The Other I

May 30, 2012

Darwin’s conundrum

As I said in my post yesterday, a fundamental piece is missing in my understanding of the nature of life so that the whole universal endeavour seems contradictory.  Our study of the evolution of life on this planet seems to suggest that there are two universal characteristic of all living things.   First, living organisms, including us, are potentially capable of doing anything, apparently without any exceptions whatsoever, to survive.  Since we all must kill to eat, all living things are at least complicit in preying on others.  Second, we engage in caring, cooperative, and generous behaviors toward others, something which we also need to receive if we are to survive not only as a species but as individuals.

Two days ago the mother and father of six children were arrested for deliberately starting a fire that killed their six asleep in the upstairs bedrooms.  Several years ago, a mother was convicted of arranging for the kidnap of her daughter in order to make money.  Yesterday the UN observers in Syria reported finding 13 bodies with their hands died behind their back and shot in the head at close range.  Before that, a hundred members of an extended family, including almost half children, were knifed to death in Houla.

Why? Why do the most fundamental impulses of survival sometimes seem to get so horribly out of kilter?

The Platonic-Christian answer is that we are born sinners in dire need of redemption.  Most religions teach some variation on this theme including often the existence of a positive force of evil which is at odds with the forces of good.  Buddha, on the other hand, said that behaviors like these are a reflection of our incompleteness.

This makes more sense to me.  We are not morally outraged by a crocodile that consumes a hapless swimmer for lunch, the lion that preys on the lamb, or even the maggots feeding on the dead bird.  We are not morally outraged by the bear that attacks the hunter in order to preserve its own life or that of its cubs.  We are not even morally outraged by two animals fighting a deadly duel over a fertile female.

But we are morally outraged by similar behaviors among ourselves.  We do believe that we have developed an awareness and sensitivity that often makes these behaviors unnecessary for survival.  (Although it is worth pointing out that we often justify killing and torture and deceit if we feel threatened.  Look at the response of the United States after 9/11, and the government-sanctioned torture of sometimes completely innocent suspects.)

It seems to me that the idea of sin developed as a useful survival mechanism to control some of the worst of our self-destructive and murderous behaviors, survival behaviors which seem to have got out of control.  Behaviors that endanger our own survival or that of the community to which we belong are controlled by society by calling them “sins.”  Threats of punishment, whether it be in the present life or the “next,” often control many excesses.

But it obviously isn’t complete.  And in any case, it’s a stop-gap effort.  When we are not convinced for ourselves that some behaviors are wrong, we will rob, steal, betray, murder, and torture as long as we think we can get away with it.  I do not think this is a result of some people being “evil.”  It’s because we are not yet fully developed human beings.  We act instinctively, without further thought, defending our survival by whatever means we can.

I planned a murder once.  I seriously planned it and seriously considered whether I could get away with it without getting caught.  I decided I could.

But I didn’t do it.

My first response was to be shaken to the core of my being at the discovery that I am capable of such wretched self-serving, viciousness.  I was already middle-aged, and although I had enough self-knowledge by then to realize I was not all that morally superior to everybody else, I did not think I was capable of this.  It took me years to forgive myself for what I finally recognized as a potentially unrestrained drive for survival.

But I didn’t commit murder.  And perhaps to understand why is as informative as why I even considered it.  Not to pat myself on the back as a good person after all, but to understand how it is that we all are capable of developing fundamental moral principles based on the very survival principles that sometimes seem to go so horribly array.

But enough already on this weighty subject.  Why I didn’t do it is the subject of another post.




  1. Can’t wait.


    Comment by pianomusicman — June 4, 2012 @ 10:29 pm | Reply

  2. What he said!


    Comment by Barbara Sullivan — July 7, 2012 @ 2:33 pm | Reply

    • Okay, now that my book is off to the publisher’s, I will seriously address this. Thank you for the prodding! Terry


      Comment by Terry Sissons — July 7, 2012 @ 2:48 pm | Reply

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