Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Education for Sanity and a Reason for Hope

Interesting read from colleague David Weiner here in Austin. -Angela

This is my hypothesis for hopefullness.


Education for Sanity and a Reason for Hope

David Weiner
July 21, 2007

We can't save the world with hype and hyperbole -- religious,
ethical, political or otherwise. We can only save the world through
education. Here's why.



Contrary to popular belief, most of us are neither biologically nor 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, all of us, possess the unique capacity to embark upon it. The history of our species is the history of a creature bereft of instinct, but driven to discover useful strategies to fill its needs. Though no instinct compelled humans to love their culturally distant neighbors, genetic tools did compel us to recognize environmental patterns impacting our survival -- including patterns indicating that an out-group’s power may spell trouble. We could negotiate and cooperate with adversaries as well as fight or flee from them. This ability rationally to select among 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 thus enhanced..

Psychologists recognize the ability to embrace people outside of our in-groups to be an advanced adaptive strategy, engaging 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.


It was only predictable, given how natural selection works, that homo sapiens sapiens, Earth's eventual top predator would possess precisely our penchant for ruthlessness. Archeology reveals how like other predators humans have always strived to eliminate out-group competition for essential resources. Whether tribes or nations, our forbears removed or enslaved weaker competitors, and negotiated only when they had to. When weaker, people have found ways to become stronger and overcome repression, often creating environmental havoc in the process. Based on this evidence alone, our intra-species dance of death may seem destined to engulf the entire planet, instinct providing 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 behave in such fashion. 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 practices inimical to our long term survival. Recent work in neuro-psychology reveals how reason and emotion interact to define our adaptive capabilities. Thus, we can behave more cruelly than other predators, such as lions, but we behave more adaptively as well. Lions kill only when hungry, not out of anger or sadism. However, when still unsatiated they cannot opt to kill fewer Wildebeests, 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, not merely a 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. As it turns out, it would seem that we do possess some protective instinctive equipment.

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) have been observed to self-sacrifice for fellow creatures. Altruism can preserve group integrity; which enhances the propagation of species genes; which is how natural selection works.

Within our in-groups we 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 filled with lust. A newer, but still very old brain segment, the limbic system, provides more complex emotions: sadness, desire, joy, love etc. The youngest part of our brain, the part that makes us unique, is called the neocortex. 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, appear to possess the special neurological equipment, called spindle cells, that enables the neo-cortex to trump powerful R-complex urges ; to prioritize rational strategizing over non-rational reaction. But great apes possess this skill in tiny measure compared 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.

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 our neo-cortexical ability to grow and mature emotionally, 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). No fundamental drives doom us to treat one another monstrously if we choose not to do so.


Neanderthals, and other homo sapiens too much governed by the primitive parts of their brains, succumbed to homo sapiens sapiens in the race for natural selection's brass ring. We beat them out in the evolutionary struggle for dominance largely because of our greater ability to behave altruistically, resulting in the greater functionality of our in-groups. As a result of this competence, we have become our own greatest threat. Humans now have the ability to globally self-destruct, taking most of life on the planet with us. No evidence indicates that our capacity to universalize social altruism constitutes more than a hypothesis, however evidence does exist that when warfare posed a lose-lose proposition our ancestor adeptly formed new combinations ­ across in-groups.

Anthropologists tell us that if horses, dogs, goats and pigs had existed in the Neolithic Western hemisphere as well as in Eurasia, or if life had been as difficult in Eurasia as it was on most of the planet, global conflict might be far less extreme than at present. Eurasians became immune to the diseases spread by the animals that made them prosperous. Agriculture came easily, and hard metals for weapons were plentiful. Communities quickly over-populated. Horses were plentiful and warfare became a useful strategy for finding new territories to exploit. When Eurasian warrior hordes used up the human and natural resources of a region they simply moved on.

