Threshold: The Crisis of Western Culture
Chapter 7: Gunboat Altruism
Chapter 7: Gunboat Altruism
A spoonful of honey will catch more flies than a gallon of vinegar.
—Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac
Altruism Trumps Terrorism
In the United States, the way most people achieve status is by having something more than other people, or by doing things others find difficult. Achievement and ownership are the primary ways we acquire and define social status.
Things are quite different in Waziristan … or in virtually any of the traditional animist, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist tribal regions of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Similarly, things are quite different among the tribal peoples of North and South America. In these societies status is acquired by giving things away.
The example of this most familiar to Americans is the Native American practice of the potlach, a festival ceremony practiced by most of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific coast stretching from what is now Northern California to the northern parts of British Columbia. The modern word comes from Chinook Jargon, a pidgin sort of mishmash of indigenous languages that allowed people up and down the coast of the Pacific Northwest to communicate and trade.
At a potlatch, which can be held for anything from an annual solar or lunar festival, to a harvest or fish catch, to a birth or marriage, the goal is to give away things. The way prestige is achieved is by giving away as much as possible.
Other societies have similar customs. In Japan, there are layers of social obligation all based not on acquiring or impressing, but on giving and fulfilling obligations.
On is a Japanese word that roughly approximates the English word “obligation,” and every Japanese knows he is born with massive On to his parents, society, ancestors, and emperor, an accumulation collectively known as Gimu. Throughout life, every time somebody does you a kind act, you accumulate even more On, this type referred to as Giri. Much of Japanese life revolves around maintaining balance in Giri (repaying favors, for example) and Gimu (caring for elders, for example).
Japanese society evolved over time on a relatively small island with limited resources. Balance was therefore essential for human survival, and the Japanese culture has long reflected this.
Another example is from the San people of northern South Africa, who are sometimes called the Bushmen of the Kalahari (there’s an excellent book of that title, in fact, which describes their culture well) or the Tkung people, as they speak with an unique click in their voice. Unlike the Japanese or the potlatch cultures of the Pacific Northwest, who were all settled and had agriculture- and fishing-based economies, the San were nomadic hunting and gathering people. There’s now both linguistic and genetic evidence that they may be the oldest continuously living culture and people in Africa, dating back fifty to sixty thousand years.
San people live in an arid and relatively barren terrain, so population density is low—a few hundred people to every few hundred thousand acres. And being nomadic, they have few possessions. Nonetheless, when one band of San comes into contact with another, an elaborate ritual ensues in which each group tries to outdo the other in giving away their food and possessions.
On a subtler and slightly less conspicuous scale, Greg Mortenson describes, in his book Three Cups of Tea, the encounter he had after a climbing accident in the Himalayas left him badly injured in the remote mountainous tribal areas of western Pakistan. The people of a small village took him in, and for months—despite poverty so severe they couldn’t afford to have even a school in their little community—they cared for his wounds, fed him, and housed him until he could return to America.
Back in the United States, Mortenson set out to repay the giri he’d incurred in Pakistan by building the community a school. It took some time and rather herculean efforts, but he did it, and has now raised enough money to have twenty-four small schools built in remote areas of Pakistan.
These areas, with their hospitality- and obligation-based cultures, are the epicenter of the Taliban. Yet in the places where Mortenson has built schools, people are friendly to Americans and reject the virulent anti-Americanism the Taliban are promoting; five of Mortenson’s teachers are former Taliban who renounced their militaristic comrades.
With his gifts of schools, Mortenson has both elevated the quality of life of the communities (and the status of women, as the focus of his schools is to educate girls along with the boys) and created a debt of obligation from them to us. On the other hand, American rockets have slammed into nearby communities, often mistaking wedding parties or other gatherings for military operations, and created a blood debt of vengeance against us.
And, ironically, the cost of a single cruise missile—we’ve thrown hundreds into the region, trying to kill Osama Bin Laden or his associates, and in the process have killed thousands of innocent civilians—could instead have paid for the construction and stocking of twenty schools.
Anthropologists have suggested that the potlatch tribes, Japanese culture, Arab hospitality culture, and the San all have their rituals grounded in something Americans haven’t experienced in a large way in the memory of most living people—the occasional occurrence of events that wipe out food supplies.
When local climate changes happen and the salmon in the Pacific Northwest don’t run as they normally do, or a hunting ground in South Africa becomes so dry that all the game leave, or distant or nearby wars interrupt the growing and trading of food in the Middle East, or a typhoon or earthquake disrupts a year’s food supply in Japan, having others owe you is a very, very useful thing.
Even in America, we have a short memory of this. Read John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row, which takes place in Monterey, California, during the Republican Great Depression, the dust bowl, and a time when the sardine stopped running off the Monterey coast (probably because of overfishing), thus wiping out the local sardine cannery industry and throwing the entire community into poverty and hunger.
