Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Quoth the Raven, "Over Here!'

Darwin saw that natural selection depended on survival of the fittest and, coming from a culture that valued competition, assumed such survival would depend on the selfishness of the individual. which is not a critique of Darwin or of his theory; that assumption was warped badly by his "followers" and led directly to the completely incorrect "Social Darwinism." It shows, rather, that the assumptions we begin with often direct us toward the evidence that supports that assumption. Known shortly after Darwin's theories became widespread, but little appreciated again because of the culture of competition, was the reality that some species depend, not on competition, but cooperation. Which brings us to the ravens.

Scientists have noted that, in the wild, ravens act altruistically, not selfishly. Carrion eaters, they have to survive in the winter when food is scarce. When a raven spots food, the bird does not, as might be expected, glut himself, or haul the food away for safekeeping. Instead, the bird will circle the food, then fly away. As long as a few days later, the bird returns with other ravens, and they all eat their fill. Thus does both the species, and the individual, survive.

Cooperation, not competition, insures their survival. The species persists, but so does the individual. Knowing other ravens will feed them in turn, each raven relies on the others for its survival, and in turn supports the group. It's a mutually sustaining practice, and one antithetical to the usual view of "survival of the fittest." "Fittest," of course, is a subtler and more complex concept than "victor" who gets all the "spoils."

"Selfish gene" theory, which is a bete noir of your humble correspondent, suffers from the same flawed assumption. The selfish gene might be pressed into conformity with this cooperative, v. competitive, reality of nature. But the real question is: is competition our only measure of existence? Is it not, rather, in cooperation that we thrive, in society and community that we grow and prosper? Aristotle's "original" ethics was about how to get along in a community, about doing what was expected and what made others prosper, in a society. "Morality" has only recently taken on the aspect of an indivdual pursuit, of something done for one's own reasons, adhered to for one's own benefit. "Morality" as an imposition by a third party is not something to be desired, but whether it ever served that purpose is unclear, conditioned as we are now by the Romantic revolution to see all things in terms of our unique and ineffable and highly individual "selfs." But are we so unique and individual after all? Are we so independent and aloof and apart from each other? Is the "public" and the "private" so easily divided into convenient categories: "politics" and "policy" in the former, "religion" and "morality" relegated only to the latter?

Are we really individuals who come together as necessary to promote the common good, but who also have a "good" that is personal and private, and not to be invaded by or overlap with the "public" sphere? Are the lines that sharp and clear and clean and easy? Is the lesson of the raven that it's fine for them, but we have more pressing issues? Or is it that cooperation runs deeper than just agreeing to a minimum standard of conduct, a minimum public order? Romanticism was a reaction to radical and fundamental changes in human society, changes that threatened to (and often did) sublimate human beings below machines. But the defiance of the individual against even society that fueled that revolution, has now become a tired reflex by which we insist our uniqueness is constantly under challenge. But are we that unique, as individuals or as a species? What are the limits of our uniqueness, what the virtues...and what the vices?

Do we learn more from the crows than that cooperation is not solely a human value? And that the birds have more in common, know more about trust, than perhaps we do?

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