Barbara has the week off. If she didn't, she might caution against writing on something about which I know so little. But since that admonishment applies to almost everything in Drinks Before Dinner, onward and upward

Glenn Beck:
“When I see a 9/11 victim family on television, or whatever, I’m just like, ‘Oh shut up.’ I’m so sick of them because they’re always complaining.”

“The only [Katrina victims] we’re seeing on television are the scumbags.”

Michele Bachmann:
“I don’t know where we’re going to get all this money because we’re running out of rich people in this country.”

Rush Limbaugh:
“We’ve already donated to Haiti. It’s called the U.S. Income Tax.”

Ann Coulter:
“I don’t really like to think of it as a murder. It was terminating [Dr. George] Tiller in the 203rd trimester…. I am personally opposed to shooting abortionists, but I don’t want to impose my moral values on others.”

“There are a lot of bad Republicans. There are no good Democrats.”

Rand Paul:
(on BP) “Sometimes, accidents just happen.”

No to health care reform. No to financial reform. No to environmental legislation. No to temporarily suspending further drilling in the Gulf. No to extending unemployment benefits.

The quotes above from high-profile voices in the Republican Party, along with that party’s unwavering “no” votes in Congress during the last eighteen months cannot be faulted for inconsistency or uncertainty. The party and those voicing its point of view present a unified summary judgment on what makes human beings tick.

Whether it’s the professorial postures struck by Newt Gingrich, the philosophical cheerleading of Ayn Rand’s supporters, or the junkyard-dog approach to conducting the nation’s business perfected by a Mitch McConnell or Richard Shelby, Republicans see human nature in clear terms.

According to the right, human beings thrive when allowed to pursue their self-interest. Logically (goes the argument), entities created by human beings represent extensions of themselves. That is, corporations and profit-driven institutions equal manifestations of human will. Efforts—especially government efforts-- to regulate or control these acts of human will are at best the product of ignorance, at worst a perverse attempt to thwart the innate drive for self-expression and perfection. The quintessential act of this self-expression, and the most human of all focused activity is the business of making money.

Generally, this view takes its cue from Adam Smith's "invisible hand," matched with a nineteenth-century reading of Darwin. Proponents of Social Darwinism assert that natural selection applies not just to individuals, but to races, societies and nations. Remove all impediments to human will, and “successful” people will thrive, while others go to the wall, which is where nature intends for them to go. In concert with “the white man’s burden,” Social Darwinism served Colonialism well.

Such a view applies an early reading of Darwin to the human organism. It sees our species in terms of club-wielding Flintstones in competition for food and females, but this reading has since been rejected by rational people. Even without later refinements made to evolutionary theory, technology alone has rendered it obsolete: it ignores the functional equality of a small woman’s index finger compared to that of a sumo wrestler when pushing a button in, say, a nuclear missile silo.

In the Sixties, British biologist William Hamilton founded studies in animal behavior that later became widely known through E.O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology. In 1964, Hamilton put forth a hypothesis that came to be known as Hamilton’s rule. In the simplest terms, the rule says that we practice altruism (the devil itself to Ayn Rand’s disciples, and to most right wingers) to those whose survival is needed as insurance that our own genes will survive.

In short, you look after kinfolk who carry your genetic code, and you do it for reasons of self-interest. Are you your brother’s keeper? Should you lay down your life for your brother? In genetic terms, the answer is yes, but only for two brothers, or for four cousins, because they will carry forward your genes.

This “rule” has opened the door for further study that seeks to explain acts of generosity and kindness (and ultimately the origins of morality) in terms of evolution.

If all this means anything to you, you can see why any success in locating an evolutionary basis for things like social justice and generosity would cause most conservatives to go ballistic. Provide a verifiable, science-based justification for “doing good” in liberal terms, and the “up yours, Jack, I’ve got mine” philosophy has the rug pulled out from under it.

