April 19, 2013 | 7
It is in our nature to be self-deficient. This applies initially, chronically and inalienably. Now those once self-evident truths are obscured by errors of biology defying individualism.
Though the opposite is often said, no human has ever been “born alone” and survived. Being human starts being unable to feed ourselves and being unable to avoid becoming food. We have the most other-dependent offspring in nature. In Mothers And Others anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy says “No creature…takes longer to mature than a human child… [or needs as much help] before…[its] acquisition… of resources matches [its] consumption,” noting that modern hunter-gatherer children need 13 million calories to reach nutritional independence. Too many thinkers haven’t properly digested this structural self-deficiency. As psychologist Alison Gopnik observes in The Philosophical Baby, “you could read 2,500 years of philosophy and find almost nothing about children.”
Such willful ignorance was sown early into Enlightenment individualism. Hobbes planted it in his “social contract” thought experiment on ending mankind’s “war of all against all” in a “state of nature.” He utterly unnaturally considered “men as if… sprung out of the earth…suddenly, like mushrooms, come to full maturity without all kind of engagement to each other.” The early English feminist Mary Astell mocked these mushroom men maturing “without…mother…or any sort of dependency.” Sadly Hobbes’ mushroom cloud of confusion still endarkens essential unwarlike other-dependent elements of our nature.
Even after we can feed and fend for ourselves, we remain chronically self-deficient. Darwin in The Descent of Man, said any species that “would profit by living in society” evolved social instincts, since “individuals which took the greatest pleasure in society would best escape various dangers; whilst those that cared least for their comrades and lived solitary would perish in greater numbers.” And any human “who possessed no trace of such [social] feelings” was “an unnatural monster.” As likely the social-est species ever we constitutionally and chronically crave company.
Self-sufficiency seekers are also thwarted by division of labor, which builds interdependence into everything. Only a division of ideas from reality enables psychotic individualists, a Tony Kushner coinage, to believe otherwise. The market’s invisible hand may hide those masses on the other sides of your transactions, but if all their situations aren’t sustainable, neither is yours.
Tocqueville in 1835 described individualism as “a novel idea [that]…proceeds from erroneous judgment.” We misjudge our inalienable other-dependencies when we don’t limit the unbiological logic of individualism. Sadly much of our human sciences, especially as used in economics and politics, ignores that our only options have long been co-thriving or no thriving.
Though we can’t be born alone, we can achieve dying alone, often by having lived too individualistically.
Illustration by Julia Suits, New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.