Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Unnaturally Good

Building from a piece of the last post and from Neil's comment:

"Also, couldn't it be argued that this behavior is related evolutionarily to how many animal species treat the smaller and weaker of the litter ?"

Bullying.  Predation. Abuse and exploitation and even slavery...all are very, very natural things.  Ants milking aphids (or is it the other way around?).  Cats toying with mice.  The new leader of a pride of lions killing the cubs of the previous leader.  This is where we came from.  All of us.

A lot of it is very cold math.  If your tribe is starving you MUST take food or land from a neighboring tribe.  There are only three options-- 1) Refuse to take the land.  You and your children starve. None of us are the products of this choice. 2) Try to take the land and fail.  You leave no descendants.  None of us are the products of this choice. 3) Try to take the land and succeed.  We are all descended from people who made this choice.

If lion 'A' kills the previous leader's cubs and lion 'B' does not then B's cubs start out at a disadvantage. The killers win the darwin game.

And this is where people glitch.  There is an automatic assumption in our world that natural=good.  Most of what we call good is profoundly unnatural.  And it is still good.  Compassion for others outside our immediate gene pool? You will search long and hard for this in nature and if you can find an example it will be because the very oddity has drawn attention.  Natural sanitation systems?  Where is the gender equality in a pride of lions or a herd of deer or any other social mammal?

Do we have gender equality now?  Of course not.  But we have the idea. An idea not found in nature.  And we have decided it is good and many, many people are working for it.

You may or may not agree, but I like this civilization better than the natural world.  I love that I can cherish K instead of thinking of her as a commodity or a 'helpmate' or a gift from her parents to cement ties who could be traded off...

But this civilization, this concept of good, is an act of mass will.  It takes work and effort and conscious decisions every day.  Being a bully is natural.  Even the weak do it when they get the chance.  Exploiting is natural.  People do it unconsciously every day.  Seeing your impulses and choosing another course, a better way...

That is unnatural.
That is an act of will.
That is what being human is all about.

19 comments:

Adam said...

This unnatural behaviour is what makes us human. This is how we become (mostly) civilised.

Great little post. Says a lot. Some aspects of that primal behaviour are important when we cannot avoid violence. For pretty much the rest of the time we should try our best to be 'civilised'.

It is this civilisation that enables us to communicate and share ideas with other people from around the world and a WHOLE lot more...

It is this collective desire to be civilised that makes us different from the animal kingdom. To be knowledgable is to understand the animal ways as well as the civilised ways. Great little piece Rory.

Cheers,

Adam

Adam said...

This unnatural behaviour is what makes us human. This is how we become (mostly) civilised.

Great little post. Says a lot. Some aspects of that primal behaviour are important when we cannot avoid violence. For pretty much the rest of the time we should try our best to be 'civilised'.

It is this civilisation that enables us to communicate and share ideas with other people from around the world and a WHOLE lot more...

It is this collective desire to be civilised that makes us different from the animal kingdom. To be knowledgable is to understand the animal ways as well as the civilised ways. Great little piece Rory.

Cheers,

Adam

Josh K. said...

Weak / Strong

Life is not fair!

There are Weak and Strong people in this world. I'm talking in ability and skills, i.e., we all have our strengths and weakness.

There are two main philosophy or camps for dealing with this quandary.

One camp believes that we should help the weaker among us become stronger.  This way they can compete and hold their own. 

One camp believes we should place limits on and weaken the strong, so that they can't take advantage of those weaker than them.

One strengthens the whole, and one weakens the whole.


Josh

tenpennynail said...

From Adam's Post: "Some aspects of that primal behaviour are important when we cannot avoid violence. For pretty much the rest of the time we should try our best to be 'civilised'."

Doesn't this make violence and civilized at opposite ends of a scale? I believe this is a false dichotomy, and that there is nothing inherent in violence that makes it uncivilized. It's the goals and the purpose of the violence that determine its value.

Charles James said...

Deep, this is deep .... thanks.

Mike Panian said...

There are lots of examples of cooperative social behavior and nurturing out there in the "natural" world right along side examples of predation and dominance. The existence of pack behavior at all is about co-operation which is one of the places that altruism rises from. It has been argued that the greatest advantage that human beings have is their natural ability to put themselves in someone else's boots. A sticking point in biology is the idea that the focal point of evolution is the individual...not the group and so why would there be selection for being a nice and generous guy when you are giving away your resources to support some other gene pool? The answer is that amazingly groups that co-operate beat out other groups that feed on one another. That is natural too. I agree with the sentiment of this post mind you, I am just sayin..

This idea kind of reminds me of an old debate (really old) about the inherent nature of humans. Are we capable of being good guys without divine intervention (Pelagius) or do we need divine intervention to be good guys (Augustine). That's how they argued things back then between 350 and 400 AD anyway. The point is that people have been wondering why bullies have been assholes for a long time.

Lisa said...

I like it very much, especially the part at the end (with my emphasis):

That is unnatural.
That is an act of will.
That is what being human is all about.

Rory said...

Tennpenny-
Agreed.

Mike-
That's why I was very specific about compassion outside the immediate gene pool. Pack behavior is within the gene pool.

