Saturday, August 18, 2012

It’s Official: Republicans Reject Altruism

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.

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