lincoln memorial

A friend put me onto an article by Win McCormack in the New Republic discussing possible connections between group or societal behaviors and human nature. The article is built around a book, titled A Darwinian Left: Politics, Evolution and Cooperation, by the philosophy, Peter Singer. The gist is about the age-old conflict between two poles of human nature: self-interest and altruism or communitarianism. The article pivots around the idea that both are a part of human nature, based on E. O. Wilson’s theory of (Darwinian) group selection as the inherent on social species. Further, how is this “new” idea going to impact key political philosophies in the US. McCormack writes:

But what is the Left to do with this new twist on Darwinian thought, which posits both selfish and altruistic sides to human nature, equally potent and often, inevitably, in conflict? There are two main political traditions in America: liberalism, which exalts the liberty of the individual, and civic republicanism, which advocates what Benjamin Barber has called “communal liberty,” a tradition requiring citizen participation in the political life of the community.
These two philosophies match up well with the two sides of human nature described in Wilson’s amplified Darwinism. They also correspond to the paired philosophical elements that constituted early–twentieth-century Progressivism. That landmark movement of Left reform combined an attempt to update liberalism to include “positive” rights, such as the right to a decent wage, with a republican dedication to strengthen the public sector in the age of corporate capitalism.

He provides further evidence of these two sides of human nature by comparing the classic argument of Garrett Hardin on the tragedy of the commons whereby the self-interested nature of humans will inevitably lead to the overuse and destruction of a common good to the work of Elinor Ostrom who showed that such a common could be managed by those who would use it in a “rational” manner, to sustain it.

McCormack easily accepts the argument of a dualism to human nature as an explanation of the two kinds of opposing behaviors — selfish and other-directed, as has been pointed out for millennia, and in this article. But what if human beings do not have any such nature or essence. What if these two dichotomous behavioral patterns align with the two hemispheres of the brain and are dependent on an individual’s history. The divided brain model of Iain McGilchrist argues that this is just the case.

The right brain acts out of connectedness to the world and is the primary one when it comes to actions that appear to arise out of care for others or the world. Altruism is often used for that, but I lump all sorts of caring acts together under that rubric. The left is primary whenever actions appear to be control the world to the actor’s benefit. The left does not know anything meaningful about the world that is present to the actor except a decontextualized version based on “facts” that it has already abstracted and embodied. It is incapable of producing caring actions because it cannot understand what is needed out there by others, or, in other words, it generates the metaphor of a self that is only interested in itself. Conversely, the self of the right is the caring self that Heidegger and other existentialists thought was the true human being. So do I.

The parallelism is direct and clean, not as messy as arguments based on some sort of essential nature. Which self (brain hemisphere) shows up depends on the culture and on the actors’ unique, particular history. Elinor Ostrom’s work, which won her a Nobel in Economics, requires conversational processes that engage the right brain. That’s the secret of her work. Hardin’s classic paper assumes the dominance of the left brain. Which one ends up in control depends entirely on the processes/context of the immediate situation and  the personal and societal histories of the actors involved.

Essentialist treatment of human existence tends to be pessimistic as seen in the central themes of the Enlightenment thinkers. Given the utter mess we are living in today, they might seem to be quite omniscient. But the divided brain permits one to be optimistic because there is no such disastrous nature that we cannot conquer and must keep in chains. The brain certainly has some evolutionary features built in, but, by and large, its content reflects and has been extracted from one’s past experience. Only the right brain knows the facts about the immediate world out there and can take care of it.

Our futures here in the US and in nations like ours who have built their political economies on assumptions of the inherent nature of human beings are becoming fraught with social and environmental breakdowns. But we need not accept the selfish side as dominant and eternal. If the divided brain and its two opposing ways of attending to the world is a better way of understanding the complexities of human behavior (I do believe so), then we can learn how to return to and maintain the right side as the master. Individual and collective flourishing both are “natural” outcomes of the caring way the right brain attends to the world. It will not be an easy transition, but one that does not have to always have to focus of the need to keep or selfish nature under control. In this way, we can be ever hopeful as President Lincoln wrote in his first inaugural address:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field and patriot grave to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Surely, those better angels are locked up in our right brains, waiting to be released.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *