In a season of greed and fear, we can turn to generosity and compassion

22 March 2020 - 00:00 By
There is a lot more to survival, in a world based on interconnected systems and division of labour, than the preservation of individuals.
There is a lot more to survival, in a world based on interconnected systems and division of labour, than the preservation of individuals.
Image: Miguel MEDINA / AFP

There have been enough column inches printed about toilet paper to furnish several dozen bathrooms, should the real thing run out entirely.

This column is not about toilet paper.

Those luxurious perforated squares do, however, illustrate the warring impulses inherent in every human. Or rather, the way we have reacted to a possible shortage of them says something about our natures.

As evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins so eloquently put it in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene: “We are survival machines — robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”

One might not think toilet paper was essential to survival at a genetic or any other level, but the impulse to hoard resources for oneself is not always logical.

There is, of course, more to survival than toilet paper, and there is a lot more to survival, in a world based on interconnected systems and division of labour, than the preservation of individuals.

Our genes may operate at an instinctive, take-as-much-as-you-can-and-keep-it-for-yourself level, but as many scientists have pointed out, we have learnt to co-operate and share because these seemingly illogical things are essential for the species as a whole. If the whole fails, so do its parts.

This is why just as many are railing against the selfishness of stockpiling as are indulging in it. Both are natural impulses.

The many acts of kindness performed by those who shop for the elderly, or continue to pay their employees while allowing them to stay at home so they are not exposed to the perils of public transport, are examples of how the selfish gene is able to take into account the needs of others who make its life easier.

Covid-19, like nothing else in recent times, has shone a light on the evolution of human beings.

That's not to say that the selfish stockpilers are developmentally retarded and the charitable givers are more advanced. They simply illustrate different facets of our survival impulses.

We could learn from the coronavirus — at a purely robotic level, it is the epitome of a survival machine. It spreads wildly and in most cases does not kill the host that gives it life. For it to thrive, the organism it feeds on must thrive too.

Humans need other humans. This is the way we have built our world. In isolating and quarantining ourselves we are tending to ourselves and trying to ensure our own safety, but we are also thinking of others and hoping not to infect the vulnerable — the elderly and those who are physically weakened.

There is, as in all things related to human nature, a spectrum, in this case with pure altruism at one end and pure selfishness at the other. Again, this is not “good” vs “bad”; it's a question of finding the best balance.

In 1971, Australian philosopher Peter Singer wrote an essay called “Famine, Affluence and Morality” that is still taught as the gold standard for how the truly altruistic should live.

For Singer, it was not desirable to give as much as you could to others without actually starving or running out of toilet paper yourself; it was obligatory. It was, he thought, morally impermissible to do less.

Singer's essay remains valid because it illustrates how demanding it would be to follow a charitable path to the exclusion of one's natural, selfish impulses

. Giving to others so we may maintain a world that is comfortable for us to inhabit is also inherently selfish and therefore natural. Giving to the point of potential danger to one's own survival is unnatural, and many would say unattainable.

The trick is finding middle ground. The coronavirus slips up in its survival calculations when those it has infected do not survive its invasion. When the host dies, it deprives the virus of a home.

In most cases this does not happen, so you could say that on the whole the virus is doing a good job of getting on in life.

The virus is not a sentient organism, however. Humans are, which means we should be even better at achieving a balance that works for everyone.

It seems unlikely that the person who buys all the toilet paper is the same person shopping for the old people in her neighbourhood, but I might be wrong. Humans are infinitely complex.

To survive and thrive as a species means to make the world habitable for everyone. That is perhaps as extreme a demand as Singer's instruction to give away almost everything, but on paper it makes sense.

Dawkins put it best: “Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish,” he wrote.

“Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.”

De Groot is deputy features editor

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