There has been plenty of talk about immigration recently. Amidst all the flag waving, indignation and finger pointing, a very obvious truth has been forgotten. A truth best expressed by George Bernard Shaw:
“Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it”
Which is a brand new way of assessing the size of Nigel Farage’s ego.
It would be hard, even for Nigel, to pretend that he would still be arguing that England is the greatest country in the world if he’d been born in, say, Dijibouti.
This points me towards an immediately obvious truth that the fact that I was born on this island, as a human being, male, white, at the close of the 20th century, is nothing more than a wild philosophical coincidence. One for which I am eternally grateful.
Grateful because it means that I will never have to worry about where my next meal is coming from. Grateful because if I get hit by a bus tomorrow I won’t have to pay to survive. Grateful because with a bit of hard work the world is at my feet.
Did I earn these blessings? Do I deserve them any more than a Yazidi woman deserves be captured and used as a sex slave after watching her family get mown down?
Even speaking in coldly economic terms I cannot claim to have paid for them. I am twenty three and I have probably paid no more than £500 in tax all my life, and yet I have enjoyed free healthcare, well lit streets and all the other comforts which make people risk their lives in order to get here.
The figures in this diagram are probably not accurate but the point remains:
So if I haven’t paid for the advantages of living in England, and I certainly haven’t deserved them through my own merits, then what right can I possibly have to deny others the same advantages? How can I sit here enjoying my cake of good fortune and then justify withholding a slice from someone who happened to be born into a country where they’re more likely to contract malaria than own an iPhone?
Enough rhetorical questions. Being born in England and being anti-immigration is a bit like winning a coin toss and then gloating about it.
“So what then?” I hear you ask, in yet another rhetorical question. “Do we just fling the doors open and let in any Tom, Dick and Harry?”
Well let’s try and imagine shall we? Follow me on an entirely conjectural consideration of what would happen if borders simply ceased to exist overnight.
Schools and hospital would be overrun, people would be left homeless. The living standards in England would deteriorate dramatically. Only then would people stop arriving.
But what about the rest of the world? Imagine if you lived in a war torn or famine stricken region. You could now move wherever you pleased.
The utilitarian argument makes itself. Average living standards worldwide would go up. How could it be otherwise? People don’t uproot themselves lightly. Any movement at all would be proof that on the whole people would be living more comfortably than before.
What a long way one stroke of the imagination goes to improving humanity’s lot (in my head).
The trouble is that very few people think about humanity as a whole (in their heads – even fewer in their actions). But that is the way things must, and I think will, actually, go.
If only we could be more like the bees. African killer bees, if their nest is attacked by a hornet, will swarm the hornet with such ferocity that the friction and heat created is enough to boil the hornet alive. Now the first bees to attack, if they are not decapitated by the hornet, will presumably be boiled along with their big bad older brother. Which would seem rather an illogical move from an evolutionary perspective. But their sacrifice is of huge benefit to the hive as a whole. And so hives comprised of similarly hive-minded bees are more likely to survive a hornet attack than those whose residents are only interested in self-preservation.
The same principle goes for humans. We have evolved to live in groups. We are, as we are frequently informed over lowered glasses, social animals. And the groups, or tribes, which managed to co-operate and co-exist most smoothly tended to out-compete the groups which wasted valuable energy squabbling amongst themselves. Thus there is an evolutionary pressure which favors certain altruistic behaviors, behaviors which benefit the group but not necessarily the individual.
This principle, which Darwin himself described in The Descent of Man, is known as group selection. Suicide bees are the classic example, but the fact is that a degree of co-operation is essential for any species which doesn’t live a solitary existence. As for a social animal like humans, co-operation is at least as much, in fact probably more, of a factor in our evolution as classically “Darwinian” god-eat-dog competition.
Remember that next time some smug neoliberal quips “survival of the fittest” as a vague justification of ruthless self-interest. Then eject him from the tribe at stake-point.
(This always reminds me of the perennially infuriating knock-down “But life is unfair”, used by school teachers just before they do something manifestly unfair – “Yes”, you want to reply “but only because of people like you!”)
Of course altruism has its costs, and there are times when selfishness is the best survival strategy. It all gets terribly complicated and mathematical and I won’t go into it in here, save to say that the degree of co-operation appears to be density dependant. Lions, which are simultaneously co-operative and territorial, provide an example which we might view from a more objective distance. Males will protect the pride from outsiders, and females communally raise cubs and hunt. When resources are limited, group selection will favour the prides that fight off outsiders more ferociously and work together to hunt. But when prey is abundant, co-operation is no longer beneficial enough to outweigh the disadvantages of altruism and hunting is no longer a co-operative effort.
