The average Joe, whether rich or poor, educated or uneducated, believes down deep that only the fittest survive. "Social Darwinism" has been interwoven in our thoughts, our identity, and our nation for 150 years. In fact the notion is wrong, and now it has been scientifically superceded. With it, we've lost two excuses: that vicious competition is natural and acceptable; and that greed in our "free market capitalism" is natural and must not be regulated. The opposite is true -- our neurons are aroused by altruism, which a fundamental force. It modulates our competitive impulses. Altruism fostered the formation of our social groups and allows our species to exist.
I think there has been a paradigmatic shift in our thinking away from vicious competition towards altruism, and this has been altering all human behavior, our nation, and our world. Altruism, in biological context, is not wimpy optimism or political posturing. Rather, it drives the computing power of the brain in each of us. Although it may sound absurd, violence in our species is decreasing.
Scientists in biology, entomology, psychology, political science, and in the humanities have discovered we are altruistic just like a colony of ants and a hive of bees. Massive literature has accumulated over the last decades and confirms that forms of altruism are literally in our cells and are reflected in our personal and societal behavior.
E. O. Wilson, the Harvard sociobiologist, writes that the altruistic behavior of ants, and bees has allowed them to thrive for millions of years. In The Social Conquest of Earth Wilson says their social traits express community intelligence. Wilson's personal evolution moved him from studying ants to humans. We are hard wired, says Wilson, with an altruistic group spirit that compels you to root for your team, your nation, and puts faith into religion. Wilson takes delight in how we evolved into successful group creatures by developing our genius for observing and influencing each other, for example, with gossip. The good news is there is love and empathy within these groups, and the bad is the wiring can propel groups to commit genocide. Looking at the dark side, Wilson warns that the altruism in an ant hill also churns them into the most savage creatures on the planet group-to-group. Wilson says humans are distinct from ants because the human brain itself makes each of us, in fact, a genius. We can use it to overcome our self-destructive impulses as individuals and in groups, and avoid war. I deduce that the maximum of information is necessary so we can maximize both our individual and group intelligence.
Steven Pinker is an evolutionary psychologist at Harvard who detailed how our physical gestures and sounds evolved into language that, in turn, created tribes and society. In his new book appropriately named The Better Angels of Our Nature, he cites altruism in our current history saying we are living in the most peaceable time in our existence. The two surviving superpowers of World War II ruled out World War III and refused to use the bomb. The militarist Soviet Union surprisingly collapsed peacefully when its people demanded their human rights. If you were in Oxford, England, 500 years ago, you were 35 times more likely to be murdered than now. Today there is less social tolerance of a husband who hits his wife, or a father who belts his son, and parents no longer ignore the bully in school. Personal aggression -- as the expression of our inner demons -- is becoming unacceptable.
Eric Kandel, Nobel Prize biologist, looks deep into us to reveal the evolution of neurons, which wire everyone's brain. Kandel found altruism triggers love and empathy. Our neurons are literally aroused by love, empathy, and art.
Stephen Greenblatt, Harvard professor in the humanities and author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, writes that America's declaration for "the pursuit of happiness" was inspired by the Roman philosopher Lucretius. Our joy in life can modulate our instincts and shape our destiny. Two thousand years later he has been proven correct.
James Watson, the molecular biologist who discovered how DNA replicates life, proposed that society is banishing from our gene pool the violent hunter-gatherers of prehistory who still lurk among us.
Jonah Lehrer is the Boswellian aggregator and synthesizer of many of these writers in evolutionary biology, neurology, and the social sciences.
The key to our lives and species is that altruism modulates our selfishness. "In a group, selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruistic individuals beat groups of selfish individuals. It's a simple as that. That's mathematically sound," explains Wilson. Our life force exists exactly due to our eternal struggle between selfishness and altruism. It is a source of our creativity. It is precisely who we are.
We suffered through a century with the skewed vision of a pernicious paradigm. Scientifically, we can now see human behavior such as our own at the water cooler, or bankers who get too greedy, or superpowers in confrontation. We can now gauge how altruism, as well as selfishness, has affected our past, present, and how it shapes our future.
In the first half of the 20th century, Hitler used Social Darwinism to justify that Aryans are the superior race, which had the right and responsibility to exterminate. And in the second half of the century, Americans came to think of themselves as exceptional individuals in an exceptional society, who created, no doubt, an extraordinary corporate power, which, in turn, had the ingenuity to create the middle class in order to profit from it. American corporations enhanced their power through television and media that conditioned humans to be consumers, and its power superceded the government that had been designed decades earlier to regulate it. "What's good for General Motors is good for the United States."
Today, the U.S. government is methodically run by former or future corporate executives empowered to write laws that are specifically designed to fail to regulate corporations and legalize illegalities. Corporate autocracy is so resilient that it even profited from failure after the Collapse of 2008, by tapping U.S. national savings and eliminating its employees. The peril for corporate power and the nation, and perhaps the world, is that this self-serving and non-altruistic machine simultaneously smothered the engine of its own extraordinary wealth, which was our middle class.
Our corporate and Wall Street leaders are organizational wizards, but as money managers they created the Collapse -- the worst economic failure in history. It was not a "natural" and cyclical event as they claim -- it was man-made by them. They run in a herd mentality, greedy men at their worst, blind to their willful incompetence. They lack the requisite compassion as they poison our air, water, and planet. They have not yet faced pitchforks, have not lost their jobs, and gave themselves raises.
