19 July 2013

Translation Strategies.

In June 2012 I had a crack at translating a difficult passage from the Cūḷa-Māluṅkya Sutta (MN 63), and presented some detailed notes in an essay titled Irrelevant Details. I'm in the process of writing this up for publication. In my forthcoming article I compare a number of versions of this text. The Canonical Pāli in it's various recensions (but mainly the PTS and CST versions); three English translations by I. B. Horner, Bodhi & Ñāṇamoli (Ñ&B), and Rupert Gethin; and two Chinese counterparts 箭喻經 Jiàn yù jīng (Arrow Metaphor Sūtra),  T 1.26 ( MĀ 221), and 佛說箭喻經 Fú shuō jiàn yù jīng (The Buddha’s Talk on the Arrow Metaphor SūtraT 1.94. (In the previous essay I only compared the Chinese text of T 1.94). I've also consulted in passing two other translations by Piya Tan and Thanissaro. I have of course produced my own translation of this text. And I make use of Buddhaghosa's all too brief commentary in the Papañcasūdanī (Ps) or Commentary on the Majjhima Nikāya (Majjhimnikāyaṭṭhakathā). 

Horner's translation is from the 1950s, Ñ&B's from 2001, and Gethin's from 2008. MĀ 221 was translated from a Prakrit (probably Gāndārī) original in 398 and T 1.94 some time in the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420 CE). 

The passage I studied previously is interesting from a linguistic point of view because it deals with a rare topic in Pāli, i.e. the details of archery. The paragraph in question contains three hapax legomena - words that only occur once in the Canon. None of these words are clarified by the commentary, and in at least one case that Buddhaghosa does not know what the word means, and he's silent about the other two. The text also contains other terms that are obscure. Thus, this passage provides the ideal laboratory for observing the translator's response to lexical items that are not in the lexicon. 

I dealt the the issue of the word sithilahanu in some detail in Irrelevant Details. It comes at the end of a list of birds which might be considered to donate feathers to fletch the arrow. Buddhaghosa with almost British understatement tells us it is "a type of bird" (evaṃ nāmakassa pakkhino Ps iii.142). No previous translator has done better however. Horner gives “some other bird”. Ñ&B translate sithilahanu as "stork". Gethin (2008) leaves the word untranslated. I dealt with the false association of sithilahanu and stork, but Horner and Gethin show two other ways of dealing with an unfamiliar word if we don't believe the dictionary and/or customary translations. Horner admits her ignorance. She is a great scholar who nevertheless seems to be aware of her limitations and not afraid to say she is guessing or just does not know (I'm coming to admire her). Gethin takes another route which might also be humility. The word is untranslatable, so he leaves it untranslated. While I sympathise, having spent many hours on this passage puzzling out the strange terminology, I must admit I find fault with this approach. An untranslated mystery word seems like an abdication of responsibility of the translator. There are other approaches which might be employed. In both the Chinese counterparts for example, the translators simply change all the bird names into ones familiar to their Chinese readers. They don't always use the same strategies however.

The Pāli text refers to two types of bows: cāpa and kodaṇḍa. It's not at all clear what these two words mean from the context, nor from various Pāli or Sanskrit dictionaries, nor from a survey of the minimal usage elsewhere in the Canon. Nor is etymology any great help. Cāpa may come from a PIE root meaning 'to bend', but this tells us nothing more than we already know. The word daṇḍa, meaning 'stick or staff' is a loan word into Sanskrit (and thus Pāli) from Proto-Munda. So, presumably, is kodaṇḍa, though none of the standard studies of loan words directly identify it as such. In any case it is an old loan word already in common use for a millennia by the time the Pāli was composed (e.g. present in the Ṛgveda), so we must be cautious about imputing Munda cultural influence here (as I did previously) So I no longer agree with the suggestion made by Bryan Levman and taken up by Piya Tan that kodaṇḍa is a Munda bow. 