Could this be the same for humans? When resources are plentiful, as they have been in the Western World over the past few decades, selfish behaviour tends to win out over co-operation. Hence we arrive at a world where a free market economics of every man for himself is the prevailing logic of the day. But looking back at leaner times, or poorer parts of the world, and noting with embarrassment the extraordinary generosity of people who have nothing, we find myriad examples of people under pressure making sacrifices to help those around them. The two World Wars are perhaps the most frightening cases of groups (nations, races), working together with devastating efficiency under the necessity of survival to compete with rival outside groups. (N.B. “co-operation” is not synonymous with “morally good”)
Sadly, theories about co-operation in evolution have not received nearly as much emphasis and pop-science air time as those about selfishness. This is because ideas which rationalise the basis of power always receive a bigger stage than those which undermine them.
To put it another way, if you are a dictator or a corporate fat cat it is simply more palatable to hear that evolution is a matter of ruthless competition, rather than selfless co-operation. The first theory justifies the size of your wallet, and your waistband, as the inevitable result of your evolutionary merit, whereas the second informs you that you are a bad example of your species unless you share your wealth and power with those around you. And since rulers and CEOs have great influence over the flow of information it is only natural, as they say, that the first theory has received more amplification than the second.
Eventually evolution became so misunderstood that we ended up with Social Darwinism, a moral and political philosophy so unbalanced that it has been used to excuse any and all infamy from the exploitation of labour to eugenics. And poor altruism lay scrumpled up and forgotten at the bottom of the intellectual waste paper basket, written off as an evolutionary mistake.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that you’ve never heard of the person who first pointed out that co-operation, or mutual aid as he called it, had been hugely under-emphasized as a factor of evolution. Even less so when I tell you that he was an impressively bearded Russian anarchist. But, lest you think I’m becoming predictable, I will now tell you that he was a prince. An anarchist prince! Drink humble champagne, socialists.
As can only befit a contradiction so wild it threatens to flip reverse the very idea of stereotypes, our anarchist prince’s story is so compelling that it deserves a lengthy digression.
A famous geographer and zoologist, and an anarchist in secret, Prince Peter Kropotkin used his influential position in The Imperial Geographic Society in St. Petersburg as a cover for political activism with an underground socialist group called The Circle of Tchaikovsky. As well as writing and distributing revolutionary pamphlets, Kropotkin used to disguise himself as a peasant under the pseudonym Borodín and give talks to small groups of weavers.
Slowly the police began to tighten their grip. In the middle of March 1874 the police arrested two weavers; “most unreliable fellows” Kropotkin called them, who “would surely set the police at once upon the track of Borodín, the man dressed as a peasant, who spoke at the weavers’ meetings. Within a week’s time all the members of our circle, excepting Serdukóff and myself, were arrested.”
Kropotkin planned to leave St. Petersburg, but had just finished a paper about glacial formations which was due to be presented in a week’s time to the Geographical Society, and he couldn’t bring himself to leave without first presenting the culmination of years of research.
When the day came, his findings were so well received that he was nominated to become president of the society. Amidst the congratulations Kropotkin slipped quietly home, destroyed any evidence of activism that might compromise anyone within the Circle, packed, left via the service entrance and ducked into a waiting cab. Before long he was overtaken by a cab bearing one of the weavers who had been arrested the week before. The weaver waved to him, and thinking that the man had been released and might need help, Kropotkin ordered his cab driver to stop. Immediately a detective jumped out from beside the weaver and arrested our anarchist prince on the spot.
He was held in prison for two years before his friends engineered a brilliant and daring escape plan, communicated to Kropotkin in a coded message hidden inside the face of a watch delivered to the prison a day earlier. Due to deteriorating health, Kropotkin was allowed to walk under supervision for an hour every day in a courtyard which led out through a guarded gate onto the street. One of Kropotkin’s friends was assigned to distract the guard, at which moment a violinist, sitting just outside the walls of the prison, would play to signal that the coast was clear:
“Immediately the violinist — a good one, I must say — began a wildly exciting mazurka from Kontsky, as if to say, “Straight on now, — this is your time!” I moved slowly to the nearer end of the footpath, trembling at the thought that the mazurka might stop before I reached it. When I was there I turned round. The sentry had stopped five or six paces behind me; he was looking the other way. “Now or never!” I remember that thought flashing through my head. I flung off my green flannel dressing-gown and began to run.”
As Kropotkin ran through the gate his friend was distracting the guard, whom they knew had been employed for a time at a laboratory, with a shaggy dog story about microscopes. Kropotkin relays their conversation in glorious detail:
“Referring to a certain parasite of the human body, he asked, “Did you ever see what a formidable tail it has?” “What, man, a tail?” “Yes, it has; under the microscope it is as big as that.” “Don’t tell me any of your tales!” retorted the soldier. “I know better. It was the first thing I looked at under the microscope.” This animated discussion took place just as I ran past them and sprang into the carriage. It sounds like fable but it is fact.”
A racehorse had been bought specially for the occasion and the carriage set off so quickly that they almost overturned at the first bend. They were chased by soldiers who searched for a cab to pursue them, but there were none to be found. Kropotkin’s friends had hired out every one for miles around.
They took Kropotkin to a barber to have his beard shaved and went to hide in the one place where they realised nobody would think to look. While the police searched the city high and low, our anarchist Prince and his friends celebrated his escape – can you beat it – in the most expensive restaurant in St. Petersburg.
