Sunday, April 26, 2015

Our biology is our history

From page A11 | August 24, 2014 |

By Mark Rollins

There are certainly many lessons to learn from history if you choose to pay attention.

Historians and archaeologists are always around to teach us lessons from history and point out how we are repeating the same mistakes of the past, whether it is spreading diseases, starting wars, destabilizing governments, exploiting people or simply ruining everything we touch.
The sad fact is that for the most part, we don’t choose to pay attention. That is because there is this notion that the distant past is irrelevant. That seems to go hand in hand with the idea that old people are irrelevant and only the new is relevant, so youth and the present have priority. But when it comes to improving social behavior and fostering wisdom in groups and in individuals, the past is much more relevant than the present.
For people to solve problems in their behavior, we must understand how we got here. We must learn the core reasons for all human behavior. We need to understand ourselves as the biological animals that we are.

Proximate, cultural causes do not go deep enough. The study of humanities only scratches the surface. The renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson said that history doesn’t make sense without pre-history, and pre-history doesn’t make sense without biology. I would go further and simply say that our biology is our history.
We need to start giving priority to biological sciences that look at animal and human behavior, like evolutionary science, paleoanthropology, ethology, biogeography, sociobiology, brain science and other ancillary subjects that examine human behavior from different perspectives.
We need to be studying aggression, greed, competitiveness, nepotism, deception, xenophobia, peer pressure, warfare, tribalism, patriotism, racism and envy, and try to get to the core causes of kin and non-kin altruism, selfishness, cooperation, gene/culture co-evolution, the need for religion, steadfast adherence to core belief systems, the connection between self-sacrifice in religion and terrorism, conflict resolution in modern state societies versus traditional societies, obedience to authority figures, etc.

These are the things that we as a species should be trying to understand if we are to save ourselves and the biosphere of this planet.

We should be in survival mode and be emphasizing the importance of college degrees in fields of study that delve into these problems. We must mature socially and culturally as a species just as people mature socially and culturally as individuals.
This will lead to evolving genetically as well, because, as sociobiology tells us, culture affects gene pools and gene pools affect culture.

Unfortunately, we are doing the opposite. We are putting the nerds up on a pedestal. We are emphasizing mathematics, engineering, business, computer science and physics. These fields are important, too, especially when they are used in conjunction with biological research, but it seems that we are using them primarily for competition, and frankly, for making better toys and better ways to waste time.
Do we always have to be competing? And what good are better toys if we ruin the planet and we all die?

Also, we seem to think it is OK to ruin this planet because someday we will be able to just go to another planet somewhere. Let me say right now that, no, we shouldn’t, and we won’t. Why do we have to be the only species of animal that soils our own bed? We should take care of this planet now and forever, period.

Also, for those who think we can simply replace ourselves with robots, forget it. We are too idiosyncratic for robots to ever think like us. Nerds, are you listening?

We are always very careful to look at the past record of behavior when we hire a new teacher, police officer, contractor or baby-sitter, or before we put a representative in public office. And speaking of the police, they use evidence found at crime scenes to piece together how and why a crime happened. In that way, their jobs are strikingly similar to evolutionary scientists and archaeologists.
I hope we do not become too obsessed with the now and lose sight of the importance of understanding and respecting the past. We need to understand that the arrow of time does not begin at this moment. The past is not something just for idle cocktail chatter. It is absolutely essential to understand it in order to understand anything at all.
If possessing understanding of the past does not become as cool as possessing the latest electronic time-wasting gadget, I fear that any future we still may have will be dim.

— Mark Rollins is a Davis resident.



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