Fires and human nature

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The great Waldo Canyon fire affecting Colorado Springs is different from other wildfires in the West because of its proximity to a large metropolitan area. This fact brings to light human generosity in the face of disasters.

Western traditions have held to one of three competing views of human nature: We are either good by nature, bad or neither (clean slate, tabula rasa). Obviously, each view of human nature spun a set of ideas about who we are and how we should interact with each other.

If all humans are good by nature, rules and regulations are superfluous, because we’d be nice to each other whenever possible. Jean Jacque Rousseau suggested that in addition to our survival instincts, we are endowed with compassion or pity, and therefore would agree to enter into a social contract.

According to one interpretation, Roman Catholics who believe in Original Sin set up numerous injunctions to ensure peaceful coexistence among us. If we are evil by nature, a police state (in addition to God) can potentially guarantee safety.

Those who assume that we are by nature a clean slate believe that we can steer people to do the right thing (nature vs. nurture). The Enlightenment’s ideals about education eventually made their way to contemporary culture. Prison reform is based on this view of human nature.

Business people still want to know: why bother with three alternative views, when one will do? Knowing our nature can help organize corporate structures and incentives, help in marketing goods and services, and justify a whole range of attitudes about competition, greed and success.

Beyond business, there is a broader interest in human nature as it relates to the debate between rugged individualism and communitarian collaboration. Sometimes this debate is couched in terms of minimal government intervention; at others, as the nuisance of taxation.

We may never lay to rest this debate or many others rooted in our views of human nature. Edward O. Wilson, the famed Harvard socio-biologist who specializes in the study of ants, recently suggested that human evolution happens on the individual and social levels, thus bridging many differences in evolutionary theory.

For him, a multi-level selection is in place, what he calls a “gene-culture coevolution.” Just as natural genetic selection continues from one generation to another, there is also a cultural selection where groups ward off enemies and ensure the survival of group members, retaining certain cultural traits over others.

This discussion matters especially when catastrophes come about. New Yorkers with a national reputation of rudeness and selfishness, competition and greed, distrust and fear behaved quite differently as the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. Was it their true nature? Or were they pretending to be nice in front of TV cameras?

The shock of the attack made people realize that what they had in common was much more important than their differences. They came together as residents of a great city, not as individuals fighting each other. It took 9/11 to remind them of these simple but profound facts of life.

The same can be said of the Waldo Canyon fire. The instinctive and natural responses have been quite remarkable. Perhaps these responses say much more about human nature than many textbooks can: when under fire, people seek each other’s comfort and help, and acts of selfless generosity are bound to surface.

More importantly, it becomes clear that those wanting to eliminate all government agencies or starve their funding out of existence are mistaken. They may score points at some conservative think-tanks or among those listening to some radio shows. But in the real world, with its wildfires and flash floods, individual heroism goes only so far.

Only with a well-trained and well-funded fire department can a city like ours afford to coordinate fighting fires, evacuate residents and rescue those trapped in a bad situation. You can sing the praises of rugged individualism all day long; you can flaunt your handgun to protect your home. But without a unionized fire force you’d be out of luck, overwhelmed by forces greater than yours.

And guess what? To maintain a standing force, you must pay taxes. This ensures funding that hopefully will never be used, but when needed, will be readily available. Contributions pour in during emergencies — but without prior planning and coordination, without policies and procedures in place, chaos ensues.

The lesson is that it’s not about more government or none at all, but about the optimal size required to maintain our social contract.

May we never have to test its effectiveness.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com