Eventually Kropotkin escaped to England where he developed his theories about co-operation in evolution into a book called Mutual Aid, and became involved in the socialist movement here, befriending, amongst other people, George Bernard Shaw.
Which brings me smoothly back to patriotism. Oscar Wilde called patriotism ‘the virtue of the vicious’, although I prefer Samuel Johnson’s ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel’. This ludicrously illogical phenomenon suddenly makes sense from the perspective of group evolution. A country with a few fervently patriotic soldiers willing to lay down their lives for their country is likely to do better in military conflict than a country whose population are only interested in their own survival. Thus in a world divided into nation states, patriotism, as an example of selfless dedication to the group, makes evolutionary sense.
So what’s my point then? That nationalist political parties with racially insular mindsets such as the Nazis or UKIP are simply the logical evolutionary response whenever the belt strings are tightened? Well partly, yes, but there is another piece of the puzzle missing.
Because the size of the groups in which we operate are now far bigger than ever before. Despite obvious periodical setbacks, the groups that we live in have grown continually bigger throughout mankind’s history from smaller to larger tribes to nation states and finally, flounderingly, to groups of nations, the Union of South American Nations, the dreaded E.U etc.
Even now the internet is providing fascinating examples of the beginnings of co-operation on a global scale. Not in a U.N.-let’s-all-sit-round-an-imposingly-massive-circular-table-with-little-plaques-bearing- the-names-of-the-countries-we-“represent”-in-front-of-our-dimly-lamp-lit-faces kind of way, but in a colony-of-ants-co-operation-through-chaos-in-self-organising-systems kind of way.
Allow me to refer you to my next uncelebrated genius, Francis Heylighen:
“The use of pheromones to mark foraging trails by ants is a paradigmatic example…the more often ants successfully travel a trail to find food, the more pheromones they leave behind, and therefore the more the trail becomes attractive to other ants searching for food. The strength of a pheromone trail is a quantitative measure of its probability to lead to a positive outcome. The basic mechanism under the label of “ant algorithms”, whereby useful paths are gradually reinforced and less useful ones weakened, provides a very general heuristic to tackle a variety of otherwise nearly intractable problems in computer science.
Furthermore, the same mechanism seems to underlie learning in the brain: neuronal connections that are successfully used become stronger; the others become weaker. It is this analogy that initially inspired me to conceive of the World-Wide Web as a potential Global Brain. The web is a distributed network of documents connected by hyperlinks along which people travel (“surf”) from page to page…when people surfing the web end up at a particularly interesting page, they are likely to create one or more new links from their own pages pointing directly to it, thus shortcutting the long sequence they followed before finding it. This increases the number of links to the page, and the probability that other people would encounter it.”
You can begin to see what he is getting at. The internet is providing the framework for co-operation on a global scale, co-operation that happens spontaneously without the need for hierarchical control or centralised planning. Wikipedia is perhaps the perfect example:
“…since no single individual would be able to provide such an extensive coverage of all of humanity’s knowledge. And since the different contributions are integrated into a well-organized and extensively cross-linked web of articles, the whole is clearly more than the sum of its parts.
Yet, the collaboration between Wikipedia contributors is essentially indirect. Over its history of a few years a typical article has been edited by a few dozen different people from different parts of the globe. In general, these people have never met or even communicated from person to person. Their only interaction is indirect, through the changes that the one makes to the text written by the other. When they disagree about how to express a particular subject, the one may repeatedly correct the statements written by the other and vice versa, until perhaps a compromise or synthesis emerges—which may have been proposed by one or more third parties. This is variation and selection at work.”
So you see that in this ever more intricately interconnected world, the group that we live and co-operate within cannot be thought of as anything smaller than the entire human race.
We live in a world where a cure discovered in Switzerland saves lives in Namibia, where croudfunding websites let a boy in Kentucky donate $5 to the building of a well in Ethiopia, where the decision to buy a slightly more expensive packet of coffee in your local supermarket has an impact on wages in Colombia, where wars are fought with economic sanctions and cyber attacks, and revolutions are started through facebook. Nation states are now little more than imaginary lines drawn on a map. We are transitioning to a world where borders and boundaries do not exist.
Can there be any better illustration of this transition than Kropotkin? Who risked his liberty to improve the lives of peasants all over Russia, but finally sacrificed it so that he could amend mankind’s metaphorical Wikipedia page about glacial formations?
And in this global society with its ever increasing population and ever rising temperatures, the need for us to co-operate will only get stronger.
But as Kropotkin, Heylighen, and many people before and since, move towards co-operation on a global scale, UKIP the “us and them” mindset they epitomise remain a page behind. Like the patriot who will kill for his country but won’t die for humanity, UKIP is something of an evolutionary dinosaur, the residual effects of group selection pressures before the groups grew to include the people they seek to exclude.
Let’s hope it doesn’t take a catastrophe for them to catch up.