RHYMES&REASONS

Observations, Thoughts and Reflections on 21st Century Life

Category: Individualism

The Selfish Gene – has it become our Achilles Heel?

Human nature is hung in the balance, our behaviour driven by selfishness and our desire to co-operate to ensure the survival of the group” 

These are the words of E O Wilson during an interview on BBC Radio 4 The Life Scientific.  Professor at Harvard and joint author of a paper setting out the case for group selection he now challenges the ‘selfish gene’ theory he once endorsed.  Among his contemporaries he is something of a lone voice.  Since Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution we have believed in survival of the fittest and increasingly this now means of the wealthiest.  But do we hide behind this as an excuse for our self interest?

The interview reminded me of a recent conversation with a friend regarding the widening pay gap and we imagined a society where each job was valued -and remunerated – at the same level.  We concluded that this state of equilibrium would quickly dissipate as the desire to better ourselves and provide for our children’s future would override everything else.  We are conditioned to believe that it was this ‘get ahead of the game’ attitude which enabled our ancestors to survive.

However, there is another way to look at this.  The history of life shows that evolutionary transitions are from the singular to the plural.  For example – separate molecules into a gene, individual genes into a chromosome, individual cells into a muti-cellular organism and from multi-cellular organisms into a social group.  Our survival as a species has been built on collective strength, on co-operation not separation.  This puts natural selection at the level of the group rather than the level of the individual.  Social groups become communities; communities become nations which make up our world and it is this global group with which we must now engage.

Our challenge today is selfishness v generosity and we are struggling to get the balance right because as Wilson so eloquently puts it “humanity still has paleolithic emotions”.  There was an ancestral need to drive nature as hard as they could to survive but by continuing this pattern, far from serving our needs and ensuring our survival we are in imminent danger of achieving the opposite as pressure increases on our natural resources.  There is a powerful case to show that we have struck too hard a blow and we are threatening the world in which we live and on which we depend.

Polar Bears Endangered by Climate Change Drawing by Rebecca Pells

Polar Bears Endangered by Climate Change
Drawing by RebeccaPells

There is a growing tension between the individual and the needs of the wider community and despite our fondness for the selfish gene, evolution shows that in order to thrive the individual also needs the group.  This tension is unstable, we see it manifest in the growing dissatisfaction between the wealthy few and the rest of society; between self serving governments who renege on election promises and their electorate; between environmentalists and those who either deny or believe it’s not their problem. It is not a question of tipping the scales firmly one way or the other but of a middle way with movement back and forth – too much in favour of the individual and society would fragment; too far towards group social selection and we would become like ants or honey bees.

This mid-way is the creative core of humanity; it is the threshold where we meet our challenges, where we can have the honest discussion and where ultimately we will find our way forward.  It is where we can overcome age old instincts which no longer serve and have become a modern achilles heel, where we can choose altruism over selfishness and where we will rediscover in ourselves a more ancient and fundamental essence – that generosity of spirit over personal gain will ensure our children’s future.

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. . . . and a peaceful New Year . . . .

Peace . . . is something we rarely experience.

Our daily lives don’t provide for peace.  We are surrounded by sound, from piped musak in shops and cafes, to advertisements which blare from screens large and small, to the discordant shrill of a lawn mower and toys which create more noise than the children who play.  An undeclared competition for our attention, it is a background stress we barely notice –  until we remove ourselves from it.  So accustomed are we that the mere thought of silence has become quiet dis-arming.

   Silence separates us from our daily lives and all with which we are familiar; it confronts and challenges us with the uncertain, allowing in thoughts and conversations with ourselves which we have previously conspired to keep at bay.  Quietness is the gateway to the unknown, initially a fearful place to be and just as an addict craves a fix, we look and long for distraction.  Our defense mechanism is to drown out the external commotion by immersing ourselves in a cacophony of our own choosing, a personal aural diet selected from an i-menu of endless options and drip fed through earphones barely visible.

Faced with exchanging sonance for silence even for an hour, many will experience the alarm of impending detoxification.  But as the edge of our discomfort starts to dissolve and abate, so we begin to allow ourselves to enjoy the settling quietness and embrace a sense of relief from the incessant clatter of everyday life.  To be silent is not to become still but to go about our tasks in full awareness and re-discover forgotten pleasures as other senses come alive and we begin to notice details previously shouted down.  Quietness is where we can hide: it is not the tortuous prison many fear but rather a release from a world where our sense of self is constantly diluted and homogenized.

To seek out peace once in a while from an exhaustive world, is to nurture and experience the joy of renewal and growth.  It is an act of independence, a bid for personal freedom and a place of privacy to be cherished and treasured .

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Orgasm of the Mind

In my time alone my life happens.

I’m at my most peaceful sitting in dappled shade, the dancing of the shadows reflecting my thoughts as they skip between the light and darker corners of my mind.  This dipping in and out is the intercourse of creative life – the place where ideas are conceived, nurtured and born; where conversations take place without saying a word.

Reflection, thought, solitude and contemplation.

Words which seem to jar and sit ill at ease with 21st century vocabulary, which in order to be heard above the mayhem of tweeting, trending and texting would need to shout and present themselves loudly, the very antithesis of their meaning.  They are unfashionable words, the execution of which is seen as odd or eccentric.  And yet we should cherish and practice them at every opportunity. Until 50 or so years ago it was only the elite who had time to stand and stare but now with so many labour saving devices in the average western home we too have that luxury if only we choose to embrace it.  Instead many of us fill those disposable hours with online activity, encouraged to put ourselves forward, to shout the loudest and follow the latest viral trend or else we have somehow failed . . . the irony of which as I type this post is not lost on me!  We have ceased to become self-reliant, choosing instead to escape into this world of hyper-activity in preference to our own company.

And yet it is a precious thing, to be still and reflect, to explore our thoughts away from the influences of the external world.  To be self-reliant is to breed tenacity, the will and self-determination to follow our own path when those around us are walking the other way.  It develops imaginative curiosity to seek out answers for ourselves rather than an easy following of the crowd.

And it takes courage to be different.

To be alone and not defined by someone or something else, to avoid being influenced by outside things – this is what creates strength and individuality.  We live in the age of individualism and yet, in reality our world is strictly regulated and the individual is merely on a treadmill that keeps the social template moving. It is only by removing ourselves from the system – however briefly – that we are truly ourselves; to be brave enough to navigate our own path is to develop the ability to re-engage more intensely and purposefully without risking loss of identity.

If we dare to withhold from immersive over-sharing and delve into speculative thought, we may be rewarded with creative inspiration, the courting of a fresh passion, the desire to perfect a new skill and the exquisite experience as it all comes together into something tangible.  It can afford you one of the greatest pleasures of all – what Michael Foley in his excellent book ‘The Age of Absurdity’ refers to as the orgasm of the mind.

To be actively individual is not passive or reclusive, rather it is like standing back from a painting in order to see it more clearly.

And it is from here that we may find our purpose and thus our meaning.

 Quiet Contemplation

‘Quiet Contemplation’

Rebecca Pells    2014

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