Is a viral meme thwarting social progress?
To me Goldstine said, “Kid, don’t listen to him. You live in America. It’s the greatest country in the world and it’s the greatest system in the world. …. He tells you capitalism is a dog-eat-dog system. What is life if not a dog-eat-dog system? This is a system that is in tune with life. And because it is, it works. Look, everything the Communists say about capitalism is true, and everything the capitalists say about Communism is true. The difference is, our system works because it’s based on the truth about people’s selfishness, and theirs doesn’t because it’s based on a fairy tale about people’s brotherhood. …. We know what our brother is, don’t we? He’s a shit. And we know what our friend is, don’t we? He’s a semi-shit. And we are semi-shits. So how can it be wonderful? Not even cynicism, not even skepticism, just ordinary powers of human observation tell us that is not possible.” —Philip Roth, from I Married a Communist
In 2011, the political dialogue became about rampant inequality, framed by the Occupy movement as a struggle between the 99% and the 1%.
If only it were that simple. Even in an imperfect democracy, a genuine class struggle between 1% and 99% should be a foregone conclusion. Yet the status quo persists, because large numbers of the 99% don’t see anything wrong with it. Those who do are frustrated to watch, in election after election, too many people voting against their own economic interests.
Part of the reason may be the Steinbeck effect. As John Steinbeck observed about the difficulty of organizing for change in the Dirty Thirties, “I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.” [Steinbeck, 1966] This attitude was evident in a letter to the editor beginning, “I do not deride the 1 per cent; I am motivated to join their ranks.” [Globe and Mail, 2011]
But wishful thinking is not the whole story. Plenty of lifetime members of the 99% have no aspiration to join the more exclusive club. They include most of the middle class who voice no objection to their now-endangered status. There is a deeper problem: they have swallowed an idea.
I call this idea “the dark doctrine of the political right.” It is “dark” in two senses: as in “the dark side,” obviously, but also as in “dark matter.” Dark matter neither glows nor reflects light, and is therefore invisible. From its gravitational effects, it is believed to constitute 83% of the matter in the universe. Some ideas are like that too: invisible, because assumed without any conscious weighing of evidence, yet exerting a gravitational pull on behaviour.
The Dark Doctrine is the idea that all human motivation is fundamentally selfish—that we act out of self-interest and nothing else. Although some people may appear to value moral principles, or to be moved by sympathy for others, they only do so because ‘it makes them feel good.’ At bottom, we’re all driven by the desire to feel good. Selfishness drives all.
How the Dark Doctrine Works
The quote with which I opened this piece illustrates the Dark Doctrine’s support for laissez-faire capitalism—the more laissez the better. Don’t dismiss it as irrelevant because it is an anti-Communist rant from a novel set in the 1950’s. It’s right up to date if you substitute “liberal” for “Communist” and put it in the mouth of a Tea Partier or diehard neocon like Conrad Black, who wrote from his jail cell, “The Occupiers must recognize, as the Tea Party does, that capitalism is the only system that works, as it is the only one that conforms to the almost universal human desire for individual gain.” [Hamilton, 2011] If, fundamentally, everyone is in it for himself, there is no point in trying to reduce inequality by social engineering. Such a project is not “in tune with life” and will fail as certainly as King Canute’s command to stop the tide coming in. On the Dark Doctrine model of human motivation, your only hope of reducing your inequality is to help yourself to more.
The Dark Doctrine belongs to a class of ideas called “reductionist.” Daniel Dennett describes reductionism as “somebody claiming that one science ‘reduces’ to another: that chemistry reduces to physics, that biology reduces to chemistry, that the social sciences reduce to biology.” A benign form of reductionism seeks:
…to unify chemistry and physics, biology and chemistry, and, yes, even the social sciences and biology. After all, societies are composed of human beings, who, as mammals, must fall under the principles of biology that cover all mammals. Mammals, in turn, are composed of molecules, which must obey the laws of chemistry, which in turn must answer to the regularities of the underlying physics. [Dennett, 1995, p 81]
But, says Dennett, there are reductionists and there are “greedy reductionists,” who “want to abandon the principles, theories, vocabulary, laws of the higher-level sciences, in favour of the lower-level terms.” They “underestimate the complexities, trying to skip whole layers of levels of theory in their rush to fasten everything securely and neatly to the foundation.” [Dennett, 1995, p 82] Skinnerian behaviourism, which tried to explain all acquired behaviour by the model of a pigeon pecking grain, is a now-discredited example of greedy reductionism. Dennett warns against a zeal for reductionism that blurs or denies important real distinctions in the world.
