The more I look around at the research being done, the more the evolutionary roots of our social and moral behavior become clear. I saw a fascinating TED talk in which experiments done with chimps, elephants and monkeys clearly demonstrate empathy, cooperation, reciprocity and a strong sense of fairness. These are not the god-given characteristics of human souls, nor the result of values imposed on us by our upbringing. They are instincts hardwired into the very structure of minds as social animals. Far from being selfish, violent, competitive savages at heart, in need of the rigorous discipline of social institutions and religion to civilize us, it would seem that we have an innate impulse to cooperate, to console one another in times of sorrow, and to rebel when we are treated unfairly or see others unjustly treated.
Score one for compassion and the moral compass. I am also reading Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday”, and it becomes very clear as I see his comparisons of social organizations ranging from the small band to the large state, just where we get some of our more negative traits. While it is to an individual’s advantage to practice cooperation and compassion within one’s group, it is also advantageous to advance the needs of one’s own group over other groups, especially when resources are scarce. Thus, one needs a strong sense who is “in” and who is “out”. When you have a band of some hundreds of individuals, it’s possible to know everybody and easily tell who is familiar and who is a dangerous stranger (and in Diamond’s research, for most such cultures every stranger is considered dangerous). As social groups get larger, and greater organization is necessary, mechanisms are needed to enforce obedience to the chief and loyalty to the group. Religious belief is a particularly successful mechanism to accomplish both.
When you consider the frenzy that religious conviction is able to evoke in people, how fervently they defend their god and their leaders, it is easy to see how this trait would be selected for in tribes and nations. Commanding legions who are fanatically devoted and convinced against all reason that they are right and all others are wrong bestows a formidable amount of power. Other tribes who lack that blind, fervent dedication to group and leader would be swept aside. As the social group grows and increases in territory, population and wealth, the need to maintain control means that all other gods must be crushed in favor of the dominant one. Sound familiar?
It is not too difficult to transfer this deep-seated impulse to blind loyalty to the state itself, to substitute nationalism for religious devotion. When this happens, the State can afford to tolerate a diversity of faiths, so long as all subjects obey the leaders. This is what happened in Rome, for example. And no, the Romans did not systematically persecute other religions. As a general rule, a wide diversity of beliefs and even atheism was tolerated. What Rome would not put up with was anything that subverted the power of Rome. If Christians were persecuted, it was for their politics, not for their faith. And the Romans were just as brutal in dealing with insurrection as Christians were in dealing with heresy. Same principle.
We are the product of hundreds of thousands of years of selection for behaviors that promoted our survival, not just as individuals, but as groups. Both sides of the coin, compassion and fairness, as well as xenophobia and warfare, are built into us. But another brilliant evolutionary advantage is also built into us: the ability to reason, to understand, and to influence our own behavior. We are remarkably plastic. As we continue to study ourselves and come to understand who we are and how we came to be that way, the better we will be able to transcend our weaknesses and utilize our strengths.
It remains to be seen whether a new strategy of universal tolerance and dedication to undifferentiated human thriving can succeed, or if the baggage of our past will defeat us.