Bernard Malamud’s God’s Grace (1982) is a neo-Darwinian beast fable about morality in a thermonuclear age. It serves me as a starting point for a fresh look at the fundamental questions surrounding morality and altruism. I also look at thirty five thousands proverbs from around the world and at the patterns of individual and group behaviour they describe.
Of Morality, Proverbial Wisdom, and Bernard Malamud’s God’s Grace
God’s Grace paints a front-seat picture of the global Armageddon: tsunami floods, radiation everywhere, the implosion of the biosphere so catastrophic that even cockroaches perish, and the life in death of the last human on Earth, Calvin Cohn. A paleologist and former rabbinate student, Cohn eludes the Bomb and the wrath of the Almighty by virtue of working at the sea bottom. In the afterglow of the holocaust, he and Buz—a young chimp prodigy he finds on the surface vessel —drift for weeks before getting shipwrecked on a tropical island, their Ararat and purgatory.
Like other protagonists of post-apocalyptic narratives, from A Canticle for Leibowitz to The Day After, Cohn takes it as his duty to rekindle civilization from nuclear ashes. There is only one problem. As God rumbles from on high, piqued at finding him alive, he is the only human to survive the Second Flood. Unfazed, Cohn transfers his promethean designs onto Buz and others of his kind who begin to appear on the island. The Lord seems to approve for, equipped with an artificial larynx, Buz miraculously masters human speech. No less miraculously, he teaches it to others.[i]
A New World Adam, Cohn gives names to the newcomers and, displaying resourcefulness that would make Robinson Crusoe proud, proceeds to engineer a chimpanzee society. Not to replicate the errors of the past, in lieu of a political constitution he lays down seven Admonitions for the post-human age in the hope of steering his communards toward a better life. Daily he lectures to the grooming apes on history, sociobiology and altruism. Impatient at the pace of progress, he even monkeys with evolution by begetting a child with a “womantically” inclined female, Mary Madelene.
Yet the more he educates the apes under the Schooltree and presses them to obey the dictates of brotherly love, the more nature rears its head, dragging the community towards anarchy. Little by little, the quasi-Edenic garden—on which even insect-pollinated trees get pollinated in the absence of insects—devolves into a primeval jungle. Hostility, racism and eventually cannibalism write the closing chapters of the communal history. In the final scene, the prodigal son Buz leads captive Cohn up the mountain to slay him in a reversal of the story of Abraham and Isaac. At last, humanity is no more.
Crucially, the relation between God’s Grace and The Fate of the Earth is the opposite of that between God’s Grace and Walden Two. On the surface, the fictional communities conceived by Skinner and Malamud teem with similarities. Both are small and isolated farming groups founded and dominated by alpha-male scientists. Both human leaders are, at once, insiders and outsiders. Both engineer their societies from the bottom up, even as neither relinquishes top-down control. Both abjure violence, putting their faith in positive reinforcement instead. Both, in their separate ways, go back to nature to better human nature.[ii]
But apart from the knack for telling a good story, what separates a literary masterpiece from a behaviourist pamphlet is evolution. Where Skinner disregards the behavioural aspects of human adaptations, Malamud makes our genetic carry-on the centrepiece of his plot. Where Skinner’s social engineers cure everyone of such primal instincts as parental investment, status seeking, gossip, cheating, envy or jealousy, Malamud lets them run their course. Taking issue with the closing of the American mind, he even has his protagonist educate the apes on the Descent, Advent, Ascent of Man as Darwin and Wallace had propounded the theory of species and natural selection; adding a sketch on sociobiology, with a word about the nature-nurture controversy (152).
God’s Grace challenges our degree of autonomy from the ancestral Homo insofar as the latter is the progenitor of so many behaviours of the modern human. This anthropological—not to say sociobiological—perspective is no mere poetic licence. A lifelong teacher and professor of literature, in preparation for the novel Malamud became a student of evolution. Even as he steeped himself in Thoreau’s Walden, he steeped himself in primatology, paleoanthropology and evolutionary psychology, reading everything from Louis Leakey’s Unveiling Man’s Origins to Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man.
In a radical step for a writer of fiction, he even spent a year at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, absorbing the essentials of within-group and between-group selection. Having done his homework, he makes it clear that evolution is an ideal vantage point from which to contemplate human society and morality. All would-be social reformers who discount the bedrock of biology have only so much, or so little, chance of success. This is what I set out to prove below, armed with the latest in sociobiological research and the oldest of folk wisdom.
Human Morality, Primate Sociality
It seems entirely possible that chimpanzees, as they progress in their evolution may, if their unconscious minds insist, incite molecular changes that will sooner or later—sooner, I hope—cause them to develop into a species something like man.
Bernard Malamud, God’s Grace
Before violence and aggression scuttle the communal experiment, Cohn sets up seven Admonitions on the face of a mountain. These quasi-Mosaic edicts are to safeguard the principles that the social engineer sees as essential for a politically just and spiritually enlightened society. Like the Christian injunctions against the seven deadly sins, they are a distillate of the dual nature of his endeavour. On the one hand, they reflect the nobility of his eutopian aspirations. On the other, by the very fact of being posted, they testify to the need to redirect the truant onto the path of virtue.[iii]
- We have survived the end of the world; therefore cherish life. Thou shalt not kill.
- Note: God is not love, God is God. Remember Him.
