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Wed

30

May

2007

How Cynicism Will Save Us From A Date With Extinction
Wednesday, 30 May 2007 10:59
by Robert Weitzel

I am a Homo sapien and a cynic by nature. I can no more change one than the other. And while there is nothing mutually inclusive about this pairing, the latter is meaningless without the former. Regardless (or because), I find lowering the bar on my fellow sapiens cathartic. It is also less disappointing.

Ninety-nine percent of our evolution as a social species has taken place in the absence of language. If there was any abstract thinking going on in the early days, besides what was necessary to survive from sunrise to sunset, there was no way to be nauseating about it or to contradict someone else’s abstract thoughts. Basically, there was no way to really piss anyone off. All we had to do to coexist peacefully was keep our mitts off the other guy’s significant other(s).

It was only when our pet abstractions found a voice that all the trouble with our fellow sapiens started. It must have been about this time that the heretofore-latent genes for cynicism were recognized for their survival value by the “genius” of natural selection. This is how I came to be.

The lesson to be learned from a backward glance at our evolutionary descent from pre-lingual to post-loquacious is that when we open our mouths we cease to be truly social animals and cynicism begins its inexorable creep.

Consider wolves, another social animal. They communicate with each other about food and danger and hunting and sex. And certainly there is a bit of jockeying for positions of power within the pack. But they are incapable of muddling things up by communicating more than is absolutely necessary to maintain the cohesion and survival of the pack or a position in it. They can’t, for instance, gloat if they happen to be the alpha male or female. They just are, end of story. Likewise, they can’t harangue or proselytize or lie or bore. This inability leaves any social animal feeling well disposed toward its neighbor. Cynicism has no survival value in such a congenial atmosphere.

Why then do we Homo sapiens—busting at the corpus callosum with all sorts of abstractions—open our mouths, knowing darn well it will automatically alienate at least fifty percent of our species? Why . . . because we can, and because we can’t stop ourselves. Because we think the edification of our species hinges on the latest blast from the bullhorn-of-a-gob-hole under our nose.

Religion . . . blah, blah, blah! Politics . . . blah, blah, blah! We are always one wrong abstract thought too late in shutting up. Without fail, our coreligionists or our political pals feel the needle of the one unorthodox abstraction in an otherwise flawless soliloquy. Predictably, they will feel ever so slightly less social toward us. Imagine the antisocial feeling if our audience didn’t particularly like us to begin with.

There is an inverse bell-curve relationship between success as a social animal and yammering and cynicism . . . yammering up, social value down, cynicism up. Is it any wonder, then, that natural selection was so hesitant in committing Homo sapiens to the big brain, language thing?  It was an evolutionary experiment in creating the ultimate social creature that has, for the most part, failed. Even money says the last-minute language mutation makes dinosaurs out of us all.

I’ll also wager many readers are thinking at this point that it is only through dialogue with those whom we disagree that we will ever learn to live harmoniously as a species. While I agree there is a certain number of Homo sapiens (you may be one) genetically predisposed for such temperate give and take, the critical mass of humanity is predisposed otherwise. It is not the talking but the walking in another’s shoes that is needed. And yet, there is only room for one person’s foot at a time in any given shoe.

But there is no denying that we crave the company of other sapiens. Evolution has made it difficult to resist. And if kept at a certain level that precludes irritating opinions or inflexible beliefs or bigoted assumptions we get along swimmingly. Unfortunately for the longevity of our species, our abstractions are our obstructions and our gob hole is a permanent aperture.

So the survival advantage of cynicism is that it allows us to enjoy the sine qua non of being a member of a social species—namely, being social—by never expecting more than we are likely to get and by never being disappointed when we get what we expect. This lowering of the bar tends to make us a more tolerant, dare I say, a friendlier bunch of sapiens.

Cynicism is only one of evolution’s strategies for survival as a social species. There are others we can exploit. Mostly, though, we just need to stop talking so damn much.

Biography: Robert Weitzel is a freelance writer whose essays appear in The Capital Times in Madison, WI. He has been published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Skeptic Magazine, and Freethought Today.  He can be contacted at: rweitz@tds.net 
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