The primitive part of human brains – and rats

If homo sapiens reproduced asexually, then people would have a much different character. There would be no attraction from males to young and pretty females, and there would be no competition between males for women. There would be no attraction for women of powerful and successful men.

Romantic love would not exist, and neither would some nastier aspects of our character.
On the other hand, complex creatures probably could not have evolved without two genders.

There are biologists who try to explain much of our behavior by the need to keep our genes going from generation to generation. If a gene for ferocity gives us the ability to defend ourselves against enemies, then that gene will be passed down. If a gene for ferocity allows us to exterminate the competition, again this helps keep our genes going.

If a desire in our mind to produce many children and have them succeed helps propagate our genes, then that desire will become a part of our makeup.

But in the “Lucifer Principle” by Harold Bloom, the argument is made that there is more than direct genetic self-interest involved in human behavior. I won’t go into that here, if you are interested in his thought-provoking ideas, then read the book.

In “The Lucifer Principle”, Harold describes some behavior of rats.

In the late 1940s, the German researcher F. Steiniger put fifteen brown rats who had never met each other into a cage. At first, the creatures cowered in the corners, frightened and apprehensive. If they accidentally bumped into each other, they bared their teeth and snapped. Gradually, however, it dawned on some of the males that among this batch of strangers were attractive young females. The gentlemen rodents became Don Juans and went a-courting.

The first male and female to win each other’s hearts now had something all the others lacked—an ally. The pair took full advantage of the situation, and terrorized their cage-mates. At first, the lovers simply chased their fellow rodents away from food, sending them scurrying to the safety of the far end of the enclosure. Later, the romantic duo hunted down their neighbors one by one. The female was a particularly quick killer. She would sneak up on a victim as it was quietly chewing a bit of chow, spring with a sudden speed, and bite the unfortunate in the side of the neck, often opening a wound in the carotid artery. Some that were attacked died of infection. Others, mauled and worn down by frantic efforts to escape, succumbed to exhaustion. When the happy couple had finished, they were the only survivors.
The rats had cleared the new territory of competitors, transforming the cage into a spacious land of milk and honey for themselves. A new promised land. Now, they could found a tribe that might—if left to its own devices —thrive for generations to come. A tribe that would carry the parental line of genes.

Now I’ve shown this passage to a skeptical polemicist, who said that there is no connection between ‘rats’ and historic figures who made war on other countries or nations.

But think about this – what impels this rat-couple to destroy the other rats? Is it an unthinking unfeeling automatic behavior, no different than that of your knee jerk reflex when it is hit by a hammer? Or do they feel an emotion? An emotion that evolved because it was good for the propagation of their genes? What is this emotion like? An emotion of righteous anger? An emotion of eliminating disgusting excuses for the noble species of rats? An emotion that its ‘them or you”?

Are these rats evil? Or are they just being rats?

Think of the following emotions:

General Scobeleff is quoted by nineteenth century psychologist William James as saying: “The risk of life fills me with an exaggerated rapture…A meeting of man to man, a duel, a danger into which I can throw myself head foremost, attracts me, moves me, intoxicates me. I am crazy for it, I love it, I adore it.”


General Robert E Lee said “It is well that war is too terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.”


The tale of Oliver Cromwell in England – an abbreviated version of the story told by Harold Bloom, (I’m sure you will disagree with his animal analogies, but bear with the story)

Cromwell was born in Huntingdon, England, in 1599. His father was a cloth fuller who had accumulated a good deal of property in the little town. His mother came from a well-to-do family of farmers.
As a child, Oliver was one of those little monsters whose behavior can make us ashamed to call ourselves human. He grabbed pigeons from neighbors’ dovecotes, killed and ate them. He stole apples from nearby orchards. His raids on the fruit trees were so frequent that he was dubbed the “Apple Dragon.” Vandalism was another of his favorite sports. In particular, young Oliver enjoyed breaking down hedges. Cromwell had ample time for these escapades. He played hooky from school for months at a time. His parents took little pleasure in his hobbies and heat their rampaging boy endlessly, but the pain didn’t even slow young Oliver down.

