The Sparse Box: Why human nature is also murderous 2019.0117Rev.2019.0119 DRAFT

I bear the sad news that humans do not have a fundamentally peaceful nature that need only be cleansed of sin and delusion in order to shine. Here is why—and why it also gives cause for hope. What follows is a thought experiment. Please do not perform it on the sentient.

The Sparse Box

Suppose that a hypothetical creature can survive on one food pellet a day, but not on less food. The pellet contains any needed water. The creature lives in an impervious box, and is fed its requisite one pellet per day so that all is well. Now suppose a second creature with identical needs is also put into the box. What happens? There is not food enough in the box for both of the inhabitants to survive. Only two outcomes are possible: Either one creature dies or both die. The only way life can persist in the sparse environment of the box is if one of the creatures prevents the other from eating. The one can do this in two ways: by grabbing food pellets more quickly than does the other or by slaying the other creature outright – and murder is the surer choice. Either way one creature kills the other. In the Sparse Box at least one creature must die, and generosity and camaraderie are exactly suicide.
Wherever creatures in a sparse area must move about in order to gather widely scattered food they can move only so far in a given time. This makes a sufficiently large sparse area like a box to them. Once any carried food runs out they must find food within a short distance or perish. The limited range acts like the walls of a box and the inhabitants are forced into deadly competition for the few resources there. Where there is food enough for one but not two no cooperative strategy can reliably transmit genes, but the genes of the deadliest competitor endure.

The impact of the forgoing sparseness constraint cannot be overstated. Every population is surrounded by areas where food and other life-sustaining resources are sparse, and this has always been so. In any case resource levels often plunge as seasons and environments fluctuate and change. Every region whose inhabitants must move to gather scarce food is an incubator of deadly genes, and these deadly genes diffuse into the population as a whole.

Deadly genes arise in the human population even far from the sparsest frontiers, because the iron logic of the Sparse Box applies not only at the level of individuals, but at the level of bands and tribes. A tribe, for example, needs a certain minimal amount of food in order to survive as a tribe. Below that level of nourishment some few tribe members may survive, but they do not survive as a tribe. The tribe is dead, perhaps not to be resurrected. The argument is more nuanced, but if you follow the reasoning out you'll see that the effect is the same: In times of deep scarcity genes that happen to kill, whether directly or indirectly, prevail. Scarcity has been a regular feature of human history in every place, and so our genes are soaked in blood.

I have pursued here only the effects of sparse food. Competition for mates has a similarly bloody effect.

From the forgoing we see that the idea that human nature is somehow innately angelic and peaceful cannot be correct. Humans do cooperate and aid each other, but through much of human history that cooperation has in fact been coopetition—that is, cooperation in competition with—against—other bands and tribes. If we are angels, then we are killer angels. This is most obvious when the going gets rough.

None of this is cause for despair! Knowing our nature, we are in a much better position to survive it. The fact of our now increasingly being fellow passengers on a single ship, Earth, forces us to compensate evermore for our deadly tribal genes. There is a great peacefulness in the simple wisdom that every tribe benefits when our one ship still floats. With practice and help from good beyond control we can find lively peace.