Friday, May 2, 2014

My pet ladybug, and what makes us human

As a card-carrying member of the "eek, it's a bug" club, I can't believe I'm keeping a pet ladybug in my kitchen.  It's pretty cute, right?

It's been crawling around my windowsill for a couple of days.  I intended to take it outside when I got a chance, but then forgot.  Yesterday I found it wading in a splash of water at the bottom of my sink.  I scooped it with a paper towel and put it in the sun to dry.  Last night I pulled it out of the sink drain, afraid it would drown.  This morning I was taking photos of it!

Now, if I saw an ant crawling on my kitchen counter, I would not think it was cute.  I'd escort it out of the house immediately, scrub and vacuum the kitchen, and jump nervously all day at the tiniest speck I might imagine to be an insect in the house.  Let's not even talk about what I'd do if there was a cockroach in my kitchen- the national guard would probably get involved, let's leave it at that.

Why do I have such a different reaction to a ladybug than I would to another insect in my kitchen?  After all, an ant and a ladybug both have six legs, are teeny tiny, and crawl about in places I'd rather they didn't.

I can find a rational explanation for the difference.  Ants exhibit different behavior than ladybugs.  Ants have a hive mentality, and once they find a source of food in my kitchen they will come back in droves to invade.  So when I see an ant I'm immediately afraid it will bring the whole hive to my place for a pantry feast.  Ladybugs don't do that.  

While this is true, I don't think it fully explains the disgust with which I dash from the house to shake an ant from the dust pan, versus the way I tenderly dried my pet ladybug with a paper towel.  The thought of an ant crawling on my skin causes intense revulsion.  I picked up my ladybug with my bare hands.

My different reaction to the ant and ladybug comes from the fact that I find ladybugs cute, and I find ants disgusting.

I'm reading a fantastic book right now called Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them by Joshua Greene.  The chapter I happen to be reading is talking about emotion.  Greene makes a rough analogy linking emotion to "automatic" behavior, like the automatic settings on a digital camera.  He likens reason to the manual setting on a digital camera.

The idea is that as human beings we have two sets of tools to deal with any situation.  One tool is reason,  thinking logically through the pros and cons to determine an appropriate response.  My explanation about lady bugs being less of a problem in the kitchen than hive-mentality ants is an example of "manual" reasoning.

Sometimes an automatic reaction run by our emotions or "gut feelings" is the more efficient way to deal with a situation.  If a bee lands on my arm I'm going to feel afraid and flinch- I wouldn't even think about it.  Spoiled milk smells disgusting and I don't need any analysis to know not to drink it.  We need automatic responses that don't require too much discursive thinking so that we can put one foot in front of the other and get through our day.  And when we have all day to think, reasoning can take us only so far before we get down to what is good, and realizing that what is good differs from culture to culture and person to person.  It isn't possible to root out all emotion.

But what happens when our emotional responses lead us astray?  For one thing, emotional auto-responses work better at avoiding short-term threats than they do at planning long-term well-being. And emotions that might have protected us in a certain extinct context can cause us to make just plain bad decisions in our actual lives.  Misleading emotions can get codified into attitudes that form the moral fabric of an entire community and infect everyone with fear.  I only need recall a childhood memory, being pulled out of line by an elderly family member who was afraid of the African American family behind us, for a sobering example of how fear can cause harm instead of protecting us from it.

I think what makes us human isn't just our ability to reason, but our ability to negotiate between emotional auto-pilot and manual reasoning control.  How do we know when to go with our gut, or when to stop and think?  Which emotions are keeping us safe, and which are limiting us?  What about the emotions that are useful in some situations, and harmful in others?  And where did those emotions come from- our own experience, the influence of our community, our genetic inheritance?  Paying attention to what we do and why, trying to answer those questions, is the most difficult and important job we have as human beings.  The only way I can think of to get better at it, is to practice paying attention to my reactions and where they came from, day in and day out, from big, important decisions, down to the little ladybug on my counter.

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