Horner translates “spring-bow and cross-bow” (with an acknowledgement that this is a tentative translation); Ñ&B have ‘long bow or cross bow’; Gethin, again, does not translate. Now spring-bow is not a term I have found any reference to. I presume Horner means a simple bow or self-bow as distinct from a compound bow. Ñ&B have corrected this to long bow which works a little better I think. The point of the text is merely to provide a contrast between types. However, historically the cross-bow was never much used in India and is extremely unlikely to be found in the Buddha's milieu. 

At this point we turn, with hope, to the Chinese to compare what they have made of the words. Firstly it seems clear that their Indic original text was a little different to the Pāli. Both for example give three types of bow instead of two, and where T 94 seems to be striving to preserve Indic terms neither of them could be cāpa or kodaṇḍa. MĀ 221 asks whether the bow was made of Maclura tricuspidata aka silkworm thorn (柘 zhè), mulberry (桑 sāng) or zelkova tree (槻 guī); T 94 distinguishes three types of bows made from different kinds of wood (木mù): sal (薩羅 sà luó), tala (多羅duō luó), or 翅羅鴦掘梨 chì luó yāng jué lí”. In MĀ 221 the translator has overwritten the Indic materials with familiar Chinese materials. Since it's clear from the overall treatment of this subject that the Pāli author is far from being very familiar with archery, there is no need to assume that the Chinese is any better. But the words are designed to produce recognition in a Chinese reader. T. 1.94 however would produce only incomprehension in the average Chinese reader of any era. The unknown translator has tried to transliterate the Indic terms using Chinese characters. We can just make out the first two as common trees in India: the sal tree, and the palmyra tree. But the third term has stubborn refused to resolve itself into any comprehensible. 翅 羅 鴦 掘 梨 in Middle Chinese pronunciation would be: si ra ang gul i. We would expect a Sanskrit word like *kīlāṅguli ‘post-finger’(?) Cf Pāli kīḷāguḷa ‘a ball for playing with’ (DOP). Skt. karāṅguli ‘a finger of the hand’ (MW); Marathi karaṅgaḷī ‘little finger’. However I can identify no plausible material for making bows. 

Even from this brief survey we have now seen all but one of the major strategies used by translators of any time and place when faced with difficult terminology. Apart from non-translation, guessing and substitution, the other option is just to ignore the word altogether. An example of this is found in Ñ&B's translation of the types of arrowhead when they simply leave two terms out of their translated list (salla and nārāca). 

Buddhist scholars (or scholars of Buddhism) are often guilty of parochialism. I know I'm guilty of this myself. Faced with a problem in Pāli I might check my Sanskrit dictionaries, but I would seldom delve into non-Buddhist texts to see how the word is used in practice. In fact it was only secondary sources on Indian archery that lead me to what now seems like an obvious source. The Arthaśāstra (AŚ) is usually attributed to Kauṭilya who is in turn identified with Cāṇakya, a minister in the court of Chandragupta Maurya (ca. 4th century BCE). The identification is plausibly disputed now and AŚ most likely the text dates from ca. 125-150 CE. This text is sometimes likened to Machiavelli's manual The Prince, since it outlines all the knowledge necessary for ruling an empire. 

Amidst this text is a list of types of bow and the materials they are constructed from. Arthaśāstra says that bows are called kārmuka, kodaṇḍa, and drūṇa, and are made from tāla, cāpa, and dārava and śārṅga (wood and horn).  Now this is usually interpreted as saying that a kārmuka bow is made from tāla and so on. Which would mean that a kodaṇḍa bow is made of cāpa. This leaves us with a conundrum. The Pāli makes me want to read the types of bow and the materials as being interchangeable: i.e. one can make a kārmuka bow from either tāla, cāpa or wood and horn. The Sanskrit text of AŚ can be read this way. Arthaśāstra also lists cāpa under types of plant material that the empire needs to stockpile and cāpa is listed under types of veṇu, i.e. cane or bamboo (AŚ. 2.17.5). This case alone demonstrates the value of reading beyond Buddhist literature. 

