In the 21st century, helping others is the norm. I don’t know about anyone in my circle not sending at least a few cents to some foundation collecting money for various reasons. At the same time, many groups hate other groups. Why we cooperate in some cases, and we don’t in others?
To answer that question, we need to look at history from a cooperation point of view. Let’s first examine what role you can take in society: you can be a loner (someone who does everything for themselves), or altruist (someone who helps others), or selfish (someone who abuses altruists). Being a loner is fine; some species live that way. There is no need to cooperate (and watch out for selfish people) and no need to tolerate anyone or anything. But you cannot get far. At least from the evolution point of view.
Cooperation is in the human genus since the beginning. Already our ancestors cooperated, just the collaboration was limited to family circles. Our species needs to raise children which is both time and energy consuming, therefore both parents are helping out. Mothers cannot make it alone. Often, not even two parents are enough; therefore, grandparents are helping a lot—for example, the aged population of hunter-gatherers obtained food for themselves and their grandchildren.
Besides family, hunter-gatherers shared food with non-family members of the group. Everyone could gather easily small food such as all kinds of berries, so rarely if ever hunter-gatherers cooperated in this way, but hunting was another story. Even the best hunter could be successful only once in a while. On top of that, to eat the whole animal fast enough just by family members was very hard. Also, a big animal could be too heavy to carry around all the time. Therefore, the hunter of the day took the best parts for himself and his family, and the rest left for the group. Then, when the other hunter had a good day, his family had meat again thanks to this reciprocity.
Reciprocity is buying friends for an affordable price. But reciprocity works only if I can be sure that the person I’m helping will be around when I need help. That’s why cooperation based on reciprocity works so well for hunter-gatherers and later also for farmers. Both hunter-gatherers and early farmers lived in similar small groups their whole life.
With greater cities comes the price of anonymity. You no longer can know all citizens living around you. Cooperation is genuinely profitable for our species as a whole, but selfishness is better on an individual level without a doubt. Of course, it can work only to some extent. If all members are selfish, no one wins. Therefore, selfishness beats altruism, but altruistic groups beat selfish groups.
Humans evolved with the ability to adapt to many conditions easily, but we cannot escape the truth that most of us live in a mismatched environment. To overcome the challenges, we developed all kinds of tools. For example, humans can survive even in cold parts of the world thanks to clothes, later houses, or heaters today. Over time the tools are more and more complex, and that’s where cooperation kicks in. Cooperation is not a natural preference even if it’s part of our genus, but only altruistic groups could evolve to invent necessary tools to survive.
With all-new inventions comes cultural life. Culture then evolves and alters our life much faster than the genus or the whole environment we live in. Of course, culture also shapes our thoughts and attitudes to ideas, including altruism itself. Cultural life created God, and the concept of God changed how philanthropy was perceived. Basically, any disaster was God’s outcome to our sins. Or in other words, we need to behave better, it’s our problem, therefore, we get no help from others.
It took a lot of time, roughly till the end of the Middle Ages, when people turned away from faith to science. Then disasters were seen as an opportunity for reciprocity. One example could be the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. Spain’s king helped the Portuguese king who was related to him. Both Paris and London helped Portugal in order to buy Portuguese friendship. Also, Hamburg sent aid because Lisbon was an essential trade point for Hamburg.
Even though the scale of such aid is big, it’s still mainly between neighbors: just bigger ones, kingdoms or states instead of families. New technologies, such as telegrams or newspapers introduced by industrialization and globalization, brought news from other parts of the world within few days. The accessibility caused people to mind what is happening far away. People from safe regions started to understand what poverty or war means. Suddenly, people wanted to help not just their neighbors but people on other continents. That is the time when Red Cross was founded.
Many of us are afraid to send money to some state in need because adults run the state, and we are (rightly) afraid that the government would use the money for themselves instead of actual people in need. But it’s pretty different with children. Children are dependent on adults and innocent. The need to help is even stronger if you see such kids. That’s why televisions were so successful in raising money for kids in need. Another huge success was the Band-Aid charity concert in 1984, and since then, many charities do concerts. It simply works.
Today, we are manipulated to give money to strangers, which we wouldn’t do at all thousands of years ago. We evolved to cooperate but not this way because we are not equipped with such abilities. First of all, we are limited. Everything we do, we do to survive. Sometimes, to survive, we need to help someone else so that that individual helps us later. But we can overlook that someone needs our help because our focus is somewhere else. For example, if we are hungry, we focus on our dinner, and we don’t see what is happening at the table next to us. We process only a fraction of what is happening around us.
Secondly, seeing that someone needs help doesn’t trigger the urge to help right away. You need empathy for that, which is not an automatically triggered feeling. Compassion has to be built, but it gets more challenging with the bigger size of a group—it’s much easier to build empathy towards individuals than the whole country. Last but not least, the format is crucial. It’s different if I tell you that millions of people suffer or when I show you a picture or video with the same message.
For our inconvenience, usually, we don’t see these influencing tricks. And there are much more of them used in everyday life. Therefore, we are manipulated by those who not just know them but also know how to use them. For example, half of the collected money in America goes to religion, art, or education, which is still giving but not charity per se. More and more people, including myself, are obsessed with facts. The impact is essential for such people—more than who gets the money.
