Sunday, September 24, 2017

Thoughts on Envy, Greed, and Evolution

Envy and greed. They are words with different meanings but they also both play varying roles in our perception of fairness and justice, particularly when it comes to things like finances.

Most people tend to feel that the super-rich have “too much” (material wealth, power, etc.) and that it’s unfair. Many think that those who have something to give are obliged to give it (this is even reflected in numerous religions). We are taught to share from a very early age and people who don’t share are typically shunned and attacked. These feelings seem to be rooted deep within and such moral outrage can pop up at just about time.

Envy is defined by Google as “a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else's possessions, qualities, or luck;” and “desire to have a quality, possession, or other desirable attribute belonging to (someone else).” The evolutionary advantage of envy is theorized to be that it aided in our efforts to achieve and gain more. It helped spur us on as a species.

Greed is defined as “intense and selfish desire for something, especially wealth, power, or food.” Greed is typically viewed as envy gone wrong, but it too played a role in our development and in that complex feeling of “unfairness” we so often experience.

My hypothesis (I say “my” but I doubt I’m the first to have the idea, however, it came to me recently during a 2 am internal dialogue) is that this unpleasant sensation, bordering on righteous anger, caused by the feeling of unfairness is an evolutionary throw back to when we lived more communally and depended on others more directly for our own survival.

While it’s true our modern world has never been more connected and interdependent, the distance between where your food comes from and your table has never been greater. Additionally, we rarely engage in trade or bartering without the same medium of exchange: cash (or some variation thereof). We can get food, shelter, entertainment, find mates, etc. from a vast number of places, but the labor we engage in to acquire those things is often completely unrelated to what it is we're tying to get. A plumber has little directly to do with growing food and a farmer has little to do with film making. This means that there are fewer direct and deep interrelationships on matters of survival than there have been in the past.

We experience “unfairness” whenever we see someone with too much (however subjective that may be). Be it too much money, power, land, food, too large a home, too much anything. Our higher reasoning and thinking skills seem to be placed on hold as we grumble to ourselves or amongst a group over how that person doesn’t deserve what they have and why they should give much of it away. 
After all, there are certainly plenty of people in the world who have far less (often including ourselves). But I’m not so sure this feeling is a simple matter of immaturity or naked greed on our part; although, that is undoubtedly part of the puzzle.

I am starting to think that the fundamental reason why we feel that way, and feel it so reflexively at that, is because it is our brain telling us something doesn’t seem right (fair) with the situation. A part of our brain that evolved thousands of years ago when the world in which we lived was very different.

To help illustrate what I’m talking about, I will turn to the animal kingdom.

Scene from A Bug's Life, Disney, 1998.


Ants, as we all know, work and live communally. Despite being small, ants have a hierarchy and a fairly complicated system of communication and social structure. This structure only works when each member of an internal group (foragers, for example) does their job and shares their knowledge, gains, or other labors with the group. No one ant can amass a huge collection of leaves to eat. And even their “queen” dedicates her entire existence to the continuation of the colony.

Moving up the food chain, we encounter lions. Lions hunt together and then share their kill with the dominant male (who helps protect everyone but doesn't hunt), their cubs, and other members of the group (which may be subsets of the larger lion pride). As with ants, it's not really possible for individuals to get portions larger than most. The group structure and nature of their existence doesn't lend itself to that easily.

Finally, we come to primates. There are 16 families and around 200 individual species of primates around the world, all with different behaviors and social structures, so a simplistic and broad comparison to humans can be difficult. Instead of looking at all of them, I will mention a few that share behaviors most people associate with only humans, such as warfare (one primate war was documented to last 4 years!). 

Even in primate species* that engage in more extreme behaviors like war, raids, and even murder - chimps, red-tail monkeys, apes, etc.- sharing the spoils of war with the group (even among those that didn't participate) still remains a core function that enables the group to survive. 

(*I'd like to point out that primates aren't the only group of animals that engage in killing.)

I am not trying to suggest that, absent humans, nature would exist as some perfectly balanced, Hippie love-fest. That concept is an entirely man-made fiction. "Natural life" is a never ending parade of horrors with brief moments of calm thrown in randomly. But I am trying to build the case (without writing an actual paper), that cooperation and sharing is fundamental to the development of any society (something that is well proven) and that our feelings of injustice towards those with far greater resources is at least partially rooted in our deep past. 