Thus we can deduce that a cāpa bow is a self-bow made from cane or bamboo, of the type still used by hunter gatherer tribes in Indian right down to the present! The likelihood then is that kodaṇḍa is a kind of composite bow, with its wooden substrate reinforced by horn and/or sinew. 

The problem here is similar to the one dealt with by Murray B. Emeneau (1953: 77) “Philologists working with Sanskrit texts seem to have been quite innocent of [archery] knowledge”… reflecting a fairly general unconcern of the Indian authors.” I acknowledged why this might be so in my original essay. The message of the text is not to be concerned with irrelevant details, and the early translators (the Pāli is also a translation) seem to have taken this to so much to heart that we no longer understand three of the terms used, and struggle to reconstruct several others. 

So what's the point of this kind of archaeological approach to a text whose message seems to be don't bother? 

Producing realistic translations is helpful to the reader. What caught my attention in this passage was bow strings ostensibly made of "bark" or arrow heads made of “an oleander leaf”. This is not realistic. Any astute reader must see these locutions and wonder what the author meant. Like Murray Emeneau I think realistic translations are important. Unrealistic translations create cognitive dissonance. As a philologist I am concerned to understand and translate my text accurately, but as a Buddhism I do this partly in order to try to bring the text alive, or to invoke the period. Jarringly anachronistic or unrealistic details undermine both goals.

It seems to me that the task of curating the "sacred" texts comes with an imperative that goes beyond mere preservation. Conservation includes scope for restoration. This is certainly the case at the level of the text. The Pali Text Society editions of the Pāli are critical editions, in which a skilled editor has compared the various recensions and made a decision on what the "correct" reading ought to be - but still notes the alternatives. As such we are probably overdue for a new critical edition of the Pāli Canon in Pāli since scholarship has advanced so far in the mean time (more than 100 years in many cases). If this argument is valid, then it ought to apply at the level of individual words as well. 

A disappointment with respect to the Chinese Canon is that the translation strategies employed by translators often obscure details just when we'd like them to be clarified. If we lose words from the Pāli texts themselves we may find it impossible ever recover them. There is still a small chance of a Gāndhārī counterpart emerging from the sands of the Swat Valley, but its unlikely that any given text will survive in a Gāndhārī version. In the case of this passage the words might seem relatively insignificant. But a careless attitude to words generally risks greater losses. My attitude is informed by approaches to ecology. The more diversity in the gene pool the healthier the ecosystem. Quite obviously this has little direct impact on enunciation of the Buddhist doctrine, but the value of the Buddhist texts, like for example the value of Buddhist statuary in Afghanistan, goes beyond the value placed on it by pious Buddhists. The Pāli documents are records of humanity in a particular time and place. If they were lost then the human race would be the poorer for it. 



Arthaśāstra by Kauṭilya. (Kangle Ed). 2nd Ed. University of Bombay, 1969.

Emeneau, Murray B. (1953) ‘The Composite Bow in India.’ Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 97(1): 77-87.

Gethin, Rupert. (2008) Sayings of the Buddha. Oxford University Press.

Horner, I. B. (1954-9) The Book of Middle Length Sayings. (3 vols.) Pali Text Society.

Olivelle, Patrick. (2013) King, governance, and law in ancient India: Kauṭilya's Arthaśāstra. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pant, G.N. (1978) Indian Archery. Delhi: Agam Kala Prakashan.

Thanissaro (2012) ‘Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta: The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya’. Access to Insight. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.063.than.html

12 July 2013

How is Liberation Possible?

Snake in Water
How is liberation possible? This is a frequently asked question and one that has evidently puzzled Buddhists down the ages since there are many different answers to it. How can we who are deluded, greedy and hateful free ourselves from delusion, craving and aversion? Some - for example Shinran - have concluded that there is nothing we can do, we just have to rely on the Buddha to save us, which Amitābha (the Buddha of a parallel universe) promises to do in the Sukhāvatīvyūha Sūtras.

