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Education For Sanity

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Never has it seemed more important for the youth of this nation to view social change as something conceivable and within their grasp. Unfortunately, what little guidance they receive tends to come largely from political leaders who base appeals for activism on unfounded assumptions concerning human nature.   The Right assumes mankind to be virtually incapable of forming a true global community, while the Left assumes that conservatives themselves constitute the main impediment to this occurring. What follows is an attempt to formulate a more rational basis for citizen participation in social process, beginning with a careful examination of who we really are.

PART I: Debunking myths about human nature

1 uncontrolled savagery does not define us

Contrary to some popular belief, most of us are not fundamentally savage.  But we are also not biologically or socially inclined to care deeply about all people and all creatures.  We are hard-wired for altruism,  but on a  limited scale that includes  loved ones and friends,  kith and kin -- an in-group. Altruism towards out-groupers only kicks in when we perceive a pragmatic need for it.     In order for us to become universally humane this awareness must  assume the highest priority among us.  People must first understand logically why expanded altruism enhances survival and then integrate their inferences emotionally. 


If some are further advanced along this “evolutionary” highway than others, each of us possesses the  capacity to embark upon it.  The history of our species is the history of a creature bereft of instinct, but one driven through reason to discover useful, need-fulfilling strategies.   No instinct compelled human groups to love culturally distant neighbors.  Genetically hardwired tools did, however, enable them to recognize environmental patterns that impacted their survival.  This included patterns indicating that an out-group’s power might spell trouble.  One could negotiate and cooperate with adversaries as well as fight or flee  them.  The ability to select rationally from coping strategies rather than gut-level emotionally to react,  was  a genetically endowed capacity maximally developed  among our species.  It  grew when we suffered the consequences of strategies that didn’t work well.  We could expand our definition of who belonged in our in-group, of who merited compassion, when we learned that our own survival was enhanced as a result.  Witness how American feelings toward Russians have changed since the end of the Cold War...


Psychologists view peoples’ ability to expand in-group embrasure to include outsiders as an advanced adaptive strategy; one that engages us emotionally as well as cognitively. We think, feel and behave differently when we do it.  It begins, however, at the cognitive level, which is why education is the proper motivator for change.


Let us now look at little more deeply at how we have come to be the way we are, and why we might be able to change.


2 Irrationality does not define us

Given how natural selection works, it was only predictable that Earth's top predator would possess precisely our penchant for ruthlessness.  Ample evidence testifies that more efficiently than any predator homo sapiens minimized out-group competition for essential resources.  Unlike other predators, weaker people often found ways to become stronger and overcome decimation or repression.  They all to often created environmental havoc in the process.  Based on this evidence alone, our intra-species dance of death might seem destined to engulf the entire planet.  Instinct provides us little protection from the self-destructive ramifications of our intelligence.  The near substitution of reason for instinct would seem to have made us both the king of predators and an ecological disaster all at once.


Fortunately, other evidence indicates that we are not intransigently bound to such behavior.  As technology advances, our ability to perceive complex  patterns and trends increases.  The very intellectual coldness that allows us to kill without mercy also allows us to perceive waste and warfare as inimical to our long term survival. Recent work in neuro-psychology  reveals how reason and emotion interact to define our adaptive capabilities.  Thus, we behave more cruelly than lions or wolves, but we behave more adaptively as well.  Lions and wolves kill only when hungry, not out of anger or sadism.  However, when still unsatiated they cannot opt to kill fewer prey.  Not even when reason would indicate the wisdom of such a course in order to ensure a future food supply.  Our application of reason under such circumstances constitutes a genetically motivated urging. It is a much more deeply imbedded compulsion than most people think of when they imagine a process of cognitive choosing. Whether or not human groups make functional enough, foresightful enough decisions at any given time, we have the unique capacity to do so.  More importantly, we have the ability to evolve in this capacity.  It would seem, therefore, that we do possess some protective instinctive equipment. 

 3 Altruism is not an anomaly

Anthropology tells us that natural selection “directed” homo sapiens sapiens  to prioritize empathetic altruism among in-groups. The best explanation for why we have such a big brain is that it allows us to form large in-groups -- of around a hundred and fifty peers (termite and ant colonies are much larger of course, but they lack our flexibility).  Chimpanzees can manage in-groups of about fifty.  Hominids are not the only creatures capable of altruism.  Many birds and mammals (but not reptiles) apparently self-sacrifice for fellow creatures.  Altruism can preserve group integrity; which enhances the propagation of species genes; which is how natural selection works.

Within  in-groups people learn that kindness pays off.  Our personal and collective security is enhanced  when we individually restrain and modify powerful drives generated by the most ancient and primitive segment of our brain.  The old brain, called the  R-complex, or sometimes reptilian brain, because we inherited it from them, urges us to simplify life to the max: to  kill out of craving or anger, to flee out of fear, to procreate when driven by lust.  A newer, but still very old brain segment, the limbic system, provides more subtle and more complex emotions: sadness, desire, joy, love etc.  The youngest part of our brain, the neocortex,  makes us unique.  It is, essentially, the seat of reason and competes with the R-complex in determining how we deal with feelings generated by the limbic system. Only our nearest relatives, the great apes, join us in employing  spindle cells, the special neurological equipment that enables the neo-cortex to trump  powerful R-complex urges. This tool allows a creature to prioritize rational strategizing over non-rational reaction.  But great apes possess this skill in tiny measure compared to us.  Alone among earth's creatures, we possess the capacity to self-regulate emotions and behavior to a significant degree. When we do it right, we feel self-actualized. Therefore, ironically perhaps, it appears that we are strongest as a species when we strive to be happy rather than merely safe.


Cutting edge work in psychology suggests that while the neo-cortex probably cannot truly control limbic reactions to stimuli, it can influence them.  When we consciously perceive the consequences of emotion driven reactions, thoughtfully commit to behaving other than our emotions dictate, and engage in a dynamic interactive process involving “mirroring,” we actually develop new feelings that gel with our new behavior. Whether the old feelings are eliminated or only masked and rendered ineffectual is not clearly understood.  In any event, people who behave with great prejudice toward another group not only can change their behaviors, but often their feelings as well.  This is what happened following the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960s.  As people grasped the inconceivability of nuclear warfare, and learned more about Russians as people, their verbal stance toward Russians changed, and gradually their negative feelings dissipated as well.  U.S. citizens today no longer fear and hate Russians as they did during the 1950s, and probably never will again.

Neuroscience remains a pioneering field, however, and a full understanding of how R-complex impulses and neo-cortexical strategizing interact to frame human behavior remains sketchy.   Nevertheless,  theories predicting humans’ neo-cortexical ability to grow and mature emotionally and culturally as well as individually, are now more solidly based on empirical evidence than the belief that man is intransigently savage (the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, and to some degree Freud as well, visualized man as hopelessly enslaved to primitive drives and emotions).  It would seem that no fundamental drives doom us to treat one another monstrously if we choose not to do so.

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Since receiving his doctorate in sociology in 1968, David Weiner has worked as an educator, community organizer, corporate recruiter and trainer and management consultant. The first two of these pursuits have paid the least and been the most (more...)
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