An Understanding

The May 5th edition of THE NEW YORKER had a fascinating article, “Kin and Kind”, by Jonah Lehrer.  It was about the origin of kindness in species, and the research both biological and mathematical that has carried on since Darwin first broached his findings.

One of the main scientists referred to in the article was E.O. Wilson, who among other things is probably the world’s expert on ants.  Ants live quite cooperatively, as we should know.  So do many other creatures; kindness is not always intermittent it seems.  So Wilson explored the question of how cooperation developed, some mathematicians joined the project, and they proceeded to create quite a kafuffle between biologists who felt their math was too complex and others who felt the original math that had led to some understanding of the development of kindness and altruism was too simple.  One thing Wilson observed was that at times altruistic behavior is a response to an environmental situation such as scarcity of living space.  Other times it is part of a hierarchical organization with a supreme ruler, the Queen of the Ants for example, where everyone serves her but in return gets protection and a functional life.  Anyway, you should read the article, Gentle Reader.

The closing quote, however, that entered my quivering little brain was this, from Wilson himself:

“Selfishness beats altruism within groups.  Altruistic groups beat selfish groups.  Everything else is commentary.

I thus realized that the experiences of the weekend tied right in to my ongoing struggles in understanding why it is that non-violence, which seems so obviously the right choice as to be a no brainer, is such a challenging practice over the long term.  Lost in the commentary again!   As humans we have a barely navigable mix of SELFISH and ALTRUISTIC.  Given that selfishness trumps everything in groups- and we can see this is true by a simple glance at our current society and government.  Selfishness trumps everything in this group.  We know deep down that kindness and cooperation go alot farther than pushing our own agendas no matter what but somehow….the lure of that success right in front of one seems to win out over the larger sense that we do better when we ALL do better.  So we’re, in essence, hardwired for this push pull, this WTF free for all in which our altruistic selves swim up stream against the tide that says selfishness and temporary benefit is “right”.

For a minute I saw myself floating way up in the sky, looking down, and thinking, well.  Heck.  There is clear evidence that altruism and cooperation do, indeed work, and work very well.  But somehow it is very difficult to make that work as well as selfishness seems to in a given instant.   Selfishness seems to always lead to conflict, violence- problems.  So why do we keep behaving in such a poorly adaptive manner?  I still don’t understand that, but I can see that those two strains of being, we might say, are constantly locked into a dance with each other.  It’s real, and I’m not crazy when I feel these energies pushing and swirling around.  So what it requires is thinking.  Attention.  Awareness.  On everyone’s part.  Oh, my goodness.  Seems like a tall order.   The quotes that are rattling around in the cranium at this point are:

Martin Luther King, Jr. ” I have decided to stick with Love.  Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

A Cuban revolutionary, Menoyo: “When you are subjected to a policy of savagery and barbarism, you come to the conclusion that you have to reject those methods, that you have to be the first to set hatred aside- otherwise it will destroy you…”

And, of course, Gandhi’s tomb, where an inscription asks the visitor to imagine the poorest person they’ve ever seen, and ask themselves if their next act will be of any use to that person.

Armed with this new understanding, I think I feel more dismay, oddly, than before because in a way it seems that the only way to get society to grasp this concept is by, again as Gandhi said, doing it yourself.  Being the change you want to see.  Etc.  At present that seems to be a Sisyphusian task.  Now I see that the forces that operate against this approach are implacable in their own way, have always been there, and transmutation takes a long time.  It has to shift and evolve and that means some need must present itself, essentially, in order for shift to move progressively instead of congealing into pockets of conformity and apparent “safety”.  It isn’t even necessarily good, bad or indifferent in the overall view. It’s simply that selfishness is unproductive of overall good in the long run.  So one goes, essentially, against the tide and…..hopes for the best.

At the same time, of course there is hope, because this impulse toward good is just as real and powerful as everything else, as its opposite is.  It’s all energy, all moving.  Perhaps it is simply that as humans there are things we cannot see ahead of us, thus we cannot be overly concerned with them.  As in, what’s going to happen here?  Answer: Anything is possible.  And out of the truth of that possibility, let us focus on the endless possibilities inside that possibility, even though attaining them means repeating the same actions over and over, on and on.  Being the help first before we consume.

And so it is that every answer creates another question, don’t you think?

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