October 1st, 2014

From the 2002 SynEarth Archives. This is the second of a series of articles on a new mechanism for the synergic containment of adversary events. In 2002, the main villain was the Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.  In 2014, the faces of the villains have changed. Today we worry about the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Apparently “degrading and killing your enemies” does not really contain the threat of adversary events or make us safe.

This new tool from synergic science is premised on the understanding that all mistakes are caused by ignorance. We have previously discussed how that premise leads to new ways of dealing with mistakes, even when those mistakes hurt people. This morning I introduce the mechanism of synergic containment as a method of protecting children. In later articles, I will explain how it can be used to contain villains like  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi or Bashar al-Assad.

Writing in 2002:


 Synergic Containment

Begin by Protecting Children

Timothy Wilken, MD

Today our world is a dangerous place, and growing ever more dangerous. Everyday, humans are hurting and killing other humans. Mothers and fathers are beating their children. Husbands are beating and killing their wives. Rouge men are abducting and killing children. Teenage and young adult men are killing each other over the color of their clothes or the brand of shoes they wear. Life threatening violence is erupting over any act of supposed DISrespect.

Children are strapping high explosives to their bodies and detonating them in public places in desperate acts of suicide-homicide. In April of 2002, President George W. Bush said, “When an 18 year old Palestinian girl is induced to blow herself up, and in the process kills a 17 year old Israeli girl, the future, itself, is dying.

And then of course there are the armed conflicts, Peter Wallensteen of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports :

In 2001, there were 24 major armed conflicts in 22 locations. … Africa continued to be the region with the greatest number of conflicts. Worldwide, there were approximately equal numbers of contests for control of government and for territory.

In the 12-year post-cold war period 1990–2001 there were 57 different major armed conflicts in 45 different locations. … All but 3 of the major armed conflicts registered for 1990–2001 were internal—the issue concerned control over the government or territory of one state. The 3 interstate conflicts in this period were Iraq versus Kuwait, India versus Pakistan and Eritrea versus Ethiopia.

… The year 2001 was overshadowed in September by one new major conflict with qualitatively different, global characteristics which have so far proved difficult to categorize.

And now we have the War on Terrorism, the War on Afghanistan, the impending War on Iraq, and then what? The War on Iran? The War on North Korea? The War on the Philippines? The War on China? Etc.? Etc.? 

Something is very wrong in our world.

Synergic Science

As a synergic scientist, I believe that we must learn to work together. This means we must become synergic humans. Synergy means working together—operating together as in Co-Operation— laboring together as in Co-Laboration—acting together as in Co-Action. The goal of synergic union is to accomplish a larger or more difficult task than can be accomplished by individuals working separately. We are committed to a world where I win, you win, community wins and the Earth wins. Win-Win-Win-Win.
Synergic science finds there are three types of humans in our present world. Which type you are depends on what you believe about how the world works.

Adversaries believe there is not enough for everyone and only the physically strong will survive. They believe humans are coercively dependent on others, and they best understand the language of force.

Neutralists believe there is enough for everyone, if only you work hard enough and take care of yourself. They believe humans are financially independent and should be self-sufficient unless they are too lazy or defective. They best understand the language of money.

And, finally a new type of human is still emerging. Synergists believe there is enough for everyone but only if we work together and act responsibly. They believe humans are interdependent and can only obtain sufficiency by working together as community. Synergists best understand the language of love.

But, to be successful in our present world, the synergist must understand all three languages and know when to use them. Synergists must sometimes use the language of force, and sometimes the language of money, it depends on whom they are talking to. However, when synergists are seeking allies—when synergists are seeking to build community—they must speak the language of love.

We believe that you should, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”What is it that most of us want others to do unto us? Synergic scientists answer this question as follows: Help and support others as you would wish them to help and support you.  Or, more simply, “Treat others the way they want to be treated.”

When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. And that’s my religion.” —Abraham Lincoln  

Synergists are trying to heal the wounds inflicted by those who don’t understand how the world could work. This then is the essential challenge to the synergists. Can we work together and act responsibly in time to save our ourselves on this planet? … Only by helping each other. If humanity were to achieve synergy, we would have a peaceful world, but how do we get there?

As a young father, I wanted to do the best job of parenting I could. With the birth of our first daughter in 1980, I began reading the then current literature on parenting. After a few months I settled on the parenting style proposed by Dr. Thomas Gordon in his book Parent Effectiveness Training. It was a win-win approach that did not support punishment or conflict. But Gordon realized that permissiveness, and letting children run wild would create its own set of problems. Parent enforced discipline was a win/lose game that the parent always won. Permissiveness was a win/lose game that the child always won. Neither method was good for children or families. Gordon explained how we could improve our communication with others at any age. How to work together for solutions where both parent and child could win.

What he did was provide parents with a specific set of communication and problem-solving skills, as well as a means for knowing when and how to use them. These skills (Active Listening, No-Lose Conflict Resolution, and the I-Message) changed the way many parents communicate with their children. The Gordon Method has proved just as valuable for improving communication in the workplace and in our schools. His books have been published in 28 languages and over 6 million copies have been sold worldwide.

However, there was one situation that Gordon did not address. Children through immaturity and ignorance sometimes engage in  dangerous  behavior. The danger may be to themselves or to others. Often this begins before they are able to understand the consequence of their behavior, or to be reasoned with. How do you stop them without resorting to adversity and punishment?

We have all seen parents slap a small child’s hand, when their child reaches for something hot or sharp. The child immediately cries and often runs away, but what has the child learned? Gordon would argue that physically striking the child sends only one message, “You are bad!” And, while the child will withdraw, it is not because they understand that they were in danger, but simply because they fear the parent will strike them again. Now parents often feel that striking the child was necessary to protect the child, but is this really true?

I remember one winter, a heavy storm knocked out the electrical power to our home for almost a week. I hurriedly purchased a portable kerosene heater for warmth and cooking. It was an amazing device, but it was also dangerously hot. My three year old daughter Reason had never seen such a thing in our modern all electrical home and watched with fascination as I set it up. As I watched the sparkle in her eye, I realized the damage she might sustain from touching the top or sides of the heater.

heater:

I asked by wife to hold her well within her arms while I set up the heater.Once it was lit, it soon became hot and began to glow. I told my daughter that it was very hot. I placed a small piece of paper on top which soon burst into flames. I poured a few drops of water on the surface that flashed into steam. All this time her mother advised her, that the heater was very hot and she should not touch it. She stood back and I watched her eyes growing large in amazement. Later her mother went to attend her baby sister Serene, and when I turned, Reason was approaching the heater.

I moved quickly squatted down and contained her loosely in my arms. Gently preventing her from getting closer than two feet. Then to my delight, she told me that the stove was HOT! And that I was NOT to touch it.

Later that evening, I would hear Reason carefully instructing her baby sister that the heater was very HOT, and that Serene should NOT touch it. This was quite unlikely since Serene was only nine months old. However, she seemed to listen carefully as she sucked her bottle. Over the next seven days, Reason never ventured closer than two feet to the heater, and watched it with great respect. Then, electrical power was restored and we put away the kerosene heater.

At this same time, I was studying human behavior. I was aware of the three ways we humans could relate to each other—adversarily, neutrally, or synergically—also called The Relationship Continuum.

Striking the hand of a child reaching for something hot or sharp was an example of adversary punishment.Later as I thought back on how I had protected my daughter, I decided to call this technique synergic containment. At this time, I was practicing Stress Medicine. I often worked with young parents and would always tell them about Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training. And, include a description of the mechanism of synergic containment. I thought of the technique as protective, and in some cases even a rescue from danger. I advised them to apply it with love and compassion. Certainly, my child had a very positive experience in learning about the danger of HOT!

Synergic Containment of an Aggressive Child

One of parents came to me with a concern about their large and unusually strong two year old. He was into the full fury of the terrible twos, and he had taken to occasionally hitting his baby sister. It seemed to happen when he got angry. His parents had physically spanked him several times, but the behavior continued. They were genuinely afraid for both the aggressive child and the baby.

I advised them to use the mechanism of synergic containment as follows: Ideally, when a potentially dangerous adversary event occurs both parents would be present. Then one of the parents could contain the aggressor, while the other one attends to the baby. But if there is only one parent present, then the most important thing is to contain the aggressor. The baby may cry, but she is safe once the aggressor is contained.

Whenever you see your two year old son striking the baby, pick him up immediately and remove him from striking distance of his sister, then sit down and hold him on your lap. Wrap your arms around his shoulders, but no tighter than necessary to physically restrain him. Do not raise your voice or berate the child in any way. Do not strike him or inflict pain in any way.

You must contain him. You must absolutely stop him from getting down off your lap. If he struggles, increase the physical restraint of your embrace. Your son may struggle and cry, but this should not win his release. You will have to hold him until he quiets down. This may take a while. Be patient. You cannot successfully talk with him until he is calm.

Your goal is to restrain the child, but not send the message, “You are bad!” You want him to understand that you are afraid for the baby. You want him to understand that hitting the baby is dangerous. Once he is calm, in simple language express your fear for the baby. If another parent or adult is there ask them to attend the baby with create concern. Once the baby is calm, have them pantomime, raising one hand into a position as if they might strike the baby, but then deliberately grabbing their raised hand with their other hand and pulling it down. Repeatedly stating in a calm voice. “I am afraid for the baby.” “Don’t hit the baby.”

This is not a technique to be used lightly. It is serious medicine. Children should be allowed to get angry. Containment is not to be used to control anger. Containment is not to be used to stop evenly matched boys from wrestling or rough housing. Containment is to stop DANGEROUS behavior. Containment of an aggressive child should only occur if the child himself or someone else is in danger.

KidsFight:  

When you use containment, you are limiting your child’s freedom of action. The child may process this as if they are being punished. They may misunderstand the act of containment as punishment. This is why it must be done with love and compassion. Certainly, the parents love their child. They just don’t like his dangerous behavior. The goal is to make that behavior less likely to occur in the future. Synergic containment must do more than stop the dangerous behavior, it must educate the aggressor.

Most adults can easily contain a two year old child. Once your son quiets down and becomes calm, and this might take 15 to 20 minutes. You would then try to communicate with him that hitting his baby sister is prohibited. His ability to understand of course would be limited by his age and level of maturity. The human mind develops during childhood. The ability to understand consequence does not develop until about age four. You don’t over explain or discuss your concerns, you just state them in the way that you feel your child will best understand. Simpler is always better. “I am afraid for the baby!” “Don’t hit the baby!” With very small children, use pantomime when possible.

At this point, you let the child down from your lap to return to his activities. You immediately attend the baby. Showing him your concern. You try to enlist his help in comforting the baby, and in demonstrating love and caring for his sister.You don’t insist that he help, but you let him see your concern.

Synergic containment only occurs to stop dangerous behavior. If the adversary act recurs, the synergic containment recurs.

Every episode of synergic containment is an opportunity to communicate with your child. As the child grows, his ability to reason and to understand consequence grows. Since all humans do not like being on the receiving end of adversary acts, they soon learn that adversity is an inappropriate behavior. Teach them that they need to work together and act responsibly to be successful within the family.

Allowing children of any age to profit from adversary behavior is a mistake. Ideally, the use of synergic containment begins early. A single parent can contain a small child. It may take two parents to contain a 10 year old. It may take three or four adults to contain a 14 year old. And, it may take a SWAT team to contain an armed 18 year old.

August 17th, 2014

As the 2014 summer of chaos and disorder draws towards an end. It appears time for we humans to change our ways. … The motto of this website is: “Always tell only the truth, and all the truth, and do so promptly – right now.” This statement by Buckminster Fuller cannot be emphasized too much. I will attempt to live up to that motto in today’s essay.

The following article is from the 2002 SynEARTH Archives. It was the first in a series on synergic containment and synergic disarmament. Synergic containment and synergic disarmament are powerful mechanisms for containing adversary behavior. They will be developed as the series is presented. We start off by making the case for a paradigm shift that can move us Beyond Crime and Punishment. Only then will we find the mechanisms to end the insanity of war.


Beyond Crime and Punishment

Timothy Wilken, MD

In our present world, it is widely believed that mistakes are the result of badness. So when mistakes occur, we investigate, blame and punish. This belief has resulted in a world where violence, hate and judgment are common.

Synergic science reveals that mistakes are in fact the result of ignorance. If we understand this, then when a mistake occurs, we would analyze, determine responsibility, and educate. This could soon lead to a world where public safety, love and compassion are common.

The Uncertainty of Human Knowing

We can never know all there is to know about anything — this is a fundamental ‘law’ of Nature. This is in fact is the only cause of mistakes.