People looked out for each other then. People went out of their way to give to each other—after all, you never knew when you might be the one next in need. Modern octogenarians will readily tell stories of how “friendly” Americans were during the Depression and in the years immediately afterward. This sense of “we’re all in this together” and “community” was so pervasive that it allowed—some would say propelled—President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create a whole variety of “we’re all looking out for each other” programs, from unemployment insurance to old age and disability insurance (Social Security) to food insurance (a whole series of agricultural subsidies and programs designed to keep family farms alive).
The debate in our non-potlatch culture is whether potlatch-, obligation-, and hospitality-type cultures reflect an intelligent and adaptive learned cultural behavior, or some deep biological truth.
A Biological Example of Altruism in Nature
It turned—and continues to turn—the world of science on its head, and he found it within a few yards of the slippery mountaintop trail next to the waterfall where his hero had fallen to his death.
It was the summer of 1933, and Kenneth B. Raper had just been accepted to Harvard for his Ph.D. work in mycology—the study of fungi. An athletic twenty-five-year-old, Raper had attended the University of North Carolina for his undergraduate work, and was in love with the Black Mountains of North Carolina.
One of Raper’s heroes was a man who had died half a century earlier, Elisha Mitchell, a professor of natural philosophy at the University of North Carolina from 1818 until his death on June 27, 1857. That day, Mitchell had climbed the peak of one of the East Coast’s highest mountains, then known as “the peak just north of Yeates Knob.” He was sixty-four years old and had undertaken the climb because a scientific peer had challenged Mitchell’s assertion that it was 6,672 feet in elevation, making it the highest mountaintop east of the Mississippi River; so Mitchell had re-climbed it after his initial measurement was done in 1835, twenty-two years earlier.
On his way down from the mountaintop, the beloved and revered UNC professor lost his footing on a slippery stream bank overlooking a roaring forty-foot waterfall. It took the search parties eleven days to find his body in the pool at the foot of the waterfall, his stopped pocket watch, now in the UNC Library Mitchell Collection, frozen at 8:19:56, the apparent time of his death.[xxxi]
Almost a hundred years after Mitchell’s first climb, and perhaps on the day of his death (although sixty-six years later), Kenneth Raper climbed the now-renamed Mount Mitchell to its peak, and then traced the trail down to where Mitchell died, taking samples of various mushrooms and other fungi he spotted on the way. The fourth and last one he collected, which he labeled NC-4 and is now world-famous among mycologists as Dictyostelium discoideum, would challenge our notions of everything from zoology to biology to the human behavior of altruism. Today Dictyostelium discoideum is one of the hottest objects of scientific fascination and the subject of tens of thousands of scientific papers and an annual conference in Grenoble, France.
At the time, Raper didn’t know what he had. He took the Dictyostelium with him to Harvard and continued his groundbreaking work as part of a team working with his academic mentor, Charles Thom, in isolating a strain of the mold Penicillium, which had high enough concentrations of the active ingredient penicillin to be clinically effective (work for which some of his collaborators would win the Nobel Prize, and for which he won the Lasker Prize).
And while penicillin was and still is a big deal, today one of the hottest objects of scientific fascination is Dictyostelium discoideum, the subject of tens of thousands of scientific papers and an annual conference in Grenoble, France.
Dictyostelium discoideum is so amazing because nobody is quite sure what it is. The primary “kingdoms” at the top of the Linnaean classification system are Monera (bacteria, spirochetes, and blue-green algae, with about 1 million estimated species), Protista (protozoa and algae, with an estimated 600,000 species), Fungi (molds, yeasts, mildews, mushrooms, smuts, and funguses, with an estimated 1.5 million species), Plantae (plants, ferns, and mosses, with an estimated 350,000 species), and Animalia (mammals, worms, insects, fish, reptiles, birds, and sponges, with an estimated 10 million species).
When Raper collected his sample, it looked like a “slime mold”—basically mucilaginous slime near a river bank—and he assumed it was a fungus. But by the time he got it back home, it had gone from a thin layer of snotty slime to something that looked like a garden slug and was crawling around in the bottom of his sample case like Animalia. If it can’t find food (it eats bacteria) within a few days, it turns itself into something that looks like a small (one-millimeter-high) tree (Plantae), sending up a central shoot with a liquid-filled droplet-size bud at the top filled with thousands of inert spores. When the drop bursts, the spores scatter; if they land on something that resembles food, each one “wakes up” and becomes a single-cell organism known as an amoebae, and seemingly part of the Monera kingdom.
When thousands or millions of the Dictyostelium amoebas cluster together, they look like slime. And when the slime doesn’t have any food, the amoebas assemble themselves into a body that can crawl from place to place, looking like a slug, with a front, a rear, external epithelia cells, and internal nutrient-absorptive cells. The slime responds to light and heat, withdraws when attacked, and senses and seeks out food. And if the “slug” doesn’t find food, it becomes the little tree.
