Friday, May 27, 2022

Altruism: Charity begins at home


“Natural selection is conventionally assumed to favor the strong and selfish who maximize their own utility function.  But human societies (hopefully) are organized on altruistic, cooperative interactions.  -- Peter Erdi, Ranking: The unwritten rules of the social game we all play (2020)


The cooperation of naturally selfish people is a form of indirect reciprocity, the process of banking social credits in an investment fund that will eventually build to pay off for favors paid to others in present.  This is a lifetime campaign of building a reputation for helpfulness, helping to build a reputation for altruism that will raise the chances of receiving help for oneself.  Whether this help comes from those you help directly, or from their relations, friends, and allies, doesn’t matter.  “Reputation helps trust to emerge among people” (Erdi, p. 163).  Acts of backing other people in their efforts are often public, not isolated but visible to the wider group, either as gossip, news, or legend. 

Perhaps the most famous act in the Western civilization is the crucifixion of Christ, with the enormous payoff of saving every soul that ever existed—with the proviso of having to acknowledge this sacrifice in order to benefit from it. At the other end of the scale is the mother-child dyad (the core concept of the cult worship of Mary).  This form of altruism drives our history generation by generation; life without it would not be possible. The largest unpaid labor pool in the world is that of child and home caretaking ($10.9 trillion worldwide, minimum wage, Oxfam estimate 2018).  Add to this the assessment of the emotional labor involved—the management of social relations in family groups nearly always performed largely by women and more difficult to price on the market.

We are constantly operating across the lines of the personal and private--think of the way language works for us—the basis of culture, our shared “reality by common consent.”  Altruism, investing in others in the long-term for mutual benefit, but at a loss in the present—is seen as uniquely human beyond the parent-child instinct, and one of our finest impulses.  Fossil remains focus scientists on the individual, but don’t reveal the story of our interactive character.  Our social history is based on the robust ability evolved to relate to each other’s needs in order to build the social structures that make us human in the same way walking upright does.  Part of this social structure is hierarchy; the ranking system that drives the way we are regarded and how that regard drives our opportunities and decision making.  Currently, in a move to install diversity policies in the workplace and professional groups, “allyship” has become a way for senior workers to share the value of their own reputations by promoting diversity candidates for hiring and moving up in the organization.

This is the realm of reputation.  Politicians, governments, countries, nonprofits, academics, scientists openly compete against each other for reputation points; it is the basis of brand identity as tied to quality and values.  It also serves to promote altruistic behavior, or at least its appearance.   

Researcher Jane Goodall was first to observe chimpanzees in the wild for as long or in as much detail to discover that her subjects were tool-users, that they were not vegetarians but omnivores, and that they cultivated learned practices like cracking nuts with stones and twig-probing for insects, even making stone tools.  And that they hunt, as an organized campaign, feasting on other animals, including other primates. 

These primate behaviors seem to verge on culture as learned behavior from individual to individual.  In the case of organized hunting, for humans, this practice began to differentiate by gender, age, and ability, as forays away from home and children began to reinforce the roles of hunter-away and caregiver/nurturer-at-home.  The two roles are complementary, and of course, therefore different and contrasting if not conflicting.  Male and female roles each have aspects that cost the individual energy and freedom.  But group survival and gains in well-being (health and longevity) benefit.  This is an example of using what makes us different as a type of capital that only certain social roles are able to access and apply.  Worth, competence, and influence—in one’s special role--are forms of capital to be allocated to various campaigns in which our group specialization can mobilize a move up the ladder of reputation.  We do not need to be martyrs to do this, but this is the symbol that comes to mind for extreme cases of social sacrifice. 

Behavior aimed at helping others seemingly disadvantages the altruist while advantaging the recipient.  But altruism can also be considered a form of long-term alliance we knowingly invest in, knowing the rewards take time to develop or be reciprocated.  Prolonged childhood caregiving is required to raise babies to adult social maturity, at age 18, compared to gorillas at age 10 and monkeys at 8.   This long primate socialization time is the outcome of just how much needs to be learned across a great many situations, and the volume of applied knowledge is largest in humans.

Apart from occasional acts of assistance to strangers and periodic aid to friends, intensive altruism is directed primarily at relatives, which is the reason kinship has always been so critical first, to determine, and then to nurture.  According to evolutionary biologist William Hamilton, the social evolutionary benefits of altruism outweigh the costs to individuals, increasing the fitness of their own genes by supporting the welfare of close relatives, and forming the “selfish” genetic base of altruism.  The math works like this: “[By genotype] we expect to find that no one is prepared to sacrifice his life for any single person, but that everyone will sacrifice it when he can thereby save more than 2 brothers, or 4 half-brothers, or 8 first cousins.”

