Monday, February 21, 2011

Experimental Science Denounces Right Wing Political "Theory"

For nearly 40 years a right wing politics has held sway that argues that humans are selfish and the only "glue" in society is through self-serving contracts. This philosophy argues that any government is a perversion because it claims to act on behalf of "the people" when in fact the only "real" values are greed and selfishness.

But experimental science denies this ridiculous view of human nature. Here is a bit from an interview with Frans Waal in the MDM Wonderlance on-line magazine:
For the past three decades, scientists and popularizers have tried to tell us that we and all other animals are inherently selfish, and that the evolution of morality is an almost impossible affair, since nature cannot provide the caring for others needed for morality. I call this "Veneer Theory," since it assumes that human morality and kindness is just a thin veneer over an otherwise nasty human nature. This is a position that goes back to Thomas Henry Huxley, a contemporary of Darwin, and has been repeated over and over even though Darwin himself disagreed. Darwin saw human morality as continuous with animal social instincts, and my own work is a return to Darwinian thinking. I am supported in this now by many recent studies that indicate that humans (and other animals) are far more altruistic and cooperative than was assumed. The field has radically changed in recent years. Psychologists stress the intuitive way we arrive at moral judgments while activating emotional brain areas, and economists and anthropologists have shown humanity to be far more cooperative, altruistic, and fair than predicted by self-interest models. Similarly, the latest experiments in primatology reveal that our close relatives will do each other favors even if there's nothing in it for themselves.

Chimpanzees and bonobos will voluntarily open a door to offer a companion access to food, even if they lose part of it in the process. And capuchin monkeys are prepared to seek rewards for others, such as when we place two of them side by side, while one of them barters with us with differently colored tokens. One token is ‘selfish,’ and the other ‘prosocial.’ If the bartering monkey selects the selfish token, it receives a small piece of apple for returning it, but its partner gets nothing. The prosocial token, on the other hand, rewards both monkeys. Most monkeys develop an overwhelming preference for the prosocial token, which preference is not due to fear of repercussions, because dominant monkeys (who have least to fear) are the most generous.
And he makes this comment:
I study chimpanzees, bonobos and other primates mainly to learn more about them, but of course they also tell us something about ourselves. We are primates, after all. So, a second goal over the years has become to understand human society and how many aspects that we consider complex -- such as culture, morality, politics -- actually have roots that can be illustrated by the behavior of other primates.

For example, chimpanzee males form a hierarchy in which the smallest male may be the leader. How is such a thing possible? It is based on deal making by this male: he is probably more diplomatic than the others, grooms his supporters, gives them bribes and favors, so that when he is challenged by a bigger male he has coalition partners that help him. Such coalitions are part and parcel of human politics, and are now very well documented in chimpanzees both in the field and in zoo settings.

They are not necessarily based on kinship, because -- as in humans -- chimpanzees often strike these deals with non-relatives, so long as both parties stand to gain. This is why I read Machiavelli in the time that I wrote Chimpanzee Politics, now almost thirty years ago: the old Florentine philosopher had more to offer than most books on animal intelligence.
OK, to be honest, De Waal isn't making the claim I headed this post with, but the reality is that the politics of the last 40 years has seen the biggest resurgence of right wing thinking since the 1930s leading into WWII. The good news is that all the demostrations around the world imply a reawakening of the democratic spirit to push back the false values sold to the public by right wing extremists.

For those horrified by violent demonstrations, a look at early democracy in Greece indicates that at the very roots of democracy lies a bloody struggle between tyrants and oligarchies composed of aristocrats versus the politics of the street that would rise up as democratic revolts from time to time. So violence goes deep and it goes far back into the past. Ideally there would be no violence, but the right is unwilling to give up power when their "politics" fails and the people become unhappy.

Violence is tragic, it is to be avoided unless you are like the Libyan people, trapped with no way out and your own crazed leader bombing you from the air and unleashing mercenaries to shell and shoot at you from the streets. In that case, democratic revolt -- even bloody revolt -- is justified to get the hand of the mad killer off your throat.

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