Friday, May 23, 2014

Cortes and Justice in New Spain

Nicholas Wade, in The Faith Instinct, How Religion evolved and why it Endures, in the early part argues that certain species of primates (perhaps all of them) had a sense of justice and not just this sense but many others which those who argued (and still argue) that we inherited nothing of this nature from our more primitive ancestors. At location, 518, Wade writes, “Darwin wrote that “To do good unto others— to do unto others as ye would they should do unto you— is the foundation-stone of morality.” A man who sacrificed his life following this principle would be widely admired and inspire valor in other members of his tribe. “He might thus do far more good to his tribe than by begetting offspring with a tendency to inherit his own high character,” Darwin wrote. The second part of Darwin’s answer raised an issue now known as group selection, the idea that genes can become more common if they confer a benefit on groups of people rather than just individuals. Darwin did not know of the existence of genes, so could not have formulated the problem to himself in those specific terms. Nonetheless, he described a process which, if it occurs, shows immediately how the genes underlying morality and other aspects of human sociality could have become common.

“But Darwin’s insight was dismissed for more than a century because of several intellectual blinders that have begun to fall only in recent years.

“First, people did not want to abandon the idea that morality is the bright line that separates people from animals . Darwin’s idea that there was a continuum of the social instincts from social animals to man cut right through that line. Even biologists didn’t like the idea that morality had been shaped by natural selection. If morality had a genetic basis, it must have arisen as an unintended by-product of some other process, they argued. “I account for morality as an accidental capability produced, in its boundless stupidity, by a biological process that is normally opposed to the expression of such a capability,” wrote George Williams, a leading evolutionary biologist, in 1988. 24 Second, the idea that natural selection works at the level of groups has been rejected by most evolutionary biologists , largely under the influence of George Williams. . . .” [Wade, Nicholas (2009-10-27). The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures (Kindle Locations 523-538). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.]

“Darwin’s thesis about the evolution of morality raises a seriously disturbing possibility. He is saying that morality, viewed by some as man’s noblest achievement, arose from warfare, the least noble, and that the brisker the pace of warfare the more rapidly would morality have blossomed. This suggests that people were highly aggressive in the distant past, an implication that has raised a third mental block. Many social scientists are reluctant to believe that people were more violent in the past than they are today. Archaeologists, seeking to avoid glorification of war, have contrasted the carnage of modern wars to the peaceable behavior of human foragers before agriculture and the birth of cities. Only recently has a careful survey shown how constant and merciless was the warfare between pre-state societies, much of it aimed at annihilating the opponent.

“A fourth obstacle to understanding the evolutionary nature of morality has been the insistence by researchers who study animal behavior that it was fallacious to attribute complex emotions to them, especially positive ones. The primatologist Frans de Waal reports that in his studies of peacemaking among chimpanzees he was instructed to use dehumanized language. A reconciliation, sealed with a kiss, had to be described as a “post-conflict interaction involving mouth-to-mouth contact.” 27 Given the evolutionary closeness of humans and chimpanzees, de Waal considered that the two species were likely to have similar emotions. Excessive fear of anthropomorphism had long stifled research on animal emotions, in his view. It also prevented biologists from acknowledging the continuum of social instincts that Darwin recognized between social animals and people.

“After decades of neglect because of these various intellectual road-blocks, the evolutionary origin of morality has been slowly resurrected as a fit subject of research. . . .” [Wade Kindle Locations 541-556]

So when Cortes treated the Amerindians he conquered with fairness, even to the point of prohibiting the abusive acts of Motecusuma’s tax gatherers, they responded to him. He made converts amongst them as much by his acts of justice as he did through the military prowess of his conquistadores. And when a political rival sends a superior force to New Spain to put Cortes in jail, Diaz is at pains to tell us that while Cortes behaved with fairness and justice, the commander of the opposing Spanish army, Narvaez, was unfair and unjust: Before the battle against the superior forces of Narvaez, Cortez speaks to his soldiers, first reminding them of all the hardships they endured and then saying, “. . . and now, after we have undergone all this, Pamfilo Narvaez comes tearing along, like a mad dog, to destroy us all; calls us villains and traitors, and makes disclosures to Motecusuma, not like a prudent general, but with the spirit of a rebel; he has even presumed to throw one of the emperor's auditors into chains—of itself a criminal act; and to sum up, has declared a war of extermination against us, just as if we had been a troop of Moors." Upon this Cortes launched out in praise of the courage we had shown in every battle: "Up to this moment," he continued, "we have fought to defend our lives, but now we shall have to fight valiantly for our lives and our honour. Our enemies have nothing less in contemplation than to take us all prisoners, and rob us of our property. No one could tell whether Narvaez was commissioned by the emperor himself; all this was merely done at the instigation of our most deadly enemy, the bishop of Burgos. If we were subdued by Narvaez, which God forbid, all the services we had rendered to the Almighty and our emperor would be construed into as many crimes. An investigation would be set on foot against us, and we should be accused of murder, of rapine, and of having revolutionised the country, though the real guilty person would be Narvaez; and the things which would be considered meritorious in him would be construed as criminal in us. As all this must be evident to you," said Cortes, in conclusion, "and we, as honest cavaliers, are bound to defend the honour of his imperial majesty, as well as our own, and all our property, I have marched out from Mexico, reposing my trust in God and your assistance, to bid defiance to such injustice." [Diaz, Kindle locations 6540-6552]

As we might expect Diaz goes on to write that “Several of our officers and soldiers then answered, in the name of the rest, that he might rely upon our determination either to conquer or to die.” [Diaz, Kindle location 6553]

After Cortes and his small force defeated Narvaez and his much larger force, “Daylight in the meantime had broken forth . . . and the drummers and pipers of Narvaez's corps, without instructions from Cortes or from anyone else, suddenly sounded their instruments, and cried out, "Long live these brave Romans, who, though small in numbers, have gained the victory over Narvaez and his troops!" And another merry-making fellow, called Guidela, a negro, cried out at the top of his voice, "Hark ye! the Romans themselves could never boast of so brilliant a victory as this!" [Diaz,Kindle Locations 6655-6659]

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