Thursday, November 06, 2014

Fun for all the family

It's that time of the year again, no, not good old fashioned secular Christmas where the worst that can happen is that you get acid reflux from eating too many mince pies or a bruised shin from the Granny trying to grab the last turkey from the supermarket freezer. Across the Shi'ite Muslim world they are celebrating the day of Ashura (4th Nov) through the ritual cutting, whipping and thrashing of themselves (and their children) in order to drench themselves in blood and wander zombie-like through the streets to remember some bloke who died in a battle 1300 years ago (see picture above).

What a bizarre species of Primate we are, why would people expose themselves and their offspring to extreme pain and the risk of serious harm through infection in this way? This bodily-abuse tradition isn't unique to Muslims of course it seems to be a popular feature of all three Abrahamic religions (among others) from the Flagellants in the Catholic church to Jewish obsessions with re-modelling the penises of small boys. Whenever I read stories about these kinds of things I'm always left with the question, what's the point of it? Is there possibly some kind of evolutionary origin of such seemingly stupid behaviour, I think there probably is.

If you think about it the overriding evolutionary advantage of Humans (apart from our big brains) has been that we work in teams, hunting, building, farming etc. are all team sports. One of the most important facets of any team is that there is cohesion and a sense of common purpose, the interests of the team have to override (albeit sometimes temporarily) the interests of the individual; without these attributes the power of the team is reduced and the survival benefit is lost. Natural selection therefore will have probably selected for populations of animals that do team-work better, i.e. animals who find ways to abandon self interest in favour of group-think. I think it's this ancient instinct at work here, one of those primal urges to feel part of the in-group and the dopamine reward in our brains that this feeling delivers, as is evidenced here, this urge often overrides common sense. It's clear from rituals such as Ashura that we still possess this biological urge even though reason should tell us that it's completely unnecessary from an individual survival point of view these days. You can see the same thing at work all over the place, from rugby teams to political parties to religions to cultures, we crave the in-group, you could say that we possibly even need it.

Unfortunately for us such in-group instincts are ultimately harmful at the macro level, the problem with teams is that they naturally (by definition) compete, and when disparately evolved groups are smashed together in modern cities or multicultural mash-ups tensions arise. Whilst we all crave the the chemical hit we get from kinship, like all junkies we also feel compelled to protect our supply. In-groups depend on the concept of an out-group; naturally this leads to divisive behaviour and ultimately to conflict even though the focus of the conflict can simply be an idea (as opposed to real physical resources) that fosters group cohesion.

In order to survive in harmony I think we need to better understand and moderate these in-group/out-group differences wherever they arise, the solution as always is comparative education and inclusiveness; in the end we are genetically all the same species our similarities are much more numerous than our differences, everything else is the product of our own imaginations.

No comments: