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As per the thinking of Peter Kropotkin over 100 years ago, as well as that of contemporary integral theorists today, UC-Berkley gives us  this:

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are challenging long-held beliefs that human beings are wired to be selfish. In a wide range of studies, social scientists are amassing a growing body of evidence to show we are evolving to become more compassionate and collaborative in our quest to survive and thrive.

In contrast to “every man for himself” interpretations of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Dacher Keltner, a UC Berkeley psychologist and author of “Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life,” and his fellow social scientists are building the case that humans are successful as a species precisely because of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits.

They call it “survival of the kindest.”

“Because of our very vulnerable offspring, the fundamental task for human survival and gene replication is to take care of others,” said Keltner, co-director of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. “Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate. As Darwin long ago surmised, sympathy is our strongest instinct.”


In the most recent issue of Science, biologist Samuel Bowles of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico offers research that suggests not only what many integral thinkers already understand in a broader sense, but indeed what set Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin apart from the crowd way back in the Nineteenth Century:  that social conditions play a role in our individual evolution and may be responsible, over time, for developments in consciousness such as the advent of human altruism.  From the UK Independent:

Samuel Bowles, of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, said: “Warfare was sufficiently common and lethal among our ancestors to favour the evolution of what I call parochial altruism, a predisposition to be co-operative towards group members and hostile towards outsiders.

“Biologists and economists have doubted that a genetic predisposition to behave altruistically – to help others at a cost to oneself – could evolve, excepting the help extended to close genetic relatives.”

In his study, published in the journal Science, Dr Bowles takes on the proponents of the selfish-gene theory of human evolution by suggesting that natural selection worked on groups of people co-operating together, rather than just individuals.


Ruth Mace, an anthropologist at University College London, said Dr Bowles’ study went against the accepted idea of the selfish-gene theory which long ago rejected the proposal that natural selection worked at the level of the group rather than the individual.

“Recent literature on social evolution has reopened the debate, arguing that in some circumstances group selection might be important, especially in a cultural species like humans,” she said.

What was that?  Hard-wired to cooperate?  Mark that as a point for socialism and real (left) libertarianism and one difficult blow for capitalism.  

People aren’t greedy by nature folks- we’re greedy because of want and social dis-order.  The absurd notion of a social species which by nature is anti-social (individually greedy to the detriment of the larger group) is poppy-cock.  And now science is making its way around to reiterating what Peter Kropotkin already observed and wrote about around 150 years ago.

I just recently read that on May 11, 2009 Leonard Shlain died of brain cancer.  Shlain was an author, surgeon, inventor, artist, student and teacher.  His writings and lectures covered everything from anthropology to evolution to linguistics, and the man is credited with pioneering surgical techniques, designing houses, and inventing medical tools, as well as being a best selling author.  By every account Shlain was a real renaissance man, which is the kind of person that I admire and strive to emulate every moment of the day.

On several occasions I’ve thought of writing a review of his most popular book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, but have never gotten around to it.  In it Shlain takes an anthropological- albeit a somewhat casual one (meaning only that his assumptions, methods and conclusions aren’t 100% lock-step with what one would expect from a classically trained or traditional person in the field)- look at historical ties between language, dominate religious and spiritual currents, and the more subtle cultural meme’s of dualistically-oriented paradigms (i.e., ‘masculine’ versus ‘feminine’).  Though there’s a lot of really good stuff packed into the book, Shlain’s overall thesis essentially boils down to something like “kinship, agrarian, non-hierarchal, polytheistic cultures which centered around women (as heads of family as well as of state/society/politics) existed for thousands of years and were the norm rather than exception in the cradle of civilization (essentially what we now know as the Middle East and Northern Africa)….” Ok, yes, I’m with you so far.  “… and at pretty much the exact moment that written word arrives in each of the distinct cultures and societies of the region (as well as elsewhere throughout the world) we also see a rapid and drastic shift into monotheism, commercially-oriented/urbanized social and economic life, as well as home and social (and economic and political) life centered around men and at the (increasingly and continually for about 5,000 years) expense of woman….” Sure, a fair and accurate enough generalization.  “… and so the written word is actually the cause of monotheism and masculine-oriented culture and political strata….” Whoa! what?  “… and isn’t a femininely dominated culture better than a masculine-oriented one?”  Ok, get a grip now.

