On Charles Foster’s ‘Being a Beast’ and battling the empathy gap.

On Charles Foster’s ‘Being a Beast’ and battling the empathy gap.

At a February presidential rally, the crowd cheered when Donald Trump declared, “All lives matter,” using his microphone to drown out the protesters.

All lives matter: setting aside that, for some people’s lives, the world is already acting as though they matter, it’s hard to believe Trump meant what he said. Considering his policy proposals, it doesn’t seem like he values Black, Latino, or Muslim lives that much. It’s doublethink à la Animal Farm: “All lives matter. But some lives matter more than others.”

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The world would be less terrible if we could understand why people believe this. Or, better yet, make them stop.

The root of this problem is that our brains are not designed for this world. Natural selection does not work like an engineer, but like a basement tinkerer, slapping together barely-functional prototypes from duct-tape, twine, and pre-existing parts.

Natural selection molded the human brain. And, sure, our brains are amazing. We can talk, we can think, we can rocket ourselves into space. But our brains are built using much the same genetic blueprints as other species’. The finished product features many of the same archaic modules.

But we’d best remember that our brains have flaws, especially within the context of the modern world: we’ve reshaped the planet so thoroughly that it looks nothing like the environment in which humans evolved. And so we make mistakes. Our intuitions about the world, about fairness or even basic logic, do not always match reality.

interlandiIn March of 2015, Jeneen Interlandi published a thought-provoking piece on the “empathy gap” in The New York Times Magazine. She was curious about the neurological underpinnings of empathy. What gives rise to our misguided sense of identity? Why are we moved by the plights of those whom we consider to be like us, but can stay callous and cold to the suffering of perceived “others”? For instance, civil forfeiture episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver featured exclusively white victims, as did the New York Times coverage of innocent people incarcerated due to faulty roadside drug tests, despite the fact that black drivers are the primary victims of these police abuses. Did the producers worry that an accurate depiction of these harms would lose their audience’s interest?

In “The Brain’s Empathy Gap,” Interlandi focuses on the treatment of the Roma in Hungary. Should the Hungarian masses care about poverty and educational failings among the Roma? Yes. Of course. But do they? Judging by most Hungarians’ actions, or by the limited political will to rectify injustice, no. Excepting a rare few bleeding hearts, it doesn’t seem so.

Should the masses in the United States (as in all people, including the melanin-deficient sinking middle classes shouting themselves red in the face at Trump rallies) care about poverty, educational failings, and the state-sponsored murder of black people? Yes. They should.

But this is not how our brains evolved to operate. For millions of years, reflexive callousness made sense. Among populations scraping out a subsistence living – scavenging other hunters’ kills, picking berries, and hoping not to be eaten by a predator in the night – there was only so much help to give. Waste it on a stranger, someone who appears not to share many of your genes, and your own children might die.

From a philosophical perspective, this is not a problem. Utilitarian ethicists from Jeremy Betham to Peter Singer have argued that our moral choices should not be so easily swayed by friendship, family relations, or proximity.

But from an evolutionary perspective? Helping an other as opposed to your own is disastrous. The genes that might trigger this type of self-sacrifice die out, leaving the world overrun with those that spell Family First in a chemical script of As and Cs and Gs and Ts. These narcissistic sequences were so successful that we nearly all have them. Though I like to think of myself as a rational, thoughtful individual, I too have a brain that would command me to trample all the other children on the playground if my daughter were in danger.

These genes helped my ancestors survive long enough that I might be here today.

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It doesn’t work quite like this, but what a picture.  Picture by T. Michael Keesey on Flickr.

Today’s world is very different, of course. Modern agriculture is so productive that there should be plenty of food for all. Air travel and urban living means there is no longer any correlation between physical appearance and genetic similarity. And I would like to think that our thousands of years of philosophical inquiry – what we’ve done with the magnificent brains that natural selection bequeathed us – have accomplished something. We should know better now.

It’s hard, though. Practicing uniform kindness with our brains can be like running Photoshop on a Linux machine; even when it doesn’t hang and crash, the fans are working overtime. My former housemate competes in something called “power racing,” where she builds small vehicles propelled by lawnmower engines. She has to be careful when she drives: juice her machine too hard and the engine might melt. There are always complications when a tool designed for one task is repurposed for another.

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An illustrative example.  Photo credit: the Vulture.

