We think of compassion as a universal moral position, but when the choice is compassion or survival, pragmatism will always win out.
In one chapter of Jacob Bronowski’s classic BBC series and companion book, The Ascent of Man, he follows a modern Persian nomadic tribe, the Bakhtiari, and uses them as an illustration about what humanity is like without civilization. These nomads still live pretty much like their ancestors did in prehistory, constantly moving their flock to find pasture.
They constantly, chronically live at the very edge of survival. Despite their culture, their language, their traditions, and all the things that make them human, their lives have not risen far beyond that of the animals they tend: every day, all day, is a struggle to get through to the next day, the next season, and the next year.
Everything these nomads own, they carry. There is no time for science, art, literature, and certainly not for physical comfort. And there is no progress or prosperity. Anything in their lives that has changed or improved, is a result of civilization and progress elsewhere. Those living on the edge simply don’t have time or resources to invest in anything new, in anything that does not contribute to the next meal.
These nomads are, in the very strictest meaning of the word, conservative: everything they do is done as it was by their ancestors a thousand, perhaps ten thousand, years ago. Their skills do not change, their songs do not change, their customs do not change.
Most importantly, their ideas do not change.
This is not a knock on conservatism, but rather, on extreme conservatism. Extreme conservatism and extreme liberalism are both unattractive, and for different reasons, both are unworkable. This is an argument for moderatism. And it is a warning about what will happen to us without a healthy dose of pragmatism.
To our concerns here, it is also a comment on luxury, and compassion. At one point in Bronowski’s discussion of the Bakhtiari, he describes the rigors of crossing a treacherous river. When faced with this dangerous feat of strength and endurance, sometimes an elder member of the tribe decides not to attempt it. He or she simply stays behind to die. In a poignant turn of phrase, Bronowski notes, “Only the dog is puzzled to see a man abandoned.”
It seems brutal and inhumane. But to do otherwise, to stay and offer assistance, or to try to carry someone across the fast current, means danger and possibly death for one or more other people. And to continue to feed and care for someone who can no longer contribute detracts from the existentialist struggle to survive, and endangers the whole tribe.
We think of compassion and human dignity as universals, we insist that they are ethical and moral imperatives. As much as we might wish otherwise, and as much as some of our greatest philosophers have argued otherwise, they are not. The final arbiter is always nature and the struggle for existence.
For those living at the edge, compassion is a luxury. If we think compassion and human dignity are desirable and even wise, there are no guarantees. We must create these things, and we must constantly defend them.
And as we work for justice we must remember that, for some people today, and for the great majority of our history, our concepts of what is ethical and moral represent impossible luxuries. Compassion, equality, and defense of the weak are very modern ideas.
We cannot make our world better by ignoring the hard realities that many people have faced, and that many still face today.
As a physician and a biologist, as well as a guy who is improvising his way through life like everyone else, I have come to believe we don’t pay enough attention to the animal, visceral motors that drive us. Those biological drivers, and our ignorance of them, cause unending problems. There are, of course, those who insist that we are entirely logical animals, that we are John Locke’s pure tabulae rasae, all nurture, no nature.
Just try to suppress a sneeze. If that seems fatuous, try to control your temper. And then reflect on how many people that you love, whom you have hurt when angry.
Malthus & the Struggle for Survival
But to my point on compassion, I find it interesting that fundamentalists excoriate Charles Darwin. Because to my mind, the real villain — if we are to blame the messenger — is one Thomas Malthus. As an English cleric, Malthus would have probably rejected Darwinism as heresy, even though he proved essential to Darwin’s discovery.
In Malthus’s Essay on the Principal of Population1)The full title is ‘Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers, Printed for J. Johnson, in St. Paul’s Church-yard, 1798.’ St. Paul’s Church-yard, London. Not exactly a model of brevity. he points out that animals, including people, eventually reproduce beyond their resources. For humans, that means expanding our numbers beyond the food that the Earth can possibly produce. It doesn’t matter how much land we farm, it doesn’t matter how efficiently we produce food. It doesn’t matter if we colonize the whole universe. If something does not restrain us, we will reproduce more people — more children — than food. Which creates a very ugly game of musical chairs.