As I said, I really like the book, think it is well written, well documented, generally fair and good, but that Shain’s conclusions from the evidence are off-base.  The subtle and gross causal elements of human evolution simply cannot be reduced to something so simplistic; learning to read and write did not transform human society from Goddess-worshiping polytheists to God-worshiping monotheists.  That these events happened at the same time in the same places is certainly an interesting note about human consciousness evolution; but says nothing about causation.

Towards the end of the book Shlain makes a very interesting observation though: in lock-step with what is widely seen as the beginning of the withering away of the masculine paradigm during the last half of the Twentieth Century and continuing today, Shlain notes the advent of television as a stark and drastic re-emergence of non-linear, image-based (and thus femininely rather than masculinely oriented) communication.  Whereas every aspect of reading and writing reinforces the left, linear, rationalistic and “masculine” development of our brains, image-based communication (as well as audio communication such as radio and the transmission of sound through recordings) rely heavily on the right, non-linear, emotive and “feminine” aspects of human consciousness.  So for all you hippies out there: TV actually reinforces and helps bring about your pagan Goddess-worshiping poly-everything culture, it doesn’t make you a mindless slave to the man!

Regardless of any of this though, Shlain was a very intelligent person who followed his passions and curiosities- two traits that we would all do well to emulate.  Here’s to life lived at it’s fullest- cheers.

I recently popped over to Five Before Chaos to find that JD Ryan had posted a piece about one of his favorite topics: science’s claims over religion.  This particular post (In Which PZ Sheaths His Sword) is based on one by PZ Myers over at the very good Pharyngula; in that piece PZ takes a look at an article written by Roger Ebert about Darwin.  The articles (Ryan’s and Myers’ and Ebert’s) are generally pretty good- except where both JD and PZ take issue with one point of Ebert’s: the view that “science has no opinion of religion.  It cannot.”  I’ll try to be clear about my disagreement, though it may seem muddy because I entirely and wholly agree with the rejection of the statement “science has no opinion of religion.  It cannot.”  In laying out their arguments against this statement (in JD’s article, by way of quoting PZ) some classic mistakes of the scientific/rational community are committed and this is where I take issue.  And you, my friends, are in luck, because the always colorful JD Ryan has agreed to engage with me in a little blog-based debate over this topic; what follows will serve as my first reaction to JD’s stance.  I don’t imagine I’ll be able to persuade JD to fundamentally change his opinion (but hey, ya never know) nor- do I hope- he expects to persuade me to his (but hey, ya never know), but both of us are intelligent, thoughtful people and intelligent, thoughtful people engaging in debate is fun, and quite useful, and one of my favorite pastimes.  Be sure to head over to FBC to look for his reply to me in the near future.  And feel free to chime in with your own comments.

To begin with, as I said, I agree wholeheartedly that science does have an opinion of religion, but in making his arguments JD in the process de-values (or misinterprets) important aspects of our human experience while simultaneously putting science in the unfair position of hoping to be more than it is (a mistake by no means confined t JD or PZ).  As for the claim itself- science can, does, and should have opinions regarding religion.  Religion, almost universally, functions partially as a tool which seeks to explain phenomena which we see and experience in the world.  To the degree that it does so, it is very often proven (if not always) wrong in the end.  Religious explanations about what the sun and the stars and the moon are, what they do, how they got there, the earth’s place in the universe (to name just a few examples) were all well and good for easing the fears of the unknown held by people over the previous several thousands of years; the only problem of course for religion is that science came along and proved those explanations blatantly wrong.  So in this regard, in this function of religion, science does indeed have an opinion and very well should, lest our species were to live in-perpetuity in a pre-rational state void of evolving consciousness.

Science, it turns out, is singularly well-suited for explaining the physical phenomena of our universe.  The question then becomes, is our universe anything more than physical phenomena? Is it possible for us to answer this question in the affirmative without violating scientific principles or turning our backs on rational thought? Read the rest of this entry »