In the Western Hemisphere things were different. Life was hard, and it took great concentration to eke a decent living out of unfertile plains, un-nourishing jungles, and arid mountains. In Meson-America, occasional conquering tribes often starved to death trying to rebuild what they had destroyed. Aztecs did indeed practice horrible cruelties, as did other empires of the Western Hemisphere from time to time. Nevertheless, Aztecs, Incans, Mayans, Toltecs, and Olmecs among many others invented methods of city and regional planning, of political coordination, and social integration far beyond anything witnessed in Europe. They were masters of genetic engineering before Mendel, created maize (not discovered it, as is commonly thought), transformed the Amazon forests into plentiful gardens and much more. European writers understood none of this, describing Indians as noble savages living effortlessly off of nature's bounty. In North America, the constant migration of tribes southward from the Bering Straits created ripe conditions for perpetual warfare. A growing literature reveals how among the great Indian confederations, such as the Iroquois, warfare was rare and highly controlled.

If Europeans were fine warriors and poor negotiators, it wasn't their military skills that brought the New World to its knees in the fifteenth century. It was the diseases they brought with them. The many millions thriving in North and South America lacked immunity and their devastation was beyond measure.. Guns and swords only briefly provided the Spaniards some advantage, and then mainly when they wielded them from horseback. With the invention of the bolo (a weapon made by attaching two balls to the ends of two ropes bound at one end, and then whirled and thrown at an animal's legs) even this advantage evaporated.

But for the diseases, the clash of European and American cultures might have moved quickly beyond conflict to an entirely new kind of cooperative society. The vision of just such a renaissance motivated Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson to borrow from the Iroquois in attempting to fashion models for their own peers to consider, with all too limited success..


How does this basic information concerning who we are and might conceivably become apply to what is happening today? Does a world of perpetually clashing civilizations not seem more inevitable now than ever? The United States, arguably the world's most powerful aggressor ever, apparently assumes this to be the case. In order to survive in a world of gangs, or civilization size tribes according to Neocon thinking, the United States must remain the toughest gang/tribe on Earth. President Jimmy Carter’s chief Middle Eastern advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski ( in The Grand Chessboard, and his equally prestigious colleague Samuel Huntington, in The Clash of Civilizations state this thesis clearly and concisely. These works constitute cornerstones of the ideological edifice of the Right, and find extensive acceptance on the Left as well.. Within the United States, and by default everywhere given the U.S. military superiority, warfare as gang/tribe (in-group) strategy appears to be on the rise, not the decline.

Growing evidence tells us that besides seeming inhumane (and numbingly depressing to many of us), Neocon gang-warfare strategy constitutes poor reasoning. It is no longer probable, much less guaranteed, that Machiavellian policies adopted by U.S. leaders and their mirror images abroad can continue, as in the past, to guarantee in-group security. Quite apart from the awful moral and ethical implications of such behavior, the ruthless conquering and oppression of opponents without considering negotiation (thin gesturing to the contrary fooling no one) appears no longer a feasible goal. Only a thorough examination of such questions can determined whether our leaders presently operate rationally.



History tells us that while the species at large seems to operate rationally, isolated groups and individuals have not always done so. Elites in particular can easily lose their way. History tells us that power does indeed corrupt. The powerful tend to shut out news of reality in favor of what they want to hear. Witness the failure of post WWII Western powers to acknowledge Islam’s rapid modernizing trend until Brzezinski spelled it out in the 1960s, insisting in The Grand Chessboard that unless it could be halted Western economic control of the world would be in dire peril. In today's world, unfortunately, when powers-that-be bent on global conflict become socially lost, the predictable consequence is universal devastation.. Our world is so interconnected that this time the certain chaos produced by the decline of the ruling empire promises to engulf all life on the planet. Nor can we envision a simple circulation of elites, where a new, more rational if no less ruthless ruling class seamlessly replaces the old. A true clash of civilizations could well mean the end of civilization..

If addressing the question of aggression’s feasibility seems cold blooded it also seems the most rational way out of the trap of endless in-group vs out-group aggression. Because we are not innately compelled to act humanely toward “others,” we must elect to do so based upon evidence of its survival value. Because we possess the capacity to assimilate such evidence rationally, and then to integrate it emotionally, we should be able to achieve the level of moral and ethical behavior that we envision but cannot yet fully embrace. The true function of education is to ensure this logical/emotional process by enabling us to gather and analyze evidence pertaining to the question of whether warfare can any longer guarantee the survival of anyone.


