Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Scantily Clad Self Interest

Gentlemen's Venue
Originally uploaded by StefZ.

Years ago now, I was sitting through a lecture on evolutionary biology. Halfway through the lecture the subject of altruism came up. Altruism doesn't have very much to do with the mechanics of evolutionary biology. I think the lecturer was just bored and couldn'€™t resist the prospect of f*cking with a few fresh, nineteen year old minds.

Brazenly stating that there was no such thing as altruism, either in the world of animals or men, he asked us to give us some examples of situations where an animal, or man, had sacrificed its own well-being for the benefit of others; expecting nothing in return.

We couldn't, could we?

Every single incidence of apparent altruism that takes place in the World around us can be explained away as being an example of reproductive self-interest ...

  • Worker ants in a colony serving their queen? Well, they are sterile siblings of the queen. Nature has arranged things such that they cannot reproduce so they do the next best thing and serve the needs of a relative who can reproduce
  • A parent'€™s love? Reproductive self-interest pure and simple
  • Religious charity? A ticket to Heaven
  • A soldier sacrificing himself in wartime to save his friends? An example of someone who has been effectively conditioned to believe that honour is greater than personal survival. Their choice to sacrifice themselves is in accordance with their self-interested set of values

Having been educated in Catholic schools all my life, this came as a powerful revelation to me. The entire natural world was driven by selfishness, greed and lust. Not as some abstract philosophical concept but as a matter of hard science. I scampered out of the lecture and, on and off, for the next several years reinterpreted the world around me with fresh eyes.

Later on, much later on, a small penny dropped in my head and I am now a lot less convinced by this argument than I was twenty years ago. It undoubtedly includes a nugget of truth but, as with many supposedly scientific explanations of the world around us, it also includes a fundamental deceit in the way it is phrased. Even a genuinely altruistic act could be explained away as self-interest with the aid of a little intellectual dishonesty and a little playing with language.

What if there is such a thing as absolute Good? Or absolute Evil? What if I choose, as a reasoning creature, to do good, or bad, regardless of the impact that has on my personal well-being? I believe that I, and many others, do so regularly as a matter of course.

Before I move on from the particular lecturer I should also point that he was the man who made a living studying beetle fossils. On several occasions he mentioned to us, as if in passing, that his research indicated that beetles have not evolved at all over two million years. That's a lot of beetle generations, spread out over a lot changing ecosystems for nothing to happen. I distinctly remember on one occasion him sustaining a pregnant pause, whilst casting his one straight eye around the room to see if any of us would pick him up on that bombshell. None of us ever did, which says a lot about the intellectual calibre of the average Earth Sciences student. So, thank you Russell. On one hand you point out the brutal, mechanistic nature of the life, on the other hand you indicate that the mechanism doesn't actually work as billed. You successfully seeded two contradictory lines of thought that have f*cked with my head for over twenty years now. I hope you're pleased with yourself.

Anyway, there'€™s no getting away from it. The scientific view of the natural world is that all human activity is driven by individual self-interest, sometimes naked self-interest, sometimes fully-clothed self-interest. Sometimes self interest can be seen sporting novelty, polka dot boxer shorts but it's still self interest, just the same.

A few days ago I posted that atheism and left wing politics, particularly the politics of minority rights, are totally at odds with each other. I'll stand by that. They are. If you believe that human beings are just a sack full of goo, animated by electric charge, set upon this Earth by random forces, then they have no more intrinsic rights than any other lump of matter in your godforsaken universe.

However, in that godforsaken universe you CAN marry-up atheism and a form of left-wing politics, if you'™re prepared to be a tad dishonest about your motives.

All you have to do is acknowledge the de facto nature of your existence and also acknowledge that you are conditioned to dislike the idea of death or discomfort. The rest is easy. For example, as such a being you applaud the idea of support for the unemployed. It will be there when you need it and even when you do not need it, it is money well spent to stop the unemployed rising up and taking what they need from you. Another example; murder should be a crime, not because it's bad in any moralistic way but because you don't like the idea of living in a society where you could be murdered yourself. And so on. The same selfish thinking can be applied to education, healthcare and any other €'worthy'€™ programs you can think of. And for those situations where no obvious physical benefit comes your way well, you're just pleasing your conditioning aren't you?

And what do you do if an opportunity comes your way to grab a few bucks for yourself , in a manner that is arguably consistent with your selfish left-wing altruism? Why, you'll take them.

Welcome to the world of the champagne socialist.

Of course, if you think like that you'€™re no more virtuous or noble than the grubbiest capitalist are you? In fact, once you strip all the bullshit away, you have an awful lot in common.