Altruism, Humans and Science

A ramble about how scientific literacy, logic, and rationality makes you see and perceive your fellow humans in a different, more altruistic way.

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

– Marcus Aurelius

First and foremost, I’d like to comment on the quote above. It is imperative for those who don’t know me, to understand that I am an unbeliever. I am a full blown Atheist. For me, there is no God(s). It is an arrogant posture, I know, but it’s how it is.

The mention of Gods in Marcus Aurelius book — Meditations — , and all the religious connotations inside, exist because the man lived in a world where everything that was unorthodox, could, and was almost always understood to be magical, or divine. But he had a very clear mind and line of thought, even by today’s standards.

Before you continue reading this article, reread the quote. Learn from it. Understand the wisdom in those words. A guy, a human just like me and you, who lived thousands of years ago, wrote them.

Altruism isn’t easy. For us humans, who try to survive every day, it is a difficult task to live a good life. Mind you, I don’t mean charity and helping to end climate change. An individual can have a global impact, admittedly, but that’s one in a million, as the saying goes. You probably won’t make any changes to the world as a whole, as stupid and unfair as it may seem. But, you can have an impact on another human being’s life. This, I know for sure. And who knows the consequences of your altruism?

Let’s start with a simple definition of the word Altruism:

Disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.

I used Google.

There are about 8 billion people on earth right now. You live in a country, a city or village, where only a very few of those 8 billion people live. Most of them mind their own business as usual. Even you. You don’t really care what is going on with other people, why should you, right? We evolved — socially speaking -, to care about our small circle — it is more comfortable, more natural and more accessible. I understand this fact, and you should too.

Acknowledge it.

Now, stop. Use the fingers in your hands, and count how many people genuinely belong to your circle of trust. I, myself, count only one.

If you’re surprised about my result, you should know I’ve lived an extraordinarily complex life. My experience tells me, forces me, not to trust anyone. But that doesn’t mean I can’t empathize, far from it. It only helps me to see the world differently. When I meet someone new, I don’t expect anything, good or bad — I simply don’t expect. The result is what matters. I don’t get disappointed, I learn.

Now, how many did you count? More than five people? Maybe your whole family? What, ten, twenty? If you do have more than ten people in your circle of trust, you should think wisely about it. Half of it probably conspire against you or talk bad things about you on your back, that may eventually hurt you, directly or not. More than half don’t even care if you’re alive or not. Or they may care because you’re existence influences theirs. Yes, that is us, that is humanity.

Obviously, this is not a rule; this is not science, this is my experience talking. It may be, and hopefully, that’s the case, that you’re surrounded by real altruistic people who care about you, all the time, and will stop at nothing to protect you. I sincerely hope that is the case. I wouldn’t count on it though.

We, as a species, are nothing special in the grand scheme of things. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t consider ourselves to be somewhat exceptional. We are indeed at the top of the food chain. We’ve conquered the world. We live on a planet that wasn’t and still isn’t meant to harbor life. But, we humans, are so naive when we think of ourselves to be so powerful, that we forget that a simple change in the temperature of the oceans can result in our extinction.

The planet Earth doesn’t care about us. There is no God to take care of us. There’s just us. We alone have the power to take care of each other, and that is why altruism is more than essential, it is imperative.

Like I mentioned before, we humans are inclined to be more sympathetic towards those who are closer to us, it is somewhat normal. But, that is because we need to trust other people to exist. We evolved like this; it’s not our fault. Although, this is not entirely true. We don’t need to trust people, whoever they may be, to feel good about ourselves and our lives. That is a fallacy, a lie hidden within our genetic pool. We can contradict it though. We can overcome it. This way of life comes naturally to me now, but, as I said, it came at a cost. Being altruistic isn’t exactly our strongest virtue as a species. Pick up a history book, any book. Come on, do it. Let’s say, a book about some ancient civilization. Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians. You’ll find that altruism is more of a myth than a fact. Actually, most of the altruism you see in a book will be a mix of fiction and actual truth, and you’ll find no solace if you try to establish a real verdict.

One of the tools I’ve used throughout my whole life is science. It helped me understand, among a billion other things, that for me to judge someone, I have to know that person almost at an intimate level. If I don’t have the chance, I’ll stay away from any judgment.

For me, science is blind or should be. Of course, it has been misused in the past and still is. But remember, science doesn’t belong to anyone in particular. Science is a way of thinking, and when you are scientifically literate, you’ll learn how to perceive events in a very different way. You’ll find that we humans are precious, as are all the living things on this planet. You’ll understand that all the wars, all the hate, all the violence that is happening right now and in the past, is and was pointless. Every life lost in this way is another step towards our own self-destruction.

There are evil humans; therefore there are also evil scientists. You, as an individual, have to overcome your innate selfishness.