Ignorance is the word that best describes the human condition. Alfred Korzybskiexplained this condition scientifically as the Principle of Non-Allness. By this he meant that we humans make all of our decisions with incomplete and imperfect knowing. We make every choice without all the information. All humans live and act in state of ignorance. Korzybski felt that developing an awareness of this ‘law’ of Nature was so fundamentally important to all humans, that he developed a lesson especially for children. Korzybski would explain:

“Children, today we want to learn ALL about the apple.”

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He would place an apple in view of the children, “Do you children know about the apple?”

“I do!”, “I do!”, “Yes, I know about apples!”

“Good” Korzybski moved to the blackboard. , “Come, tell me about the apple?”

“The Apple is a fruit.”, “The apple is red.”, “The apple grows on a tree.”

Korzybski would begin to list the characteristics described by the children on the blackboard.

The children continued, “An apple a day keeps the Doctor away.”

Korzybski continued listing the children’s answers until they run out of ideas, then he would ask, “Is that all we can say about the apple?

When the children answered in the affirmative, Korzybski would remove his pocket-knife and cut the apple in half, passing the parts among the children.

“Now, children can we say more about the apple?

“The apple smells good.” “The juices are sweet.” “The apple has seeds.” “Its pulp is white.” “Mother makes apple pie.

Finally when the children had again run out of answers, Korzybski would ask, “Now, is that all-we can say about the apple?” When the children agreed that it was all that could be said, he would again go into his pocket only this time he removed a ten power magnifying lens and passed it to the children. The children would examine the apple, and again respond:

“The apple pulp has a pattern and a structure.” “The skin of the apple has pores.” “The leaves have fuzz on them.” “The seeds have coats.”

Thus Korzybski would teach the children the lesson of Non-ALLness.

Now we could continue to examine the apple—with a light microscope, x-ray crystallography, and eventually the electron microscope. We would continue to discover more to say about the apple. However, we can never know ALL there is to know about anything in Nature. We humans have the power to know about Nature, but not to know ALL.

Knowing is without limit, but knowing is not total. Universe is our human model of Nature. Our ‘knowing’ can grow evermore complete. It can grow closer and closer to the ‘Truth’, but it cannot equal the ‘Truth’. It must always be incomplete. We are not ‘GOD’. We cannot see and know ALL.

Jacob Bronowski speaking in 1976 his famous public television series the Ascent of Man said:

“One aim of the physical sciences has been to give an exact picture of the material world. One achievement of physics in the Twentieth Century has been to prove that that aim is unattainable. There is no absolute knowledge and those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy. All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility. This is the human condition; and that is what Quantum Physics says. I mean that literally.

“Let us examine an object with the best tool we have today, the electron microscope, where the rays are so concentrated that we no longer know whether to call them waves or particles. Electrons are fired at an object, and they trace its outline like a knife-thrower at a fair. The smallest object that has ever been seen is a single atom of thorium. It is spectacular.

And yet the soft image confirms that, like the knives that graze the girl at the fair, even the hardest electrons do not give a hard outline. The perfect image is still as remote as the distant stars.

“We are here face to face with the crucial paradox of knowledge. Year by year we devise more precise instruments with which to observe nature with more fineness and when we look at the observations, we are discomfited to see that they are still fuzzy, and we feel that we are as uncertain as ever.

“We seem to be running after a goal which lurches away from us to infinity every time we come within sight of it.

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“The paradox of knowledge is not confined to the small, atomic scale; on the contrary, it is as cogent on the scale of man, and even of the stars.

“Let me put it in the context of an astronomical observatory. Karl Freidrich Gauss’ observatory at Gˆttingen was built about 1807. Throughout his life and ever since (the best part of 200 years) astronomical instruments have been improved.

“We look at the position of a star as it was determined then and now, and it seems to us that we are closer and closer to finding it precisely. But when we actually compare our individual observations today, we are astonished and chagrined to find them as scattered within themselves as ever.

“We had hoped that the human errors would disappear, and that we would ourselves have God’s view. But it turns out that the errors cannot be taken out of the observations. And that is true of stars, or atoms, or just looking at somebody’s picture, or hearing the report of somebody’s speech.”

Incomplete and imperfect knowing means that every human belief is an assumption. We can never know for sure. We can never know ALL.

As you sit in your chair reading these words, you assumed the chair would hold you. You did not check under the chair to see if it had broken since its last use. When you ate lunch at your favorite restaurant last week, you assumed the waitress had washed her hands. You assumed the cook did not have hepatitis. If you had assumed otherwise, you would not have walked into that restaurant. You would not have eaten your lunch. We humans assume. Herein lies our uncertainty — that’s all we humans can do. There is nothing wrong in our assuming, we are simply obeying a fundamental ‘law’ of Nature.

We humans have always believed that mistakes are bad. We have always believed that those who make mistakes are bad. They are stupid or careless — lazy or incompetent — just no damn good. If they were good, they wouldn’t make mistakes. Everyone knows that. Decent people don’t make mistakes. This is nearly a universal belief.

Mistakes = Badness

Korzybski coined the word space-binding to describe the world of the animal. In the world of the animal, cause and effect can not be distinguished from each other. They are the same — they equal each other — they are identical. If the effect of a mistake is bad, then the cause of a mistake is also bad. Human intelligence is build on animal intelligence. All humans have a space-mind. It is a powerful and often dominant part of our human intelligence. As children the space-mind is primary. The uniquely human mind creates what Korzybski called the world of Time-binding. The time-mind doesn’t even begin to become operational in children until they reach the age of four.

So our human belief that mistakes are ‘bad’ is legitimate. Most of us learn about mistakes as small children. If I stumble while running, I get hurt and that is bad. If an animal is running for its life and stumbles, it dies and that is bad. For space-binders, mistakes are a part of bad space.

In the world of space-binding, a mistake can cost not only the life of the individual space-binder, but also the lives of others in the group — pack, pride, herd, or troop. Therefore the result of a mistake was often bad, and not just for the individual, but for others in the group as well. Since 99.9% of all human history has been adversary — 99.9% of our history dominated by space-binding, it is no wonder that we humans have believed for countless centuries that mistakes are bad.

The belief in the badness of mistakes was further reinforced and given Divine sanction by our human religions. God is good. God is omniscience — ALL knowing. God makes no mistakes. He is perfect. We humans are admonished to be as God-like as possible. If making no mistakes is ‘good’, then obviously making mistakes is ‘bad’. Our religions institutionalized the adversary processing of mistakes — Sin, Hellfire, and Damnation.

Science has also added credence to the ‘badness’ of mistakes. The world view created by the ‘objective science’ of Galileo, Kepler, Hooke, and Newton was a ‘perfect’ Universe. Newton’s System of the Worlds described a precision clockwork perfection that controlled all in Universe. If the Universe is perfect, then humans too must evolve towards perfection.

Dealing with Badness

Since mistakes are bad, when one occurs, we investigate to determine who is at fault. Who made the mistake? Once that is determined, we blame those responsible. Following blame, we are ready to punish. More pain and suffering has been inflicted on humankind for making mistakes than for any other cause. This should not surprise us.

Punishment is the proper way to deal with ‘badness’. And,if we are anything, we are fair. So when we are the one who made the mistake, we self-punish. Self-punishment is called “guilt”. Humans are the only class of living systems that feels guilty. The only class of living systems that teaches their pets to feel guilty.

MISTAKES = Badness
INVESTIGATE
BLAME
PUNISH —> self punish
“Guilt”

Korzybski’s Error of Identity

When humans rely only on their spacial intelligence, they see cause as being identical to effect. They are in essence time-blind, and so they confuse cause with effect.

Korzybski explained that when humans see things as being identical that are not identical, they are making an identification that is false to facts. Korzybski called this the Error of Identity.

When we confuse cause with effect, we are making the error of identity. Today most humans make this error. We assume without analysis that cause and effect are the same — that they are equal — that they are identical. If the effect of a mistake is bad then the cause of that mistake must also be bad.

We don’t analyze the event for sequence. We don’t use our time-binding power to understand. And so,we act without hesitation, without doubt on our belief. We act in certainty. And, certainty as explained earlier by Korzybski, Heisenberg, Eddington and Bronowski is not possible, because knowing is uncertain.

Certainty

We humans always act without all the information. We humans are always assuming. If we are unaware that we are assuming, then we are ignorant of our ignorance. Certainty means that we don’t know that we don’t know. We cannot seek knowing when we believe our ignorance is knowing. Ignorance of ignorance is leveraged ignorance — ignorance masquerading as knowledge. Ignorance of ignorance is certainty.

When we are certain, we are surprised and disheartened by our mistakes. This attitude toward human error is the most damaging of human ignorances. We humans make mistakes because, we make all our decisions without ALL the information. This is a major point that all humans must understand. The only cause of mistakes is ignorance.

We humans must become aware of our ignorance. When we humans have knowledge of our ignorance, we can learn from our mistakes and protect ourselves in the future. When an individual knows he doesn’t know, he is wise. Wisdom is the opposite of certainty. The knowledge of our ignorance is wisdom.

To error is the human condition

This truth, whether we call it the Principle of Non-Allness, the Principle of Uncertainty, the Principle of Indeterminacy, or the Principle of Tolerance, leads us to the conclusion that to error is human, and there is no need too ask forgiveness. All mistakes are innocent.

Universe is not certain — it is not structured as we humans have believed for countless centuries. Religion and the objective scientists were wrong. The physics of relativity and quantum mechanics describe a Universe in which things are not and cannot be perfect. A Universe in which, we humans are constrained to make all our choices without ALL the information. Mistakes are simply holes or gaps in our knowing — lapses in our understanding.

I am often asked, “But, what if I knew better?” If I knew better and then make a mistake. Isn’t that the result of stupidity. If I knew better, but still made an error, then surely that is my fault and not the result of ignorance.

What if I knew better?

I recall a young women I once treated. She had opened her hotel room door to a man claiming to be a maintenance worker, who then attacked and raped her. The attacker has stolen a hotel uniform from a laundry hamper and so seemed legitimate. However, something about his appearance disturbed her, but on second thought, she assumed she was just being silly and so unlocked her door. When I saw her several months later she was still struggling with guilt.

“Doctor, it was my own fault. I was so stupid. I shouldn’t have opened the door. I knew something was wrong. I was so stupid. I knew better, but I opened the door anyway.”

I responded, “You weren’t stupid. You were only ignorant.”

She replied, “No, Dr. Wilken, I knew better, I should never have opened the door, I was just so stupid.”

“NO!”, I told her, “You weren’t stupid, you were only ignorant and I can prove it with one simple question. She looked deep into my eyes desperate to know what I meant.

I asked: “If you had known that the man behind the door intended to rape you, would you have opened it?”

“No, of course not.”

No of course not. None of us would make a mistake if we knew we were about to make a mistake. Even when we humans repeat our mistakes, it is because we assume the mistake will not happen this time. We are ignorant of what will happen this time. As I have stated, the only cause of human error — the only cause of human mistakes is ignorance.

Scientists as well as non-scientists who seek to know must therefore embrace humility when we stand before the totality of Nature.

The Principle of Non-Allness is a fundamental law of Nature. And the first corollary to the Principle of Non-Allness is what I call the Principle of Innocence.

Principle of Innocence

All actions occur in ignorance. All human actions and all human choices are made without all the information. We are always acting and choosing without ALL the information. What we don’t know we must ignore and what we ignore may hurt us. Therefore all errors and and all mistakes are made in innocence.

Good news

I don’t mean that mistakes are good things or that getting hurt is a good thing. I mean that since the cause of mistakes is ignorance and the proper response to ignorance is education, then we can learn from our mistakes.

We can acknowledge the mistakes of history and those that are occurring in our present world and work to correct them. This is good news. It will make it infinitely easier to build a better world.

When we understand the truth of “to error is human”, we can then begin to process our mistakes in a synergic manner. The human who understands that mistakes are a natural part of life does not investigate the mistakes like a detective, he analyzes the mistake as a scientist. He does not blame when a mistake occurs, he seeks to learn from the mistake and to learn he must accept responsibility and seek responsibility in others for their mistakes. Once he knows who is responsible for the mistake he educates.

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Education is the proper response to ignorance. Education and learning is the synergic alternative to adversary punishment and guilt. However there is something in guilt worth keeping. It is certainly not the badness, it is certainly not the blame, and of course it is not the punishment.

Guilt also contains regret and this is worth keeping. When a mistake happens there is always regret. In the adversary world where there is blame and punishment of course I might regret being blamed and punished. I also might regret being considered bad by those who are blaming and punishing me. But there is almost always another component of regret. When I make a mistake that hurts someone else, I regret that as well. This is the regret worth keeping.

And, this is often why we humans tend to hang onto our guilt feelings when we make a mistake. We regret injuring others. We can solve this dilemma by moving regret over into the synergic processing of mistakes, where it is called restitution. Restitution means to restore, to repair the damage caused by the ignorance of our behavior.

