Monday, January 19, 2015

Writer's Notebook - 19 January 2015

Teaching Evolution to Martin Luther King

On this Martin Luther King Day, I would like to explore the differences between the way we see the world and the way it really is. Specifically, we often come to understand human behavior as if it is solely driven by culture. This is just not so.
Consider Dr. King's thoughts on why people hate:
"Men often hate each other because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they can not communicate; they can not communicate because they are separated." -- Martin Luther King, Jr.
It sounds plausible. The underlying presumption is that we could stop hating if we learn to communicate. Unfortunately, this is only partially so.
Like so much of our cultural conversations, Dr. King failed to take human evolution into account. Our ancestral ground state, life in small hunter-gatherer groups, colors our relationships with other people as much as, perhaps more than, the relatively recent geographical diaspora of our species has colored our skins. We constantly define an in-group, which leaves everyone else in the out-group. To our consternation, we have learned to create multiple, confusing, and sometimes contradictory in-groups. Cubs fans, military organizations, fellow hobbyists, church goers. The list is nearly endless. Ten thousand years ago almost all of us would have lived and died in the same in-group.
My revised version of Dr. King's statement looks like this:
Humans hate outsiders because they fear outsiders. Evolution taught us to fear anyone outside of our group. This can be overridden by creating a culture, by redefining an in-group, but it cannot ever become universal without changing what we are as a species.

Quotes of the day: On responding to technological change

  • "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophes." -- Albert Einstein
  • "Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness." — Marshall McLuhan
  • "The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic." — Peter Drucker
  • "In times of rapid change, experience could be your worst enemy." — J. Paul Getty

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