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Monday, May 6, 2013

We All Take Care Of Each Other, Whether Badly Or Well

Photo: Harlan H.

The title of this post is the Deconstructing The Manifest sub-tag (see the header of this blog) that has been there from the beginning. I find it to be a statement of revealed truth, as opposed to a manifesto, or to an aspirational sentiment of some kind.

Like most sane people, I've an aversion to vain protests against the nature of reality, and to the subset of that genre that involves the overly-romantic hopes of a certain kind of progressive - those that hold to a vision of transcendent evolution that pumps the hopes of New Age or Singularity acolytes. This is not to say that I'm in the that's-just-the-way-things-are camp, either - between these two straw-poles (see what I did there?) lie a place where one can see where one is going wrong, and make the appropriate adjustment without invoking the need for mystical transformation or, on the other hand, pleading for the return of an idealized baseline of traditional nature.

We may not be Übermenschen-in-waiting, but we are also not doomed to be Hobbesian red-in-tooth-and-claw primitives, either.

If there is a unifying cant here at this blog, it is encapsulated in "We all take care of each other, whether badly or well."* It has been a recurring theme that I see us as having certain evolutionary attributes that define us as "human beings," richly shaped by the give-and-take of what Darwin called "natural selection" - those that birthed us as proto-humans, and the subsequent negotiations that go on between a hard world and a collective intelligence.

It's that intelligence, collective or otherwise, that is the thing. The blessed curse of self-awareness, along with the undeniable wit and cleverness of the human mind, is what gives us the "opportunity" to behave like Churchill's Americans - poking about with a multitude of bad ideas and decisions before resting on - or, more likely, being forcibly confronted with - the right thing to do.

One of those bad ideas or decisions is Capitalism - another regularly-appearing villain at this blog. It is not that I think that we are bad or stupid people because we are inclined towards Capitalism, because I don't think we're actually inclined towards it at all. I think it will be shown to have (and I am of course not the first to talk of the sale of the hanging rope) a pretty short shelf-life at the proper historical scale, and one hopes that the expiration date is near, because the machinations of humankind at the moment, in the vain service of propping up this system, are getting pretty ugly and people are getting hurt.

(I'm also hoping that unfolding events will not support the conclusion that we are indeed pretty stupid, but that's a "behave if true" position, hopefully not too fantastic or idealistic.)

And so, I am going to confess a certain bias towards what psychologist Michael Tomasello seems to be gleaning from his studies:
[Darwin’s] 1871 book The Descent of Man argued that the human species had succeeded because of traits like sharing and compassion. “Those communities,” he wrote, “which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” Darwin was no economist, but wealth-sharing and cooperation have always looked more consistent with his observations about human survival than the elitism and hierarchy that dominates contemporary corporate life.

...New peer-reviewed research by Michael Tomasello, an American psychologist and co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, has synthesized three decades of research to develop a comprehensive evolutionary theory of human cooperation...

“The result,” says Tomasello, “was a new kind of interdependence and group-mindedness that went well beyond the joint intentionality of small-scale cooperation to a kind of collective intentionality at the level of the entire society.”

...As Darwin concluded in The Descent of Man, “The more enduring social instincts conquer the less persistent instincts.”...

- Eric Michael Johnson,
Survival of the ... Nicest? Check Out the Other Theory of Evolution, posted at
Of course, I've left out the "meat" of the article - go read it.

The simple takeaway here is that taking care of each other - whether badly or well - is a Darwinian "enduring social instinct." We will all be much better off if we stop trying to fight it off, with our lofty philosophies of individuality. They serve us in the pursuit of our narcissistic, and admittedly often beautiful, pursuit of art and the life of the mind, but we make a grave error trying to shoe-horn our natural, physical existence and our relationships with each other into them.

For, if not, we will continue nonetheless to take care of each other... badly.

*As a deconstructionist by inclination, I am not comfortable with declarative statements, naked of the scrutiny context brings. "Whether badly or well" provides the right amount of qualification, I think, to make it a worthy aphorism.

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