The synergist does not feel guilty when he makes a mistake, but he is sorry if his ignorance injured other. As a synergist, he will freely try to repair things. He will freely offer restitution.

 

Adversary

Synergic

MISTAKES = Badness MISTAKES = Ignorance
INVESTIGATE ANALYZE
ACCUSE & BLAME DETERMINE RESPONSIBILITY
PUNISH

—> self-punish

EDUCATE

—> self-educate

“Guilt”

  “Learn”

regret->

RESTITUTION

 

We humans have a choice as to how to deal with mistakes. If we process our mistakes adversarily we get pain and no learning. If we process our mistakes synergically, we get learning and no pain.
In fact, you cannot learn when you adversarily process mistakes. We humans cannot tolerate the pain of blame, punishment, and guilt. We will deny that we make a mistake. We will project the blame for the mistake onto others. “I didn’t do it.” — “It wasn’t my fault.” — “And, if it isn’t my fault, why should I have to learn anything.”

In fact, if I am to learn from a mistake, I must first admit it was my fault. This is the real force behind what I call the “anti-learning barrier”. If I am to learn from my mistake I am trapped into accepting responsibility for my error. If I am adversarily processing the mistake, I cannot accept responsibility without feeling guilty. To avoid guilt I must deny responsibility. And if I wasn’t responsible then I have nothing to learn.

The “anti-learning barrier”

This barrier became evident to me by another one of my patients. I once had the occasion to treat a young woman in the early stages of her fifth pregnancy. She informed me she had had four abortions previously and was pregnant and planning to abort this pregnancy as well. I thought to myself, why can’t she learn to use birth control?

If we examine her situation in light of our new understanding, we see that for her to use birth control, she would have to admit that it is her responsibility to prevent unwanted pregnancies. That admission would lead her to the further conclusion that she was then also responsible for her previous unwanted pregnancies and their abortions.

This young woman was a Catholic and to admit responsibility for unwanted pregnancies and abortions were far too painful for her. She opted to deny any responsibility. “My boy friend got me drunk, and made me pregnant. It wasn’t my fault, so I don’t need to take birth control. Besides using birth control is a sin, I would never do that.”

The human brain is the most powerfully precise computer in the Universe. If we program it to believe mistakes are bad, it will function to prove it does not make mistakes. The human brain rebels at the idea that mistakes are bad. It will defend itself in any way possible, it will defend itself by lying. When I am accused of badness, I must lie to protect myself — to protect myself from blame and punishment — to protect myself from guilt. Confronted with an adversary reality that we live with today, it is rational to lie. Lying leads to distrust — “I assume you are my enemy”. Thus, the processing of mistakes as bad always leads to conflict and adversary behavior.

If on the other hand, I process my mistakes in a more scientific manner — as simply ignorant — choices made without all the information, then I must tell the truth to protect myself — to protect myself from repeating the mistake — to protect myself and others from further injury — to protect myself from paying unnecessary restitution.

Telling the truth leads to trust — “I assume you are my friend”. Processing mistakes as ignorance leads to co-Operation and synergic behavior.

 

Adversary

Synergic

MISTAKES = Badness MISTAKES = Ignorance
INVESTIGATE ANALYZE
ACCUSE & BLAME DETERMINE RESPONSIBILITY
PUNISH

—> self-punish

EDUCATE

—> self-educate

“Guilt”   

  “Learn”   

regret->

RESTITUTION

I must lie to protect myself.

I must tell the truth to protect myself.

I assume you are my enemy.

I assume you are my friend.

Distrust

Trust

Conflict

Co-Operation

 

Scientists and all humans who seek to know must embrace humility when they stand before the totality of Nature. The principle of Non-Allness is a fundamental law of nature.

The fact that all actions occur in ignorance is a fundamental ‘knowing’ derived from the Principle of Non-Allness.

And the first corollary of that principle — the Principle of Innocence is an even more important extension of our human ‘knowing’. If we understand that all errors are committed in innocence, then how we treat those who err will change forever.

What about Bin Laden ?

How could the attack on the World Trade Towers have resulted from ignorance. How could those behind the murder of 3000+ thousand innocents themselves be innocent?

What don’t they know?

They don’t know that “As you sow, so shall you reap”. They don’t know that:

Adversary action usually provokes adversary reaction ending in an adversary resultant or loss.

They don’t know how powerful the United States really is. They have forgotten the lessons learned by Japan and Germany by the end of World War II. They to have wakened the sleeping Giant. Their acts will not make the world better and safer for themselves or for those they claim to represent. They don’t know that the end never justifies the means. In fact, the means always end up becoming the ends.

They don’t know that there is no heaven for murderers. They don’t know that an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, ends up with no winners only losers in a modern world with high technology and knowledge.

They don’t know that:

Progress + Warfare = Human Extinction

We humans are Time-binders, we have the power to create knowledge without limit. When knowledge is incorporated into matter-energy, it becomes a tool. As Andrew J. Galambos explained:

“Humans develop evermore powerful knowledge and therefore evermore powerful tools. When tools are used to harm other humans they are called weapons. Since human knowledge can grow without limit then tools themselves can be made without limit. And limitless tools can will produce limitless weapons.”

And, limitless weapons (progress) combined with leveraged adversity (warfare) must by all definitions and understanding of science produce human extinction.

All of today’s law enforcement agencies use adversary processing in an attempt to protect the public safety. Unfortunately, adversary processing results only in pain and no learning. The war on crime has been lost and always will be lost. Adversary behavior cannot be stopped with adversary behavior. The means always become the ends. The abolition of crime will require the abolition of punishment.

Only then can we move towards a world where, love, wisdom and compassion will replace hate, ignorance and judgment. Only then can we move beyond crime and punishment.



Read Timothy Wilken’s A Limit to Knowing. Read Timothy Wilken’s Protecting Humanity.

June 18th, 2014

Whether serendipity or synchronicity, I happened on to the writings of today’s author with a single click. … I am so glad I did. I have sampled only a few of this wise man’s thoughts, but those few samples have been delicious. Enjoy!


An Open Letter to GAIA

Serge Kahili King

Dear Gaia,

Thank you for your last communication. The birdsongs were delightful, the sunrise was spectacular, and the scent of plumeria carried into my room by your trade winds was a very nice touch. I certainly admire your mastery of the sensory medium.

But this is more than just a letter of praise, much as you deserve it. It’s a plea for assistance in the survival of our species.

Oh, I know that many humans (one of your more rambunctious, prolific and mischievous group of apes, in case you aren’t familiar with the term we apply to ourselves) are very concerned about your survival, but they don’t know you as well as some of us . Those of us around the world who communicate with you on a regular basis know that your survival is not at stake. You would still be you whether you were a parched desert, a landless ocean, a ball of ice, a globe of lava or even a radioactive mass. And I’ve no doubt that you are creative enough to come up with some form of life under any conditions, since that’s one of your specialties.

No, Gaia, the problem is us humans, the apes with imagination. Not only have we put ourselves in danger, but we are endangering a lot of your other species in the plant and animal realms. Of course, I realize that we may not be high on your priority list. We are fairly numerous, but we don’t come anywhere near matching the numbers of your plants, insects, fishes, rodents and birds, even though we’ve tried pretty hard to diminish them. And I know we haven’t been around as long as some of the ones I’ve just mentioned. And I also know that your natural forces have wiped out considerable numbers of species over the eons. So why am I writing in hopes that you’ll help us?

Well, I think we’ve evolved some pretty unique qualities and habits that can serve you well if we can stay around long enough to develop them. What are they? I think they are love, creativity and communication.

Okay, okay, it seems like we’re pretty violent and destructive, even toward each other. But that’s not natural, it’s an effect of stress and fear. The great majority of humans are quite a peaceful bunch. We like our fun and excitement, we love to play, and we can be quite aggressive when it comes to protecting ourselves. Violence, however, is an aberration, like a sickness, and more and more of us are actively seeking ways and means to cure it. If it were natural we wouldn’t bother doing that. When we are not under severe stress and in states of fear our natural inclination is to help each other, to teach each other, and to care for each other. That’s why we have so many individuals and organizations doing those things. A lot of humans don’t realize it themselves, but there are far more people organized to help other people than there are that are organized to fight each other. And you won’t find another species anywhere with as much concern for the survival and well-being of species other than our own. Sure, I admit that you won’t find another species anywhere that destroys as many other species as we do, either, but we are trying to do better. We are trying harder than ever before in our entire existence. Check it out. Meanwhile, please help us to find a proper dynamic balance between competition and cooperation.

There’s another aspect of our love, too. Remember that sunset I mentioned at the beginning? Well it’s only beautiful if a human is looking at it. Otherwise it’s just a lot of clouds and the sun at the end of another day. You won’t find any other species gathering around to ooh and ahh at it, making up clever ways to duplicate it so others can see it who weren’t there, writing poetry and singing songs about it. This love thing of ours includes an appreciation of beauty, an appreciation of you, that’s different from anything you’ll get from your other children. Inspire us, I ask you, to be even more aware and appreciative of your wild and complex magnificence.

Creativity I said. That imagination of ours has gotten us into a whole lot of trouble, and has hurt a lot of other species, but it has its positive side. I’m not sure how strongly you feel about preserving particular species, but the same abilities that we use to wipe out a lot of them are being used to save and protect many others, sometimes even from your destruction. And using your basic materials we’ve even managed to copy some of your techniques (we say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery) and produce new kinds of beings like the many varieties of bananas, wheat, rice, horses, dogs and cats. Yes, we are messy, and some of our unhealthiest messes are probably going to be around for a very long time. That’s a very unpleasant side effect of our creativity, to be sure. All I can say is that there are a lot more of us keeping a close watch on that and trying to stop it and invent ways to correct it. With our creativity we have the potential for making life on the planet much more fun for everything and everyone. We just need more time. So please be patient and imagine (for if we can imagine you must be able to do so as well) all the wonderful things we can do together.

In the area of communication we really shine. Boy can we talk. We make sounds, of course, to exchange information with each other just like a lot of other animals. And we sing, like some other animals, and we dance, like some other animals, but we do special things that none of your other animals do. For one thing, we make pictures in our heads and then reproduce those pictures in all kinds of ways so that other humans can see them and learn from them. As a shaman it still amazes me that a young human can watch one of these moving pictures and and in one hour can learn more about some of your most interesting creatures than a fellow shaman could learn by spending five years in the bush. Of course it might have taken a bunch of humans five years to put that picture together, but it’s the ability to share the experience that’s so unique.

Maybe you’ve noticed that we’ve also been able to tap some of your energy so we can communicate with each other across vast distances, sometimes using physical pathways made from your minerals and plants, but more and more often using invisible waves that we’ve modified from your bounty. By combining our communication and our creativity we’ve even linked you up to your partner the Moon and all your neighbor planets, in other ways than your existing links of light and gravity, that is.

We also communicate in subtler ways, somewhat like most of your other species, but perhaps with more energetic effect. We shamans are familiar with holding conversations with winds and seas and rocks, with animals and plants. We also know that everyone can do the same thing and that through their thoughts and feelings they do so without realizing it, often inadvertently causing droughts and storms as well as healing rains and bumper crops. Teach us, then, to communicate with you more directly, more clearly, and more effectively.

We could really serve you well, if you’d let us. We can appreciate you, we can work with you creatively to help keep your natural processes in harmony, and we can act as your eyes and ears and voice both here and across the reaches of space. Whatever our spiritual origin, we are formed of your stuff, conditioned to your environment, endowed with skills and abilities born out of your potentials. We are pretty adaptable critters, but we need your help so we can adapt even better. How can you help us? Inspire us, Gaia. With dreams, insights, awareness, respect and hope. Talk to more of us in all your myriad ways, in ways like those described by the poet Alfred Street:

(Gaia) is man’s teacher. She unfolds her treasures to his search, unseals his eyes, illumines his mind, and purifies his heart; an influence breathes from all the sights and sounds of her existence.

Thank you, Gaia, for listening, through the eyes and ears of all who read or hear this letter.

Me ke aloha pumehana,

Serge
Kauai, Hawaii


More  writings by Serge Kahili King

April 28th, 2014

I first read this essay in the November/December 2012 issue of Orion Magazine. This essay was a finalist for a 2013 National Magazine Award in the Essay category. I reposted it on CommUnity of Minds in November 2012, and was reminded of it again today. It was and is well worth revisiting.


State of the Species

Charles C. Mann

THE PROBLEM WITH environmentalists, Lynn Margulis used to say, is that they think conservation has something to do with biological reality. A researcher who specialized in cells and microorganisms, Margulis was one of the most important biologists in the last half century—she literally helped to reorder the tree of life, convincing her colleagues that it did not consist of two kingdoms (plants and animals), but five or even six (plants, animals, fungi, protists, and two types of bacteria).

