Dec 1, 2009

Are Human Beings Inherently Agressive or Empathetic—or Both?

My Monkey Guru wrote this:

Isn't "genetic instruction" the absolute, very basic, real way that God intended it?

Are we genetically "programmed" to help each other?

Aggression is obvious in small children, but so is empathy.

Are these learned characteristics or basic DNA instructions?

People who know more about it than I do (that would be everyone in this field) say this:

This conclusion that we are engineered to be helpful to others is reached by Frans de Waal in another book published in October, “The Age of Empathy.” Dr. de Waal, a primatologist, has long studied the cooperative side of primate behavior and believes that aggression, which he has also studied, is often overrated as a human motivation.

“We’re preprogrammed to reach out,” Dr. de Waal writes.

“Empathy is an automated response over which we have limited control.”

The only people emotionally immune to another’s situation, he notes, are psychopaths.

Indeed, it is in our biological nature, not our political institutions, that we should put our trust, in his view.

Our empathy is innate and cannot be changed or long suppressed. “In fact,” Dr. de Waal writes, “I’d argue that biology constitutes our greatest hope.

One can only shudder at the thought that the humaneness of our societies would depend on the whims of politics, culture or religion.”

This might help explain why we find ourselves helping people when it is apparent that doing so has no apparent benefit at all to ourselves for doing it.

Maybe human beings are intended to help each other out - feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, keep babies from dying of medical neglect.... all that liberal philosophy crap.... wouldn't that be a laugh?

Here’s my reply:

Both traits continue in modern humans because both are helpful to our evolutionary fitness, I think. Aggression helps expand territory, and for males, to be dominant enough to pick a genetically advantageous mate (and for females, aggression can provide the best treats and more power within the group). Empathy (and sex, too) fuels group cohesion and supports the larger social unit, which is necessary for both more powerful defense and offense. Survival of the fittest individual and the fittest group. Paradoxical on a micro level but sensible on a larger scale, over time and across rugged and varying environments.

Half tongue in cheek and half in earnest, I believe most scientists are genetically programmed to be unable or unwilling to accept two opposing forces can be true simultaneously. They’ve gotta be thinking: paradox equals bad science. As a poet, I’m fascinated by paradox. Paradox is the annoying gadfly (there’s that word again) that won’t stop buzzing around.

Why can’t it be okay that we’re meant to help each other and compete with each other? What could be more genetically adapted than that?

Now, what do you think? Cast your vote in the poll at right (top of the page).

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