Especially for baboons, macaques, and chimps (and humans), who live in “natal” groups, the group they were born into.  Defense and aggression for all these species form around the idea of cooperative defense of territory, the home base and the close relatives who make up our core community.  (Note how often the home base for seniors gets determined simply by where grandchildren live.  It is the leading reason for grandparents’ relocating.)  Now long-term care of parents and other relatives is raising the cost and duration of altruism beyond historical limits—another legion of unpaid caregivers.

Certain groups are so socially attuned and cohesive, for example Japanese, that the US government deemed this cohesion a threat to national security during the Second World War, leading to detention Executive Order 9066 in 1942.  Their accusers pronounced this ethnic minority one of “extraordinary cooperation and solidarity.”  Social identity rules, which include altruistic value promotion, operate to reduce conflict as well as uncertainty within the group.  But they also work to define the group against every other, which is the platform of identity politics based on values, lifestyle, and their partisan battles.  

Sunday, May 1, 2022

Topophilia: Love of Place

“Our genius is topophilia.” – M. R. O’Connor, Wayfinding

We are creatures naturally attuned to places.  From megacities to wilderness, forests to deserts, these frame our emotions and memories as nothing else can.  Our autobiographies—both body and brain—and our common human history have historically been shaped by the interface between us and the many environments we have made our home from the 37 billion acres of the earth’s surface (water makes up 90 billion more).  A third of this acreage is desert, a quarter is mountains, with only 1% urban—where half of us have now migrated to live.  In addition, tourism is a mainstay economy of much of the world’s states.

The past

“At the heart of successful human navigation is a capacity to record the past, attend to the present, and imagine the future—a goal or place that we would like to reach.”  In her reflections on our collective ability to move from one place to any other, in Wayfinding: The science and mystery of how humans navigate the world, M. R. O’Connor has explored difficult and remote territory herself: the Arctic, Australia, and Oceania.  Her mandate was to observe the way in which traditional cultures have adapted to the challenges of extreme weather and trackless terrain through inherited traditions of living with the land.   

The present

Both brain (focused on the hippocampus) and body have amazing coping mechanisms for doing this.  Including systems that take over our age-old perception and attention—beyond the intuitive skills of animals—that got us from one location to another and back for millions of years without maps or compasses.  The GPS revolution that has taken over the world so quickly has altered forever the way we think about travel and make our way around the world. For one thing, in the name of efficiency GPS orientation has limited the discovery and insight inherent in simply wandering and exploring for their own sake.  O’Connor’s exploration into the traditions of the pretechnological age see how they influence “looking at the world and thinking about space, time, memory, and travel.” 

The human ability to change environments instantly through jet travel or over thousands of years on our mass migration out of Africa is the background to our love of places, or topophilia, the term of the Chinese-American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan.  I had the fortune of studying with him for a semester at the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii years ago.  Tuan had a keen curiosity about the human/place relationship, including mental maps, memory built up as episodic journey narratives, and nostalgia for times welded to places.  These connections are the basis for re-creations in the hyperreality of theme parks.  The country’s most famous Main Street is a setting in the Magic Kingdom(s).  In the book of the same name, Tuan explains his concept: 

As a geographer, I have always been curious about how people live in different parts of the world.  But unlike many of my peer, the key words for me are not only “survival” and “adaptation,” which suggest a rather grim and puritanical attitude to life.  People everywhere, I believe, also aspire toward contentment and joy.  Environment, for them, is not just a resource base to be used or natural forces to adapt to, but also sources of assurance and pleasure, objects of profound attachment and love.  (1990 ed., xii)

“Navigating becomes a way of knowing, familiarity, and fondness.  It is how you can fall in love with a mountain or a forest.  Wayfinding is how we accumulate treasure maps of exquisite memories.”  (O’Connor). 

Observing closely and thinking deeply about our many environments, and the ways we navigate them, is a key to self-knowledge, identity, and appreciation of how we interact with the spaces and places that shape us and our individual identity.  (Winston Churchill noted that we shape our buildings, then they shape us.)  In my own South Philadelphia neighborhood, long called the Italian Market, is changing in its look, feel, and population by the month.  It is a different place from the one I moved to in the early 1990s. 

The nature of my attachment to this place—my rootedness—is subject to this transformation in economics, taste, generations, and class mobility—the factors that define where we live and why we live there.  As pricing, neighbors, politics, schools, and style move far enough away from their origins, moving to another place becomes a real option.  “Being at home” in the world connotes comfort, safety, a hopeful future, and a real love of place—or else where our home is must change.  The nation is seeing sizeable shifts in mobility coming out of the Covid experience. Shifts in circumstance, even technology, evoke changes in the way we see our values reflected in our home base, the core connection to place.