As one drives through the bushveldt of East Africa it is easy to spot herds of baboons grazing on the ground. But not by looking at the ground. Instead you look up and spot the lookout, an adult male posted on a limb of a tree where he has a clear view all around him – which is why you can spot him; he has to be where he can see a leopard in time to give the alarm. On the ground a leopard can catch a baboon. but if a baboon is warned in time to reach the trees, he can out-climb a leopard. The lookout is a young male assigned to that duty and there he will stay, until the bull of the herd sends up another male to relieve him. Keep your eye on that baboon; we’ll be back to him.
Today, in the United States, it is popular among self-styled ‘intellectuals’ to sneer at patriotism. They seem to think that it is axiomatic that any civilized man is a pacifist, and they treat the military profession with contempt. ‘Warmongers’ – ‘Imperialists’ – ‘Hired killers in uniform’ – you have all heard such sneers and you will hear them again. One of their favorite quotations is: ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ What they never mention is that the man who made that sneering remark was a fat, gluttonous slob who was pursued all his life by a pathological fear of death.
I propose to prove that that baboon on watch is morally superior to that fat poltroon who made that wisecrack. Patriotism is the most practical of all human characteristics. But in the present decadent atmosphere patriots are often too shy to talk about it – as if it were something shameful or an irrational weakness. But patriotism is NOT sentimental nonsense. Nor is it something dreamed up by demagogues.
Patriotism is as necessary a part of man’s evolutionary equipment as are his eyes, as useful to the race as eyes are to the individual. A man who is NOT patriotic is an evolutionary dead end. This is not sentiment but the hardest of logic.
…We are now ready to observe the hierarchy of moral behavior from its lowest level to its highest. The simplest form of moral behavior occurs when a man or other animal fights for his own survival. Do not belittle such behavior as being merely selfish. Of course it is selfish… but selfishness is the bedrock on which all moral behavior starts and it can be immoral only when it conflicts with a higher moral imperative. An animal so poor in spirit that he won’t even fight on his own behalf is already an evolutionary dead end; the best he can do for his breed is to crawl off and die, and not pass on his defective genes.
The next higher level is to work, fight, and sometimes die for your own immediate family. This is the level at which six pounds of mother cat can be so fierce that she’ll drive off a police dog. It is the level at which a father takes a moonlighting job to keep his kids in college – and the level at which a mother or father dives into a flood to save a drowning child… and it is still moral behavior even when it fails.
The next higher level is to work, fight, and sometimes die for a group larger than the unit family – an extended family, a herd, a tribe – and take another look at that baboon on watch; he’s at that moral level. I don’t think baboon language is complex enough to permit them to discuss such abstract notions as ‘morality’ or ‘duty’ or ‘loyalty’ – but it is evident that baboons DO operate morally and DO exhibit the traits of duty and loyalty; we see them in action. Call it ‘instinct’ if you like – but remember that assigning a name to a phenomenon does not explain it.
But that baboon behavior can be explained in evolutionary terms. Evolution is a process that never stops. Baboons who fail to exhibit moral behavior do not survive; they wind up as meat for leopards. Every baboon generation has to pass this examination in moral behavior; those who bilge it don’t have progeny. Perhaps the old bull of the tribe gives lessons… but the leopard decides who graduates – and there is no appeal from his decision. We don’t have to understand the details to observe the outcome; baboons behave morally – for baboons.
The next level in moral behavior higher than that exhibited by the baboon is that in which duty and loyalty are shown toward a group of your kind too large for an individual to know all of them. We have a name for that. It is called ‘patriotism.’
— Robert Heinlein in a 1973 address to midshipmen at Annapolis