Pro-Human Extremist

Extremism in the defense of humanity is no vice

The secret of happiness (yes, now you know)

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If you want lasting fulfillment, devote yourself to the other people in your life. Caring for and serving others brings joy and peace of mind greater than anything we get from indulging ourselves. A life dedicated merely to self-gratification, however successful it appears to be, is ultimately hollow and unrewarding.

Why is this? Because that is how we are made—that is our nature. The human species has evolved by natural selection so that each of us has a sincere capacity for altruism. It’s not always uppermost in our minds, and we don’t always act on it, but at bottom we do care about other people and want them to be well. Helping others is what gives our lives meaning. And without an opportunity to do so, we come to  feel that our lives are pointless, and we become dissatisfied. All of that is a product not merely of social conditioning but of our biological nature. It is written in the human heart through the action of natural selection.

There’s a surprise, no? A biologist is saying that natural selection has produced (human) animals that care deeply for other members of their species and work to help them? But isn’t natural selection supposed to be all about only the strong surviving, nature red in tooth and claw, every man for himself? How could it produce altruism?

Actually, the evolution of altruism in humans and other animals is an old story in the field of biology, and recent research is establishing it more and more clearly. But it’s largely an untold story as regards the general public. Most people think that natural selection inevitably produces a winner-takes-all selfishness, as indeed it does in many species. But under the right conditions, the truly most fit animal is one that cares for other individuals as well as itself.

A simple and familiar case is parental care for offspring. All mammals and many other animals do this. A disposition to care for young is selected for because individuals that have it reproduce more effectively, because their offspring actually survive to adulthood. Thus, the genes that encourage parental care are passed on to the next generation and spread throughout the gene pool.

This is a straightforward example of what is called “kin selection”, and it has been well-established in the biological literature for decades now. When kin selection is at work, biological evolution produces animals that take care of others because they want to. The emotions of care and concern for the young are built into the hearts and minds not only of humans but also of other mammals, because without those emotions the young would not survive and so the species would be much less successful.

Caring for young’uns is just one of many forms of altruism that are built into human nature. Humans are altruistic in so many ways because we have evolved as social animals. For millions of years, humans and our primate ancestors have lived and worked together in groups. Monkeys and apes share food, help care for each other’s young, groom each other to clean parasites out of their fur, and warn each other when they see potentially dangerous predators. Being individuals, thought, they also fight over food, mates, or even just the best places to sleep. They form friendships and alliances, and monkeys that are related or have formed a close personal bond will help each other out in fights against other less friendly members of their social group.

Sound familiar? We humans do of course engage in the same sort of social behaviors, both good and bad. But we have taken cooperation to a much higher level than is seen in any other primates. In fact, while other social animals like dolphins and elephants cooperate too, no other mammal cooperates nearly as much as we do. We work together in many more different ways, in larger groups, over greater distances. We’re constantly making up new ways to work together. Few people had used the internet twenty years ago, or social networking sites just five years ago. And we benefit from other people’s cooperative efforts just about every moment of our lives. We eat food that other people have grown, packaged, transported, and offered to us for sale in stores. We live in houses and drive cars that other people have built.

Our evolutionary history as social animals has left indelible marks on human nature. We are each of us born with that nature, and we can never escape from it. Human nature shapes all of our experiences. It causes us to think and feel in ways that help us to work together better, and to care for each other. It makes us emotionally as well as physically dependent on others. It makes us yearn not only to be loved ourselves, but to love others, and in loving them to serve and care for them. Without that, we cannot be whole.

© Joel Benington, 2011.

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Written by Joel Benington

May 9, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Posted in altruism

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