Group Selection, Belonging and Self-Justification

“Many people hold positions so hardened that if you ask them where they stand on the issue, they answer not with their own opinion, but with a horror story about a foe.”

This from a Boston Globe article about food expiration dates. I’m not a  hardliner on expiration dates —  though I notice dates on eggs, milk and some pantry items and sometimes toss them when they’re a ways beyond the date — but what interests me isn’t the topic of food expiration at all but this very apt and elegant characterisation of how we argue, how I try to prove that I am right by showing that you are wrong: We sometimes impugn and repudiate someone we think is our opposite by attempting to show how stupid, careless, dangerous, closed-minded, illogical, unfair, unkind and/or  evil he or she (the “foe”) is, either individually and personally or as part of their presumed group. In some way, we make the other our foe in order to make ourselves right.

Which reminds me of James Alison’s comments in Knowing Jesus (excerpted here), about justification by faith vs. self-justification:

“Self-justification is of course when I justify myself over and against someone, or something else. I am trapped in a defensive, or self-justifying position if I constantly depend on comparison with, or approval from, others. That means that my sense of identity, my security is built over-against others, and is not simply, gratuitously given. I am dependent on various ways of showing that I am different, separate, not part of the crude mass of humanity.”

Another way we make ourselves right, as Alison notes in this excerpt, is by making ourselves the victim. (Even in the context of the article cited above, you can see that one could attempt to prove one’s correctness about expiration dates by appealing to the idea that the other will poison you!). Alison says:

“[O]ne of the key moves in modern society if you want to establish your credentials … [is to] cast ourselves as victims…. [T]his makes us pure and innocent. Society is the villain. … [But] the danger is much more that you are either actively, or by omission, or both, a victimizer. … The person who thinks of himself or herself as the victim is quick to divide the world into ‘we’ and ‘they.’ In the knowledge of the risen victim there is only a ‘we,’ because we no longer need to define ourselves over against anyone at all. … Knowing Jesus implies, of necessity, a gradual setting free from any tribal sense of belonging, and the difficult passage into a sense of belonging that is purely given.”

This is what I consider the good news of the gospel.

EO Wilson - Lord of the AntsE.O. Wilson’s latest group-selection thinking on altruism in animals, including humans — that’s it not necessarily kin based but group based, and that “under certain circumstances, groups of cooperators can out-compete groups of non-cooperators, thereby ensuring that their genes — including the ones that predispose them to cooperation — are handed down to future generations” — ties into all this for me, too. When I read about Wilson’s theory (also in the Globe), I thought, duh. Of course, then the article went on for two pages about the centrality of the mathematics to the concept, and about that I have no idea. But experience as a human suggests to me that what Wilson hypothesises, to much clamor and fury in the scientific world, is obvious, and very much at the heart of Rene Girard’s thinking, too:

“‘Human beings have an intense desire to form groups, and they always have,’ Wilson said. ‘This powerful tendency we have to form groups and then have the groups compete, which is in every aspect of our social behavior…is basically the driving force that caused the origin of human behavior.'”

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