- Love thy neighbor. If you can’t love, serve—others, the community. Remember the willing obligation.
- Lives as lives are equal in value but not in ideas. Attend the Schooltree.
- Blessed are those who divide the fruit equally.
- Altruism is possible, if not probable. Keep trying. See 3 above.
- Aspiration may improve natural selection. Chimpanzees may someday be better living beings than men were. There’s no hurry but keep it in mind.[iv]
In interview after interview, Malamud cited his formative influences to be World War II and the Holocaust, the continuing racial strife in America, and the threat of nuclear war. Political and sociopolitical, all these concerns are reflected in the blueprint for the primate community. The spectre of nuclear winter, lit by the embers of atomic blasts, drives the First Admonition. The Second replaces the Christian mantra “God is love” with an elliptical reminder that God is the ultimate unknown. So much for invoking his will as an excuse for bigotry and war—or for arming American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan with rifle sights stencilled with biblical references.
With Russia and the U.S. separated only by 85 kilometres of Bering Strait, the Third Admonition is a reminder that ICBMs have shrunk the world to the size of a neighbourhood. Grafting the Schooltree onto the biblical Tree of Knowledge, the Fourth exhumes the ghosts of John Scopes and the 1925 Monkey Trial. The Fifth Admonition to distribute resources equitably rings with especial force in the United States where the wealth of the top 1 percent exceeds that of the bottom 95 percent.[v] The Sixth goes after the geopolitical divisions that often limit the right to peaceful coexistence only to those who share our patch of dirt.
The Seventh Admonition, however, seems different. Talking about natural selection, it veers away from politics and anything else we might term “culture”. Or does it? Malamud thinks not, leaving no doubt that the alleged divide between the alleged determinacy of genetic inheritance and the alleged indeterminacy of cultural expression is a red herring:
Cohn lectured on the development of the great apes and ascent of homo sapiens during the course of evolution. He had several times lectured on natural selection—the maximization of fitness, someone had defined it—a popular subject with his students. It promised possibilities if one made himself—or in some way became—selectable. (187)
If the apes wish to become more selectable, they can do something about it instead of waiting for adaptive behaviours to grind themselves out over eons. Put differently, social engineering can guide natural selection in a co-evolutionary pas de deux. Culture is, after all, an adaptation. For a very long time now, it has been changing the genetic character of human populations via multi-level selection. On second thoughts, Cohn’s lecture about the road to eutopia being paved by social engineering and evolution is far from an anomaly. All seven Admonitions make as much sense from a sociopolitical as from a sociobiological point of view.
The First Admonition reflects the core precept of moral codes worldwide: Thou shalt not kill. Naturally, from Yahweh commanding the Israelites to smite their enemies to modern nations butchering one another for democracy, killing has always been legitimized under some circumstances. In evolutionary terms, self-sacrifice is an established fact, but altruistic tendencies are on the whole less intense than the impulse for personal survival. When people get hungry enough, they will eat each other. When newly dominant males kill the displaced leader’s offspring, they have equally adaptive reasons for doing so.
Against this background Malamud’s beast fable is once again nuanced and true to life. The raid on Cohn and the butchery of his child are perfectly consistent with predation, signifying that deep down the chimps may regard the human as a different species. Conversely, if they see Cohn as a chimp, their behaviour makes equal adaptive sense. After all, by deposing the dominant male and by getting rid of his progeny they induce Mary Madelyn into estrus. Throughout all this, the apes are murderous but highly cooperative. Their behaviour is not prosocial but it is highly social.
The Second Admonition attempts to prise morality away from doctrinal religion. Historically religion has frequently been a flashpoint for antagonism and intolerance, fragmenting us into sects and factions, only to pit one against another. For results, look no further than Northern Ireland, or India and Pakistan. And yet, religion can also provide one of the most inclusive tribal identities. In this case, however, the marker is not genetic but cultural.
Religion acts like a centripetal force, herding disparate individuals toward the common centre. There is no one family on earth that is a billion strong, but there are more than a billion Catholics (roughly the same as atheists) united under the Fisher Ring. With God as the overarching tribal leader, religious systems paper over the genetic differences of the believers. Black and white Methodists, Ashkenazi and Coptic Jews, or Iranian and Saudi Shiites can kneel side by side because—even as they fence off non-believers—their religions promote cultural group identity.
The Third Admonition is the moral golden rule, vividly paraphrased by a Pashto proverb: Pinch yourself to find out how much it hurts others.[vi] It is there to counter the adaptive distinctions we always make between the in-group and out-group. From corals to shoaling fish, ants, termites, rodents, flocking herbivores, and primates, not to even mention species that aggregate in family groups, social and colonial animals dominate the world. To survive alongside one another, all must have evolved ways of determining friend from foe and of knowing what to do with either.
Morality evolved to harmonize in-group attitudes, and is therefore biased in favour of those who are with us. As David Berreby documents in Us and Them (2005), sharp distinctions between those who are insiders and outsiders is bred in our genome. Social animals are often xenophobic, hostile to strangers of the same species who live outside the territorial and social boundaries of the group. It is far from a matter of giving trespassers the evil eye. Individuals who stray into others’ territory open themselves to attacks that may be lethal. “Unprovoked” aggression of this sort has been reported for almost all social species.[vii]
The Fourth Admonition reflects the demands of intelligence, culture and social life. Human evolution selected for prolonged childhood, the longest in any animal that ever lived. The Fifth fosters prosocial behaviour through emphasis on egalitarianism and resource sharing. Individual fitness is one thing, but behaviours good for me are seldom good for the group. The thing is, groups also compete with one another, and the more cooperative they are, the better chance they stand of outcompeting the competition. This yin-yang of multilevel selection means that the “selfish gene” cannot be the whole story.
