I’m not sure when exactly the zebra danios turned into killers.

Our zebra danios have gotten scary. Where once they’d dash about madly at the top of the tank waiting for the flakes of food, now they wake slowly from sleep, huddled together, then in a three fish column begin moving slowly (not their usual frantic dash) into the plants, moving around them, seeking meat. The flakes of fish food float down all around them but they pay no attention. They keep prowling, methodically, maybe an inch or two from the bottom of the tank. I’ve come to suspect that this was how they killed the other fish, by catching them before they were completely awake there amid the plants. I can only imagine that all three would rush in, striking, chomping, killing. In the wild they eat insects and crustaceans and worms, so they are hunters, yet in the thirty some years we’ve been stocking our aquariums with them I have never witnessed them do anything more than grab flakes of fish food drifting by. I have certainly never seen this sort of apparently coordinated behavior. It seems that almost every vertebrate has within it the predatory behavior. We are all hunters. Hell, it was predation that drove evolution itself, the whole Cambrian Explosion with all its crazy speciation was the result of the ever evolving contest between predator and prey. And here, somehow, in our little aquarium, something turned these little inch and half long fish from eaters of fish food to eaters of fish, eaters of even their own kind (as there were five of them just two weeks ago). All was peaceful until the clown loach died. That loach, though never deliberately bothering any of the other fish, was at seven inches long to them like a whale shark is to us. It ruled the floor, digging up snails. The danios stayed up several inches in the tank, away from its sudden movements. But then the loach, one day two or three weeks ago, was dead. Old age. I noticed the next morning that the danios were down zipping around at the bottom of the tank. The neon tetras calmly minded their own business, the two glass catfish scooted about. Everyone, danios included, got very excited at feeding time, like they always did. Everyone swam around excitedly, grabbing bits of tetra min flakes floating by.

I’m not sure when exactly the danios turned into killers. Within two weeks I realized that all the fish were gone but these three zebra danios. Alone in the tank, they chased each other madly about, zipping one way, then another. I was mystified. Where had all the other fish gone? I did some research, and found desperate pleas on aquarium websites. “Help, my zebra danios are eating each other!!!!” or “My zebra danios are killing my other fish!!!” I read in shock just how murderous the little beasts can be. No one seemed to know why, but there was usually a dominant fish that sets it off. A handy bit of evolution, that, where some members of the species will suddenly go rogue, turn alpha, and eat everything piscene in sight. Obviously there is a genetic advantage in there somehow. Perhaps a surge in zebra danio testosterone. But I have no idea. Looking at the tank again, one of the danios is swimming like a lunatic now, frenzied. The other two have ducked behind the leaves. Perhaps there is murder afoot.


It doesn’t look like a killer.


Humans being are scared because being scared is human.

Terrorism in Western Europe Used to Be Much Worse read the headline in Mother Jones. Someone asked if terrorism is so much lower than it was forty years ago–see the chart below, the difference in scale is dramatic–then why is fear up so much?

Probably because there is nothing else to be afraid of. Human beings, having evolved under constant predatory pressures, are by nature very fearful. Back in the 70’s Americans were scared shitless of terrorism, but we were also worried about World War 3 and an incredibly high crime rate and some truly scary serial killers. Fear was a continuous presence, and there was much to be genuinely afraid of. Now there is a lot less to be afraid of, very little even. So we focus on terrorism. People will always be terrified of something.

Our very intelligence, the incredibly high level of human cognition, developed in response to our terror of predators. It probably even was one of the factors in the development of language. (Think of vervet monkeys, with their distinctive cries of danger for leopard, snake, eagle.) We can’t live without fear. People who are naturally without fear literally have something wrong with them…. and those eastern techniques people use to attain inner peace–that is, freedom from fear–require extraordinarily intense concentration and practice to overcome our intrinsic fear.

Homo sapiens are the only surviving human species out of dozens, and it is assumed that nearly all the other species were driven to extinction by predatory pressures. Life in the plains was extremely dangerous. We remain the sole survivor because our ancestors were the only one who developed technology to help us fight back, and did so an incredibly long time ago. Homo habilis had developed tools way over two million years ago, which means they must have already been using stones as missiles, much like baboons do. Our survival strategy was probably much the same as baboons–groups that defended aggressively against predators, except that baboons can live in very large groups because they are primarily plant eaters, and we were forced to live in smaller groups because we ate mostly meat. That made us much more vulnerable to predators–especially leopards (in fact, leopards still kill scores of people annually). Therefore we had to have a much more acute wariness about leopards (which are ambush hunters), which helped us survive where every one of our competitors failed. Being scared all the time was not only a survival strategy, it made us human.

Incidentally, of the four surviving genuses of hominids, three–orangs, gorillas and chimps/bonobos–all live in dense forest, which protects them from predators. We are the only genus that survived in open country, from H. habilis through H. erectus to H. sapien. And we did that by be incredibly wary. Even now, living in completely artificial homes surrounded by all this technology and never eating anything we killed or harvested ourselves, we will always find something to be freaked out by. Fearing sudden attack by terrorists is not that different from fearing an ambush by a leopard.

Leopards, in fact, may have evolved as hominid eaters, as both they and we evolved as species at the same time. As prey we may have actually been a prime driver in their evolution. You look at a leopard and you might be seeing a cat designed to kill you, specifically. There is no other predator designed to eat us. Leopards certainly are much more adept at hunting us than are lions or cheetahs. Leopards even have human-specific methods of killing us, preferring to catch people indoors while they sleep. They haunt Mumbai by night, taking a dozen or so of us in a bad year within the city limits. They are epicures of humans as food, oenophiles, sometimes killing one of us with quick bites to the neck, then tearing open the throat just to lap up the blood that pools on the floor. They drink their fill and slip out the way they came in, unseen, leaving the meat uneaten.

After writing that, I walked over to make sure the door was locked. There are killers and terrorists everywhere.


Fear of clowns


Coulrophobia–the fear of clowns–kind of explained. According to “How Clowns Became Terrifying” in the Atlantic, it’s John Wayne Gacy’s fault. It’s also an adult thing…most children still find them funny, as anyone who’s been to a circus can attest, and The Atlantic post cites a study here about the same. Grown ups, though, weird things that they are, get themselves all freaked out by a guy in a bozo outfit. They really get into it too, trying to out freak each other. You can see that on Facebook all the time. Someone posts a clown picture, and commenters begin one upping each other in how freaked out they are. To those of us unafflicted with the phobia (not to mention the drama queenery) it seems ridiculous. But people love their phobias, and don’t like to part with them. And face it, there aren’t as many phobias as there used to be. We once lived in a web of phobias, Freud validating and explaining every one of them. They were badges of pride, those phobias. People spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on their therapist’s couch bragging about them. Bob Newhart helping Mr. Peterson overcome his fear of geese. Woody Allen’s endless analyst jokes. Alas, Freud went the way of phrenology and people stopped bragging about their personal collection of fears. They became silly, all those phobias did, embarrassing. Decadent even. Though the fall of Freud did have one benefit for phobiacs…you can now be scared of something, irrationally scared, without it being a symptom of deep seated sexual problems. No more latent auto sexual mother loving homoerotic phallic vulvoid fantasies having something to do with hating your father. Today you can tell someone you’re deathly afraid of clowns and they won’t wonder what kind of sicko you are. They won’t shoo away the children. The end of Freudian analysis freed phobias from all that subconscious moral turpitude. Indeed, you can feel free to wonder about those who are not deathly afraid of clowns. Catch us snickering at Bozo and shoo away the kids. After all, John Wayne Gacy was a clown and he was sick as they come.