Until Margulis’s death last year, she lived in my town, and I would bump into her on the street from time to time. She knew I was interested in ecology, and she liked to needle me. Hey, Charles, she would call out, are you still all worked up about protecting endangered species?

Margulis was no apologist for unthinking destruction. Still, she couldn’t help regarding conservationists’ preoccupation with the fate of birds, mammals, and plants as evidence of their ignorance about the greatest source of evolutionary creativity: the microworld of bacteria, fungi, and protists. More than 90 percent of the living matter on earth consists of microorganisms and viruses, she liked to point out. Heck, the number of bacterial cells in our body is ten times more than the number of human cells!

Bacteria and protists can do things undreamed of by clumsy mammals like us: form giant supercolonies, reproduce either asexually or by swapping genes with others, routinely incorporate DNA from entirely unrelated species, merge into symbiotic beings—the list is as endless as it is amazing. Microorganisms have changed the face of the earth, crumbling stone and even giving rise to the oxygen we breathe. Compared to this power and diversity, Margulis liked to tell me, pandas and polar bears were biological epiphenomena—interesting and fun, perhaps, but not actually significant.

Does that apply to human beings, too? I once asked her, feeling like someone whining to Copernicus about why he couldn’t move the earth a little closer to the center of the universe. Aren’t we special at all?

This was just chitchat on the street, so I didn’t write anything down. But as I recall it, she answered that Homo sapiens actually might be interesting—for a mammal, anyway. For one thing, she said, we’re unusually successful.

Seeing my face brighten, she added: Of course, the fate of every successful species is to wipe itself out.

OF LICE AND MEN

Why and how did humankind become “unusually successful”? And what, to an evolutionary biologist, does “success” mean, if self-destruction is part of the definition? Does that self-destruction include the rest of the biosphere? What are human beings in the grand scheme of things anyway, and where are we headed? What is human nature, if there is such a thing, and how did we acquire it? What does that nature portend for our interactions with the environment? With 7 billion of us crowding the planet, it’s hard to imagine more vital questions.

One way to begin answering them came to Mark Stoneking in 1999, when he received a notice from his son’s school warning of a potential lice outbreak in the classroom. Stoneking is a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Leipzig, Germany. He didn’t know much about lice. As a biologist, it was natural for him to noodle around for information about them. The most common louse found on human bodies, he discovered, is Pediculus humanus. P. humanus has two subspecies: P. humanus capitis—head lice, which feed and live on the scalp—and P. humanus corporis—body lice, which feed on skin but live in clothing. In fact, Stoneking learned, body lice are so dependent on the protection of clothing that they cannot survive more than a few hours away from it.

It occurred to him that the two louse subspecies could be used as an evolutionary probe. P. humanus capitis, the head louse, could be an ancient annoyance, because human beings have always had hair for it to infest. But P. humanus corporis, the body louse, must not be especially old, because its need for clothing meant that it could not have existed while humans went naked. Humankind’s great coverup had created a new ecological niche, and some head lice had rushed to fill it. Evolution then worked its magic; a new subspecies, P. humanus corporis, arose. Stoneking couldn’t be sure that this scenario had taken place, though it seemed likely. But if his idea were correct, discovering when the body louse diverged from the head louse would provide a rough date for when people first invented and wore clothing.

The subject was anything but frivolous: donning a garment is a complicated act. Clothing has practical uses—warming the body in cold places, shielding it from the sun in hot places—but it also transforms the appearance of the wearer, something that has proven to be of inescapable interest to Homo sapiens. Clothing is ornament and emblem; it separates human beings from their earlier, un-self-conscious state. (Animals run, swim, and fly without clothing, but only people can be naked.) The invention of clothing was a sign that a mental shift had occurred. The human world had become a realm of complex, symbolic artifacts.

With two colleagues, Stoneking measured the difference between snippets of DNA in the two louse subspecies. Because DNA is thought to pick up small, random mutations at a roughly constant rate, scientists use the number of differences between two populations to tell how long ago they diverged from a common ancestor—the greater the number of differences, the longer the separation. In this case, the body louse had separated from the head louse about 70,000 years ago. Which meant, Stoneking hypothesized, that clothing also dated from about 70,000 years ago.

And not just clothing. As scientists have established, a host of remarkable things occurred to our species at about that time. It marked a dividing line in our history, one that made us who we are, and pointed us, for better and worse, toward the world we now have created for ourselves.

Homo sapiens emerged on the planet about 200,000 years ago, researchers believe. From the beginning, our species looked much as it does today. If some of those long-ago people walked by us on the street now, we would think they looked and acted somewhat oddly, but not that they weren’t people. But those anatomically modern humans were not, as anthropologists say, behaviorally modern. Those first people had no language, no clothing, no art, no religion, nothing but the simplest, unspecialized tools. They were little more advanced, technologically speaking, than their predecessors—or, for that matter, modern chimpanzees. (The big exception was fire, but that was first controlled by Homo erectus, one of our ancestors, a million years ago or more.) Our species had so little capacity for innovation that archaeologists have found almost no evidence of cultural or social change during our first 100,000 years of existence. Equally important, for almost all that time these early humans were confined to a single, small area in the hot, dry savanna of East Africa (and possibly a second, still smaller area in southern Africa).

But now jump forward 50,000 years. East Africa looks much the same. So do the humans in it—but suddenly they are drawing and carving images, weaving ropes and baskets, shaping and wielding specialized tools, burying the dead in formal ceremonies, and perhaps worshipping supernatural beings. They are wearing clothes—lice-filled clothes, to be sure, but clothes nonetheless. Momentously, they are using language. And they are dramatically increasing their range. Homo sapiens is exploding across the planet.

What caused this remarkable change? By geologists’ standards, 50,000 years is an instant, a finger snap, a rounding error. Nonetheless, most researchers believe that in that flicker of time, favorable mutations swept through our species, transforming anatomically modern humans into behaviorally modern humans. The idea is not absurd: in the last 400 years, dog breeders converted village dogs into creatures that act as differently as foxhounds, border collies, and Labrador retrievers. Fifty millennia, researchers say, is more than enough to make over a species.

Homo sapiens lacks claws, fangs, or exoskeletal plates. Rather, our unique survival skill is our ability to innovate, which originates with our species’ singular brain—a three-pound universe of hyperconnected neural tissue, constantly aswirl with schemes and notions. Hence every hypothesized cause for the transformation of humankind from anatomically modern to behaviorally modern involves a physical alteration of the wet gray matter within our skulls. One candidate explanation is that in this period people developed hybrid mental abilities by interbreeding with Neanderthals. (Some Neanderthal genes indeed appear to be in our genome, though nobody is yet certain of their function.) Another putative cause is symbolic language—an invention that may have tapped latent creativity and aggressiveness in our species. A third is that a mutation might have enabled our brains to alternate between spacing out on imaginative chains of association and focusing our attention narrowly on the physical world around us. The former, in this view, allows us to come up with creative new strategies to achieve a goal, whereas the latter enables us to execute the concrete tactics required by those strategies.

Each of these ideas is fervently advocated by some researchers and fervently attacked by others. What is clear is that something made over our species between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago—and right in the middle of that period was Toba.

CHILDREN OF TOBA

About 75,000 years ago, a huge volcano exploded on the island of Sumatra. The biggest blast for several million years, the eruption created Lake Toba, the world’s biggest crater lake, and ejected the equivalent of as much as 3,000 cubic kilometers of rock, enough to cover the District of Columbia in a layer of magma and ash that would reach to the stratosphere. A gigantic plume spread west, enveloping southern Asia in tephra (rock, ash, and dust). Drifts in Pakistan and India reached as high as six meters. Smaller tephra beds blanketed the Middle East and East Africa. Great rafts of pumice filled the sea and drifted almost to Antarctica.

In the long run, the eruption raised Asian soil fertility. In the short term, it was catastrophic. Dust hid the sun for as much as a decade, plunging the earth into a years-long winter accompanied by widespread drought. A vegetation collapse was followed by a collapse in the species that depended on vegetation, followed by a collapse in the species that depended on the species that depended on vegetation. Temperatures may have remained colder than normal for a thousand years. Orangutans, tigers, chimpanzees, cheetahs—all were pushed to the verge of extinction.

At about this time, many geneticists believe, Homo sapiens’ numbers shrank dramatically, perhaps to a few thousand people—the size of a big urban high school. The clearest evidence of this bottleneck is also its main legacy: humankind’s remarkable genetic uniformity. Countless people have viewed the differences between races as worth killing for, but compared to other primates—even compared to most other mammals—human beings are almost indistinguishable, genetically speaking. DNA is made from exceedingly long chains of “bases.” Typically, about one out of every 2,000 of these “bases” differs between one person and the next. The equivalent figure from two E. coli (human gut bacteria) might be about one out of twenty. The bacteria in our intestines, that is, have a hundredfold more innate variability than their hosts—evidence, researchers say, that our species is descended from a small group of founders.

Uniformity is hardly the only effect of a bottleneck. When a species shrinks in number, mutations can spread through the entire population with astonishing rapidity. Or genetic variants that may have already been in existence—arrays of genes that confer better planning skills, for example—can suddenly become more common, effectively reshaping the species within a few generations as once-unusual traits become widespread.

Did Toba, as theorists like Richard Dawkins have argued, cause an evolutionary bottleneck that set off the creation of behaviorally modern people, perhaps by helping previously rare genes—Neanderthal DNA or an opportune mutation—spread through our species? Or did the volcanic blast simply clear away other human species that had previously blocked H. sapiens’ expansion? Or was the volcano irrelevant to the deeper story of human change?

For now, the answers are the subject of careful back-and-forth in refereed journals and heated argument in faculty lounges. All that is clear is that about the time of Toba, new, behaviorally modern people charged so fast into the tephra that human footprints appeared in Australia within as few as 10,000 years, perhaps within 4,000 or 5,000. Stay-at-home Homo sapiens 1.0, a wallflower that would never have interested Lynn Margulis, had been replaced by aggressively expansive Homo sapiens 2.0. Something happened, for better and worse, and we were born.

One way to illustrate what this upgrade looked like is to consider Solenopsis invicta, the red imported fire ant. Geneticists believe that S. invicta originated in northern Argentina, an area with many rivers and frequent floods. The floods wipe out ant nests. Over the millennia, these small, furiously active creatures have acquired the ability to respond to rising water by coalescing into huge, floating, pullulating balls—workers on the outside, queen in the center—that drift to the edge of the flood. Once the waters recede, colonies swarm back into previously flooded land so rapidly that S. invicta actually can use the devastation to increase its range.

In the 1930s, Solenopsis invicta was transported to the United States, probably in ship ballast, which often consists of haphazardly loaded soil and gravel. As a teenaged bug enthusiast, Edward O. Wilson, the famed biologist, spotted the first colonies in the port of Mobile, Alabama. He saw some very happy fire ants. From the ant’s point of view, it had been dumped into an empty, recently flooded expanse. S. invicta took off, never looking back.

The initial incursion watched by Wilson was likely just a few thousand individuals—a number small enough to suggest that random, bottleneck-style genetic change played a role in the species’ subsequent history in this country. In their Argentine birthplace, fire-ant colonies constantly fight each other, reducing their numbers and creating space for other types of ant. In the United States, by contrast, the species forms cooperative supercolonies, linked clusters of nests that can spread for hundreds of miles. Systematically exploiting the landscape, these supercolonies monopolize every useful resource, wiping out other ant species along the way—models of zeal and rapacity. Transformed by chance and opportunity, new-model S. invictus needed just a few decades to conquer most of the southern United States.

Homo sapiens did something similar in the wake of Toba. For hundreds of thousands of years, our species had been restricted to East Africa (and, possibly, a similar area in the south). Now, abruptly, new-model Homo sapiens were racing across the continents like so many imported fire ants. The difference between humans and fire ants is that fire ants specialize in disturbed habitats. Humans, too, specialize in disturbed habitats—but we do the disturbing.

THE WORLD IS A PETRI DISH

As a student at the University of Moscow in the 1920s, Georgii Gause spent years trying—and failing—to drum up support from the Rockefeller Foundation, then the most prominent funding source for non-American scientists who wished to work in the United States. Hoping to dazzle the foundation, Gause decided to perform some nifty experiments and describe the results in his grant application.

By today’s standards, his methodology was simplicity itself. Gause placed half a gram of oatmeal in one hundred cubic centimeters of water, boiled the results for ten minutes to create a broth, strained the liquid portion of the broth into a container, diluted the mixture by adding water, and then decanted the contents into small, flat-bottomed test tubes. Into each he dripped five Paramecium caudatum or Stylonychia mytilus, both single-celled protozoans, one species per tube. Each of Gause’s test tubes was a pocket ecosystem, a food web with a single node. He stored the tubes in warm places for a week and observed the results. He set down his conclusions in a 163-page book, The Struggle for Existence, published in 1934.