Abundance is rare in nature and it was rare for most of human history. Regular surpluses of food only became possible with the advent of agriculture. Modern humans have been around for 180,000 to 200,000 years. On the other hand, the ability to control food supplies via cultivation was only developed 11,000 years ago - meaning that for ~95% of our history, abundance wasn't really possible without someone stealing from others. 

It makes sense that we would still retain emotional echoes of that long history.

The moral of the story, if there is one here, isn't that we should all live communally and do away with private property. The essence of free markets and capitalism (despite not being formally a "thing" until a few centuries ago) has enabled us to go from subsistence farming and hunting and gathering, to a world that grows 2-3 times the needed amount of food to feed everyone. 

Plato said that many of the injustices we face were those imposed on our own souls by things like anger, fear, lust, and actual envy. We should overcome those and thus no longer be subjected to such injustices of our own creation.

That essence, the fundamental drive toward self preservation and improvement, gave us pretty much everything that wasn't already here when the world began. And I mean everything. The moral is that instead of lashing out and rioting in the streets, perhaps we should recognize that oftentimes this urge to indignation is an emotional relic. Greed, hoarding, theft, these things do exist. However, economics teaches us that the "pie" isn't limited; your not having an apple isn't because I have one. And in a world of true abundance, the acquisition of wealth no longer necessarily means that wealth was forcibly taken from others. Having more than another can easily happen without the need to invoke ill intentions. 

Being the bigger brained, generally self-controlled primates that we are, perhaps we should stretch that self-control a little more into this arena of emotional relics. 

--Jacob Bogle, 9/23/2017

Friday, August 4, 2017

Thoughts on Dunkirk

Dunkirk during evacuation. Image source: Imperial War Museum.

I went to see Dunkirk last night, and it reminded me of why I support international cooperation, including things like NATO and the UN, and why the statements of Trump and others are so offensive to me.

World War II bound much of the planet together in blood. Over 60 million people died, including over 400,000 Americans. That war altered our history as a species. The efforts and lives of so many, including the lives of a full 13% of Soviet citizens and over half of all European Jews, went in to fighting against fascism, genocide, and territorial expansion at the point of a gun. It's easy to gloss over statistics, but those aren't just numbers. They represent individual lives. Individual acts of courage, fights for survival, countless children, and tales of horror and humanity.

The evacuation at Dunkirk, to me, represents more than a defeat that actually ended up saving the United Kingdom. It was allies fighting to save one another. At the end of the battle, it was the French - historically the arch rival of the English - who sacrificed many of their men after the battle was lost to ensure that at least some of the British troops could evacuate to carry on against tyranny.

And before the light of Western Civilization was snuffed out, the near unlimited might of the United States entered the conflict. We weren't just trying to save our British cousins, or the French to whom we owe much for our own successful Revolution. As we discovered, too, we weren't just trying to vanquish Japan for their attack on Pearl Harbor, either.

We soon learned that the Allied cause was the salvation of the enormous progress gained after ages of struggle against evil and small-minded men who would seek world domination or the obliteration of a people based on race or religion.

From small towns in Tunisia to the ancient capitals of Europe, from little known islands in the Pacific to the never-ending steppes of Russia, from defending New York Harbor against U-Boat attacks to sending a life line to the Chinese as millions were killed in cold blood. We all fought together, Americans and Russians, British and French, Nationalist and Communist Chinese, Muslims and Hindu. The new world that emerged (which included the end of colonialism and the independence of dozens of nations) is not something we should easily discard because the Germans or the Mexicans or the pesky French "stole" our industry -- and yet we have grown ever richer and more powerful.

For all the faults and rightful criticisms of organizations like the UN and NATO, the last 75 or so years since the end of the war have been the most peaceful in Europe since the days of Rome, and the most prosperous and innovative period in human history.

But for some reason, a relative few dollars is too high a price to help maintain that order? The relationships that were forged in blood and fire, and honed over generations should be discarded? There are real current and growing threats that we're all going to have to confront. Pretending like they don't exist or thinking we can achieve victory piecemeal or all alone is to ignore the lessons taught by those 60 million lives. It’s a pity the abundance of knowledge history affords us is forgotten so easily.

--Jacob Bogle, 8/4/17

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Links in a Chain and Eternal Memory

I rarely use this blog for overtly personal things, but the last few weeks have been difficult for me and - as the blog's title says - I feel I have something worth saying and worth reading.

My dad and mom divorced when I was two years old. He moved away to California and it wasn't until I was about nine that he came back into my life. After a while he left once again. Things were never antagonistic. He wasn't a bad man. He never hit me or my mom, and never was verbally abusive. He just wasn't sure how to raise a son and lived with that guilt his entire life. That guilt meant that I only had sporadic contact with him since he often vanished without warning.

