True colors?

Some time ago, I wrote a piece on this blog about peace activists during the Vietnam war.  The gist of it was that whether or not to go into the military was a difficult decision back then, and that motivations varied from person to person regarding that decision.  Many activists were sincere in their opposition to the war, but many more were simply saving themselves, and got into the anti-war effort as a justification.  My own decision to join was similarly motivated by personal considerations.  I was not a believer in the cause either way, really; my parents had fled the Soviet Union and were no fans of communism, and I couldn’t bring myself to break their hearts.

Anyway, a friend of long standing took exception to something I said in the comments in response to a reader’s comment, expressing disappointment that I would say such a thing; what it was is not relevant to this post.  What is relevant is that our relationship has changed since then.  It got me to thinking about our default thinking about our fellow humans, perhaps even ourselves.

We seem to begin with the assumption that people are intrinsically bad, and while we’re willing to give people the benefit of the doubt, we accept the first bit of evidence, even the flimsiest at times, of their inherent wickedness.  Once done, there’s no going back.

It’s easy enough to see this as a reflection of the teachings of the dominant religions in the world; we are wicked, unworthy, and can only be saved by supernatural intervention.  If left to our own devices, we are condemned to eternal, horrifying anguish, and, what’s more, we deserve it.

It might be more insightful to turn this explanation around.  Religions are the reflections (and amplifications) of our natural tendencies.

Why on earth would that be a feature of our nature?  I think the evolution of our social co-dependency goes a long way toward explaining it, and the key to understanding it is that, conversely, we tend to resist thinking ill of our closest friends and relatives, no matter how much evidence there is for it.  The result is the coalescing of the core social group, while pushing outward those at the periphery.  In short, it’s not wise to trust someone you don’t know very well, and who might have an allegiance to another group.  Historically, or rather, prehistorically, I suppose, our welfare was intimately tied to the welfare of our core group.  When agriculture developed and spawned urban civilization, groups became much larger and intertwined in a complex way; it’s no accident that religion as we know it developed precisely then.  Originally, there was no distinction between religion and ideology, it all served the same purpose: as the glue that bound together these larger, more complex social groups.  It’s not surprising that the precepts and values under this new situation would be the same as those we had for the 2 or 3 million years of our existence as hunters and gatherers.  They represent the sow’s ear from which we fashioned our silk purses.

Have we outgrown the utility of such conventions?  No doubt, but there seems little we can do about it beyond just being aware of it.  Evolution is a matter of more generations than we’ve had to deal with all the changes we’ve wrought upon ourselves.

A somewhat immodest proposal

We Homo sapiens have been around for at least 250 thousand years. The first hints of agriculture appear about 12 thousand years ago, or just under 5% of our existence in our current biological configuration. We’re still evolving, of course, but it’s a slow process, and it’s reasonable to think we’re not much different from those earliest farmers, who were essentially hunter-gatherers with a fancy new startup.

For the majority, then, of our existence, we made our living hunting and gathering, which limited the size and distribution of us. Conditions differed from place to place, of course, but, as a rather small total population, we weren’t in that many different places for a very long time, so those limitations tended to average out and produce groups of 50-200 or so individuals spread rather thinly on the surface. Too many people meant not enough to eat, so a sensible strategy was to avoid other people whenever possible; not all that hard in the beginning.

One way or another, though, we figured out that it was best for us to get marriage partners outside our own groups; how and why is a contentious issue among anthropologists.  In any case, it meant that groups needed to stay reasonably near each other.

It’s not hard to see the awkwardness caused by these two competing strategies. On the one hand, we were congenitally suspicious of outsiders and wanted to either drive them away or kill them, while on the other hand we needed them to procreate. What to do?

The answer was to limit our interactions with other groups in general via warfare or other hostile behaviors, while consolidating our relationships with one or two select groups via intermarriage. Brilliant!

In my opinion, the spread of farming once it was discovered was due to this dynamic of wanting to get away from other people while simultaneously seeking marriage partners among relative strangers. We see this time and again, even explicitly as excuses for expansion, from elbow room to lebensraum. It also explains the intermarriage of European nobility; it’s not that they found each other so irresistible. In a sense, it’s just scaled-up hunter-gatherer strategy.

Which brings us to my proposal. Donald Trump, are you listening? Your son, Barron, is, what, 10 or 11 now? Through most of history, that’s plenty. The great statesman and diplomat Dennis Rodman tells us that Kim Jong-un has a daughter named Ju-ae, who would be about 8 or 9.

I think you can guess where I’m going with this.