In his late teens, the beast broke out of Cromwell in a slightly different form. Like a late-twentieth-century teenager in a wealthy Connecticut suburb or an inner-city slum, he was obsessed with violence, sex, gambling, and substance abuse. Oliver delighted in attacking decent women in the streets. The historical records say he “ravished” them. In modern parlance, the term might be “rape.” Cromwell did not restrict his assaults to ladies. He was known to bludgeon respectable men with his quarterstafl. To top it all off, the lad drank like a fish. The mammal and reptile brains seemed totally in control of Oliver Cromwell’s mind. …

The times were rife with roiling memes. The Catholic church had held Europe in a headlock for over a thousand years. Then, in 1517, a discontented priest in Wittenberg, Germany, had nailed a set of complaints to the door of the castle church. The priest’s name was Martin Luther, and his protest against ecclesiastical corruption soon swelled into the movement called Protestantism.

At the heart of the new movement was a meme that accumulated human converts at a rapid pace. According to the old ideas of the Church, men could reach God only through the intercession of Catholicism’s priests, bishops, and cardinals. But those who embraced the new meme believed that men could find God in a far easier way. Printing had recently made the written word available to those who’d never had access to it before. Now, the faithful could find the wisdom of the Lord by simply flipping open the pages of a Bible.

One country the new meme soon won over was England. Well, sort of. King Henry VIII, always on the prowl for a wife who would give him a son, had a problem with ecclesiastical authorities in Rome: the pope would not issue enough divorces, and Henry needed lots of them. Taking matters in hand, in 1533, he used the new Protestant movement as an excuse to set up his own church. Henry hired his personal substitute for a pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and ensured a source of divorces on demand. Under the new English system, God was still available only through a hierarchy of priests. They just happened to be Anglican priests.
Some Englishmen, infected with Martin Luther’s meme, insisted on a more direct route to the deity. They read their Bibles and came up with their own ideas of what God might have in mind. Among those Englishmen were the Puritans. Oliver Cromwell became one of them…

The English Protestants were eager for land, so they roused themselves with spurious tales of rebellion and massacre in Ireland. According to widespread stories, the Irish had taken up arms and killed anywhere from 20,000 to 200,000 innocent English Protestant settlers. The villains had supposedly left women and children to wander half-naked through the snows, starving and freezing to death. Rumors declared authoritatively that the demonic Irish had held games to see who could stab his sword the farthest into a captive Englishman’s flesh. Some said the Irish had even roasted Protestant Englishmen alive, then eaten the steaming meat.'”

False as these rumors were, they aroused the English to a fury. A group of primarily Puritan London businessmen put forth a simple proposition: They would raise an army at their own expense to defeat the rebellious Irish and put down the outrage of papacy. In exchange, the promoters wanted to keep the acreage they confiscated from the Irish miscreants. One man who enthusiastically invested in the scheme was Oliver Cromwell. In fact, Cromwell bought two thousand pounds’ worth of shares—a fortune at the time. The return on his stake, he hoped, would be a substantial chunk of the “liberated” real estate.

The cranial circuit that drove the rats to clear their cage spread its message through Cromwell’s brain. He became possessed by a new idea. Why not cleanse Ireland of the Catholic Irish altogether, purging the land of those who satanically worshipped a devilish Roman pope? Ireland, said Cromwell, should be “replanted.” The purified soil should be sown with God’s own crop—his chosen people. These chosen souls were of course the Puritans.

Among the rats, the notion of “replanting” their cage had been dictated by a gene. The rodents exterminated those whose genetic complement differed from their own. But genes were not what united the Puritans. Puritans bore the blood of all the tribes who had settled England the Picts, the Jutes, the Saxons, the Angles, and even a few Normans. These men of holy fervor were drawn together by an idea. They were welded into a social body by a meme.

Then, in 1642, civil war broke out in England. On one side were those who wanted the country ruled by Parliament. They tended to be the folks who believed that you could reach God simply by reading the Good Book. Among the Parliamentarians were Cromwell and the Puritans. On the other side were the supporters of the king. They were believers in authority, men who insisted that the sole way to God was through the priests and bishops of the Anglican church. Each group coalesced into a superorganism, and those two superorganisms locked horns and fought.

Before the war, Cromwell had been a country gentleman of little reputation and even fewer accomplishments. Although a member of Parliament, he had shown no flair whatsoever as a politician. On the battlefield, however, he discovered a side of himself he didn’t know he had. War exhilarated him. Killing gave him a rush of pleasure. The Cromwellian mind that so far had merely muddled through life came alive in the heat of battle. It was what you might have expected from someone who as a teenager had enjoyed bashing people with a stick. At the age of forty-three, Cromwell had found himself!

