Nationalism – The Infantile Disease

I was fascinated last week to hear the news that Australian woman, Elizabeth Blackburn, had won the Nobel prize for her work in molecular biology. The work she has been doing for many years is certainly groundbreaking and the world owes a debt of gratitude to such dedicated and talented people. I applaud her, and even from my poorly informed position, the award seems richly deserved. Her research is potentially very beneficial to many of us.

But I was amused how quickly we wanted to own her as an Australian. She has spent many years overseas doing her magnificent work. Obviously it is often necessary to do this when you are an expert in a particular field. Most of us had never heard of her and I suspect you would need to be one of the elite scientists working in her area to have known anything about her. But this does not demean the greatness of her achievement.

Such an international figure may or may not think often about her Australian origins. She has obviously outgrown them and is a figure of consequence in the international scientific arena. But as soon as she is successful we want to reclaim her, make her part of the parochial nationalistic platform that our insecure little egos seem to need.

Einstein said, “Nationalism is an infantile disease, the measles of mankind.”

In this regard he was probably referring to our recent (in evolutionary terms) brain development. Indeed most animals are territorial. Reptiles make ritualistic displays in defence of their territory and after a successful defence or a successful conquest. After human wars and conquests we engage in similar displays. Even more so we engage in such displays after our team wins the final or our well-performed Olympic team returns home.

“These display activities in humans seem to signal to others who we are and what we are about. Quite literally the primal mind is territorial – my place, my rights, my entitlements, my niche in the scheme of things.” (Ashbrook and Albright) Humans, like most animals, are territorial and in such species, members, particularly males are driven to defend their territorial preserves.

Robert Ardrey in The Territorial Imperative wrote,

“this place is mine; I am of this place,” says the albatross, the patas monkey, the green sunfish, the Spaniard, the great horned owl, the wolf, the Venetian, the prairie dog, the three spined stickleback, the Scotsman, the skua, the man from La Crosse, Wisconsin, the Alsatian, the little ringed plover, the Argentine, the lungfish, the lion, the Chinook salmon, the Parisian. I am of this place which is different from and superior to all other places on earth and I partake of its identity so that I too am both different and superior, and it is something that you cannot take away from me despite all afflictions which I may suffer or where I may go or where I may die. I shall remain always and uniquely of this place.”

And so it is that this aspect of our human behaviour is not specifically “human” at all but derived from those earlier species that preceded us in the evolutionary process. We share this genetic makeup with many animal species and from them are driven a range of responses constantly used in our everyday lives. That they have had survival value cannot be questioned for the reptiles are still using such behaviour and strategies and unconsciously so are we.

So poor Elizabeth Blackburn, who most of us had never heard of until a week or so ago, is now assimilated into the ranks of famous Australians. In this way we continue to reinforce the specialness of being Australian.

Now don’t get me wrong, I feel very fortunate to be an Australian. It has brought to me such wonderful endowments as a high standard of living, democratic government, access to a good education and health services and so on. However, I cringe a little when I hear people say they are proud to be Australian. I believe I am fortunate to be Australian for the reasons just mentioned. But I could not be proud to be Australian because I had nothing to do with it – it was a mere accident of birth! If I had been born in Auckland, I would probably now be a proud New Zealander. If I had been born in Budapest I’d be a proud Hungarian. If I’d been born in Phnom Penh I’d be a proud Cambodian.

Let us see then if we can take a step beyond our parochial nationalism. Let’s acknowledge our common humanity rather than our accidental nationality. Accordingly, let us celebrate Elizabeth Blackburn’s achievements as a citizen of the world and for her significant contribution to humanity rather than the accident of birth that caused her to be Australian.

7 Replies to “Nationalism – The Infantile Disease”

  1. I’m not sure if the notion of “separateness” is worst seen in nationalism or religion. Both have been (and still are)the stimulus and fuel for hatred and wars since human kind has existed. So if “protecting our own nest” is within our evolutionary DNA then this drive must be part of what it means to be human! And so if love is the ‘dissolution of separateness’ (and in this case nationalism) and our core motive of fear is part of our genetic DNA, can we ever expect to see an end to nationalism?