The conceptual apparatus of modern biology has long been thought to be synonymous with Dawkins’s famous meme. We are survival machines, wrote the biologist, programmed to replicate our twisted strands of genetic code. We may do so with the aid of the group or even by contributing to the welfare of the group, but with the ultimate goal of multiplying copies of our DNA. If acts of altruism and selflessness occur on the way, they occur only to the extent that they serve the continuation of the gene beyond the individual currently carrying it.
The Sixth Admonition does not merely encourage a reinterpretation of the selfish gene in more prosocial terms—it demands it. Prosocial behaviour is, after all, compatible with self-serving behaviour, even though they may frequently be only reluctant bedfellows. Far from being maladaptive, self-sacrifice has emerged from the same adaptive pressures that produced more self-oriented forms of social exchange, such as favouring kinfolk and reciprocal back-scratching. There is, in short, no need to look outside evolution to explain why “me first” is not always an enemy of “we first”.
Quite so, maintains a leading evolutionist, for “there is more to evolution than adaptation”.[viii] The Seventh Admonition reinforces this message by stressing the interplay between genetic and social factors. Biology has moved on from the days when Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, framed the nature-nurture dialectic. Today his thesis and antithesis look more like the 1948 Escher lithograph of one hand drawing another in a closed loop. This is because, in all likelihood, gene-culture coevolution was the twin Rolls-Royce engine that lifted hominids from the plains of Africa to the heights of scientific, artistic and material sophistication we enjoy today.
How did it happen? Even if the details are still subject to debate, some facts are beyond doubt. The most evident among them is that people are adapted for culture in ways that apes are not. The crucial difference here is our adaptation for understanding other agents as agents, i.e. intentional beings. This allows us to share a point of view—and thus information—by drawing attention to intention. Evidence suggests, in fact, that, in conjunction with theory of mind, this shared (“we”) intentionality is what drove human cognition. The result? The “ratcheting up” of learning skills and the explosion of culture.[ix]
The key factor in cultural evolution is its fantastic rate. Molecular genetics shows that Homo sapiens separated from apes some six million years ago. Fossil record suggests that for the next four million years we continued as very ape-like australopithecines. Our uniquely human ability to attribute beliefs and intentions is therefore likely less than two million years old. This is a very short time for any cognitive adaptation to emerge. On the other hand, something did manifestly alter primate cognitive selection in spectacular ways. You are the living proof of that. What was it?
Given the speed and the ratcheting effects of this cognitive evolution—perhaps we should say revolution—there is really only one agent of change to fit the job description: culture. Material and symbolic culture is, after all, influenced by biological imperatives and, in turn, biological traits are influenced by cultural selection. Without culture in the picture, write Richerson and Boyd in Not By Genes Alone (2005), “we can’t explain why our societies are so different from those of other primates, the emotional salience of tribal-scale human groups, or their importance in social organization and social conflict” (235).
Genetic variation among groups—especially mixed groups—can’t explain variation in group behaviour. The experience of partitioned nations, from (East) Germany to (North) Korea to (Northern) Ireland, is unequivocal in this respect. So is cross-cultural adoption, whereby children effortlessly adopt the new culture and not that of their genetic parents. Nor can ecological factors be the answer. First of all, all environments on Earth have by now been altered by culture, so that even if the hypothesis were right, it would be wrong. Secondly, the ecological hypothesis would predict similar behaviours in similar environments, which is emphatically not the case.[x]
Genetic and cultural selection have walked hand in hand since at least the early Pleistocene. The result is civilization as we know it: Fatman and Little Boy, the Big Mac, the Lindy hop. That still leaves the question of what evolutionary mechanism acted as the cognitive ratchet. The recently discovered mirror neurons —so-called in distinction to “canonical” neurons—look more and more like a link between natural selection and the evolution of culture. This is because, as we are learning, mirror neurons directly detect and simulate other people’s cognitive and emotional states.[xi]
That’s right: cognitive and emotional states. Take a triadic structure: you, me, and an object—or some relation between objects, or anything else—you want to draw my attention to. Intentional actions and indicated structures, as it turns out, speak directly to our evolved brains. The latter detect intentions even before “we” do, and process them with unerring alacrity. It is not, in other words, a case of “humankey see, humankey do”. Eerily, mirror neurons are attuned to intentions behind movements, the purpose of gestures. You could say that they understand their meaning in terms of goal-directed actions.[xii]
At the cortical level, the brain does not work by tracking motor activity. It does not work, in other words, in terms of extending a forelimb and closing digital protrusions around a tapered cylinder resting a couple of feet away. It works in terms of reaching for a banana in order to eat it. How do we know? Because when the exact same action is repeated in another context—for example, miming the original gesture without actually grasping anything or even without intending to—nothing in the brain fires and nothing activates. Somehow our evolutionary “wet” chips are able to grasp other intentional beings’ minds.
