Paul Andersen: Fair Game
June 11, 2012
Selflessly helping others is the key to the Golden Rule, which is the basis of most religions of the world. We help others so that, when we’re in need, help will come to us in return. Personal kindness creates a kind of karmic bank account in which compounded interest provides for our future well-being. The maxim is: “Doing well by doing good.”
The Golden Rule is part of our evolutionary heritage. It gave Homo sapiens a crucial advantage over other competing hominids, namely Neanderthals, who may not have been quite as social as we and faced extinction as a result.
In his new book, “The Social Conquest of the Earth,” E.O. Wilson suggests that altruism on a broad social scale provided modern humans an advantage that has allowed us to dominate the Earth. By working together through social organization, we rose above selfish individuality to become the dominant group.
Wilson, who will be a presenter at the Aspen Environment Forum later this month, is one of the most influential scientists in the world. His many books have added to our understanding of our complex and ancient physiological makeup. In his current book, Wilson explores who we are, where we came from and where we are going.
The social bond he describes between modern humans is all that differentiates us from failed biological experiments of the ancient past. If not for the social behavior that made possible our collective labors through specialization, we might have become a footnote in the unwritten history of the world.
Still, we have a long way to go before realizing a much higher purpose. An evolutionary leap is needed if we ever hope to end war, poverty, discrimination, racism and the pitfalls that make events like the Aspen Environment Forum and Ideas Festival germane to our lives.
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Wilson compares us to insects, with which we happen to share a social advantage in achieving altruism. Ants are Wilson’s favored creatures, perhaps more than humans, and he describes them as exemplars of how to pool collective interests and excise selfishness, the end of which leads to the advancement of both the whole and the individual.
Wilson points out that selfish individuals prosper better than altruistic individuals, as on Wall Street, where a selfish few have made fortunes at the expense of the many. However, Wilson warns, altruistic societies do better in the long run than societies composed of selfish individuals. The collective power of the many is stronger and more enduring than selfish, isolating individuals.
Wilson defines altruism as the act of doing something for someone else or for the greater good at a cost to one’s individual advancement and even survival. The ultimate altruist is the worker ant that gives up reproduction to improve the colony. In human context, the altruist is the soldier who throws himself on a live grenade in the act of saving his compatriots. There is no reward other than the performance of duty as conceived by instinct. Service to one’s society is requisite for advancing the whole.
Today, as social-media networks expand, it is assumed that society will benefit. That can occur only if social networks manifest a deep-enough altruistic message to give them lasting value. If social networks are merely superficial, they might actually reduce altruism by making social connections frivolous.
From my view, we’re falling behind on social altruism. How else can we explain the prevailing tribalism and nationalism that divide us? An even deeper disconnect lies between us and the natural world. Instead of cultivating a biological sense of altruism with all of life, we exploit the natural world as if it were something alien and expendable.
If we were truly altruistic, we would drop the barriers of social, cultural, political and racial profiles and embrace a deeper communal relationship that would benefit the whole of life. We would shatter the wall between us and the natural world and embrace a more compelling sense of kinship.
This most vital, holistic and altruistic advance might eventually be forced upon us by nature. The penalty for inaction will be considerable peril to our species. We need to act more like worker ants if there’s to be long-term hope for the colony.
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