Born to be Bigger

May
27
2011
by
Lynne McTaggart
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Last week New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a column called ‘Nice Guys Finish First’, in which he took issue with current evidence for our accepted theory of ‘eat or be eaten’ evolution.

 

‘In this telling,’ he writes, ‘we humans are like all other animals – deeply and thoroughly selfish. We spend our time trying to maximize our outcomes – competing for status, wealth and mating opportunities. Behavior that seems altruistic is really self-interest in disguise. Charity and fellowship are the cultural drapery atop the iron logic of nature.’

 

Or so that theory goes. However, new theories crossing his desk everyday everyday to attempt to rationalize the massive evidence to the contrary.

 

 

Last week New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a column called ‘Nice Guys Finish First’, in which he took issue with current evidence for our accepted theory of ‘eat or be eaten’ evolution.

 

‘In this telling,’ he writes, ‘we humans are like all other animals – deeply and thoroughly selfish. We spend our time trying to maximize our outcomes – competing for status, wealth and mating opportunities. Behavior that seems altruistic is really self-interest in disguise. Charity and fellowship are the cultural drapery atop the iron logic of nature.’

 

Or so that theory goes. However, new theories crossing his desk everyday everyday to attempt to rationalize the massive evidence to the contrary.

 

I’ll scratch your back

In Supercooperators, Martin Nowak argues, through mathematical equations, that niceness stems from an ‘I’ll scratch your back’ incentive; essentially we engage in random acts of kindness so that we can call in our chips in times of need.

 

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt puts forth the argument that evolution occurs not simply through individual competition but through group competition, and that groups succeed and prevail only because they maintain tight cohesion and cooperation. ‘It’s the cohesive, cooperative, internally altruistic groups that win and pass on their genes,’ notes Brooks. ‘Just as giraffes got long necks to help them survive, humans developed moral minds that help them and their groups succeed.’

 

All of these theories are interesting attempts to shoehorn altruism, cooperation or any positive human emotion into current evolutionary theory by reducing unselfishness in both animals and humans to a genetic imperative: acts of self-sacrifice occur only because of genetic favoritism. In fact, many modern biologists represent altruism as an equation, measuring its cost or benefit in terms of its bearing on an organism’s number of offspring.

 

In-built and hardwired

The truth is probably a good deal simpler: we were born that way. Humans and indeed animals have enormous in-built mechanisms for the good and the transcendent.

 

German philosopher Frederich Nietzsche proposed that the driving force of all human motivation is a ‘will to power’ – which he considered even more basic than the will to survive. Nietzsche believed that the “will to power” was the most fundamental force holding everything in the universe together.

 

In The Bond, I argue that our urge for relationship is more fundamental still. Rather than a will to power, the essential impulse of all life is a will to connect. Our natural instinct is always to merge with the other, to move away from the atomization of our individuality to the holism of the group.

 

Deep connection, rather than competition, is the quality most essential to human nature: we were never meant to live a life of isolation and self-serving survival. Human beings need partnership just to survive; we experience the greatest stress and the most serious illnesses when we are isolated from others and from a sense of connection.

 

A desire to help, for instance, is so necessary to us that we experience it as one of our chief pleasurable activities. A team of neuroscientists from the National Institutes of Health and LABS-D’Or Hospital Network in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, discovered that receiving a big monetary reward or making large charitable donation both activate the same portion of the brain, the mesolimbic reward pathway, a primitive system that gets aroused during eating or having sex. Getting something or giving something away are both highly pleasurable, but, an additional section of the brain, the subgenual cortex/septal part — associated with bonding and social attachment — also fires when we make a charitable donation. This would suggest that an impulse to do something altruistic is inherent in our need for connection.

 

The automatic impulse to help appears to have its genesis in our internal programming to protect our young, as Joshua Green and Jonathan Cohen, two Princeton University psychologists, discovered when studying the brain signaling of witnesses to films of victims of violence. The network of neurons in the brain that lit up during the process of witnessing another person being harmed were related to caring, the same ones that fired when mothers were shown photographs of their babies. The identical brain circuitry each of us possesses to help to care for our children is called upon to respond to the suffering of others. Caring about others, even strangers, is automatic and basic to our biology.

 

As the evidence now shows, altruism is not socially induced, but hardwired within us, designed to be as essential and pleasurable as eating and having sex. We were made to feel good when we are doing good, And doing good appears to stem from our instinct to Bond.

 

Reductionist model

Of course, as Brooks realizes, all this new evidence complicates the biological story we’ve been telling ourselves. It makes a hash, for instance, not only of the selfish-gene theory but also utility-maximizing model that drives our economic theory. This model is based on the idea that our life satisfaction and all our choices in life are driven entirely by self interest, or ‘utility.’

 

But even more significantly, this new evidence wreaks havoc with up all attempts to scientifically categorize human and animal behavior strictly from the reductionist’s point of view of reproductive fitness or other biological systems because morality – our need for goodness - inevitably rears its head.

 

Although the sciences have maintained that things like ethics are a cultural overlay, increasingly the evidence suggests that much of our morality – our need to share, care and be fair - is hardwired.

 

In fact the latest evidence from University of Oxford is that human beings are predisposed to believe in God and the afterlife. The mind, as one of the researchers put it, ‘is open to supernatural agency.’ It is basic, they concluded, to the way we think.

 

We were born to be good, but we were also born to believe in something larger than the satisfaction of getting the biggest slice of the pie. In fact, as this new research demonstrates, the true endpoint of personal utility-maximizing is a realization that we feel best, most personally satisfied, when we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

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Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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