Let’s Take Darwin Off Autopilot

Sea Lion & Twin Pups (photo by Zach Jacobs)

Sea Lion & Twin Pups (photo by Zach Jacobs)

The January 18-24, 2014 issue of the New Scientist has a provocative editorial, The urge to dehumanize others is itself all too human.

The editorial introduced the article, Talent for prejudice: Why humans dehumanize others [published in the hardcopy edition as “When the face doesn’t fit”].

Yes, apparently we all share a human tendency to consider people not in “our” group – those outsiders who look different, live different, or believe different – as not as good, not as smart, and certainly not as human as we are. When we talk about “them,” or confront “them,” we are not bashful in letting the world know how things really are!

And when we switch groups? We quickly rationalize that it’s the new group where “we really belong.” The old group loses its mystique and hold on us.

Certainly, we humans, like many other primates and other species, are territorial. But our need for in-group bonding doesn’t end with our need for homeland security. Social Darwinism still reigns, but isn’t just the rich who see themselves as chosen or most-worthy or morally-correct or superior.

This tendency is universal. It’s in all of us, in our DNA.

Its utility covers a lot of bases. (Keep these thoughts in the back of your mind when you peruse our daily news, whenever you’re reading about politics, wars, gay rights, religion, stand-your-ground, immigration, the Tea Party, and just about everything else. Our penchant to value ourselves and our in-group as superior, as morally correct, as “chosen” – as really right in whatever we decide – will soon become starkly evident.)

During prehistoric times, as we evolved, family and in-group bonding solidified through abusive dehumanization and other forms of toe-to-toe confrontation against competitive “outsiders” must have been so useful – in fact so necessary – for survival that even today, thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of years later, we are not easily able to escape its stranglehold on our mind’s eye.

Dehumanization may be, as the New Scientist editor suggests, “uniquely human,” but are there similar survival strategies elsewhere in Nature? I reflected on lessons from my recent trips to the Galapagos, with our grandson Zach, and to Botswana, with a photography group.

Nazca Booby

Nazca Booby with her Heir and Spare

Mother Nature can be very tough on her offspring.

Consider the young sea lion pups in the photo above, photographed by our grandson Zach on San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos, as our naturalist guide gave us a lesson in Darwinian evolution. These pups are twins, rare among sea lions. Their body language tells their stories. One is mom’s favorite, the other clearly isn’t. Life among the sea lions is so harsh that sea lion mothers can’t raise two pups to maturity. So she chooses. And that means rejection of one of her offspring. Thus, only one of the pups will survive. (Our “Extra Credit” Galapagos video includes painful footage of the rejection.) What could be more “dehumanizing” than outright parental rejection?

Or consider another Galapagos native, the Nazca Booby, pictured here. The Nazca Booby lays two eggs, each a few days apart. But the Booby raises only one chick. If the first egg hatches, the second chick is pushed out of the nest by its “older” sibling – Nature’s Abel and Cain syndrome in action; but if the first egg doesn’t hatch, the second chick is raised. The process is known as the “Heir and the Spare.” The “Spare” becomes the “Heir” if the first egg doesn’t hatch.

Would not being pushed out of the nest by one’s sibling, to starve or become food for mockingbirds or other species be terrifying and equivalent to “dehumanizing”?

Evolutionary tools frequently twist and turn, shape and mold, in ways other than sweet and gentle.

So, maybe, our evolutionary penchant to dehumanize others to give ourselves and our in-group a competitive advantage useful for survival has roots even further back in time than our small-tribe, hunter-gatherer days.

Baboon Grooming

Baboon Grooming

But there are another series of lessons from Mother Nature. Let’s cross the Atlantic Ocean to Botswana. Late one afternoon last fall, we stopped our safari vehicle to photo baboons settling down for the evening. The adults were intent on grooming each other. Definitely a “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” goings on.

Now, it’s easy for us to recognize the value of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” as a useful human policy for politics or career-building or running a business. But its roots are deeper. This sort of mutuality and cooperation isn’t exclusive with us humans and doesn’t come from purely rational thought.

As Elvis Presley sang it in his 1960’s hit, Scratch My Back: “It’s all part of nature’s laws.”

If so, “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” cooperation must increase survival opportunities. And it does. Scientifically, the kinds of cooperative interactions that increase survival opportunities are called “mutualistic interactions.”

Michael Tomasello, a Floridian who is now co-director of the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany has written extensively about collaboration and cooperation among human groups and among primate groups, particularly among our biological cousins, the chimpanzees. His focus is upon the influence of nature and nurture on collaborative and cooperative development within us and within the other primates. His 2009 work, Why We Cooperate, is well worth the read, as is his 2014 work, A Natural History of Human Thinking. The Science Network includes a 2011 34-minute Tomasello interview about his work.

Tomasello’s research indicates “preverbal” children – children under 24 months in age – have a natural inclination to be cooperative – at an age far too young for their cooperation to be learned behavior. Their behavior differs from the “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” in that their early cooperative behavior comes naturally, without any expectation of rewards or reciprocity. As children grow and mature their reflexive offering of help without an expectation of something in return is shaped by culture and the growing significance of their being members of their in-group. From that moment on nurture shapes nature. Norms of cooperation and norms of group conformity conflict if their group discourages continued cooperative and collaborative behavior.

Tomasello‘s summary is unsettling:

“Humans putting their heads together in collaborative activities are the originators of culture. How and why this arose is unknown, but one speculation is that in the process of foraging for food [hunting and gathering] humans were forced to become cooperators in ways other primates were not. … Humans are not cooperating angels, but generally, heinous deeds are not done within the close group. … The best way to motivate people to collaborate and to think like a group is to identify an enemy and charge that “they” threaten “us.” The remarkable human capacity for cooperation seems to have evolved mainly for interactions within the local group. Such group-mindedness is, perhaps ironically, a major cause of strife and suffering in the world today.”

In a sense, Nature has created within us an evolutionary warring holocaust between our ancient “in-group-superiority genes” that still drive us subconsciously but were designed to give our small hunter-gatherer group a competitive edge as it struggled to survive and our more recent “social genes” that encourage us to be more global, and less biased, cooperators and collaborators, so necessary for today’s more global culture.

In closing his Science Network interview, Tomasello advocates that we must overcome our “small group psychology” and think of humanity as one big group.

In Pacific Standard’s 2012 Evolution of Fairness series, authors Honick and Orians write for their concluding chapter:

“Nevertheless, evolutionary psychologists maintain that our fundamental perceptual, emotional and behavioral traits are largely unchanged from our hunting and gathering days. We fear now what we feared then, and seek the same basic satisfactions. But our world today is considerably changed from the world where these traits evolved, and as a result, our behaviors aren’t always appropriate to our current situations.”

What that means is that we need to think seriously about bringing our “in-group-superiority genes” in tow. That is not easy. The controlling power of our in-group-superiority-genes is exacerbated and rationalized by our clever human ability to provide what appear to be very reasoned decisions in support of what are very fundamental subconscious and instinctive decisions. As E. O. Wilson puts it in Consilience,

“The rational mind does not float above the irrational; it cannot free itself to engage in pure reason.”

So what can we do about it?

Contrary to our tendency to rationalize the wisdom of our subconscious instinctive “in-group-superiority” decisions, moral psychologist Joshua Greene advises:

“We need to figure out when to put our sense of right and wrong in manual mode.”

This means we need to switch our conduct and thoughts from “intuitive morality” to more considered responses. Greene concludes:

“When it’s a matter of Me versus Us, my interests versus those of others, our instincts do pretty well. They don’t do as well when it’s Us versus Them, my group’s interests and values versus another group’s. Our moral intuitions didn’t evolve to solve that problem in an even-handed way. When groups disagree about the right thing to do, we need to slow down and shift into manual mode.”

Can we take the Darwin within us — our intuitive, decision-making, in-group, morality subconscious genes — off autopilot?

Will we?

Our future may depend upon us doing that.



National Academy of SciencesEvolutionary Resources: an excellent series of books that can be purchased or downloaded as free PDF versions and various video lectures, including: Think Evolutionarily: Evolution Education Across the Life Sciences: Summary of a Convocation; Science, Evolution and Creationism; Understanding Climate’s Influence on Evolution; In the Light of Evolution: Cooperation; and most recently, In the Light of Evolution: Human Mental Machinery.

New Scientist: Human Evolution

New Scientist: Life’s Purpose: Can Animals Guide Their Own Evolution?

New Scientist: Modern moral responses need a manual mode.

Pacific Standard: Are We Still Evolving?

Pacific Standard: The Evolution of Fairness

Pew Research: American Beliefs in Evolution concluding one-third of Americans do not believe in evolution.

Slate: Social Darwinism Isn’t Dead

Top Ten: Animals Save Humans

Elvis Presley: Scratch My Back!

ARVE Error: id and provider shortcodes attributes are mandatory for old shortcodes. It is recommended to switch to new shortcodes that need only url

35 Minute Video: The Galapagos

ARVE Error: id and provider shortcodes attributes are mandatory for old shortcodes. It is recommended to switch to new shortcodes that need only url

Leave a Reply

4 Comments on "Let’s Take Darwin Off Autopilot"

Notify of

This is excellent!! I love the concept of “intuitive morality.” We see ample examples of that in our country today, as well as throughout the world – and it’s sad to realize that probably the only thing that would bind all humanity on earth together as an “us” would be the arrival of an extraterrestrial “them.”

The pictures from the Galapagos are terrific, too!!

Have any objections about me submitting this on my twitter?

Another winner article, Dick. Can’t wait to hear about your trip.

This subject is close to my heart – it’s what I spend my days railing against. We humans are terribly judgmental when it comes to others not in our “group, our tribe.” It all comes down to the human ego, doesn’t it? If there is a flaw in being human it is our egos.

Will we ever learn to overcome it?