As for our brains, our chauvinism is innate. Psychology journals are full of evidence of this, especially in the older issues, back when rampantly unethical experimental design and the consent-less manipulation of children were seen as permissible in the name of science. A week-long camp with children partitioned into two animal-themed teams is enough to instill a powerful sense of jingoism. Even a classification as arbitrary as falsely purporting that a child over- or under-estimates the number of dots on a screen is enough to trigger a narrowing of moral concern to the child’s own kind.

9781627796330And yet: empathy can be learned. Charles Foster’s Being a Beast is a lively demonstration. Foster is a trained veterinarian and ethicist who sought an understanding of the inner lives of animals. In Being a Beast, he documents the months he spent scavenging urban trash like a fox, shivering in winter rivers like an otter, huddling alongside his middle-school-aged son in a hillside burrow like a badger, and chasing after migratory swifts.

Though living as a badger sounds ridiculous, the success or failure of Foster’s project has serious implications. If learning to empathize with someone whom we’ve been taught to view as other were extremely difficult, we might resign ourselves to a world in which no one who brandishes the slogan “all lives matter” could ever understand the fear of black parents that their children might be killed by officers sworn to protect them. Justice, though necessary, might never gain popular support.

No person is more other than an animal. If Foster can understand how it feels to be a beast, then we must all have it in us to offer justice to our fellow humans.

Alarmingly, Foster perceives his project as having failed. In a passage on river otters, Foster dismisses his efforts brusquely:

otterAnd, knowing that the cold, and that urgent calorific imperative, sends otters wandering even more widely, I’ve tramped and tramped the riverbanks and the watersheds, trying to feel in touch with them – or in touch with anything outside myself. I’ve failed.

But Foster, who suffers from depression, is not to be trusted as to the quality of his own work. Like all depressed people, he can malign himself cruelly where congratulations are due.

Foster’s project did not fail. For one, he created a compelling work of art. I laughed aloud at his description of otters as frenetic killing machines. And his experience of empathizing with swifts, a type of bird, is deeply poignant:

tachymarptis_melba_-barcelona_spain_-flying-8I’m best at being a swift when I’m on the ground. At least then I can see and smell the source of the air rivers the swifts are fishing, hear the thrum next to my ear of the wasp that will be broken three hundred yards up, and slap a fly on my arm at more or less the same speed as the swift’s stubby neck would turn and its mandibles close on it.

Most importantly, he was able to overcome all the years in which he’d trained his mind to see badgers, otters, and birds as inescapably other:

badger_odfw_2But species boundaries are, if not illusory, certainly vague and sometimes porous. Ask any evolutionary biologist or shaman.

It is a mere 30 million years – the blink of a lightly lidded eye on an earth whose life has been evolving for 3.4 thousand million years – since badgers and I shared a common ancestor. Go back just 40 million years before that, and I share my entire family album not only with badgers but with herring gulls.

All the animals in this book are pretty close family. That’s a fact. If it doesn’t seem like that, our feelings are biologically illiterate. They need reeducation.

Foster changed his life in a way that proves his project succeeded. He was an avid hunter through his youth and young adulthood but writes that, because of this experience, “I’ve put down my guns and taken up my tofu.” He was willing to give up his own pleasure once he convinced himself that the animals he hunted were unique individuals with their own wants and desires. He was willing to make personal sacrifices because others’ pain no longer seemed so different from his own.

We can overcome the reflexes of our minds.

neilLuckily, it seems to require fewer heroics to successfully empathize with another human than Charles Foster employed in his efforts to understand animals. We need not scuttle naked through the woods, defecate outdoors, ask someone to chase us with a pack of hunting dogs. If all you’re after is empathy for other humans, it seems that reading will do. Reading in general, and especially the reading of emotionally-engaging fiction, makes people more empathetic. In The View from the Cheap Seats, Neil Gaiman speculates that this transformation occurs because “you get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”

It might take nothing more than great literature – including, perhaps, Charles Foster’s Being a Beast, alongside The Invisible Man, The Bluest Eye, A Naked Singularity, The Beast Side, and the works cited in Justice Sotomayor’s Strieff dissent – for Trump’s supporters to be pained by our nation’s shameful treatment of minorities. The incarceration crisis, the education crisis, the police-murdering-people-in-the-streets crisis. Perhaps books could engender the political will needed to overcome injustice.

(Lest I sound too blithely hopeful, I should probably mention that reading in this country, especially reading fiction, has been on a steady decline for years.)