When he was in the heat of the fight, the bullets whistling around him, the swords cutting through arms and necks on every side, Cromwell was sure the voice of God was speaking to him. He heard the whispered messages of a meme. Whenever Cromwell won a battle, it was confirmation that he’d interpreted the Lord’s voice correctly. And God rewarded his servant every few days by allowing Oliver to carve up his fellowmen.
The voice of his Lord was good to Cromwell. The fighter had a startling tendency to win his bloody encounters and rose rapidly in the army. Eventually, he became its leader. When Cromwell’s side defeated the forces of the king, the Puritan commander took over England’s reins of power. The old monarch, Charles I, lost his head, which was severed from his body by a Puritan. Oliver Cromwell became the new ruler of Britain.
The superorganism the Puritan meme had pulled together would soon reveal the depths of its hunger. How? By giving Cromwell the opportunity to live out his Irish fantasy. In 1649, Oliver took his squadrons to the shores of the ill-fated isle. He laid siege to one Irish town after another. His men plundered and killed. Cromwell sometimes asked his troops to exercise restraint, but the English Puritans could not contain their fury at the hellish folk who had performed such foul atrocities. When Cromwell’s God-fearing men broke through an Irish city’s walls, they swung their swords indiscriminately at men, women, and children. The soldiers declared the massacre just. After all, when they’d gone through the corpses, the victors had found that many of the Irish had long, hideous tails–the marks of the devil himself.

Cromwell’s dream of “replanting” Ireland came true. His armies removed the Irish by force from two-thirds of their land, and the warriors of holiness handed the territory over to pious Puritans. Like the pair of rats in the cage, the Puritans had cleared Ireland. A country had been attacked and its inhabitants slaughtered—all in the name of a meme. A defeated knot of ideas that of the Catholics—was beaten into temporary submission. And the Puritan meme had used violent battle and the dark impulses of the animal brain to radically increase its sway.

Cromwell’s personal rewards were enormous. He acquired vast amounts of acreage. Eventually, the Lord Protector (as he was now
known) became so wealthy that when he had an ailment, he was able to pay a physician the equivalent of what a middle-class family earned in five years. Often, Cromwell scolded his daughter for hanging around with worldly folk. Oliver, you see, was a profoundly religious man; yet, it never occurred to him that there was anything “worldly” about his accumulation of huge estates. These were merely God’s rewards for killing.

In his own way, Cromwell could see that he was the servant of a force battling to impose its form of organization on the world of men and matter. He realized that he was a tool in a struggle between concepts of truly massive scope. Cromwell regarded war, to quote his biographer, Antonia Fraser, as “part of an inevitable, deeply disturbing, deeply exciting process, by which the way of the Lord had to be fought out in order to be discovered.” God’s will, Oliver felt, would be found in the cannon’s mouth.

Harold Bloom is not saying that the English fought to propagate their genes. But they did identify themselves as an ‘in-group’ and the Irish as an ‘out-group’. Perhaps Harold’s point is that some of the same emotions that are useful to rats exterminating the competition may have been in play in the primitive parts of the human brain of Mr. Cromwell.

That raises the question – if we explicitly fight to propagate our genes, just how close to our fellow’s genes have to be? This was an issue for the Nazis, who saw some blue-eyed and blond children in Eastern Europe, and were not sure whether to incorporate them in the master race (I forget where I saw this, and it may not be reliable).

For a chimp troop, when it gets too large it can split into two groups with two territories, and then these groups become enemies.

If you fight for an intolerant idea or religion, then the people who share the idea are the in-group, but its not clear who the outgroup is. It depends. But the attitudes and emotions that you feel when attacking the opposition – could they be fragments of the drives put in by a selfish gene and now employed in situations that genes did not evolve for?

One other thing to notice about the Cromwell story – telling lies works. Perhaps the English army could not have been motivated to attack the Irish without them. Or at least not to do ethnic cleansing. For a great example of a story about a lie in “The Lucifer Principle” – there is this: According to the New York Times, in 1980 Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, had a Lebanese imam (a holy man roughly equivalent to a pastor) shot in the head for refusing to preach the propaganda of the PLO. Then Arafat visited the imam’s Lebanese home, took his ten-year-old son aside, explained to the little boy that his father had been murdered by the Israelis, handed the lad a gun, and said, “When you grow up, use this to take revenge.”

Source (apart from my speculations): The Lucifer Principle by Harold Bloom 1995 Atlantic Monthly Press


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