Yet I still want to be a catholic. Post 5. The chimps and us
Yet I still want to be a Catholic.
Post 5. Belief Boxes (2.) The chimps and us
We forget how close we are genetically to the chimpanzees, we share over 99% of our genes with them. Our lineage split from theirs a mere six million years ago, indeed some primatologists think it may have been only four million. That’s a blink in evolutionary time. When Jane Goodall went to Gombe in 1962 and actually lived with a chimpanzee troupe, as nobody had ever done before, she found herself amongst remarkably peaceful and caring animals. The males looked after each others’ infants, Goodall was astonished at the outpourings of affection from the chimpanzee mothers over their offspring. Yet almost overnight in 1973 the troupe split up into a larger northern Kasakela part and a smaller Kahale southern part. The northerners embarked on a remarkably well-planned genocidal strategy, and began to wipe out the southerners systematically. The males were targeted one by one and killed, often after horrific tortures, and the breeding females abducted, until eventually the whole southern territory was absorbed into the northern.
The comparison with human behaviour can hardly be missed. In so many places – Germany, China, Rwanda, Spain, the Balkans, Chile, Argentina, Cambodia – people have suddenly turned on neighbours with whom they had lived peaceably for centuries and started torturing them in the most horrible ways and then killing them. We mistake if we think the genocidal murderers were all homicidal maniacs. They were not, they were ordinary people upon whom a madness suddenly descended. Christopher Browning’s Reserve Police Unit 101 and the Final Solution in Poland is an eye-opening read. It’s about a battalion of perfectly ordinary men from Hamburg, teachers, postmen and librarians, who, for one reason or another, were not fit for military service and assigned to behind the lines duties in Poland. There, they were ordered to round up Jews – this was in the early days of the Holocaust – and each had to take a woman and a child into the forest and make them undress and kneel down and then put a bullet through their heads. They were permitted to omit this duty if they wished but only two opted to do so. To begin with they found it extremely distressing, but after a few weeks were carrying it out without compunction. We all have it in us somewhere. I think we need to look at evolution and primatology to explain how it is that human beings can behave like this. We easily become the chimpanzees we so nearly are.
In most primate societies, the young males leave the natal troupe, so, despite the braggadocio and ebullience of the male hierarchies, it is the old females who lead the troupe. But amongst chimpanzees it is the other way round. The females go and the males stay, which leaves the males with all their quarrelling, aggression and instability in charge of the troupe. The troupes only survive because of the extraordinary personal stability that mothers bestow on their infants. But this leaves chimpanzee societies extremely vulnerable to disorder and even collapse. We have inherited the chimpanzee patterns of behaviour, not the monkey. For centuries, at least amongst the upper classes who had the wealth and power, women are traded between male lineages. My contempt for the Church’s misinterpretation of its own beautiful doctrine of marriage, or so I think, knows no bounds. We so easily become the chimpanzees we so very nearly are.
photo by Iam Fisheye courtesy of Flickr taken near Gombe under creative commons licence
It is true that most of us don’t spend most of our time practising genocide. But then the chimpanzees don’t either. They spend most of their time looking for food and mates in their own little corner of the forest. They have no sense of the whole forest. And nor do most of us. We spend our time getting and spending and looking after our families, things that are thoroughly laudable in themselves. But it’s closer to the chimpanzee end of the spectrum than it is to the fully human. To be a rational human being is to think universally, to be aware of the whole forest. We have these huge brains, the most extraordinary and unexpected, indeed you might well think inexplicable deliverances of evolution, that know no parish boundaries nor national frontiers. But most of the time only a fraction of their capacity is ticking over. Most of us draw in the depths of our minds on tightly shut belief boxes that are profoundly irrational, much as the chimpanzees draw on a limited range of compulsive impulses to lead their intellectually restricted lives. Ultra-capitalists believe, come what may, that wealth will trickle down and everybody will become rich, despite that after three centuries of capitalism the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever. Died –in – the – wool Marxists insist that because of the inevitable progress of dialectical materialism the world will eventually turn in to a socialist paradise, no matter what horrors are committed along the way in order to achieve it. Yet evidence is there none. Born again Christian fundamentalists are certain the earth was created in seven days, despite the overwhelming testimony of geology that this was not the case.
In our journey – and it is a journey – to become more like human beings and less like chimpanzees we need to begin by trying to escape from these deeply irrational emotionally impregnated certainties. Look at the evidence. That is what rational beings do. Don’t vote in an election on the basis that my dad voted Tory and his dad before that, don’t even think about it. This is not to say that in many circumstances, perhaps even most, capitalist democracies are not the best kind of society. Nor that in some circumstances, especially in developing countries, socialism isn’t the best way to go. Nor that the Bible is without value. But we need to escape from the deep emotionally impregnated certainties, which almost algorithmically drive us along a pre-ordained path. In this world, nothing is without drawbacks and flaws, everything is compromised, politics is always about choosing the least bad. We need to think about the whole forest, not just our corner of it. It is such intellectual and emotional restriction that lays us open to take over by the kind of errors and sub-human behaviours that so easily overtook the members of reserve police battalion 101. We need to look not at our knee-jerk feeling re-actions, but always the evidence, not to imagine paradise is just around the corner, to eschew dogmas, to compromise for nothing is perfect, to practise a common humanity for we are all human beings, to think about the whole forest, to escape from the belief boxes.