Sharing Disabilities

The New York Times reported on some popular science books (Tomasello’s Why we Cooperate and de Waal’s The Age of Empathy) that weigh into the debate about whether cooperation is inherent to human nature or not. What is claimed to be new in these books, in order to make the article news, is research, or arguments, that go against what is considered to be the scientific consensus concerning human nature – that we are innately selfish. The article claims that these books claim to find tendencies in children, prior to explicit socialization – in other words, 18 months old, with some language acquisition, but not yet being schooled in civility – toward helping others. The article is not so careful with its conceptual terminology, moving between empathy, coordinated perception, cooperation and sharing. It is also not careful enough to identify what might be innate, informally/osmotically/mimetically learned, and formally taught.

Perhaps more interesting than the article are the 147 comments received by the Times before it closed commentary on the evening of the article’s hardcopy publication. The number of comments is surprising. And then there is usual weird lay policing and politicing of knowledge that accompanies such science press; there are the outright dismissals of what is reported as insufficiently scientific, several from within disciplines (‘real science is biology, not psychology’); there are the affirmations of the article as banal (‘so much money spent to research what any mother could tell you’); there are several claims that these are not new research findings (‘so and so said this decades earlier’); and then there are all the socio-biological extrapolations about religion, war, capitalism, etc. The very medium enabling massive increases in the capacity for sharing views is just a violent display of our incapacity for public rationality.

I really don’t know what to do with all this Barbarism, in Ulrich Beck’s sense. I spend way too much time ploughing through these sorts of strings of comments, such as all the trolls that now infest Treehugger and manifest around any mention of global warming.

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