This weeks episode is entitled why we care, why we don’t and why we should,
Caring is basic human nature,
part of what we have evolved to do.
It exists as one of many modes of human expression,
all of which are stimulated by our environment.
And I point out that while this might ensure survival one way or another
it might not always be for the best…
So let’s just get into it..
That there is
a biological and an evolutionary narrative that has the potential
to explain human behaviour
is probably as close as we can get to any kind of agreement.
We could almost call that truth.
There’s theory and experiment
all pointing in that direction.
OK, it’s consensus
and yes at the forefront of this,
we all know about a man called Richard Dawkins,
who nailed it back in the 1970’s.
Now His book,
The Selfish Gene, portrays an elegant and simple version
of the genetic narrative
in which the gene takes the starring role.
The gene is the replicator first and foremost,
and reproducing itself
it is the driving factor in the story of life.
Nothing else matters.
We, animal or human, plant or bacteria,
are incidental expressions of the genetic information.
We exist as bubbles of chemical soup, here to ensure one thing only, the survival of the gene.
We are at its beck and call. The information is stored there for ever more within us like caretakers, vessels… who knows.
We all get that, instinctively or not. That’s what we know.
The book was published in 1976 is one of the most successful scientific books ever written.
And the scientific establishment and Dawkins himself have held sway over that consensus since that time. More than 40 years ago.
And it is understandable, when the foundation of all we are and of everything we know is selfish competition. Its understandable to hear phrases such as…
People are selfish.
Or that Greed is good
or that It’s a dog eat dog world
and my personal favourite the cynically determinist use of “That’s life” being used to shut down serious concerns or discussion.
It’s understandable but its also deeply frustrating.
For me, Behind the use of these glib platitudes there’s a story of uncaring, nihilist determinism, a sense of hopelessness and despair, fear of the new.
And it goes deeper still, to our story of empathy, and of compassion, of who we are and how we respond to the world.
Naturally, I begin to wonder if its just me. Is there something wrong with me, wanting to invest time, and energy into alleviating perceived suffering in other people. Is it me?
Should I just put all that aside and get into some sort of short term gain strategy? I guess I could. But its not me, not for now.
And of course it isn’t just me… there are those that care, so that must be a thing. And there are those that don’t, So what’s that about.
And there are those that care one moment and then not the next. But, in reality don’t we all?
So how does the paradigm of a selfish gene explain all that?
Surely, if there is this an evolutionary foundation to who we are, and to how we behave then it must provide explanations for all kinds of behaviour, for every kind, not just selfish behaviour. For caring, and not caring?
Altruism, for example, empathy, sympathy, self-sacrifice, suicide.
We’ve had billions of years for a self interested gene to iron suicide out, right?
And so maybe there are more complex interactions going on? Maybe there’s a bigger truth? And we need to ask some questions. Are we right to map our interpretations of Dawkins and Darwin onto society, to stick with it… Or are there new developments out there to point us at different perspectives?
Look, I’ll come back to that but let’s imagine a football game. We are in the stadium and it is tense. Our team is one-up into extra time… 2 minutes to go. And the opposition break down the right wing with a long ball from the sweeper. They’ve broken out of defence and we only have one man between the ball and the goal keeper.
How does that feel? From this distance! From this imaginary perspective.
OK, maybe football isn’t going to work for everybody.
How about a duckling? It’s a tiny fluffy thing, following a line of bigger brothers and sisters. They cross the road safely, on their way to the pond. They hop up onto the pavement but the little one is too small to do that. He’s getting left behind…
I can’t go on!
This is a emotional roller-coaster, not a gentle set of post-its. This is cognitive behaviour in action, a heightened state of dissonance. That’s caring.
Our ability to care is a fundamental part of our human experience. Bottom line is people care.
And this ability, to care, to feel empathy or sympathy, or to feel the emotions of others, can be seen in action in the brain. We can actually watch it on tele.
Researchers used an MRI scanner to monitor the brains of a number of subjects who were being shown pictures of injury, a needle shoved thru someone’s arm, a stubbed toe next to the offending cupboard door, a kitchen knife being brought down right over someone’s thumb.
The brain kicks off. The lights flash.
And the scanner shows that the people seeing the photos feel the same thing as those experiencing the real thing. The same bits of the brain light up.
The experience of the pain is being modelled in the brain of the observers in exactly the same way as it would be as if was happening to them.
For the brain, it is the same. For our brains, for me and you.
So that’s empathy.
We can see empathy in action. Its a thing. How then do we explain it? What does it do? What is it for?
Well, for that we need the evolutionary narrative, surely?
For the ladybird version
That as we became more complex, we needed more time to mature. Adults were required to spend energy protecting their young in order to promote the genes, or the lineage.
Protective instincts or habits were adopted.
We developed the ability to detect and act on the feelings of others.
We had caring or empathy, we had sympathy, hard coded into our genes, an expression of the advantage to be found by protecting them, through our offspring or our kin.
The concept of kin selection by the way has been a useful tool for unravelling some of our less selfish evolutionary behaviours.