And I'm of the opinion that humans aren't inherently good. We made ourselves that way, and we had to invent the concept from whole cloth to do it. That's pretty damn special.

But the whole talk about 'good' and 'bad' and 'sin' and what they mean and what they used to mean is better for a long talk over beer.

RXian said...

We are mice and gods and everything between.

Excellent post.

Mike Panian said...

Rory,

So there are three options...we are inherently good, we are inherently bad, and we have free will and we chose. Yes the stuff of a beer discussion...

Anonymous said...

http://9gag.com/gag/6001815?ref=fb.s

random acts of kindness - try it - it's fun

Chris McKenna said...

Hey Rory:

I'm mostly on board with what your saying, but I do think its worth exploring some of the counter arguments, particularly scientists who are "setting right" some of the mis-characterizations of Darwin.

Dacher Keltner is particular is interesting in this regard; see "Born to Be Good"; http://www.amazon.com/Born-Be-Good-Science-Meaningful/dp/0393337138

Love your blog... I've learned a lot reading you.

Chris

Anonymous said...

Also a good RadioLab on the subject of how our "goodness" was actually necessary for our survival. You can listen to it here:
http://www.radiolab.org/2010/dec/14/

Also see the works of Robert Axelrod:
Robert Axelrod

cheers,
David

Josh K. said...

As a mater of self-interest I want those around me to be resonable happy & stable in their security.

The order of consideration is self-first then family, extended family, acquaintances, local comunity and then world at large.

This doesn't mean living at the expense of others, but we shouldn't allow others to live at our expense either.

Groups that cooperate can accomplish great things, but those groups were some members live at the expence or rely on other member are inherently weaker than groups that insure all member are held to the same high standard.

Self-sacrifice is saying one person or sub-group is more Important than another. The only place I see this as being valid is from a biological perspective of men being less valuable than women as a means of reporducing & insuring the continued existence of the species.

Other than that, can you name one instance where I or anyone should sacrifice for someone else if they are not willing to sacrifice for themselves?

Josh

Vaughn said...

Why not both inherently good and inherently bad, but just exhibit different aspects at different times?

Unknown said...

Fuck me. You're an intelligent thug!

Cheers
Jol

Adam said...

@ tenpennynail It really depends what your definition of civilization is and what civilization should be. Between where it is now and where it should go is where it is going (or has the potential to go) in the medium term.

Your suggestion that civilization and violence are at extremes of some sort of scale I believe to be false. I agree with you there. There is no scale such as this.

I agree that the purpose of violence determines its value. Violence in self defence is always warranted. There is always 'value' in this form of violence.

It is the initiator of violence that forces a self defence response and that criminal use of violence that unbecomes a great and advanced civilization.

And no, I do not think we are currently living in a great civilization. We are on a path that will hopefully move towards that status. There are many things we need to overcome before we can consider ourselves a great civilization despite all of the great things happening in the world. There is so much baggage that needs to be cut away. That baggage is for another time...

So it is that criminal initiated violence used against a 'target' of some sort that should not be part of a civilized society.

This begs another question. Is it even possible to have a peaceful mostly non violent civilization? Is violence and struggle an absolutely necessary component for change, development and evolution?

Some good discussion in the comments.

By the way Mike, at the moment I don't necessarily think we have free will. I am still pondering this position. Check out the work of Sam Harris called 'Free Will' on this. A game changing consideration. This means criminals do not have free will when they attack. Anybody with the genetic make up and upbringing of them would do the exact same thing. They are a piece of meat following their script for life, their course of life. Their actions are not personal.

Cheers,

Adam

Matt said...

Might you be persuaded to inconvenience yourself to aid a child in distress?

StevieMac said...

"Most of what we call good is profoundly unnatural. And it is still good. Compassion for others outside our immediate gene pool? You will search long and hard for this in nature..."

Why judge what is natural for us based on what other species do? With this thinking, you would conclude that it is not natural to use language, to use syntax, yet it is completely natural for humans and even uniquely inherent in our genetic makeup and brains.

It is theoretically possible that humans have evolved a degree of concern for others or kindness towards others outside immediate kin that is not found in any other species. That trait or propensity could have been selected for just since the agricultural revolution.

We have at least the natural capacities for both compassion and reasoning that make us uniquely able to widen our circle of compassion. How is that unnatural when it occurs in nature in the human species?

(What is meant by 'natural' anyway? Putting that kind of compassion in practice may follow from a particular upbringing but so does the opposite- what human life and human behaviour do not? We are behaviorally flexible by nature, by evolution.)

When my grandmother sees a starving child on the television and it pains her heart, appeals to her maternal instincts and mobilises her to action, that seems to follow from a deeply natural part of her. It does not seem to be an act of will that goes against her nature.

"I love that I can cherish K instead of thinking of her as a commodity or a 'helpmate' or a gift from her parents to cement ties who could be traded off..."

Did our prehistoric ancestors (and more recent ancestors) not cherish their spouses and kinfolk? I think they did. Why couldn't they even think of her as a helpmate and cherish her at the same time? Cherishing ones spouse might even occur in other animals. Some pair for life. I don't know the extent of their emotional lives but they seem capable of affection and devotion at least.

(post about bullying to follow)