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.

Wilderness revisited

It’s a crazy world.  The other day, I decided to go for a walk; it was the first gorgeous day after a period of rain, and utterly irresistible.  I ended up at the city library, one of those Carnegie structures so ubiquitous in small and medium towns across America, a millionaire’s atonement for ravaging society, back when such people even cared.  This particular one sits in a little park with a bandstand and a monument to a parents’ grief for their soldier son, killed in action.  It has the added virtue of offering coffee from one of those Keurig pod machines for fifty cents.  Pretty good coffee, too, and you get entertained by the myriad characters that hang around such places.

It was, as I said, a beautiful day, so I took my coffee outside, to sit by the fountain donated by another benefactor to the glory of his family.  It was windy, so it was just as well the fountain was off.

Just as I settled in, I heard an animal running somewhere behind me, a large dog, I thought.  As it passed in front of me, though, I was startled to see a young deer bounding headlong toward the midday traffic.  It’s not a huge town, but the streets along the park run to four lanes, and I worried that the deer wouldn’t make it without getting pancaked against a cement truck.  No problem.  In a flash, it cleared six lanes, including a side street, and disappeared into an adjacent church parking lot.

Now, those with a mystical bent might see an omen of some kind here.  Me, I just reflected on the fact that our town, these days essentially just a suburb of St. Louis, has grown very rapidly, outstripping its sleepy county seat days, and leaving nearby wildlife precious little room for, well, wild life.  Ironically, as habitat shrinks, so does the taste for hunting among the minions of the town, now pretty much gentrified and unused to killing their own food.  Canada geese, which used to pass here twice a year during migration, now stay year round in the many ponds dug for all the wilderness-sounding suburbs (Iron Mountain Lake, Notting Hills Forest, etc.).  People complain about the scat, but eating the birds is illegal, so they thrive.  As do wild turkeys, of all things, frightening toddlers in their own yards.

This is happening all over the country, as demographic studies continue to show the increasing urbanization of America.  At least we don’t have bears where I live; that would, indeed, be a portentous omen.

I suppose the upshot is that wherever you might find omens, there is usually a practical element involved as well.  I’m reminded of a student I had while doing archaeology on the island of Ithaka, in Greece.  It was, of course, the home of Odysseus, and we were at the foot of Mount Aetos.  My student, who was supposed to be paying attention to a prism pole he was holding, looked up and cried, “Hey, what kind of bird is that?”

I looked where he was pointing, to his left.  “It’s an eagle,” I said, “and it’s to your left.  According to Homer, that’s a bad omen.”

“Oh,” he said, and turned around until it was on his right.