I very much like this essay at the New York Times, “Evolution and the American Myth of the Individual” by John Edward Terrell. It ties together a lot of my themes.
At least part of the schism between Republicans and Democrats is based in differing conceptions of the role of the individual. We find these differences expressed in the frequent heated arguments about crucial issues like health care and immigration. In a broad sense, Democrats, particularly the more liberal among them, are more likely to embrace the communal nature of individual lives and to strive for policies that emphasize that understanding. Republicans, especially libertarians and Tea Party members on the ideological fringe, however, often trace their ideas about freedom and liberty back to Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries, who argued that the individual is the true measure of human value, and each of us is naturally entitled to act in our own best interests free of interference by others. Self-described libertarians generally also pride themselves on their high valuation of logic and reasoning over emotion.
I’ve written before about the fact that our economy is a web of interconnections, and that the failure of part of it hurts the whole eventually. Allowing cities like New Orleans and Detroit to rot; allowing families to be buried by medical bills; ripping the safety net so that lots of people fall into destitution and can’t get out; these things put a strain on the entire economic ecosystem, and with enough strain it all comes apart and hurts everyone. But righties can’t see that; they just think taxes are taking money away from me and giving it to someone else.
I’ve also written before about the utter obliviousness of Ayn Randbots, who sit in chairs somebody else crafted, in homes supported by networks of utilities other people made and maintain, keyboarding through internet connections they couldn’t reproduce if they tried, and to anyone who will listen, that they don’t need ANYBODY ELSE. Take away the cocoon of civilization and these bozos probably wouldn’t survive the week. Yeah, go Galt, buddy. Please.
Philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel have emphasized that human beings are essentially social creatures, that the idea of an isolated individual is a misleading abstraction. So it is not just ironic but instructive that modern evolutionary research, anthropology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience have come down on the side of the philosophers who have argued that the basic unit of human social life is not and never has been the selfish, self-serving individual. Contrary to libertarian and Tea Party rhetoric, evolution has made us a powerfully social species, so much so that the essential precondition of human survival is and always has been the individual plus his or her relationships with others.
We are not only physically dependent on each other but psychologically dependent as well. There is all kinds of data and real-world experience showing that actual isolation is devastating to a human. Prolonged isolation from other humans literally drives us mad. Indeed, our personalities — the traits we think make us uniquely “me” — are (to the psychologist and sociologists who study these things) entirely about how we relate to other humans. If there are no other humans to relate to, personalities cannot be expressed and arguably don’t even exist.
One of my favorite exercises — describe who you are as an individual without reference to a position within some kind of social or economic network. In other words, describe who you are as an individual without reference to family, nation, profession, interests (sports? stamp collecting? messing around on the Web?) or anything that doesn’t require other people. I say it can’t be done.
So, in a sense, we cannot be “individuals” without society. Our social network defines our individuality and allows our individuality to express itself. We cannot be who we are without other people being who they are.
I want to go back to “Self-described libertarians generally also pride themselves on their high valuation of logic and reasoning over emotion.” This is another bit of elaborate hooey that’s been around for a long time. One doesn’t hear it as much any more, but the old line was that men are logical and women are emotional, which is why men ought to run things because women can’t make responsible decisions. This may explain why 90 percent of homicides are perpetrated by men … oh, wait …
And there’s another claim that is heard much less often after World War II than before, that white Teutonic or Anglo-Saxon people are logical and all those simple brown natives are emotional. The pattern is that if you can claim your decisions are based on “logic” and not “emotions,” you win. The problem is that, in retrospect, the pattern of Teutonic/Anglo Saxon behavior throughout history doesn’t reveal a preponderance of wisdom or sensible, dispassionate judgment. Aggression, yes. Greed and arrogance, you bet. Wisdom, not so much.
This is not to say that European civilization hasn’t created some wonderful stuff, but the cultures of other continents have created some wonderful stuff, also. Humans can do amazing things sometimes. However, show me someone who claims he is entirely rational and logical, and I will show you someone who is out of touch with his own emotions.
I’ve written elsewhere about Moral Foundation theory and how much research in psychology and sociology reveals that emotions are jerking all of us around, whether we admit it or not. Moral Foundation theory says that our moral decisions are really being generated in our subconscious, which sends emotional cues — sometimes subtle ones, but emotional nonetheless — to our conscious mind, which then crafts rational reasons for why we believe as we do.
In other words, all of that logic and reasoning is strictly post hoc and called in to serve the demands of emotion. We believe as we do because it pleases us (literally) to believe as we do. We join mass movements or adhere to political views because they stoke our egos and reinforce our biases. And then the more deluded among us think up “rational” reasons for all of it and deny the role of emotions. Because, you know, emotions are for girls.