We all forget one crucial fact: why and whom are we helping? The answer, I think, should be to help ourselves. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support a total stranger on the other side of the world. Such aid can still be significant for us too. Think about the bigger pie.
What bugs me is we are helping just to fulfill our duties which are defined by someone else. That means a lot of charity goes to unnecessary things instead of things with real need and real value. For example, pandas are super cute, and many ads are convincing you to help them, but the insect is much more crucial to the environment and us, yet you can rarely see ads for that because it’s not cute as pandas.
Another example could be borders, states, or race. Boarders do not make sense in nature. Take an ocean as an example. We call some water Atlantic and some Pacific ocean. Where exactly is the border? Water from both oceans at the border is more alike than at the edge and middle of the same ocean. The same is true for a land. In Europe, many states are at least separated by mountains and rivers, making some sense, but many countries, mainly in Africa or America, are divided totally illogically.
Anyway, we need some separation. We are humans, animals, and every animal has its limits. We need some hierarchy to organize ourselves because no one can absorb everything. The problem is, those borders are artificial, and we protect them at every cost. The same is true about customs and many more things we invented. So we send money to people in need, but we don’t want to allow them to live with us even if they cannot stay home.
I think that the main reason for this illogical behavior is fear. We might know that what we have is not perfect, and there is always room for improvement, but we fear the change. We fear it could destroy our stereotypes and make our life more miserable. I have a different opinion. I always like it when the team is composed of diverse team members with varying backgrounds because if the team has uniform members, it can solve some types of problems well but fails miserably with others. In contrast, diverse teams are ready for a broader range of tasks.
Cooperation allowed us to specialize and count on each other. The collaboration helped us to thrive. Altruistic groups won. But we hit the limit. Groups are not separated geographically anymore, and therefore we meet people from other groups on an everyday basis. Even though we all are more alike than before, we feel the differences more intensely. We are missing tolerance.
I get it. Selfishness is much simpler for every one of us. But we should understand that with greed only, we would not live in luxury around us. Altruism is behind it. I’m not sure how much this is a coincidence and how much it is a natural process that would happen no matter what. Looking back, it seems natural. Yet, it’s not that easy. So why not play it safe and not count on that tolerance comes naturally as well?
Be more tolerant.
We evolved from selfish individuals to altruistic groups. Now we need to proceed to the next step, to the tolerant planet. I don’t think we need to turn everything around. Forcing an idea to people is precisely the opposite of tolerance.
I don’t think any law or regulation can help. It just needs time. Every one of us has some background and can see stuff differently. It’s totally OK. We should be tolerant towards each other and discuss differences kindly. Rejecting and punishing people from different cultures/backgrounds is not tolerant behavior even though they did something wrong from your point of view. Nothing is black and white.
For example, sexual abuse is not tolerable. I don’t want to stand up for any sexual predator. Yet, it’s not an easy problem. Such a predator might not even know he (usually, but it might also be she) abused anyone. The victim can say she doesn’t want sex with a smile because she doesn’t want to be rude. Yet the attacker can take it as a game and try it again. When sex is actually desired, nothing is wrong. But when sex is really not wanted, the victim can freeze if the attacker continues. Due to the freeze, there is basically no difference other than what is inside the victims head.
From this perspective, I might have been accused of sexual abuse because I was in situations where I was pushed away by a girl, yet we slept together anyway after an hour or so. I believe to this very day, based on the rest of the interactions, I didn’t abuse anyone. But can I be sure?
She might come one day to tell me I ruined her life. I hope I didn’t ruin anyone’s life, but it could happen. Would I feel like a sexual predator? I don’t feel like a sexual predator, and I don’t think that would change. I would indeed apologize and try to discuss it and help her. I would be tolerant of different views of the situation, and I hope she would be tolerant of my perspective as well.
The other option for the lady would be, in this hypothetical scenario, to punish me. But if she refuses to tolerate any different reasoning than her, I think it would turn off my tolerance, and I would fight back. If there is no room for discussion, we can hardly get other response. And this is just one example. Life is full of such scenarios, and I can see that only tolerance can move us forward.
Unforced tolerance. As I said, forcing people to tolerance leads nowhere. Yes, it’s sad we cannot enjoy the fruits in our lifetime because it takes generations to change something like that. People need to change on their own and pass it to children. One slight change after another. But there is no shortcut, I think.
Think about it this way: farmers or factory workers had much more challenging conditions than generations before them, but we wouldn’t get from hunter-gatherers to internet-consumers without such transitions. And I think being a tolerant early adopter is not such a big deal. Cooperation and toleration, in the end, serve everyone, including you, when used well.
Remember, calling not-tolerant people names is not tolerant as well. Someone might be racist or sexist or other ist in your eyes, but they might feel it differently. Attacking them will not help you, them, or anyone else. In the end, putting a label on people means they will just fulfill your will. My parents repeated my whole childhood I’m manually incapable. I fight with it till this day. Are you sure you want people to be what you call them?
Labels are bad. Avoid them. Instead, tolerate different opinions. Talk about it, or leave it alone if it’s not comfortable for you. Only then we can help each other more efficiently and adequately. Then we can thrive even more.