Early Buddhism had its own answers to this question, but not all of them seem to have been passed on, or preserved in the Mahāyāna. In the Pāli texts there are two kinds of paṭicca-samuppāda: one which is described in the Pāli commentarial tradition as lokiya (this is the familiar 12 nidāna sequence) and one which is described as lokuttara (which I sometimes call the upanisā sequence). The result of the nidāna sequence is cycling through saṃsāra - i.e. through life after life. The result of the upanisā sequence however is liberation from saṃsāra.

I have already blogged about one of the upanisā sequence texts from the Aṅguttara Nikāya (see Progress is Natural), and published a much broader survey (The Spiral Path or Lokuttara Paṭiccasamuppāda.) In this post I want to look more at the relationships between the members of the sequence. In AN 10.2 this relationship is described as dhammatā 'natural'. No act of will (cetanā karaṇa) is required. So for example someone who is virtuous does not need to for an intention to have a clear conscience, it is a natural consequence of virtue because there is nothing to regret, no need for remorse. Each step occurs as a natural consequence, and one thing leads to another with liberation as the natural consequence of practice.

This conceptual way of getting across the process of how getting free of saṃsāra happens is all well and good. However some people are better able to understand things through the use of images and symbols, and indeed there is a layer of meaning that seems only to be brought out in this mode of communication. Several images for this process are preserved in the Pāli texts. The one most likely to be familiar occurs right at the end of the Upanisā Sutta and involver water falling on mountains, gradually accumulating into larger streams and rovers as it flows down to the sea. Sangharakshita has used this image in A Survey of Buddhism (p.137) for instance. [1] So hopefully it will already be familiar. Another, rather less felicitous simile occurs at AN 6.50 (PTS A iii.359) involving a tree. I have discovered a third simile, that I do not believe has been remarked upon before, in the Himavanta Sutta SN 46.1, PTS S v.63:
Once at Sāvtthī. Monks the nāgas depend on the king of snowy mountains to increase their substance, and account for their power. Increased and empowered they descend into small pools, then into large pools; then they descend into small rivers, and then into large rivers; and finally they descend into the great gathered waters of the ocean. Thus their body becomes great and full. Just like that, monks, the monk depending on virtue, supported by virtue, seriously takes up the practice of, and produces, the seven factors of awakening and attains the greatness and fullness of them.
The simile is somewhat similar to the one in the Upanisā Sutta, but here the mythic nāgas are the ones making the progress. In Pāli nāga frequently means elephant, but can also mean any large or particularly impressive animal. And it is in this sense that it is usually applied to the Buddha. However the nāgas were also local animistic deities, often associated with water, but sometimes also with trees. In many ways they personify the water and the life giving properties of it, as well as the fertility it engenders. Nāgas often take the form of serpents - the symbolic connection with serpentine rivers sees obvious. Since snakes often live in burrows under the earth, the nāga also has chthonic resonances - they are creatures of the underworld. [2]

In this simile the nāgas seem to represent the water itself - the nāgas enter (otarati -literally 'go down to, descend') each body of water in turn, and come to the collected waters of the ocean (mahāsamuddasāgara) where they achieve greatness (mahantatta) and fullness (vepullatta). The water depends on the king of snowy mountains (himavantaṃ pabbatarāja) because spring thaws fill the lakes and rivers.

The message here, as in some of the upanisā sequences in the Aṅguttara Nikāya is that virtue is the basis (nissāya) for the way of life leading to liberation. With virtue as a basis then the other steps follow naturally. I think it's important to be clear that this is not a general statement. I see the context for this simile, and the other upanisā suttas, as being a reassurance to those who are practising Buddhism assiduously. Virtue on its own is in fact not enough, but I need to make another point before I can properly address this.

