The evolution of community
A very interesting article in Psychology Today by Christopher Bergland on the evolutionary advantage of altruism. It begins:
I woke up early this Christmas morning. While I was waiting for the water to boil I noticed a book called “Essays of E.B. White” on the kitchen table and started flipping through it. I stumbled on an essay called Unity which E.B. White wrote in 1960. I had been reading a lot of science articles about the evolutionary importance of community, cooperation, and empathy lately and the words from his essay hit home:
“Most people think of peace as a state of Nothing Bad Happening, or Nothing Much Happening. Yet if peace is to overtake us and make us the gift of serenity and well being, it will have to be the state of Something Good Happening. What is this good thing? I think it is the evolution of community.”
My mom has a December 24th tradition of spending the day with her good friend and next-door-neighbor at “The Haven” which is a local food bank. They distribute food to individuals and families in the community who are in need. Last night she came home with heartwarming (and heartbreaking) stories of various people who had come to the food bank that day. My mom doesn’t consider working at The Haven “volunteering”, or a sacrifice. Not because she’s saintly, or more altruistic than most….My mom realized a long time ago that it made her feel better around the holidays to connect with other people in the community from all walks of life than to sit at home all day by the fire with family, indulging. Scientists continue to confirm that her empirical findings and intuitions can be backed up in a laboratory or clinical studies. . .
Whatever genes drive cooperative behavior would have a strong survival advantage when humans began to live interdependently in small groups, for at that point non-cooperative individuals would be a real problem. I cannot help but believe such people would be culled from the group—hunting accidents would be the most common method, I imagine, but simply have a (cooperative) few get together and kill or chase away the non-coperative one would also happen. Indeed, it still happens.
So it seems likely that a tendency toward cooperative behavior would be selected for, but the emergence of community as a supported entity seems more to be a matter of meme evolution and grows/emerges under the right conditions, a fruit of meme evolution, surrounded by meme thorns also arising meme evolution (wars, discord, oppression, and the like). And when community emerges, it’s great, but we don’t seem quite to know how to make it emerge. We don’t have a good grip on creating community, though we seem to have a good handle on what goes into it and what it consists of.
The problem, I think, is getting people to see it as a thing, and to see how their own actions can nourish or injure it. If people can see it and understand its benefits, then perhaps that can cooperate in creating and maintaining a community—and the maintenance requires maintaining some on-going renewal. It’s like keeping sourdough starter: you have to keep feeding it, and so it is with community, I would think. That can mean bringing in new people, incorporating them into the community, and see how the community grows in new directions.
The key is having people able to see how their actions affect it. And, of course, to care about it.
More on memes in The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore.
UPDATE: I just read this in The Week, March 24, 2017 issue:
Haitian immigrant Denis Estimon remembers how isolated he felt when he first immigrated to the U.S. Now a popular senior at Boca Raton Community High School, Estimon is making sure no other student has to sit alone at lunchtime. Estimon has started a club called “We Dine Together,” whose members seek out wallflowers in the courtyard and strike up a conversation. The club has sparked hundreds of unlikely friendships since it formed last fall, and jocks and geeks now sit side by side. “It’s not a good feeling, like you’re by yourself,” says Estimon, of his own experience. “That’s something I don’t want anybody to go through.”
Estimon is a community cultivator.