It is important to remember that all this happens without any reflective or inferential mediation. It is an automatic and immediate cortical understanding in the heat of the moment—a looking-glass reflex of my evolved brain. But there is even more. The discharge of these neurons is strikingly similar when an action is performed and when it is merely observed. Mirror neurons are voyeur neurons, primed to activate whether you burn yourself with scalding water or whether you only witness my own injury and distress. And it is not just cognition, either.
When I see you frown, look around and spread your hands while elevating your shoulders, I can reasonably surmise that you are puzzled or lost. But a long time before that I am ready to offer help, because my brain—to be precise, my motor or visceromotor system—understands and feels your disorientation before “I” do. It’s the ultimate case of what-you-see-is-what-you-get. When I watch your pantomime of helplessness, my brain not only knows that you are puzzled or lost, but feels it. This is crucial because morality hinges on empathy, on the capacity for putting yourself in other people’s shoes.[xiii]
Training is one conduit of moral virtue. Aristotle spent years pounding the precepts of goodness into Alexander, who then went to pillage most of the known world. Be that as it may, the rudiments of morality appear to be preloaded into humans. Empathy, the feeling of the feelings of others, is after all the foundation —to many philosophers a precondition—of altruism.[xiv] Altruism, in turn, is the foundation of groupish behaviour, and thus of society as we know it. Naturally, in everyday parlance altruism comes bundled up with goodness. Not so in biology, where it is defined operationally rather than in reference to any intrinsic features.
Regardless of the motives or intentions behind it, if an action that benefits others is costly to the performer, it is considered altruistic. This can include even paradigmatically hostile or aggressive behaviour. Bees that die after stinging, or army ants that get eaten before their numbers can overwhelm the prey, are highly altruistic but hardly benevolent. Both are out to kill. Just because actions benefit someone else’s survival, they must not, therefore, be regarded as good in some transcendent moral sense. By the same token, however, selflessness must not be excluded from the overall economy of social life.
Economists, political scientists and sociologists often reduce us to rational utility maximizers, conspicuously leaving out the human dimension, the capacity for disinterested self-sacrifice. To gauge what is wrong with this picture, we need look no further than Adam Smith. Commonly perceived as a prophet of wealth-maximizing laissez-faire, Smith was much more nuanced a thinker. Not only did he publish a whole book on altruism, but he maintained in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that Man has capacities “which interest him in the future of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it” (9).
Armed with these caveats, let us look at altruism again. Suddenly it seems to be everywhere. Far from an esoteric trait of the likes of St. Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa, benefiting others at cost to self dominates the social landscape. Granted, just because we are all altruists does not mean that all instances of self-sacrifice are equal. But there is no denying that, sometimes at least, we act out of other-directed motives. Or is there? Cynics can always find alternative reasons for even the most altruistic acts. A soldier smothering an exploding grenade with his own body earns not only posthumous fame and decoration, but a hefty pension for his family.
On this interpretation, his apparent altruism is really a roundabout kind of kin selection.[xv] But what about families who report felonious kin to the police in the knowledge that the latter will be sent away for life, or to the chair? Theodore John Kaczynski, aka Unabomber, was not caught as a result of a years-long FBI investigation. His brother recognized the terrorist’s writing style and opinions in the latter’s manifesto and tipped the Feebs. What was in it for him, in the absence of financial reward? Heartlessness does not explain anything since, in many cases, people turn in kin whom they love and support during the trial and later in jail.
My counterevidence may be, however, missing the larger point. As Janet Radcliffe Richards points out, if you raise the bar too high no one will ever be able to jump over. A Doubting Thomas, who always suspects everyone’s motives, writes even the possibility of altruism out of the social equation. In contrast, Richards’s implicit and Donald Broom’s explicit position is that self-sacrifice is not incompatible with self-interest. Naturally, many moral philosophers may find much amiss with this thesis. Genuine morality, they will remonstrate, demands an extension of the willing obligation to the entire human race.
Wouldn’t it be nice? I put more stock, however, in Remarque’s (echoed by Stalin) remark that a single death is a tragedy, while a million deaths is a statistic. We would have to be a very different species to empathize with abstractions such as humanity with the same intensity as with personal acquaintances. This is not to mention the fact that, by these standards, a Martian anthropologist would have to conclude that almost all people are immoral, given that most of us ordinarily limit the radius of our good will to the inner circle of family, neighbours and associates. So do, for that matter, chimps and bonobos.[xvi]
Even more to the point, our Martian would see human and animal morality as continuous, however far removed from each other on the spectrum. Not the same, of course—not by a long shot. He would not conclude that moral judgments that apply to people (the Nuremberg trials leap to mind) should apply to animal predation or aggression. But neither would he waste his time dusting our frontal lobes for God’s latent fingerprints. Human morality, he would conclude, is as much a product of evolution as is our brain architecture, anatomy, propensity for counterfactual thinking, or even some of our proverbs.[xvii]
The Book of Proverbs
Cohn said he thought to be human was to be responsive to and protective of life and civilization.
Buz said he would rather be a chimp.
Bernard Malamud, God’s Grace
Morality is a trait emergent because of a basic fact of existence. Just like many other organisms, we have always needed others of our kind in the struggle for survival. The position that evolution made us moral could not, however, be more at variance with the Christian view that people alone possess moral sense by the grace of God. According to the church, even as it makes us human, morality separates us from the animals—even those closest to us, the great apes. Moral sense could never be mistaken for moral instinct. We may be our primate cousins’ cousins, but not when it comes to altruism.
