"Cosmosapiens" by John Hands

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I recently finished reading the Spanish edition of “Cosmosapiens”, published in June of this year. It is a very thorough book, and the author seems to have a wide scientific and multidisciplinary background, summarizing in just one volume the principal theories and ideas regarding human evolution since the beginning of the universe. I am sure that in the process, he read and analysed everything that both ancient and modern science had to say on the topic – this only confirms to me that the scientific community still does not recognize the basic idea I talk about in my book, “Survival and Altruism”, even though it easily fits in with current evolutionary theories.

The author questions or ponders the basic idea, but he does not say it out loud. He comes very close to talking about broad altruism, which he calls “collaboration”, though he hardly talks about ethics. Here, I'm going to comment on those parts of the book that refer to my idea, in a nutshell.

 

A.- THE BASIC IDEA

My basic idea is as follows: : As with all known species, our own species, Homo sapiens, nurtures the implicit and primordial objective to survive,  notwithstanding other spiritual or transcendent goals.

In his book, Hands deals extensively with the following four concepts: the species in general, ours in particular, its goals and purposes, and finally, survival. But, as I said before, he does not bring them all together nor relate one to the other. Let me clarify:

Hands' definition of species. Hands proposes his own definition, choosing not to conform with that of Mayr's nor any of the other 20-odd existing definitions. His definition, which includes sexless species, is perfectly valid for my purpose, since my concept of the species assumes that it is a collective, or capable of acting as such.

Our species, mankind. The book is dedicated to the subject of human evolution, and talks about mankind from all points of view with great clarity and rigour. It also has a certain bias, in that it seems to be directed towards emphasizing mankind's capacity of self-reflection as the basic factor that sets us apart from animals. Therefore, while admitting that ours is just another species, the book defines Homo sapiens species on page 430, 538 and others asthe only species that we know has "The only species known to possess reflective consciousness.” .

I agree with this thesis, and I also believe that the priority goal of survival is essential for self-awareness to arise in Homo sapiens species an idea that is implicit in the book.

Conversely, it seems that both kinds of awareness – the conscience and consciousness – have contributed significantly to the survival of our species, and its development and predominance over others. It would be interesting to study which of the two has had a greater impact on human behaviour; morality, or the conscience, seems to be the one that deals with judgments, while self-reflection or consciousness is concerned more with spirituality. But these questions are still not well understood, and according to some humanist philosophers, such as Juan Arana, consciousness eludes definition.

In any case, for our purposes, the vital imperative exists in man as a living being, irrespective of his nature or possible 'awarenesses'.

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Goals & Purposes. On page 342, the author says: "Most contemporary neo-Darwinists deny that nature has some purpose or intention" He then quotes Newton's natural law of gravity and poses the question: of Newton's gravity and he asks: “What natural law is being invoked for biological phenomena?”  This question is not answered in any part of the book, and as far as I know, nobody has been able to answer it. My basic idea, however, is able to provide a convincing reply: The biological purpose or end goal of nature is survival. This is the natural law that underlies all biological phenomena and explains the priority behaviour of all living beings and their species, as Mendelian populations.

As I mentioned earlier, this law is latently expressed throughout the book. As the author says on page 537: "No nonhuman animal behaves in ways other than to...increase its own chances of survival and reproduction.” And to emphasize the difference represented by man's self-awareness, he continues: “Humans, by contrast, behave in a vast range of ways that have nothing to do with their survival and reproduction.”

In my opinion, this "vast range” of behaviours is related to survival, as such behaviours may serve to make men wiser and kinder, thereby improving coexistence and the entire group's chances of survival. I also believe that it is not necessary to magnify the differences between man and other species. Man is very different from animals – that is obvious. But we also have much in common with other living beings (which the author admits, as do all serious scientists and philosophers), including, according to my idea, the objective of survival and the mandate or vital imperative to try and survive.

In short, it is clear that man, though he did not create life, certainly has the priority mandate or imperative duty to preserve and transmit it, like all other known species. 