I was thinking about this in the clinic the other day, when a profoundly disabled man came in with one of his two full-time caretakers. Government pays for his caretakers; for his food, clothing, necessities and perhaps a small amount for entertainment; for his sizeable medical and other therapy bills; and for the bureaucracy that manages all of it.
I’m not complaining. I, like most people, don’t want to consider any other option. But it doesn’t matter; Malthus is waiting in the background, and if our system fails, he steps in. Most scholars curse Social Darwinism, which is the idea that the poor and the weak should be allowed to die. But ironically Social Darwinism didn’t need Darwin. It could have been called ‘Social Malthusianism’.
What is the Color of Paradise?
What would happen to that handicapped man if our country weren’t so incredibly wealthy? I remember a film that came out years ago, The Colour of Paradise. I think anyone concerned about the human condition should have to watch it.
But only once. It is beautiful, but heart-breaking.
It takes place in Iran, which is also the home of the Bakhtiari. The story revolves around Mohammed, a blind boy whose mother dies. He is adored by his sisters and grandmother, but his father sees him as an obstacle to obtaining a good marriage.
The little boy wonders why God does not love him and made him blind, and he constantly searches the plants and nature around him, trying to find a Braille message God might have left for him. Finally while traveling with his father, the boy falls into a rapid river—another connection to the Bakhtiari—and for a few moments his father simply watches as the boy struggles for survival, relieved to be free of his burden. He finally jumps in the water to save him, but he is too late. The child is dead.
Most of us could never watch a child, particularly not a helpless child with a profound handicap, drowning without jumping in to save him. I could not.
But as a biologist let me ask an ugly question that we need to ask if we are to create a better world: Did the father make the right decision? If you find that repulsive, let me change it. What about the Bakhtiari nomads? Should they let a blind child drown?
Again, most of us could never consider such a thing. But for people for whom survival is a constant struggle, with absolutely no luxury, would the sin be in letting the child die?
Or if the cost of supporting a child who cannot contribute threatens an entire tribe surviving at the fringes, is the sin in saving him?
The sad thing is that it doesn’t matter what we think, really. Biology is severe, and ugly: those who do not make the hard, pragmatic decision lose the competition of life, and disappear. What is left are the brutal and compassionless people.
The Dismal Science
There is good reason that economics is called ‘The Dismal Science.’ Animals, including humans, who do not follow pragmatism, who do not make tough economic decisions, perish. It is only in the last few decades that we have had sufficient luxury to escape the ugly realities of life. It is only recently that we have not had to worry, daily, over survival. But the instincts, and the traditions, are still with us.
And here is my concern for the modern world: Right now, we are playing very dangerous games with modernity. We are flirting with the same sort of narcissists and sadists who controlled civilization for the first 10,000 years. And they are amassing more wealth, more power, and more control. They will gladly sacrifice our lives, and the modern world, for even more wealth, power, and control.
If we do not pursue pragmatism, if we are not aware of those hard realities, if we do not stop the kleptoplutocrats and design strategies around the first law of biology, then precisely these horrors will return. We will all be forced into strangled resources, where we constantly have to fight ‘us or them’ competitions.
This is the reality of the past.
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‘The Good Samaritan’ by George Frederic Watts courtesy of WikiMedia.org.
Picture of Mohsen Ramezani, playing Mohammed from The Colour of Paradise, courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. ©1999, all rights reserved.
Footnotes [ + ]
|1.||↑||The full title is ‘Essay on the Principle of Population as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, with Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers, Printed for J. Johnson, in St. Paul’s Church-yard, 1798.’ St. Paul’s Church-yard, London. Not exactly a model of brevity.|