“Love and Compassion are Necessities, Not Luxuries” – the Dalai Lama.
One of my favorite runs of the year is coming up. Two weeks to go. I feel like a kid anticipating Christmas! There is a wildlife management area located just north of where I live. Each year thousands of tundra swans, snow geese and other waterfowl gather on the man-made lake there to await the perfect time for their journey North. I just checked. 70,000 snow geese were counted today. (How do they make those counts?) More are expected tomorrow. They come every February, congregate on the lake and eat the leftover corn from surrounding fields. One day in late February or early March, one of the geese sounds the call, and they are all gone. Woosh! Like that! Off to their breeding grounds in the tundra.
The road that surrounds the lake is closed to cars and foot traffic from November to March 1. Every year, I try to run the 10k loop around the lake as close to the opening date as possible. This year, barring a blizzard or freezing rain, I plan to be there March 1, running. The run always presents such a dilemma for me. I get to run through some beautiful scenery on a fairly flat, paved road with very little traffic, but I am also a birding nerd, so I want to stop and look at the geese, swans and ducks through binoculars. This year, I have a plan. I am going to allow myself one hour to look at the birds, then do the run. If any daylight is left, I can look at the birds some more.
If you were a snow goose, how would you ever find your friends or family in this flock?
Or this one? How could you find the one face that is more dear to you than any other?
As humans, we love the individual, but Nature loves prolificacy. If one snow goose is good, a hundred thousand are better. Fecundity is the driver of evolution. A small population has a higher chance for genetic drift, which can spell doom. The Amish population in Lancaster County, for example, is descended from a small number of individuals. This makes them susceptible to several inherited genetic diseases, including Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, a disorder that severely compromises the immune system of affected individuals (think “Bubble Boy”).
When we consider Darwinian evolution, we initially may think of individualism, the survival of the fittest, the struggle of each organism to propagate at any cost. That view, however, is an oversimplification of how evolution actually works. The best strategy for any organism is the one that allows it to survive to reproduce. As it turns out, the best strategy for many organisms is cooperation, selflessness and altruism.
Despite the American construct of rugged individualism, most people do not live isolated on a mountaintop or as a hermit in a cave. Even those few who do, still take advantage of the benefits of being surrounded by society. They travel on public roads, breathe clean air protected by environmental laws, and enjoy police protection paid for by the community. We are social animals, and we survive best through collaboration. In this regard, evolution and religion agree. In the New Testament, we are told that to “love your neighbor as yourself” is one of the greatest commandments. Individualism implies leading a life in your own way, without regard for others. This is the antithesis of the Christian philosophy of community, love, fellowship and interdependence.
Human evolution has made us caring, social creatures, sacrificing individual desires for the benefit of family and community. At no point in human history have we ever been free to do whatever we want. Our survival has always been dependent on relationships with others. The veneration of the individual goes against both Biblical and natural precepts.
The title of this article is a quote from the Dalai Lama. The quote continues “without them, humanity cannot survive“. Compare these conflicting quotes by Martin Luther King and Ayn Rand. King said that “Every man must decide if he will walk in the light of creative altruism or the darkness of destructive selfishness.” Rand, on the other hand, stated “I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: ‘I.’ ” King, obviously, has both the Bible and evolution on his side. Considering “I” to be god, will hardly bring joy and peace and pride to a society.
Where we get into trouble then, is when our own individual desires conflict with society’s. This is a problem if we act in a way that goes against our evolution and biblical teachings, if we put our individual needs above our community’s. We are hard wired to be altruistic. Society breaks down if too many of us act in ways that are not compassionate.
Why are we so enamored of the individual? Why not? I seem so lovable. So, I am sure, do you. “Humanity” is too big, too abstract to get worked up about. We love individuals. We like dogs, for example (maybe substitute “cats” here if that suits you better), but if we think of the one (or more) dog who lives in our heart, the verb changes to love. We all build our web of connections – our society – based on feelings that we have for individuals. We can’t love the forest, so we love the individual trees. We can’t have a society until we first love individuals.
I wonder if the snow geese that I am going to see sometimes look at the hordes of birdwatchers and tourists pointing binoculars and scopes at them and wonder “how do they tell each other apart?” Do they just see us in aggregate as we see them, or can they see the individuals?