Case Study: Global Warming
The Dark Doctrine is an obstacle to the precious little progress we have made in combating the greenhouse gas emissions heating up our only planet. “It is hard to be optimistic,” says a 2011 briefing note from the Pembina Institute. “The level of ambition currently being demonstrated puts the world on track for irreversible and catastrophic climate change.”
Sad to say, a significant contributing factor is lack of motivation. Although climate change is happening now, most projections put the truly horrifying effects of global warming decades into the future. It may not get really bad until the turn of the century: that’s when we’ll see the millions of displaced people, decimated global food production, wholesale extinction of species, and general, very unpleasant, chaos. Hardly any of today’s voters expect to be alive in 2100. They think of global warming as somebody else’s problem.
The shadow of the Dark Doctrine can be spotted in Tom K’s response to the question, “Why don’t we do more about climate change?” posted on a private forum:
Are others sacrificing too, and if so, what percentage are? …. Some people get enjoyment out of helping specific others, generalized needy others or just Mother Earth. Are we to sacrifice without pleasure while others sacrifice gaining pleasure from doing so? Should we succumb to guilt because some others choose to sacrifice for whatever reasons?
Traditional morality answers such questions by saying we should accept sacrifices now in order to prevent a great deal more damage and suffering to others in the future. But not everyone finds moral arguments persuasive. Many respond, “Why should I be moral? What reason do I have for sacrificing my own interests for those of others—if I don’t take pleasure in doing so?”
The Dark Doctrine—that people are only motivated by concern for themselves—is an unexamined core assumption of many rightwing policies. It underlies the belief (which flourishes despite ample evidence to the contrary) that harsh punishment is an effective deterrent to crime, as well as the claim that “greed is good,” that self-interest is the engine of economic productivity, and should never be held back.
The Doctrine Isn’t True
The Dark Doctrine is a prime example of ‘greedy’ reductionism that blurs and denies real distinctions. It is a flawed model of human nature, at odds with the best scientific understanding of human motivation from at least two perspectives: ethology and evolutionary science on one hand, and neuroscience on another.
Ethologists like Frans de Waal (The Age of Empathy) emphasize the evolutionary advantages of social bonds, cooperation, and fellow feeling in humans and other social species.
Supporters of the Dark Doctrine often use evolutionary arguments, in a line of thought called Social Darwinism. The phrase, “the survival of the fittest,” coined by Herbert Spencer (not Darwin), implies that we owe our evolutionary success to natural selection of those humans who competed most successfully with other humans. De Waal finds two faults with Social Darwinism: first, it emphasizes intra-species competition while ignoring the reproductive advantage conferred by cooperative traits; second, it commits the ‘naturalistic fallacy,’ making an ill-founded leap from “is” to “ought”—we are selfish, therefore we should be. (Darwin himself was guilty of neither error.)
The Hobbesian idea that the strongest individuals thrive and reproduce, and selfishness is hardcoded in our genes, is only half the human evolutionary story. The other half is that we are a profoundly social species. That’s fortunate for us, because the human animal is not a Siberian tiger. We aren’t strong or fierce enough to thrive as solitary Rambo-like predators. We owe our success as a species to our ability to cooperate. Our ability to learn from one another, and to act jointly, allowed us to develop culture and rise to the pinnacle of power, becoming the alpha species on this planet.
Dark Doctrinaires who justify their position by invoking the title of Richard Dawkins’ 1976 classic, The Selfish Gene, are guilty of the naturalistic fallacy. De Waal relates how Enron’s Jeff Skilling (now in jail) “was a great fan of Dawkins’s book, and deliberately tried to mimic nature by instigating cutthroat competition within his company,” instituting a “Rank and Yank” program which automatically fired the bottom-rated 20% of Enron employees every year.[de Waal, 2009, p 39] But in fact, we are not compelled to internalize the reproductive ‘goals’ of the genes we carry—and Dawkins himself would agree. If we were we would breed more, and the rich would breed most.
Neuroscience is starting to reveal how learning and compassion work on the neurological level. Human beings are good at learning by imitation. According to VS Ramachandran we owe this success to ‘mirror neurons.’ Observing someone else performing an action activates many of the same neurons that would fire if we were performing that action ourselves. This subconscious, involuntary response shortcuts the learning process. Seeing emotion on another person’s face allows us to feel what that person is feeling. Ramachandran goes so far as to call mirror neurons “Ghandi neurons,” because they “dissolve the boundary between ourselves and others.” [Ramachandran, 2011, p 124] From a scientist whose reputation depends on publishing in peer-reviewed journals, that is amazing language!
