Necessary Evil

The success and dominance of the human species on earth has brought us to the point where the greatest threat to our continued existence is ourselves.  We argue endlessly about who among us is to blame.  We fracture and polarize human society in the search for villains.  We point the finger at this or that religious or political ideology.  We accuse the whites, blacks, browns, reds or yellows; the north, south, east or west. We accuse the elitist rich or the lazy poor; the male or the female; the straight or the gay; the old or the young; the zombies, vampires, werewolves or witches; the demons from another dimension or the aliens from outer space.  It sometimes seems that the only thing we agree about is that the blame lies with some other and never with ourselves.

I believe we have mis-identified the problem, and I will argue that a better understanding of evolution and human nature offers a more fruitful approach.

Diversity

Diversity is essential to life. That diversity can be examined by categories such as genetic, environmental, climatic, cultural and so on.  Human character is one example of how we might examine diversity.  The factors that produce individual human character are still quite a puzzle to us, but we have at least identified nature and nurture as two of the basic classes of ingredients.

Nature is usually taken to mean the genetic inheritance that results in differences in size, shape, coloration, biochemistry, susceptibility or resistance to diseases etc. — things which we are now beginning to link to specific genes.  Even before modern genetics, we understood that we each inherited a mix of characteristics from both of our parents.  For example: I have the long nose of my father and the crooked teeth of my mother.  My brother has my mother’s nose and teeth.

Nurture is usually taken to mean the environmental factors we experienced, particularly during our early years. One might grow up in a brutally violent home, or a kind and supportive home.  One might be adequately nourished or consistently malnourished.  The influences of nurture also include the broader social environment beyond the home.

Readers with a metaphysical bent might also add karma to the list of influences.  Those with a more materialist bent might add random mutations.  My point here is not to argue which influences cause which results.  My point is that — however the diversity of human character comes about — evolution could not occur and life itself could not exist without it.

Outliers and Extremes

Richard Dawkins has coined the term, the “selfish gene.”  I am going to use that term and define it like this… it is the aspect of the human character that seeks to preserve the individual self.  It is me looking out for number one.  Looking for an advantage over other creatures.  Looking for a way to profit from the environment around me.  Looking for a way to avoid harm or death.  Looking for a way to procreate and continue my own genetic line.  It is what we generally mean when we talk about the will or urge of the individual to survive.

I will contrast that with another term: the “altruistic gene”, which I will define like this… it is the aspect of human character that moves us to care about the wellbeing of others.  It is what we are talking about with words like: empathy, compassion, cooperation, tolerance, sharing, generosity and so forth.

Please note that I am using these terms figuratively.  There may be actual physical genes involved, but we are yet a long way from having complete knowledge about that.  I am using them as handy terms to describe human characteristics we can clearly observe, even if we do not yet fully understand the mechanics and details of their actions.

From one perspective, these two characteristics are opposed to one another… am I trying to benefit myself, or am I sacrificing something in order to benefit others?  But when we examine it more fully, we realize that both of these urges ultimately serve the same purpose: the preservation and continuation of life.  Not just my individual life, but life as a whole.

We are social creatures.  We might suppose that just means we like to hang around with others of our own kind, but it is far more significant and inclusive than that. Our survival is absolutely interdependent with the survival of other creatures.  Even the selfish gene’s goal of procreation is impossible to achieve without a sexual mate.  Right from that most basic instinctive level, we must include some altruism i.e. we have to care about and contribute to the wellbeing of somebody else.

So, while the selfish gene and the altruistic gene serve the same larger purpose, they obviously are not the same thing.  At the very least, we can see that the kind of behaviors they produce are quite different and sometimes complete opposites in many details.

If we put these concepts together into a functional whole — these necessities of diversity, selfishness, and altruism that make life possible — what will we get?  Diversity suggests that life will produce individuals across a broad range (the bell curve) and that extremes will inevitably occur.  There will be very tall people and very short people, genius and idiocy… and so on.  A large majority will be in the center range of the bell curve.  They will be what we call average or typical or normal.  Both the large center majority and the outliers at the extremes are inevitable because of the constant blending and stirring of life.  As the huge variety of species and individuals indicates, natural selection works within pretty loose tolerances, and that looseness is what makes life so vibrant and able to change and adapt to changing conditions.

In other words, we really do need all that variation.  That diversity gives us extremes of talent like great artists and scientists and basketball players.  It also gives us extremes of the selfish gene which gives us monsters who care nothing about the wellbeing of others.  We call them sociopaths because they are a destructive influence in human society.  We might imagine our bell curve of human character with altruistic saints at one extreme, selfish psychopaths at the other, and a whole lot of people in the middle portion who are neither excessively good nor excessively bad… people who have the selfish gene and the altruistic gene in rough or approximate balance.

Managing the Bad Guys

My theory is that the bad guys we are trying to identify are those who are dominated by the selfish gene.  I argued above that the existence of the selfish gene is necessary and that extremes are inevitable.  Therefore, the existence of these individuals is not the problem and trying to eliminate them from the gene pool is not the solution.

The problem has always been preventing these individuals from gaining too much influence or power in society, or wresting this power away from them after they have gained it.  That is one of the major themes in human history.  It is what drives our quest for justice and equality in the rule of law… from ancient days to the Magna Carta to modern efforts at democratic forms of government.

We cannot identify these individuals by their race, sex, nationality, socio-economic class or other obvious outward signs.  We identify them by their behavior… by their deeds.  Through the ages, we have become very familiar with the self-serving hypocrisy they practice.  Whether they are small time snake-oil salesmen, schoolyard bullies or vicious dictators, we know that secrecy and lies are typical behaviors for them, as are theft, psychological manipulation, coercion and extortion.  Some of them resort to physical violence, some do not.  Some are highly successful in their criminal endeavors and some are not.  Some have advantages like family connections, intelligence, good looks, good oratory skills or good luck.  And some do not.  For every big-time sociopath there are many who are less successful or fail altogether.  The selfish gene is only one of the many characteristics that make up a human being, and it may be blended in an infinite number of ways with other characteristics.

To further complicate matters… human beings are quite susceptible to propaganda.  The selfish gene in most of us can be talked into irrational hating.  The altruistic gene can be talked into donating to a bogus charity.  A skilled sociopath can do both, and that is typically how they enlist the support of large numbers of people who would otherwise behave more decently.

The Information Age

Sages have been telling us for several thousand years that knowing ourselves is the key to a better life.  I assume the sages have been delivering this message with such relentless repetition because we are notoriously bad at it and require constant cajoling to keep trying.  Homo sapiens means wise man, but too often, in actual practice, that means wise-guy criminal or wise-ass cynic.  Lies, secrecy and psychological manipulation are the stock in trade of sociopaths, which makes it more difficult to identify them by their deeds rather than by their words.  And so, we are confronted by the dual problem of knowing both ourselves and others more accurately.

Science and technology have increased our knowledge of ourselves and our ability to communicate that knowledge with one another.  Sociopaths and their deluded disciples have used this to advance their insane control and destruction of civilization and earth.  But that knowledge and technology provides the rest of us with the tools to resist them.

This seems to me as yet another example of life seeking equilibrium… seeking to balance all the forces at play in this universe while also allowing it to remain dynamic, changeable and evolving.  That gives me hope that we will get through these troubled and frightening times.  And it suggests to me that all the different things that human beings engage in are part of that evolution.  Do politics, do art, do business, make stuff, grow stuff… do what interests you, what you have talent or passion for, what gives you joy.  Celebrate life.

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