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.


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