Random Thoughts

Weakness & Selfishness – Reluctant Parents of Virtue

In a previous article on the genesis of god, I proposed that fear and ignorance are the parents of god and religion. This one explains how inherent human physical weakness led to group living which led to the evolution of the neo-cortex and the necessity to build trust. This led to the pretense of virtue which often is a masquerade for deceit. It is by serendipity and contrary to intention that it occasionally does some good.

The problem begins with the evolution of Homo Erectus and the abandonment of arboreal lifestyle with erect bipedal walking on the African Savannah. Walking on legs on the ground increases the foraging distance and frees up the hands for prehensile function. The posture led to change in the tilt of the pelvis. These pre-humans were physically weak and like their simian ancestors lived in groups that required shifting alliances within the group for safety and mating. This is only possible if one can identify members of the group and remember who did what to help or hinder. Vampire bats do this by smell and beg for a favor of a blood meal from friendly bats or the return of a favor from past recipients after returning hungry from a nocturnal sojourn. Ungulates and canines also use smell to recognize others. We humans whose smell related genes have become junk mutations use sight.

The development of speech, a uniquely human instinct, led to the ability to communicate ideas and brag about one's own good qualities like reliability, honesty and trustworthiness. The genetic evolution of speech and the neo-cortex made brains bigger and this led to longer gestation and larger baby heads. The resultant cephalo-pelvic disproportion led to frequent maternal and child morbidity and mortality in us as compared to other mammals and even primates. To prevent uniform fetal and maternal mortality and morbidity from childbirth we genetically evolved to give birth earlier before the head became too big and delayed further head and brain growth after birth. The babies were completely helpless and unable to run like gazelle or zebra newborns and could not even hold on to the mother like monkey and chimpanzee neonates. The human babies retain the grasp reflex but do not have the muscular strength to hold on to even a walking mother, let alone one jumping between trees. The mother's inability to run or protect herself immediately after delivery required someone to care for her, feed and protect her. The discovery of a healed fractured Neanderthal femur by one of the Leakys (anthropologists) is eloquent testimony for the loving care tendered by a fellow being which allowed the sick patient to survive immobile for months. In summary these weaknesses forced dependency on one's group to avoid large carnivorous feline predators and to hunt successfully.

It became mandatory to gain the trust of members of the group and speech allowed us to blow our own trumpet about how reliable, trustworthy and honest we are. This is why most speech is gossip, often running down others and singing our own praises. It is fairly common to attribute qualities to oneself that are more a wish list than reality. Lying during social interaction by false compliments to others and attributing nonexistent virtues to self makes up an important and significant part of conversation. The shortest and most succinct enumeration of virtue is in an old Gujarati poem by Narsinh Mehta that became Mahatma Gandhi's favorite. From Geocities'

Song: vaishnav jan tO

vaishnava janathO
raagam: raagamaalika
taaLam: aadi
Composer: Naarsi Mehta
Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye je
PeeD paraayi jaaNe re
Par-dukhkhe upkaar kare toye
Man abhimaan na aaNe re
SakaL lok maan sahune vande
Nindaa na kare keni re
Vaach kaachh man nishchaL raakhe
Dhan-dhan janani teni re
Sam-drishti ne trishna tyaagi
Par-stree jene maat re
Jivha thaki asatya na bole
Par-dhan nav jhaalee haath re
Moh-maaya vyaape nahi jene
DriDh vairaagya jena man maan re
Ram naam shoon taaLi laagi
SakaL tirath tena tan maan re
VaN-lobhi ne kapaT-rahit chhe
Kaam-krodh nivaarya re
BhaNe Narsaiyyo tenun darshan karta
KuL ekoter taarya re

1: One who is a Vaishnav (Believer in Vishnu)
Is one who knows the pain of others
Does good to others, especially to those who are in misery
And does not let pride enter his mind
2: A Vaishnav tolerates and praises the the entire world,
Does not say bad things about anyone,
Keeps his/her words, actions and thoughts pure.
O Vaishnav, your mother is blessed (dhanya-dhanya)
3: A Vaishnav is one who sees everything equally, rejects greed and avarice,
Considers another's wife or daughter his mother
His tongue may be tired, but he will never speak lies,
One who does not even touch someone else's property
4: A Vaishnav is one who does not succumb to worldly attachments,
Who has devoted himself to staunch detachment from worldly pleasures,
Who has become addicted to the elixir coming by the name of Ram,
For whom all the religious sites are in the mind.
5: A Vaishnav is one who has no greed and deceit,
Who has renounced lust of all types and anger.
The poet Narsi would like to see such a person
by whose virtue, the entire family gets salvation.

The need to have others trust, help or join one's organization or campaign leads to grandiose statements of virtue. A prime example of this is the American Declaration of Independence that begins "All men are created Equal----". It was not the intention of the founding fathers to include blacks, native Indians and even women. The grandiose delusion of virtue is universal but the winning and colonizing Anglo-Saxons have had greater opportunity for bogus bombast. Nevertheless as Federal Judge Leon Higginbotham (an African American) has said that the founding fathers meant all white men, but were too ashamed to leave posterity clear proof of their racism and adopted the unintended pretense of virtue that led godfearing decent abolitionists to hoist the rest of America by their forefathers' petard. Thus pretense of virtue leads to serendipitous good.  


More by :  Gaurang Bhatt, MD

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