Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Altruism in Recent History

In recent decades, evolutionary altruism appears to have become more common in the human species. Even as recently as World War Two, people of civilized countries thought that there was absolutely nothing wrong with killing thousands of civilians who happened to live in an enemy country. The Firestorm of Dresden and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki seemed reasonable to Americans, even though very few of the victims were actually responsible for German and Japanese aggression. The Rape of Nanking and the conquest of Europe seemed reasonable to Japanese and German citizens. While many soldiers had a hard time shooting fellow human beings, most soldiers and civilians approved of mass bombings of civilians whom they did not have to look in the eye. Somewhere around the time of the Vietnam War, this attitude changed. It was no longer acceptable to massacre a village, such as My Lai, just because there might be some enemy combatants there. Today, whenever an American bomb kills civilians in Afghanistan, there is a worldwide uproar. All around the world, people of every religious conviction or of no religious conviction are uniting in their rejection of torture, genocide, and war-related cruelty. This sounds like good news. I cling to it, because it is almost the only good news about the direction the world is headed.

But we must remember that this altruistic progress is the result of the beliefs and actions of individuals rather than of governments. Governments, at best, acknowledge the human rights that their people demand, and at worst suppress them. Government administrations do not advance human rights. The American government responded to civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., first with hostility, then with acquiescence, and only after many years with admiration. The progress of altruism has always and only come from the bottom up. When altruists find themselves in positions of power, they also find themselves in positions of frustration, and seldom accomplish very much.

And it is usually not facts and figures that stir people’s hearts to create a change. It was not the list of deaths and battles in Vietnam that altered American opinion; it may have been a single Associated Press photograph of children running from the village of Trangbang on June 8, 1972, screaming in pain from the burning napalm with which they had just been doused. We are still an altruistic species, and when we see something like that, it moves the hearts of everyone—with the exception of psychopaths.

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.

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