If you’re a psychopath and you’re reading this, you know you can’t help it, you’ll always be you. If you’re not, think about the many ways you can change to positively impact someone’s life without expecting nothing in return. Don’t think about how you’re going to feel afterward — it doesn’t matter. What matters is being there, to help, to protect your fellow human.

In real science, there is no place for racism, homophobia, machismo, feminism, and hate. For example, it makes no sense at all for me to hate, or dislike someone because that person is gay, black, or a woman. What matters is the math at the end of the day. In fact, by thinking scientifically, the concept of hate itself is nonsense. Science embraces everyone.

I know that even though we look and act differently, inside, we’re the same. Not spiritually but indeed literally. Forget the gender differences, the organs. Some people are born with one lung yes, one kidney, no legs and so on. The brain. The brain is what matters the most.

We are all descendants of our African ancestors. Mixed with a couple of other human species, granted, but we are all interconnected by evolution, by a common ancestor. This humbles me deeply. It’s incredible to think about it. It’s almost magical.

Evolution by natural selection made us.

Science is the pursuit of knowledge by using the scientific method to continually detect all the mistakes that human beings perennially make, all of the lies we tell ourselves to fight our fears, all of the lies we tell each other.

Science works as a tireless machine. A successful one, but its work will never be finished. It is up to us to keep the engine running well.

In four hundred years, we evolved from a planet full of people who were entirely satisfied with the idea that the universe revolved around us. No clue that the Sun didn’t revolve around us, let alone that we were but a little part of a galaxy that contains roughly a hundred billion stars. And it is conceivable, even possible, that this universe might one day be revealed to be nothing more than an electron in a much more significant universe. And here’s a global society that was utterly ignorant four or five hundred years ago about its own tiny world and the phenomenally more magnificent vastness surrounding it.

To our ancestors, the universe was created for one particular gender, for one specific species, of one particular group among all the stunning variety of life to be found in this world. With the modern scientific revolution, this notion, this idea changed. It was a collective spiritual breakthrough, and I think that it is our failure to recognize it as such, that explains so much of the loneliness, sadness, and madness in our civilization.

So much of the conflict and hatred that still exist is a waste of precious time.

We have yet to resolve the traumatic shock of losing our puerile sense of centrality in the universe. And so, as a society and as a consequence, we lie to our children. We tell them a soothing story, almost to ensure that they will be childish for all of their lives. Why? Is the notion of the inevitability of death so unacceptable? Is the idea of homosexuality so terrible? Should we hide the fact we killed and still kill each other because of religion? Is it acceptable to hide from children about how we treated our fellow man in ancient history? Slavery, a couple of decades ago and still nowadays? Genocide? Is the idea that we are tiny and the universe is stupidly vast, too much of a blow to our tremulous self-esteem?

Tell your children the truth. Help them understand our society as a global civilization. We all belong to the same puny, mortal species. We are all humans. Teach them the value of being good, of being altruistic. We need them, and we need the next generation to understand the mistakes we’ve made before.

As a conclusion of sorts, I would like to emphasize the need to educate ourselves so that we can teach the next generation properly. Learning science doesn’t mean you have to study mathematics or physics. Being scientific literate is all about thinking really.

Science will give you the tools to start understanding yourself, the people around you and the Cosmos. It will make you act when you didn’t before. It will make you think, before believing. It will shape you, it will transform you into someone who can’t hate a person, or a group of people, just because they are different. You’ll know that we need each other to survive.

Being altruistic is in our genes, even though we’ve decided to neglect it. You don’t have to love everyone; you only need to understand them.

Remember, the past is gone, the future isn’t ours, only the present, the now. If you have the means to help someone, do it. Don’t think about rewards, think about you and the fellow human you’ve helped. It’s not about feeling good about yourself either; it’s about doing what is right. Defend and protect the weak, the abused.

If you see someone being mistreated while you’re taking a walk, for instance, you must act. If you need to engage in violence, so be it. Even though it may seem contradictory to everything I’ve written, I believe in justified violence. Sick, evil people can’t always win, and sometimes force is unfortunately necessary. I don’t like it, I’m a pacifist, but I won’t ignore it. If I’m there and I can do something about it, I’ll do it. If you can’t help someone on your own, think of another way of doing it. Use your brain, your intellect. There is always a way.

Ignore what a person seems to be. If you want to judge, you need to get to know the person in question a bit better. Even then, reserve judgment if you can.

Every living thing is precious. You won’t be able to save everything and everyone, but you can do your best.

Racism, homophobia, machismo, and intolerance of any kind should not be accepted in today’s society. Yes, everyone is free to believe and think in whatever they want to believe and think. It is part of the process of being altruistic and democratic. You need to accept there are people like this everywhere. There will be bad people until the end of our days. Fight it by teaching people the true meaning of being human.

Embrace the splendor that is human diversity. Without it, we’d be nothing.

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