Look, If we remember the feelings to be had in response to the duckling’s story or to the football match, we can begin to see just how much these feelings mean to us.
They are there to protect us and our kin. An emotional response, to a personal moral landscape.
Our ability to care is clear.
Now, I would go so far as to say that the ability to care becomes a need to care.
Like creativity, our evolutionary drivers are not there to be taken lightly. They are not to be chosen at random. They are a necessary form of existential expression.
They are why we are here…
So, How is it that some people seem to be impervious to any form of empathy? Why don’t they care? Why don’t we just agree on how we save the world? Why where one person sees harm, does another see order?
Ok so there are probably a number of answers to this but firstly comes the question of how we choose what is best for us. How we choose what to care about…
Well, In a mind blowing and highly entertaining TED Talk called The Moral Roots of Liberals and Republicans, Jonathan Haidt explains how we learn what to care about. His work along with others has outlined a moral landscape within which we all operate.
It can be seen as an attempt to specify the “evolved psychological mechanisms” of morality. It essentially holds that we are not born with a blank slate. Evolution provides us with a pre-existing set of values.
They turn out to be a set of 5 pre-programmed values. We modify the set, like the bands on a graphic equalizer, turning them up and down. Our infant explorations are logged and tested against responses to the 5 bands.
Firstly the continuum or opposition of Care and Harm. It is imperative for our survival that we are able to develop a response to those that might hurt us or might care for us.
Secondly, is a concept of fairness and reciprocity.
Then there are our responses to Authority, Belonging and Purity.
Testing reveals more open personalities will tend towards a moral framework that consists only of the first two of the factors. They are creatives, and visionaries, the risk takers – liberals. Whilst less open personalities also value the core values of Care and Fairness highly they are not immune to the necessity of Authority and Belonging, and Purity. Open personalities are mainly impervious to the appeal of these last three bands. To the liberal they have no moral bearing. It seems never the twain shall meet.
But not necessarily. The conservative instinctively understands that entropy is an inevitable factor of Social Interaction and seeks to negate it.
The liberal pushes against this in a search for new and better spoils, as the salmon searches out for new streams, new opportunities.
The conservative perceives these new opportunities as a threat. Authority, ingroup structures and purity as necessary factors for promoting social cohesion, for order and security, and for controlling the slide into chaos, or social entropy.
But both have their value.
Without group belonging, powerful social structures and a protective attitude towards society there is no way the pyramids would have got built. Without openness to new ideas, nobody would have wanted to build one.
He makes a clear case for freeing a largely liberal audience from the confines of its own moral matrix. And yes he’s quite clear in his use of the Matrix movie for analogy.
Much as it hurt me to discover this we have to recognise that it is not good enough to believe that conservatives simply don’t care because they see different stuff to care about. Same vice versa.
So it begs the question as to what it does mean when people are unable to care?
What is the mechanism at work here?
Firstly this isn’t some sort of binary yes or no, of course not. We all have a capacity for care.
Be it psychopathic or empathic, the likelihood is that normal healthy behaviour is to fit somewhere on a continuum. It is to move backwards and forwards somewhere around a sweet spot, that allows for us to care appropriately and to avoid burnout. To save some care for those closest to us, for our lineage or our kin. A place where we can make a real difference.
So what happens if we begin to get tired, what happens if we begin to suffer from empathic depletion. And why should this happen? Why don’t we care?
Well, to answer this question it might be helpful to look at the front line, at caring professionals and from this comes the idea of compassion fatigue. Emotional depletion.
Compassion can end up getting stretched to breaking point.
Time after time hearing the same crisis there comes a point where people can take no more. Just the pure volume of it can be overwhelming. Its numbing, desensitizing. It begins to re-programme your brain. And change your behaviour.
How does this sound?
Once you get home you hear the cat has gone missing. But there’s nothing left in the tank.
So what? Call that a crisis? I’ll show you a crisis.
And you are ready at a moments notice to switch to this mode.
A person who went into the profession for the best of reasons but remains, a changed person. Someone suffering from burnout will feel ineffectiveness or a lack of accomplishment, they’ll feel unappreciated.
And people lose their marriages over this empathic strain. There are suicides. Equable with depression I believe, burnout can see individuals become physically and emotionally exhausted, cynical and detached, or apathetic. Empathic depletion changes who you are.
Its my belief that again far more people are suffering from a form of this kind of stressed response to their environment than we are wont to acknowledge.
Like the mechanism of cognitive dissonance I see, there is a natural drive to fix things. To fix the discomfort.
And on the road to burnout we create behaviours to manage ourselves. We introduce coping mechanisms such as Alcoholism, Eating Disorders, Addictions and we invite Relationship Problems in.
Anything, any drama, to act as a distraction, to fill the emptiness, the void, to make us feel better, and fix the discomfort.
But we look in the wrong places. It has been argued that whilst we are programmed over and above all else to consume.
Because that is all we know.
Its not a far leap to see how the drive to fix a feeling of wrongness has helped on an evolutionary scale.
