rather than championing one exclusively above all others.

As Bertrand Russell cautioned, disaster is most likely to occur when we are overconfident in our convictions, particularly when those convictions have little merit. It seems to me that the solution is to retain some humility, no matter how much we think we know (rather than being limited to the people Russell would categorize as ‘stupid.’)  

I’ve pasted parts of Berlin’s essay below, boldfacing some of the parts that resonated with me. I recommend reading it in its entirety.

 

“There are men who will kill and maim with a tranquil conscience under the influence of the words and writings of some of those who are certain that they know perfection can be reached.

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Genocidal Altruists

A friend asked if I’d consider writing something on human nature for the evolution-themed website This View of Life, which was just published today. I really struggled with it and kept putting it down and picking it back up again because it seemed like well-worn territory and I wasn’t sure if I was saying anything new. Anyway, I came up with an essay I first titled “Conflict, Cooperation, and Complex Apes” (the complex apes being us, of course). This was changed to “Genocidal Altruists,” a much catchier title I have to admit. In a nutshell…

The challenge is not to figure out whether our species is inherently violent or altruistic, but why both extreme capacities are found within a single species, and what circumstances and social structures facilitate or impede those behaviors.”

 

Homer’s inner angel and devil. Which one we listen to probably depends on many factors.

Sapiosexuality & Our Behavioral Complexity

You know, animals have sex. It’s biology, it’s natural instinct. We are the only ones who have an erotic life, which means that it’s sexuality transformed by the human imagination.”  — Esther Perel

One of the reasons some cultural elitists – political pundits, novelists, intellectuals – tend to be so unsettled by the Internet is that it has revealed how oceanically broad are the interests of the public in general. Before the Internet, with no way of observing the obsessions of the masses, it was a lot easier to pretend that these obsessions simply didn’t exist; that the nation was “united” around caring about the same small number of movies, weekly magazines, novels, political issues, or personalities. This was probably always a self-flattering illusion for the folks who ran things. The Internet destroyed it. When you gaze …upon the Pacific of strangeness online, you confront the astonishing diversity of human passion.”  – Clive Thompson (2013) Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better

Kissing, by Alex Grey.

Kissing, by Alex Grey. (alexgrey.com)

                                                                                 ~~~~~~~

Please bear with me as I try to connect two not very obviously connected ideas: romantic love and our species’ behavioral flexibility. I don’t have it all worked out. Perhaps I’m going down the wrong path altogether.

I started thinking about these things after several friends on social media shared this Mandy Len Catron essay: “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This”. Catron describes a time that she and a male acquaintance intentionally tried to induce feelings of romantic love. To do this, they followed two steps, borrowed from a study done by the psychologist Arthur Aron. First, they asked each other a series of 36 increasingly intimate questions. Next, they stared into each other’s eyes for four uninterrupted minutes.

My first reaction when I went through the questions was that I can see how they could elicit feelings of intimacy under the right circumstances and with the right person. To work through all 36 of them would take some time, as they are not typical of everyday conversation. Time itself is could be a factor in bonding. To answer each question would require some thought, as they do not have prepared, canned responses. Some examples from Aron’s list:

  • Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
  • Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
  • Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
  • What is your most treasured memory? Continue reading