In light of the economic and political crises of the past few decades, and particularly the past few years, many have been left pondering not only how things could have gotten so bad, but deeper, more fundamental questions about human nature, and even the natural world.
How could it be that such callous indifference to human need be rewarded, while good Samaritans get arrested for feeding the poor?
How could CEOs dance away with negligible fines for embezzling millions on the backs of employees, while someone gets choked to death for selling cigarettes?
How could the guilty get away with buying and selling our government out from under us, while whistleblowers who alert the public to their crimes are imprisoned?
How could millions of illegally repossessed houses sit dormant, while millions go homeless?
How do corporations get away with privatizing their profits while socializing their risks?
How could the US reward corrupt bankers with positions in our government, while countries like Iceland imprisoned their corrupt bankers for doing the exact same things?
How can we tell school children that they will go hungry if they can’t afford lunch money, while our military wastes enough money every year to feed them many times over?
In this seemingly inverted world, it’s natural to wonder what the hell is going on. Isolated instances of this are maddening, perhaps a bit perplexing, but when you see them all around you every single day it’s hard not to become overwhelmed. One would be excused for feeling as though it’s all some kind of concerted effort to make you question the very nature of reality, human existence, and the state of justice in the universe.
You invariably ask yourself, “Is this…natural?”
The answer is complicated, but ultimately the response is, “No, it isn’t.”
There are likely those who will immediately try to undermine this idea by reminding everyone that things like savage competition for resources and survival of the fittest are both concepts in which nature itself seems to be built. They are also both concepts upon which the philosophies of the 1% proudly claim to be based.
Competition is indeed a natural phenomenon, but after you’ve climbed your way to the top of the food chain and eaten all of the smaller fish, what then? Then you either adapt (another keystone concept of nature) or you die out as a species. Humans, as higher forms of life, are capable of mitigating unsustainable trends through reason, ideas of fairness, and mutual benefit. (We rarely seem to DO that, but we are certainly capable of it.) This process of adaptation is all part of our evolution as a species.
Though survival of the fittest is a evolutionary concept found in nature, at least from a biological view, humans are not wounded antelopes, and, more importantly, the 1% are not starving carnivores just trying to survive. Although it benefits all members of a herd to protect their young from the attacks of predators, besides fleeing or placing themselves in harm’s way as a group, they lack the ability to do much toward that end. Again, we as rational humans have the advantage of being smart enough to see how we’re being used and find solutions to end that utilitarian view of our existence. Yet we seem to lack that basic adaptation of cohesion and unity of purpose that’s innate in herd animals. The alternative to adaptation is another term also found in nature: extinction.
And while things like overpopulation can have an equally cataclysmic impact on an ecosystem, the delicate balance of predator vs. prey maintains this in nature. We, as the bulk of the US middle class in 2018, have a similar balance in numbers; but our divisions have all been magnified to the point that they are all we can see. We have been confounded into believing lies, coerced into enforcing them, and confused to the point that we’re spreading them.
In spite of what the economic elites may want us to believe, we do not exist simply to meet their needs. We can know this because nature has given our species a brain advanced enough to comprehend not only its own worth and potential, but that of others as well. It has equipped us with this powerful tool necessary to change situations and overcome obstacles.
No matter what your opinions about the origins and nature of mankind, all can agree that we as a species have the ability to regulate some of the more dangerous aspects of our own nature in order to maintain a natural balance. We also have the ability to utterly destroy this balance.
There is an idea of ‘filtering out undesirable traits’ inherent in the ‘survival of the fittest’ concept. Those traits which are harmful or make a species less able to adapt to their environment eventually die out. It’s a cold, hard reality of nature. The genetic stock which remains helps ensure the survival of the species, as it has proven itself effective at withstanding adverse conditions.
But what is the adaptation that sets us apart from nature and allows us to rise above it, for better or worse? It’s not just self-awareness or reason. According to the Roman historian Plutarch, the ancient Spartans used to demand all newborn infants be brought before the Spartan council and inspected. If any peculiarity or defect was found, then the baby was thrown from a cliff to his or her death. Today we would rightly call this murderous act barbaric or primitive, just as the Romans of Plutarch’s time did. The reason we detest this idea, despite a biological rationale to filter out undesireable traits, is because we have empathy.
Unlike the baser instincts of self-preservation and survival, empathy goes beyond the self to encompass the well-being of another person and, ultimately, of the entire group. In similar fashion to survival instincts, empathy is an ingrained part of our makeup. It’s part of what makes us human.
Why is that?
‘Natura nihil frustra facit‘ in Latin means “Nature does nothing in vain.” In other words, nothing in nature is wasted and everything happens for a reason.
According to the ethnologist Dr. Frans De Waal, empathy is indeed part of what makes us human and the more intuned with it we are the more truly human we become. He further states: “And for those who keep looking to biology for an answer, the fundamental yet rarely asked question is why natural selection designed our brains so that we’re in tune with our fellow human beings and feel distress at their distress, and pleasure at their pleasure. If the exploitation of others were all that mattered, evolution should never have got into the empathy business. But it did, and the political and economic elites had better grasp that in a hurry.”
That’s not the only lesson that ecological relationships found in nature can teach us. When an organism sucks the life from another organism, forcing it to consume twice as much to achieve the same level of energy, that situation is refered to as ‘parasitism‘. In most cases, this relationship is unsustainable. The parasite will eventually kill its host and move on to another. The opposite of parasitism is a mutually beneficial state referred to as ‘symbiosis‘, where two or more parties benefit from each other, providing things that allow each to survive and thrive that they would not have alone. Along the same vein are communal organisms which depend on individual members of the community for their survival.
The same relationships can be seen between the corporatist capitalism of the US, in contrast to the Nordic Model capitalism of the Scandinavian countries. In the US, the capitalist system’s treatment of workers is more akin to that of wage slaves, committed to producing the highest possible profit margin for owners and shareholders. The balance has been ruined in favor of the very top of the pyramid. In this parasitic state, the top has lost sight of the inter-dependency that workers and CEO’s share, and instead uses workers by exploiting their desperation to survive. Like many parasitic relationships found in nature, this one cannot persist. It cannot sustain itself without adapting to the needs of its work force.
Meanwhile, out of the top 10 countries for the highest standard of living and lowest incidence of poverty in the world, all five of those Scandinavian countries are included. One of them, Norway, even made the list of the top 5 countries for income equality on the GINI index. According to the World Happiness Index for 2017, the top five happiest countries are comprised exclusively of those five Scandinavian countries. They accomplish this by mitigating the more dangerous aspects of capitalism’s use as a tool with the tenets of social democracy, balancing the needs of shareholders with the needs of the public. They would look at our brand of capitalism and call it a “baser, more barbaric and primitive form of capitalism…one that needs to evolve.” From a scientific perspective, they would have a valid point.
Nature, despite its crass indifference, has two aspects above all others that we should attempt to emulate: balance and sustainability. Adaptation is how it accomplishes both.
So human nature has been shaped for millennia to produce the results we see today in ourselves, empathy and all. The reason why, is not focused on benefiting the individual, for indeed empathy comes with responsibility for that individual to bear. This responsibility is to the group as a whole, not only to help it survive but to help it thrive. In this way, the way we are made gives us clues as to how we should live. Progressive visions of a future where we all feel a responsibility to everyone else are visions which haven’t lost sight of this.
Continued in Part II…