Looking back, clowns were probably at their peak in the fifties and sixties during the baby boom. Bozo, Clarabel, Hobo Kelly. Red Skelton’s clown paintings. But now, after several decades of a declining birth rate, it’s an adult world, and if adults are willing to let themselves be weirded out by a guy in a clown suit, they’ll make sure their kids are weirded out too. Or worry about them if they aren’t. Thus are superstitions made and passed on. Sometimes I wonder if the fear of clowns is some of the ptomaine remaining from the day care sex abuse hysteria in the 1980’s. That was horrible stuff, and I remember thinking from day one that it was all bullshit. The reason was that I had just read Ryszard Kapuściński’s The Emperor–Downfall of an Autocrat. It’s a helluva book, about the fall of Haile Selassie but one story really stuck with me. In villages in parts of rural Ethiopia, when things were going bad, witchcraft was suspected. But who was the witch? They had to find the witch. A shaman chose a child, put him in something like a hypnotic spell and set him loose in the village. The child would wander about in a trance then suddenly grab the leg of a horrified adult. The child had found the witch. A very ugly death followed. The McMartin Pre-School Trial seem to unroll the same way. No matter how crazy and extreme the children’s claims were, they were almost universally believed. It was 1983, the beginning of the Reagan years, and it was like we were being plunged into primitive superstition. Scarcely a rational word was heard for weeks after that. And it spread across the country, reaching its apogee in Kern County where law enforcement degenerated into medievalism. Dozens of people jailed for what used to be called witchcraft.  The trials and prosecution were terrifying. There was no escape. No one lifted a finger to help. And when, years later, every case was eventually thrown out of court and the innocents released, not an apology was given. Irrationality means never having to say you’re sorry.

Which is what I find so fundamentally disturbing about the fear of clowns. You see, it makes no sense whatsoever. It is irrational as you can possibly be. In England people seeing clowns entertain have had break downs. They literally had to be hospitalized. Why? Because they saw a clown. But why? Because clowns are scary. But why are clowns scary? Because they are. That’s always the answer, because they are. And that’s irrationality. And irrationality is catching. Its spreads between people, and it spreads within the mind. Once you have opened yourself up to the hysterical fear of a guy in clown make up, a fear that has no logical basis whatsoever, then you have opened yourself up to all kinds of hysteria. And hysteria is only harmless for a little while. It can turn into hate really fast. The McMartin case came out of nowhere and set off a national obsession that destroyed lives. When irrationality goes viral somebody’s gonna get hurt. And that’s what creeps me out about the impassioned defenses you see and hear about the fear of clowns. They make no sense. None whatsoever. And they are too edgy to be funny. These people are genuinely scared. The more they think about clowns, the more intense they become. Imagine them in a mob. That seems so absurd. For now anyway. But you’ve seen this clown fear thing growing. Fast. Imagine it keeps growing. What if people are still freaked out by clowns a generation from now. Where does it stop? How do you stop it? How do you try to reason with something that makes no sense whatsoever?  Will a bizarre fear of clowns morph into a bizarre fear of anything else? Anyone else? What happens to hysterias in a social  media world? Where do they stop? Who is next? Is it all harmless? Or does it morph from kinky Woody Allen monologues into Kern County trying teachers for satanic child abuse? Freud meets the Old Testament and justice goes out the window. When irrational minds harden they can be terrifying. And that was before the social media. We have yet to see how the internet affects all of this, though without the internet very few of you would see a picture of Bozo and think private awful thoughts.

It’s strange how many cynical, agnostic, skeptical, intelligent people profess to being freaked out by clowns. The Satanic preschool stories of the eighties were believed by the gullible, by bigots, by those who had tossed rationality out the window when they’d become reborn Christians.  But this fear of clowns thing, it afflicts the hip and sophisticated. The people you would think would know better. But maybe they miss the irrational fears the rest of the public enjoys. They may not believe in demons or ghosts or Satan, but they believe in clowns.

Emmett Kelly scaring the hell out of you.

Emmett Kelly scaring the hell out of you.


To Serve Ants


From Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants and Natural Selection by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy (Pantheon, 1999); in Chapter 3, “Underlying Mysteries of Development”, pp 64-65.

In an unrivaled reproductive success story, expeditions of leaf-cutting and harvester ants blaze trails across the forest floor, while battalions of army ants terrorize mammals in their path. Bees and wasps dot trees with their nests, and termites infest rotting wood. One-third of the animal biomass [total weight of living things] of the Amazonian rain forest teems, climbs, and swarms with billions upon billions of these social insects.