Today The Struggle for Existence is recognized as a scientific landmark, one of the first successful marriages of theory and experiment in ecology. But the book was not enough to get Gause a fellowship; the Rockefeller Foundation turned down the twenty-four-year-old Soviet student as insufficiently eminent. Gause could not visit the United States for another twenty years, by which time he had indeed become eminent, but as an antibiotics researcher.

What Gause saw in his test tubes is often depicted in a graph, time on the horizontal axis, the number of protozoa on the vertical. The line on the graph is a distorted bell curve, with its left side twisted and stretched into a kind of flattened S. At first the number of protozoans grows slowly, and the graph line slowly ascends to the right. But then the line hits an inflection point, and suddenly rockets upward—a frenzy of exponential growth. The mad rise continues until the organism begins to run out of food, at which point there is a second inflection point, and the growth curve levels off again as bacteria begin to die. Eventually the line descends, and the population falls toward zero.

Years ago I watched Lynn Margulis, one of Gause’s successors, demonstrate these conclusions to a class at the University of Massachusetts with a time-lapse video of Proteus vulgaris, a bacterium that lives in the gastrointestinal tract. To humans, she said, P. vulgaris is mainly notable as a cause of urinary-tract infections. Left alone, it divides about every fifteen minutes. Margulis switched on the projector. Onscreen was a small, wobbly bubble—P. vulgaris—in a shallow, circular glass container: a petri dish. The class gasped. The cells in the time-lapse video seemed to shiver and boil, doubling in number every few seconds, colonies exploding out until the mass of bacteria filled the screen. In just thirty-six hours, she said, this single bacterium could cover the entire planet in a foot-deep layer of single-celled ooze. Twelve hours after that, it would create a living ball of bacteria the size of the earth.

Such a calamity never happens, because competing organisms and lack of resources prevent the overwhelming majority of P. vulgaris from reproducing. This, Margulis said, is natural selection, Darwin’s great insight. All living creatures have the same purpose: to make more of themselves, ensuring their biological future by the only means available. Natural selection stands in the way of this goal. It prunes back almost all species, restricting their numbers and confining their range. In the human body, P. vulgaris is checked by the size of its habitat (portions of the human gut), the limits to its supply of nourishment (food proteins), and other, competing organisms. Thus constrained, its population remains roughly steady.

In the petri dish, by contrast, competition is absent; nutrients and habitat seem limitless, at least at first. The bacterium hits the first inflection point and rockets up the left side of the curve, swamping the petri dish in a reproductive frenzy. But then its colonies slam into the second inflection point: the edge of the dish. When the dish’s nutrient supply is exhausted, P. vulgaris experiences a miniapocalypse.

By luck or superior adaptation, a few species manage to escape their limits, at least for a while. Nature’s success stories, they are like Gause’s protozoans; the world is their petri dish. Their populations grow exponentially; they take over large areas, overwhelming their environment as if no force opposed them. Then they annihilate themselves, drowning in their own wastes or starving from lack of food.

To someone like Margulis, Homo sapiens looks like one of these briefly fortunate species.

THE WHIP HAND

No more than a few hundred people initially migrated from Africa, if geneticists are correct. But they emerged into landscapes that by today’s standards were as rich as Eden. Cool mountains, tropical wetlands, lush forests—all were teeming with food. Fish in the sea, birds in the air, fruit on the trees: breakfast was everywhere. People moved in.

Despite our territorial expansion, though, humans were still only in the initial stages of Gause’s oddly shaped curve. Ten thousand years ago, most demographers believe, we numbered barely 5 million, about one human being for every hundred square kilometers of the earth’s land surface. Homo sapiens was a scarcely noticeable dusting on the surface of a planet dominated by microbes. Nevertheless, at about this time—10,000 years ago, give or take a millennium—humankind finally began to approach the first inflection point. Our species was inventing agriculture.

The wild ancestors of cereal crops like wheat, barley, rice, and sorghum have been part of the human diet for almost as long as there have been humans to eat them. (The earliest evidence comes from Mozambique, where researchers found tiny bits of 105,000-year-old sorghum on ancient scrapers and grinders.) In some cases people may have watched over patches of wild grain, returning to them year after year. Yet despite the effort and care the plants were not domesticated. As botanists say, wild cereals “shatter”—individual grain kernels fall off as they ripen, scattering grain haphazardly, making it impossible to harvest the plants systematically. Only when unknown geniuses discovered naturally mutated grain plants that did not shatter—and purposefully selected, protected, and cultivated them—did true agriculture begin. Planting great expanses of those mutated crops, first in southern Turkey, later in half a dozen other places, early farmers created landscapes that, so to speak, waited for hands to harvest them.

Farming converted most of the habitable world into a petri dish. Foragers manipulated their environment with fire, burning areas to kill insects and encourage the growth of useful species—plants we liked to eat, plants that attracted the other creatures we liked to eat. Nonetheless, their diets were largely restricted to what nature happened to provide in any given time and season. Agriculture gave humanity the whip hand. Instead of natural ecosystems with their haphazard mix of species (so many useless organisms guzzling up resources!), farms are taut, disciplined communities conceived and dedicated to the maintenance of a single species: us.

Before agriculture, the Ukraine, American Midwest, and lower Yangzi were barely hospitable food deserts, sparsely inhabited landscapes of insects and grass; they became breadbaskets as people scythed away suites of species that used soil and water we wanted to dominate and replaced them with wheat, rice, and maize (corn). To one of Margulis’s beloved bacteria, a petri dish is a uniform expanse of nutrients, all of which it can seize and consume. For Homo sapiens, agriculture transformed the planet into something similar.

As in a time-lapse movie, we divided and multiplied across the newly opened land. It had taken Homo sapiens 2.0, behaviorally modern humans, not even 50,000 years to reach the farthest corners of the globe. Homo sapiens 2.0.A—A for agriculture—took a tenth of that time to conquer the planet.

As any biologist would predict, success led to an increase in human numbers. Homo sapiens rocketed around the elbow of the first inflection point in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when American crops like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and maize were introduced to the rest of the world. Traditional Eurasian and African cereals—wheat, rice, millet, and sorghum, for example—produce their grain atop thin stalks. Basic physics suggests that plants with this design will fatally topple if the grain gets too heavy, which means that farmers can actually be punished if they have an extra-bounteous harvest. By contrast, potatoes and sweet potatoes grow underground, which means that yields are not limited by the plant’s architecture. Wheat farmers in Edinburgh and rice farmers in Edo alike discovered they could harvest four times as much dry food matter from an acre of tubers than they could from an acre of cereals. Maize, too, was a winner. Compared to other cereals, it has an extra-thick stalk and a different, more productive type of photosynthesis. Taken together, these immigrant crops vastly increased the food supply in Europe, Asia, and Africa, which in turn helped increase the supply of Europeans, Asians, and Africans. The population boom had begun.

Numbers kept rising in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, after a German chemist, Justus von Liebig, discovered that plant growth was limited by the supply of nitrogen. Without nitrogen, neither plants nor the mammals that eat plants can create proteins, or for that matter the DNA and RNA that direct their production. Pure nitrogen gas (N2) is plentiful in the air but plants are unable to absorb it, because the two nitrogen atoms in N2 are welded so tightly together that plants cannot split them apart for use. Instead, plants take in nitrogen only when it is combined with hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements. To restore exhausted soil, traditional farmers grew peas, beans, lentils, and other pulses. (They never knew why these “green manures” replenished the land. Today we know that their roots contain special bacteria that convert useless N2 into “bio-available” nitrogen compounds.) After Liebig, European and American growers replaced those crops with high-intensity fertilizer—nitrogen-rich guano from Peru at first, then nitrates from mines in Chile. Yields soared. But supplies were much more limited than farmers liked. So intense was the competition for fertilizer that a guano war erupted in 1879, engulfing much of western South America. Almost 3,000 people died.

Two more German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, came to the rescue, discovering the key steps to making synthetic fertilizer from fossil fuels. (The process involves combining nitrogen gas and hydrogen from natural gas into ammonia, which is then used to create nitrogenous compounds usable by plants.) Haber and Bosch are not nearly as well known as they should be; their discovery, the Haber-Bosch process, has literally changed the chemical composition of the earth, a feat previously reserved for microorganisms. Farmers have injected so much synthetic fertilizer into the soil that soil and groundwater nitrogen levels have risen worldwide. Today, roughly a third of all the protein (animal and vegetable) consumed by humankind is derived from synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Another way of putting this is to say that Haber and Bosch enabled Homo sapiens to extract about 2 billion people’s worth of food from the same amount of available land.

The improved wheat, rice, and (to a lesser extent) maize varieties developed by plant breeders in the 1950s and 1960s are often said to have prevented another billion deaths. Antibiotics, vaccines, and water-treatment plants also saved lives by pushing back humankind’s bacterial, viral, and fungal enemies. With almost no surviving biological competition, humankind had ever more unhindered access to the planetary petri dish: in the past two hundred years, the number of humans walking the planet ballooned from 1 to 7 billion, with a few billion more expected in coming decades.

Rocketing up the growth curve, human beings “now appropriate nearly 40% . . . of potential terrestrial productivity.” This figure dates from 1986—a famous estimate by a team of Stanford biologists. Ten years later, a second Stanford team calculated that the “fraction of the land’s biological production that is used or dominated” by our species had risen to as much as 50 percent. In 2000, the chemist Paul Crutzen gave a name to our time: the “Anthropocene,” the era in which Homo sapiens became a force operating on a planetary scale. That year, half of the world’s accessible fresh water was consumed by human beings.

Lynn Margulis, it seems safe to say, would have scoffed at these assessments of human domination over the natural world, which, in every case I know of, do not take into account the enormous impact of the microworld. But she would not have disputed the central idea: Homo sapiens has become a successful species, and is growing accordingly.

If we follow Gause’s pattern, growth will continue at a delirious speed until we hit the second inflection point. At that time we will have exhausted the resources of the global petri dish, or effectively made the atmosphere toxic with our carbon-dioxide waste, or both. After that, human life will be, briefly, a Hobbesian nightmare, the living overwhelmed by the dead. When the king falls, so do his minions; it is possible that our fall might also take down most mammals and many plants. Possibly sooner, quite likely later, in this scenario, the earth will again be a choir of bacteria, fungi, and insects, as it has been through most of its history.

It would be foolish to expect anything else, Margulis thought. More than that, it would be unnatural.

AS PLASTIC AS CANBY

In The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster’s classic, pun-filled adventure tale, the young Milo and his faithful companions unexpectedly find themselves transported to a bleak, mysterious island. Encountering a man in a tweed jacket and beanie, Milo asks him where they are. The man replies by asking if they know who he is—the man is, apparently, confused on the subject. Milo and his friends confer, then ask if he can describe himself.

“Yes, indeed,” the man replied happily. “I’m as tall as can be”—and he grew straight up until all that could be seen of him were his shoes and stockings—“and I’m as short as can be”—and he shrank down to the size of a pebble. “I’m as generous as can be,” he said, handing each of them a large red apple, “and I’m as selfish as can be,” he snarled, grabbing them back again.

In short order, the companions learn that the man is as strong as can be, weak as can be, smart as can be, stupid as can be, graceful as can be, clumsy as—you get the picture. “Is that any help to you?” he asks. Again, Milo and his friends confer, and realize that the answer is actually quite simple:

“Without a doubt,” Milo concluded brightly, “you must be Canby.”

“Of course, yes, of course,” the man shouted. “Why didn’t I think of that? I’m as happy as can be.”

With Canby, Juster presumably meant to mock a certain kind of babyish, uncommitted man-child. But I can’t help thinking of poor old Canby as exemplifying one of humankind’s greatest attributes: behavioral plasticity. The term was coined in 1890 by the pioneering psychologist William James, who defined it as “the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.” Behavioral plasticity, a defining feature of Homo sapiens’ big brain, means that humans can change their habits; almost as a matter of course, people change careers, quit smoking or take up vegetarianism, convert to new religions, and migrate to distant lands where they must learn strange languages. This plasticity, this Canby-hood, is the hallmark of our transformation from anatomically modern Homo sapiens to behaviorally modern Homo sapiens—and the reason, perhaps, we were able to survive when Toba reconfigured the landscape.

Other creatures are much less flexible. Like apartment-dwelling cats that compulsively hide in the closet when visitors arrive, they have limited capacity to welcome new phenomena and change in response. Human beings, by contrast, are so exceptionally plastic that vast swaths of neuroscience are devoted to trying to explain how this could come about. (Nobody knows for certain, but some researchers now think that particular genes give their possessors a heightened, inborn awareness of their environment, which can lead both to useless, neurotic sensitivity and greater ability to detect and adapt to new situations.)

