In the midst of an analysis of the effects of bombing campaigns (recall, dear reader, that war is cruelty and you cannot refine it) Rick Shenkman makes a trenchant observation about the evolution of civilization.
Science helps provide us with an answer and it’s a disturbing one: empathy grows harder as distances -- whether of status, geography, or both -- increase.  Think of it as a matter of our Stone Age brains.  It’s hard because in many circumstances an empathic response is, in fact, an unnatural act.  It is not natural, it turns out, for us to feel empathy for those who look different and speak a different language.
Perhaps because the person whose appearance was different and whose grunts you couldn't understand was likely to kill you and take your stuff, and the more empathetic members of the tribe were the least likely to pass their genes along.
Because it is in our biological interest to feel empathy for people from our own tribe and family -- those, that is, in a position to either enhance our survival or perpetuate our genes -- we come equipped with mechanisms to help us distinguish our people from outsiders.  From the moment we’re born, we focus on those around us and bond with them.  A mother and child know each other through smell.  Brother and sister recognize each other’s familiar facial features.

When we hear someone speaking a foreign language, we instinctively discount their humanity.
Mr Shenkman finishes his column with suggestions about how people might be able to overcome their inherited instincts.  All well and good.

And yet it's useful to keep the concepts in mind when people make comparisons of market-based allocations of resources with those dictated by tradition or by kinship ties.  Sharing works well among people "from our own tribe and family."  Market interactions are a way by which self-interest elicits empathy, or at least, cooperation.

No comments: