We Just Can’t Seem To Get Along

I listened to an interesting piece on NPR today about stereotyping. It was from a show about the barriers to human cooperation, and argued that the propensity of humans to categorize and stereotype each other hinders progress towards common human goals, but is basic to human nature, and has been shown to begin in infancy.

This to me is a self-evident truth, but is in fact a very controversial idea. The nature-nurture debate is alive and well. Reinvigorated in the 70’s with the publication of E.O. Wilson’s, Sociobiology, it remains highly contentious. Those who believe that there is a basic human nature that conditions our behavior and our relationships with each other are often considered genetic determinists, and champions of the status quo. These ideas are anathema to the political left, and have been attacked systematically for years–famously by Stephan Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. The countervailing view being that we are born as blank slates and that society’s ills and our inability to get along as a species result from faulty human institutions.

Today, there is a growing and vibrant set of academic fields which are generally lumped together as Evolutionary Psychology. The idea is that our brains evolved into recognizably human form in the Stone Age, and we are thus compelled to meet the cognitive demands of our current situation with the same tools used by our forebears. Evolutionary Psychology seeks to assign meaning for our current behavior, and our current social ills as maladaptive relics of formerly adaptive responses to the environment. They argue that our problems stem from our use of Stone Age brains in a Space Age world.

Many consider Evolutionary Psychology a pseudo-science, and a dangerous reformulation of the same ideas that led to eugenics and Nazis and the rest. There is no question that it is a slippery slope, and it is true that the ranks of those who consider themselves Evolutionary Psychologists are liberally peppered with some very weak-minded, even onerous, individuals.

But to dismiss the entire framework out of hand is a mistake, and threatens our ability to make substantive progress as much as those who would say, we are what we are, there is no point trying to change the world.

There is no doubt that our brains are structured in the shape of our evolutionary past. Without acting strictly in self-interest, one could not survive. Our brains seek out patterns, make generalizations, and find contrasts and distinguishing characteristics wherever possible. That’s just the way it is. Of course we stereotype. Of course we act in our self-interest. To think otherwise, is to misconceive the human condition and human relations. To deny it, for political or any reasons, is to stand firmly in the way of change.

The key is not to deny human nature, but to understand it. That is what some Evolutionary Psychologists are trying to do. The work of Steven Pinker, for example, could hardly be more cogently or eloquently presented.

To survive as a species, we must overcome the dictates of our evolutionary past. We must acknowledge our propensity to act in a way that serves our own over others’ needs. Then we must expand what we believe our needs to be. It can happen: a parent brings a child into their circle of self-interest, and acts on their behalf. We will help friends and even neighbors. But outside a very small circle, it breaks down. We must somehow convince ourselves that we all share the same future.

We want a peaceful, clean, just world. This will never happen until, by some miracle, we realize that we all must have a fair stake for there ever to be peace and prosperity. Sewing misery around the world so we can buy cheap sneakers is already coming back to haunt us. Presumably the CEO of Mcdonald’s has children and grandchildren. Yet the ruination of the planet is somehow for others to worry about.

It seems impossible that humans can truly get along, will ever lose the shortness of sight. But we’ve got to do something. If only to show the schmucks they’re not getting away clean.

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Published in: on January 31, 2007 at 3:47 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The group Labels Are For Jars, is trying to reduce societal labeling by selling t-shirts with terms like “addict”, “geek”, “slacker” and “mentally ill”. The cool part is that 100 percent of the profit funds a meal center that feeds “hungry” people 3 meals a day. http://www.labelsareforjars.org

  2. Your post reminds me of a book I read (can’t remember the title). It was pointed out that people always segregate into groups of one type or another, and the alignment varies according to the number of people involved and their characteristics. For example, a small group of children will divide off from adults, even if the ages are mixed; a larger group will split up even further, perhaps by gender or by age. As the dynamics of the situation change, the group formation changes. But it always occurs on some level.

    You’re right that we need to recognize a shared fate on this planet and start working together.

  3. Well icedmocha, there is just no question that we are prone to act in certain ways. The issue to me is that we have enough grey matter to transcend our lowest natures, and furthermore we collect ourselves into large groups and assemble baroque and extensive systems of laws precisely in order to have a failsafe against human folly and be able to live together and flourish together. But it’s just not working. I appreciate the comment.

  4. You’re so right. We really should be able to work this out.


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