Nonsense, counters Malamud, making the relation between evolution and morality the backbone of the Admonitions. Not for nothing does his hero urge the apes to “evolve into concerned, altruistic living beings” (146). Moral sense is not a veneer that somehow (how exactly?) emerged via non-evolutionary processes. We are altruistic as a consequence of the same selective pressures that have made us egocentric. Adaptively, it is not difficult to see why. Cooperative and altruistic units tend to outperform self-oriented individuals. As the Spanish proverb says, Three helping each other are as good as six.
And herein lies the rub. Egoism increases our fitness but altruism betters group fitness. Something does not add up, and this something has an analogue in Gödel’s incompleteness theorem.[xviii] The brilliant if highly eccentric mathematician proved that no system past a certain (low) threshold of complexity can be shown to be consistent. It could, in other words, be utter nonsense and you would never know—unless you climb to a hierarchically higher level. Therein, indeed, you can prove to your satisfaction that the first one is trustworthy. But if you think you just got out of paying for lunch, forget it.
The second level lets you verify the consistency of the first, but at a price. Now to determine that the second floor is soundly constructed, you need to climb to the third; for the third to the fourth; and so on, ad infinitum. It is a variant on the chicken-and-egg regression. To make your chicken hatch consistent eggs, you have to verify that the chicken itself is in working order, which means verifying the egg from which it came from, and so on, ad infinitum. Nature iterates this yin-yang architecture independent of scale because, at its most fundamental, mathematics is a fractal.
Why bother? Because multi-level selection is another fractal. Think of it as a recursive function of two evolutionary vectors: one pro-individual, the other prosocial. When competition between individuals gets suppressed, between-group selection emerges as the primary agent of change. But even as cooperation shifts the balance between vectors from “me first” to “we first”, competitive behaviour reappears at the next level up in the biological hierarchy. From eukaryotes all the way up to the earth’s biosphere, all the intermediate stages iterate this yin-yang architecture.
One factor that would seem to cast doubt on multi-level selection is inter-group migration in primates (and presumably in early humans). If groups are so fluid as to be practically nonexistent from the genetic standpoint, there is little for group selection to work on. Unlike apes, however, we cooperate with and within units that far transcend family groups or even the 100-150 strong forager-hunter band sizes. Instead of relying on genetic markers, cultural group identity relies on symbols—language, customs, ideology, religion, and so on. As such, it is largely independent of inter-group migration.
Groups with a higher coefficient of altruism will tend to outcompete rivals and spread the groupish genes. Self-serving behaviour has not, of course, ceased to exist. Far from it—if only because my interests are best served if all except me are altruistic. At every level “me first” behaviour is therefore kept in check by the local police. At the lower levels, for instance, the job is handled by the immune system. Most of the time our cellular organelles, their aggregates (cells), and their aggregates (internal organs) do work well as a team, which is good because their “heave ho” has to synchronize if we are to live.
Naturally, aggregates of organs that we call human beings also engage in competition against other aggregates. Still, even players on a pro-basketball team who vie for individual fame and contracts unite to compete against other teams. Guess what? The yin-yang vectors reappear at the next level up. Teams of players who competed against one another as the Knicks and the Sixers unite into Team USA to compete against other national teams. In principle, this process could go on forever because its architecture is so fundamental (as for Gödel’s theorem, in my opinion, it holds true everywhere in the universe).
Egoism twins with altruism within a group, which twins with competition against other groups, which twins with altruism within groups of groups, which twins with competition against other groups of groups, and so on, independent of scale. Multi-level selection permeates our lives because it is a fractal present at every level of existence. This includes, notably, the level at which we daily forge our destinies: the world of people and societies, of selfish prerogatives and social norms. And if our selfish prerogatives and social norms appear to be in constant tension, it is because they mirror the vectors that shape our lives.
Where would literature scholars look for evidence of these evolutionary vectors? Paleoanthropologists dig for fossils to ascertain who we were and how we lived. Perhaps we could do some excavating among literary fossils? Luckily, there is a body of verbal artifacts available for examination not in musty museums but in the living canons of folk lore. Like hemoglobin cells, these living fossils continually course through the arteries of our civilization, some evergreen, some falling into disuse, continually testing their fitness against the times. They are, as you must have guessed by now, proverbs.
Although no book of proverbs has ever won the Nobel Prize in literature, in itself that says nothing about their literary and social value. A better gauge to their wit and wisdom than the scandal-plagued and blatantly politicized votes of the Swedish Academy is the judgment of one of the fountainheads of our culture: the Hebrew Testament. The Book of Kings teaches that Solomon—the epitome of biblical wisdom—bequeathed no less than three thousand proverbs encapsulating the principles of a good life. No less tellingly, the Book of Proverbs refers to itself as a manual for living.[xix]
Proverbs, as John Russell aphoristically put it, are the wit of one, and the wisdom of many. The reason why we cite them almost daily is precisely because they compress so much élan and wisdom into such a compact delivery platform. It is not necessarily easy to separate proverbs from other miniature forms: adages, apothegms, aphorisms, epigrams, maxims, bon mots or dicta. Some distinctions, however, can be made on the basis of features associated with oral transmission. Having passed from generation to generation, many proverbs are cast in a form that lends itself to easy memorization.
