Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt at UVA offers insights in today’s New York Times into the celebrations surrounding the killing of Osama bin Laden. Does joyous revelry indicate that vengeance is the motive for these reactions? Haidt says no:
For the last 50 years, many evolutionary biologists have told us that we are little different from other primates — we’re selfish creatures, able to act altruistically only when it will benefit our kin or our future selves. But in the last few years there’s been a growing recognition that humans, far more than other primates, were shaped by natural selection acting at two different levels simultaneously. There’s the lower level at which individuals compete relentlessly with other individuals within their own groups. This competition rewards selfishness.
But there’s also a higher level at which groups compete with other groups. This competition favors groups that can best come together and act as one. Only a few species have found a way to do this. Bees, ants and termites are the best examples. Their brains and bodies are specialized for working as a team to accomplish nearly miraculous feats of cooperation like hive construction and group defense.
Early humans found ways to come together as well, but for us unity is a fragile and temporary state.
What Haidt doesn’t say is how Adam Smith’s theory of unsocial behavior (hatred, resentment) leads to human institutions of justice. In that context, the bringing to account a mass attacker of civilians provokes feelings not so much of unity as of satisfied revenge. Still, Haidt’s point is a good one—that a complex psychology of feelings and instincts is at times contradictory—and a better account and predictor of human behavior needs to be nuanced.