The secret to their success is, quite simply, the most dedicated and efficient daycare in the biosphere [total area of where life exists on earth: on the surface, underground, underwater, in the air, and inside each other]. So what if some army-ant queens can lay up to two million eggs? A woman starts out her life with more than three times [7 million] that many egg cells [an egg is an egg cell; even an ostrich egg is one cell]. It’s not the insect queen’s fecundity that is so special, it’s her success rate translating eggs into adult survivors. What makes social insects so amazing is the dedicated assistance of all those allomothers [sociobiological jargon for nannies]. Even if the mother dies, so long as the colony persists, her progeny will be cared for. It is a mother-centered world geared toward one aim: the survival of progeny.

In a sense, then, humans (and most mammals, I’d reckon) are similar to marine invertebrates (like clams, for instance) whose females release vast numbers of eggs in order that at least one survives to adulthood. Of course, marine invertebrate males also fertilize huge numbers of those eggs, from many females. (I’ve tried explaining this option to my wife to no avail.) Without water as a medium in which to expel all those eggs and all that milt, most human eggs are never given the opportunity to be fertilized. Then again, the extremely small amount of eggs that humans (and mammals) do allow to be fertilized have a much better chance of reaching adulthood (that is, reproductive age) than do all those millions of eggs released by marine invertebrates, the vast majority of which are eaten or drift away or die. But ants and their entomological ilk have mastered a way to not only fertilize vast amounts of the egg cells the female contains in her, but to ensure that nearly all of them are raised to adulthood. In human terms, one woman would mate with one man and his sperm would fertilize all seven million eggs she has within her (not at once though, the sperm would be retained and used one sperm cell at a time as the babies are conceived.)  The babies, fetuses only minutes from conception, would be expelled (i.e., born…marsupials “give birth” this way, a tiny, undeveloped fetus leaving the reproductive tract and making for the pouch) and raised by allomothers, all of whom would have to be prevented from breeding themselves to prevent massive over-population. (Social insects use chemical agents that repress sexual capability, as well as killing excess queens; some honey bee workers occasionally do lay eggs but the eggs are killed.) The naked mole rat of Africa is the only mammal known to use a reproductive strategy like that of the ants, with a queen, sterile workers, etc. (They even live in tunnels underground like ants, but like other mammals only allow a tiny number of egg cells to be fertilized and born.) HOWEVER…there have been many examples of human societies that control reproduction among their own kind, in myriad ways. The recent scandal caused by that Mormon colony in present day Arizona where polygamy is practiced and extra males (always teens) are banished and driven out (sometimes literally driven out, to be dropped off alone in neighboring towns) is just a recent variant on this.

Far more brutal a human method is starving a population. Consider the Nazis, they deliberately starved the Slavic peoples in the Ostlands (Poland and Russia) they had conquered. They needed some Slavs alive to serve as slaves, but a carefully managed population size, used as a resource to be managed like any other resource. Reducing food supplies not only would kill off excess adults and newborns (which it did, dramatically), but also severely reduce the actual rate of reproduction, since reproduction is reduced dramatically when food is scarce (a handy built-in biological comtrol.) People die off, babies stop coming, and more room opens up for food production to support the planned increase in German population. And that population would be increased by a state mandated increase in female fertility–women would have more babies. Indeed lots more babies. If necessary, one man could father babies by multiple women.  The Aryan race would thrive and increase, Nazi genes would spread across Europe.

Now it gets weird.  In the Nazi totalitarian Reich all Aryans were obedient members, obedient subjects, their very existence one with the State. (On a good day, anyway, but that was the idea.) All Germans were of the German race, the Volk. The Volk and the Reich were the same. Their genes were of the Volk and thereby belonged to the State. The Nazi State–that is, the Reich–was like one organism, all it’s reproduction was the Volk’s reproduction, and the Volk itself was like the queen ant, creating endless generations of genetically perfect Aryan supermen, and the state was the allomother. It was a bizarre mirror image of an ant colony. And as ridiculous as this all sounds, it could probably have passed for a position paper written up by an RSHA intellectual and sent off to Heydrich and then Himmler for comment.

