Thursday, August 30, 2012
I have written many entries about altruism, which is one of the major products of evolution. Altruism closely resembles what people have always called love. I reported earlier that the Republican Party has officially rejected altruism. Now they have officially rejected love.
For many years, we have all known that the Republican Party is the party of love. They say only nice things about people so that everyone will love them. They gladly accept the label “bleeding hearts” for themselves because their hearts flow out with love toward not just the middle class and poor, such as the victims of bank robo-signing, but even toward the world of nature, you know, birds and stuff. They embrace the Bleeding Heart ideal because this term refers to the bleeding heart of Jesus Christ.
Nowhere has Republican love been more obvious than in the pronouncements of commentators such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly. For years, liberal writers such as myself have referred to them as “bloviators,” but we have been so wrong. Every word that has come from Rush Limbaugh’s mouth has been loving and nourishing, each an attempt to help his listeners by giving them truly constructive advice. Even Jesus himself would have a hard time matching the love that Republicans have showered upon their listeners. Where have you ever seen a more loving person than Donald Trump? When the Religious Right Republican commentators make it abundantly clear that everyone who disagrees with them in even the most minor detail is a Satan-possessed terrorist God-hater, this is only because they care about us and wish for us to be saved from hell by worshiping them. Pat Robertson, who pours his words of love from Trinity Broadcasting Network, is the ultimate Christian superman, and he consistently proclaims the Gospel of Republicanism.
So great has been their love that the Republican Religious Right fully deserves every last penny of their wealth. Paul and Jan Crouch, owners of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, have used millions of dollars of money sent by their worshipers to purchase numerous lavish mansions, a luxury jet, and then even have a $100,000 motor home for their dogs. Surely their mansions and the comfort of their dogs is more important than a few thousand children in Bangladesh—isn’t this what Jesus would have said?
But all of that is about to change. At the Republican convention, Governor Chris Christie said (as quoted by Fox News), “‘I believe we have become paralyzed, paralyzed by our desire to be loved.’ Christie said leaders chronically opt to do what is popular, ‘but tonight I say enough. Tonight, we’re gonna choose respect over love.’”
So the Republican Party is now going to command the kind of respect that one receives in the absence of love. What kind of respect could this be? It cannot be the respect that comes from doing a good job for your customers, since that is a form of love. Certainly it is not the kind of respect that comes from neighbors helping one another after a hurricane, such as the one that almost hit the Republican Convention. Both of those are forms of altruism, which Mitt Romney specifically rejected a couple of weeks before Christie’s Sermon on the Mound. It must be the kind of respect that comes from force and intimidation. The kind of respect that a schoolyard bully receives from the other kids whose faces have been beaten into the dirt. Limbaugh called student Sandra Fluke a slut. (Maybe I should call one of my unwed female mother students a slut, and see how long my tenure would protect me.) That, my friends, is love-speech. I wonder what respect-speech would look like.
And before you know it, the whole country will be dominated by the vast canopy of Republican respect. I am looking forward eagerly to all of us non-Republicans, and even moderate Republicans, being called a slut or a terrorist or a communist or a servant of Satan. I can hardly wait to live in this Republican utopia.
Saturday, August 25, 2012
I went to Sequoia Park to feel small; I went to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Reserve to feel young. These bristlecone pine trees (Pinus longeava) are the champions of a type of survival in which organisms live in hostile environments, are just barely alive, grow slowly, but stay alive for a long time. At least, they are the multicellular champions; there are apparently some bacteria that live miles down into the crust of the Earth and metabolize atoms and inorganic molecules and divide once a century. But you will never see them. But you can walk right up to a bristlecone pine that was 2000 years old when Jesus was born, and 1000 years old when Moses fled into the wilderness.
Sequoia trees (see earlier essay) grow quickly when they are young. Bristlecone pines, however, grow slowly from the very start. The park ranger at the reserve showed me a 10-cm-tall eight-year-old bristlecone seedling.
Of course, not all of the bristlecones are over 4000 years old. They represent a whole range of ages, though mostly measured in centuries or millennia. The park personnel do not identify which trees are the oldest, because they do not want humans taking home little souvenirs of the ancient world.
The trees are barely, but very much, alive. Find me a piece of intact 4000-year-old wood that is not inside of a bristlecone pine tree. Of course, their dry, often cold environment helps to preserve them; it is not a place fungi would prosper. But through the ancient trunks there are still xylem rays—with living cells and cell membranes and active transport—that are alive and preserve the wood.
There is a price to pay for rapid metabolism, the kind us mammals have. Our intelligence consumes a lot of food and oxygen, as does our movement and warm blood. That price is a short life. But none of us would trade places with the bristlecones. Disregarding for the moment the Tolkeinian vision of Ents, trees (especially the slowest growing ones) have no awareness or memory of their environments; no wisdom. The idea of a long-lived human (a Methuselah, for example) is a biological fantasy. But as humans we do have some advantages. We live far longer than do other mammals with similar metabolism, and not just because of recent medical advances. We start to fall apart after age 30, which was when most prehistoric people died, but amazingly enough our minds do not fall apart right away. Many of us actually grow more wise and intelligent as we get older, until senescence at last gets us.
I came neither to envy nor to gloat over the bristlecones. I came to humbly experience the possibility of an almost completely different kind of life than my own.
Saturday, August 18, 2012
I must interrupt my Evotour series (one entry remains to be posted) to bring you late-breaking news about altruism. (By late-breaking I mean less than a week old. I usually get month or year old news to you.)
President Barack Obama made a statement that sounds like a completely non-controversial, common sense description of altruism as it plays out in our communities and in our nation. Here is the original quote. Obama was talking to small business owners: “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
I cannot imagine that anyone would object to this. Businesses do not teach their employees how to read and write and add and subtract. Some businesses build their own private roads, but those roads connect to highways that are built by counties, states, and the federal government. If you’ve got a business, you did not build the schools and roads. (I plan to operate a small business myself soon, so I can say soon that Obama’s statement reflects the common sense beliefs of a small business owner.) Businesses and families can thrive only within stable communities, bound together by altruism, which is facilitated by reasonable regulations and reasonable taxes.
Altruism, as I have written several times previously, is doing well by doing good. One animal (such as a human) does good things to and for another animal of the same species, and both of the animals prosper as a result. There are innumerable examples of altruism, confirmed by observation and (thanks to people like Martin Nowak) mathematics. It is one of the clearest components of evolutionary theory. And it is intuitively obvious to all of us.
Mitt Romney, however, had to attack Barack Obama for this statement. Obama clarified that he meant that if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build the schools, roads, and bridges. On August 13, Romney attacked even more vigorously, saying that this context was even worse than the original statement. Perhaps Romney, and therefore the mainstream of the Republican Party, envision a future in which America consists of individuals who do not help one another out but just fight and struggle with one another for dominance. Gated communities that are entirely self-contained? I cannot believe that Republicans are stupid enough to believe this. I suspect that Romney simply attacks anything Obama says without even thinking about it. If Obama said the sky is blue, Romney would say that this is Obama’s Democratic bias, and that the sky is really Republican red. Long ago John Donne wrote, “No man is an island, entire of itself,” and until now pretty much everyone accepted this as true. Welcome to the Republican vision of what America should be like. Or not; as I said, I think Mitt spoke without thinking.
Mitt Romney is not the only one to speak without thinking. When Joe Biden said, this week, that the Republicans want to put people (he was speaking to a largely black audience) back in chains, he easily won the Stupidest Statement Award. Where did Obama find this clown anyway? Biden is the same one who emailed all of Obama’s supporters and said that if Obama did not win the election it was their fault for not giving more money. As one of those followers, I emailed my response: that this was an offensive statement. But while Joe Biden is destroying altruism by clownish incompetence, it appears that Republicans are destroying it deliberately.
If Mitt Romney makes a big deal about attacking Obama on the issue (previously, non-issue) of altruism, I can only wonder if he has any ideas of his own. Perhaps American businesses can prosper by investing their money in overseas banks the way he does? If Romney makes the rich richer, will this automatically lift up the middle class? The rich have been getting richer, and the middle class has been getting poorer (especially by debt burden). Raising up the rich has not raised up the middle class in recent years, and there is no reason to expect that it would in the future.
This is just one more example of Republicans taking on what should be a non-partisan topic—something confirmed by science—and attacking it. Evolution, global warming, stem cells, and now altruism. As a biology instructor, what can I do? Do I need to ask the Republican Party whether carbon atoms really exist before I teach about molecular structure? The Bible does not, after all, say that carbon atoms exist. I can only hope that this example is extreme; but I would never have guessed that altruism would be treated as a dangerous theory either.
Good luck to all of you altruists.
Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Owens Valley, just east of the central Sierra Nevada, is a place of open, windswept desert scrub. The desert is formed by the rain shadow of the highest of the Sierras, which tower immediately above it. Because there is little rain, and because what little bit of water there is has been mostly claimed by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power since the early twentieth century, there is little development. The desert sweeps up from the valley to the peaks with hardly any interruption. The beauty is almost heartbreaking. To the east, another range of tall mountains (dominated by White Mountain) rises almost as high as the Sierras.
The slopes of Owens Valley look almost the same today as they did in 1942. This was that year that the United States government, at war with the Empire of Japan, established the War Relocation Administration. Its directive was to relocate all people of Japanese origin from their homes into internment camps. Because they all had to sell their homes at once, the bottom fell out of the market, and they received a pittance for their property. They had to leave everything behind and live in barracks at the internment camps, spread widely over the American west. The thin-walled barracks were cold in the winter and hot in the summer. One of these camps was Manzanar, located near the present day town of Lone Pine. When the war ended in 1945, the Japanese were released, after being given $25 each.
The injustice of this action is well known. The internees were all Japanese Americans, most of them issei (first-generation immigrants) or their nisei (second-generation) children. They were American citizens who lost everything without due process of law. The issei had come to America to become Americans. Hardly any of them had any loyalty to Japan. Whole families were relocated. Because no such action was taken against German or Italian immigrants or their families, the Japanese internment is widely and correctly considered an example of racism. Germans, Italians, and Japanese Americans were related to the people of enemy nations, but only the Japanese were not white.
The Japanese, and the white American soldiers who supervised them, made the best of it. The internees had an amazingly positive attitude. They founded their own newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press. In the first issue of this paper, April 11, 1942, the headline read, “Manzanar Booms into Valley’s Biggest Town.” A small section on the front page read thus: “The citizens of Manzanar wish to express in public their sincere appreciation to General John L. DeWitt and his Chiefs of Staff…for the expedient way in which they have handled the Manzanar situation. The evacuees now located at Manzanar are greatly satisfied with the excellent comforts the general and his staff have provided for them. ‘Can’t be better,’ is the general feeling of the Manzanar citizen. ‘Thank you, General.’” Manzanar was an internment camp, not a concentration camp. Despite the inherent unfairness of the situation, the white rulers appeared to have done their best to keep the internees safe, clean, comfortable, and happy. The mother of a childhood friend graduated from high school in Manzanar. She said that they did not suffer.
What does this have to do with evolution? Quite simply, it is that when altruism evolved in the human species, it facilitated cooperation and friendship within groups but was often fed by antagonism toward other groups, especially if those other groups looked different. Racism is part of the flip side of altruism. And yet, antagonism toward outsiders is something that we can unlearn. Children who are raised in multi-ethnic neighborhoods have no problem forming altruistic bonds with members of other races. One of the biggest transformations in the human species during the past century has been the gradual, uneven, and partially-successful dissolution of racism.
During World War 2, the federal government was reeling with confusion, fighting a war on two fronts, trying to accomplish massive tasks in incredibly short spaces of time. And they got some things wrong. The War Relocation was one of them. They may not have even recognized the racism behind it. They got other things wrong too, such as the firestorms that incinerated thousands of civilians in Germany and Japan, and, of course, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Altruism is instinctual, but the way we use it is determined by culture and by collective decision. The best we can hope for is that we learn from the mistakes of the past.
One of the lessons of Manzanar is that, when sudden social or political disruption occurs, altruism can be one of the first things lost. It can get trampled by confusion and wrath right at the time we need it the most. This is what happened in the former Yugoslavia when the Soviet regime collapsed, and in Rwanda when resources became scarce. I wonder if it could happen in American society today, where many outspoken people, most often of the extreme conservative persuasion, talk as if people who disagree with them are not their fellow citizens or not even worthy of human rights. Are they just talking, or should we believe that when they stockpile weapons they might actually have a use planned for them? All I can do is to preach the gospel of altruism and hope that as many people as possible believe it, so that those who would take extreme measures in a time of crisis will be as few as possible.