  2. I agree with the concept Ted but it is hard to get past the brain we have inherited that has been systematically designed as a result of millions of year of evolution. Nationalism, defend the clan, we are better than they, has served us well for a long time and it is not likely to go away. This attitude no longer assists us pass on our DNA however it is probably not stopping us passing on our DNA either. As a result it is not likely to disappear for many many generations to come. Not bad for the world if we are proud of our scientists but not so good when we want to pursecute those different to us because they may pose a threat. Another outdated concept that is not likely to disappear any time soon.

  3. Anne it was great to hear from you! I hope to see your opinions more frequently on my blog site.

    Edward and David, you are both astute commentators. Perhaps there is some cause for optimism. My previous blog Empathy, Evolution and Spirituality give some reasons why,

  4. Justice Andrew Greenwood e-mailed me re this blog. He has agreed that I could reproduce his comments which I have posted below.

    Thanks for the reference to your Blog, Ted. I too noted the extent to which the press reports gave emphasis to the Australian nationality of Elizabeth Blackburn nothwithstanding that she has been working in the US since 1978. In one sense that emphasis is natural and all of take pride in achievements of that quality. Perhaps the reports of her work in the US and her departure from Australia to pursue work of international scale in a properly funded way as early as 1978 says more about our commitment to research and excellence in our major institutions and the commitment of Governments to try and retain talented people, than we would wish to recognise.
    I agree that the vision you have of a country or a people or fundamental values is, in part, a function of the horizon you look to and we need to look beyond our own shores and boundaries to frame our views about those things.
    Best Regards,
    Andrew Greenwood
    Justice Andrew Greenwood | Federal Court of Australia

  5. Hello Ted. I was surprised by your reference to ‘The Territorial Imperative’ by Robert Ardrey. I found a copy of the book whilst filling in time in a little second hand book shop in Darwin many years ago and until now have never heard anyone else mention it. I remember being impressed by his detailed observations of animal behaviours and how he showed parallel behaviours in humans. When I observe the local wildlife (particularly the magpies and the currawongs) of an afternoon, I am often reminded of a description in the book of how two troupes of monkeys would make animated and sometimes quarrelsome border displays in the mornings and the evenings and then, by and large go about the rest of the day without much attention to border demarcation at all.

    It seems that as humans we only have to draw a line in the sand or put up a fence and we can create an object of patriotism for dispute. Local football team prejudices are quickly put aside when the competition is national and equally any Maroon or Blue’s grievances are forgotten when the green and gold jerseys come out. I expect if E.T. does ever visit the Earth the global patriots will just as quickly put aside their current national banners for a new ‘Humanity Only’ flag.

    If we could blame global climate change on ‘The Aliens’, I’m sure the upcoming Copenhagen talks would answer the challenges with one voice.

    Oh, and congratulations to Elizabeth Blackburn also.

  6. Ted/Bruce,

    I’m as guilty as sin as being one of those human beings that likes to put lines in the sand. I’m not fiercely nationalistic but I do have a strongly imprinted sense of territoriality and protectionism and can see how those traits result in nationalism.

    Case in point – I’ve just moved into a new home and this week saw the finishing touches to the fence that demarcates my ‘territory’. I’ll now spend a lot of time getting the yard into shape and hopefully in a few years time will look at it with some pride because I’ve put my heart and soul into achieving something important to me. Probably not very rational but I can’t help myself.

    Equally I would ‘go to war’ to defend those I love, who are part of ‘my tribe’. I’ve never really stopped to examine why I feel this way. Perhaps it’s in my DNA or maybe I assimilated these values from my upbringing. Point is they are part of me and by extension, my sense of person and place leads me to feel pride in my community/location and ultimately, nation (well most of the time!).

    So sorry to disagree Ted but it’s more to me than being fortunate. By chance I’m Australian and I’m proud about that. Like all things, nationalism can be both good and bad and with all due respects to dear Einstein it doesn’t have to be a disease if we don’t make it into one.

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