EVOLUTION AND ETHICS
by Beth K. Lamont
October 27, 2004
PERHAPS our Primate relatives handle social/ethical situations just as clumsily, and in as varied a fashion, as we humans do. The worrisome tales of cannibal chimps, come to mind, and on the other hand, the news of the nurturing mother gorilla who rescued and cradled the human child. I'd always mused that, considering our human foibles, the apes, if they survive, may do a better job of getting along with each other than we have. We seem likely to succumb to self-inflicted extinction, whereby we blunderingly bomb ourselves into mushroom-shaped oblivion. There is some present Human leadership that seems beguiled by Strangelovian illogic. I fear that Homo Sapiens might be rendered into Homo Interruptus, just another aborted experimental branch of Primates, who like Neanderthal, somehow couldn't adapt to the prevailing stressful conditions of its time. Nature's command is unforgiving and remains the same: adapt or die!
OBEDIENCE TO QUESTIONABLE AUTHORITY
So the age-old debates over the nature of Human Nature and whether or not we are hard-wired for aggression, may be rendered moot, and our lovely evolutionary experiment halted right in the ascendancy of its career. And we have, oh, such beautiful brains! The delicate and exquisitely creative thought processes and the inspiring, emotional expressions of the human muse are limitless. What a shame if fear and sheep-like obedience to questionable authority stifles our courage to make changes, and this cowardice snuffs us out! Or perhaps, even worse, and believe me, things could get worse, makes us wish we were dead. The human brain enveloped in barbed-wire is a symbolic image that flashes in my mind.
According to Richard Dawkins, obedience in children, has been a built-in preservative of the human species, as in "Don't go near the cliff." It also made us pliant to questionable authority, as in "Don't ever venture over the mountain," We're still vulnerable to childish gullibility, sometimes into adulthood, continuing to believe in fairy tales, blithely accepting silly sound-bites of nonsensical misinformation, or worse, allowing ourselves to be intimidated by power. Perpetuation of the illusion that, in defiance of the laws of nature, some mythical entity will carry specially-selected Humans off, in a rapture, I've heard it called, to some safe, never-never land where these superior Humans never, never die, is really a myth that is hampering the Human maturing process.
Leadership that takes adult responsibility for ethical behavior and logical thinking is vital to our survival. What a strange paradox: we recognize that in order to mature, a child must learn the consequences of her/his behavior. Yet, we allow our leaders to jeopardize us with immature, unethical, illogical thinking and actions. It is really a matter of survival! What can we do differently? How can we Humans adapt to the threatening reality of our changing circumstances? Nature's relentless rule remains the same: adapt or die!
DESCENDENTS OF SURVIVORS
Carl Sagan mused that those ancestors who couldn't do the instant polynomial calculations about the distance from one tree branch to the next, dropped to the forest floor and were never heard from again! He asserted, even bragged, that we are the descendents of survivors! If there were ever a time for us to get out our calculators and re-estimate the arc of our trajectory, this is it! We're in trouble! Hatreds rage! Unethical behavior abounds! Insanity and vengeance prevail!
And the question remains unanswered. Are we savage? Are we civilized? And what even do these words mean anymore? In my primitive days, upon feeling threatened or to protect my children, I might have wielded a stick or stone to bash the beans out of my fellow cave-dweller, and today, in my high-tech mode, I can, upon feeling threatened, or when ordered to, with one trigger-finger, destroy the whole cave, or the whole village, along with its inhabitants. Is one of these behaviors primitive? Is one of these behaviors evolved or ethical?
Apparently I am no wiser now than I was then, in discerning distinctions between terrorists and freedom fighters. One, a justified defender of one's beliefs and one's homeland, and the other, a torturing, fanatic bent on wreaking revenge and who is sending a fierce message to "the enemy." And what of inter-generational enmity, seeking vengeance for the real or perceived historical wrongs from centuries past? How to halt the perpetuation of such a cycle of violence? In our thousands of years of evolution, from savage to civilized Human beings, should we not have evolved into wiser beings? Like the kids traveling in the back seat, we might ask plaintively, "Are we there yet?"
LEARNING ETHICAL BEHAVIOR
Lawrence Kohlberg concluded that there are progressive levels of moral development from fear of punishment and anticipation of reward to finely tuned considerations of ethical principles. In the schoolyard we learned some rudiments of ethical behavior: The parental admonition, "make nice and share your ball," makes sense; it means we all get to play. Ethical observations like not hurting others since we don't like to be hurt, seem fair and reasonable, even to a child. A sad and shocking vignette plays again and again in my mind's eye: I once observed a mother's response to her squabbling daughters, with a "smack-upside-the-head" to the eldest, and a loud and vehement announcement of, "I'll teach you to hit your little sister!" And so, of course, she did.
The newly formed International Criminal Court pondered the dilemma of remaining ethical while punishing perpetrators of heinous crimes against humanity. If killing is unethical, then killing killers is also unethical. The Court has opted instead for life-sentences, confiscation of property and restitution for survivors. This is a step in the right direction on the world stage. It envisions a day when, hopefully, age-old immunity to consequences is no longer granted to powerful perpetrators of unethical behavior, and will no longer be tolerated by Humans.
The perplexing perennial problem, however, of how to stop bullies, whether in the schoolyard or on the world stage, is no closer to a solution. Even though victims will always cheer when a bully gets his comeuppance, there's no denying that a bully's power itself, is awesome. A prevailing problem is that others wish to associate themselves with it. It attracts those who want a piece of that power. Never mind that an action may be simply a show of force, an adolescent flexing of muscle, totally devoid of any mature ethical principles. Power takes on a life of its own. The phrase Shock and Awe comes to mind. This, alas, is the stuff that empires are made of. One would only hope that humans have evolved beyond this phase.
THE MACHO STANCE
Unfortunately, the image of Man the Mighty Hunter prevails. This muscle-flexing Macho stance may look more like a cowboy these days, but the image is the same. Whether it's an inarticulate teenager punching out someone who's "dissed" him, or an elegant chief executive officer dealing a devastating corporate blow with his decision, it's the same wielding of power. It is man against adversity, whatever the threat may be. The myth of Man the Mighty Hunter, still prevails, and one can find evidence of it even in some anthropological theories that, if it were not for this powerful, action-oriented, manly mind-set, Humans would not have survived.
Well, I beg to differ with the myth! Where the heck was Mrs. Mighty Hunter, meanwhile, while our hero was out doing battle? You know it! She was home taking care of the kids! She was the provider of the nurturance that really sustained the Human species. She was the keeper of the flame, the gatherer of the roots and berries, the tender of the young, the injured, sick and elderly. Without this nurturance, there would have been no ongoing existence, no home-base that needed protecting. Even with nomads there needed to be mobile mothering, or we surely would have become extinct long ago.
And so, what's new? Today, Mrs. Mighty Hunter is still optimistically giving birth and nurturance to the children, who, if they are even lucky enough to stave off hunger long enough to grow up, may become either the victims or the perpetrators of violence. And this, because we still allow ourselves to be cowed or lured before the display of power. This primitive Macho culture of manly physical response to danger is a behavior that evolved in our Human baby stage. In the childhood of Humankind, we had no answers to our questions, no accumulated wisdom to address our dilemmas, so we did what children do: in the absence of knowledge and experience, we made things up! We had no science, no psychology, so we improvised, and we did the best we could. And for that phase of our evolution, it seemed to work pretty well; in some ways, remarkably well. Humans survived as a species against a lot of odds.
A FOUR-MILLION-YEAR CHILDHOOD?
We can be forgiven for our violent, confused, adolescent growing-up stages, even the need for the authority of vengeful, unseen gods to back us up. You know, the old ploy: "My father can beat up your father!" But what's our excuse now? Have we yet acquired the wisdom and the will to progress and evolve into the adult behavior that one would expect of an ethical Human species?
Let's get it straight. I dislike demeaning your gods, Allah, Yahweh, whoever, but if I were going to cite the authority of any supreme being, I'd choose an ETHICAL ONE! Not one who is into vengeance, or who demands an eye for an eye, or sends curses upon humans, or welcomes to its throne, martyrs who have murdered for the cause. No way! If I worshipped any supernatural connection to the universe it would be the one that champions compassion, love, nurturance, respect, equality, equitable treatment, fairness, sharing, forgiveness, and one that would enable and encourage Humans to live rich lives of fulfillment and joy, developing all of their talents and potential, and living out their days unharmed.
I watched in despair as two men, the leader, and the would-be leader, of the most wealthy, powerful, and previously respected Nation on the face of this Earth, speaking in an age of modern miracles, fraught with amazing possibilities for the betterment of Humankind, men who might even have envisioned for us, a future of peaceful and productive existence, who stood before us on television and who proclaimed to all the people of the world, their own belief in god. Apparently, they referred to the same god. What kind of god? A primitive god? They even issued "god-bless-you"s. Incredulously, from the same civilized lips, they both spoke of killing!
So, how does integrity, integrity, integrity, and belief in god translate into ethical or unethical behavior? I might have been comforted somewhat, if instead of promising to kill, there had at least been reference to BRINGING TERRORISTS TO JUSTICE.
There are now 191 nations dealing with world problems, most of which are willing to sacrifice some measure of sovereignty, in order to create a system that can bring equitable justice to the long-suffering human beings on this Planet. I grieve for all of the mothers and the fathers and the beautiful and precious lives, young and old, that are being wasted, wasted, wasted! Damn the unethical gods that condone this! Do you hear me? You believers in this god! Hear the cries of anguish! These precious lives are wasted! Wasted! And for nothing!
What it really boils down to is this: We Humans aspire to an ethical way of life. We have demonstrated this. The Human beings of this world gathered by the millions to say no to war. Our voices were not heard. We have not yet prevailed! Sadly, we are wiser than our lagging leaders. This can only mean one thing!
WE HAVE EVOLVED! WE ARE ETHICAL! WE NEED ETHICAL LEADERSHIP!
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Beth is presently an Executive Board member of and a Program Director for the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York, the Corliss Lamont Chapter of the AHA, and is an initiator of the AHA's Humanist Advocate Program. She was Chair of AHA's Chapter Assembly and also served as the AHA's NGO Representative to the UN. She is a Humanist Chaplain and officiates wedding ceremonies in New York City. She has been involved with matters Humanistic for most of her years.
This essay also appeared as the November 1, 2004 blog entry on the Human Values Weblog.
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This page last revised: January 6, 2012.
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