It is their masterful control of elected officials and government vassals who have kept these CEO's out of jail, plump, and arrogant. Their greatest skill is self-preservation and self-promotion. Unfortunately, this skill allows them to continue to do what they do worst: run our economy. Their proven incompetence imperils our currency, our food chain, our fuel, and lives.
Economically, the Social Darwinism that is peculiar to American big business has been ingrained in our minds over the last 50 years by media, spearheaded ruthlessly by our Australian cousin Rupert Murdoch. His pervasive media programmed us to think that "free market" competition and "survival of the fittest" are self-evident truths, although, in fact, they are not. Murdoch made lying acceptable and he defended corporate power to jam its foot on our necks and trample the healthy competition we need for democracy to provide. While preaching that competition is essential for economic success, these conglomerates did not compete with anyone when they used mergers to create monopoly and unimaginable personal wealth. Their monopoly morphed into corporate autocracy when their Supreme Court elected its first president in 2000, and then allowed corporate autocracy to finance all of our elections. It was the fait accompli that ended our democracy as we knew it.
Since 1980 the corporate Kochs, privately, and Grover Norquist, publicly, calculated their intent to obliterate government and its regulatory controls. They organized the domination of their Social Darwinist mindset in PTA boards in suburbs up through the Supreme Court. In partnership with Rupert Murdoch and Fox, they lifted the Tea Party from a 3% to a 50/50 presence on all television screens, and with it, paralyzed all sides of debate as well as our government. This failure in our system achieved their radical goal of destroying our two party system and our government, thereby they proved to all that government is useless. Plus, they now provide the only efficient alternative to the vacuum of governance which is, of course, their unencumbered corporate autocracy.
Murdoch mastered our minds with a most destructive creation that undermines modern society's ability to survive: the lie. Talking heads instilled ludicrous falsehoods that defy science, medicine, and the empirical facts on which high technology is based. It metastasized by Murdoch repeating it 24/7 on Fox for decades. Fox gave voice to a presidential candidate who decried that an education beyond high school is elitist. This is emblematic of Murdoch's rebellious and anti-establishment impulse which has a genius for rhetoric and shredding logic. He plays on fervent group-think on all sides such as the tenet of liberalism that every issue has two sides. Liberalism self-destructs when the one of the two sides denies empirical facts like the Earth moves around the Sun, or evolution is a "theory" of Darwin rather than fact, as Fox decries. Yet fundamentalists who deny the truth of science still choose to send their child to doctors who practice medicine rooted in biology. Murdoch knows better, while his Fox empire pretends not to. The Koch's and Murdoch have successfully gamed the psychological impulses of our group behavior while tilting the table of free speech with lies that can't be countered, thereby crushing human intelligence and worsening our chances at survival. "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." Voltaire.
The potential tragedy of Obama is that a super majority of Americans voted altruistically to fix our society's broken financial system, but he didn't attempt to replace its incompetent CEO's who finance both political parties. Our community's psychological confidence was damaged, perhaps lost. While Obama's leadership may improve, our opportunity for altruist change was squandered.
The prism of evolutionary altruism allows us to examine creatures like a Mitt Romney. He is clearly motivated by group altruism both as a religious evangelist and team leader who bonded with his business buddies to enrich their group by competitively dismembering other companies. He displays zealous personal motivation to compete and conquer no matter the cause, the financial cost, and consequence. His overwhelming group and personal instincts transcends his own religion by bonding with his Harvard buddy Benjamin Netanyahu, now Israel's Premier. The two share unwavering messianic clarity conveyed by their telegenic good looks and narcissist confidence: they know they are right and everyone else is wrong. These bonded buddies may punch the button to destroy Iran without concern for unforeseen consequences.
You can use this new prism to view nations that thrived after the Collapse. Germany and the Scandinavians have hugely successful altruistic social systems. China brought its people out of poverty with the help of American corporations, which shifted their investments and payrolls from the American middle class to pay for cheap labor in China. The leaders of China altruistically fed a billion hungry people at the price of their human rights.
The corporate brass of our American autocracy speak enviously of China's totalitarian governance while ours is in disarray. Our autocracy and China are now the two global superpowers, and both are anti-democratic. The crushing of democracy in America and China's totalitarianism evoke the classic conundrum; does the end justify the means?
Finally, we have a scientific answer to this Machiavellian suppression of democracy: no. Inevitably, humans will hunger to feed their brain with information, and they will dissolve autocracies that suppress data and the truth. An essential element of Jeffersonian revolution has proven to be a biological fact, and it might be irrepressible.
The altruism in our DNA, and our pursuit of happiness, cannot be eradicated. Eric Kandel notes that our arousal by the art of living our lives is in our genes. Altruism has put the adrenalin of optimism in the air. As E.O. Wilson says, "Colonies of cheaters lose to colonies of cooperators."
It may be grandiose, but nonetheless true, that this fresh prism of altruism may keep us alive on the planet for a little while longer.
For our species to survive we require the maximum of free and accurate information, and education for all, which Corporate Autocracy has halted along with social mobility and thereby blew apart the American Dream. Sooner or later, the forcefulness of altruism and human intelligence will modulate the unbridled selfishness of autocracy so we can thrive with the innate joy of our neurons.