And how far we need to go before we realise just how dangerous it can be to suppress the ability of people to act upon these drivers. To act according to their nature.
I think that the same symptoms that we understand as depression can be seen to flow from compassion fatigue, and from PTSD. The causes are simple. The causes I believe flow from an inability to act in accordance with our programme. There is the source. There is where we lose the ability to care,
Its a powerful version of cognitive dissonance, powerful in the way that we understand the narrative of the duckling. It’s an existential dissonance. And we feel it!
What if this time there’s a road sweeper coming? And what if we are presented with the same narrative time after time after time. What if we do feel these things but come to feel we can change nothing? Is it OK to be looking at this existential crisis every day, every moment… or will something have to give?
I want to get back to Dawkins idea of the selfish gene. As I said earlier its a beautifully simple sound bite kind of science but my problem with it is how it underpins a form of determinist thinking that I find dangerous. The main thrust behind it being, inverted commas, That’s Life Buddy. Deal with it” close quotes. A lack of control, a lack of hope. This is the thinking that isolates your depression from the environment. For me and its hard not to get into some sort of anti-capitalist rhetoric from this side, if there are other modes of thought then there may be benefits.
The challenge to Dawkins is subtle. What we miss by insisting that a ‘selfish gene’, a coherent, solitary replicator, is the irreducible and ever-present driver of evolution. however is important. It’s not that genes don’t drive evolutionary change, just that it isn’t always the case.. It is that they are a part of a system. And as such they are driven by other parts of it. A giant cog yes, but not the always the driver.
As Gregory Wray puts it in Evolution: The Extended Synthesis, there are various
‘interesting evolutionary phenomena, that are apparent only at the scale of hundreds or thousands of genes’
— a scale only made viewable during the past decade or so, as we’ve learnt to rapidly sequence entire genomes.
The selfish-gene model struggles to portray these and to stress the mutational model, that a gene changes, therefore the organism changes is to underestimate how the job is done.
We miss the rich variation of evolutionary dynamics that are only now being proposed by anthropologists
What for example, does a single replicator say about the cultural transmission of knowledge and behaviour. This is communication allowing social species ranging from bees to humans to adapt to changing environments without genetic alteration?
Perhaps culture is not simply an expression of our genes, but another adaptable and transmissible source of information. Its elements co-evolving with genes, each affecting the other.
Another idea that sits uncomfortable with the selfish-gene model are epigenetic changes, such as methylation and the effects of chemical wrappings around the DNA.
The expression of DNA is again modulated without changing its sequence.
And this way we can provide a path for inheritance down through at least a few generations without changing any actual genes.
Genetic assimilation is regaining some standing. It works as a three step process.
First, recognising the plasticity of gene expression. an organism adapts to a changing environment. It changes its phenotype — its form or behaviour. Perhaps it gets faster in pursuit of its prey,
Second, a gene emerges that locks in that phenotypic change. Longer legs are perhaps seen as desirable and they are selected for.
And finally, the gene spreads through the population.
This isn’t the gene-centric world in which genotype creates phenotype. It’s a phenotype accommodating a new genotype by making it valuable.
And while Dawkins may now argue that this changes nothing in regard to the original basic unit of replication, there is some degree in which we can recognise the difference and he has recently remarked that maybe he could have called his book The Immortal Gene rather than the Selfish.
To be sure, some of this research is still unproven as a significant evolutionary force. But while it is clearly important enough to pursue, many defenders of the selfish-gene model dismiss it out of hand.
Dawkins selfish gene no longer provides a strong enough narrative.
The concept that the gene remains at the core of information flow, and remains the controlling factor in human behaviour and evolutionary developments is now out dated. We are not tied to our past and can change our destinies. Greed is no longer good. Today we are aware of epigenetic factors in the evolutionary narrative. We are aware of the effects of our environment on the genes, on how the genes choose to express themselves according to the immediate environment.
And we are aware of the consequences of poor environmental conditions on human health.
We are talking about behaviours and cultures here, being part of our genetic phenotype, and we have have seen how under certain environmental conditions we can go to depression.
If depression is a genetic, evolutionary response, what of tribalism? What of nationalism, or cannibalism?
And Whilst Nazi Germany for example may seem to be as far removed from who we are now as we could be, is it really the case that we can never return?
As an echo of that, what do we make of the locust? The locust and the grasshopper are the same genetic package, just reacting to different circumstances. One a peaceful lone vegetarian, the other a voracious swarming carnivore. Once the conditions occur the change is swift.
And what do we make of the the queen bee, and the drone and the worker bee, all emerging out of the same gene but changing again in response to the needs of the hive.
We are of the same mechanisms. Our genes may remain static but we have many modes of being.
The selfish gene puts us at the mercy of our environment, the plasticity of genetic expression, the “social genome” ensures that we may take control.
For better or worse. Good side or dark…
I’m going to leave it there… Please sign up, make a donation if you can, leave a comment and get involved. And Thanks for listening.
I’ve been Ant Biggs and you’ve been listening to COW- the podcast.
The duckling… he made it by the way.
And the goalkeeper he saved it…