Brevity and pith are high on the agenda (In the friendship of asses, look out for kicks: Behar). So is symmetry (What’s yours is mine, what’s mine is my own: Tamil). So are parallelism and parataxis (Where the power, there the law: Russian), or chiasmus (A stranger, being a benefactor, is a relative; a relative not conferring a benefit is a stranger: Burmese). Other features, not always preserved in translations, are rhyme (In time of test, family is best: Burmese) and alliteration, often augmented with a caesura (Be good with the good, bad with the bad: Latin). Finally, personification and metaphor (Relatives are scorpions: Tunisian).
If some proverbs appear anachronistic, it is because they reflect pre-urban environments. They express prosocial sentiments or interpersonal obligations in reference to farm life (If the cattle are scattered, the tiger seizes them: Burmese), produce (Nine measures of grain for relations, but ten for strangers: Tamil), or domestic animals (When the cat and mouse agree, the grocer is ruined: Iranian). But even if their vehicle is out of date, their tenor isn’t—because social dynamics has not changed that much. To retool Michael Ghiselin’s words, scratch today’s urbanite and watch a pre-urbanite bleed.[xx]
Proverbs are ultimate self-help manuals for dealing with social contexts. Handed down from generation to generation, they are time capsules buried in the minds of speakers of a language. Some are cast in the form of observations (Lying and gossiping go hand in hand: Spanish). Others as admonitions (Do not stretch your feet beyond your carpet: Lebanese) or commandments (Love thy neighbour: Greek). Others still incline toward paradox (A pair of women’s breasts has more pulling power than a pair of oxen: Mexican). All seek to engineer behaviour by retrofitting the social skills of individuals.
But there is a problem. Some proverbs directly contradict others. While the Italians caution that A short tail won’t keep off flies, the Koreans retort that If he tail is too long, it will be trampled on. More familiar advice to look before you leap flies in the face of a reminder that he who hesitates is lost. Clearly, proverbs can be cherry-picked to suit the need of the moment, and it is worth asking why it should be so. One answer is obvious. Proverbs are not logically consistent axioms for living in a group because different behaviours are useful in different contexts.
Just as there is no one adaptation that will work in all ecological systems, there is no one behaviour that will work for all individuals for all times. Instead of explaining these self-contradictions away, however, I think we ought to put them in the spotlight. Proverbs encapsulate the wisdom of societies, predating even the dim beginnings of recorded history. Their transmission over countless generations attests to their strategic value as behavioural recipes. As such, proverbs could be examined as evidence of evolutionary pressures acting on human agents living in a group.
Specifically, to the extent that proverbs reflect deep-seeded economies of human life, some of them ought to be self-contradictory. Since human behaviours are the sum of the selfish and groupish vectors, and since proverbs tap into deep and constant facets of human nature and social dynamics, human verbal artifacts ought to reflect this tension. Some of them, in other words, ought to reflect the interests of the individual, campaigning for “me first” and pointing out the risks that come from truck with others. Others should campaign for “we first”, extolling the benefits of cooperation and altruism and flailing the antisocialist.
Let me firm up these remarks into testable predictions. The first three are general and perhaps self-evident. In any statistically viable sample, we ought to find:
1) a great degree of overlap and redundancy among proverbs from diverse cultures and geographical regions (detectable especially in advice aimed at adaptive behaviours)
2) numerous proverbs dealing with kin (families, marriages, husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings, etc.); numerous proverbs dealing with communal life (neighbours, friends, social leaders, visitors, strangers, etc.); numerous proverbs dealing with social intercourse (exchange, debt, borrowing, fairness, reputation, etc.)
3) a preponderance of men’s point of view (detectable in proverbs dealing with men-women relationships, such as in marital or love-related advice)
My database were proverbs from various cultures and regions of the world —some 35,000 entries in all.[xxi] In all three cases, the null hypothesis proved void: the findings were consistent with the predictions. There is a massive redundancy across cultures. We reinvent the wheel over and over again, so that all proverbs cited in this article have equivalents in numerous other cultures. All nations have their version of When in Rome, do as the Romans do or, in old Bihar version: Suit your appearance to the country. All, even Egyptians almost 4,000 years ago, have their version of the golden rule: Do for one who may do for you, that you may cause him thus to do.
These and countless other examples attest that human nature respects no national boundaries. Folk wisdom comes from insight repeated from one society to another, indexed by its transpersonal character. For historical reasons, classical and biblical sources have been disseminated more widely in our civilization. But they are animated by the same sentiments that animate proverbial wisdom from regions outside the sway of the western civilization, such as Persia and South-east Asia, and from peoples that have retained their nomadic or agrarian way of life.
Proverbs, moreover, are mirrors of our evolutionary priorities. In line with the predictions, communal life and social intercourse dominate the agenda. Many concern themselves with lineages, blood, hereditary characteristics, marriages, weddings, incests, quality of wives, resemblance of children to parents, and so on. At the same time, they also mirror the patriarchal hierarchy of social position and transmission of (oral) knowledge. One hilarious result of this preponderance of men’s point of view is, as I discovered, a venomous hatred of mothers-in-law in all cultures (and not a word anywhere about fathers-in-law)!
