Evolution, and science in general, seems to have taken a back seat to the ongoing financial crisis. However, evolution helps us to understand the current crisis a little bit better--in particular, the evolution of human behavior.
The New York Times reported that Northern Trust of Chicago had received over a billion dollars in federal bailout money in late 2008. On the weekend of February 14, this corporation treated its top executives to a weekend in Los Angeles that included posh hotel rooms, expensive food, and performances by top entertainers. This was, of course, after President Obama had issued an executive order that placed strict limits on executive compensation and perks for banks that received taxpayer money. What was Northern Trust's response to this? They claimed in effect that they had not actually asked for any bailout money, but the feds had given it to them anyway, so they could spend it any way they blankety-blank pleased.
This example of selfishness is an outrageous insult to the American people. And the people of America and the world are quite aware of it. A European poll, published today by the New York Times, indicated that the only people that have less respect than bankers are prostitutes and convicted felons.
So what does evolution have to do with this?
One of the universal human traits, that all genetic lineages of people in the world have inherited from our common African ancestral population, is altruism. Having a conscience, doing good things for other people, and enjoying it, is a fundamental trait of the human mind. Altruism has enhanced the success of individuals and tribes that practice it, to the extent that non-altruistic evolutionary lineages have become extinct.
And many bank executives seem to have absolutely no concept of altruism or conscience. This means that they are outside of the range of universal human behavior. They are, in psychological terms, a different species, like Klingons, if such existed. The rest of us feel no human bond, or even an animal camaraderie, with them. I react to these bank executives as if they were tapeworms digging their abominable scolexes into the rectum of the nation. (I refer to the top executives who have made the decisions, not to the mid-level executives or to the ordinary employees, who do not get bonuses and are the ones that get laid off. I know some of them and they are quite within the realm of human altruism.)
Today's New York Times also reported that Bernard Madoff had pillaged the entire life savings and charitable funds of Elie Wiesel, the humanitarian and Holocaust survivor. It almost seems as if bankers and investment managers are trying their best to suck the blood out of every good person.
As Michael Shermer explained in "The Science of Good and Evil," humans are altruistic, and it feels good to be good. This is a natural result of evolution. Humans who do not fit this pattern are psychopaths and, I would say, not even members of our species.