Sunday, September 20, 2015

Things may change, but very slowly

At this writing, Europe is in the clutches of an immigration crisis as thousands of people from Syria and points east seek refuge from repressive regimes and murderous conditions in their homeland. Here in the US, the war of rhetoric over the ongoing immigration of people across our southern border continues.

The objection to immigration is not new. The following words from one of our Founding Fathers regarding Germans immigrating to the United States, make Donald Trump sound like a tolerant, bleeding heart liberal on the subject:

[W]hy should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion. 
Which leads me to add one Remark: That the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. And while we are, as I may call it, Scouring our Planet, by clearing America of Woods, and so making this Side of our Globe reflect a brighter Light to the Eyes of Inhabitants in Mars or Venus, why should we in the Sight of Superior Beings, darken its People? why increase the Sons of Africa, by Planting them in America, where we have so fair an Opportunity, by excluding all Blacks and Tawneys, of increasing the lovely White and Red? But perhaps I am partial to the Complexion of my Country, for such Kind of Partiality is natural to Mankind.
-Benjamin Franklin

Getting past the intolerance in Benjamin Franklin's words, what really struck me in the statement was the last thought, that perhaps intolerance is natural to the human condition. 

Could he have been on to something? Do we human beings have a natural proclivity to mistrust people from other cultures? I think the answer is clearly yes, it's within our DNA. Franklin's words were written in the century before the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, but I think he understood the idea that fear and mistrust of others have ancient roots, survival techniques developed hundreds of thousands of years ago as our ancestors had to compete with other individuals, or groups of individuals, for food, shelter and the other necessities of life.

As Darwin might have explained it, it's simply a matter of natural selection; people with little or no fear who openly welcomed and shared their territory with other individuals, were most likely wiped out by hostile individuals who wanted all the good stuff for themselves. The belligerent individuals who reaped the spoils of their conquests then refused to share them, lived to see another day, while the peaceful, trusting individuals they conquered most likely died out. Sad to say, we are probably the descendants of the belligerent ones, who handed down their hostile, intolerant traits to us. 

Eventually humans learned it was much more productive to cooperate with other humans than to be in constant struggle with them, The concept of community has been expanding ever since. It continues to this day as the world gets smaller because of technological advances and the ever greater acceptance that every human being in the world is somehow connected. Unfortunately our physiological evolution was out-paced by our intellectual evolution, and we still retain fears and anxieties that bear witness to our pre-historic past. Just as our bodies produce excessive amounts of adrenaline when we face stress, we also conjure up irrational fears when we encounter people of cultures that are different from our own. Fifty thousand years ago, we needed that extra boost of adrenaline to speed up our heart rate so we could escape the proverbial saber-toothed tiger attack, just as fears of the different came in handy when faced with encounters of marauding bands of Philistines, Vandals, Visigoths, and their pre-historic ancestors.

Today, not faced with the necessity of out-running a saber-toothed tiger, stress-related heart rate increases do us little good while causing long term harm, as does our irrational fear of the foreigner. 

I always cringe when people defend or condemn a particular human conduct by claiming it is either natural or unnatural. Breathing, eating, drinking, sleeping, fucking and running away from saber-toothed tigers are all natural activities, as they all involve looking out for number one. No one has to learn these things, every animal on the planet does them on its own. Just about everything else needs to be taught. All the great moral and ethical systems of the world, be they secular or religious, teach values, which are things that do not come to us naturally. Doing unto others as you'd have them do to you, loving your neighbor as yourself, and the particularly Christian virtue of loving your enemies, are profoundly un-natural, at least in terms of self-preservation.

The truth is our species has evolved and I might add, flourished, because human beings are better than any other animal at cooperating with other members of their own species. It doesn't always work, it's certainly not always pretty, and sometimes our failures are downright horrible, but that's simply the way of the world. That said, human evolution has, despite several bumps along the road, moved inexorably in the direction of inclusion and tolerance. 

Those things are sometimes scary and hard to accept, but given that we have within our hands, the power to destroy all life on the planet, in the long run, nothing less than the survival of our species depends upon us getting along. 

Like it or not, God, or nature (whichever term you prefer) has given us brains to overcome the natural fears and anxieties that served us well eons ago, but now only stand in the way of progress. 

Let me humbly suggest we begin to use those brains. It's only natural. 

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