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Utopian Dreams Never Work Out

December 26, 2010

Utopian societies are never all they’re cracked up to be.  Immanuel Kant warned us that humans will struggle to build a “perfect” society because we’ll have to construct it with the crooked-timbers of humanity.  David Buss, in his book Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of Mind, tells a story which is worth sharing,

Imagine a society in which all men and women received exactly the same income. Every able-bodied adult worked. All decisions were made communally by both sexes, and all children were raised collectively by the group. How would people react when actually faced with this social arrangement? Such an experiment was in fact conducted in Israel among those living in a kibbutz. Two anthropologists, Joseph Shepher and Lionel Tiger-studied three generations living in a kibbutz, a total of 34,040 people. In their classic 1975 book Women in the Kibbutz, Shepher and Tiger tell that they found, astonishingly, that the division of labor by gender was actually greater in the kibbutz than in the rest of Israel (Tiger, 1996). Most striking, however, were the strong preferences exerted by women: Over time they began to insist that their own children live with them rather than be raised collectively by other women. The men tried to veto this move, considering it a step backward, giving in to bourgeois values at the expense of the original utopian dream. The mothers and their mothers stood their ground and outvoted the men of the community. So the utopian experiment of communal child rearing reverted to the primacy of the mother-child bond-a pattern seen in every human culture (Buss, 198).

Have you ever wondered why your parents will do practically anything for you and love you unconditionally whereas they probably care a lot less about other people’s children?  If you, the child, crash the car into their mailbox, you might get yelled at, but chances are your parents won’t get the police involved, or file a lawsuit for the damages.  But if a stranger’s son or daughter wrecks into the mailbox, they probably will want compensation.  Why?

Why do you feel this special bond with your brothers and sisters, and go well out of your way to help take care of them, but are much less likely to help a stranger?  We’ll all reply, “Well, they’re family.  Of course I’ll help them out.”  But why do you feel such a strong urge to help your family?  Why not help and love all human beings equally?

Your brain is hard-wired to think that way.  You share half of your genes with your mother and father, and your siblings share most of your genes as well.  On this Earth, our bodies are all competing to exist.  Unconsciously our brains are wired to help those who most share our genes.  The more genes they share, the more precious they are to us, and the more we must go out of our way to help them.  We’ll even go well out of our way to help strangers, sometimes even doing crazy things like rushing into a burning building to save someone we don’t even know.  But as noble at it sounds, that’s innate to our psychology because they’re a fellow human being who also shares a great deal of our … or should I say your genes.  And if you’re honest, we all know that we’re much more likely to rush into the burning building if it’s our child or loved ones in there, and much less so if it’s a total stranger.  How many brave men have rushed into the flames to save a parakeet or a rat?  Why are you not worried when you crush a grasshopper under your feet as your pace your lawn, or destroy the habitats of other wildlife on this planet to put in new apartment buildings?  Why are you more loyal to your fellow human beings as opposed to other animals on the planet?  Why is it cruel to do experiments on humans, but just fine to hack away at a dog or monkey’s brain in the name of science?  It could be a person just looking out for themselves because they don’t want their brain experimented on, but studies seem to indicate there’s more to this.

From an evolutionary perspective, offspring are a sort of vehicle for their parents. They are the means by which their parents’ genes may get transported to succeeding generations. Without children an individual’s genes may perish forever. Given the supreme importance of offspring as genetic vehicles, then, it is reasonable to expect that natural selection would favor powerful mechanisms in parents to ensure the survival and reproductive success of their children. Aside from those of mating, perhaps no other adaptive problems are as paramount as making sure that one’s offspring survive and thrive. Indeed, without the success of offspring, all the effort that an organism invested in mating would be reproductively meaningless. Evolution, in short, should produce a rich repertoire of parental mechanisms specially adapted to caring for offspring (Buss 199).

If you have another explanation for why people are this way, I’d love to hear it.  People are capable of love and affection, but are also prone to a strong self-centered nature which primarily concerns itself with close friends and family, and rarely anyone else.   Even the best of us have to fight urges to look the other way when someone we don’t know is suffering.

To love my parents, my brothers, or other close family members happens without me even thinking about it.  When they’re in need I have an emotional response which drives me to help them.  I’m carried to help them and feel guilty if I don’t do what I can to ensure they do well and thrive in this world.  Other people, on the other hand, to help them requires “duty” and “justice”.  It’s no longer an innate emotional response to help but now resides mostly in my rational mind without feeling.  Most of the time, you have to find a reason to help them such as, “The world will be better if we treat each other this way or that way.”  We have to execute these duties with little feeling.  That’s why it’s difficult to form utopian societies.  We’re simply not equipped with the emotional hardware to care about those outside of our close circles and family.

The women in the kibbutz had no choice but to love their children more than the others.  It’s in their genes.  It’s part of what it means to be a human mother.  The family is something we’re wired to love and protect.  If we don’t have a family, we try our best to find something akin to it with a close group of friends.   I once had a woman tell me she could love any man just the same.  I questioned whether that was really love.  If you try to be a jack of all trades you end up being nothing at all.  To love everyone equally, it seems, runs into the same problem – you end up loving nobody at all.  Human love has a strong emotional component to it.  The object of that affection is given preference over all others.

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