I continue my discussion of altruism, one of the most important human evolutionary adaptations.
President Barack Obama was swept into office on a tide of enthusiasm. But he is one idealistic altruist, allied with a few other idealistic people, and can only work through a slow and contaminated mass of administrators. At least, President Obama has made efforts to create a “transparent” administration, even to the extent of placing minutes of departmental meetings online. This could not contrast more strongly with the preceding administration, particularly the notoriously secretive office of former Vice President Dick “Dick” Cheney. We Americans dare to expect our government to be altruistic. The majority of Americans believe Barack Obama is altruistic, but remain unconvinced about his appointees, many of whom were financial executives receiving large compensations.
Altruism evolved in communities. The death of communities, and their replacement by multinational corporations, may prove to be the death of altruism. When, for example, all food is produced by a few global corporations, we have to take what they offer. Contrast this with farmers’ markets, where you buy food face-to-face from the people who produce it. When the people who run a community or a state live in it, they are much more accountable to their neighbors. This is the reason that conferences of mayors or of governors have much more bipartisan cooperation than Congress. The local altruistic citizenry of nearly every community wants energy efficiency and a clean environment; but Congress listens to the moneyed interests of the coal, oil, and gas industries, who want us to burn as much fossil fuel as possible. When large corporations and political parties are in control of the world, there is no voice for altruism.
We have already gotten a few glimpses into what the world could be like if many countries suffered a breakdown of altruism. We call them “failed states.” The genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia in the last decade of the twentieth century, or in the Sudan in the first decade of the twenty-first, show how people who had been living with a semblance of peace can suddenly erupt into insane violence. Just as the human brain is capable of altruism, it is also capable of classifying other human beings as non-persons and killing them with no feelings of empathy whatever. This is unlikely to occur except under highly unusual circumstances, but it is clearly possible.
It would take thousands of years for the genetic underpinnings of human altruism to erode away. Unfortunately, the cultural norms of altruism are essential for unlocking these genes. If we interrupt the cultural transmission of altruism, we may collapse into a nightmare world of dark conflict in which the old altruistic tendencies are groping around, unable to emerge.
A passage similar to this appears in my book Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, to be released soon by Prometheus Books. See my website for more information.