a. summary


Ed Yong: I contain multitudes 


When Orson Welles said, ‘We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone’, he was mistaken. Even when we are alone, we are never alone. We exist in symbiosis – a wonderful term that refers to different organisms living together. Some animals are colonised by microbes while they are still unfertilised eggs; others pick up their first partners at the moment of birth. When then proceed through our lives in their presence. When we eat, so do they. When we travel, they come along. When we die, they consume us. Every one of us is a zoo in our own right – a colony enclosed within a single body. A multi-species collective. An entire world. (Ed Yong: I contain Multitudes, 2016: 1)

Altruism vs. Selfishness

But what if this is mostly a “just so” story — a partially accurate fable that does not really describe the full empirical realities of human nature? What if it could be shown that human cooperation, reciprocity and non-rational behavior are just as significant forces as “competitive rationality” and “utility maximization”? This is the startling conclusion of much contemporary research in the evolutionary sciences, especially brain neurology, genetics, developmental and evolutionary psychology, biology, organizational sociology and comparative anthropology. These sciences are confirming that social reciprocity and trust are deeply engrained principles of our humanity. They may even be biologically encoded. “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.” In short, reciprocal social exchange lies at the heart of human identity, community and culture. It is a vital brain function that helps the human species survive and evolve. As author and essayist Rebecca Solnit showed in her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, members of communities beset by catastrophes such as the San Francisco earthquake of 1907, the German Blitz of London during World War II and the 9/11 terrorist attacks generally show incredible self-sacrifice, joy, resolve and aching love toward each other. (David Bollier: Think like a Commoner, 2014: 82–83)