Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Human Relations

When I read The Selfish Gene several years ago, I was struck not particularly by Dawkins's presentation of the work of W.D. Hamilton and others, but by the conceptual leap from species-centered evolution to gene-centered evolution. I don't follow these topics in any detail and am more interested in broader themes that influence one's worldview. Accordingly, I have increasingly focused on the conceptual limitations of humans and why at any given time we tend to have some ideas rather than others. My current impression is that, though still significant, genes as described by Dawkins are just one of several elements of importance in the understanding of life. Other elements might include the physical properties of the local universe, symbiosis and the nature of ecosystems. I don't think genes are everything, because basic Darwinism is still intact, at least in terms of the logic of evolutionary processes, and Darwin knew nothing about genetics. More telling to me is the fact that all species eventually become extinct, and with them many or all of their genes, indicating that genes are far less immortal than Dawkins seems to suggests in that book. Large mammals like us are carrying around loads of genes that serve no purpose and probably never will.

Even so, realizing that you can think about life without thinking about species was an eye-opener to me. This, along with newer scientific research, makes it possible to see humanity quite differently from the way we did just fifty years ago. It is currently estimated that only about ten percent of the human body is distinctly human, and the other ninety percent is made up of microorganisms, so we really are walking blobs of protoplasm that trillions of microorganisms call home. The biological processes behind all of this are one thing and our cultural conceptions of ourselves are something else entirely. I like thinking about what it means to be human, and increasingly science seems to be saying that we may not be what we think we are, and that some of our ideas may have more to do with instincts and cultural influences than with true self-understanding or an accurate assessment of human nature.

Human relations always seem to be fraught with problems, yet we habitually idealize them. When we think of castles and knights in shining armor we think of romance and damsels in distress, but the reality is that people lived in castles for protection from those who would kill or enslave them, or, conversely, to enslave those who lived outside their walls. I have noted that war seems to be here to stay, with groups like ISIL still around and Hitler on the rampage not that long ago. Recently I have been thinking about what actually underlies contentious relationships. What I'm finding is that if you look closely enough, nearly all relationships are contentious to one degree or another. As I've said, the typical work environment is particularly fake, because employees understand that they must control their behavior in order to secure an income. They make conscious efforts to suppress behavior that might lead to their dismissal and act friendlier than they may truly feel. But what about personal relationships, where on the surface two or more people spend time together ostensibly because they enjoy each other's company? This realm of thought can become unsettling if you apply it to your personal life.

I still like to think in the context of hunter-gatherer models, which refer back to a time when we were basically the same as we are now but didn't have any of the benefits or conceptual changes that later accompanied civilization. We lived in small eusocial groups that were culturally and genetically homogeneous and survived in a large part due to cooperation. Even then there would have been animosity and violence, with competition for mates and social status. Small groups of males must have been cooperative among themselves, but were protective against unaffiliated males, which is reflected in modern enthusiasm for team sports. I have always found male friendships somewhat superficial; they tend to revolve around some shared activity and evoke a tribal feeling that makes them seem like male bonding rituals. Men seem to be geared toward solving problems and achieving objectives in small groups. Women, in contrast, seem to be geared to cooperate in activities that are related to childrearing: they are more concerned with maintaining a network of female friends for work-sharing. Caring for babies is work-intensive, and women have had to evolve cooperative behaviors in order to succeed at it. This may sound sexist, but based only on my experience the majority of men and women follow these patterns. To say that men and women tend to exhibit different behavioral patterns is not to say that there is no overlap in their potentialities, but that men and women tend to have different preferences based on earlier specialization related to survival requirements.

That brings me to monogamous male-female relationships, which I think are the most important ones to the majority of us but also the most problematic. Apparently there is a deeply embedded distrust between the sexes, in that estrus has no external manifestations in humans. The standard interpretation for this phenomenon is that women have been sexually promiscuous for a long time, and in order to avert male wrath and infanticide they have evolved this feature. That seems plausible to me, and I'm sorry to say that I don't think romantic relationships as portrayed in the media have much to support them scientifically. The way I think of it, men and women once had so little attraction to each other that in order to reproduce, more than for any other species, sex became incredibly intoxicating to both. Men and women typically have such different interests that cohabitation often becomes problematic. Among the most conspicuous changes that have occurred during my lifetime, improved birth control and female financial independence immediately led to a high divorce rate, delayed marriages and an increased proportion of single adults. As soon as remaining single became plausible for women its popularity took off. Having been dumped twice myself, I can attest that women can be as hard, insensitive and lacking in conscience as the most thuggish of men when it suits their purposes and they have the means available. Evolution has masked female aggression by giving women baby-like voices, producing the appearance of vulnerability when in fact they outlive men on average. Contrary to their outward appearances, women hold no monopoly on empathy.

The reason why I always return to eusociality and other biological sources in order to explain human behavior is that the ideas that one encounters in the public domain are invariably misleading if not outright false. The ideas that humans are inherently good or that God is watching us to make sure that we make the correct moral choices are so absurd that it can be intellectually challenging to live in a country like the U.S., where so many take them seriously. Flawed reasoning and the denial of empirical evidence underlie everything in the U.S. from its constitution to its conception of its role in the world, and our politicians are expected to espouse ridiculous jingoistic and religious nonsense in order to win popular votes. Inclusiveness is fancifully expected to solve the problem of inequality while ignoring the destructive effects of capitalism, and the very mention of overpopulation is taboo when that is clearly a major factor behind many of the problems in the world today.

I have been particularly disappointed by the emphasis that philosophers have placed on reason as the basis of morality. To be sure, many aspects of our behavior can be seen to contain rational elements, but rationality is not the source of our behavioral predispositions, and it is misleading to discuss morality, religion or political systems without reference to our evolutionary characteristics. We say that we love liberty but neglect to mention that the price of liberty is often someone else's servitude and that insufficient constraints on liberty may render the planet uninhabitable. We say that we love equality while vigorously supporting an economic system that discourages it. We say that we want world peace while provoking violent opposition worldwide with economic and military intervention. It must also be stated that we have the same human nature as the members of ISIL, and as abhorrent and crazy as their behavior may seem, under the right circumstances we might behave exactly as they do. On some level they are acting instinctively to vanquish a perceived enemy that threatens their group. Because of our evolutionary past, any threatened group might theoretically behave in the manner of ISIL given the right conditions.

Obviously I'm not going to solve the world's problems in one little blog post, but at least I can emphasize what I think would be some steps in the right direction. The currently popular "American values" theory of foreign policy has to go. American values promote over-consumption, waste of natural resources, pollution, overpopulation, marginalization of minorities and disregard for disruptions caused beyond our borders. If anything, America is a bastion of personal gratification, something that should never be copied anywhere. As world leaders, rather than promoting ourselves as a model, we ought to be looking at how to transition out of capitalism, reduce consumption, control population growth, reverse environmental destruction and institute a system of governance that fairly restricts undesirable behaviors and eliminates the vagaries of participatory democracy along with the poor outcomes that it generates. A good start would be the public recognition that human nature is not what it's usually made out to be, that we are organisms governed by irrational impulses over which we have limited control, that what benefits one group often has negative consequences for another group, and that the future of mankind contains more unknowns than we should willingly accept.

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