A lawyer famously asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Just as famously, Jesus did not answer the question directly but told a story. Don’t you just love that?
The connection between this essay and the science of evolution is that a neighbor is someone with whom you exchange altruism, and altruism is one of the most serious topics in evolutionary science.
In Oklahoma, during racial tensions and the pandemic, I wonder just how many “neighbors” there are. Rather than simple neighborliness, we have either one extreme or the other.
- First, there are the bad neighbors, who are neighbors only in the sense of physical proximity. They are otherwise full of hatred toward their fellowman. Here in Oklahoma, especially in the rural town where I work (in contrast with Tulsa, where my family lives), a lot of people in the immediate neighborhood do everything they can to make themselves bad neighbors. Loud music is common. And twice, people have used my yard as a place over which to shoot their fireworks. They let their dogs run free and bite people (two of my colleagues, not yet me), they throw their garbage everywhere, in their own yards and everyone else’s. They make themselves as obnoxious as possible.
- Second, there are the good neighbors. But we cannot just relax and be neighbors. My wife and I were out walking and we met one of our neighbors, a black man who was cleaning up branches from his yard. We could have just been neighborly and said Good Morning, but it was the day of the Trump rally and racial tensions in Tulsa, so we felt an obligation to create small talk with him, which we all enjoyed. Those of us who are not part of the problem have to use every opportunity we can to promote the solution, in this case interracial friendship. We cannot just take neighborliness for granted. Altruism is so rare that it might die if we do not actively feed it.
Repeatedly on radio interviews, black people say that they are afraid that white police will shoot them even if they try to be nice to them and cooperate. They feel all white guns pointed at them, and they do not take a single day of life for granted. They fear that, each day they get out of the house, they might get shot. This is a horrible burden to have to bear. Are they overreacting? Actually, the chance of a black person getting shot by a white policeman is very small—but still much larger than the chances a white person faces. After what they have been through, a little overreaction is understandable. I cannot lecture them and say, You probably won’t get shot, so just calm down. My responsibility is to contribute to a solution.
I remember back to a time, not long ago in our neighborhood, when you could just treat everyone the same. But today, under Trump’s leadership of perceived hatred, good white people have to notice which of their neighbors are black and make special efforts to befriend them. People like us are the ones that will keep America from descending into racial chaos.