Plasticity in individuals is mirrored by plasticity on a societal level. The caste system in social species like honeybees is elaborate and finely tuned but fixed, as if in amber, in the loops of their DNA. Some leafcutter ants are said to have, next to human beings, the biggest and most complex societies on earth, with elaborately coded behavior that reaches from disposal of the dead to complex agricultural systems. Housing millions of individuals in inconceivably ramose subterranean networks, leafcutter colonies are “Earth’s ultimate superorganisms,” Edward O. Wilson has written. But they are incapable of fundamental change. The centrality and authority of the queen cannot be challenged; the tiny minority of males, used only to inseminate queens, will never acquire new responsibilities.

Human societies are far more varied than their insect cousins, of course. But the true difference is their plasticity. It is why humankind, a species of Canbys, has been able to move into every corner of the earth, and to control what we find there. Our ability to change ourselves to extract resources from our surroundings with ever-increasing efficiency is what has made Homo sapiens a successful species. It is our greatest blessing.

Or was our greatest blessing, anyway.

DISCOUNT RATES

By 2050, demographers predict, as many as 10 billion human beings will walk the earth, 3 billion more than today. Not only will more people exist than ever before, they will be richer than ever before. In the last three decades hundreds of millions in China, India, and other formerly poor places have lifted themselves from destitution—arguably the most important, and certainly the most heartening, accomplishment of our time. Yet, like all human enterprises, this great success will pose great difficulties.

In the past, rising incomes have invariably prompted rising demand for goods and services. Billions more jobs, homes, cars, fancy electronics—these are things the newly prosperous will want. (Why shouldn’t they?) But the greatest challenge may be the most basic of all: feeding these extra mouths. To agronomists, the prospect is sobering. The newly affluent will not want their ancestors’ gruel. Instead they will ask for pork and beef and lamb. Salmon will sizzle on their outdoor grills. In winter, they will want strawberries, like people in New York and London, and clean bibb lettuce from hydroponic gardens.

All of these, each and every one, require vastly more resources to produce than simple peasant agriculture. Already 35 percent of the world’s grain harvest is used to feed livestock. The process is terribly inefficient: between seven and ten kilograms of grain are required to produce one kilogram of beef. Not only will the world’s farmers have to produce enough wheat and maize to feed 3 billion more people, they will have to produce enough to give them all hamburgers and steaks. Given present patterns of food consumption, economists believe, we will need to produce about 40 percent more grain in 2050 than we do today.

How can we provide these things for all these new people? That is only part of the question. The full question is: How can we provide them without wrecking the natural systems on which all depend?

Scientists, activists, and politicians have proposed many solutions, each from a different ideological and moral perspective. Some argue that we must drastically throttle industrial civilization. (Stop energy-intensive, chemical-based farming today! Eliminate fossil fuels to halt climate change!) Others claim that only intense exploitation of scientific knowledge can save us. (Plant super-productive, genetically modified crops now! Switch to nuclear power to halt climate change!) No matter which course is chosen, though, it will require radical, large-scale transformations in the human enterprise—a daunting, hideously expensive task.

Worse, the ship is too large to turn quickly. The world’s food supply cannot be decoupled rapidly from industrial agriculture, if that is seen as the answer. Aquifers cannot be recharged with a snap of the fingers. If the high-tech route is chosen, genetically modified crops cannot be bred and tested overnight. Similarly, carbon-sequestration techniques and nuclear power plants cannot be deployed instantly. Changes must be planned and executed decades in advance of the usual signals of crisis, but that’s like asking healthy, happy sixteen-year-olds to write living wills.

Not only is the task daunting, it’s strange. In the name of nature, we are asking human beings to do something deeply unnatural, something no other species has ever done or could ever do: constrain its own growth (at least in some ways). Zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, brown tree snakes in Guam, water hyacinth in African rivers, gypsy moths in the northeastern U.S., rabbits in Australia, Burmese pythons in Florida—all these successful species have overrun their environments, heedlessly wiping out other creatures. Like Gause’s protozoans, they are racing to find the edges of their petri dish. Not one has voluntarily turned back. Now we are asking Homo sapiens to fence itself in.

What a peculiar thing to ask! Economists like to talk about the “discount rate,” which is their term for preferring a bird in hand today over two in the bush tomorrow. The term sums up part of our human nature as well. Evolving in small, constantly moving bands, we are as hard-wired to focus on the immediate and local over the long-term and faraway as we are to prefer parklike savannas to deep dark forests. Thus, we care more about the broken stoplight up the street today than conditions next year in Croatia, Cambodia, or the Congo. Rightly so, evolutionists point out: Americans are far more likely to be killed at that stoplight today than in the Congo next year. Yet here we are asking governments to focus on potential planetary boundaries that may not be reached for decades. Given the discount rate, nothing could be more understandable than the U.S. Congress’s failure to grapple with, say, climate change. From this perspective, is there any reason to imagine that Homo sapiens, unlike mussels, snakes, and moths, can exempt itself from the natural fate of all successful species?

To biologists like Margulis, who spend their careers arguing that humans are simply part of the natural order, the answer should be clear. All life is similar at base. All species seek without pause to make more of themselves—that is their goal. By multiplying till we reach our maximum possible numbers, even as we take out much of the planet, we are fulfilling our destiny.

From this vantage, the answer to the question whether we are doomed to destroy ourselves is yes. It should be obvious.

Should be—but perhaps is not.

HARA HACHI BU

When I imagine the profound social transformation necessary to avoid calamity, I think about Robinson Crusoe, hero of Daniel Defoe’s famous novel. Defoe clearly intended his hero to be an exemplary man. Shipwrecked on an uninhabited island off Venezuela in 1659, Crusoe is an impressive example of behavioral plasticity. During his twenty-seven-year exile he learns to catch fish, hunt rabbits and turtles, tame and pasture island goats, prune and support local citrus trees, and create “plantations” of barley and rice from seeds that he salvaged from the wreck. (Defoe apparently didn’t know that citrus and goats were not native to the Americas and thus Crusoe probably wouldn’t have found them there.) Rescue comes at last in the form of a shipful of ragged mutineers, who plan to maroon their captain on the supposedly empty island. Crusoe helps the captain recapture his ship and offers the defeated mutineers a choice: trial in England or permanent banishment to the island. All choose the latter. Crusoe has harnessed so much of the island’s productive power to human use that even a gaggle of inept seamen can survive there in comfort.

To get Crusoe on his unlucky voyage, Defoe made him an officer on a slave ship, transporting captured Africans to South America. Today, no writer would make a slave seller the admirable hero of a novel. But in 1720, when Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, no readers said boo about Crusoe’s occupation, because slavery was the norm from one end of the world to another. Rules and names differed from place to place, but coerced labor was everywhere, building roads, serving aristocrats, and fighting wars. Slaves teemed in the Ottoman Empire, Mughal India, and Ming China. Unfree hands were less common in continental Europe, but Portugal, Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands happily exploited slaves by the million in their American colonies. Few protests were heard; slavery had been part of the fabric of life since the code of Hammurabi.

Then, in the space of a few decades in the nineteenth century, slavery, one of humankind’s most enduring institutions, almost vanished.

The sheer implausibility of this change is staggering. In 1860, slaves were, collectively, the single most valuable economic asset in the United States, worth an estimated $3 billion, a vast sum in those days (and about $10 trillion in today’s money). Rather than investing in factories like northern entrepreneurs, southern businessmen had sunk their capital into slaves. And from their perspective, correctly so—masses of enchained men and women had made the region politically powerful, and gave social status to an entire class of poor whites. Slavery was the foundation of the social order. It was, thundered John C. Calhoun, a former senator, secretary of state, and vice president, “instead of an evil, a good—a positive good.” Yet just a few years after Calhoun spoke, part of the United States set out to destroy this institution, wrecking much of the national economy and killing half a million citizens along the way.

Incredibly, the turn against slavery was as universal as slavery itself. Great Britain, the world’s biggest human trafficker, closed down its slave operations in 1808, though they were among the nation’s most profitable industries. The Netherlands, France, Spain, and Portugal soon followed. Like stars winking out at the approach of dawn, cultures across the globe removed themselves from the previously universal exchange of human cargo. Slavery still exists here and there, but in no society anywhere is it formally accepted as part of the social fabric.

Historians have provided many reasons for this extraordinary transition. But one of the most important is that abolitionists had convinced huge numbers of ordinary people around the world that slavery was a moral disaster. An institution fundamental to human society for millennia was swiftly dismantled by ideas and a call to action, loudly repeated.

In the last few centuries, such profound changes have occurred repeatedly. Since the beginning of our species, for instance, every known society has been based on the domination of women by men. (Rumors of past matriarchal societies abound, but few archaeologists believe them.) In the long view, women’s lack of liberty has been as central to the human enterprise as gravitation is to the celestial order. The degree of suppression varied from time to time and place to place, but women never had an equal voice; indeed, some evidence exists that the penalty for possession of two X chromosomes increased with technological progress. Even as the industrial North and agricultural South warred over the treatment of Africans, they regarded women identically: in neither half of the nation could they attend college, have a bank account, or own property. Equally confining were women’s lives in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Nowadays women are the majority of U.S. college students, the majority of the workforce, and the majority of voters. Again, historians assign multiple causes to this shift in the human condition, rapid in time, staggering in scope. But one of the most important was the power of ideas—the voices, actions, and examples of suffragists, who through decades of ridicule and harassment pressed their case. In recent years something similar seems to have occurred with gay rights: first a few lonely advocates, censured and mocked; then victories in the social and legal sphere; finally, perhaps, a slow movement to equality.

Less well known, but equally profound: the decline in violence. Foraging societies waged war less brutally than industrial societies, but more frequently. Typically, archaeologists believe, about a quarter of all hunters and gatherers were killed by their fellows. Violence declined somewhat as humans gathered themselves into states and empires, but was still a constant presence. When Athens was at its height in the fourth and fifth centuries BC, it was ever at war: against Sparta (First and Second Peloponnesian Wars, Corinthian War); against Persia (Greco-Persian Wars, Wars of the Delian League); against Aegina (Aeginetan War); against Macedon (Olynthian War); against Samos (Samian War); against Chios, Rhodes, and Cos (Social War).

In this respect, classical Greece was nothing special—look at the ghastly histories of China, sub-Saharan Africa, or Mesoamerica. Similarly, early modern Europe’s wars were so fast and furious that historians simply gather them into catchall titles like the Hundred Years’ War, followed by the shorter but even more destructive Thirty Years’ War. And even as Europeans and their descendants paved the way toward today’s concept of universal human rights by creating documents like the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Europe remained so mired in combat that it fought two conflicts of such massive scale and reach they became known as “world” wars.

Since the Second World War, however, rates of violent death have fallen to the lowest levels in known history. Today, the average person is far less likely to be slain by another member of the species than ever before—an extraordinary transformation that has occurred, almost unheralded, in the lifetime of many of the people reading this article. As the political scientist Joshua Goldstein has written, “we are winning the war on war.” Again, there are multiple causes. But Goldstein, probably the leading scholar in this field, argues that the most important is the emergence of the United Nations and other transnational bodies, an expression of the ideas of peace activists earlier in the last century.

As a relatively young species, we have an adolescent propensity to make a mess: we pollute the air we breathe and the water we drink, and appear stalled in an age of carbon dumping and nuclear experimentation that is putting countless species at risk including our own. But we are making undeniable progress nonetheless. No European in 1800 could have imagined that in 2000 Europe would have no legal slavery, women would be able to vote, and gay people would be able to marry. No one could have guessed a continent that had been tearing itself apart for centuries would be free of armed conflict, even amid terrible economic times. Given this record, even Lynn Margulis might pause (maybe).

Preventing Homo sapiens from destroying itself à la Gause would require a still greater transformation—behavioral plasticity of the highest order—because we would be pushing against biological nature itself. The Japanese have an expression, hara hachi bu, which means, roughly speaking, “belly 80 percent full.” Hara hachi bu is shorthand for an ancient injunction to stop eating before feeling full. Nutritionally, the command makes a great deal of sense. When people eat, their stomachs produce peptides that signal fullness to the nervous system. Unfortunately, the mechanism is so slow that eaters frequently perceive satiety only after they have consumed too much—hence the all-too-common condition of feeling bloated or sick from overeating. Japan—actually, the Japanese island of Okinawa—is the only place on earth where large numbers of people are known to restrict their own calorie intake systematically and routinely. Some researchers claim that hara hachi bu is responsible for Okinawans’ notoriously long life spans. But I think of it as a metaphor for stopping before the second inflection point, voluntarily forswearing short-term consumption to obtain a long-term benefit.

