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SCIENCE – Mankind, good and bad

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Are we saints fallen on evil ways, or monsters?

 One hundred and thirty-one hours imprisoned in a room measuring just a few square metres makes all the difference in the world. That’s all it took for the victims of a burglary gone wrong to move from being hostages to fierce defenders of a fort under siege. We’re talking about the Stockholm syndrome and how, in just a few hours, the human psyche can overturn all our beliefs and value systems.

 

At this stage, I just wish to point out that the thieves were normal people and so were the victims. For the sake of argument, let’s imagine what might have happened if the burglars in this story had possessed an alien technology along with powers and knowledge beyond our ken. Unconditioned obedience, devotion and probably mystical awe.Who knows?

Perhaps even a new religion might have come out of it. This, I believe, is the condition in which our pet dog finds itself. Ever since birth our beloved Fido has been forced into alien environments (the home, the car, etc.), subjected to incomprehensible and often painful experiments (vaccinations, diagnostic exams, etc.), forced to take part in strange rituals (chasing a ball, sticking out its paw, etc.), decked out in sacred paraphernalia (coats, bells, etc.). Not to mention the fact that there seems to be no escape for anyone. Just like in a sci-fi film, all the members of the species have been captured and the few still roaming free live hand to mouth and in hiding. 

Yet people love their dogs, and the latter respond with sincere and unconditional affection – the kind of affection uncontaminated by human evil that only animals seem capable of showing. Clearly, it doesn’t add up. When man shapes an animal’s natural tendencies by following to the letter the instructions from the manual on how to produce a lasting and effective Stockholm effect, in fact man only has a case of a Pantheist love of nature while the dog, potentially affected by a post-traumatic disorder due to chronic stress, has been good since birth.

Provocations aside, conventional wisdom has it that animals are essentially good and nature fundamentally fair. Conversely, mankind has lost almost all of its primeval purity, so much so that war and murder seem to have been part of its nature since the dawn of time. Homo homini lupus: a man needs rules and punishments to be a good boy.

I think there are problems with this outlook. First of all, what nature are we talking about, exactly? One that exists only in fairy tales, according to the most standard, superficial anthropomorphic fare. Superficial, that is, because it builds universal rules from very few examples.

Plop a white-collar worker down in the Amazon without equipment and ask him, after 15 minutes, if what he sees is the same nature he was talking about while stroking his pet dog at home. This tendency often goes hand in hand with another one that is just as dangerous: anti-Darwinism, back in fashion of late, by which we mean remembering we, too, are animals, but only on alternate Sundays. If the discussion turns to the worst of human nefariousness, the bad monkey gets all the blame: the one who stood erect, started using his hands and duly sowed the seeds of oppression and social strife.

Conversely, if we’re speaking of ‘virtue’, we wax all metaphorical over St. Francis and communing with nature. To my mind, these arguments are standard fallacies, the old song and dance of ‘back in the good old days’, which in this case becomes ‘when we were swinging from trees’. A knee-jerk appeal to return to nature without forsaking today’s creature comforts.

For that matter, the scientific community generally seems convinced that, while ‘up a tree’ back when, we were no different than we are today: same impulses, same propensity for egoism and violence. The only difference is the complexity of our social organisation, which has granted us an amazing degree of creativity while bringing out our worst inclinations.

Even chimpanzees cheat, organise premeditated aggressions, indulge in vices such as drink, offering food in exchange for sex and beating their females. The entire range of evil behaviour. Give them the right weapons and a generous helping of social frustration and, hey presto, modern man.

By way of pre-empting the counter argument, we might mention bonobos. As everyone knows, bonobos – our ancestors just as much as chimpanzees – are almost revoltingly good. They don’t cheat and they’re non-violent; they eat very little meat and let women run the place. There’s just one thing that makes them a tad rude. Bonobos have sex for non-reproductive purposes at all hours and in all possible combinations. No offence to the sanctimonious, but if our heart is truly set on universal harmony, this kind of cavorting is the price we might have to pay.

But the bonobo story does not have a happy end. For the record, a few years ago a team from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig put a damper even on this last faint hope of redemption. Apparently, the bonobos don’t turn their noses up at group hunts and the chosen victims are especially the ‘lowly’ species of monkeys. The final blow being that it’s the females of the tribe who often lead the charge.

Therefore, let’s avoid using animals to support this or that hypothesis on the nature of man and just accept that mankind is not uniquely hardwired to make war, any more than he, or she, was put on earth to keep the peace. 

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