Evolutionary reading

Tue 20 Nov 2007 - Filed under: Not a Journal., | Leave a Comment | Posted by: Gavin

Hope you are enjoying Michael’s posts on literary beer. (Mmm, beer.) More posts from Howard Waldrop are expected in a while—he’s got some stories to write which pay even better (cough) than this gig.

And in the meantime here’s something from intern, Margaret Kinney:

It is holiday time. People will be telling you that you, that we, have forgotten the true meaning of Christmas. They may mean Jesus, or pure giving or love, or something vague like that. Nowadays, they will also be telling you that, by forgetting this meaning and engaging instead in an orgy of materialism, you are destroying the environment and contributing to our wasteful, consumerist culture. But more people will be telling you that Christmas is a time for giving, abundant giving, and that you need to come to their store and spend, spend, spend on whatever it is that will assuredly make you and everyone you love so happy. And I believe them. And so do you. And we will buy things and wrap them in wasteful, shiny papers, and set them in heaps until we unwrap them together and glow with happiness just like the ads promised. Those naysayers above offer various reasons for this; we are sinful, greedy, taken in by modern temptations, we are shortsighted, our culture is irredeemably materialistic. Yes, probably. But maybe there is something else.

Evolutionary psychology is a relatively recent and still not widely accepted branch of study. It holds that evolutionary pressures have shaped our minds as well as our bodies, which doesn’t seem too controversial by itself. But it becomes offensive to many of those who have heard of it at all, when it intrudes too far into the mind and explains away a rather stunning array of behavior. Mind-body split, Descartes and all that. In any case, the basis of much of our human behavior, according to the theory, is reciprocal altruism, the basis of that kin selection. The latter meaning you will help those who share your genes, even at great personal expense, the former that you will help non-relatives with the expectation that they will pay you back eventually. Thus love is really just concern for your genes, acts of love really acts on their behalf. The mother sacrificing herself for kids who share half her genes, etc. Altruism is disguised self-interest. And so on. It’s all very complicated. Many seemingly ephemeral aspects of human nature can be elucidated by this theory. But people are resistant to it, sometimes hugely. An anthropologist once attempted to refute the whole of it by telling me about her friend who said he secretly loved his adopted child more than his biological one. Anthropologists generally abhor evolutionary psychology, I think, because it takes the emphasis off of cultural explanations. Culture being what they study. Others simply shy away from such concrete explanation for sacred, special phenomena like love. Doubtless culture and consciousness have a huge effect on every aspect of our behavior, and mitigate many instincts. But it seems extreme to deny any non-cultural explanations, or even to deny a large role to the millions of years of shaping that our brains have undergone.

So maybe it’s not nonsense, and maybe not really that offensive. For example, Christmas. Sure, it’s largely a cultural product, dependent on tradition and our modern consumerism. And Christmas feelings are far from scheming. But part of the reason that the whole Christmas ritual, in its modern, not terribly Jesus-centric way, remains so powerfully satisfying and alluring, may be that it appeals to a deep-seated instinct in us. What is it, really, after all, but a very pure, artificial enactment of kin selection and reciprocal altruism? I give you a gift, you give me one, we are beholden to each other. The more we give the better, the more beholden. We are connected. In one of the most basic human ways. Yes? Why shouldn’t our lizard brains be thinking such things, even as our consciousnesses are taken up by tingly satisfaction and fellow-feeling? Maybe, the more we understand this aspect of our feelings, the better we can control them, the better we can restrain ourselves and pacify all those annoying, if correct, doomsday environmentalists and anti-materialists. Who knows? Thoughts?


No Responses to “Evolutionary reading”

  1. Brian on November 22nd, 2007 1:24 am

    While Seisetsu was the master of Engaku in Kamakura he required larger quarters, since those in which he was teaching were overcrowded. Umezu Seibei a merchent of Edo, decided to donate five hundred pieces of gold called ryo toward the construction of a more commodious school. This money he brought to the teacher.

    Seisetsu said: “All right. I will take it.”

    Umezu gave Seisetsu the sack of gold, but he was dissatisfied with the attitude of the teacher. One might live a whole year on three ryo, and the merchant had not even been thanked for five hundred.

    “In that sack are five hundred ryo,” hinted Umezu.

    “You told me that before,” replied Seisetsu.

    “Even if I am a wealthy merchant, five hundred ryo is a lot of money,” said Umezu.

    “Do you want me to thank you for it?” asked Seisetsu.

    “You ought to,” replied Umezu.

    “Why should I?” inquired Seisetsu. “The giver should be thankful.”

    (From Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, ed. Paul Reps)

  2. Skov on November 27th, 2007 9:20 am

    “But it seems extreme to deny any non-cultural explanations, or even to deny a large role to the millions of years of shaping that our brains have undergone.”

    There’s a lot of bold talk these days (last century or so) about believing in evolution as a concept, yet few seem willing to accept that it might influence their daily lives.

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