Sunday, June 16, 2013

Naughty Monkeys (2/2)

Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.  Why do some people fail to acknowledge the evidence of human nature and cling tenaciously to a social constructivist theory like a monkey on a vine?  There’s nothing new under the sun.  Sanguine views of human progress and the belief in attainable utopias have been around time immemorial.  Still, after a century of two world wars and numerous genocides, not to mention oppression and civil wars, you’d think we would have done away with foolish optimism.  So we should account for such opposition to human depravity in this post-Auschwitz, post-Hiroshima, post-911 world that we live in.  One reason for this opposition has to do with a person's training or ideology.  The contrarian might be trained as a sociologist and therefore predisposed to see social ills as a result of social forces or faulty institutions that can be corrected.  More broadly, they like the idea that humans are blank slates, with no particular predilection for evil, or good, but can be molded with the latest programs, strategies, or conceptual framework to create a more caring, equitable, and peaceful society.  This scenario puts humans, at least the smart ones, comfortably in control of their fate.  There’s something to be said for both nature and nurture.  It’s just that they exaggerate the latter and neglect or underappreciate the former.
Those who oppose the view of inherent human evil have some valid concerns, however.  Cults and dictatorial regimes have controlled people through ideologies of human depravity.  They instill guilt into their followers and subjects and foster the idea that they must look to Big Brother, to use Orwell’s words, to save them from their selfish ways.  After all, what conclusion does Thomas Hobbes draw from his realistic portrayal of humans left to their own devices?  They need a strongman to keep them in line, someone who can be brutal when necessary.  Perhaps he would have opposed the Iraq War precisely for this reason.  Some associate arguments of “nature” with a white patriarchy determined to keep women and minorities “in their place.”  It’s an argument for the status quo, not for revolutionary change.  These objections are legitimate, for this position has sometimes been a tool of exploitation.  However, the abuse of biological arguments doesn't take away from the fact that nature has bequeathed to us behavioral software.

The idea is to confront our inner monkey and design a social system to foster enlightened self-interest, all the while being vigilant against our dark impulses that resist from time to time.  While we’ve been born with the instinct for self-preservation, and males in particular are hard-wired for violence and aggression, we can “reverse the curse” of our evolutionary heritage.  The antidote lies within us: we have the ability to empathize and cooperate.  The ongoing work of primatologist Frans de Waal at Emory University has brought our attention to cooperation, empathy, and indeed morality among chimpanzees.  How we encourage these traits and overcome our equally inborn ethnocentrism and xenophobia is not an easy task.  We need to set up a system in which people have something to gain by trusting those outside their circle of blood kinship.  For example, it's clear that the United States government, like any other government, will only get involved in a crisis abroad if it serves our national interests.  So humanitarian groups should convince the U.S. that intervening or helping other countries serves our collective self-interest as Americans.  You won't get far with grandiose calls for the "right thing to do."  What we do not want to do, however, is give in to our base instincts.  The other day I watched a movie called The Purge, a dystopian story set in the near future.  The “new founding fathers” of the U.S. government have managed to reduce crime and unemployment significantly by setting aside a day each year, March 22, when people have 12 hours to give full vent to their hatred, jealousy, and violent impulses.  Until 7 am the next morning, all crime is permitted and no fire or police services are available.  From sundown to sunup it’s essentially a Hobbesian war of every man against every man.  The storyline is implausible in a number of ways, but I found the film instructive for our present topic.