Here’s to Us, and Who’s Like Us

River Song

River Song

Humans (and other animals) are often remarkably unselfish.  We do favours for people we don’t know and who aren’t related to us.  We pass over opportunities to take advantage of others.  We seem to have evolved to be reasonably altruistic.  But evolutionary theory appears to suggest that selfish traits should be favoured by evolution, while altruism towards strangers appears to have no evolutionary benefit.  So how does altruism arise? 

Tony Mann When Maths doesn’t Work What we Learn from the Prisoner’s Dilemma. February 2015 Gresham Lecture

Darwin’s original theory of evolution, was based on the morality of empire and the industrial revolution.  It saw evolution as driven by ruthless competition for survival in the war of all against all.

The problem with this  theory was that it didn’t match the evidence.  Altruism and co-operation existed in nature, and not just in civilized Victorian drawing rooms.

One reason for this is that co-operation aids the survival chances of the co-operative individuals.  This is however not sufficient to make it an evolutionarily stable strategy. In co-operative societies cheating individuals may gain at least short-term advantage, and unless there are mechanisms in place to stop them, will destabilize the situation.

Co-operative societies do exist, one such being the human body which as Richard Dawkins pointed out can be considered as a survival machine for genes.  The complexity of function of our bodies belies the  pejorative description, selfish,  which he gave them. Our genes are  amazingly successful co-operators.  They play a major part in the  system of, growing, maintaining and reproducing the disposable biodegradable machines which carry them across time.

The system by which bodies are reproduced ensures that those genes which find themselves sharing new bodies, have demonstrated that they are at the very least  insufficiently disruptive to have prevented the successful operation of the old body.

In a modern reworking of the story of the fall, atheist Adam Roberts, although he doesn’t express it  in this way, re-imagines the angels in heaven  as beings operating, as genes do in a healthy body, in a way that is in all their interests. The structure that is in place and  the angels’ rationality mean that in the unity of heaven Satan’s disruptive power is negated.

Man and woman were content, as to the measure of content, when the whole world was  a garden; and they worshipped God as animals do, blithely and brutishly, by their nature not their will. And God was well pleased, for faith sustained them unconsciously: it was something they were, rather than something they did. But Satan, whose name means pride, had fallen from the horizontal paradise of heaven, where all are equal in the love of God. Satan craved hierarchy, and rank, and to define his own superiority in terms of the inferiority of others — all monstrous in the eyes of all-loving God. He could do nothing to persuade the angels, for they knew that to surrender their equality with God and sink into hierarchy would be loss and no gain.

Adam Roberts The Atheist Paradox  Aeon magazine November 2012

The angels in this story are the kind of rational beings that traditional economic theory considered human beings to be.  The Man of  the rest of the story is what the economist Carlo M.Cipillo, in his humorous article the laws of human stupidity identified as a Stupid, someone who hurts others for no benefit or possibly even harm to himself.

But Satan recognised a kink in the soul of humankind, and visited them in the garden.

Adam Roberts The Atheist Paradox  Aeon magazine November 2012

Adam Roberts’ fall of man story expresses a truth about modern human existence, the problems caused by hierarchies of power. The kink that Satan is represented as noting in the human soul our respect for power, and our acceptance of hierarchies, isn’t an anomaly.  It is an ancient adaptation to social living – the pecking order. This story while it recognizes the horror that hierarchies can make of human life, has no claim to historical veracity.

Amazingly enough the original story on which this is based, while it doesn’t pinpoint a time when basic human nature changed, does pinpoint an historically verifiable change in human interaction with the environment, one that vastly increased the potential for abusive behaviour.

The story of the Biblical fall, as befits a story where the main character’s name, Adam, also means mankind; is capable of being interpreted in many different ways. But however else it may be interpreted, it is undoubtedly an agricultural origin myth: starting as it does with no man to till the earth (Genesis 2:5), and ending with Adam condemned to suffer the hardship of subsistence agriculture (Genesis 3:17-19).

Nowadays the Agricultural Revolution is generally looked upon as a good thing.

The people who originated the Adam and Eve myth, were as Richard Dawkins accurately reminds us a tribe of middle eastern herders. People whose ancestors would have found their traditional pastoral routes blocked by settled horticulturalists, and found themselves being pushed into progressively less fertile lands.  It should be no surprise to find in their ancient writings a myth that pictures the origin of agriculture in a less than favourable light.