The champion of this effort is Robert Trivers, an eccentric genius whose early career included advanced study (and self-taught mastery) of multiple disciplines, dangerous breakdowns resulting from bi-polar disorder, radical politics, and much else. Out of this hodgepodge, Trivers finally focused on the knotty question of why it is that animals often come to the aid of others to whom they are not related, sometimes even to members of other species. He refers to it as “the evolution of reciprocal altruism.”

It’s one thing to save your brother from drowning, and thereby, “rescue” copies of your own genes for the future, but why jump in to save a stranger?

Trivers’ studies include not just math (he taught himself calculus at fourteen), biology and psychology, but also history and anthropology. From a growing body of data, what he has come to believe is that, in the primordial past, human evolution rewarded those who practiced kindness in tribal society by establishing a debt of gratitude. If I save you and yours, you are more likely, should the need arise, to save me and mine.
No doubt an Ayn Rander or a latter-day Newt Gingrich or a trickle-down economist like Arthur Laffer will dream up some way to finesse or dismiss this new perspective. Being generous and looking out for others besides those in one’s tiny corner of the gene pool is not compatible with their world view. But if Trivers’ ideas ever capture the popular imagination, “enlightened selfishness” is going to sound more like its true self: a hollow falsehood not even applicable in terms of self-interest.


  1. This is marvelous, Barry! You put out a righteous wonking rant.

    Robert Wright did a very good job of walking readers through the evolution of the Selfish Gene from its natural desire for its own interests forward to the logic of reciprocal altruism. It's best to read The Moral Animal first and Non-Zero next.

    Wright publishes diavlogs with Mickey Kaus and a cast of blogwonks at And, all hung up on the Weltenshauung as I am, I'm a fan of his (my peeps!)

    We've made you a fave at Hen's Teeth!

  2. There is a group of bloggers I'd like to introduce you to: Please check them out. Consider this an invitation to contribute there.

  3. Nance-
    Thanks so much for your kind words, for guidance regarding further reading, and of course for inviting me to contribute to swashzone. As you may have noticed, I've cut back on postings. The demands of summer teaching, along with an offline writing project are the reasons.
    I marvel at how much good writing you manage to produce, not to mention how much reading. Simply put, my own "resources" are more limited. And I have to say, as a liberal, that writing rants has come to seem a kind of onanism. Or pandering. When I refer to the most egregious, high-profile members of the opposition, more and more I see myself as performing a kind of service for them, one repeated thousands of times a day in the mainstream press. There is (almost) no such thing as bad publicity, and nowhere is this more true than with shameless politicians. Just how much significance would ever be attached to (fill-in-the-blank), were he/she simply ignored?

  4. Excellent summary. You'd think that by the 21st C., the acolytes of Rand and Herbert Spencer would be intellectual outcasts; hopefully, what we're hearing are the screams of rage from the last mastodons trapped in the LaBrea tar pits.

    Wilson's memoir, The Naturalist, is well worth reading. Dig up an older edition with the illustrations intact.

    "According to the right, human beings thrive when allowed to pursue their self-interest. Logically (goes the argument), entities created by human beings represent extensions of themselves. That is, corporations and profit-driven institutions equal manifestations of human will...The quintessential act of this self-expression, and the most human of all focused activity is the business of making money."

    One might think that the Wall Street meltdown and the oil spill would quiet this for at least a decent interval, but instead they're shouting louder than ever. What do people think will happen if this gang returns to power? "Think" might be stretching the point, though.

  5. Great post, Barry. You've really nailed it on a lot of fronts and I'm in agreement with every single one of them.

  6. "...she might caution against writing on something about which I know so little." If is your example of knowing so little I think I am frightened of that which you know a lot.

    I am somewhat disgusted at the Party of No being the Party of No for strategic reasons...sacrifice what is right to achieve an avenue of power.

    I pretty much leaned toward the small government philosophy through the Clinton administration. Sometime thereafter my antenna began quivering and now my distrust and angst with the conservative notion is reaching its peak. Your discussion here provides solid roots to those feelings in my gut. Thanks.


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