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Harperism and the Decline of Altruism in Canada

Over the past year we have seen a growing body of public opinion critiquing varied aspects of what is now termed ‘Harperism,’ for many a vexing and disturbing approach to Canadian governance.

My own criticism of the syndrome is increasingly annoying to my wife. ‘Your anger about Harperism seems to have deep emotional roots; it’s bigger than just — you need to dig deeper to discover its real cause.’

Well, I have. A key aid to my political exploration has been E. O. Wilson’s 2012 book, The Social Conquest of the Earth. The dust jacket commentary refers to it as the ‘summa work’ of his legendary career as an ecologist. Wilson is the living heir to Darwin, and a Professor Emeritus at Harvard.

He aids my political critique of Harperism in his rational analysis of eusociality — the most advanced level of social organization. Eusociality manifests as our collective ability as Homo sapiens, brought about by the evolutionary process of group selection, to empathize, to be compassionate, and perhaps most important, to be altruistic.

After reading Wilson, I was able to define my angst: I think the current Conservative government is presiding over a diminution, even a dismantling of eusociality in its many unique Canadian contexts. Simply put, we are diminishing state-wide altruism.

Chief amongst the qualities of eusocial animal species (Wilson figures there may be as few as 24 of them) is the will to cooperate. Allied with conspicuous acts of cooperation, altruism is the ability to act for good on another’s behalf with no expectation of praise or honour. Eusociality is also synonymous with social leveling, in that it abhors extremes, and works to maximize aggregate happiness and fair allocation of income. Eusocial species are not greedy, selfish or lazy — in fact, their defining quality is cooperative fairness. Wilson’s favourite example of eusociality is the society of leaf- cutter ants (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Atta). Their collective cooperative will really outshines our own species.

As I ponder the past two years of United Nation’s mocking, treaty and convention abrogation, distrust of science and the muzzling of scientists, closing of libraries, denial of climate change, vilification of NGOs and those who work for them, pandering to dogmatic ideologies based on unchallengeable precepts, diminishing the role of the House of Commons, and rebranding of our National Museum of Civilization, our currency, CIDA, and our global image, I am struck by the scale of the initiative. We are in a national retreat from cooperative gestures, and a growing embrace of selfish, greedy Ayn Randish objectivism.

We are now lecturing the world on the basis of our new-found economic and social evangelism, and championing a bitumen republic economy in a world aching for sustainability and a rational understanding of the ecological limits to consumerism and growth. I doubt if leaf- cutter ants would want to share their nests with us.

So what is the cure? Wilson argues that Homo sapiens’ evolution has benefitted from both group and individual selection. Group selection gave us eusociality; individual selection gave us greedy, selfish and lazy behaviours — ‘much of what we call sin.’ The push/pull dynamic of this dialectical collision has made us who we are. My point is that we need a national government that governs from the centre of this dynamic, not from one side only.

We also need to heed Wilson’s iron rule of genetic social evolution: ‘Selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.’ I take from this that our federal government needs to start reconceptualizing economic and social policy that will give Canada a cooperative advantage in our relationships with other countries.

By this I mean that by conceptualizing our economy as being natural resource driven and carbon heavy, we will be championing the wrong side of the dialectic in years to come. Now is the time for carbon taxes, incentives for idea-based manufacturing, green technology and an altruistic approach to trade with other nations. Now is the time to champion international cooperation in tackling climate change. Now is the time to create the industrial infrastructure for the next economy.

In all of the above causes I expect the Conservative plurality-majority to be reluctant adherents at best. So I have one more cri de coeur: now is the time to build the Green/ Liberal/ NDP coalition to put cooperation back in Canada’s political gene pool. It is as simple as E. O. Wilson’s iron rule: groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals.

Troy Media syndicated columnist Mike Robinson has lived half of his life in Alberta and half in B.C. In Calgary he worked for eight years in the oil patch, 14 in academia, and eight years as a cultural CEO. This article originally appeared on Troy Media and is republished here with permission.

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