Sunday, April 5, 2009
Social Grooming to Social Darwinism
There's a bar I drive past pretty much every day. It's a good neighborhood place that's apparently been in town since 1934. Their thing is craft brews and imports on tap and they've got two rows of taps built in to the wall, surrounded on either side by refrigerators full of import and craft bottles. They also bring in bands on weekends. For the last week or so I've been seeing "Seneca from Limerick Ireland April 3rd" on the big bulletin board outside. Now, I'd never heard of Seneca. But I've also never been mistreated by an Irish rock band, so I decided to go see what was up. After a night of good music and great beer I introduced myself to the band. I mentioned my general appreciation of the Saw Doctors to the bassist and she said, "I'm from right down the street from them." I said, "You're from Galway, really?" There's a school of thought out there, one which I generally subscribe to, that language evolved as a form of social grooming. We generally think of social grooming in the terms of nature documentaries where there are long shots of monkeys picking lice out of each other's hair. Humans have that same need for closeness and grooming, but we don't do it quite like the rest of the mammals. It turned out that Seneca was doing a second show about six blocks away from my trendy domicile the next night. So I went to see them again at a lovely little Irish pub I've driven past a few times but never visited. I got there early and ended up sitting at a table with them while they ate dinner and shared a few beers. I asked what a band does all day when they're in random towns just outside of Chicago, but after that it became a conversation about annoying people in bars and calling current girlfriends by the names of ex-girlfriends and all that randomness in between. So from that initial point of being strangers we ended up in this conversation with a definite subtext about how life is the same whether you're from Galway or Chicago. This is the whole point of social grooming. See, societies are built around bringing together. It's why we have churches, temples, pubs, and coaching houses (yeah, coaching houses. I've been playing a lot of Empire: Total War, okay?). It's why we go to concerts and art showings and operas and plays and go get drunk and do all of those other fun things. I sat there next to a guitar player named Brendan last night and only understood about 75% of what he said, but it didn't matter. That point of familiarity and contact was just, well, fun. The things that bring us together can also be used to tear us apart, however. See, as much as we are attracted to and enjoy the familiar, we're scared of the different. This, I'm sure, is an evolutionary instinct. If I don't know what something is it may well not be in my best interest to go running towards it as fast as possible. There are those who know how to take advantage of those instincts. Think of the Ameroindian brave or medieval Scottish warrior painting his face before battle. Think of the elaborate headgear worn by Roman legionnaires and Norse warriors. Those accouterments are designed to look alien, exotic, and dangerous, to frighten the enemy. It's psychological warfare at its most basic. Religion offers its own version of this fear. Now, before I get any farther, it's important to understand where I come from on this. I tend to argue that religion evolved out of a need for expanded and ever more elaborate forms of social grooming in increasingly disconnected societies. So your status as a Jew or Zoroastrian or Christian or whatever on one level serves to place you as an insider and offers a short way of saying, "I'm okay, you don't have to worry about me." Ritual and sacrifice, then, acts as a bonding agent. It's why religion in the ancient world was divided in to two spheres: the public spectacle and the mystery cult. Public religion has a way of saying, "We're all here, we're all in this together." It's why there tend to be sacraments and singing or chanting. A shared experience binds while a chant or song basically hypnotizes everyone on a low level and brings them together. Mystery cults go for more of the hypnotism aspect. There's also probably more than a little shared thrill of the secret and the possibly subversive. You don't need to be religious to have a religious experience. Whenever I see the Saw Doctors play "The Green and Red of Mayo" and the crowd launches in to it I feel the exact same I did when I'd be at worship night at church. It's the public spectacle of a group of individuals sharing a single experience. Frats and secret societies have the same air about them that mystery cults do. It's secret, it's exciting. However, that religious inclusion also creates separation from other societies. For someone who is accustomed to one particular set of rituals, the rituals of a neighboring tribe are unfamiliar and alien. The old evolutionary tendency to fear the unknown kicks in and the uncomfortable observer immediately labels this strange other with that damning word: evil. It is, I believe, the misunderstanding (often, I suspect, willful) of the difference between Darwin's Theory of Evolution and the evolution of society that leads the anti-evolution crowd to their most annoying and insipid argument: that Darwin leads to Social Darwinism and is, therefore, wrong. Now, it's hard to argue against this reasoning, but not because it's a good argument. It's like saying my couch is bad because my couch is brown and vegetables turn brown when they go bad. There's simply no point of commonality. See, Darwin's theory, if broken down to its most basic level says that the organism best able to survive will out compete other organisms and pass down its genes. This passing down of genetic materials from the fittest is then the engine that drives diversity and evolution. It makes no statement on what should survive, just on what does survive. Social Darwinism, meanwhile, starts from a construct that says, "My group is best able to survive and is, therefore, justified in destroying all other groups." This is not a scientific statement, but a teleological one. It's also simply an updated, kinda-sorta science-y sounding way of saying the exact same thing that bigoted, insular groups have been saying forever: "I'm better than you." Two thousand years before Darwin there were Social Darwinists. They were just saying, "My god is better than yours and I can therefore kill you," instead of, "My genes are better than yours." The fact is, if we go by strict evolutionary theory I could take a breeding population of the fairest-skinned Scandinavians and a breeding population of the darkest skinned Sudanese, put the Scandinavians in the Sudan and the Sudanese in Scandinavia, then wait a few generations for nature to take its course. I don't know that they'd exactly switch appearances, but I do know that the descendants won't look too much like their ancestors. That's simply the way evolution works. It's about survival and competition within a specific environment. Humans complicate the plot significantly, however. We build houses, air conditioners, heaters, guns, medicine, and all those things that have allowed us to out-compete everything else and fight off nature itself. Evolutionary theory doesn't really take technology in to account. At least, it doesn't at its purest. I'm sure there are evolutionary biologists who are looking at the evolutionary impact of technology on humanity. Again, though, Social Darwinism isn't the purview of biology. It never was. It doesn't make any sense. The Social Darwinist doesn't care about Darwin, natural selection, or any of that. There's a reason that Social Darwinism tended to combine biological arguments with sociological and religious arguments. It was simply an attempt to use science to support an erroneous argument that was already well entrenched. In fact, I find it funny in an ironic sense that the same people who support Biblical Creationism are the ones who pull out the Social Darwinism card to "refute" Darwin. Much as Social Darwinists willfully misunderstood Darwin in an attempt to push a bigoted, ignorant position on the rest of the world, the Creationists willfully misunderstand both Darwin and Social Darwinism in an attempt to push a bigoted, ignorant position. They make a virtue of hatred, ignorance, and suspicion. Proper understanding of Darwin's tree leads to the exact opposite of Social Darwinism. Somewhere back in the mists of time I have the same ancestors as every other human on the planet. I have the same ancestor as every mammal. Farther back every mammal, reptile, and fish goes back to some other organism right back to the first cells to achieve life. So I have something in common with every creature, great and small. It's exactly the way I found I had something in common with a rock band from Limerick, Ireland. I enjoyed meeting them and I'm sure they were happy to have a friendly, supportive place in a big, alien nation. And then they played "I Useta Lover" and "N17" just for me. So consider this a last bit of social grooming. Should you be driving to work tomorrow and see a sign that says "Seneca from Limerick Ireland" with a date, go see them. Tell them I said, "Hi."