Monday, March 07, 2005

Idealism and Reality

We lowly humans often tout our ideals to others. The ideals of a nation (e.g., all men are created equal), the ideals of our state (Esse Quam Videri - to be rather than to seem; the state motto of North Carolina), ideals of community (e.g., traditional family values) or even our own personal ideals (e.g., to live and let live). Ideals have power. They set the bar against which our behavior, laws, economic and foreign policy are judged and to which, for those who have the capacity, implement these ideals.

The unfortunate reality, however, it that these ideals are rarely met and the most common explanation that I've been able to perceive for this failure is that "they are ideals to strive for but that we are flawed beings and achieving them is next to impossible". This explanation seems to emanate from the lips of religious folks and atheists alike. Scientists and lay people. As a person with a scientific, biological, evolutionary bent, this explanation is often couched in terms of a conflict between the ideals and our evolutionary past which is not necessarily conducive to achieving these goals. Crunch!

That is the sound of the reality of our evolutionary predilection for distrust of the unknown, ingroup, outgroup tendencies and our selfish genes slamming up against the ideals developed over hundreds or thousands of years of philosophical thought that attempts to answer the question of "What does uptopia look like?".

From my perspective, though, all is not lost. While I tend to agree with evolutionary explanations of why we behave the way we do, it is important to remember the naturalistic fallacy. Just because a behavior evolved to solve a particular adaptive problem does not make it right.
The interesting thing about evolution, idealism and reality is that they need not be mutually exclusive. We evolved the capacity for thought and from that our ability to dream for a better future. To create these ideals that seem to be the sin qua non for day to day living. Understanding our evolutionary past does not harm us or prevent us from achieving these ideals but instead provides a framework or starting point for developing effective strategies to achieve these ideals. Ignoring our evolutionary past will almost certainly result in a failure to achieve the ideals we hold so dear. Embracing it, understanding where our past could make achieving our ideals more difficult and developing strategies that circumvent or take advantage of our evolutionary predispositions to achieve these ideals is much more likely to move us closer to achieving these ideals. Don't fight our evolutionary past. Understand it and work WITH it. Ideals and reality need not be different.

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