Survival of the Kindest

I've been reading Steven Pinker's - yes, still. It's in a pile of about five non-fiction books and a few magazines that I try to read a bit of every day - and yesterday it was all about why we care for others. Not from a moral point of view, but from an evolutionary point of view. What's in it for us?

I think I've admitted before to an early love affair with Ayn Rand and, most particularly, her "virtue of selfishness." Which I interpreted to include altruism, because how can I do well if others around me are sinking? Turns out I would have been drummed from the Atlas Shrugged symposia, but by the time I figured that out, I didn't care. Still, as Pinker points out (although he doesn't reference Rand), our genealogical imperative, to perpetuate our genes, would seem to be an altogether selfish enterprise, with "what's in it for me?" being the prime mover. Although, as Pinker also points out, evolution does not proceed in order to accomplish something. It proceeds as random mutations work out in the long run.

But even Richard Dawkins, who coined the term selfish gene as a way of expressing the gene-centred view of evolution as opposed to the views focused on the organism and the group, also drew the conclusion that from the gene-centred view it follows that

the more two individuals are genetically related, the more sense (at the level of the genes) it makes for them to behave selflessly with each other. Therefore the concept is especially good at explaining many forms of altruism, regardless of a common misuse of the term along the lines of a selfishness gene.

In other words, survival of the fittest is very often coterminous with survival of the altruist. And Pinker nails down that concept for me very well, when he argues that

Once you have made yourself valuable to someone, the person becomes valuable to you. You value him or her because if you were ever in trouble, they would have a stake - albeit a selfish stake - in getting you out. But now that you value the person, they should value you even more. Not only are you valuable because of your talents or habits, but you are valuable because of your stake in rescuing him or her from hard times. The more you value the person, the more the person values you and so on ...[a] runaway process [that] we call friendship.

What, you may ask, does all this higglety-pigglety have to do with politics? You're posting biological philosophy on the Politics page. What's the deal?

Here's the deal. It has to do with tax rates and entitlement programs and the internet and globalization and why we should care. Why should rich people opt into the common enterprise that hopes to make life and opportunities better for those at the bottom? Why are our entitlement programs, flawed though they may be, important for all of us? Why is foreign aid, flawed though it is, vital to our well-being? Why should we care if a factory in Bangladesh burns to the ground taking over a hundred people we never met and whose relatives we will never know to their deaths?

Both Pinker and Dawkins (and Rand, if she had been able to see beyond her wizened little window on the world) understand that it is in our best interests that we care, even if we only care for others in order that they may, in turn, care for us.

The internet and globalization, no matter the nefarious purposes to which certain individuals and moneyed interests wish to put them, have succeeded in creating what Marshall McLuhan could only dream of. A very real global village. A village in which all of our interests are intertwined. In which the butterfly's wing in Mongolia does indeed create a windstorm in Iowa. And vice versa.

A young girl in Pakistan gets shot. She is our daughter. An artist in China is arrested. His work is supported worldwide. A freedom fighter in South Africa is released and elected President. He is our President too.

Tragedies and triumphs the world over, from Darfur to Myanmar, from Kyrgyzstan to Brazil, across our country or down our street - we mourn and celebrate with them all. Our very, very selfish genes tell us that the best interests of all is the best interest for us. The notion of what constitutes the "fit" is a much bigger concept today than it used to be. In this brave new world, to be fit is to be kind.