So much for the more obvious result of my research. My other predictions are considerably less obvious but, at the same time, more specific. Both attempt to tease out the adaptive tension between the egoistic “me first” and altruistic “we first” vectors:
4) in the case of proverbs dealing specifically with social life, there should be direct contradictions between prosocial sentiments and self-serving ones (reflecting the selective pressures of within-group and between-group selection)
5) at the same time, there should be a significant quantitative preponderance of prosocial proverbs over egoistic ones (reflecting the need to police self-serving and antisocial behaviour)
Once again, the data is consistent with the predictions. Proverbs dealing with social life display stark and direct contradictions. Limitations of space allow me to include only small sample below, but I have deliberately mixed in proverbs from around the world in order to exemplify the transcultural nature of the “me first” versus “we first” tug-of-war. None of these examples, I reiterate, are one-off exceptions. All without exception have equivalents in many—in some cases all—other cultures. In quite a few cases, in fact, polar opposites can be found within one and the same culture, as in the opening examples from Burma and France.
By association with whatever friend safety diminishes (Burmese), but By association with whatever friend safety increases (Burmese)
A sin that is hidden is half forgiven (French), but Clean conscience makes a good pillow (French)
Everyone lays a burden on the willing horse (Irish), but A voluntary burden is no burden (Italian)
Friendship is friendship, but money has to be counted (Russian), but Mutual confidence is the pillar of friendship (Chinese)
If you would be well served, serve yourself (English), but Nobody can rest in his own shadow (Hungarian)
If all men pulled in one direction, the world would topple over (Yiddish), but A boat doesn’t go forward is everyone is rowing his own way (Swahili)
Nature forms us for ourselves, not for others (French), but In a village divided against itself even a monkey will not abide (Tamil)
Old promises are left behind (Maori), but There is no virtue in a promise unless it be kept (Danish)
Love your neighbour, but don’t pull down the fence (German), but A near neighbour is better than a distant cousin (Italian)
A good bone never falls to a good dog (French), but Honest fame awaits the truly good (Latin)
Love thy neighbour, but don’t let him into your house (Maltese), but Love thy neighbour (Greek)
Better one true friend than a hundred relations (Italian), but An ounce of blood is worth more than a pound of friendship (Spanish)
A long continued loan usually confers ownership (Irish), but A loan, though old, is no gift (Hungarian)
Be particular about your conscience and you will have nothing to eat (Chinese), but Honest fame awaits the truly good (Latin)
Pardon one offence, and you invite many (Latin), but It is more noble to pardon that to punish (Arabic)
A patriot is a fool in every age (English), but He serves me most who serves his country (Greek)
Trust not the many minded populace (Greek), but The voice of the people is the voice of God (Latin)
Revenge is the pleasure of gods (French), but Revenge is a tree that bears no fruit (Dutch)
The troubles of a stranger aren’t worth an onion (Yiddish), but Do good regardless of consequences (Chinese)
If it’s not your worry, don’t hurry (Polish), but He who lives for himself is truly dead to others (Latin)
Your partner is your opponent (Egyptian), but A thing is bigger for being shared (Gaelic)
The malice of relatives is like a scorpion’s sting (Egyptian), but Your family may chew you but it will not swallow you (Arabic)
Proverbs are not transmitted by individuals but by groups. As such, they ought to reflect the needs of groups, i.e. extol prosociality and condemn egoism. I found this, indeed, to be the case. Moralistic advice against putting on airs, not repaying debts, forgetting obligations, breaking one’s word, oppressing the less fortunate, not sharing wealth, being lazy, gossipy, vindictive, deceitful, envious, jealous, hypocritical, materialistic, exploitative, godless, and so on, is the norm. From thousands upon thousands, I can only reproduce a handful. Most should be familiar in spirit, if not in word, again testifying to their transcultural character:
An ape’s an ape though he wears a gold ring (Dutch)
If one does not counsel one’s brother, one will share in the misfortune (Yoruba)
If the family lives in harmony, all affairs will prosper (Chinese)
They don’t unload the caravan for one lame donkey (Iranian)
The career of falsehood is short (Pashto)
A chief is known by his subjects (Hawaiian)
A bad coconut spoils the good ones (Swahili)
Cheerful company shortens the miles (German)
The confession of a fault removes half its guilt (Tamil)
Courtesy that is one side cannot last long (French)
A common danger produces unity (Slovakian)
A good deed bears interest (Estonian)
A single finger cannot catch fleas (Haitian)
Give a little and you gain a lot (Pashto)
Charity begins at home (English)
A good man protects three villages; a good dog, three houses (Chinese)
The staves of ten men make the load of one (Behar)
Though you go fifty miles for it, you must have society (Tamil)
Love thy neighbour as yourself (Bible)
Do not go to his house if he does not come to yours (Tunisian)
Society is ancient as the world (French)
Credit is invisible fortune (Japanese)
If a countryman of mine gets beaten I am thereby weakened (Chinese)
Given the equally deep-seeded predisposition to take care of number one, it should also be mirrored in behavioural advice that casts doubt on trucking with others. Oftentimes family, neighbours and social groups can, after all, be less than trustworthy or easy to live with. This ought to be reflected in advice against being prosocial. Again, in terms of propositional logic, this makes little sense. If I enjoin you to p, I should not enjoin you to ~p. But socially and evolutionarily it makes perfect sense. Evolution works on what it gets, and what it gets in this case is different levels of natural selection.
