Monday, 27 December 2010

Evolution Of Pure Things

Recently I observed a discussion on friendship. Person E said that friendship is an involuntary reflex - it just happens and you can't help it. To this, person D, a budding introduction to evolutionary psychology student, responded that evolutionary psychology will say otherwise - that friendship is not involuntary.

There is a very subtle jump that people often either make or don't make, and that is to decide if something, once reduced into quantifiable packets, can still be regarded as pure (as in that thing's original form).

Take friendship, for instance. In order to study the psychology of friendship, we have to dissect it into parts, such as self-interest, reciprocation, wants, emotional closeness, need for cooperation, love and affection, etc (See, for instance, Karen Karbo's article Friendship: The Laws of Attraction on Psychology Today). The moment it becomes split into parts in a reductionary manner, the reduction can further continue - what environmental factors or evolutionary pressures led to the rise of each of these necessary constituent parts?

At this point, I think the tricky part arises. If we can divide a seemingly pure, ideal, honest and 'good' concept like friendship into parts, does that make it 'less' pure? Some people believe it still retains its original purity (like me), while others do not think so, and many people who dislike or have an aversion to reductionist thinking, technical science or evolution generally fall into this group.

I think that is entirely valid, because how you see this issue is dependent on how you see the world, how you want to lead your life, what is important to you, and whether beauty, perfection or purity can be allowed to fall apart whilst still retaining its original Form.

On the other hand, I tend to (rationally) stand on the side of reductionism because firstly that's the only way concepts and constructs can be studied in a scientifically meaningful manner, and secondly because I also strongly believe that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Each isolated element that comes from a bigger, more general concept, is certainly 'cheap'. But when everything comes together, such as a perfect combination of cheap and fluid elements like self-interest, the need for empathy, emotional bonding and cooperation (amongst many other factors), something as wonderful as friendship can arise.

(I stand on the reductionist side cautiously though, because I do know that studying big concepts wholistically, rather than broken down, also has immense value, particularly in art. This beauty element can very rarely be captured by science.)

So, going back at the original discussion between E and D, I chimed in by disagreeing with D, stating that evolutionary psychology doesn't actually say that friendship is not involuntary. The knee-jerk reaction from D, possibly coming from a perspective that says that 'things which are reducible are no longer pure', retorted by saying that evolutionary psychology asserts that friendship evolves under specific conditions, so therefore it is a non-altruistic choice. To which I replied, "I think the argument is more nuanced - it evolves under specific conditions to become an instinct, which is why friendship is indeed an involuntary reflex."

This goes for many other things that people often regard as pure and altruistic human behaviour, such as love, kindness and altruism. To think that these emotions arise out of a vacuum tells us very little about our place in the natural order of things, and such beliefs also do not account for why different people have these emotional capacities in varying degrees, or how come sometimes we demonstrate them and sometimes we don't. I certainly gain much less from "he's very unhelpful because he's a bad person" than "he's very unhelpful because he tends to shy away emotionally from people and does not trust that people will reciprocate." Evolutionary thinking will then provide the necessary precedent for why reciprocation is an important factor that gives rise to helpfulness and other prosocial behaviours.

Once these elements are in place, we have adapted possibly to serve some important need that the environment calls/called for. The adaptation becomes an instinct, which is why we feel as if friendship is involuntary and can't be helped. And indeed, it can't. When we feel drawn to people, the constituent parts that academics, researchers and scholars ponder about and tinker around with do not matter anymore - we hardly even think about them (which is the beauty of an instinct). Evolutionary pressures from constituent parts drove the stable formation of friendship psychology in humans, and then we experience it whether we know why or not, and the more we do not question it, the more efficiently it'll work. If A has the tendency to question/calculate his friendship with B, A probably isn't really friends with B.

On a slightly separate but relevant note, this TED talk by Dennis Dutton covers quite nicely how the appreciation of beauty is hardwired in our psychology, and clues to this exist in a universal appreciation of beauty across diverse cultures.


Christine Chen said...

FYI, saw that TED talk - Denis Dutton is also founder and editor of site Arts and Letters Daily. Love that site, sure to fuel your brain juices everyday. :) see you on Tuesday!

Jose said...

oh what a delightful website. i think i should get denis dutton's book too. see you!