Friday, June 02, 2006

Primary social senses?

Another shower stall moment. It struck me that gratitude is another one of those basic things we all feel but which philosophers probably can't quit quarreling about long enough to explain in a satisfying way (e.g. sure I feel grateful toward a person who does me a kindness, but why should I feel grateful for the turkey at Thanksgiving and not for gravity or air?). Of course, I was quite ready to direct my gratitude for gratitude to biology and natural selection. But in the initial drizzle of my shower I had no idea which way to look or how to think about it. Then it came to me:

Gratitude is a kind of social sense, and socially it is a primary one. Smell is a primary sense in the primary sense. Having no sensory organ, gratitude must be another kind of sense. A social one, and primary in that it's sort of a first step in cognizing a social stance or behavior, or so seems reasonable to suppose. Another primary social sense arguably is sexual arousal (the role of pheromones gives it aspects of a regular sense as well, and of course sexuality predates social behavior, not to mention brains).

Note that smell and arousal are in effect ways that natural selection has given our lineage--to the presumptive dismay of philosophers--an ever-ready "reason" to behave prudently, at least from the perspective of survival and reproduction: Foul odor motivates us to shun the cold rotting flesh, whereas the hubba-hubba causes us to grope flesh that's hot. Our ancestors' less-fit friends contracted deadly diseases from the corpses they didn't avoid, and they passed no chaste genes along either, never having felt sufficiently motivated to mate.

Similar evolutionary just-so stories are about as easy to imagine for gratitude. To be an ingrate is to be "anti-social" by definition, more or less, so the capacity to feel grateful seems to be a necessary ingredient of social behavior, at least as we clusters of cooperating cells comprehend it. So if social behavior helps you hunt the cave bear and/or to defend your cave against one--and/or if behaving socially earns you admirers of the opposite sex--then surely a grateful individual is a fitter individual--as in more likely to eat, survive, reproduce and warm the heart of evolutionary biologists.

What could be some other primary social senses? Probably Paul Ekman's faces or "microexpressions" would be a good guide. Disgust seems like a winner. Indignation does too, though I don't know how it might relate to Ekman's categories. Anger, fear, jealousy and admiration all are useful guides socially that seem liable to be primary to me. Actually, the best bibliographic resource for primaries may be the seven deadlies, now that I think of it. Gluttony and greed aren't social at first blush or in one sense of social, but that they're sins suggests to me they belong to this sphere. So do the biological and ethological theme of excitation and inhibition. If you're too grateful, for example, you'll starve. Even if yesterday's bite of mammoth from Bob was all that kept you from going comatose and even if Bob looks like he'd really appreciate everything on your plate today, really you ought to keep some for yourself. Greed inhibits gratitude, making it look like a possible evolutionary solution to the risk of excess gratitude and so a possible primary social sense.

Pride in one's successes looks like one too--together with inferiority, the inhibitory feeling. Note you might not presume to teach if you didn't feel you had it going on. And others who hadn't witnessed your success wouldn't know to stay appraised of your doings or pay attention when you show and tell. Were you unable to feel inferior, you might never attend and heed closely where it would be wise to do so. Yet without pride to inhibit inferior feelings you might not compete for important but scarce resources, such as mates, food and shelter. Interesting.... Perhaps I'll comb the seven virtues at some later date.

1 comment:

MT said...

Shame belongs in there, perhaps opposed to righteousness-feeling. Close I guess to what I meant by pride and inferiority, but not exactly.