(Prague, Czech Republic—23 December 2011)
Anyone who’s observed behavior in the natural world must concede that deception is normal behavior. Animals (and plants) routinely misrepresent themselves in order to survive and flourish. So if judged by the ethical systems we homo sapiens have developed—the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments, and even many legal codes—plants and animals are chronic liars, cheaters, thieves. And they often get away with it. Justice? There is none in the natural biological world, at least not the kind of justice we imagine.
So why are we so surprised to discover this animal we call homo sapiens is any different, at least in terms of its (that is, our) natural tendencies? It seems apparent that we’re swimming upstream when trying to use ethical systems that are very recent in homo sapien evolution (a few thousand years) to alter deceptive behaviors that proved to have high adaptive value during millions of years of biological evolution.
It’s hard work, swimming upstream. Easier to go with the flow. But that isn’t what civilization does. By definition, civilization is the creation of an alternate universe in which humanly created ethical values hold sway over older biological values. Civilization requires us to go against the flow. But we get lazy. Or lack self-discipline. Or get tired. And some of us don’t learn the alternate rules very well anyhow. So our ancient underlying biological values frequently win out. Result: routine lying, cheating and thievery (not to mention aggression, war and other forms of predation).
Seeing the world in this way is not cynical, in my view. Quite the opposite: It’s smart. Why? Because it helps me feel less dismay (and less despair) when we homo sapiens behave like all other animals instead of the human beings—part beast and part angel—that we aspire to become. After all, we are very new to this project of becoming human beings.
And for those among us who believe that natural biological values should hold dominance—who assume that in a “free unregulated marketplace” the most adaptive behaviors will win out—I offer this cautionary note: While “temporary” adaptive and survival value should never be underestimated in the biological kingdom, it can prove short-sighted when a species holds the technological means to permanently alter its own ecology. In a civilized world, “long-term” adaptive and survival value must become our primary concern if we are to address the more critical challenges confronting us, challenges that we ourselves have created: overpopulation, eco-destruction, pollution, nuclear waste, and climate change. In addressing those challenges, temporary “short-term” responses will likely prove adaptively insufficent and disastrous to our survival.