Recognition

I’ve been on Haskell island nearly a month now, and in a few days I’ll be leaving, back to the commotion and confusion and pressures of mainland life.

There are no bridges here, no roads, and only three other houses on the island, all of them, like ours, for summer occupancy only. For the most part the same people have been coming here for several generations, and if we don’t already know each individual, at least we know the families. What a difference that makes!

Over a decade ago I wrote about living here, and concluded that it recalled for me “the taproots of my lost serenity.” At the time the feature I most appreciated was the never-ending change in the ever-beautiful land-and-seascapes from this vantage point in Casco Bay. I still get up at dawn every morning and admire the view north across the water to South Harpswell and Bailey’s Island, with hundreds of lobster buoys bobbing in the bay in between. I still admire the quiet nights, unpolluted by sirens and trucks and other auditory excrescences. And I still welcome the opportunity to remind myself that we can after all exist without all the modern conveniences right at hand, that we so erroneously now consider the “necessities of life,” like automobiles and TV and even, bless it, the Internet.

But at the moment, as I reflect on all the reasons the island is so relaxing, so restoring, the thing I admire most is the absence of strangers. Even after four or five hundred generations of intense conditioning, there still lurks in my downtrodden psyche something that makes it more fatiguing, more work, to interact with strangers than to deal with people I already know. My Paleolithic genes remain tribal, and decree that at all times, whenever any other human being comes into my presence, I can tell at once whether I already know that person, and if I don’t then a modern version of the old “friend or foe” syndrome springs into action. I firmly suppress this instinct when I’m on the mainland, for I have to deal with strangers all the time, and I know rationally that the fact that I don’t already know the person I’m dealing with doesn’t matter, for we all are citizens of a reasonably well-ordered wider society and need each other and, within certain limits, can trust each other. I know that, for it has been drilled into me from my earliest childhood–but I forget, until I come to the island, that my tolerance for strangers is learned behavior, not innate. And I forget, until I come to the island, that I pay a subtle price for this constant interaction with strangers, a price measured in my lost serenity.

* * *

What is this extraordinary capacity to recognize or not recognize other individuals, this instinct for distinguishing between members of a person’s own in-group and outsiders? How basic is it, and how thoroughly does it permeate modern social behavior? Is it a GOOD THING or is it a BAD THING? Let’s take a look.

We know that this instinct is pretty basic, for it is found in one form or another in many other animals. Ants and bees don’t just recognize other ants and bees, they discriminate between members of their own group and outsiders. As Ernst Mayr says, in ‘This is Biology’, “That social animals have a remarkable ability to recognize and favor their relatives is emphasized by Darwin…How well developed this sensing of relationship is in certain animals has been excellently documented experimentally….” But no other animal does its recognition thing as subtly and comprehensively as we do. We not only can spot “outsiders” at a glance, we can distinguish between many different kinds of “insiders,” from close family to passing acquaintances, using language clues as well as the more basic visual ones. In this as in other ways, our ancestors have taken a basic feature of their animal nature and fashioned out of it a unique, complex new thing that is an essential attribute of human nature.

Darwinism has helped us think about this sort of issue. Instead of just saying God created mankind this way, and letting it go at that, we now ask ourselves why? what adaptive purpose did this remarkably fine-tuned asset serve, during that long incubation period of the Paleolithic when human nature was forged? And having answered that question, we can go on to analyse what has happened to that instinct in more modern times, and ask ourselves a new question, namely whether the “friend or foe?” instinct is still useful, and what if anything we should do to try to shape it so that it more adequately suits our purposes.

* * *

Let’s start at the beginning. Humans slowly developed new capabilities, notably a capacity for language, and with it this new and heightened ability to distinguish fellow-members of the extended tribe from outsiders. This evolution was partly cultural and partly genetic. There was mutual feedback: the individuals more gifted genetically for complex social behavior within the group were the most likely to get the mates they desired. Pretty soon we had become unlike all other mammals, and developed coherent social groups that by competing with each other could introduce a new and exciting factor into the evolutionary scheme: the competition of ideas, whether expressed as organization or doctrine or religion or whatever–in a word, culture. Agriculture created denser populations and culture exploded as the defining principle of intergroup competition. One thing led to another and here we are. All based on not only language but this extraordinary human faculty for distinguishing between people we know and others. In a word, recognition. It’s as much a distinguishing feature of the human condition as one’s innate ability to learn languages and other aspects of one’s “native” culture.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s useful to be able to recognize people I already relate to, and distinguish them from strangers, It avoids embarrassment and saves time. And within the category of people I recognize, I find it very useful to be able to tell family from close friends from casual acquaintances from the lady at the checkout counter and so forth. This is all part of being human. It is as much a part of us as being able to talk to each other. It ‘s an essential part of our human nature, like speech and sex and a sense of right and wrong.

But there are two halves to this discussion, the other being this atavistic sense of wariness when dealing with strangers. I don’t find it either useful or comfortable. I wish I could be just as serene wandering around lower Manhattan as I quickly become on Haskell Island. I don’t need to be on my guard these days, in these highly organized, totally peaceful United States of America.

Or do I? Are there not parts of the world, and even parts of the USA, where a certain sense of wariness is still necessary? Maybe the answer to my conundrum is that we still have a way to go before we achieve a global society where this atavistic wariness in the presence of strangers will have become totally dysfunctional. Maybe this wariness, that is still embedded in our psyches like a kind of social appendix, will go away when we have achieved such a society. Maybe until that time it can still serve a useful purpose, reminding us of how far we have come, and how far we still have to go..

Carl Coon 8/18-25/00.

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