In this context it would seem that the absence of debate concerning whether our nation's leaders can carry out their Machiavellian goals should be of the greatest concern. Whether or not U.S. citizens deplore their Vice President’s undisguised readiness to conquer, torture and enslave when "necessary" is indeed a crucial question, but it is not the same question. Passionately deploring the violence of leaders who can presumably keep one safe is not the same as vigorously rejecting leaders who can clearly not keep one safe. At this stage of our cultural evolution, U.S. citizens are still unlikely to challenge their leaders for being ruthless, but might well do so if they perceive them to be irrational and inept. Therefore, it is crucial to ask if our leaders can, with a reasonable degree of certainty, annihilate masses of poor Africans and Asians, and kill and oppress "expendable" Americans as well, with impunity?

The absence of this debate constitutes perhaps the strongest indication of the need for a powerful education initiative. Much of the success of the Civil Rights Movement depended upon replacing common assumptions about the biology of race with facts contradicting those assumptions. The threat of nuclear warfare was nullified worldwide as hard evidence of its devastating consequences became widespread. Predicting the inability of our leaders to prevail is counterintuitive for most people. Our leaders, and those before them have indeed prevailed, for as far back as we can recall. Subjugation of the weak by the strong has been the norm. Powerful evidence tells us that this may well no longer be true. In important ways the world has changed.

Economists inform us that the gross national products of the very group of nations most exploited by Western imperialism, the Have-Nots, has grown faster than any other economic sector. Have-Nots have increasingly demonstrated resilience, imagination and adaptive skill at dealing with imperial Haves. For decades ranking members of our own State Department and intelligence community have acknowledged Arabic peoples to be highly adept modernizers even as the public is encouraged to view Arabs as backward, religious fanatics. The Islamic Fundamentalist Movement has demonstrated a remarkable ability to manage finances electronically, to create effective combatant units operating like tiny islands connected only to a central command post, and to present well armed and powerful nations with an efficient enemy difficult if not impossible to eliminate. Like tiny-hornets, they fly too fast to be swatted and deliver lethal bites, repeatedly

History tells us that the world of warfare has always changed. In today's world, conventional warfare is passé. Today’s wars are not waged between armies and navies and air forces so much as between the former and small groups of very sophisticated guerilla fighters. No guerilla band can defeat any nation’s army or police force, but no nation’s army or police force can protect its own citizenry from being ravaged by guerillas. The tiniest, most backward village has access to the Internet, affording people detailed information about how to obtain and use biological and chemical weapons. When "little people" willing to die to deliver such weapons are managed and orchestrated by sophisticated organizations operating as easily from London, Calcutta, Buenos Aires or Los Angeles as from a foxhole in Afghanistan; and when these leaders use small forces to accomplishing their goals, not hesitating to sacrifice masses of their own people in order to create chaos amongst stationary communities surrounded by vast virtually un-policeable borders and avenues of access (our government's claims to the contrary notwithstanding); then attacks by "little people" seem likely to achieve a high degree of success. Powerful nation-states possess vastly superior arms, but the inferior weapons of the scattered riff-raff who oppose them can surely deliver socially devastating havoc.

It seems that that an outcome of modernization predictable for nearly a century has now materialized: No matter how well-armed one nation or confederation, international conflict is now a lose-lose proposition. With a high degree of probability, in the twenty-first century any population's survival depends upon the survival of all.