Evolutionarily speaking, a species-wide adoption of hara hachi bu would be unprecedented. Thinking about it, I can picture Lynn Margulis rolling her eyes. But is it so unlikely that our species, Canbys one and all, would be able to do exactly that before we round that fateful curve of the second inflection point and nature does it for us?

I can imagine Margulis’s response: You’re imagining our species as some sort of big-brained, hyperrational, benefit-cost-calculating computer! A better analogy is the bacteria at our feet! Still, Margulis would be the first to agree that removing the shackles from women and slaves has begun to unleash the suppressed talents of two-thirds of the human race. Drastically reducing violence has prevented the waste of countless lives and staggering amounts of resources. Is it really impossible to believe that we wouldn’t use those talents and those resources to draw back before the abyss?

Our record of success is not that long. In any case, past successes are no guarantee of the future. But it is terrible to suppose that we could get so many other things right and get this one wrong. To have the imagination to see our potential end, but not have the imagination to avoid it. To send humankind to the moon but fail to pay attention to the earth. To have the potential but to be unable to use it—to be, in the end, no different from the protozoa in the petri dish. It would be evidence that Lynn Margulis’s most dismissive beliefs had been right after all. For all our speed and voraciousness, our changeable sparkle and flash, we would be, at last count, not an especially interesting species.


CHARLES C. MANN’s most recent book, 1491, won the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Keck award for the best book of the year. A Correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, Science, and Wired, he has covered the intersection of science, technology, and commerce for many newspapers and magazines here and abroad, including BioScience, The Boston Globe, Fortune, Geo (Germany), The New York Times (magazine, op-ed, book review), Panorama (Italy), Paris-Match (France), Quark (Japan), Smithsonian, Der Stern (Germany), Technology Review, Vanity Fair and The Washington Post (magazine, op-ed, book review). 

Interview with Charles C. Mann — More about Charles C. Mann — More at Orion Magazine.

January 20th, 2014

The first step in solving a problem is knowing that you have a problem. Scientist David Suzuki tries to help us understand exponential growth and overpopulation with a 3.5 minute story from the laboratory. …  This problem cannot be solved by any one individual. It will require us all working together.


September 2nd, 2013

Wisdom is where you find it. …  This morning’s article was originally published in the magazine Common Ground in 2004.


Is the Universe friendly?

Geoff Olson

Albert Einstein once said the most important question a human being can ask is “Is the universe friendly?”

Think of that for a moment. How would you answer? If you think the universe is truly friendly and supportive of you, this obviously has a huge effect on your perceptions and behaviour. The same applies if you think cosmos is hostile – or just indifferent to your fate.

On a first reading, Einstein’s question is trivially true. If you’ve decided, consciously or unconsciously, that the universe is friendly, your positive outlook is likely to be mirrored by positive responses from others, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy about your world being fundamentally good. You are likely to have more friends, job offers, etc. Conversely, if you are suspicious by nature, or walk around with a cloud over your head, you’re not likely to be much fun at parties, although you may win nodding approval from fellow grumps. At the very least your life is likely to seem a series of disappointments. This is pretty self-evident stuff. From Ralph Waldo Emerson to Dale Carnegie to Wayne Dyer, most of us have heard the drill: life is what you make it.

But if it’s Einstein talking, there’s a good chance there’s more to it than this. Spend a bit of time on it, and you realize the question’s depth. This goes far beyond the soothing homilies about high self-esteem, or the pieties of religious dogmatism. This is about whether universe is friendly (unifiable, consoling) or unfriendly (neutral, fragmented, hostile, “other”). From the choice you make, you can extrapolate the direction of subsequent life decisions. Your state of being could evolve from the answer to that one all-important question. But bear with me; because it’s a big topic and this essay is all over the map, from childhood psychology to the pest problems of a Hollywood star author, to the paradoxes of cosmology and quantum physics, to the “angel” in the library.

The choice to believe in a friendly or unfriendly universe undoubtedly begins in our early years. It may well be that people who are preternaturally content, seemingly at peace with themselves and the world, were introduced to “a friendly universe” through proper nurturing as infants. Their early experiences became the foundation for their psychic life. The results of less desirable childhood beginnings are also obvious. If a child suffers a traumatic birth, and/or their parents abuse their natural trust, that individual may grow up extrapolating their experience to the whole of existence, always suspecting the worst and failing to trust in others.

Rev. Gerard Pantin is the founder of Service Volunteered for All (SERVOL) in Trinidad and Tobago. In a speech he gave in 2000, he noted how the Yequana Indians of Brazil make sure that their babies are in physical contact with the skin of another human being 24 hours a day for the first two years. “These children grow up without that emptiness that we modern people spend our lives trying to heal or cope with. A lot of our modern preoccupation with ‘feeling good’ through sex and drugs dates back to the fact that the way in which we were brought up didn’t give us the opportunity of feeling good about our infant bodies.”

Citing Einstein’s famous line, Pantin adds that “Yequana children, because of close bodily contact, not only see the universe as friendly but feel it to be loving.” Beginning with a bodily, visceral sense of an all-embracing love, the Yequena don’t intellectualize over whether the universe is friendly or not; they carry within themselves the felt conviction that they are loved beings.

That’s all well and good, a skeptic may say, but we live in a modern, fast-paced world where such bonding is difficult with our busy schedules. We have to “compete in the market,” after all. Besides, what real difference does how we feel about the universe actually make to how it really is?

Well, as they like to say in political circles, perception is reality. Sometimes we need reminding how much our expectations drive what we experience. Sci-fi author Michael Crichton supplies an amusing example in his 1988 memoir Travels. In the early seventies, flush with success from spinning his novel The Andromeda Strain into a critically and commercially acclaimed film, he bought a home in the hills of Los Angeles. A friend asked him if he was afraid of the snakes. “What snakes?” the author asked. The rattlesnakes, of course, which his friend told him, come out in force during the dry season.

Crichton returned to his magnificent new home in a complete funk and didn’t have any fun at all. He just looked for snakes. “I worried that snakes were sneaking into my bedroom, so I locked all the doors every night to keep the snakes out. I thought snakes might come to the swimming pool to drink the water, so I avoided the swimming pool, particularly in the heat of the day, because the snakes were probably sunning on my deck. I never walked around my property, because I was sure there were snakes in the bushes. I walked only on the little path on the side of the house, and I peered around every corner before I turned it. But, increasingly, I didn’t like to go outside at all. I became a prisoner in my own house. I had altered my entire behaviour and my emotional state purely on the basis of something I had been told. I still hadn’t seen any snakes. But I was now afraid.”

One day he saw his gardener tramping fearlessly around the property. The author asked if there were any rattlers in the area. Sure, his gardener replied, especially in the dry season. Wasn’t he worried? The gardener shrugged and said he’d only seen a rattler once in over six years. He simply went and got a shovel and killed it. Only one snake in six years? Crichton’s mood brightened. In rational terms, there was really nothing to be worried about. He sat by the pool for the rest of the day. As the gardener was leaving, he told the author he could be sure there were no snakes on the property, because Crichton had so many gophers.

Gophers! The very critters that the recent homeowner had spent weeks setting traps for, trying to poison, and taking potshots at with his air rifle. All to no effect whatever. “Each morning fresh gopher burrows crisscrossed my lawn. It was extremely frustrating. My house looked like National Gopher Park.” Crichton began to rethink how to deal with the tunneling terrors, and eventually the gophers’ mortal enemies came to mind. “Was there anything I could do to attract rattlesnakes to my house? Put out some favourite rattlesnake food, or some dishes of water?”

Thinking back on his conceptual gymnastics over pest problems, Crichton realized he went through a whole series of changes without ever actually seeing a snake. “I felt different only because I had shifted perspectives,” he noted, at one moment hating gophers, the next fearing snakes, the next hating gophers even more and wishing for more snakes. “Each shift in perspective was accompanied by a total change in my attitudes, the physiology, my behaviour, my emotions. I was immediately and wholly modified by each new perspective that I adopted.”

If a person can change their mind-body state that radically over something as mundane as snakes and gophers, imagine what choosing between a friendly or unfriendly universe might mean to their state of being.

Westerners aren’t like the Yequana; we demand empirical evidence for one point of view or the other. And there’s certainly no shortage of confirmation for an unfriendly universe – or unfriendly planet, at least. All you have to do is to pick up a daily paper. The universe doesn’t seem to have been too friendly recently to the women and children in Sudan, or the rest of Africa for that matter. And that’s just the cruelty humans regularly visit upon fellow humans; earthquakes, floods, volcanoes and other natural disasters dispatch thousands yearly. Randomness reigns. If there’s anything friendly here, it seems to have the same sense of humour as Mike Tyson.

And as far as mainstream science goes, some intellectuals insist it promote the idea of cosmic indifference, which is pretty much the same thing as unfriendliness from a human point of view. One of the central concepts of orthodox evolutionary theory is that humans are the products of blind chance and selection. Like all other creatures, we’re Darwin’s wind-up toys, entropically rolling around in a meaningless cosmos, duking it out for resources and mates. In this view, our purpose is no more than biological: eat, breed, and die. If you can call that purpose.

As cosmologist Steven Weinberg famously concluded in his book The First Three Minutes, “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also
seems pointless.” Yet this scientific-materialist philosophy doesn’t have to necessarily result in despair over our apparent lack of purpose here. Some intellectuals exult in the freedom this philosophy offers from the strictures of organized religion and other apparent superstitions. But others aren’t so sanguine. As physicist Nick Herbert put it in a bit of doggerel:

Some suffer from a bone-deep fear
That matter’s all that matters here
That love and hate and pretty faces
Are naught but atoms changing places.

But is modern science really so unambiguous in its assessment of a lack of purpose for sentient beings? Astronomers now tell that the fundamental constants of the universe (for example, the electron’s charge or the rest mass of the proton) are precisely set at just the right values to allow the emergence of life. This so-called “anthropic principle” has been endlessly debated by academics. Some physicists see it as evidence that, as Princeton University’s Freeman Dyson has it, “the universe must know in some sense that we were coming.” Others say the anthropic principle is no more than a tautology – a universe hostile to observers wouldn’t have anyone sitting around wondering about such things. A trendy new theory in cosmology is that we live in a fathomless “multiverse,” with universes popping into being all the time, and we just happen to be – we can only be – in one of the lucky ones.

Try as you might, it seems damnably impossible to settle Einstein’s question about a friendly universe with absolute finality, at least in any intellectual sense. If you believe that this plane of existence is all there is, and that death rings down the curtain for your little playlet, you might have some difficulty believing this universe is anything other than indifferent. Philosopher Bertrand Russell once said our knowledge must “build upon the solid bedrock of uncompromising despair,” but does this represent the heroism of unflinching realism, or an existential seed program for psychic and cultural implosion?

Either way, the unfriendly proponents can trot out innumerable historical anecdotes to make their case, from the fall of Greece to the rise of Nazi Germany. When whole societies decline, faith doesn’t necessarily protect the faithful. In fact, it’s often the faithful who are the problem, with “God’s children” killing God’s children.

This is bigger than a simple question of religious belief (after all, there are plenty of fear-driven fundamentalists who believe in an unfriendly universe presided over by a smite-happy deity). Ultimately, it seems to come down to taking a leap of faith, and choosing to buy into one universe or the other. Einstein didn’t say the universe was or wasn’t friendly; he said it was the most important question a human being can ask. It is what you choose to believe that is critical. And here’s where things get really interesting, because choice has a very, very, interesting relationship to the quantum world.

A fundamental experiment in quantum physics involves shining a beam of light at a barrier with two open slits. Some of the light gets through the barrier, forming an interference pattern on a screen. This indicates light has the property of a wave. Yet if you close one slit, leaving the other open, the light appears as just a single shaft of light built up photon by photon on the screen, which indicates that light has a particle property.

Forget for a moment that no one has ever truly figured out how light can be both a particle and a wave at the same time, things which are as different as baseballs and Bach fugues. The critical part is that how it behaves depends upon the experimental setup. Ask nature a question a certain way, and you get a certain answer. (According to quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg, “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”) Recent variations on this experiment, where scientists try to “trick” light by changing the testing apparatus while the photons are in flight, have only led to the spooky conclusion that the light behaves as if it knows what the experimenters are up to. That seems like a pretty nutty interpretation. The one marginally less nutty alternative, favoured by most quantum physicists is that our intentions seem to drive, in large part, how certain physical phenomenon manifest to our consciousness.