Jerry Lynn Bogle. Picture courtesy of Scott Walker.
A few months ago I received a phone call from someone I barely knew. He said he knew my dad, knew where he was living, and that he had Stage IV cancer. He asked if I had any interest in being reunited with him. I said yes. That random phone call from a virtual stranger enabled me to reconnect with my dad and allowed us to understand and forgive. I learned that my dad had been homeless for several years due to disability, and as the cancer progressed he spent a lot of time in the hospital. Because of that we didn't get to see each other everyday even after being reunited, but the time we did have with each other was positive.

After a major bout of pneumonia he was taken to Hospice. Everyone thought he had a month or so left. Unfortunately, less than 72 hours later, on June 9, he was dead at age 59. I am his only child.


Margaret Joy Coakley Koch
As I write this, it has been four days since I learned by maternal grandmother was gravely ill. I went to see her at the nursing home on Monday (July 9) and on July 10 she, too, passed away. She was 87. In terms of her children and their descendants, I am one of 75 who survive her: 7 kids, 23 grandchildren, 37 great-grandchildren, and 8 great-great-grandchildren.

I have always been fascinated by ancestry. Discovering one's heritage helps build a bridge between the past and present that not only gives one a sense of belonging and place, but can help to inform and guide one's future as well. In reality, no family is more or less special. Go back far enough and we are all related. It doesn't need to be that far either. Still, a family tree is made up of individual people and everyone is unique in some way. One love lost or never found, one illness or injury, even turning right instead of left could mean the difference of entire branches of that tree.

I am the product of my mother and a salt of the earth man named Jerry who helped to build structures across the country. And because of my mother, I am also the product of a small lady who always wore heels just to go outside and check the mail.

I am the product of these two very different people, and they are also the product of others. I'd like to talk a little bit about that.


Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I have been able to trace my ancestry back many generations. On my dad's side, I descend from a Scottish man named John Bogle who was born in 1530. On my grandmother's, from a man also named John, John R. Byrd. He was born in 1669 in Virginia.

Looking through all the parents of parents and so forth, I have in my family tree Civil War veterans, Revolutionary War veterans, pastors, tenant farmers, and men and women who braved crossing oceans to start a new life.

It would be impossible to list the details of all of their lives. There are hundreds of names. There are people from the former British Colonies, Scotland, England, Wales, and even Germany - all that have come together to emerge as a tall, skinny, dark haired-blue eyed, blogger from Murfreesboro, TN. One way to view those names in a family tree is as links in a chain. One link never connects and *poof* not only am I not an only son, but I and my 74 other relatives aren't here either.


One of the few family photos with most everyone in it. Taken circa 1995.
All life is fleeting and there will come a day for nearly all of us when the only thing people know about us are names and dates. Entire lifetimes - love, hate, birth, accomplishments, everything - reduced to a few lines of text. Even when going over all of the different things I know and remember about my dad and grandmother, when held up to the totality of their lives, I come away more than a little saddened. How is it that so much can happen, that so much can matter, yet so little remain?

The truth is, no matter how badly I want to know all of the things my dad did in California, or what my grandmother's life was like as she lived through WWII, all that really matters is they lived their lives in such a way to create some pretty good people. I am my father's legacy. My scores of aunts and uncles and cousins and I are the legacy of a grandmother born in Chattanooga. We do our duty and we serve witness to their lives by following the path they tried to lay out for us; despite their flaws.

To not let guilt stand in the way of relationships. To work hard to care for your family, even if that means you have to sacrifice. To not let petty disagreements or hurt feelings from decades ago allow those 8 great-grand kids from knowing the other 67 people they share blood with. And whether or not we are able to forge another link in the chain by having children of our own, to do our best to help those around us and make our corner of the world a little brighter.  

My own father helped the world when he gave what little he had while living in a car to those who didn't even have that. My grandmother helped the world by teaching us all about God and sharing her love of music.

Families can be complicated. Sometimes real hurt and anger can cause lasting rifts. 

I come from a collection of individuals. I exist because of the lives of countless others. I live now in the midst of dozens who all share blood. But just like my dad and grandmother picked how they lived their adult lives, I pick how I live mine. I can't change what has happened, but I can certainly decide what will happen by heeding the lessons of those who came before.

We may all be links in a chain, but we and those who come after us are also their eternal memory. Let us all remember that.

--Jacob Bogle, 7/12/2017