Tuesday, June 20, 2006

On Basis of Division

Whilst reading Bill Brysons A Short History of Nearly Everything, an old interest was re-ignited. Namely, in a given person. He is Richard Dawkins, a professor at Oxford, and a famous spokesperson for evolution. So it came that I saw a program he'd made about world religions called "The Root of All Evil?". Don't worry, I'm not going to go off on a crusade against the evils of religious fundamentalism. Instead, it sparked a different line of thought in me.

In my previous post, "The Animal in Man", I recounted some of the findings of psychology in the realms of group behavior, obedience to authority and the frailty of morality. However there are also biological claims for a altruistic basis for social interaction. Evolutionary Psychology has made claims that we are "built" to feel a sense of affinity towards our kind. This is a common trait of primates which, in evolutionary terms, attempts to insure the survival of the race. However, there are limitations to this. The theory is that the size of the social groups of primates is related to the size of our neocortex. This is a relatively new part of the brain, and may be the key to formation of large scale societies. The larger the neocortex, the larger the group to which your altruistic social behavior extends.

Building upon this, one realizes that there is more to the group formations which are present human societies. Each stage of group dynamics is represented by a degree of altruistic social interaction. You are genetically predispositioned to behave altruistically towards your offspring, to ensure the survival of your genes. You form co-operative units with friends, where you care for each other. At work, you form co-operative units aswell, however with a lesser degree of mutual care. In political circles, you come together to pursue either a common goal, or your individual benefits. At each level, as the group grows bigger and further detached from your persona, the willingness for altruistic self-sacrifice lessens.

At the same time as this creates the chance for civilization to flurish, it also means we are all fundamentally divided into groups. If you'll recount the Stanford Prison Experiment, such divisions can be all important. To overcome the genetic pre-desposition for mutual care, you have to first define yourself as different from someone else. As you no longer mentally perceive yourself to be like someone else, you are able to adopt behaviors traditionally described as evil. In fact, not only are you able to, division amongst people is a great engine for the production of misunderstandings and hatred. So I feel Dawkins might have fallen short in his accusation of religion as a source of evil. I believe it is groups themselves, even as fundamental as they are to us, which also create the phenomenon of evil.

This line of thought chooses not to deal with the effects of social norms and indoctrination. Instead, I have tried to glimpse the underlying conditions independent of any given society. As important as understanding the effects of society on society, is the effects of basic human nature on human interaction.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Animal In Man

I just watched the Court TV documentary "The Human Behavior Experiment". It's interesting to think that although many of us talk the talk, the truth is that most of us are little better than animals if put in the right situation. Moral high-grounds become ever less stable as psychology digs up evidence about just how frail the social structure that makes society possible is. It also brings to mind Peter Singers brilliant book, One World: The Ethics of Globalization. Singer in this book brings up issues in which ordinary people convey a wish to live up to a moral high ground, yet which we know they fail to reach in reality. The morales we each profess do not necessarily reflect on our actions it seems. We aren't the makings of possible heroes, we could each find ourselves doing horrible things, all we need is a push in the "right" direction.

Final thoughts, bare this in mind when judging others, especially in group situations. An idea I love to claim is that nobody intended the Holocaust to happen. Just as in The Stanford Prison Experiment, normal moral people, when put into a given situation, build upon each other and collectively pursue horrible actions. As such, the holocaust simply stemmed from an idea of an enemy which got out of hand. Once the enemy was defined and perceived, people began building upon each other to create a horrible situation. There was no evil, as is often proclaimed, but simply an assertation of man, the beast with table manners.

Friday, June 09, 2006

So what's new?

My entrance exams are over and I can finally read what I want again. First up, Bill Brysons incredible undertaking, "A Short History of Nearly Everything", in which he attempts to explain both all discoveries of science(more or less) up until today, aswell as give an insight into the scientists who made them. It seems science produces two things above all. Technological advances and odd people. Did you know that William Herschel, the man who found Uranus, initially wanted to call the new planet "George"? If only the scientific community of the late 18th century could have foreseen the abundance of bad "Ur-Anus" jokes to come, they perhaps wouldn't have been as quick to overrule him on this matter.

Day day of the beast(06/06/06) came and went, and all that came of it was my acceptance into Mensa. I wonder if that's a sign?