The evolution of the Hero

Human beings are biologically prehistoric creatures living in a technologically advanced world. Once you understand this, you can understand a lot about human behaviour and human society.

Consider, for example, the matter of sports. Popular sports are a multi-billion-dollar industry. Those individuals who possess topflight skills in popular sports such as football, basketball, running, boxing, cricket or lawn tennis, not only get huge monetary rewards, but widespread public adulation.  In the modern world, this is quite irrational. Save in extreme situations, such as war or oppression, athletes do not make any fundamental contribution to a society.

The argument that their achievements help build national pride is based on the questionable assumption that nationalism is essential for social progress. Even if that were so, it is empirically obvious that pride in your country’s sports heroes does not lead to sociopolitical benefits.

India, for example, has produced an amazing number of world-champion cricketers. Nonetheless, our country is still full of crime, ignorance and class bias. Our social and political problems have not been mitigated in any way by their careers. Having so many Olympic gold medallists did not prevent the Soviet Union from disintegrating or make its people more prosperous.  Nor has having so many top-class African-American athletes helped reduce socio-legal biases against Black people in the United States.

In any case, the behaviour and attitude of a majority of sports champions give the lie to the moral argument that sports help build character. But, as with religion, the facts have never interfered with the ordinary individual’s worship of their sporting icons. That is because, in the prehistoric world, adulation of physically superior individuals was a perfectly rational attitude.  In that world, the male who could run the fastest or the longest, or who had the quickest reflexes, or the best hand-eye co-ordination-that male was also the best hunter and/or fighter.  Such a male would inevitably attract more females, because he offered more resources and better protection for them and their offspring. That physical superiority was also a clear indicator of genetic fitness. Hence the reason Yuvraj Singh or Virat Kohli always have  gorgeous woman to play with.

The modern world has no need for hunters, and little need for fighters, but our two-million-year-old genetic programming still dictates that we should reward and respect physically gifted persons. (This is also why beauty queens receive more attention from wealthy men than female sports champions.)  The worship of God is not wired into us, but the worship of genes certainly is. That is why sports arouses a sincerer devotion than religion. And this unconscious worship of genes extends to nearly every arena of human endeavour.

So fundamental is this genetic worship that it extends even to politics. Consider the irrationality of political dynasties in the modern world. The Kennedys could have ruled the American political landscape for decades, if they didn’t keep getting killed. The Nehrus ruled even unto the third generation, and so powerful is the faith in genetic heritage in that supposedly spiritual society that even a foreigner was considered as a Congress leader merely because she was the wife of one.

Yet, as with genius, the qualities that make one man an effective political leader do not necessarily extend to his children.  In fact, the history of politics show that they hardly ever do. That is because, as with genius, political skills are vested in temperament rather than genetic superiority.  But, in our prehistoric days, a band’s leader would most likely have been a physically superior individual whose offspring would be most likely to inherit his physical advantages. It thus made sense for leadership to be inherited in that primitive environment.

But, by the same token, it makes no sense for leadership to be inherited in the modern world. Yet so powerful is our unconscious faith in “blood” that leaders from ancient Egypt to feudal Europe bred with their own relatives to keep power within the immediate gene pool.  In the 21st century, most societies have become too complex for the simplistic logic of genetic heritage to solely influence political realities.  But this does not mean genetic logic is not still strongly at work: here in India, politics is still largely controlled by those trivial genes which determine nose shape, hair texture, and skin complexion.

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