Survival as a priority of all species.  This is another concept that lends itself to misunderstandings, whether we assign the goal of “survival” to different subjects (individuals, genes, life, etc), or whether we confuse it with the means of survival (reproduction, evolution, collaboration, self-altruism, etc). While it may be true that certain “subjects” tend towards survival (at least the ones mentioned above), , andthat the cited meansof survival are also valid goals, this is not the topic we want to discuss. Our hypothesis simply states that all species, whatever their definition, have the vital and priority purpose to survive.

I feel that in some places in the book, it is not very clear who the “subjects” of survival are. For the author, I think it is obvious that the subject is the species; he assumes that this much will be obvious to the reader as well. In any case, he does not give the point much attention or importance.

 

B.- THE BROAD ALTRUISM

Here, the author coincides almost entirely with my idea, but not with the encompassing concept.

For me, broad group altruism includes any action or omission that benefits other members of a group. This altruism can be instinctive or reciprocal, remunerated or free, onerous or pure; and in general improves coexistence and group cohesion, indispensable in social species. Below, I expand on this idea, following the book's treatment of the subject.

The concept of altruism

The author talks about the distinct kinds of altruism that have been studied so far, which he considers flawed or insufficient to explain human behaviour. On page 376, he refers to Robert Trivers' concept of reciprocal altruism, pointing out that this kind of altruism contradicts the universally accepted definition of the word :: “Behaviour characterized by unselfish concern for the welfare of others”. He adds that reciprocal altruism would become what Kropotkin described 70 years earlier as mutual aid. Hands reduces the concept of altruism to only that which is "unselfish” or selfless. Trivers' reciprocal altruism expands the definition, but in my opinion it falls short, probably because Trivers did not grasp the bigger picture – the vital imperative to survive that gives meaning to all individual and group behaviours, both altruistic and competitive, of all social species.

John Hands' idea of collaboration

. No doubt, the universally accepted definition of altruism as something "selfless" It's not enough. The author seems to prefer the concept of "collaboration", devoting much of the book to defining and highlighting the idea (page 423): Second Law of Biological Evolution – Collaboration causes the evolution of species.” species.  

In the Glossary collaboration is defined as: "All forms working together, including cooperation and collectivization".

This concept encompasses the “mutual aid” of Kropotkin (page 267 - 270), who gives the example of the collaboration within ants, bees and birds: kites and their unique hunting strategies, parrots and their habit of exploring and posting sentinels, the compassion of pelicans. He also cites the more advanced cooperation of social mammals: elephants, whales, monkeys and chimpanzees, wolves, zebras, the great herds of ruminants, and so on.

Hands' idea of collaboration also includes unicellular species. For example, bacterial communities that form microbial mats and biofilms; mixobacteria, such as the Mysococus Xanthus, that perform collective attacks on their microbial prey; the altruistic collaboration of the amoeba Dictyotelium Discoideum, which group together to migrate and reproduce, forming a stem, which supposes the death of 20% of the cells that form the stem. He adds that according to geneticist James Shapiro, bacterial collaboration also occurs between different species.

Hands dedicates pages 323 to 330 to discuss collaboration within multicellular species, genes, plants, insects, fish, meerkats and primates, as well as the collaboration between species: pollination, cleaning of parasites, shelter of fish, etc.

In his conclusions to this section (page 329), he says: “Collaboration is a more significant cause than competition in the development and survival of organisms and is extensive at every level of life”.

On page 384, Hands talks about Darwin and his lesser-known ideas regarding cooperation. I concur with his comments, as I also deal extensively with the issue in my book Survival: Ideas for a Universal Ethic, commenting on The Origin of Man, Kropotkin's Ethics and Gerald Hüther's Evolution of Love. In Survival & Altruism, I speak of all of the above and quote Darwin: "Man owes his immense superiority ... to his social habits, which lead him to help and defend his fellows."