Although you probably learned in high-school biology that the two kingdoms of living things were plants and animals, scientists are close to a consensus that Dictyostelium discoideum deserves its own kingdom, as it can be, at various times, a bit of each, or neither.
Most amazingly, when Dictyostelium self-assembles, some of the various individual amoebae will choose to become exterior cells that must quickly die off, sacrificing themselves for the group, while others become interior cells, with longer life spans. Similarly, when the Dictyostelium forms itself into the little tree shape, 20 percent of the individual amoebas somehow decide to sacrifice themselves—to die forever—so the other 80 percent can become the spores in the droplet pod at the top of the structure.
Dictyostelium demonstrates altruism in the biological world, and defies all attempts to explain altruism as merely an “I’ll get mine even better if I give up this small bit over the short term” thinking.
Democracy in Nature
But, some would say, Dictyostelium is a simple organism, and we’re hugely complex mammals. And mammals tend to have “alpha” animals—leaders. Doesn’t this prove that monarchies are more biologically normal than self-sacrificing or consensus-based or egalitarian democracies?
Red deer, though they are social animals with alpha “leaders,” always behave democratically. If any individuals want to move on, they’re ignored until a particular critical mass is reached. “In the case of real red deer,” James Randerson notes in his New Scientist article titled “Democracy Beats Despotism in the Animal World,”[xxxii] “the animals do indeed vote with their feet by standing up. Likewise, with groups of African buffalo, individuals decide where to go by pointing in their preferred direction. The group takes the average and heads that way.”
But what about when the alpha animal is older, wiser, and more experienced? Our cultural myth is that such a leader will always make better decisions than the group, but research demonstrates that nature rejects this idea. As Randerson notes, “surprisingly, democracy was favoured even if the dominant individual is an experienced individual that makes fewer errors in its decisions than the subordinates.”
So why have an alpha male or female if they’re not going to lead? The answer appears to be grounded back in Darwin: to create a sexual pecking order, which helps ensure that the fittest individuals produce the most offspring. But being sexually dominant has nothing to do, it turns out, with leadership. When animals democratically decide how to behave, the alpha individual—across the broad spectrum of species—is merely one more voter among the group.
In an article published in Nature, Conradt and Roper not only found that animals will always choose democracy over despotism, but that the nature of the vote will vary from situation to situation, depending on the importance of the decision. In some situations, it takes only half the animals “voting” for the herd to make a decision; in others it may take more. The researchers note: “Modified democratic decision-making mechanism are comparable to the tradition, in many human societies, of using a two-thirds majority rather than a 50% majority for decisions that are potentially more costly if taken than if not taken (for example, constitutional changes for Germany).”
As I note in my book What Would Jefferson Do? when I call Dr. Tim Roper, one of the authors of the Nature paper, at his office at the University of Sussex, he noted that Conradt and he were the first, so far as they knew, to have actually inquired into the democratic roots of normal and routine animal behavior. “Quite a lot of people have said, ‘My gorillas do that, or my animals do that,’” he said. And others are now beginning to look at the possibilities the article raised. “On an informal, anecdotal basis,” the article “seems to have triggered an, ‘Oh, yes, that’s quite true’ reaction in field workers.” But it takes years for good research to be done, compiled, analyzed, and printed, so, “apart from that [feedback], no [follow-up research has yet been published].”
Nonetheless, the idea was both commonsense and dramatic, particularly in the fields of biology and the psychology of animal behavior. “The reason why we published the model,” Roper said, “is because we really don’t think anybody has thought about this. The idea of communal decision making in animals has sort of flitted around or appeared [peripherally] in some of the papers that we cited in the Nature article, but nobody had thought about it explicitly, and certainly nobody had thought about it quantitatively in modeling terms, or collecting quantitative data on it, so we thought it really was new.” Apparently the publishers of Nature thought so, too, Roper said. “It does genuinely seem like a new field.”
I asked him if his theory that animals—and, by inference, humans in their “natural state”—operate democratically contradicted Darwin. He was emphatic. “I don’t think it is [at variance with Darwin]. I see this as essentially a mechanistic model. It’s not the group selection model, because each individual is doing what is best for it. So the point about this model is that democratic decision-making is best for all the individuals in the group, as opposed to following a leader, a dominant individual [which can harm individuals in the group]. So we see it as an individual selection model, and so it’s not incompatible with Darwin at all.”
But in our modern society, the libertarian idea of “self over all” has taken considerable root, being the animating theme of the conservative movement. How could it be, I asked Roper, that democracy—where an individual often doesn’t get what he personally wants—is best? The answer, he said, is that democracy always best supports the survival of the group over the long term, and because the individual is a part of the group, democracy therefore benefits the individual as well.
