In my previous post, I said that the medical staff who delivered me via caesarean section were not just doing a job of work; they saw me as kindred and brought me into the world. This will strike no one as surprising because we are all familiar with the concept of compassion, but we perhaps overlook its origins. An evolutionary biologist might tell us that as we evolved into a sentient species capable of sophisticated abstract thought, we recognised that our prospects for survival would be improved if we worked together and helped one another. Thus we could say that our global population of over seven billion is a triumph of reciprocal altruism, but that is a rather sterile way to look at something profound.
Our abstract thinking allows us to place ourselves in a wider context, and it gives us a sense of scale. The universe is vast and we are miniscule, and that is the scariest thought of all. The only certainties about the universe are its mysteries: why it exists, why we are in it, and why we can see ourselves in it. These are the grand certainties, but within them lies a simple one: we only have each other. We can gaze all night at the cosmos, but it will give us no warmth – only another person can do that. Only our kin can sustain us because they give us our shared life.
A sense of scale is not only daunting when applied to the extent of the cosmos. It can pose us a challenge when applied to the extent of humanity. Against the vastness and mysteries of the universe, we find warmth in those closest to us: our kin. We know them and they know us, so we extend them the same consideration as we do to ourselves, and the same can be said of our true friends. We would make sacrifices for them and endure pain if necessary in order to safeguard their welfare, safe in the knowledge they would do the same for us. These bonds of kinship sustain us at times when we are below our best; they help us to face our fears and rally us to stand tall again.
For the earliest human communities, the welfare of a tribe containing a few extended families was all that mattered in a collective struggle against an unforgiving world. Other tribes were potential competition and not to be wholly trusted, so the members of your tribe were your only kin, which restricted the matter of mutual consideration to a manageable scale.
It is difficult to see seven billion people as one tribe, and in many ways we fall well short of that achievement, yet we can still call ourselves a global community, but only if we choose to do so. There lies the challenge. Why should we attempt to see distant strangers as equivalent to those closest to us? What do we gain from that? It is difficult to see any benefit from adhering to such an abstract idea, but our greatest advances as a species have come from our ability to create abstractions and develop them into something tangible. Both science and religion do this; the former provides material benefits that increase life expectancy and decrease the scale of the world; the latter provides a moral anchor, presented in various cultural narratives that promote a sense of union and compassion in those who choose to listen.
Abstract thinking has allowed us to extend our scope and expand our compassion, and we have all benefited from the enlargement of our sense of kin, whether manifested as warm-hearted charity or cool-headed trade. The further we look, the more we see of each other and of ourselves. So, seeing distant strangers as your kin and paying heed to how our choices will impact on their lives is not an unreasonable thing to ask. It is not a stretch because it is just a continuation of the same abstract thinking that has carried us so far already.
Your kin are not defined by family or locality. Your kin are who you say they are, and the further you choose to look, the more kin you will have, so the more warmth you will have against the cold mysteries of existence. The mutual warmth of humanity is the only thing that can sustain us, so we should never limit our scope.