I also agree with Hands that Darwin's ideas of cooperation were not propagated by his disciples, who preferred the more 'marketable' idea of competition and predominance of the fittest.  

Comments

In formulating my idea of broad altruism, I only considered the behaviour of multicellular social species. But I agree with John Hands' opinions, which corroborate my own, and on page 48 of my book “Survival and Altruism”, I mention the phenomenon of altruistic suicide in groups of bacteria to prevent the spread of lytic viruses in the rest of the collective. In the note on the same page, I point out the idea that all of evolution may have been but a succession of altruistic acts; that the prescription to be altruistic might have already been included in the operating instructions of the first living beings.

To sum up, I think my hypothesis almost coincides with John Hands'. In fact, his ideas confirm and expand the applications of my own, since they extend the concept of collaboration to all living organisms, and not only between individuals of the same species but also between different species. 

 

  1. SOME DIFFERENCES

Notwithstanding my limited knowledge on the subject, I believe that “Cosmosapiens” is a very accurate and thorough compilation of the issues at hand. Many of these issues relate to my own ideas, which seem to be in accord with current theories and with the opinions of the author.

 However, we do differ in some important respects, which I will try to note down below.

Respecting my basic idea.

The book devotes much attention to the origin of matter, and even more, to the origin of life. But it passes over in a single line (point 5, page 582) everything that occurred between the emergence of life to evolution, without considering that life could have extinguished instead of enduring. This may have been the case for a period of time, maybe for millions of years. The book also does not contemplate the possibility that at some point (in the initial or later stages of life), some or all of living beings may have engaged in reproduction without necessarily evolving. And that, from then on, in addition to living and reproducing, they transmitted to their descendants the same mandate to reproduce, not just once but several times, to try and ensure that the process would last. In other words, the mandate is: live and transmit life. From there arises evolution and the different species.

Thus, we can define known living beings as those that live and have the task of preserving and transmitting life. In order to try and achieve this goal, they evolve and diversify, creating species.

These species evolve further, and, as has been discovered in recent years, also inherit the goal of preserving life and the vital imperative to try. To this end, every species tries to adapt to its circumstances, interacting with the individuals it comprises, who may adopt various kinds of changes (genetic, epigenetic, cultural, etc) to try and improve adaptability and prepare themselves for possible alterations in the environment.

We do not know where the mandate to survive originates from, nor who commanded it – whether it was already present in inanimate matter or whether it emerged with life, or after it. But it is clear that the mandate exists and is the immediate cause of evolution, which itself is a means to survive, like many others. Evolution is not an end in itself, as some evolutionists insist, falling into the naturalistic fallacy (Michael Ruse).

The attempt to fulfil this vital mandate is mentioned throughout Hands' book. But Hands, like his predecessors, does not give the idea enough attention, nor does he consider its importance when it comes to understanding evolution and the behaviour of living things. A possible reason might be that it is too obvious; or that we are not accustomed to considering the species as subjects.

Now, if someone is not in favour of the idea of a mandate, it can be discarded or substituted. But the priority objective of survival is, in one form or another, present in the nature of each species, although it seems that only two million species have been successful, and perhaps some others that we did not know of – overall, less than 2% of the species that have ever existed.

Broad altruism

As I noted before, Hands' concept of collaboration almost entirely coincides with mine, and in some ways has a greater scope. But there may be some minor differences, which I will comment on briefly.

Hands states that human collaboration emerged some 10,000 years ago, with the invention of agriculture and urban settlements (point 18, page 584), contrasting with the instinctive aggressiveness of our pre-human ancestors that often led to clashes within and outside groups.

Reading the book as a whole, it can be inferred that collaboration, as such, has a much earlier origin. But, possibly because he wants to emphasize man's self-consciousness as a differentiating factor, it seems that the author tries to ascribe the emergence of collaboration to this newfound consciousness.

Here, the author and I have a divergence of opinion; for me, altruism is common to all social species and therefore inherited by man, as a descendant of an earlier social species. And, if man was created out of nothing, it seems that he was born with altruism programmed into his nature, later ratified by the charge of “caring for creation”.

