The Haitian people were their own first responders.
—RUSSEL HONORÉ, CNN interview
Let’s begin with the false “security” fears that delayed and militarized the U.S. response to the Haitian earthquake (echoing the Katrina response [Protevi 2009]). Instead of rescue, relief, and security (in that temporal and priority order), the priorities of the last two were reversed and relief was delayed and subordinated to security.
There was an immense amount of media fear mongering in the aftermath of both Hurricane Katrina and the Haitian earthquake. Anarchy in the streets, food riots, “looting,” sexual predation (especially prevalent after Katrina, no doubt due to the presence of “tourists”—code for “white”). But these fantasies covered over the fact that the Haitian people, like those of New Orleans, had not “descended into anarchy” but had themselves already commenced their own rescue effort; although they needed supplies for relief, they did not need to have relief trumped by “security.” In the words of General Russell Honoré, of the Katrina rescue effort, the people of Haiti, like those of New Orleans, “were their own first responders” (CNN 2010). They needed relief organizations (including the military, but in a mission prioritizing relief over security) catalyzing and organizing the already activated prosocial behaviors of the Haitians; there was little need to securitize the situation.
There is very good sociological evidence from the University of Delaware Disaster Research Center (http://www.udel.edu/DRC/) that shows widespread prosocial behavior in the aftermath of disasters. The Delaware scholars also criticize the role of media in spreading “disaster myths” that include the idea of widespread antisocial behavior; these myths feed into the securitization of rescue efforts (Tierney, Bevc, and Kuligowski 2006).
The basic political-theory perspective is the following: far from showing a Hobbesian nightmare of atomized or at best gang predation in the wake of the failure of the state, the overwhelming evidence of prosocial behavior in disasters shows the fragility of the atomization practice of contemporary neoliberal capitalism. It’s not that the state is needed to keep a precarious social contract together so that otherwise “naturally” atomic individuals will not prey upon each other; it’s that the state is needed to enforce policies that foreclose the prosocial behavior that would otherwise emerge (Ostrom 2005) and that does in fact emerge in disasters. Delays of a few critical days can, however, produce incidents of antisocial behavior that are then, retrospectively, seen as justification for the initial “security” fears. This production of what retrospectively justifies the securitization is also seen in “kettling” maneuvers by police—or indeed just their showing up in riot gear—that produces the violence that it was supposed to prevent and thus retrospectively legitimates the kettling (Reicher et al. 2007).
Although the above is a good general framework, it needs some nuancing. Some media coverage of disasters emphasizes prosocial behavior, celebrating it as evidence of common humanity underneath “political” or “social” divisions (rarely thematized, it must be said, as “class” divisions). However, the Katrina coverage was notable for its credulity with regard to rumors (disproved within a month or so) of antisocial behavior that in retrospect were little more than shameful racial stereotypes of violent and sexually aggressive African American males. So, it often depends on whether the right kind of disaster victim is being portrayed.
Hidden by the fear mongering were instances of empathy-motivated prosocial behavior. Empathy motivates helping behavior, by pulling us to care about other people for the sake of those people. But prosociality is not “niceness”; it also motivates punishment of wrongdoers. We also need to distinguish empathy from two other sorts of feeling: (1) emotional contagion (the way emotions can spread among people, especially infants); and (2) sympathy (feeling something that someone else does). We further need to distinguish helping motivated by empathy (helping them for their sake, because they need help) from helping motivated by stress relief (helping someone to alleviate the bad feeling you have from their distress) (Stueber 2017).
There are many other prosocial emotions besides empathy: righteous indignation (shading into outright anger), shame, guilt, joy, and so on. Although the prosocial emotions are important, we should not think that prosociality has no intellectual component. Many cases of social conflict are not clear-cut and require discussion and debate. In Protevi 2009, I proposed that our concrete psychological life is affective-cognitive: all cognitive acts are emotionally shaped and inflected, while emotions have cognitive, reality-shaping and -disclosing, dimensions.
Let me say a few words about affective neuroscience treatments of fear and panic (LeDoux 1996 and 2016 Panksepp 1998 and about mirror neurons and empathy (Gallese 2001; Heyes 2010). The admittedly speculative idea I am proposing here is that fear and panic are individualizing while empathy is socializing. Although socializing empathy—obviously needing correct child-rearing practices and obviously with culturally different triggers and, to some extent, patterns—is our evolutionarily default setting (which now needs disasters to reveal itself, given atomizing neoliberal practices), atomizing panic trumps empathy via an extra affective charge in certain specific and highly intense situations (such as fire in enclosed spaces). The extra affective charge of panic makes it more attention grabbing; in other words, we are evolutionarily primed to pay more attention to panic behavior in conspecifics than to socializing empathic behavior, as that is the norm or default setting. This extra affective charge is used by media to elicit attention to reports that emphasize if not invent panic and antisocial behavior in disasters.