“For the kinds of animals we’re talking about,” he said, “and for humans as well, it is in every individual animal’s best interest to be a part of the group. You see that at its most extreme in the social insects where you can’t imagine a worker bee or a single queen bee surviving on its own. You can’t imagine a chimpanzee surviving on its own, because it needs social companions to help protect it from predators, to tell it where the food is, and all the rest of it, so in these kinds of societies, individuals are highly dependent on being a member of a social group.”
But what about the American ideal of the noble woodsman, the rugged individualist, the man who looks out for himself first in all cases? Such a mythos, Roper pointed out, sounds nice, but it would ultimately lead to chaos and perhaps even species extinction. “The idea of individuals going it alone is simply not viable for most intensely social creatures, because if they left the group they would get knocked off by a predator in five minutes, or starve …[or not make it through a winter].
“Being a member of a group is a sort of survival necessity in individual terms. And therefore it’s in every individual’s selfish interest that the group remains a coherent unit. That’s the sort of logic our model is based on. … You can’t have one individual deciding that it’s time to sleep and going to sleep while all the others are going on their way, because then that individual would cease to become a part of the group and be susceptible to predation and so on.”
Roper sees democracy as so wired in to us and our behavior that we don’t even notice it in everyday situations. Giving an analogy, he said, “Suppose you’ve got a dozen people in a committee room, and eventually somebody will start shuffling around and shuffling their papers, and then others do, and eventually somehow a collective decision [to adjourn the meeting] gets made. That’s the sort of situation we’re talking about.” Thoughtfully, he added, “Maybe that’s where [modern political] democracy came from, in an evolutionary context.”
Cooperation in Your Body
We humans are complex organisms, and when we form social units—be they families or nations—we extend that complexity in a way that somewhat mirrors our own bodies. Our social units need people performing the functions of the head—thinking, seeing, hearing, sensing—to plan and respond to our environment. We need a type of kidney and bowel function to dispose of our liquid and solid wastes. We need a liver type of function to purify and clean our world. We need a heart function to move about the nutrients that keep us alive. We need an immune function to fend off toxins, be they predators (human or nonhuman) or toxic ideas. And so on.
If the conservatives are right, then competition and self-interest are at the basis of all macro-behavior and all macro-systems, even altruistic ones. But the micro-system of our body couldn’t work along similar lines. For example, my friend Dave deBronkart had some cells in one of his kidneys that decided they were going to act entirely in their own self-interest and ignore the needs of the other cells in his body. They started growing faster and faster, and even produced enzymes that caused Dave’s vascular system to quickly grow new veins and arteries to supply them with an increased level of blood/nutrients to continue their growth.
Pretty soon, they’d taken over most of the kidney, and then some broke loose into his bloodstream and set up house in his lungs, his bones, and his liver. There they began using up all the blood/wealth available, starving out the local cells so much that they began to die off, leaving only the kidney cells. Dave discovered this when a pain in his shoulder led to an x-ray that revealed one of many spots where these kidney cells had displaced his bone cells to the point where he was in danger of his bones breaking (and one of his leg bones did break).
Dave had cancer. His doctors told him that he’d probably be dead in a few months and to go home and put his personal effects in order. In a way, this was similar to the bankers and economists and big businessmen telling Teddy Roosevelt and later his distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt that they should stop complaining and simply accept the overgrown monopolistic corporations of their day.
Fortunately, Dave didn’t listen to his doctors but instead spent some time on the Internet, discovering that a new drug for his particular type of metastasized kidney cancer was in experimental trials. He found a doctor willing to enroll him in a trial, and today, several years later, he is both cancer free and an enthusiastic advocate for patients taking some measure of control over their treatment for life-threatening medical conditions. (Something the doctors are as unenthusiastic about as were the Roosevelts’ bankers.)
At a governmental level, Teddy Roosevelt busted the trusts—the cancers—thus breaking John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Trust into twenty-nine smaller companies and going after a dozen others. Franklin Roosevelt went after the same reemergent dynastic businessmen in the 1930s.
Biological Altruism in the Marketplace
Those who advocate a dog-eat-dog, “survival of the fittest at the expense of society as a whole” approach to economics and governance are advocating, essentially, cancer in our body politic. They are ignoring the surrounding environment, which demands a balanced, homeostatic, and altruistic culture. On every continent in the world we find living cultures and cultural remnants that knew this well and that developed elaborate and successful ways to prevent sociopathic individuals whose obsession centered on acquiring wealth at the expense of others, keeping others from being successful at growing and metastasizing.
If we don’t learn from their example, we may face the same fate that Dave was originally told awaited him. If we do learn from their example, we can rid ourselves of these cancers and have a successful and sustainable society and world.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Hartmann Report to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.