We Are All Still Animals

Yes, we homo sapiens are still animals, as dour scolds of human behavior ceaselessly point out.

You animal, you! Well, yes, we homo sapiens are still animals, as dour scolds of human behavior ceaselessly point out. They reduce our existence to the nasty and brutish law of the jungle, insisting that selfishness and survival of the strongest is the natural order. The noted philosopher of animalism, Professor Donald Trump, expressed this soulless view in a book he titled “Think Big and Kick Ass”: “In a great deal you win… You crush the opponent and come away with something better for yourself.”

But the animal kingdom itself suggests a better route to winning than crush-your-opponent competition: cooperation. While animals do eat other animals, the species that are the most successful survivors are not the strongest but the ones that work together in a sharing society. From ants to elephants, animals in the wild organize to hunt together, build family and group homes, nurture and teach their young, spread their available food throughout the community, mourn lost ones, etc.

They even vote! The real king of the jungle is the group, as has been found in communal societies as varied as meerkats, baboons and bees. Whether primates or insects, such decisions as where to live and in which direction to go forage are made by democratic consensus reached in a sort of caucus system. When several thousand honeybees, for example, split from a hive to form a new colony, they dispatch a few hundred scouts to find a new home. One by one, the scouts report back, doing unique waggle dances that describe what they each found. Gradually, scouts decide they like this or that bee’s site best and synchronize their waggles accordingly. Once the scouts are doing the same dance, the whole swarm flies off together and settles into its new hive. Interestingly, such decisions are based more on the merits of the case presented than whether the presenter is a dominant or subordinate member of the group.

Now consider political philosopher John Rawls. Until his death in 2002, Rawls conducted exercises to find out what people think a just society should look like. He asked participants to draw up the ethical underpinning for their ideal social structure, focusing on what principles and strictures would best serve their own interests — maybe a meritocracy that prioritizes IQ, a laissez-faire society where the strongest and richest rule, a Christian theocracy, a matriarchy allowing only mothers to vote, etc.

Rawls put only one restriction on this otherwise-free-wheeling exercise: The social engineers were to operate under what he called “the veil of ignorance”: None of them would know who they would be in the society they designed. Race, income, sexuality, education, being native vs. immigrant, disability, age, religion, neighborhood… all would be luck of the draw. Over and over, participants from every social status and ideology designed a world with the deepest and broadest egalitarian structures to ensure that the least well-off, most marginalized person would be treated justly — since they could be that person.

Social anthropologists find that before the invention of agriculture and property law, “primitive” hunter-gather societies had an egalitarian ethos that made them more successful than authoritarian, coercive leadership could have been. Members of the community depended on one another for survival/prosperity, so a cooperative, sharing ethic was superior to one based on “I got mine.” From the earliest human times, then, there was no conceit of producers vs. moochers: Families who were less fortunate in hunting and gathering or who were simply unable to do it nonetheless shared what the group produced, for they contributed in other ways.

Some present-day social society numbers:

  • In a blind survey that presented a choice between living in two countries, one with high income inequality (USA) and the other with modest income inequality (Sweden), 92% of Americans — including a similar majority of Republicans and the rich — preferred Sweden.
  • Seventy-five percent of Americans told pollsters in October that they’d support paying higher income taxes if the money were to go to health care, education, welfare and infrastructure (68% said the tax system must be overhauled to make the richest pay more).
  • Contrary to right-wing theology, only 33% of people say the rich deserve their bonanzas because they work harder than the rest of us, while 65% say the good fortunes of the rich are due to special advantages they get in life (likewise, 71% say people are poor because they’ve faced more obstacles than others, with only 26% blaming the poor for not working hard enough).

Despite intervening centuries of indoctrination by ideological Scroogists, property supremacists and corporate plutocrats, this deep animalistic, egalitarian impulse remains ingrained in people’s ethical DNA.

Jim Hightower