Saturday, July 23, 2011

Altruism Under Attack

I am revising my Encyclopedia of Evolution, which Facts on File plans to reissue only in electronic format. Don’t look for it at your local bookstore. But, I hope, you can buy it soon online. Librarians! Alert! You can have it on your computers for your patrons!

When I got to the “altruism” entry, I dutifully recited the scientific arguments for why humans are the most altruistic species. My summary is concise and interesting, but for a fuller picture, you can read Michael Shermer’s book The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Care, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule; and Frans deWaal’s book Age of Empathy. You can even read Dacher Keltner’s Born to Be Good. Well, maybe you don’t have to read the books. The subtitles tell you everything you need to know. Altruism is basic to the human psyche.

Their viewpoints are without doubt correct regarding the instinctual capacity that humans have for altruism. And I wish that I could believe that such altruism will actually prevail in the world. But I am sad to report that altruism is being strangled.

It is quite clear, on the national political scene as this blog is being posted, that the Republicans are willing to destroy the nation’s financial future in order to promote their power. Every thought they have and every action that they take is only for their own power. They have no sense that altruistic cooperation with Democrats would not only be good for the whole nation but also enhance their own electability in 2012. They seem oblivious to even the benefits they would receive from altruism. Rather than acting like altruistic humans, or chimps, or bonobos, they are acting like gorillas, using force as the sole means to consolidate their power.

And that is the way society is also. I am speaking, of course, from Redneck Central, in rural Oklahoma. I have neighbors—such people are all over the place in rural Oklahoma—who believe that they have the right to vandalize my property and threaten me with physical violence if I raise any objection to their vandalism. They act like gorillas, not chimps or bonobos or humans. When you look at them, they even look like gorillas; they look like they have been taking steroid injections since age six. Hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, producing the capacity for altruism, has been jettisoned by these people in my neighborhood.

Oh, by the way, these people claim to be followers of Jesus Christ. I wonder if Jesus would have said, Blessed is he who destroys his neighbor’s property and threatens his neighbor with physical violence.

I dutifully write about the evolution of altruism—in my encyclopedia, as well as in my book Life of Earth—even though I no longer believe that there is enough of it left in American society to save us from social chaos.

Monday, July 18, 2011

What You Don’t Know About Evolution Can Kill You

As noted in a previous blog entry, evolution can occur rapidly. Perhaps the best example of how rapidly natural selection can work is the evolution of resistant organisms, such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria. A mutant bacterium that has the ability to resist penicillin will thrive in the body of a person who is taking penicillin. This is because the penicillin has wiped out the bacteria that cannot resist it. The result is a person who is carrying around a culture of resistant bacteria. These bacteria can then spread to other people. This occurs readily when humans are in close contact, such as in hospitals, or overcrowded prisons, or schools. This same mutant bacterium, in the absence of antibiotics, is inferior to the non-resistant bacteria.

Humans have developed many kinds of antibiotics. But for each of these antibiotics, there are populations of bacteria somewhere that have evolved resistance to them. Fortunately, not all bacteria have evolved resistance to all antibiotics. But some populations of bacteria, called “superbugs,” have evolved resistance to several kinds of antibiotics. Many of you, like me, have known someone who became ill or died from a resistant bacterial infection that they acquired in a hospital or nursing home.

It takes only a few years for populations of bacteria to evolve resistance to any particular kind of antibiotic, and it has taken only a few decades for resistance to antibiotics in general to become a major public health problem. Many viruses, such as HIV, have evolved resistance to antiviral medications as well.

In a similar fashion and almost as rapidly, populations of insects have evolved resistance to pesticides used to control them. There are many populations of insects, many of which spread diseases from one human to another, which will no longer die if you spray them. There are populations of disease-carrying rats that cannot be killed by rat poison. Environmentalist Rachel Carson pointed out in 1962 that the overuse of pesticides not only polluted the environment but also proved ultimately useless because of evolution: “If Darwin were alive today the insect world would delight and astound him with its impressive verification of his theories of the survival of the fittest. Under the stress of intensive chemical spraying the weaker members of the insect populations are being weeded out. Now, in many areas and among many species only the strong and fit remain to defy our efforts to control them.”

In all these ways, from the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria to the evolution of pesticide-resistant vermin, agricultural and medical researchers (some of whom are creationists) have had to take evolution into account when developing strategies to control the spread of infectious diseases and pests. Germs and disease vectors are moving targets, and evolution is the reason for this. Evolution happens in hospitals (and down on the farm, too) not over the course of millions of years but over the course of just a few months. What you don’t know about evolution can kill you.

This entry appeared in my book Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, from Prometheus Books.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Religion and evolution, again

I began Chapter 7 of my new book Life of Earth by saying that there is no such thing as religion. It is not an instinctual thing within the human mind. Instead, religion is a set of ideas (memes) that have parasitized some instinctual capacities of the human mind. The feelings and patterns of thought upon which religion include (according to my bulleted list on page 166) sexual ecstasy, loss of awareness of having a defined body, altruism, the need for an authority figure, awareness of death, and agency. These feelings and patterns of thought are instinctive, but religion itself is not. The memes include the idea of a God or gods, of an afterlife, of a heaven, etc. In this, I had become convinced by the viewpoint of Richard Dawkins.

Wouldn’t you know it, the very week that my book came out, I changed my mind. Religion is in fact a thing and it is instinctual.

The evidence for this includes the fact that, whenever you find religion, you nearly always find all of its components. Of course, Buddhism does not contain all of them. But, maybe Buddhism isn’t really a religion. This is what Sam Harris seems to think.

But the main thing that changed my mind was an experience that I had in a supermarket. I encountered a man whom I have known for years, and who has disputed with me for years about politics and religion. He is usually zealous, and I am quiet, in these disputes, but I at least imagined that there was an underlying respect. But this time he crossed the line. He drew a crowd by yelling at me about (as it turned out) his rejection of global warming. Before I could say much of anything, he drew out his main weapon: religion. He made it clear that he could not be wrong, because Jesus was on his side. Conservative Christianity was his sword, and he used it as such—as a discrete entity, not just as a loose collection of memes and feelings.

And then I was amazed as I observed myself do the same thing. I was swept away by zeal and made a religious argument against him. I said that Jesus was not his little finger puppet to use to win arguments. This was my weapon. Science is a set of memes, but when I had to reach for a weapon, I used religion. It was an instinctual, primal, and visceral reaction on my part. At the moment, it seemed to me as much of a single, coherent instinct as hatred, love, hunger, or thirst. Religion seemed to me to be a discrete entity, almost discrete enough to hold in your hand and use.

I am quite certain my thinking on this subject is not finished. And there is no reason that it should ever be. Next week I might go back to agreeing with Sir Richard. And maybe I can benefit from some of your insights. Feel free to share them in the comment box.