Who Are “We”????????????????Who Are
Who Are “We”????????????????“We”?

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Reflections from the Fourth of July

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”


These immortal words from Thomas Jefferson, found in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, inspired the American revolutionaries and have continued to inspire revolutionaries fighting monarchies and dictatorships around the world.  But who were the “we” that Jefferson was referring to?


The answer comes at the bottom of the Declaration, where the members of the Continental Congress signed their names as they pledged “their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor” to the cause of independence from Britain.  These men pledged themselves to the same cause, knowing that some would die, some would lose their property, while others may survive and prosper.  Rather than fighting among themselves, trying to get the best deal for their own narrow group, they defined a new “we” that included people from all 13 colonies.



Of course, the “we” they defined didn’t include everyone living in the colonies.  The Declaration only mentions men.  It also doesn’t apply to the people living in the New World long before the colonists came, nor the men and women brought to the continent against their will and forced into a lifetime of labor to others.



Twelve years later this same group adopted a Constitution that starts with the words, “We, the people …”  Once again, “we” they did not mean everyone.  The full set of rights delineated in the Constitution applied only to male settlers who owned property.  One part of the Constitution even counted slaves as three-fifths of a person, not to give them rights, but as the solution to a formula that balanced the number of elected representatives from the South, which had fewer white male property owners and many more slaves than the North.



Over two and a half centuries, this definition of “we” has gradually expanded.  Slaves received their freedom, but not full rights, at the end of the Civil War in 1865.  Women gained the right to vote in 1920.  Various ethnic groups from Europe and Asia came to the country, experienced discrimination and then assimilated into the growing “we.”  One hundred years after the end of the Civil War, Congress took the next steps in providing rights to African Americans by passing the Voting and Housing Rights Acts.



As the meaning of “we” has expanded in the US, so has our prosperity and our role in world affairs.  Becoming a quilt of many ethnicities has given the US a breadth and vibrancy that fostered unique combinations and led to innovations, inventions, and new cultural expressions.


Evolution and the Meaning of “We”


Some radical new assessments of revolutionary theory help explain why this growing definition of “we” has led to greater strength and prosperity.  The evolutionary biologist Martin Nowak and theologian Sarah Coakley worked together at Harvard on a project called “Evolution and the Theology of Cooperation.”  They assembled a team from mathematics, biology, evolutionary psychology, philosophy, ethics and theology to look at one of the central questions of evolutionary theory: “If evolution is a fierce competition between individuals that rewards selfish behavior, why does evolution so often select organisms and species that develop ever more sophisticated ways of cooperating with each other?” Think of ants and bees that have clearly defined roles, or wild animals that organize to defend the herd from attack, with the strongest animals protecting the weakest.  Think of human beings that have developed legal systems, food sources, and technology that has greatly increased lifespans and reduced human misery.


Nowak describes the importance of cooperation in evolution this way:


“The two fundamental principles of evolution are mutation and natural selection.  But evolution is constructive because of cooperation. New levels of organization evolve when the competing units on the lower level begin to cooperate.  Cooperation allows specialization and thereby promotes biological diversity.  Cooperation is the secret behind the evolutionary process.  Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of evolution is its ability to generate cooperation in a competitive world.  Thus, we might add ‘natural cooperation’ as a third fundamental principle of evolution besides mutation and natural selection.


At the very least, … evolution at significant junctures favors cooperation, costly self-sacrifice, and even forgiveness; it favors in due course a rudimentary human ethical sensibility, and thus delivers—already in the realm of the higher prehuman mammals—tendencies toward empathy, toward a desire to protect others close to one at the cost of personal risk.”




Nowak uses mathematics and game theory to show how groups with greater cooperation prevail over groups with little cooperation.  However, his calculations also show that in groups with enough noncooperators (what he calls defectors), cooperation erodes away, leaving only defectors.  This puts these groups at a severe disadvantage against groups where cooperation predominates.

Are the Defectors Winning?


At present in the United States, and in many other countries in the world, it looks like the defectors are coming out on top.  Many of our current national leaders delight in shrinking the definition of “we” while creating a growing definition of “they.”  Those who direct our nation look at cooperation as a zero-sum game.  If the other side benefits, then we must have lost.  The ones elected to power blame groups from a different heritage or with different forms of worship for all our problems.


As our definition of “we” collapses we grow weaker as a society.  We discard the very things that made us strong in the first place.  A society formed out of the need for cooperation now erodes as we break down into competing groups.  At a time when our greatest challenges are growing ever more global in scope, we are decreasing our ability to cooperate within our national boundaries, let alone across them.


The Good Samaritan by Vincent Van Gogh

Is there anything that can be done to rekindle the momentum behind cooperation?  In nations that place growing attention on defectors, will the cooperators disappear?  Nowak’s mathematical models give some guidance for us.  He shows that people who experience cooperation, who receive a benefit that comes at a cost to the person giving it, tend to reciprocate in kind.  Even more, people who witness others cooperating are more likely to cooperate themselves.


We must resist the temptation to join the defectors, to define those we disagree with as “they,” people who do not deserve our cooperation.  We must expand our definition of “we” to include people that we do not see as part of our current group.  We must take time to understand those that we consider “they” and be willing to provide them with benefits that come at a cost to us.


Our independence comes from a group of people who expanded their definition of “we” to include people they had seen as rivals before.  Over time, our country, in fits and starts, has continued to expand that definition to include groups that had been excluded at our nation’s founding.


Now we face another challenge.  Fear can lead us to forget the lessons of our past and look out only for people in our group.  But if we want to remain an independent nation that continues to grow in strength, richness, and diversity, we must continue the work begun by our founders.  We must expand our definition of “we” by finding ways to cooperate with and provide benefit to those we have excluded.

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