Thankfully the Nazis were annihilated so none of this could be put into practice. We’ll never know just how feasible it was. Somewhere, no doubt, someone regrets that. But genetics itself put a limit on the notion a generations of Aryan perfection. You’d have to be pretty strict in weeding out variation. No doubt someone regrets that too. Of course, eggs can be implanted now. A small group of Nazi mothers could have their perfect Aryan eggs installed into women to gestate the perfect Aryan babies. The state would take over upon birth, impressing Aryan values onto Nazi babies from the very beginning. Embryo implantation would have been a perfect solution to the problem. My god why am I thinking about this? I began thinking about ants.

What terrifying possibilities lie within an ant colony for the future of mankind. Read enough E.O. Wilson (try Journey to the Ants) and you’ll get the creeps, the little bastards start looking dangerous. Wars of annihilation, colonies as big as California, an overwhelming and ominous ant-ness. But there was a time when no one really thought of them that way. They were just amazingly organized little creatures, quite charming. I remember reading a classic text, the Social Insects, way back in my college days, not sure where I’d found it. Ants seemed like these fabulous little civilizations all about our feet. I’d watch them do their scurrying around thing and think gosh, amazing. I found another classic text, written between the wars, in the old Downtown L.A. Library. This was before the fire, the singed fluttering pages, the visions of Alexandria.  I sat in the garden outside, feeling vaguely ancient Greek, reading about ant civilizations and wondering as they marched endlessly past my feet. They were Argentine ants, they were everywhere, but the vastness of the colony was unknown then. Not even imagined, actually. I saw tiny little city states, a colony by the tree there, another under a nearby shrub, others trailing between ant portals dug in the cracks in the sidewalk. Instead it was an empire of several hundred square human miles. I’d eat my liverwurst sandwich and drink my lemonade and disappear into a fascinating ant world, trying not to think about my shit job at the brokerage firm. Or was it at the law firm where I spent all day in a small office with a drop dead gorgeous Assyrian girl with long powerful legs and perfect breasts. I wanted to mate with her. I didn’t, but wanted to. The ants at my feet there in the library garden never wanted to mate with anybody. Only a few of the male ants did, and they were not outside the colony working. But when the weather was fine the males would fly in scattered swarms trying to find a little ant queenling to fuck in wild desperation and then die. I wanted to mate with the Assyrian girl too, but, well, maybe mate isn’t the term. I wasn’t thinking offspring. Actually I wasn’t even thinking. I wasn’t even twenty five  and my testicles were doing half my thinking then. The fear of death was what would happen if I did mate with her and the wife found out. Which just goes to show you how different my world was from an ant colony. Or from Nazi race ideology. Himmler would take one look at a big, strapping, fit Celto-Aryan like me and the last thing he’d want would be for me to mate with an Assyrian girl., no matter how long the legs or perfect the breasts. (Ridiculous hair though, the early 80’s was a bad time for young women’s hair.) What a waste all my Aryan milt would be. Think of the Aryan supermen I might father, he’d say, in that reedy little voice of his, and you wanna create little half Celto-Aryan half middle eastern untermenschkins? Had I no sense of volkisch respect? What part of the Nuremberg rally had I missed?

But I was just being a normal horny young stud. Himmler was a berzerk ideologue. Channeling horny young studs into a genetically mapped out  master plan is just, I dunno, too weird. Unnatural. Wrong. For people anyway. But lo the ant…. just be thankful they are so small. Were ants big, smart, and Nazi there wouldn’t be a human left on the planet. We would have been cleansed a long time ago. Exterminated. Eaten. To Serve Ants. It’s a cookbook.

The giant ants were in the L.A. River, you know, just a couple hundred yards from where I am typing this right now and what’s that formic acid smell?

Cat map

Oh man, cat people….

Case in point, this article in Vox: “Japan just created a Google Street View for cats”. Basically, some cat fanatic in Japan made a Google Maps street view for cats. No I don’t know why. But now, it’s explained in the article, we can see what a city look in Japan looks like to a cat.

