Betsy Shebang - Column for 11/27

Evolution vs. Talk Radio vs. You & Me

Okay, talk radio is for morons; you knew that. NPR is talk radio, but it attracts a much more affluent, sophisticated class of moron than regular AM talk radio. The entire political and social spectrum, in fact, is perfectly illustrated by a map of the frequencies of electromagnetic radiation: on the far left, we have FM radio; on the far right, we have AM radio; and in the middle, occupying most of the space, we have television. (Okay, television and radio frequencies don't actually map out that way, but the idea is the important thing.)

So, on the NPR show called "To The Best Of Our Knowledge", which you'd think from the title is about the depths of human insight, until you realize that people say "to the best of our knowledge" when they really don't know what they're talking about, I heard a report about scientists who are wondering how human beings could have overwhelming feelings of empathy for other people when, you'd think, evolution would give the advantage to those creatures that were more concerned with their own welfare than that of others. What "empathy gene" is it that causes this apparently disadantageous trait?

Elaborate tests were carried out involving statistical models of groups of creatures that carried a genetic tendancy to "empathize" with, and help, others that looked like them. The results showed the creatures forming into groups of similar creatures, in defense against the attacks of those with clear differences.

This is an intriguing model; if we are attacked by those who look different from us, and predisposed to join together with those who appear to be similar to us, we would indeed form into exactly the type of society demonstrated in the study; and, yes, in many ways that's the society we've always had.

Still, the report pissed me off on so many levels I can't dissect it fast enough.

First, there's no reason to assume that a human behavior cultivated through evolution must be genetic. Customs and behaviors have evolutionary properties just as physical traits do, and ideas can evolve much more quickly than living crreatures can. A practice that immediately benefits its owner can be borrowed and used by everyone within a very short time - no need to wait for genetic advantages to have a significant influence on the species. Businesspeople know about this property of ideas; that's why we have patent offices. Scientists who look for every human trait in our genes are skipping over much of who we are.

Second, and more importantly, it's asinine to assume that empathy is generally disadvantageous to those who feel it and act upon it. Empathy directly supports the self-interest of all those creatures who exhibit it and who share the trait with those around them. Creatures without empathy are recognizably dangerous to those who cultivate it; to display a lack of empathy is to visibly threaten, and call for a defensive response from, all those whose actions are, to whatever extent, controlled by an empathetic self-interest. If everyone knows you’re out to take them down, they’ll gladly join forces against you. In evolutionary terms, empathy is a relatively efficient way to divert energies from mutual destruction toward mutual sustenance. It’s not the only way, but nobody ever suggested it was.

Empathy is like gravity: its effects on a small scale are apparently modest, but observed on a global scale, the effect is so overwhelming as to create the environment that houses every other interaction. To study the effects of empathy upon individual survival without fully understanding the effects of empathy upon the survival of the species is like running meticulous crash tests but ignoring road conditions.

And what pisses me off is that the scientists didn't even consider that human beings, for example, might benefit from living in a society in which people empathize and help one another. Evolution is not about isolated, individual cases; not every powerful genetic mutation leads to a new race of powerful offspring. Evolution is about general rules that apply over time and affect large populations. Empathy is such a rule – not merely invisible under close examination, but actually deceptive in appearance. What’s apparently disadvantageous for the individual may be very good for the group, and it’s the fate of the group that is influenced by evolution. And this is particularly true when it is behaviors that are evolving, since a philosophy may be distributed through observation or interaction as well as through direct, apparently genetic inheritance.

And when scientists and academics – who, qualified or not, originate many of our beliefs – approach a topic like this under the assumption that empathy is somehow unhealthy for the survival of an individual of the species, something has already gone terribly wrong. Again, ideas evolve and spread much, much more quickly than genetic mutations; and the conclusive idea that empathy is counterproductive to the survival of the species may in itself become the choleric stool in the gene pool. It’s up to us to influence the evolution of this idea, and neuter it while we can.

Copyright 2001 Betsy Shebang

Columns by Betsy Shebang