Daily reports from the Middle East reveal how little imagination is required to envision devastating attacks upon random schools, small towns, church picnic's and crowded streets, changing the United States into a place of fear, depression, and outrage at leaders who add to our torment in order to preserve their control. This is what U.S. citizens can rationally anticipate if we fail accurately to assess the rationality, if indeed the sanity, of our leaders. These include ­ not merely the Incumbency, but the more elusive, shadowy group who no longer earn but simply own money. The men who sit on the boards of major corporations, who manage the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who fund the great Neo/liberal Neo/conservative think tanks, and who decide which candidates We The People will be allowed to select amongst. Even as their/our government proclaims that only they can protect us from ethno-centric enemies bent upon our destruction, history firmly rejects this argument. In-groups have defined themselves based upon ethnicity, religion and ideology, but wars have been waged when people thought they could win them, or when their backs were so far to the wall they found death preferable to the life they faced. Only the insane pursue warfare likely to produce only chaos. Until this point, somehow sanity has managed to prevail in a world torn by warfare for what hopefully will turn out to be a brief period of human history.

Evidence that our government bears a rich tradition of subjugation, enslavement and the extermination of inconvenient and easily disposed of out-groupers is abundant. Evidence that those we subjugate constitute threats to our way of life is scarce. Contrary to the propaganda citizens receive, the State Department’s own chief advisors since the 1950s have characterized Arabs in particular as people eager to join us at our table of prosperity, not to replace us. They need our expertise and hope we need their labor. They seem motivated not by hatred of our lifestyle, but by optimism that they too can attain the skills of production and marketing and planning that we have achieved. Their history indicates that they are, however, as capable as we of ruthlessness, and are no less strategically adaptive. Having not occupied the seat of power for centuries, they may be less corrupt and less insane than we.. If we will not accept them, they will surely do all possible to change our minds.


Education for sanity might begin with this lesson: that social conflict is not an inevitable product of human nature. Growing evidence affirms that human conflict has more to do with social context than with genes or personality or primitive instincts and drives.

The second lesson, perhaps, might be that ethics and morality, ­ our commitment to decency, ­ constitute the most practical political basis for our continued existence. Extending the concept of in-group to include all humans, and then all beings, would seem to be a necessary, and perhaps even sufficient step toward saving the world.. At large we are wise enough, probably, to grasp and act upon these facts. Should we, on the other hand, allow power-corrupted leaders, people who seem truly ill by any reasonable definition of the term, to nullify our collective wisdom, our suicide seems predictable ­ and puzzling. It would amount to a profound and strange reversal of the adaptive driving forces of natural selection.

The third lesson might describe how change could occur. As people grasp essential facts and patterns, some of which have only come into sharp relief during the past few decades, there will surely be tipping points and groundswells and upheavals, and a new renaissance of social organization. This might include revamping high school un-history courses, creating people's media, and forming "churches" that deplore addictive religion. It also might mean selecting political candidates compelled to deal in truth whomever this might discomfit. It might mean offering people currently choosing the false safety of fascism, a real choice.


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1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:02 PM

    I read your essay on the need for Education for Sanity and completely agree with what you said. However, it seems the solutions are much too vague to be of any clear value for the general public. For instance while altruistic, your three lessons do not give much information. Lesson one: it is one thing to say that social conflict is not an inevitable product of human nature, but what do we do with that bit of information except file it away as nice to know, since we actually have known this all along and although we are currently war, in social conflict, there has been historic time where war was not happening. We are so conditioned to think it has always and constantly been with us. Lesson two: that ethics and morality, the commitment to decency is again a vague bit of advice. What do you mean? How do we enhance the public’s ethics and morality. What do these notions mean to the public-at-large. I would bet there are a million different views as to what these ideas mean. Shall we become dogmatic about what they mean? What ought we to do with the power-corrupted leaders, realistically speaking? As a population we have a political system that in order for us to stay rational, we must follow our own laws and political conventions (rules) to deal with corruption in politics. Third lesson: How shall these tipping points and groundswells and upheavals be instigated? Revamping high school history courses must be approved by school boards and state education administrations. It is not a matter of just going in and making sweeping, although altruistic, changes. Again the system gets in the way of grand progress. How long ought the process to take, our lifetime, two lifetimes?

    Education is the only way to effect the kinds of changes you are giving voice to, but it is no easy matter. Giving voice may be the first baby step, but more radical action is obviously required to light the fire for change. The No Child Left Behind Act has put a real damper on education and overcoming the incessant testing requirements does not allow much time for the winds of change to take place.