Of course, that is not what anything looks like to a cat. It is what a Japanese city looks like to a very short person. Because a cat’s daytime vision (see the photo below) is much more fuzzy, less sharp, less colorful (no reds at all), dimmer, and full of shadows. A cats cautious movement reflects that vision. What to us is a lawn in the late afternoon sun is to them a lawn with its western half it in deep shadow. And I also believe a cat’s vision would detect movement much more acutely, so that while we see a street, a cat would see birds in the bushes, a pedestrian walking on the sidewalk, a car passing, and a some littered paper blowing by. We would put the movement into the context of a street, but for a cat the movement is the context.

I realize that this is the least important thing you’re read all day.

And I’m not even finished. You’ll notice one of the stills from the map linked above shows a shop in the background, a bench in the foreground, and some fool calling the invisible cat from the shop door. We can ignore the fool, if only on principle, and the shop, and focus instead on the bench. I’ve always thought that a cat’s way of looking at space is much more modular than ours. That bench, for instance. We see a bench, and notice there’s room under the bench. To a cat there’s the top of the bench and, completely separate, there is the space underneath the bench. They are two different spaces, and their connectedness is meaningless and probably unrecognized by the cat. Because to a cat every opening big enough to get into is its own separate space. A box on the floor. A grocery bag. A cat will crawl into a bag and that bag will then be separate from the room it is in, to the point that a cat can crawl into a paper bag and fall fast asleep, feeling completely secure, no matter what is going on around it. And while a bedroom for us is one room and a closet, for a cat it is a whole collection of spaces independent of each other. The top of the bed and underneath the bed are completely different, the various cubbyholes and hidden places in the closet are completely unique spaces. It sees a bedroom the way we would see a large house. And I don’t think this map gets that across. But imagine an empty bag on the sidewalk between the bench and the shop. To us it would be a bag blowing across the sidewalk. To a cat it would be another modular space, just as much a part of the geography as the top of the bench or under the bench or that shop door beyond with the fool saying here kitty kitty in Japanese.

I once saw a map of a neighborhood from the point of view of a mockingbird, the block divided into various mockingbird territories that, property lines be damned, were all over the place. I’ve never been able to find that map again–those were analog times, when things popped up, blew our minds, then disappeared forever–but it got me to looking at the world from the point of view of different species, such as cats, or Argentine ants, or the rotten kids next door back then on their Big Wheels at eight in the morning. You can while away half your adult life thinking like that. I recommend it.

This handy picture is from pictures-of-cats.org. I had no idea there even was such a site, though I looked no further than this site, being allergic to pictures of cats.

So it turns out this handy picture I googled is from an excellent little essay on cat vision, very brief and to the point, something I ought to try. Alas, both author and photographer are unknown. The site is called pictures-of-cats.org, which set off my self-conscious hip cynicism big time, alarms going off, you would have thought a car was being broken into inside my head. I had no idea there even was such a site, and I looked no further than this pic, being allergic to pictures of cats.

You are only ten per cent of you.

Here’s a brief but mindblowing article from Science Daily. The cells or our body–skin, blood, brain, all of it–are only 10% of all the cells in our body…the other 90% are bacteria…and yet we are the interaction of our actual bodies (and genetically, our genome) and all those bacteria. The Holobiont they call us, i.e. you and your bacteria, and the Hologenome, your genes and all those bacterial genes (a galaxy’s worth of genes, I suspect, untold numbers). Everything we are, right down to our emotions and health and interactions and thinking and mating habits, might be a result of a combination of our bodies and our bacteria. Perhaps “might be” is being too conservative, perhaps everything we are and think and do is a result of a combination of our bodies and our bacteria. We are just now getting a glimmer, just a hint of how this works. But essentially what you think of as you is actually an ecosystem of you and a zillion bacteria, and what you think of as, say, your cat is your cat and all it’s bacteria, and the mutual affection you have for, say, your cat is actually you and your bacteria and the cat and its bacteria reacting to each other. But wait, there’s more. That woman at the bar who sat next to you and you talked to all night and are still thinking about today? That wasn’t just her perfume that made you swoon. It was pheromones, everyone knows that. Pop science. You can even buy supposed pheromones to increase your attractiveness to the opposite sex. But think about what those pheromones really are. Is it the scent of pheromones themselves that kept you focused on him or her all night? Or was it pheromones interacting with the bacteria that thrive in the lush, warm, sweaty, hairy places beneath our arms and between our legs (and, hairlessly, behind the ears for some reason). Mostly it was the scent of millions (billions?) of bacteria heated by the increased blood flow to her armpits and groin and behind the ears. You attracted her the same way. You and your bacteria dug her, and she and her bacteria dug you. If that isn’t love, I don’t know what is..


