Monday, December 30, 2019

Behaviors That Benefit The Individual Versus Society

Why do we do things that don't immediately benefit ourselves?

In response to my last couple of meanderings, a reader writes that they studying this stuff in college, and that survival (in a Darwinian sense) is based on benefits to the individual, not society as a whole.   Maybe I phrased what he said correctly, I do not know.

Of course, benefits to society benefit the individual.  Humans are somewhat unique in that once they leave the womb, they are vulnerable for years, unless cared for and coddled.  And it may take further years for a human to mature and learn the tool-making skills handed down from prior generations, which are needed in order to survive.

As our technology has become more complex, this post-gestation period has lengthened.   In the 1800's a couple might get married in their teens - sometimes early teens - and be settled and raising a family before they were in their 20's.   Today, many a bounce-back youth lives with their parents well into their 30's before figuring out what is is they want to do with life.  The age of consent, the drinking age, and some propose even the driving age - have all been raised in fairly recent times, a recognition that our children remain children for a longer period of time.

From a purely individualistic standpoint, raising children makes little sense.   Besides the transitory pleasure of sex, there is little benefit to either parent, in real terms.   Childbirth is no picnic, nor are 3AM feedings, dirty diapers, temper tantrums, and notes home from school.   Many a parent I know lives in fear that their child will "fail to launch" and return home with some odious new friends, spend all day playing video games and smoking pot, and buying swords and guns - and eventually going on a shooting spree.  It is a thing - read the papers.

We are programmed from birth to see big-eyed, big-headed, weak and helpless children of any species as "cute" and adorable.   If not, the species would not have survived.  If your kid looked like a wombat, you might strangle it in the crib - that is, unless our brains were programmed to find wombats "cute" - in which case, we'd all look like wombats and "human" looking humans would have gone extinct long ago.

So, most humans have this urge to reproduce, which satisfies the needs of old Charles Darwin.  But some of us don't, it seems.   Why would this urge not exist in some humans?   There are a number of behaviors in the spectrum of human behavior that are destructive, anti-social, self-destructive, or just violent and crazy.   Why do these exist?

Many conventional thinkers would argue that these are aberrations or genetic anomalies - wrong behavior that is "sick" in medical terms.  We tend to look at things this way (again, probably some sort of survivalist behavior) in terms of wellness and illness.   It is akin to this "invasive species" nonsense - the idea that some species is "not natural" and must be slaughtered, when in reality, it will eventually find a way to occupy that environmental niche, whether you like it or not.  The species doesn't see itself as invasive.   Well, at least we humans don't see ourselves that way.

But getting back to human behavior, why would some people be crazy, hear voices, or be uncontrollably violent?   My theory (and I have no background in this, so it is just me rambling) is that in some circumstances, a society benefits from such behaviors on occasion and thus they are survival skills.   Every 100 years or so, you need a Joan of Arc who is hearing voices and obviously schizophrenic.   She leads your troops into battle and you declare victory.   Then you burn her at the stake as a heretic, because you're done with her.  The urge to destroy that which is different or non-conforming is also probably a survival skill.

Take serial killers and psychopaths.  In peacetime, they are an aberration, to be hunted down and imprisoned or killed.  In wartime, they are lauded as heroes.   In a recent event, a Navy Seal was charged with murdering civilians and prisoners of war.   His teammates described him as "pure evil" (he was acquitted of the most serious charges, however).   Whether he did these things or not is really irrelevant - in wartime, you need people who do not hesitate to kill.   That's the guy you want a platoon leader, not some wishy-washy "Genevea Convention" guy who is going to get you all killed.

In this era of modern warfare, however, where we are trying to win the "hearts and minds" of the people we are bombing, such behavior is unacceptable, so we point fingers at him and castigate him as an outlier, when in earlier times, his behavior would have been excused, it not lauded.

Speaking of warfare, why do we do it?   Mankind is the top predator on the planet (shark attacks notwithstanding) and we prey upon ourselves more than any other species does.   Every few decades or so, the world goes berserk and decides to start killing each other.  And the weird thing is, people know they are going to do this and prepare for it.

What was the cause of World War I?  If you say, "the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand" go to the back of the class.  I have asked this question of many history majors and professors and you get a lot of hand-waving and 20-minute long unsatisfactory explanations.  As I noted time and time again, if someone can't answer a simple question in ten words or less, they are probably lying to you.

What is weird about that war - or any war - is that people saw it coming, and actually prepared for it, building and stockpiling arms for the inevitable conflict.  I was watching a "History Guy" video about a bad British train wreck during World War I, and what was interesting to me was that years prior to the war, the "War Department" knew a war was going to happen in the future, and planned for it by setting up a department to handle train schedules in the event of war.  They knew this shit was going down, but rather than try to stop it, they simple armed for it.