Moving on, in point 27 on page 585, Hands describes collaboration as an “insight or reasoning” of the ancient philosophers, while in points 35 and 36, he presents it as scientific reflection. This kind of thinking gradually increased until the mid-20th century and thereafter saw a sharp rise, with altruism and cooperation having a “planetary impact on human societies”. In my hypothesis, altruism includes cooperation. It includes everything that favours an individual or a group, even if it is done for self-benefit. Self-improving behaviours, such as trying to be healthier, wiser and kinder, are altruistic attitudes, as they allow to improve what the "self" brings to others and to the group.  

Indeed, pure altruism seems to be characteristic of man; to do good without expecting anything in return, even at personal cost, and being conscious of the altruistic act. But there also exist purely altruistic animals, that give their children and their group food and protection while risking their own lives. The difference, then, is the realization of the act as virtuous and altruistic, to be rewarded by the giver's own conscience and self-esteem, or by an External Power. And, if the altruistic or collaborative act is performed with the knowledge of the group, the giver also receives, as immaterial payment, an increase in collective respect and appreciation.  

In any case, I think Hands and I fundamentally agree on the question, even though we give it different names. I would point out one last difference – for me, broad altruism is not only the best way to move forward in the face of confrontation and competition, as John Hands rightly says. I believe that broad group altruism, in some of its forms, is essential, and the only way that any species can survive, above all mankind. I think Hands intuits this idea, but he does not choose to say it so emphatically.

In any case, I think we agree on the merits of this issue even if we give it different names. But there is also another difference of degree. For me, broad altruism is not only The best way to keep going in front of the confrontation and the fight as it seems that John Hands rightly thinks. I go much further and I say that broad group altruism, in one of its forms, is essential, is the only way, so that any species can survive. Especially ours. I think JH also intuits it or thinks about it but it does not occur to him, or he does not dare, to say it so sharply.

The universal principle of ethics.

As I have said in my books, the biological and cultural obligation to behave altruistically is implicit in all human beings, as a mandate of our species.

The existence of these norms of behaviour, imprinted on all individuals of the species, allows us to enunciate the universal principle of ethics: It is good / better what, done altruistically, is good / better for the survival of our species. In reality, it would not be necessary to say "done altruistically”, since that is the only way we may try to survive as a species.

If broad altruism did not have this absolute value, then the basic idea – to ensure the survival of the species by any means necessary – would be erroneous and very dangerous. Many species may have already died out, possibly owing to this error or to the inability of achieving broad group altruism, while the more altruistic species persist and are dominant in their environments. The classic example is that of ants, with species that are more than 100 million years old. And, as John Hands also says, altruism or collaboration should not be limited to the group, but should extend to others within the same species and to other species. In the case of our species, we have been expanding altruism to ever wider groups over time: the family, clan, tribe, nation, unions of nation states, and so on. The step we have yet to take is that the great altruistic collective include all of humanity, and by that account, other species.

I did not dare put my ideas in print until I discovered the existence of broad altruism, implicit in all men, as a means and complement to the vital imperative of trying to survive. Now, I feel it is necessary to make it explicit.

I think John Hands has almost arrived at the same universal ethical principle in his book. But because he does not see or recognize the basic idea, and has a somewhat different understanding of broad altruism, he only goes so far as to recommend collaboration based on reason. He does not altogether see that “reason” is completely unnecessary; what's important is to bring to light the implicit natural and biological law that commands us to try to survive as a species, the inherent mandate to exercise broad altruism/collaboration in the ways that may be most convenient in any given moment and circumstance.

Madrid, October 3, 2017. Last revised on 19.10.2017

Note  My idea is to translate and send these comments to John Hands with the request that he analyzes them with an open mind and critical eyes and, if he thinks its appropriate, tells me if he considers my three ideas correct. Which are more widely developed in the copy of Survival and Altruism I sent him on August 30th.