Anyway, here’s the article….

Don’t look now, but the pronoun “I” is becoming obsolete. (Science Daily)

Continue reading


This was a quick, one draft comment to a buddy’s Facebook post that linked to a fascinating essay in Aeon by Mark Rowlands entitled “The Kindness of Beasts” . Subtitled “Dogs rescue their friends and elephants care for injured kin – humans have no monopoly on moral behavior”, it set off a discussion on animal morality, and this was my bit. 

I think that there’s a Darwinian basis for morality in animals, as with us. Not that it makes it any less moral. It’s just that, in the long run, such behavior worked to a genetic advantage. As with acts of extreme animal violence with no other purpose than killing. It stems from a behavior that is genetically advantageous, as with us. And if not, it’ll tend to be culled out of our behavior patterns eventually. There has been a trend toward what we think of as moral or humane behavior and away from what we think of immoral or amoral inhumane behavior with time. If there were no genetic advantage in that, it probably would not have happened. The fact that among some mammals–like dogs, elephants and people–the young must be nurtured and taught how to be adults only builds an automatic altruism into the species–though, as with many other apes and felines, the maternal altruism exists side by side with an adult male’s performing infanticide. Much altruistic behavior among social apes is based upon defending infants from other males. You can still see traces of that among humans. So that is altruism and morality that is definitively connected to genetic advantage. I don’t mean strictly a Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene thing here, but “genetic advantage” in a much broader sense–including genes, culture, family, etc. People throwing themselves on grenades or Russian partisans fighting Nazis to the death all come under the same idea. And social animals like dogs or elephants probably developed what we think of as morally altruistic behavior over time as well, if only because it is part of the web of behaviors that make social structures possible. Out of all that basis for morality and altruism can rise acts of apparently pure altruism, like the dog rescuing the other dog.

There are relapses and failures, too. Good gets stomped by evil pretty regularly. But it seems that over the long term, goodness has a benefit over rottenness and after many, many generations, there is more altruism and less rottenness. At least until things change, and there’s an advantage to being rotten again. But it seems like in the long term, the advantage goes to those more altruistic than those not. Among humans, the world is a much less murderous and violent place than it was a century, or even a half century ago. Death rates from war and homicide are way down globally and have been steadily. You could say the same thing about dogs…a look at a dog park is a display of just how non-violent that species has become. Watching dogs interact in a dog park is to see a swirl of small acts of morality, something unimaginable were you to put one hundred feral dogs together. There would be much more fighting, much more aggression. To survive with people dogs had to learn to be really nice to each other, dogs that are not genetically related at all. Same with people, actually.

Incidentally, there was a smilodon–a saber tooth cat–skeleton found somewhere ages ago that had a severely damaged hip. So damaged that the cat was left permanently crippled and quite incapable of hunting. The cat lived for years after it was incapacitated. Smilodons were social animals, living, it is believed, in lion-like packs, and the only thing the paleontologists could figure was that this individual was being fed by the others. Food would have been brought to it. I never read about this again, or if some alternative explanation was later offered. But at the time it showed a degree of altruism that you would never have expected from a wild animal, though the concept, as we can see from this article, has expanded broadly since then.

Probably the purest examples of altruism are among the social insects–thus altruism need not be based on morality at all. We ourselves probably engage in all sorts of amoral (not immoral, but amoral) altruistic behavior all the time without giving it a second thought, or even a thought at all. Perhaps societies are built on tiny, daily acts of amoral altruism, which make the genuinely moral acts of altruism something special.