Something that bothers me
June 15, 2012 § 3 Comments
We often depict humanity as evil because we do things like massacre entire species, poison our environments, overhunt/overfish an area, rape, murder, and generally act like assholes. Humans are a killer species, we say. The problem is, the things we do aren’t unusual in the animal kingdom. We look at war, at deforestation, and we think ourselves unique. But relatively few of our behaviors truly are unique to us, and most of those unique behaviors are based on our imperfect understanding of the world. In short, most of what we do is stuff other animals do: we just do it with more complex brains and limbs that are better at making and using tools. Even tool use isn’t unique to us, we’re just better at it.
Many species of animals will wipe out all of their prey in an area and then have to move on. Humans didn’t invent that. We’re just much, much better at it. Even behaviors that seem completely devoid of any practical purpose, like killing rhinos and consuming their powdered horns to boost our virility are rooted in the need to reproduce, filtered through a complicated mind that has misapplied itself to the problem. When humans do differ from other animals on the planet we live on, it’s usually in that we can examine and critique our own behavior and those of our fellows in ways we cannot determine if they can share or not. Our inability to determine if other species on Earth can communicate meaningfully with each other (we suspect it of whales and dolphins, for instance, but we can’t confirm it) does not mean they can’t. It just means we can’t tell.
The idea that humans are inherently corrupt because we apply our evolved brains to these same tasks bothers me. Yes, we do many horrible things to our planet and ourselves. Part of this seems to be based around the fact that evolution first rewards success. It comes down to who reproduces. Behavior that causes mass suffering to 99% of life on the planet but which leads to successful reproduction will be selected for over altruism that does not pass your genes forward.
This isn’t meant to justify or explain atrocities. It’s simply meant to place them into context. We’re no more special for our brutality and viciousness than we are for our use of tools or upright posture. The fact that we even understand that we’re doing immoral things comes solely from our minds, which we didn’t evolve for that purpose. We evolved them to keep from being eaten. And we’ve successfully turned this planet into one where, on the average, we live a hell of a lot longer than our ancestors. The fact that there are huge gaps between the wealthy and the poor, that we have failed to make a society based on equality of gender, race, sexuality or other factors is not due to our inherent monstrous evil, nor is it due to our animal heritage. It’s due to the fact that it will take as long as it takes, and that evolution is not in fact our ally here.
We use the term ‘unevolved’ to describe people who hold social or ethical views we consider to be out of date. But evolution doesn’t care about morality or ethics. It cares solely about selection. Whatever you do that allows you to reproduce is good, to evolution. Now, one could certainly argue that altruism, social equality and justice, and empathy for one’s fellow creatures have positive effects on whether or not we get to reproduce. But I don’t think that’s going to work as a slogan. “Be good to each other so we can have a better society for baby making!”
Furthermore, the argument could be made that we’re too good at reproduction. However, that leads us to consider: the people who consider that there are already enough people and who therefore don’t want to have children have selected themselves out of the gene pool. If we purely relied on evolution to create the future, then clearly we would be selecting away from that form of altruism.
Luckily for us, we’ve learned ways to preserve information so that it can survive the death of the physical body. First with art and writing, and through a process of refinement to recording and storage, we can preserve information for generations past the death of those who conceived of it. This means our society and our culture have another way to progress, with a different selection method than evolution’s brute force selection pressure. The concept that societal justice has benefits, for instance, can endure beyond the deaths of every single person who holds that worldview. Empathy, altruism, love, care for the greater world, concepts that unlike selfishness do not have an immediate effect in terms of passing on one’s DNA can still be transmitted, and can serve to allow our minds to do work they did not strictly speaking evolve to do. Being rational is not what the mind evolved for – keeping you aware and alert, away from predators and towards edible food, is what the mind originally grew for.
This process can work in the opposite way. If our society prizes concepts, those who hold affirmative opinions can be rewarded by society by finding work, mates, and in so doing reproduce more effectively, with a greater chance for those offspring to thrive. In this way, we see evolution again working alongside our extra-physical storage of information. In essence, we learn, and in so learning teach the world to change its selection parameters.
Humanity isn’t inherently good or evil. The distinction between the two only comes with the capacity to weigh moral choices, which we have developed, refined, and even held contrary opinions on over the years, and which we will change our minds on again and again. We have chosen to believe these things, and we will hold different opinions in the future as we have come to hold wildly different opinions from our ancestors. In this way, the information we rely upon to make those decisions evolves as well.