Sunday, December 11, 2011

The species that killed itself.


Some 200 000 years ago, a dying elderly female was kept alive by the compassion of her fellow creatures. We know this from palaeontologists who studied her fossilised jawbone so many years later.

Then already, in that small group of creatures that formed part of our prehistoric gene pool, humankind was demonstrating an attribute that was to drive it to become the most majestic and predominant species on the planet – the capacity to take care of each other. It’s a theme I have dealt with before and one that stubbornly and unapologetically informs all of my writing. For I believe firmly that this attribute, the universal human value of love and compassion, has not only made us into a great species, but has the capacity to keep us there, and to offer the ultimate if not only solution to our human problems – on an individual, group, national and global level.

It is more than idealistic rhetoric. It is more than acquired behaviour. The capacity to care is not the result of nurture, but of nature. It is as instinctive as a mother sacrificing her life to save a child; a stranger spontaneously coming to the aid of a fellow being, an inexplicable act of heroism. Scientists say we, more than any other creature or species, are endowed (some may argue burdened) with mirror neurons that create a constant and immediate empathy with the plight of another. Few of us have not felt that urge to extend a hand to someone who has fallen in our presence, or have not felt the “virtual” pain when someone bumps his or her head.

The discovery of these neurons was made only in the late 1990’s and one wonders how Darwin’s theory of evolution would have been written had he been aware of this neurological feature. What makes us distinctly human is not the way we look, walk, eat, or even communicate: it is how we behave. Our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes is our greatest strength.

I have also tried to show in this column, in books and other articles over many years, how this spirit of generosity and of benevolence has underpinned great achievements on an individual, social, political and business level. Of course, the evidence is always anecdotal. One can never with absolute certainty say what really motivated those heroes of the past and present, apart from their own statements. But clearly their achievements were affirmed by the difference they made to others, not by what they got out of it for themselves. Their intention then is irrelevant, but it is doubtful whether they would have achieved what they did without a very powerful, if not overriding motive of making a difference, and if they were so totally self-absorbed that they could not appreciate the needs and wants of others.

Conversely, seldom will you find amongst champions those who flagrantly and exclusively pursued profit, self-gain, recognition and fame. This, according to Abraham Maslow, is not what self-actualisation is about. Indeed, the unbridled pursuit of self-gain and the championing of it as the engine of prosperity have brought humankind to the brink of its own destruction. We can only marvel at our perverted success in being able to ignore such a fundamental lesson that was learnt 200 000 years ago, and to deliberately turn off the mirror neuron switch that accounts for our magnificence in the first place.

It is when one extrapolates individual self-interest to a group, company or country that it becomes muddied and perhaps more invidious. Individual self-gain easily becomes group self-gain sustained and fuelled by a herd mentality, and a facile transfer of accountability. Self-interest becomes national interest and patriotism an excuse to hide individual accountability behind a flag. History demonstrates that some of the world’s biggest crimes and malevolence towards others have been committed under the pretext of “in the national interest”. For most of the perpetrators that pretext means exoneration and unaccountability.

Yet it need not be so. Families can be groups of people with benevolent intent towards others, incubators of generosity and nurseries of moral character. Groups can marshal and extol their members to a greater good, even those that ostensibly are there purely for self-gain, such as labour unions. Companies can and should be the enablers of meaning for those involved in adding value to people’s lives through the product they make or service they provide.

The same principle holds true for countries. The belief that the most prosperous and successful economies are those with a strong national interest bent that see the rest of the world as an exploitable resource, simply does not stand up to scrutiny. Extensive scientific research by the World Bank in the 1980’s revealed that a primary ingredient for national economic well-being was having an external focus. A variety of the latest “prosperity” indicators (admittedly all done before the latest Eurozone crisis) covers many countries that are well known for their national sense of global responsibility.

Gross National Income Per Capita rankings have invariably and fairly consistently included countries such as Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. You will find them too amongst the top in Human Development Indices, Gini income equality measurements, and Gallop Happiness Indicators. Their presence in these rankings may not be absolute proof that having a global social conscience is a must for prosperity, but it certainly shows that the opposite of national self-interest is not the Holy Grail many pay homage to.

There’s been at best only lukewarm commitment by the biggest global contributors to global warming at the Cop17 climate change conference in Durban. At the time of writing, prospects for meaningful common gains by the countries represented were remote. It has been argued that in the absence of an international accord, national interest itself will encourage nations like China to combat climate change, as they choke on their own emissions. Climate change is not geographically selective and most would agree that a concerted international effort is needed for meaningful progress. It is indeed the one cause where national interest has to unconditionally come second.

If taking care of each other is humanity’s strongest claim to majesty, then those talks have been a discouraging reflection of how far we have strayed from our essence. Generosity can never be subjected to a haggle. That is a transaction and while perfectly appropriate in most circumstances, it is highly improper in a forum designed to ensure humanity’s future.

The term “save the planet” already has within it a touch of arrogance. From a cosmic perspective, the planet has little interest in whether it is green, red, blue or yellow; whether it can sustain life or revolve in a solar system as a big barren but beautiful ball. What needs saving is our species.

The further we move away from our qualities of benevolence, generosity and compassion, the less likely we will be able to do that. We could become known to some intelligent force vast distances away in time and space, as the species that literally killed itself.

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