Wednesday, 4 December 2013

A friend in need is a friend indeed.

Since I was a child I've wondered what that meant. It seems all so terribly easy, and logically flawed. It gives an awful lot of credit to the wrong part, the receiving rather than the giving part. Debates on how the phrase was really meant notwithstanding, the public currency that backs the 'friend' being the one in need, far outweigh any other interpretation. Because that is the most popular notion, the version we want to believe. Now that that's sorted, again, what makes the person in need get to be the real friend?

It is undermining the altruistic giver. Which would well fit with long lasting claims that we are selfish creatures, engaged in a battle of survival, incapable of displaying altruism. Incapable of showing kindness to others at a cost to ourselves. Yet over and over again we know of people around us, people among us, people who become famous on account of touching acts of selflessness. All this altruism that we see in ourselves and others, is it just self-interest in disguise? Anyone who has given without an obvious return will testify to how rewarding it is, giving you a feeling of having done something important and valuable thereby increasing your own self worth. Helping people even features in the 'World Happiness Database' (yes, such a thing exists!!) in Rotterdam as a clear measurable towards increasing happiness. There is also the danger of subconsciously nurturing the idea of having invested into a pay-back system, making it a right to receive the same treatment in turn.
This is one depressing way of looking at human nature, there are yet darker ones too that I need take no responsibility for!

Around 1968, George Price, building up on the works of a number of other scientists like Hamilton and Haldane, came up with an equation that explained how altruism could thrive even amongst groups of selfish people. Phew! just when you thought there was no helping us! All these guys contributed towards developing a simple equation to explain that an organism would demonstrate self-sacrificing behaviour if it would enhance the reproductive chances of those it was closely related to. Price
 walked into the University college London an unknown academic, presented it's staff with this remarkable equation, and walked out with an honorary position and the keys to his own office. As Haldane had explained, he himself was willing to sacrifice his own life either for two brothers, or eight cousins - that is, by kin selection. Since he would share 50% of each brothers genetic make, and 12.5% of each cousin's, his genes would survive even if he were to die. That's a nicely squared off equation, you'd have to agree, and it does make my perspective look so much more cheerful!

If for the survival of ones own genes or for the sake of cashing into a feel-good pay back on investment scheme, can altruism even be considered altruism at all with so much vested self-interest? Price was so depressed when he found out that he and his buddies might be right that he gave himself over to the service of others and became a devout Christian to prove that human beings are the only species that can beat out their own nature. 5 years later he killed himself. The debates about the scientific roots of altruism continue to rage.

That's not a happy ending and it is the season of Advent. I will turn this around.

Whilst biology and psychology are part of understanding behaviour it can never be an entire and complete explanation for the complexity and grandeur of the human condition.
I confess, I kind of fancy myself to be a good friend, the giving part, the part that should rightfully get credit. There is no way to make this sound less conceited, so it's a good thing we have sorted out that altruism has nothing to do with it. Conversely, when in the rain, I'm quick to make an inventory of the people that come to my rescue. Taking the opportunity to determine who my real friends are. It isn't fair or accurate. People are the way they are - some of them our friends for good reasons. Giving to, and receiving from them, each in its own a privilege and a gift. Let not one be celebrated any more than the other, rather celebrate having someone to give to and having someone to take from. 

Friends are friends indeed. Happy Advent!

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