Friday, July 13, 2007

Molecular civil war

There are three drives at war within modern man: the drive to reproduce, the need to hold adequate territory and resources, and the social instinct which leads us to abhor intraspecies violence.

Before you pooh-pooh me on the last one, consider that wars almost always happen when each side is convinced that the other is "the bad guys," and, though they'll rarely admit it, considers them less virtuous, even less than human. It's easy to doublethink your way into believing that no one who serves a bad cause - or what you consider a bad cause - could possibly be a good, competent, or even potentially valid person. Ask yourself what you'd think of a man who fought for Nazi Germany. Okay? Good. Now: did you even stop to consider whether it was possible he might not have known what he was fighting for? Or that he might have had little or no choice, and never seen any actual action, much less atrocity? Probably not. I'm not saying any of those things are likely, or making any kind of judgment; the point is whether or not you thought of those things before you judged. When someone is in an outgroup, they just don't bear consideration. It's instinct, so don't beat yourself up over it; just watch out for it.

Anyway: humans are creatures of instinct, just like any other animal. Don't believe me? Take a look at your nearest suburb or trailer park, at the family with eight kids and no reason other than "we always wanted lots of children." Children are a drain. They suck up resources and dominate the parents' lives. Why have them? Because we want to, obviously. Because we're built to want to. Take a look at third-world nations where couples who can't even feed themselves bear child after child. Why? They don't even think about it. There is no why. They just do. Why are snakes or spiders distasteful? Why does fast-moving water or heights give you the shivers? They simply do. Instinct. It's built into you at a preconscious level, written in your genes. It's left-over survival traits for early humans who were little more than eccentric apes.

Breed more, leave more offspring, pass on more copies of your genes. That's the currency of evolution. Genes good at getting their bearer to copy them are passed on more, and so cause more copies of themselves to be created. The most straightforward expression of this concept is the drive of every creature to mate at all costs. But parents and offspring alike must also live to reproduce, and so adequate territory and resources are also required. And, of course, there's no point to reproducing if your closest genetic relatives just kill one another off.

Breed, survive, and get along with your kin.

Each of the three warring traits exists for a good reason, a valid evolutionary purpose, but, for humans, the three are no longer entirely compatible. Humankind has changed the environment in which it lives so extensively - and by "environment" I mean not just the natural world in the sense that the American media usually uses the term, but the entirety of the conditions which surround us at all times, the milieu in which we live -that we are no longer perfectly biologically suited to it. Biologically speaking we are apes; instinctively we prefer tree-height. We prefer grasslands and expansive views. We're made for a diet rich in gathering and not so heavy on hunting. But how do we live? In closed in, ground-level caves, densely packed together, eating meat and junk and very little plant matter.

It's not a bad thing. I'm not pushing for a return to nature; it's far too late for that now, and no reasonable individual wants to give up all we've gained and accomplished. My point is that biologically we simply aren't written for the world we live in!

We have too many people for the resources and land available, and yet still we want to reproduce. We have enormous drive to acquire new resources, and yet the only want to do so is to wrest them from the hands of our fellow men. We'd like to get along with each other, but every day we bump elbows and clash personalities with far too many people in unnatural, stressful environments. These drives are all there, and no matter how consciously we recognize that, they don't go away. They can't. They're hardwired in, like a computer's BIOS; they're what initializes us when our conscious mind can't keep up; they're what tells us, at levels where our minds can't or won't go, what's good and what's not... for an ape.

But we do hold a trump card: we have, far and away, the most powerful adaptive tool any terrestrial species has ever developed, powerful enough to overcome any instinctive drive and any physical hardship if the need is great enough and the will is there. We have intelligence and we have communication, traits unique to us not in their inherent natures, but in the degree to which we possess them. Dogs are intelligent, and they communicate; the same can be said of dolphins, fish, birds, insects, worms, anything with a complex nervous system, but none to anywhere near the degree of which humans are capable. We can observe, analyze, and choose, and no other species has demonstrated that ability in a capacity even approaching our own.

It's not easy, though. Every time a man takes an action that doesn't directly promote his welfare or that of his kin, he has to fight instinct to some degree. We have developed powerful tools over the course of our history to aid us in this; we have memetic devices, from religious faiths to the cold, hard power of logic, which let us overcome instinctual reluctance to do whatever we think is good and right, and we've even figured out ways to, in some degree, program people to believe that certain things are good and right. We've set down moral precepts and laws, though often for reasons themselves largely instinctual.

At any rate, I think I'll continue this another time. It's getting rather late, and I've digressed from my original purpose somewhat. In fact, I've quite forgotten precisely what my original point was.

1 comment:

skyen said...

I was irked by the first half of the piece, and was glad you didn't think so little of humanity.

By definition, I would say I'm an athiest, but only because I'm too lazy to find out otherwise. I've been told that I'm actually a humanist.

I think it's amazing how far humanity has gone--how we've evolved and changed and diverged. Whatever our instincts are--whatever we are biologically more suited for--we are human, and the most natural instinct we have is to do what is right and good.