Our imitative wetware may help explain how the Dark Doctrine propagates. Dawkins extended the model of natural selection beyond the domain of biology to that of ideas, coining the word “meme” to refer to cultural artifacts which live, die, and replicate in the environment of human minds following the same rules as genes in the biosphere. Memes include words, slogans, songs, books, fashions, inventions, and beliefs. People absorb beliefs from those around them; ideas, You-tube videos and political slogans are catching, like viruses. Zeitgeist is a widely-recognized phenomenon which is not well understood. Just how did the educated, civilized citizens of Germany succumb to Nazism? When we learn the answer, I won’t be surprised if it involves mirror neurons.
Although mirror neurons confer a huge evolutionary advantage, they have a downside. Dissolving the boundary between yourself and others is not always practical. If you broke your leg, your best friend might become paralyzed by your pain and unable to help. So, evolution has provided an antidote to the mirror neuron system, called the mirror neuron inhibition system, which kicks in when too much empathy would be dysfunctional. [Ramachandran, 2011, pp 124-125]
And there you have it—the human contradiction, the light side and the dark side. A mirror neuron system responsible for cooperation, harmony and progress, and an off switch.
In recent decades we have hit the off switch more than is good for us. Hitting the off switch gave us subprime mortgages wrapped in triple-A credit ratings, triggering the 2008 economic meltdown that is still playing out. And hitting the off switch allows us to keep stoking the atmosphere with carbon, undeterred by thoughts of future generations—our children and their children and their children—struggling to survive on a less hospitable planet.
Our failure to be deterred by such thoughts is only partly a lack of imagination. Vividly imagining future scenarios is one of our core strengths. Kids fresh out of college are encouraged to put money in retirement savings, and many of them actually heed this advice. Not because they take pleasure in self-sacrifice, but because they think they have a solid, prudential reason to do so. They imagine that they will one day be retired and will need the money. That is, they have a vague idea of an older person, who perhaps has memories of being the young person they are today. Younger people often (not always) anticipate having the experiences of the older people they imagine they will become. They don’t like the idea of their future selves being left in penury because of their youthful indifference. People are motivated by fears of their own future suffering.
Neurologically, we are as well equipped to imagine the suffering of others as of our own future selves. We can visualize millions of people displaced by rising sea levels. Trying to survive, they will seek higher ground, already occupied by other people who will defend it, leading to conflict and wholesale death. Those who survive will compete more fiercely for scarce resources. Higher temperatures and wilder weather will make the natural world a less friendly place. If any survive, they may be forced indoors. Perhaps they will spend their entire lives in artificial environments.
Since we can imagine these hardships befalling our childrens’ children, why aren’t we motivated to do what it takes to prevent them, as we are motivated to provide for our own sunset years? Maybe we protect ourselves against feeling the suffering of others by relying too heavily on the mirror neuron inhibition system—the off switch. If so, we can cure this by deliberately easing up on the off switch, allowing ourselves to share the feelings of other people more fully—people alive today, and future people—as we have evolved to do. The continued well-being of our species may depend on it.
As for the worry that other people may not do their bit—well, some won’t. But because we are a social, cooperative, imitative species, few motivators are as strong as the example of other people. Just watch the video of bystanders rescuing a trapped motorcyclist from a burning car in September 2011. One person tries to lift the car, and nothing happens. Then more join in, then a third wave—and they lift the car! That was a difficult and dangerous thing for those bystanders to do on behalf of a complete stranger. They weren’t motivated by the “What’s in it for me?” calculation. Interviewed later, one said he didn’t think about it at all. He just saw someone else trying to lift the car, and joined in.
Because the Dark Doctrine is false, we’re capable of doing that.
Darwin, Charles (1873) The Descent of Man, Appleton & Co., New York
Dawkins, Richard (1976) The Selfish Gene (3rd ed., 2006), Oxford University Press, Oxford.
De Waal, Frans (2009) The Age of Empathy, McClelland & Stewart, Toronto.
Dennett, Daniel (1995) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Simon and Schuster, New York
Letter to the editor, The Globe and Mail, Nov. 7, 2011
Hamilton, Kevin (2011) “Conrad Black offers (incomprehensible) advice to the Occupy movement,” Corporate Knights, Nov. 8, 2011.
Pembina Institute, The (2011) “UN climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa,” accessed Jan 6, 2012
Ramachandran, VS (2011) The Tell-Tale Brain, WW Norton, New York.
Roth, Philip (1998) I Married a Communist, New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Steinbeck, John (1966), America and Americans: and Selected Nonfiction (New York: The Viking Press, 1966).
“VIDEO: Good Samaritans lift burning car to rescue trapped Utah motorcyclist,” New York Post online, accessed Jan 6, 2012