Whatever your position in theory of emotions, as a corporealist (Damasio 1999) or a constructivist (LeDoux 2016 or Barrett 2017), singular encounters are the genesis of emotional structures. And whatever your position in moral psychology, whether an emotion-first intuitionist or someone who accords some weight in some circumstance to moral reflection (interestingly, Jonathan Haidt , although most closely identified with the former, also allows for the latter), emotions are important in analyzing bodies politic, either as generators of opinion, as obstacles to proper judgment, or as indicators of virtue or vice.
Corporealism also doesn’t fit with constructivist theories, which will insist on the contribution of semantic factors, as in the radical theory of Lisa Feldman Barrett or the more modest constructivism of Joseph LeDoux. LeDoux’s constructivism is moderate in comparison to Barrett (2017), insofar as he does allow some reference to specific subcortical defense reactive circuits that are added to other inputs in his “recipe” for fear (LeDoux 2016 93–112). Barrett, however, insists on a strong neural globalism, which, with her insistence on holism, emergence, and degeneracy (same outcome from different mechanisms), results in a strong nominalism, such that no “fingerprint” of necessary circuits can be identified for either emotion instances or even emotion categories (2017, 35–41).
For Barrett, emotion occurs when an emotion concept is unpacked. For her, emotion-concept construction occurs via learning, that is, a bottom-up summarizing of singular experiences, drawing on neural inputs from multiple brain sites mapping the body and other higher and lower intrabrain regions; each of these experiences is tagged with culturally specific emotion terms. Hence there is a high-level, cortical/semantic component to concepts, which are constructed from these multiple inputs. Such summarizing produces concepts as abstract but nonessential capacities that do not exist as enduring, locatable, actual firings but only insist as potentials for actualization. Given her strong holism, emergence, and degeneracy, concept creation is the progressive construction of a virtual field: virtual, because concepts do not exist in actuality but insist in potentiality.
An emotional episode is an instance of a concept, that is, the actualization of the potential concept. It occurs as prediction, a top-down simulation that “unpacks” concepts. Such unpacking constructs an instance of the concept that assembles its components from occurrent inputs and checks the assemblage against the prediction. This actualization occurs in a degeneracy mode, such that no single set of neural firings is necessary for each instance of the concept. Hence the concept is a virtual diagram with multiple mechanisms for the actualization of instances. In Deleuzean terms, it is an “abstract machine” with multiple machinic assemblages for its actualization.
This is not all that different from the corporealists if we allow for cortical brain firings to count as “states of the body” (the brain is part of the body, in a certain sense, if “body” is thought as the “material occasion for emotional events” rather than as “outside-the-brain but up to and including the skin”). Where does that body state come from? From the history of encounters of the body, that is, from the interaction of the particular character of the body and the objects (people and things) it encounters. The history of encounters patterns the body by modulating its characteristic responses, deepening the affective response upon repetition of similar objects; that is, in Barrett’s terms, experience generates more and more deeply embedded and finely grained emotional concepts.
Here the brain/body is not a blank slate nor a preformed set of responses. Encounters are not imprintings nor are they mere triggers; rather, the body politic has characteristic dispositions that set up a range of stylized responses. Similarly, this is not a nominalist position of sheer idiosyncratic—and hence unpredictable—responses; nor is it a universalist human nature in which we can predict responses. Rather, if we get to know someone, and see an encounter with a relatively familiar object, we have a good sense of what will happen. But bodies are complex, and internal changes arise, as do situations unfamiliar to the agent, such that predictions of the response are less reliable, both to the onlookers and even to the experiencing agent: we can surprise ourselves with changes in our emotional patterns.
From the importance of encounters flows the importance of institutions. If one can set up ways in which some patterns of encounters can be made more likely than others, one can influence brain/bodily histories, and thus emotional responses, and thus the impulses toward moral action (whatever you think of the efficacy of later rational reflection). When people live in a society with firmly set institutions, their brain/bodies, intuitions, emotions, and impulses toward actions are more or less predictable, and, if the institutions are well attuned to each other, social reproduction occurs more smoothly than if the institutions clash.
