“What did we do to deserve this”, asks an Alabama women, after her house had been hit by two successive tornadoes in the space of one year.
It’s a great question … and brings so much to mind. But first, I should observe that it is most likely a rhetorical question, it being surely the case that the speaker did not really think that the god of weather found her deserving of such punishment. But still … we know that many societies do take extreme weather events as evidence that God or the Gods are angry with them. It’s almost natural to do so, isn’ it? Why would this be? Isn’t it obvious that weather is a chaotic natural phenomenon? And isn’t it obvious that we live in a world ruled by the laws of nature and not by the caprice of divine beings? Duh!
Well … obvious though some of us think it is, a very powerful force opposes reaching that conclusion. That force is the emotional hard-wiring that underlies our human form of sociality, that tells us that we usually get what we deserve. No other species of brainy animal has evolved so thorough-going and complex a form of social organization as we humans. Non-brainy creatures, such as ants and termites, have equally complex social organizations but they, as individuals, have no self-determination. They perform their duties as robots. We are anything but. We humans have big brains and we think. We think a lot about ourselves, and how to get what we want. We scheme – how to get more money, more sex, more power, for instance. But at the same time, we must take into consideration the fact that our fellows want the same; and that we must live in harmony with each other for any of us to achieve our aims. Because of this, the requirement of foresight and self-restraint is paramount. And so we have evolved a suite of emotions that enable us to perform as required. Two of the most profound of these emotions are shame and guilt. Along with those is a finely-tuned ability to determine what is and isn’t fair and the imperative to treat, and be treated, fairly. Many authors have ventured explanations for why humans so rapidly evolved big brains. These explanations include: the acquisition of language, creating maps (in the dirt), throwing weapons, memes and sexual selection. To these, I wish to add the capacity for foresight and self-restraint, and the thought processes that underlie these related behaviors. The human form of social organization depends on long-term reciprocity – that we give to each other and expect return over the long-term. Planning and keeping track of mutual-aiding activities and the debts that are incurred takes a lot of brain power, as does the willful inhibition of impulses to take advantage (doing the right thing when no one is looking).
To get back to the original thought, we expect to be caught and punished for our crimes. All but the sociopaths understand and think about what is fair and what is not fair, what is good and what is evil. Ordinary humans can and will have “things on their conscience”. There is no getting away from it.
And so we attribute these ever-present human realities to the non-human world – to the world of extreme and destructive weather perhaps, and wonder what we did that deserved the punishment of not one but two tornadoes.