The Green Beard

Some years ago I read a collection of essays on ethology—the science of animal behavior—two things struck me and have stayed with me over time.

The first was the parallels between (other) animal behavior—and here we are focused on vertebrates, although insect behavior patterns are fascinating—and human behavior, and in particular behavioral economics.

In an ideal world, people would always make optimal decisions that provide them with the greatest benefit and satisfaction. In economics, rational choice theory states that when humans are presented with various options under the conditions of scarcity, they would choose the option that maximizes their individual satisfaction.

The definition above is provided by Investopedia, which goes on to explain that human behavior is sub-optimal—I guess this isn’t an ideal world.

Part of the difficulty with the definition is the concept of satisfaction.

The other part is the word ‘individual’, and that was the second point that struck me in my book.

What are the incentives for animals to cooperate? More broadly, and taking this into the human domain, to live in society?

The book defined the whole concept as altruism—an excellent word, by the way—and several eminent authors discussed the trade-offs required, and more importantly, the evolutionary edge a species might get from possessing an altruism gene.

Biologists have illustrated this with the ‘green beard‘ analogy—if you genetically have a green beard (I guess they wanted to stay away from the fracturing topic of ginger people) you will consider other greenies your kin and be more disposed to sacrifice your ‘individual satisfaction’ on their behalf; the flipside is that you will be harsher on non-greenies.

Overall, the genetic outcome of your beardie behavior would be an increase of green-bearded men, and perhaps women also, to the detriment of all other colors—at the edge, the greenies would kill non-greenies, a surefire way, if you excuse the pun, to make the world simultaneously bushier and greener.

There is no doubt that humans aggregate according to common interests, sometimes genuine, often perceived, but I personally don’t believe it is genetic; that doesn’t mean we don’t have a gene that promotes aggregation—a ‘belonging’ gene, if you like.

This brings up the concept of loners and misfits—it’s a heavy enough cross in the West, but in the East it’s a mortal sin—a society must move in one direction and its members must conform.

The consequences are often tragic: Hitler’s mass extermination of Jews—which must be restated as ‘Hitler and a vast number of other perpetrators’, just as the battle of Waterloo was not won by Wellington alone—the Belgians in the Congo, the Japanese in China, the Hutus in Rwanda, and many, many other examples.

For humans and other primates, as well as many other groups that live in herds, flocks, schools, or prides, the belong gene is not really open to question. Kin, kinfolk, kinsmen, or extended family—’Big wheels keep on turning, carry me home to see my kin‘— serves two purposes from an evolutionary point of view: kin compete, and that leads to a hierarchy in social animals; and kin cooperate, which increases ‘either direct or inclusive fitness.’

Kin are philopatric—a new word for me—and humans are an extreme example because of our elephantine memory, enshrined in books, paintings, photos, movies, and song.

We want to find our roots, visit the home of our ancestors, and far worse than that, we are often engaged in disputes or wars to regain those territories. We use guns and bombs to assert our philopatry—I suppose chefs do the same with filo pastry.

The classic tale of the scorpion and the frog—in the end, altruism is all about the prisoner’s dilemma.

What our behavioral model does not contain, either through nature or nurture, is a mechanism to make us thrive as an inclusive society and to eradicate internecine conflict.

Whether in Sudan—where a dispute between two generals has turned into a full-scale civil war and shows all signs of becoming a regional conflict that will suck in the great powers, the Ukraine war, or the forthcoming Taiwan war, the belong gene is destroying us.

Like the scorpion who drowns after stinging the frog that ferries him across the stream, we are helpless.

We belong.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is TIR-AF-CE-FT-2019.jpg

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones

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