At different times, individualism and prosociality make adaptive sense, and both ought to be common enough to be noticed and warned against. To put it cynically, social norms are enforced for each individual’s benefit. You are always better off when all others are altruistic. The rational strategy is to trumpet social norms while evading them. You get the credit for being a good guy and benefit from the effect it has on others, but you also reap whatever benefit might accrue from cheating (so long as you are not caught).
The number of antisocial sentiments, however, ought to be significantly smaller than the number of injunctions against egoism. Although, for illustrative purposes, the sample below is exactly the same as the prosocial proverbs above, the numerical disparity between the two groups is enormous and unmistakable. My estimate is that the ratio of proverbial prosociality to egoism is between 10:1 and 100:1, and almost certainly closer to the upper value. Prosocial policing is, in other words, very much in evidence at the level of behavioural advice bequeathed by one generation to the next in order to counter egoistic sentiments, such as:
The best neighbours are vacant lots (French)
A man is a tiger in his own affairs (Tamil)
People seldom wish that others prosper (Yoruba)[xxii]
The camel carries the burden, the dog does the panting (Turkish)
If you do not ask their help, all men are good natured (Chinese)
Better to be alone than in bad company (Spanish)
To accept a favour is to lose your liberty (Polish)
Everybody collects coals under his own kettle (Finnish)
To live is either to beat or to be beaten (Russian)
A stolen orange is better tasting than your own (African Bemba)
If you want to please everybody, you’ll die before your time (Yiddish)
We all love justice in the house of others (French)
There are only two good men—one dead, the other unborn (Chinese)
Unguarded property teaches people to steal (Lebanese)
Relatives are friends from necessity (Russian)
Self-preservation is the first law of nature (English)
When you go out to buy, don’t show your silver (Chinese)
If everyone swept in front of his house, the whole town would be clean (Polish)
A good man is always made to toil (Tamil)
Kind hearts are soonest wronged (French)
Too much trust breeds disappointments (Philippines)
Fence your own vineyard, and keep your eyes from those of others (Greek)
The first time it’s a favour, the second, a rule (Chinese)
My preliminary study of the adaptive origins of social proverbs is merely a small token in the heap of evidence corroborating the neo-Darwinian account of human affairs. Naturally, proverbs reward study not only as evidence of human origins but as literary artifacts in their own write. Their authority and evocative resonance make themselves felt in any number of social contexts. One of them is American politics as exemplified by the abolitionist oratory of the 1872 American Vice-Presidential candidate, Frederick Douglass.
Wolfgang Mieder, a scholar by whose standard the study of proverbs must be measured, leaves no doubt that Douglass relied heavily on biblical proverbs to strengthen the social and moral sentiments in his abolitionist polemics. Biblical sources boosted the authority of Douglass’s philippics while adding the cachet of employing folk wisdom in the fight against slavery. In general, as authoritative collective statements, proverbs are well suited to being used as moral and political weapons, a lesson not lost on generations of American presidents always in search of that folksy touch.[xxiii]
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[i] In reality, for morhological and anatomical reasons, apes cannot vocalize like humans.
[ii] For the analysis of Skinner’s behaviourist utopia from an evolutionary standpoint, see Swirski “When Biological Evolution and Social Revolution Clash” .
[iii] See Malamud’s remarks on constitutional ideals in Talking Horse, 145-146.
[iv] Page 198. See Brandt , 78-79, for a comparative discussion of the earliest versions of the moral code in ancient Attica.
[v] Hutton online; see also Johnston; Swirski, Ars Americana, Ars Politica.
[vi] Eastern Iranian ethno-linguistic group; today the language of Pashtuns is found mostly in Afghanistan and some provinces of Pakistan.
[vii] Wilson, , 249.
[viii] David Sloan Wilson, in Gottschall and Wilson 23. Gene-culture coevolution is also known as Double Inheritance Theory (DIT).
[ix] For cultural “ratcheting”, see Tomasello; Tomasello et al.; Tomasello and Rakoczy.
[x] Richerson and Boyd  provide a spectrum of examples among which the Dinka and Nuer tribal customs and domination, and Yankee vs Southern excitability and culture of honour may by now be regarded as canonical.
[xi] Research on mirror neurons in simians predates that on humans; see di Pelligrino et al.
[xii] Rizolati and Sinigaglia, 124; for “triadic” semiotics, see Percy .
[xiii] Mirror neurons, reports Giacomo Rizzolatti, operate “by feeling not by thinking”; in Blakeslee online.
[xiv] See de Waal .
[xv] The esprit de corps, frequently expressed as a “brotherhood in arms”—especially in small, tight-knit, frontline units—could also activate self-sacrifice as a sublimated form of “kin” selection.
[xvi] See de Waal .
[xvii] Swirski .
[xviii] In actuality there were two theorems.
[xix] Book of Proverbs, 1:3.
[xx] Ghiselin rejected what is known as Veneer Theory of human morality with an ironic: “Scratch an ‘altruist’ and watch a ‘hypocrite’ bleed” (247).
[xxi] See Christian, Cordry, Gray, Hart, Jensen, Mertvago, Mieder, Owomoyela, and Scarborough in the bibliography.
[xxii] Interpretation of the rather obscure and long original; see Owomoyela.
[xxiii] See Mieder .