A QUIET STAND OF ALDERS
"The alder, whose fat shadow nourisheth
All set neere to him long flourisheth." -- William Browne, c. 1613
Welcome to A Quiet Stand of Alders, the author
website of Stanley Rice, a science educator
and writer. If you care passionately about the natural world and its
evolutionary history, this website is for you.
Here you will find essays about ecology, evolution; and ethical, political, and religious issues connected with them. I intend my approach as constructive, although I do not hold back from criticism when the facts demand it. At the same time, I want to preserve a context of peaceful meditation, such as you will find in a quiet stand of alder trees down by the river. Peace and zeal are the fire and ice of a scientist, an educator, an evolutionist, or a naturalist. About every week, a new essay will be posted. You can find all of the old essays in the archives.
I am embedded in the creationist and anti-environmentalist heartland of rural Oklahoma and will report to you from the front lines! I consider myself a missionary for evolution and ecology.
Please feel free to contact me at the email below, or by posting comments on my evolution blog.
Altruism: The Third Alternative for Ecology and Evolution
March 11, 2012
I recently read a book entitled The Penguin and the Leviathan, by Yochai Benkler, a leading scholar in business research. I have read many books about altruism, many of them by scientists such as Frans deWaal (The Age of Empathy), Dacher Keltner (Born to Be Good), and Martin Nowak (Super Cooperators). These books repeatedly make the point that individuals within animal species, individual humans, and businesses can profit from being nice and generous to others. Altruism, rather than violent competition, is the most important component of "the law of the jungle." Just ask any of the chimps that deWaal has studied. The way to the top is primarily through cooperation, not violent competition. Even apes understand this. Benkler's book is published by Crown Business, a division of a major New York publisher. Its intended audience is not science buffs but business leaders. In the title, the Penguin is Tux, the icon of Linux, whose business model is cooperation rather than top-down command, and the Leviathan is the cynical view of life presented centuries ago by Thomas Hobbes.
Benkler, though not a scientist, has done a very good job of summarizing the evolutionary science of altruism. But the thing that opened my eyes the most was that Benkler presented altruism as a third alternative for how a society could operate. The other two ways are state control and free market. We usually think that these are our only two choices. But, as Benkler explains, this is not true.
Both state control (as exemplified by dictators on the political right or the political left) and free market economics operate from the assumption that humans are fundamentally selfish. State control attempts to force people to not be selfish. The free market tries to capitalize upon those utterly selfish economic machines known as humans. But Benkler points out that altruism is a fundamental instinct of the human mind. As Michael Shermer said, it feels good to be good; humans enjoy being altruistic. Altruism motivates much of what we do.
Our only hope, from Benkler's viewpoint, is to build our society and economic system in a way that facilitates altruism. Governments should not try to solve all social and economic problems by law and by creating big agencies; governments should be (in my words) conduits of the altruism that already exists in people's minds. Governments should be altruism enablers. Similarly businesses should embrace altruism, appealing to their customers' instincts to want to create a better world for everybody. Customers are selfish, but also altruistic. Customers are increasingly offended by corporations that display conspicuous selfishness; that assume the customers are merely selfish; or that use little greenwashing gimmicks to make themselves look environmentally friendly or socially altruistic. We customers are not stupid, nor are we totally selfish. We are (some of us more than others) partly altruistic and we expect our governments and businesses to also be altruistic.
Benkler makes the point that right now, when dictatorships are falling and the free market has proven ineffective enough that it has shaken the very faith of Alan Greenspan himself, is the time when altruism has a chance to influence the very structure of the economy and government. Governments and business CEOs have been good only at spending money, with disastrous consequences that nobody can ignore any longer.
Altruism, perhaps the greatest gift of evolution, is also the only way to solve our environmental problems. Neither of the other alternatives, government fiat or the profit motive by itself, have significantly deflected our worldwide momentum toward ecological disaster.
(includes The Sabbath of the Earth)
(includes The End of Altruism
and If Humans Vanished...)
(includes You Are an Ecosystem)
(includes Absurd Creativity
and Fiscal Responsibility -- In Plants)
(includes Deep Time and Deep Intestines
and The Evolution of Spite)
(includes My Neighbors' Earth
and Trying to Interfere with Natural Selection)
(includes Global Warming—It's Happening Now
and Green Is the New Green)
(includes Degrees of Freedom
and I Humbly Suggest that Scientists Should Rule the World)
Peace Be Unto You
Do Republican Leaders Hate God's Creation?
A Christian View of Creation
Biodiversity, Part One
Biodiversity, Part Two
Biodiversity, Part Three
Biodiversity, Part Four
The Capacity for Evil
So Where Is Global Warming Now?
The Evolved Human Mind
Judgment of the Future
How Dark Was My Valley
Oath Upon the Earth
The Long Emergency
The Dangerous Conservative Viewpoint
Cottonwood Investments, Part 2
Biodiversity and Noah's Ark: The Solution You've Been Waiting For
Built to Last
How to Reduce Our Impact on the Earth
Where Have All the Scarecrows Gone?
Less Hope Now than Ever?
You Can’t Do Just One Thing
Our Great Big Opportunity
What Rick Perry Thinks About Science
The Murder of Altruism?
How I Spent September 11
A Celebration of Evolutionary Science
Republican States: Socialist Beneficiaries of Big Government Altruism?
The Quiet Stand of Alders: Wildfire and Recovery
So What Has Changed Since 2008?
A Revolutionary Vision
Home Sweet Home
Beauty and Survival
Warm Winter Thoughts
The Evolution of a New Economy?
In Memory of Lynn Margulis
a blog about evolution and related topics
New Brunswick, New York: Facts on File, 2011.
Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2010.
New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2009.
New York: Facts on File, 2007.
Encyclopedia of Evolution (Revised Edition)