A Somali Proverb
I recently came across an old Somali proverb that dripped with both ruthlessness and wisdom. It describes human behavior in stressful times, as during a famine.
“Me and my clan against the world.
Me and my family against my clan.
Me and my brother against my family.
Me against my brother.”
It is not surprising that in a competitive, overpopulated world with inadequate resources, these sentiments are universal. The commonality of this savage wisdom leads me to suspect that it is more than a cultural manifestation. Most probably it is a genetic one common to all mankind.
Another African proverb confirms the first:
“When times are good the world is my family and I will share my abundance with it.
When times are hard I will share only with my immediate family.
When times are terrible, I will not share.”
It’s discomforting for us to think that there is any truth to these proverbs. Those of us with full bellies and large screen TVs will shrug them off as products of uncivilized minds.
Would we never act in such a manner? Would our noble spirit, our sacred morality, and loving charity save us from that kind of survival behavior? Unfortunately, lofty, self-righteous convictions flourish like delicate flowers in a well cared for garden. Without sun, rain, and dedicated care, the garden degrades in every respect, similar to drought and famine ridden African villages. The beautiful garden becomes a patch of weeds competing with each other for nutrition and water.
Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, offers a likely theory why humans are not charitable during hard times. Simply put, the selfish gene theory states that the essence of evolution is the survival and propagation of one’s genes. In the final analysis, whatever it takes for them to survive will occur. Essentially, genes control the animal, and not the other way round. If a hungry fledgling bird can dominate its nest mates and get a larger share of food, it will at the expense of the others. Hungry Piglets do not wait in line for their fair share of mom’s milk. They dive in and compete against their siblings for as much as they can get. The runts of a litter do not survive hard times. Hungry animals do not share when food is scarce.
That was the bad news; the good news is that there are exceptions to the “dog eat dog world.” On occasion, religious and secular altruism seem to defy these basic instincts. Humans have been known to share their last crust of bread and their last ounce of water with a complete stranger. It is a demonstration that raw emotions and survival instincts can be short-circuited in the mysterious human mind. Religion plays its role in controlling human behavior with bribes, threats, and emotion. They often work but sometimes against the common good. Secular Humanism plays out its role with reason, and science usually for the common good.
Altruism has surfaced in every culture regardless of race, religion or political system. It originated in our genes due to the same evolutionary pressures that made us savage, as described by the Somali proverb. Altruistic and savage behaviors are not gifts or curses from a supernatural deity. They are the fruits of evolution. Definitive answers to looming overpopulation lie in science, not in faith.
So, why do we too often stand by and watch genocide? Why do some of us participate in it? We can blame our selfish genes as the underlying cause, but as conscious humans, we must accept the reality that we can stop genocide and human suffering. We have that power, we have the wisdom and we understand the brain better than in the past. In the future, population growth and dwindling resources will continue to challenge our love of short-term goals and pulpit morality. Survival comes first; morality will be side-lined, manipulated, and redefined to meet the greater need. The Catholic Church will have to give up its resistance to birth control. Religions and political parties must talk and compromise with each other without pre conditions. Dogma must be discarded.
Yes, there is a solution? When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, humans cannot ignore basic survival needs. Our only answer is analogous to preventative medicine. Wise planning, and population control is our only hope. It is the only way we can avoid disaster. We cannot wait any longer. We must conserve our environment now; we must control population growth; we must help the needy; we must anticipate the looming water and food shortages caused by climate change; we must ignore the idiots who proclaim, “Trust in God and all is well.” Maintaining the unfair status quo between the wealthy and the poor is suicide. Religionists proclaim high and mighty ethical standards about charity but they vote against equality every chance they get. A presidential candidate recently said the less fortunate should not expect to get “free stuff” and if elected he would not give it to them. I am puzzeled how a proclaimed Christian or Mormon could vote for such a person. Altruism and charity should be the foundation of religiosity and all political platforms.
As a long time atheist all this seems obvious to me. Why can’t those who call themselves religious see this obvious truth? The answer is: It is easier to follow leaders who claim they talk to God than to trust those who swear by reason and science.