Horticulture originated some six to ten thousand years ago, into a world that already contained nomadic herders: a situation that was likely to produce conflict. Their’s was not the only lifestyle that horticulturists would have impacted with. There would also have been hunter-gatherers.

The original title of scientist Jared Diamond’s first popular work,  The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee   1991, (third chimpanzee = human) also linked the concept of human fall with the agricultural revolution.  He noted that while agriculture produced undoubted blessings for human beings, many of the curses of modern human existence, while they did not actually arise with agriculture, became more prevalent.

With agriculture came not only greatly increased food production and food storage, but also the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse modern human existence. 

Jared Diamond The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee   1991

Jared Diamond, argues that horticulturalists, while less healthy than hunter-gatherers, because of their poor diet, were more numerous, and so would have been able to push the hunter-gatherers into lands unsuitable for farming. And I have no doubt that for some groups of foraging people this is what happened.

In his discussion Professor Diamond ignores one other option.  Settled farmers were vulnerable to predation, and also to bandits running protection rackets.  And nomadic groups of hunters would have been in an ideal position to take advantage of this lifestyle.

Thus, with the advent of agriculture an elite became healthier, but many people became worse off. Instead of the progressivist  party line that we chose agriculture because it was good for us, a cynic might ask how we got trapped by agriculture despite its being such a mixed blessing .

Jared Diamond The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee   1991

A cynic should have no reason to ask this question, anymore than those who prefer to consider themselves realists.

John Ball an English priest executed for his part in the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, asked a very pertinent question.

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

John Ball  Sermon at Blackheath 1381

Who were these sons of God, who thought they had the divine right to enslave other humans, but unjust and naughty men.

The Agricultural Revolution allowed the existence of civilizations based on exploitation, and maintained by tyranny.

Murphy’s Law and the Arise of  Naughty Men

In computer models of communities which start off being highly altruistic, then there are opportunities for more selfish individuals to prosper and the society, over time, becomes more selfish.  But then altruism builds up again, and the community swings backwards and forwards, having periods of relative altruism and periods of comparative selfishness.  The modelling suggests that these cycles, rather than a steady state, might be the natural state of society.

Tony Mann When Maths doesn’t Work What we Learn from the Prisoner’s Dilemma. February 2015 Gresham Lecture

Any social practice which lends itself to exploitation, will end up being exploited.  Agriculture created a world where a minority of people could have vast amounts of power, at the expense of the primary producers in their society.

Altruistic individuals are those who help others at their own expense, those that the economist Cipillo identified in his laws of human stupidity as the Helpless.  I strongly suspect that the type of behaviours that cycled in the computer model mentioned in Tony Mann’s lecture, as relative altruism, and comparative selfishness, were cooperative and exploitative behaviour.

Christianity arose among the exploited underclass – those who had the most to gain by cooperation.  In one of the earliest surviving written records of the beliefs of these first Christians, Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the prime directive is given as:

 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

Galatians 5:14  King James Bible

Note that this law is not advocating selflessness. Its first, and unwritten premise is  love of self.   Used in the bizarre way that Richard Dawkins used the word in, “The Selfish Gene”, it could be described as advocating selfishness, by not putting others first.

It is a law conducive to what Cipillo described as intelligent behaviour; helping others in a way that helps yourself and vice versa. The kind of behaviour that creates stable societies.

A religion that taught that all human beings were valuable and loved of God, was good news for the poor and dispossessed.

Christianity did not remain the religion of the poor and dispossessed. It became first the religion of the Roman Empire and then Christendom. It became the religion of those who were in the position to gain vastly from the exploitation of others.

Theologians worked to transform the message of Christianity to this new reality; a message that was no longer at variance with the way of the world, and where god’s power was again his greatest glory.

The early medieval rationalization of the Crucifixion was the ransom theory, whereby Christ died  as a pay off to Satan, the Prince of this World, into whose power we had delivered ourselves through sin.  This notion was anathema to Anselm, (c. 1033 – 21 April 1109)  the first of the  scholastic philosophers, and the first Archbishop of Canterbury, to be Primate of All England.  He held that God was too great to negotiate with anyone.

Here’s tae us
Wha’s like us
Damn few,
And they’re a’ deid
Mair’s the pity!

A Scottish Toast

By the time this toast was in existence the Christian message had received a complete overhaul of meaning, through Anselm and modified by John Calvin.  Humans were no longer the sometimes errant children of a loving Father, we were instead unsatisfactory serfs, fit only for extinction, with a god who could only bear the stench of us if we were covered in innocent blood. Our ordinary  biology having been reworked as sin.  And the exploiters were re-imagined back into the role they had filled from the beginning of history, god’s overseers.

Who’s Like Us?

Northern Ireland can be a very divided society.  And our version of the Scottish toast, “Here’s to us, and who’s like us,” would appear to lend itself to a celebration of the particular faction to which the speaker belongs.  Yet as I have heard it used, it has always been inclusive, regardless of who you are, or what you believe, for the purposes of this night’s craic, you’re one of us.

One night’s socializing does not a peace process make, anymore than a football match, was able to end the First World War.

Under what conditions will cooperation emerge in a world of egoists without central authority? This question has intrigued people for a long time. We all know that people are not angels, and that they tend to look after themselves and their own first. Yet we also know that cooperation does occur and that our civilization is based upon it.

Robert Axelrod The Evolution of Cooperation

Robert Axelrod is a political scientist best known for his work on the evolution of cooperation. He noted that cooperation emerged between enemies during the First World War, as a way of dealing with practical problems.

One concrete demonstration of this theory in the real world is the fascinating case of the “live and let live” system that emerged during the trench warfare of the western front in World War I. In the midst of this bitter conflict, the frontline soldiers often refrained from shooting to kill – provided their restraint was reciprocated by the soldiers on the other side.

For example, in the summer of 1915, a soldier saw that the enemy would be likely to reciprocate cooperation based on the desire for fresh rations.

It would be child’s play to shell the road behind the enemy’s trenches, crowded as it must be with ration wagons and water carts, into a bloodstained wilderness … but on the whole there is silence. After all, if you prevent your enemy from drawing his rations, his remedy is simple: He will prevent you from drawing yours.

In one section the hour of 8 to 9 a.m. was regarded as consecrated to “private business,” and certain places indicated by a flag were regarded as out of bounds by the snipers on both sides.

What made this mutual restraint possible was the static nature of trench warfare, where the same small units faced each other for extended periods of time. The soldiers of these opposing small units actually violated orders from their own high commands in order to achieve tacit cooperation with each other.

Robert Axelrod The Evolution of Cooperation

This mutual reciprocity arose between units that were interacting over a considerable period of time. This is not the only feature that is important.  The units were also fairly evenly matched, there was no immediate prospect of either side being able to defeat the other.

There is a lesson in the fact that simple reciprocity succeeds without doing better than anyone with whom it interacts. It succeeds by eliciting cooperation from others, not by defeating them. We are used to thinking about competitions in which there is only one winner, competitions such as football or chess. But the world is rarely like that. In a vast range of situations, mutual cooperation can be better for both sides than mutual defection. The key to doing well lies not in overcoming others, but in eliciting their cooperation.

Robert Axelrod The Evolution of Cooperation

The problem is that we, as a species, don’t really appear to understand this.  The concept  of cooperating, with those that we regard as not of our faction, comes a very poor second best to the notion, of exercising unilateral power over them.

It is possible that power acts as a supernormal stimulus, triggering a supernormal response.That is the response  that  can occur when animals become attuned to one particular cue, instead of making a choice built on multiple cues.   

supernormal egg

A Supernormal Response

This one cue, properly applied, can drive an animal to self-destruct.

Esther Inglis-Arkell Supernormal Stimuli – Using Nature to Destroy Itself  2011

There is also the possibility that the will to power is adaptive.  An adaptation that works against the reproductive interests and life-chances of most of those bearing it. But one which when it succeeds has been so  successful that it increased in the population, despite disadvantaging the majority of those displaying the trait.

Some evidence for this is provided in this paper by Zerjal et al (2003) where they show that there is genetic evidence consistent with about 0.5% of the world’s male population, 1 out of every 200 men, being on the direct male lineage of Genghis Khan. (They were using a genetic marker on the Y chromosome, so did not acquire data about female descent.)

You don’t find followers of the devil descending on villages with bayonets in their teeth shouting, “The devil is great!” as they cut throats. You never hear war-mongers geeing up the population to support bombing some country back to the Stone Age by assuring them that, “We have the devil on our side.”

Eamon McCann Lucifer gets a bad press…. what evil is he responsible for.  Belfast Telegraph 1st April 2015

This would be because the devil is the name we give to other people’s personification of power. We have a tendency to believe that the problem with power is that it is in the wrong hands, not that it is the wrong method.  dalymural

The writing on the wall may say, “History is written by the winner.” But in power struggles there are no winners, just those who are temporarily on the ascent.


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