Evolution of Altruism
Determining how we got to the point where there is still empathetic horizontal prosociality enabling altruism able to peak through in breakdowns of the state is only a problem for evolutionary biologists who adopt a gene-for-trait development model, and for game theory behavioral individualists in which avoiding exploitation by detecting and then punishing (thus bearing a fitness cost) free riders and bullies (“egoists”) is the selection pressure. Those bringing to bear ethnography of forager bands (e.g., Boehm 2012b or Sterelny 2012) will say it’s not hard to detect free riding or bullying so that social selection is less a cognitive problem than one of action coordination.
It is common to distinguish three forms of altruism: the psychological, which involves the intent to help others; the moral, which involves the intent to help others with no thought of return; and the evolutionary, which involves fitness-hurting action for non-kin (Kitcher 2011).
Explaining the evolution of altruism is a problem if one assumes a gene or individual-level selection, since carriers of altruism-enabling traits would have been selected against. Recall the formula for natural selection: variation of fitness-affecting heritable traits in a population whose environment exerts a selection pressure favoring organisms with some traits, resulting in a difference in traits in succeeding generations. Now, Darwin did not have the notion of “gene,” though he did have a postulated inheritance mechanism (“gemmule”). It is only with recovery of Mendel’s work that genes were postulated as inheritance markers. After solving the problem of continuous variation in a population, the “Modern Synthesis” wed natural selection and population genetics. Watson and Crick (and Franklin) provided our understanding of the molecular structure of DNA, positing it as the physical structure of genes regulating inheritance and development as in the so-called Molecular Revolution and its “Central Dogma” (for a brief history, see Keller 2000).
Although many thinkers are satisfied with explanations of the evolution of altruism at individual-level selection (e.g., Sterelny 2012 and 2014; Tomasello 2016), some other recent thinkers have advocated a return to explaining altruism with the concept of group selection (Sober and Wilson 1998). We’ll look specifically at the questions about the role of war and group selection for altruistic or at least prosocial behavior and emotion.
Altruism is helping behavior with a fitness cost. “Fitness” in evolutionary terms is measured by the number of descendants living to reproductive age. Fitness cost can be as dramatic as self-sacrifice, but also just time spent away from mate selection, child raising, resource provision, and so on. This includes prosocial and third-party punishment as they carry risks: you could start a feud; you eliminate a potential ally. Prosocial behavior is then helping and hurting others according to social patterns. Thus, “prosocial” doesn’t mean “nice”; it means an intellectual understanding of, and emotional investment in, social partners and patterns, which can motivate and justify punishing violators as well as helping those in need.
Scholars have proposed several ways of explaining helping behavior that appears to be altruistic but has hidden benefits that balance out (or outweigh) the fitness costs: (1) kin selection: costly helping behavior that helps genes in kin to survive (“I would sacrifice myself for two brothers or for eight cousins”); (2) reciprocal altruism: aid given back to donor by recipient with time delay (“I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine”); (3) mutualism: working together so that immediate benefits (at end of successfully completed task) accrue to all parties compensating for any costs; (4) indirect altruism: aid given by an altruist with an eye to payback by a third party due to reputation gained by altruistic acts; and (5) sexual selection (qua female mate preference instead of male arms race): altruist behavior as “costly signaling,” hence as predictor of genetic quality.
Social selection (Boehm 2012a and b) is behavior enforcing egalitarianism; it takes the form of ridicule, exile, or killing. Often it is the kin of the mad dog or simple bully prone to violence who step in to take him out, to prevent escalation. Here we see the origin of conscience as self-inhibitor of temptations to nonsharing and active theft, bullying, killing, and so on (“You better think twice, because if you make a mistake the group is going to react harshly”).
War as Selection Pressure for Altruism
This passage on altruism, group selection, and warfare from Darwin’s 1871 The Descent of Man is very widely quoted.
When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if (other things being equal) the one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would succeed better and conquer the other. (Darwin 2004 , 113)
Several new works (e.g., Bowles and Gintis 2011) take up Darwin’s suggestion and posit widespread prestate war as a necessary selection pressure for prosocial behavior, calculations, and emotions. Fry 2013 will challenge them, asking whether war was prevalent enough for it to be the selection pressure for altruism. Three scientific fields provide the questions here: biology, archeology, and ethnography. Biology asks about the relation of anonymous group violence in humans to group raiding in chimpanzees. Archaeology asks whether the archeological record supports the hypothesis of prevalent prestate war. And ethnography asks how studies of contemporary nomadic forager bands can help us hypothesize whether prestate social structures and eco-social conditions were consistent with prevalent warfare.
To follow up on these issues, I turn in chapter 2 to Rousseau, whose Discourse on Inequality provides a framework for discussing the place of war in human evolution.