I am thoroughly convinced that our species has some sort of gene or genetic programming to go berserk every few years and just start killing people.  Maybe it is triggered by population density, pheromones, or something, but historically, this seems to be the case - with many bloody and murderous wars being fought over what seems in retrospect, nothing.   And what concerns me most, is that we haven't had one of these Jim-Dandies in a long time, and may in fact, be overdue.

Look around the world, how many people are setting fire to barricades and protesting, often over issues that seem, well, less than worth dying over.  People in Iran are willing to die over the price of gasoline?  It makes no sense to me, particularly when the brutal regieme ruling that country has no qualms about massacring people and covering it up.  Ditto for China.   But then again, a whole generation has been raised in China not even knowing about Tienanmen Square.   There's a hint for you right there - if you are going to brutally suppress your citizens, make sure subsequent generations are aware of it, or the lesson is lost.

But getting back to my point, and I did have one, I think a lot of our behaviors that are self-destructive or at the very least not of immediate value to us as individuals might be useful to society or useful to the survival of the species, maybe not always, but on occasion - so these behaviors are passed down.   Maybe not the actual behaviors but the propensity to do them.   Recall that as the result of a Parkinson's medication test gone horribly wrong, people gambled their fortunes away when given a particular drug.   Turns out our vaunted "self-control" and "free-will" are less about what we think, but what the chemicals in our brains tell us what to think.   Give someone a certain chemical, they become wild risk-takers and gamble themselves into the poorhouse.

We tend to look at compulsive gamblers, or drunks or drug addicts or other people who fall down the social ladder due to self-destructive behaviors, and tsk-tsk at their lack of self-control.   But on the other hand, their lack of self-control might be in part due to some makeup in their brain or genetic disposition.

It gets back to what I was trying to talk about in the first place.   Some of us end up as Presidents of companies, while others of us end up janitors.   There might be hundreds of people in an organization who have the intelligence, disposition, and ambition to lead the organization, yet only one is chosen for the top role.   How exactly does that work?  And aren't the people passed-over for that job kind of bitter and disappointed?   Or do they accept their subservient role and move on with life?   It is, to me, and interesting question, as in my experience, it is not always the "best and brightest" who rise to the top, and if you doubt me on this, visit 1700 Pennsylvania Avenue these days.   Where in the heck did we get this guy who can't even speak, other than in sentence fragments?  And he's not the first one, either!

Perhaps - and again, I am talking out of my ass here, as I didn't "go to college" for this - our self-destructive behaviors are a way of keeping us down so we don't get ahead in life so that others will.   On the other hand, if the guy at the top keels over dead, there are people waiting in line who are qualified to take his place.  We are kept in reserve, so to speak.

This is, of course, a very simplified view of human behavior which is a very complicated thing.  But I firmly believe that nothing in our behavioral spectrum happened by accident - there is some purpose served even by outlier behavior.

This is the time of year they play that Rankin & Bass stop-motion production of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer - a story which many have pointed out has some very weird psychological messages in it.   Rudolph is an outcast - bullied in school and literally cast out of society, due to his genetic defect (which he tries to hide to "fit in").   He is sent off (or runs off) to live with other outcasts, until later on it is realized that his deformity has some positive use to society - at which point, he is lauded as a hero, largely for something he had no control over in the first place.   You would think after the way he was treated early on, he would have told Santa to fuck off.

It is an interesting message to young people - don't be "different" unless you can be of use to society.  I suppose an ancillary message (to those who are not different) is that we should tolerate difference, at least to the extent that society benefits from it.   Like I said, it is a weird message to send kids.

There is, of course, an opposite end of this spectrum as well - people who do things that only benefit themselves, often to the detriment of society.  The term "sociopath" is often tossed around, which is an interesting term, in that it encompasses the root of the word "society" in it.  We view as abnormal anyone who puts their own needs exclusively above society in general.

So what is the answer?   In order to get ahead, do we have to become narcissistic sociopaths and trample on other people?   A lot of people who do "get ahead" do go this route, it seems (again, Pennsylvania Avenue).   On the other hand, the fellow who is a "causista" who goes to every protest march (and accompanying riot) while neglecting his personal business is trying to serve greater society, but not taking care of themselves (which as I note, is a disservice to society).

Like anything else, I think there is a happy medium.   You can do well in life and help society by helping yourself.  Not being a social parasite is probably the biggest service you can offer to society - to work at a job, provide value to your employer, save some money, and be able to support yourself.  It might seem "selfish" or not serving some "greater cause" but one less protester on welfare is a benefit to us all.

OK, so I am rambling a bit here.  But it just struck me as odd that some people I knew in life who were capable and talented ended up not going very far, while others succeeded.   And of course, there are others who succeed, without seeming to have any sort of talents, skill, or hard work.    It isn't fair, of course, but life isn't guaranteed to be fair.  And trying to "make" things fair often results in more unfairness.

Maybe there is some happy medium here.  If we can recognize and deal with our internal struggles that are keeping us back, it may be more effective for us than trying to externalize our problems.   Well, anyway, it worked for me.