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  • Spring 2023 Editorial — Us vs. Them

    We love the idea of altruism. Stories of self-sacrifice inspire us.

    I remember hearing that old wildebeests in Africa willingly fling themselves into a river crossing so that they got devoured by the crocodiles in wait, allowing the young wildebeests to cross safely. It turns out that was the misinterpretation of an old National Geographic clip. At the end of this editorial, I’ll give the modern interpretation.

    In Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” the character Sydney Carton nearing his end says, “It’s a far, far better thing I do today than I have ever done,” before he takes someone else’s place in the guillotine. We cherish examples of altruism whether from the animal kingdom or from a piece of literature. Depending on your worldview, altruism reflects our godly souls, is a demonstration of true love, shows off the angels of our better nature or reflects the hard-cold mathematics of population genetics.

    Charles Darwin recognized that altruistic behaviors might put an animal at a disadvantage in terms of their individual fitness. However, he proposed that such behaviors could evolve if they provided a net benefit to the group or species as a whole. As an example, vervet monkeys give alarm calls to warn their group members of the presence of predators. Although these loud sounds put the caller at a higher risk of detection by the predator, they also increase the survival chances of the other vervets.

    Darwin called this group selection, where traits that benefit the group can evolve even if they are detrimental to the individual. Since Darwin was not aware of genes, there were problems with this formulation that could not be better formalized, and he was uncomfortable with the concept.

    Then genes were discovered and, about 100 years later, the mathematically inclined British biologist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane famously said, “I will gladly give my life for two brothers or eight cousins.” Had he included “four uncles” his math would have been even more obvious. He wasn’t speaking of family love, but of kin selection. This is part of the science of social biology and largely explains many forms of altruism that were thought to be inexplicable under the old evolutionary notions of survival of the fittest.

    There is great beauty that comes from an understanding of the selfish gene in evolution, and in understanding that altruism is not an aberration. Rather, altruism is a highly useful trait that is selected for. But we also have to understand the same coin’s darker side. We live in a world of manipulation of pseudo kinship as a political, social and military weapon. In other words, we can easily fall prey to false representations of kinship.

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    Shortly after Haldane, Irish mathematician and physicist William Rowan Hamilton took this further with the concept of inclusive fitness. Inclusive fitness combines an individual's direct fitness (the number of offspring they produce) with their indirect fitness (the number of additional offspring produced by their relatives due to their altruistic actions). Hamilton's rule is that altruistic behaviors will evolve if the benefit to the recipient (B) multiplied by the relatedness of the recipient (r) outweighs the cost to the altruist (C), that is if rB > C. And, indeed, altruistic behaviors are more common among closely related individuals, as they share a greater proportion of their genes. But this can get rather complicated.

    We are sometimes forced to decide between what is good for us and what is good for our extended family. In order to make the proper calculus, we have to know whether there are relationships, how many are involved and how close are the relationships. If we were like most animals, this would not be so problematic. Most animals use smell to identify true kinship. This is one reason that in most animals there is a huge investment of genes and brain tissues to serve the olfactory system. This remarkably sensitive and discriminating sense of smell can distinguish between the various shades of kinsman since it relies on odorant molecules that vary by genetics.

    But primates, and most especially humans, have a less discriminating sense of smell and they must rely on their cognitive abilities instead. And they can do this with remarkable accuracy. Baboons, for example, keep track of relations and act accordingly. In fact, baboons keep track of which males were around females at the time they were in estrus before pregnancy. Good recall is key. This has proven to be calculated very accurately as to whether the baboon was the father as evidenced later by this baboon’s investments in tending to the young. But calculating kin relationships based on behavior is very tricky because these behaviors can be manipulated. Indeed, baboons have been observed to pretend to be related when the dominant male is involved. These are political manipulations that can help them mitigate the violent tendencies of the aggressive dominant males who will then go easy on their close kin.

    The thing is, we, as humans, manipulate these feelings to a much greater extent. It seems that every newspaper article, every presentation on CNN or Fox News, plays up the distinctions between us and them. The narrative describes a tension between our side and the other side whether the sides are political parties, urban vs. rural, northern vs. southern States or the U.S. vs. other countries.

    Indeed, in doing so, these agencies go to ridiculous lengths to demonize “the other.” That gets people worked up, that lowers our guard in accepting propaganda and, mostly, that gets us so invested that we keep coming back for more. Which, of course, is the point for programs that want to sell time to advertisers. But, for some susceptible audience members, it also incites to violence. Like the baboons that act very aggressively when protecting their own tribe, humans, under the influence of this news manipulation, become capable of extreme violence such as we saw occur in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Recently there was another mass shooting at a college campus, and the shooter had no personal connection with any of the victims or even the college. Every newscaster was asking, “why.” I think that the answer is that this crazy shooter saw the students as alien to his own experiences and felt no kinship with them. They were “them.” He didn’t have the sense of smell that many animals do that would have toned down his rage by recognizing kinship.

    But you don’t have to just look at the crazies acting out to see how this manipulation of kinship happens. In the military, there has always been the doctrine of the “band of brothers.” Shakespeare put this in the Saint Crispin's Day Speech of Henry V. Men are willing to die by the side of their “brothers.” Stalin used to use the term “comrade” until the Germans attacked Russian soil. He then switched to the use of the term “brother” in patriotic speeches asking for sacrifice on the battlefield. And it worked. I guess I’m not above this type of manipulation myself. I have often likened my lab and other teams that I’ve led as being like “family.” While, of course, I’ve not expected people to die for each other, I may have sensed that more sacrifice of time and effort would be made for “the family.”

    The flip side, of course, is to demonize the enemy. At times of social upheaval and war, propaganda does a lot to define the “them” as barely human. In WWII, both sides resorted to using extreme terms such as “cockroaches” and “vermin” to sever the connection of kinsmanship we might have felt for the enemy. This is how political and military leaders destroy our humanity and instincts to be merciful.

    Has the internet brought about a resurgence of tribalism? I think so. At minimum, we may be seeing the tide going out on the recent chapter in human history whereby people connected more with the “others” by learning of them from reading books and traveling. The internet minimizes these connections with superficial tropes about “the other.” As always, we tend to fear most those we don’t understand.

    That is one of the beautiful things about being an ophthalmologist and feeling kinship with other ophthalmologists. The Academy has done a lot to foster this sense. We feel connected by attending the Academy meetings and, I hope even these issues of Scope emphasize what other SO members have done professionally or are doing in their avocations.

    We learn that other ophthalmologists feel and react similarly to the same pressures and challenges we all face, such as confronting retirement. We are in it together and not only is that informative and consoling, but it gives us cause to treat each other well. We may be inclined to give and receive small favors. Like monkeys grooming each other, it’s not about the fleas, it’s about the reassurance that we are all related. After a long career and many friends and acquaintances, I get that all the time, and it’s very heartwarming.

    By the way, what inspired this editorial subject was that I recently read that National Geographic’s extensive filming of wildebeests crossing crocodile-infested rivers have been more carefully analyzed. This analysis showed that the wildebeests did not fling themselves into the water and into the mouths of crocodiles as an act of altruism. Rather, these wildebeests were identified by other wildebeests as old and lame, and as easy victims, were pushed and shoved against their will into the waters. This was not altruism. This was nature, red in tooth and claw. But we love the idea of altruism.