Here the simile likens the water/nāgas flowing down from the snowy mountains to the ocean to the monk who practices bojjhaṅgas 'the limbs (aṅga) of awakening (bodhi)'. These are mindfulness (sati), investigation of mental states (dhammavicaya), energy (viriya), rapture (pīti), serenity (passadhi), concentration (samādhi) and equanimity (upekkhā). Pursuing and attaining these states (dhammas) leads to liberation.

Note that at SN 45.151 the path is described in terms of the aṭṭhāṅgamagga 'eightfold path'. The conclusion is that the progressive nature of the path is not limited to one doctrinal formulation but is a general feature of Buddhist methods. That said, however, it is clear that the bojjhaṅgas and the upanisās share several terms, specifically:
bojjhaṅga... pīti - passadhi - samādhi ...
upanisā...... pīti - passadhi - sukha - samādhi ...
These terms are clearly related to meditation. In fact I suggest that they imply an active engagement with meditation. The Buddhist tradition is clear that generally speaking virtue is necessary but not sufficient for liberation. It is only implied in the upanisā sequence, but the implication is clear: virtue feeds into success in practising meditation which in turn finds its fruition in liberating wisdom.

It is intriguing that this teaching appears to have been lost at some point. As far as I know the teaching is not found in any Mahāyāna text, and though there is an upanisā sequence in the Visuddhimagga it plays no prominent role there, being mentioned only once and then only in passing. As a result other doctrines had to be developed which showed how liberation is possible: ideas like Buddha seeds, Buddha nature, and interpenetration all seem to address this issue. As Carolyn Rhys Davids remarked in 1922,
"How might it not have altered the whole face of Buddhism to the West if that [upanisā] sequence has been made the illustration of the causal law!" [3]
And not just the West! How different the face of Buddhism might have been if this doctrine had gained or perhaps retained prominence. If it had been clear from the beginning that progress to liberation is a natural outcome of virtue and practice, then how many of the doctrinal innovations that now seem distinctive would have been composed? I think it is one of Sangharakshita's great contributions that he recognised this long lost doctrine and made it a central plank of his teaching, correcting perhaps 15 or 20 centuries of neglect.



  1. Sangharakshita. (1993) A Survey of Buddhism: Its Doctrines and Methods Through the Ages. 7th ed. Windhorse. Sangharakshita cites Carolyn Rhys Davids translation from Book of Kindred Sayings, vol.II, p.25-6.
  2. Sutherland, Gail Hinich. (1991) The Disguises of the Demon: the Development of the Yakṣa in Hinduism and Buddhism. State University of New York Press. (esp p.38-43)
  3. Rhys Davids, C.A.F. and Woodward, F. L. (1922) The Book of the Kindred Sayings (Saṃyutta-nikāya) or Grouped Suttas. (7 vol.) Oxford : Pali Text Society [1990]. Part II, ‘The Nidāna Book’ p.viii.

05 July 2013

Life is Symbiotic

Economists, politicians and some philosophers believe that human beings (and or genes) are selfish. That self-interest and competition are the ultimate driving forces of evolution and human behaviour. This idea is sometimes called "enlightened self-interest". The theory really comes into it's own in Victorian Britain where the dog eat dog view of the world fitted well with Britain's global imperialism. When you are bent on world domination it is as well to believe that it is ordained by God; that it is the natural order that some individuals naturally dominate others to the point of enslavement. I think it originates with the Christian idea of the Great Chain of Being, but clearly gets subverted. However this theory of self interest and competition is still at the centre of Western society and morals. 

This view of the world and of humanity tends to be portrayed as the only viable alternative. It is built into the fabric of nature itself; nature red in tooth and claw. But it is not the only view. In this essay I'm going to outline an alternative view of humanity. One that accepts that competition plays a role in our evolution and our lives, but sees it as secondary. What is primary to life itself is cooperation, symbiosis, community. 

