Reciprocal Altruism

 Reciprocal Altruism

 Treating others with trust and happiness, and hoping for their self-realisation seems to be natural behaviour that follows natural laws.

2500 years ago the Buddha had to leave his sheltered home and venture into the alleyways and bye-ways of Greater Magadha to learn about common sense and natural laws. The habit of treating others with trust and affection is a natural habit that would give anyone greater opportunity for learning and growth. Suspicion and exclusion boxes you into your own past and increases your suffering.  Modern scholarship suggests that as a result of his interactions with the common people in their native Pali, a colloquial language full of respect for women and other common sense wisdom, Buddha managed to rid those who had been misled by Brahmins of their many false beliefs, and persuade them to study for themselves the natural laws that make ourselves and others happy.

The Brahmins of course could not bear this egalitarian wisdom of sharing and caring, and quickly snatched up some of the Buddha’s ideas and incorporated them into their own texts with important bits of doctrinal tinkering to make their own role in the expansion of their masters’ kingdoms indispensable. The middle and later Upanishads and the Mahabharata contain many such additions and distortions. Johannes Bronkhorst and I am sure many others whose books I have not read, are of the view that most of the Sanskrit texts that are thought of as older than Buddhism are actually younger, or contemporaneous with Buddha. Bronkhorst’s ‘Greater Magadha, Studies in the Culture of Early India’, from 2007, suggests that if we study Pali more we will understand better how scientific the thinking of pre-literate Greater Magadha society was, but also how, paradoxically, the setting down of its wisdom in writing and its development in Jain, Buddhist and Ajivika texts contributed to its overthrow by power-hungry Brahmins.The solution to the problem of rebirth and karmic retribution that Buddha offered turned out not to be in the interests of those who seek power. The lust for power made Brahmins go all out to persuade king’s that their obscurantist dramas were more likely to give them power than a scientific approach to life. But they incorporated enough of Buddha’s teaching into their literature to plagiarise and hijack his thought for the purposes of becoming richer and more powerful.

Exactly who these common people in Greater Magadha were at this time, and indeed who were the people in the whole world in the era before Pali was written down, – who the common people were who inspired Buddha, – is itself an important question. It is very likely that there were many more languages than just Pali around at that time in Greater Magadha. The common people could have been many different tribes of indigenous people who had settled in the Greater Magadha region ever since the first homo sapiens repopulated the Indian subcontinent from Africa after the Tuba volcanic eruption that wiped out nearly all of humanity around 74’000 years ago. They could also have been descendants of homo erectus in Greater Magadha, who evolved into homo sapiens. Stone tools belonging to homo erectus were found not only underneath but also above the layer of ash from the Toba eruption. In this case the culture of the homo sapiens of Greater Magadha could have been very much more ancient and different from homo sapiens that came out of Africa much later. They could also in addition have been earlier invaders from West Asia who also spoke an Indo-European language, namely Pali, and who were trying to resist the later invaders, who spoke Sanskrit.

Importantly, most language researchers today think that homo erectus had developed language at least 1 million years ago, in which case homo erectus and later homo sapiens throughout the world have been adding to human knowledge and wisdom and passing it on through the generations for many millennia longer than previously thought. The Buddha thought as much when he reported he was part of an eons-long line of wise men. The struggle to assert psychology and medicine, subjects that are part and parcel of any culture that studies nature scientifically, is a very old battle against ignorance and may not be a question of the simple divide between the common people of Greater Magadha and the rest of the world on the one side and the obscurantist rulers of church and state on the other. Anyone who wishes to manipulate the public for their own material gain will adopt obscurantist indoctrination tactics including lies about superior power of certain interest groups, of the male gender, of certain castes, of the white race, of the upper class and of those of this or that favoured ethnicity. Whether they are offspring of this or that set of two parents or any other, there is no accounting for human folly.

Hoping that they will see the errors of their ways has at the same time also been an age-long hope of those of us who understand the danger to individuals of non-scientific thinking, because what hurts the individual hurts us all including the whole human race and the biosphere. This form of rational thinking may in fact be as old as humanity itself. Reasonable study of natural laws may indeed be the most human way to be, whilst unreason and fear and exercise of power may be what those do who stray from the natural human path. The Brits are wrong: humans are not naturally brutish, but naturally supremely wise; it is conquerors and other power hungry folk who are the idiots who we hope may one day will mend their ways.

This assumption that humans are naturally programmed for cooperation is supported by the theories of the evolution of language in mankind. Weirdly the study of the origins of language was banned in 1866 by the Linguistic Society of Paris, a prohibition which remained influential across much of the Western world until late in the twentieth century. It suggests modern scientists are not half as committed to scientific enquiry than perhaps they try and make out to be. Nonetheless, inspite the ban,  Ulbeck in his paper from 1998 among with other contemporaries dares to investigate the question. He writes that “cognitive intelligence is an earlier and more widely spread property of mind than language because evolution selects for effective information gathering. Language’s proper function is to communicate, which here means sharing of information. But information-sharing would seem to be prohibited by natural selection, except in extraordinary conditions. Only under the extraordinary conditions of reciprocal altruism can information-sharing take place without loss of fitness to the speaker. In the human lineage, social co-operation based on obligatory reciprocal altruism has evolved, a system which rewards people for co-operating and punishes them (morally and physically) for cheating. In such an environment language is finally possible.”

If this is true we can assume that early man was naturally egalitarian, much more egalitarian than chimps and other primates. In fact all indigenous cultures are supremely egalitarian and based on reciprocal altruism, until they come in touch with modern patriarchal power politics. They are egalitarian because human beings from the beginning figured this was a more effective strategy for our self preservation than anything else. Reciprocal altruism is beneficial to all, and language evolved to make reciprocal altruism possible. Conversely, once you stray from that path, then the benefits of having developed language in the first place are lost. It could well be that the thinkers in Greater Magadha including the Buddha, Mahavir, the Pre-Socratics in Asia Minor, Makkhali Gosala, and the many exponents of the way in China, four to two and a half thousand years ago, were in fact analysing and communicating to others this natural law of behaviour of humans that we have been expressing and enacting towards each other for upto two million years. The hope that all humans would treat each other with trust and happiness,as natural law demands, lives on.

Anandi Sharan was born in Switzerland, lives in Bangalore and last year worked in Araria District Bihar, India. She works on trying to find the best money system to help people adapt to climate change especially in India.




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