Wednesday, July 17, 2013

An Altruistic Taliban?

It’s enough to tickle the cockles of your heart. How genuinely sweet.

A while back, a Pakistani school girl, Malala Yousafzai, was shot in the head by members of the Taliban. She has recovered from the attack enough that she addressed the United Nations on her sixteenth birthday, which was July 12. She continued the same message that she had been proclaiming before the attack: that everyone, including girls, deserves educational opportunities, and that the Taliban should stop being afraid of education.

Then today, July 17, a Taliban official, Adnan Rashid, released an open letter to Malala Yousafzai. He did not apologize for shooting her, of course; how could anyone who has a direct connection to the mind of God ever have to apologize for anything? But he said he was shocked at the shooting and wished that it had never happened. He claimed that the Taliban welcomes education, and he invited her to come back to Pakistan (perhaps so that they could have another try at her). He wrote to her, “I was thinking how to approach you. My emotions were brotherly for you because we belong to same Yousafzai tribe.” The sweetness that exudes from his message is enough to make you cry. I suppose that if Rashid had shot his brother in the head, he would have felt a similar degree of sadness.

Obviously, Rashid’s letter was just a publicity stunt, as was pointed out by Mansur Mahsud, a research director at the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Area) Research Center in Islamabad. But what kind of publicity stunt was it?

It was an attempt to garner the power of altruism to help the Taliban. As many books, including my own Life of Earth, have pointed out, there are at least three ways in which the capacity for altruism can evolve. One of these, indirect reciprocity, may be unique to humans. Indirect reciprocity occurs when someone is nice to someone else, expresses love and respect and concern for someone else, in order to gain the goodwill not of the recipient but from the observers. A reputation for goodness is worth more than a lot of money in the bank. And apparently, according to Rashid, it is worth more than guns and IEDs. The reputation of goodness can be derived either from genuine goodness or from pretense. Rashid’s letter demonstrates that even one of the most evil groups in the world recognizes the necessity of having a reputation for goodness.

Rashid’s letter demonstrates that altruism is such a pervasive component of human psychology that even the Taliban has to tap into its power. It is a desperate attempt that fools nobody, but it is clear testimony to the importance of altruism in the human species. Our species has had the capacity for altruism for thousands or millions of years, but only in the last couple of centuries has this capacity had a chance to reveal itself as fully as it does today. Can you imagine Vlad the Impaler writing such a letter to, say, the family of one of his victims?

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