This conclusion is unlikely to startle anyone who is at all religious or spiritual. When I was a boy I was taught that the Old Testament is about our relationship with God and the New Testament is about our responsibilities to one another. I now know this division of biblical wisdom is too simple. I have also learned that in the eyes of many conservative Americans today, religion and evolution do not mix. You either accept what the Bible tells us or what Charles Darwin wrote, but not both. The irony here is that when it comes to our responsibilities to one another as human beings, religion and evolution nowadays are not necessarily on opposite sides of the fence. And as Matthew D. Lieberman, a social neuroscience researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, has written: “we think people are built to maximize their own pleasure and minimize their own pain. In reality, we are actually built to overcome our own pleasure and increase our own pain in the service of following society’s norms.”
While I do not entirely accept the norms clause of Lieberman’s claim, his observation strikes me as evocatively religious.
To me, there is no starker proof of the basic irrationality of Teabaggerism than the way so many manage to combine rigid, by-the-Holy-Book religious views with Ayn Rand’s “objectivism.” This is not just because Rand was an atheist. It’s because you can pretty much take anything Jesus ever said in the Gospels and compare it to Rand, and see clearly that Rand’s views are completely opposite Christ’s. There may be exceptions, but I can’t think of one. Rand’s views are also completely opposite those of the Buddha, which hasn’t stopped a few people from creating a Rand-Dharma hybrid called “dark Buddhism” or sometimes “dark Zen.” That this movement is pretty much a pubescent reaction to and denial of everything the Buddha taught shouldn’t surprise you.
Rand made a mistake commonly made by unthinking people — she assumed that if one ideology is bad, then the good must be its opposite. So Communism, with its denial of individual rights and the value of each person is bad, then the good must be untrammeled individualism. So Rand dismissed communities and societies as a “tribal premise” and denied that even activities such as trade and commerce should be about anything but individuals looking out for themselves. Yeah, try having an “economy” all by yourself.
Skipping a few bits of Terrell’s essay, which I recommend reading, we get to the Enlightenment philosophers. Now, on the whole I like the Enlightenment philosophers, because they are the ones who inspired the Declaration of Independence and the modern democratic ideal. But Terrell has a point here —
According to Rousseau and others, our responsibilities and duties to one another as members of society do not come from nature, but instead from our social conventions. Their speculations about the origins of the latter generally asserted that the most ancient of all societies was the family. Yet in their eyes, even the family as a social unit was seen as ephemeral. As Rousseau wrote: “children remain attached to the father only so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as this need ceases, the natural bond is dissolved.” When released from obedience to their father, the next generation is free to assume a life of singular freedom and independence. Should any child elect to remain united with the family of his birth, he did so “no longer naturally, but voluntarily; and the family itself is then maintained only by convention.”
In fairness to Rousseau it should be noted, as I observed earlier, that he may not have meant such claims to be taken literally. As he remarked in his discourse “On the Origin of Inequality,” “philosophers, who have inquired into the foundations of society, have all felt the necessity of going back to a state of nature; but not one of them has got there.” Why then did Rousseau and others make up stories about human history if they didn’t really believe them? The simple answer, at least during the Enlightenment, was that they wanted people to accept their claim that civilized life is based on social conventions, or contracts, drawn up at least figuratively speaking by free, sane and equal human beings — contracts that could and should be extended to cover the moral and working relationships that ought to pertain between rulers and the ruled. In short, their aims were political, not historical, scientific or religious.
Terrell is an anthropologist, so the notion of family as not originating in nature must seem particularly bizarre to him. Fossil and anthropological evidence shows us that hominids have lived in family groups since at least Australopithecus afarensis, if not earlier. We would not have survived otherwise.
Terrell then argues that what the Enlightenment philosophers wrote has morphed into a kind of primitive mythology that has become holy to the Teabaggers. As I wrote in Rethinking Religion, this has resulted in the bizarre spectacle of people submerged in a dogmatic mass movement, marching around wearing tricorner hats and carrying “don’t tread on me” signs to demonstrate how “individual” they are.
The sanctification of the rights of individuals and their liberties today by libertarians and Tea Party conservatives is contrary to our evolved human nature as social animals. There was never a time in history before civil society when we were each totally free to do whatever we elected to do. We have always been social and caring creatures. The thought that it is both rational and natural for each of us to care only for ourselves, our own preservation, and our own achievements is a treacherous fabrication. This is not how we got to be the kind of species we are today. Nor is this what the world’s religions would ask us to believe. Or at any rate, so I was told as a child, and so I still believe.
I’ve argued for a long time that the ideal is a kind of balance between the needs and interests of individuals and communities/societies, and when one of these is weighted more heavily than the other there will be dysfunction. But Terrell makes a good point that this idea of untrammeled individualism is, in fact, antithetical to all of the world’s great religions, and it’s interesting to me that so much of right-wing Christianity in America is oblivious to that. Somehow, in their minds, laissez-faire capitalism and the Holy Free Market, blessed be It, are ordained by God and inextricable from Jesus’ teachings. Which makes no sense at all.