Friday, August 10, 2007

The Thought that Counts

Anthony was scornful of this article, but I found it fascinating. Of course my training in biology probably predisposes me to give credence to ideas coming out of evolutionary biology. But I find those ideas profoundly useful in noticing my own predispositions, the ones that run so deep I feel offended at having to justify them, the ones that run back through thousands and millions of years: the ones that I should be most careful to either justify or reject.

I hope you'll read the article, but the gist of it is that human males are genetically predisposed toward conspicuous consumption as a means of showing females that they are good mating prospects: they can provide the stream of material goods required to raise the offspring. Females, meanwhile, are predisposed towards volunteering as a means of showing males that they will do the self-sacrifice necessary, again, to raise the offspring.

Volunteering, huh? Can you hear my balloon deflating? Now I will have to re-examine everything.

As I was washing dishes yesterday, mulling this discussion of altruism and evolution, I remembered one of Garth's favourite sayings from the Dalai Lama: practise altruism, study wisdom. Doing altruism without wisdom is like seeking vengeance without knowing what will truly hurt your target. You might try to hurt them and find out later that your act didn't bother them at all! Likewise, if you want to help someone, first find out what will truly help.

Through my rather dismal experience of trying to help the world through environmental consulting, I can certainly see the wisdom in the Dalai Lama's words. Remember the truck song?

And so, as I continued with the unambiguously helpful task of dishwashing, I realized the deeper wisdom in the saying, "It's the thought that counts."

If you're doing a kindness to a close friend or relative, then surely (most times) the thought will be noticed and appreciated, even if the action is a little off the mark. But when you start do-gooding towards nameless, faceless members of needy groups you've identified (or had identified for you), there is more and more danger of missing the mark (and quite possibly doing more harm than good). At the same time, there is less and less chance that the thought will count for anything at all - if anything, the recipient of the do-gooding may well become bitter and cynical because of the do-gooder's obvious ignorance and indifference.

But here's the deeper wisdom. Consider a woman who is unconsciously carrying out her genetic orders, trying to appear selfless and thus attractive to prospective mates. Her genes compel her to think of others, and to be seen thinking of others. Whether there is any ultimate benefit to those others doesn't matter, as long as she is seen to be acting out of concern for them. It's the thought that counts.

And there is deeper wisdom still. A woman who becomes aware of this drive can reconsider her compulsion, and examine it from all angles, tracing out the consequences at different scales of time and place. She can think less defensively and more deeply. Hopefully, with time and patience, she can come up with a line of thought (and action) that truly counts.


Paul said...

I found this sentence interesting: "The results were just what the researchers hoped for."

It would be interesting to know the ages of the subjects. Assuming they were young, I wonder if the results would be the same if the participates were married individuals in their fifties.

Perhaps the women were more likely to volunteer for "activities such as working in a shelter for the homeless" due to a desire for social connection and men buy cars purely out of competition with other men and the romantically primed ingredient is overstated.

I find research into the evolution of altruism to be most fascinating when conducted with primates.

This is a subject that I think I will bring up in my men's group when it resumes. It would be interesting to hear their opinions.

arcolaura said...

Yes, that "hoped for" comment gave me a bit of a lurch. I bet the researchers didn't state it that way!

But I did find it interesting that they found differences connected with that "romantically primed" factor.

And if these subconscious drives are real, it could explain a lot. I sometimes say I suffer from "pathological volunteerism." And Garth unapologetically insists that he must make money. We drive each other crazy that way. I'm deeply amused to think that we are doing these things out of a subconscious effort to make ourselves more attractive.

Of course, at this point in our reproductive careers, our genes don't care much for notions of fidelity...