We human beings exist in communities. But we are all individually communities as well. Our bodies are a community with two types of members: complex, tightly bound cells, and a mixture of simple, loosely bound cells. Complex or eukaryote cells have existed for some 2 billion years. The complexity of eukaryote cells has only recently been explained as a symbiotic conglomeration of simpler, prokaryote, cells. This idea was first proposed in the 19th century but was given scientific credence by Lynn Margulis. Her 1967 paper The Origin of Mitosing Eukaryotic Cells (under the name Lynn Sagan) is a landmark in the theory of evolution. Margulis's paper was repeated rejected by academic journals and dismissed by the establishment once published, but the theory, also known as endosymbiosis, is now found in every introductory text on biology. Margulis showed that mitochondria were once free living bacteria and that the eukaryote cell is a complex symbiotic entity with mitochondria and the body of the cell retaining part of their identity, but also merging to become a single self-replicating unit. Indeed mitochondria look like bacteria in many ways, have their own (bacteria like) DNA, and have different metabolic pathways to the rest of the cell. It is mitochondria that give our cells the ability to metabolise oxygen. Before mitochondria oxygen was a powerful poison to cells. This ability of bacteria to develop new metabolic pathways is one of their most important features. Margulis later proposed that some other features of eukaryote cells, such as flagella and possible the spindles that control mitosis, came from symbiotic bacteria. The Eukaryote cells that make up all plants and animals resulted from a series of symbiotic relationships that became permanent. Later Margulis worked with James Lovelock to help him with the biological side of his Gaia Theory. 

Part of the complexity of our body is the way that the cells divide functions. Despite all having the same DNA all mature human cells are specialists, forming organs and sub-organs that make our organism. Everything from brain, muscle and liver to skin, bone and blood. This comes about because of the way genes in our cells interact. Each gene works together with other genes to create an environment in which they go forward together. This image of communities working together is found at every level in nature, whether overtly as in our cells and the organs they make up, or more covertly in the checks and balances of an ecosystem. We can view predation, for example, in terms of a war with ever changing strategies by species bent on domination; or we can see it as part of an elaborate network of feedback loops (the cybernetic view); or we could see it as a dance in in which all the participants work together to perpetuate life. The thing about metaphors is that they are not set in concrete, but which metaphors we chose to use to conceptualise a complex idea does affect the associations and entailments we perceive in it.

The other member of our collective are the loosely bound bacteria and protozoa that inhabit our bodies. Recent estimates suggest that for every human cell there are 10 bacterial cells in our bodies (Scientific American June 2012). These mainly live in our gut, and many of them are now known to be more or less essential to well-being. Without intestinal bacteria for example it is thought we would have to ingest 30% more food to get the same number of usable calories. But other bacteria have been linked to the proper functioning of our immune systems; to vitamin B12 synthesis; to blood pressure maintenance and so on.

Bacteria are not entirely simple. Their individual structure is much more simple than a eukaryote cell, but bacteria live in colonies which work together to make survival more certain. And each colony always has several different strains of bacteria which exploit different metabolic pathways and are able to "cooperate" in  order to thrive. And important point about the bacteria in our bodies is that where we have about 25,000 genes, they collectively have about 3 million. The protozoa in our gut are typically single-celled  eukaryote organisms which do not form colonies. Of course we have some organisms which are parasitic or pathogenic, but the majority are benign or positively helpful. 

Thus when we view our bodies as "individual" we are distorting the truth. Our bodies are colonies of cells cooperating in a variety of ways to sustain life. The interactions are incredibly complex and details of them could fill whole books. And it's not just us. All life is like this. And very often it is the communal nature of life that gives it adaptability. Not only are bacteria quick to adapt because they reproduce quickly, but any bacteria can share genetic material with any other (at least in theory) so they all have a much greater pool of genes on which to draw. Almost as soon as we develop a means of poisoning them, bacteria find a way of neutralising and/or metabolising that poison. Where new species emerge it is very likely that some symbiont has provided a way of exploiting a new ecological niche by providing a new metabolic pathway. The mutation of genes by contract really only produces variations on a theme, not innovation on a large scale. Thus the idea that evolution is driven by "selfish genes" is a joke. Indeed for any gene to be expressed requires a protein made by another gene to "read" and transcribe it into RNA that can be used by the cell to make more protein. If we are going to anthropomorphise genes then we ought to be saying that genes are selfless, cooperative and generous.

That said the individual is not the smallest viable unit of humanity. We are sexually dimorphic and thus require male and female in order to reproduce. But even two is not the smallest number, because inbreeding would most likely lead to genetic problems. No one is quite sure what the smallest viable gene pool is, but hunter-gather humans tend to form troops of about 50-150. And even then they often select mates from neighbouring tribes. The migration out of Africa that populated the rest of the world was said to be about 10,000 individuals. And we don't live in groups simply because it improves our gene pool, we are a social species. Our social groups have structure and dynamics. The individual cannot survive without help from the community. We are adapted to do child rearing, food gathering, hunting, and all the basic survival behaviours together. It is also true that some are leaders and some are followers, i.e. we are hierarchical like other social primates. And as our societies have grown ever larger we have imposed structures to make governance manageable. The point here is not to evaluate this, but just to note it. Clearly the modern intellectual trend is to reject hierarchy, though I see biology continually asserting itself.

The individual is not vitally important in humanity. As a species we do best in groups, and we are evolved to facilitate this. Thus we are equipped with empathy to better understand the emotional states of our fellows and respond appropriately (especially to avoid destructive conflict). One of the benefits of a large brain is that it allows us to keep track of a fairly large number of relationships: knowing where people are in our hierarchy, our relationship to them, and their relationships to the others in the group. Keeping track of 50 people and the nuances of who is obligated to whom, who is in what kind of relationship with whom, and what role each person plays in the community is quite a complex task. Social rules are often unwritten and  extremely complex (as any immigrant can tell you). 

As fine as it is to feel free, to assert out individuality and our rights, in general we cannot survive alone and isolated. So the idea that everyone is acting on their own self-interest is more Victorian nonsense. We are evolved for community and for working together to achieve common goals.  A few rogue humans do not act like this and it is not sensible that they form the basis of the model of humanity. Empathy allows us to have complex interactions based on a shared sense of values and purpose. Selfishness only subverts the values of the community, both the explicit values of most human communities and the implicit values of a social primate. Most societies tolerate a little individualism (since innovation can be useful) but actually punish overt selfishness. I think this is implicit also in what I've written about morality and surveillance. The whole point of surveillance is to gain access to people's private thoughts and actions to make sure they are conforming to group norms. Since this is more or less ubiquitous we can say that selfishness is universally seen as a vice.  That some people find ways to be selfish and acquisitive does not change the general description of human beings. 

The reasons that modern societies are increasingly focussed on the individual at the expense of society are rather complex. But it's clearly a recent phenomenon and a rather aberrant one. Individualism still does not make sense in many traditional societies. In any case the point of this essay has been to argue against the prevalent idea that selfishness is the driver of evolution and human behaviour. If anything this idea is pernicious and divisive, and needs to be re-examined at every level. At every level cooperation, symbiosis, and community are the most important factors in sustaining life. And at every level individualism is like cancer - rogue units multiplying at the expense of the whole. We certainly need to look again at how we treat selfish people who have enriched themselves to the detriment of whole nations and even the globe. The causes of the present economic crisis for example can be found in individual and collective greed. As a society we removed sanctions against overtly greedy and selfish behaviour, and adopted a policy of tolerance and even reward for those who managed to exploit the system to enrich themselves. We enshrined selfishness in our laws because we were momentarily bewildered by the arguments of smooth talking bastards. If ever there was an argument against selfishness and individualism it is the present economic situation in the UK, Europe and America.

More than ever what we need is a little enlightened other-interest. 

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