In other words, the nature of the question determines the reality you perceive. Our choice plays a critical role in determining the outcome of a situation in our local space-time – at least for experiments with photons. If our choices have this kind of dynamic going with the quantum world, the question then becomes how deep does this craziness run? Scientists insist such paradoxical phenomena are limited to the nano-world of the quantum. At larger scales, they are smudged out by the cancellation of a huge number of differing quantum states. It’s called “decoherence,” and it prevents the Alice in Wonderland weirdness of quantum physics from erupting into the kitchen, boardroom, or lab. Yet with the discovery of “microtubules” in human neurons, there is some evidence that the human brain may actually process some information on a quantum level, which may or may not reopen this whole can of worms for the macro level of reality.

So what does this all mean? Is the universe the ultimate Rorschach blot, with the meaning only what we read into it? Or is there something even more interesting than this going on?

From “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics to the research into parapsychology at Princeton and other universities, it is apparent that the simple push-pull, subject-object model of reality is no longer tenable. What we are discovering is that sentient beings bring a profound level of participation to the construction of reality. Of course, the create-our-own-reality idea has been around for some time, but the situation may be more subtle, and even stranger, than we think.

How far does consciousness go in determining the reality we experience? Earlier, I remarked on some remarkable experiments in physics that demonstrate the bizarre role played by the observer/experimenter, and how the nature of their inquiry conditions the answer received. In a 1978 lecture, author John Michell took this idea one step further, describing what he saw as the universe’s habit “of reflecting back ideas projected onto it, of seeming to provide positive evidence for any theory that can possibly be formulated.” He claimed you could test it for yourself. “Take the wildest idea imaginable, commit yourself to believing it, become obsessed with it, and you’ll soon find all kinds of evidence turning up as confirmation of it.”

“This same risk is notoriously inherent in all occult studies. If one is studying a subject intensely, particularly if writing about it, ideas on that subject from unknown sources flood into the mind, and phenomena connected with it may even intrude into one’s life, as the raven of Edgar Allen Poe intruded upon the midnight scholar.”

According to Michell, this phenomenon infects scientific research. “The great Charles Fort gave several humorous instances of the same experiment yielding two different results, each one gratifying the experimenter.” Recently, the same problem has been noted in parapsychology investigations into the “sense of being stared at.” PhD psychologist Dean Radin notes the hair-raising possibility that the scientific world picture may be in large part an extremely robust consensual hallucination, cobbled together by the participatory nature of our collective consciousness with the physical world.

“The universe is so generous that it gives to anyone, crank, scientist or religious believer, the evidence which confirms his particular belief or theory,” wrote Michell.

If there is any merit to this meta-mad idea – and it may be worthwhile to entertain it for a while before you choose to discard it for its crazy consequences – it means we need to be very choosy about what we believe in. There is more at stake than just our choice of words; it means we can power our delusions and fantasies far more than we previously thought. That sounds like the royal road to the loony bin – the old line that “neurotics build castles in the sky, but psychotics live in them” – but according to Michell there is more to this than just the “delusory tendencies in the universal feedback effect.”

“I now come to the interesting part, the way in which the effect can be used creatively,” he said. “Study a subject, allow it to obsess you, ask questions of it, and next time you visit a library, a bookstore or a friend’ s house, you may pick up the one book in the world which gives the answer you were looking for. Coincidences can be invoked. I have asked many writers about this, and nearly all of them were able to give striking personal examples of being helped by this useful aspect of the feedback effect which Arthur Koestler attributes to library angels.”

After reading through a score of library cases, wrote the late Arthur Koestler, “one is tempted to think of library angels in charge of providing cross-references.” Koestler was the one who put the seraphic spin on this particular species of good fortune. His library angel will be no stranger to many writers, readers and researchers. Whether she’s sister to serendipity, or just cousin to dumb luck, she seems to make her appearance at the moment when your guard is down. You’re either idly seeking some piece of trivia, or giving up on some search through the stacks, when suddenly the right book or magazine falls at your feet open at the right passage. The sign of a friendly universe, or just a playful one? Or just a misinterpretation of chance events?

In Notes From a Small Island, travel writer Bill Bryson tells of his own encounter with the library angel, after pitching a story to a travel magazine on, of all things, extraordinary coincidences.

“When I came to write the article,” Bryson writes, “I realized that, although I had plenty of information about scientific studies into the probability of coincidence, I didn’t have nearly enough examples of remarkable coincidences themselves…” After writing a letter to the magazine saying he wouldn’t be able to deliver, Bryson “left the letter on top of his typewriter to post the next day,” and drove off to his job at The Times of London. Here he saw a notice on the door of an elevator, altering staff to the literary editor’s annual sale of review copies sent to The Times. “The place was full of mingling people. I stepped into the melee and what should be the very first book my eyes fell on but a paperback called Remarkable True Coincidences. How’s that for a remarkable true coincidence? But here’s the uncanny thing. I opened it up and found that the very first coincidence it discussed concerned a man named Bryson.”

Of course, given the millions, if not billions, of variables that interact throughout the course of the day, it’s impossible for there not to be the occasional coincidences, which are no more than that. But every once in a while some whopper drops on your head that gives you doubts. When a highly unlikely textual coincidence occurred to astrophysicist Jacques Vallee during a Los Angeles cab ride, he was inspired to consider the nature of chance. Pondering the equivalence of energy and information, Vallee decided “we live in the associative universe of the software scientist rather than the sequential universe of the space-time physicist.” Which means our focus on a given idea or emotion may be like performing a cosmic file request.

The library angel and related phenomenon suggest something like a Google-search aspect to existence, or, to use a different metaphor, that the universe occasionally behaves the way an author does with the characters in his or her novel. This brings us back to Michell, and what he concluded from all “the hermetic quality of the universe, the way it will respond to desires implanted in it and reflect back images projected onto it.” Michell said that “we are all, individually and collectively, responsible for the world as it really is, which is how we experience it.”

“In terms of objective fact there is little to choose between any cosmology, traditional or scientific,” he insisted, a claim that is even more radical than the postmodernist deconstruction of truth, and one that I have some problem with myself. But this doesn’t have to lead to a nightmare of relativism, because reality construction is a largely a collective act, according to the author. Since we get back what we project, why not believe in the best option? (Paranoia is the belief that the world is out to get you. Pronoia is the suspicion the universe is a conspiracy on your behalf. )

“Evidently therefore it is to our advantage to regard this best of all possible universes, this fascinating organism of which we are part, with the most high-minded expectations in the knowledge that as we imagine this world and our relationship to it, so it will become.”

A good argument for believing the universe is friendly rather than unfriendly? You may not be convinced, but then, neither am I (If the reader has doubts, that goes double for this writer). But considering the potential return, I’m willing to go with it, even if Michell’s idea seems somewhat Pollyanish – the “best of all possible worlds” lampooned by Voltaire in his novel Candide. It’s also an idea fundamentally alien to the materialism of Western thought. In any case, the straightforward idea that our thoughts have consequences in the world we live in is beyond argument. Whether it’s a cantata or a cruise missile, every cultural artifact we humans have conjured into physical existence began as a dream in someone’s head.

But how do we jibe Michell’s sentiments with declining living standards, species decline, resource wars, and environmental breakdown? It appears Homo sap is in for a serious ass kicking from an episode of When Good Biospheres Go Bad. If conscious intent plays this much a role in the universe we live in, we’ve apparently been thinking some very bad thoughts for quite some time.

This brings us to the nature of the world we’ve created, which some would cite as evidence for an unfriendly universe. But who imagined it into being? From the feudal-era heathen-beating by the Holy Roman Empire to the structural adjustment programs of the International Monetary Fund, westerners have built their lifestyles to an great degree on the suffering of others. The Christian God, the first deity we conquered under, was imagined by believers as alternately beneficent and wrathful. The second god, capital, has its own bipolar disorder.

In the 1920s, German sociologist Walter Benjamin recognized the religious dimensions to the worship of money. “It (capitalism) is a religion because it is based on faith – untested and unproven by the individual acolyte – in materialism and rationalism. It is a passive worldview, a negative theology,” he wrote. (We can replace the neoMarxist scholar’s “capitalism” with “crony corporatism” if we like.)

Although he wasn’t directly addressing the topic of belief in a friendly/unfriendly universe, it lies at the heart of his thesis. “Disbelief in any spiritual reality is also a belief system,” he noted. “The capitalist mind perceives the world purely in terms of material resources to be used for its benefit, to increase productivity and profit without thought of long-term consequence. If there is still a vague and oppressive sense of guilt, of wrongness and imbalance, this gnawing guilt spurs capitalism on to greater acts of consumption, more violent attempts to subjugate nature, more totalizing efforts to create distractions. To the “rational materialist” mind, death is the end of everything, and this thought feeds its rage against nature, which has placed it in this position of despair. The destruction of the world is revenge against a vanished God, and a drastic attempt to invoke the spiritual powers.”

“Capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement … The nature of the religious movement which is capitalism entails the endurance right to the end, to the point where God, too, finally takes on the entire burden of guilt, to the point where the universe has been taken over by that despair which is actually its secret hope. Capitalism is entirely without precedent, in that it is a religion, which offers not the reform of existence but its complete destruction. It is the expansion of despair, until despair becomes a religious state of the world in the hope that this will lead to salvation.”

Decades before the resource wars of the present day, Benjamin insisted “the destruction of the world as the real goal of world capitalism – its systemic hope and transcendent ideal.”

That may seem more than a bit extreme, but these musings may have even greater resonance now than they did in Benjamin’s time. We seemed to have reached a spiritual brick wall in our secular ways of thinking and feeling. The ads don’t deliver, the politics don’t heal, and the science doesn’t connect. We know all too well the damage that organized religion can do, but we’re also beginning to understanding the destructiveness of our financial – corporate networks and the military-industrial complex that protect their interests. It’s not that there are no options – it’s that the marginalization of these options fuels a profound despair, along with a growing sense that we have passed beyond the point of no return. Ironically, this despair is likely to feed the addictions, violence, clinical depression, endless distraction, and retail therapy that is already ingrained in North American culture, encouraging further its monstrous
consumption of resources and human potential.

This is the true horror of the world we have imagined into being. If children are not nurtured properly in homes where true love prevails, and are raised in a culture endorsing deceit and a Darwinian competition for jobs and resources, a “friendly universe,” one they could have otherwise internalized as emotionally real for themselves, may elude them all their lives.

In the so-called First World, we seem to have dug ourselves into a God-sized hole. But the First Law of Holes is to stop digging. If there is some vast consciousness that dreamed this whole shebang into existence, one thing we embody from Him/Her/Whatever is a spark from the fire of creation: the power to choose, to imagine, and to dream new worlds into being.

But remember the quantum experiments I cited earlier, and the lesson from light: often, the way in which we ask a question is inextricably bound to the reality we will be answered with. At the end of her book on remote viewing experimentation, Multidimensional Mind, Dr. Jean Millay summed up how consciousness can become an active partner with the world we inhabit. The final sentence of the book is highlighted in script, so the reader recognizes its importance: “Real magic can be created by maintaining a steady focus of intention through an appropriate belief system.” Don’t believe it? Consider that a single shlumpy guy in a baseball cap may help swing the next US election, through a documentary that was released domestically against all odds. If Michael Moore’s not one person creating magic, I don’t know what is.

The universe manifests in many forms, from sunsets to soccer hooligans, seemingly supplying us with abundant reason to decide either which way. The answer we decide, ultimately, is intimately connected to our own deepest level of being. According to the scientific picture of the world, the very chemical elements of our bodies were cooked up in the hearts of supernovae; we have a certain identity with the universe itself. And throughout history, in certain “occult” branches of mainstream religions – Kabala, Sufism, and neoPlatonic traditions – there is the radical idea that our existence is neither accidental nor alienated from its source. In these traditions, the immense variety of creation is simply an itemized efflorescence of the divine. At bottom, there is no otherness to the foundation of being – although we have the free will to think or believe otherwise.

I suspect our answer to Einstein’s question involves nothing less than the universe answering itself, through the agency of the human heart and mind. Will our decision, yes or no, mean we will receive the kind of subtle verification Michell speaks of? This isn’t an experiment for the Royal Society or the National Research Council; it’s a subjective test each person must perform on their own.

But it’s a tricky question. There is a line from transcendentalists like Walt Whitman and Emerson to the practitioners of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People to the “looking out for number one” ethos of self-advancement, which has created a philosophy of winning at all costs. The results are obvious. The problem is that conflating the ego, rather than the self, with a rewarding god or universe has mostly been a recipe for disaster.

Albert Einstein is not on record as saying the universe is actually friendly or not; he concerned himself with the importance of asking the question. As in the theory of relativity, the position of the observer is fundamental.

Einstein was as much a philosopher as he was a scientist, and he was more interested in the meaningful answers than cold abstractions. His desire for an ultimate unification of knowledge included life, human nature, human intelligence and human personality. As author Charles Hansen pointed out in The Technology of Love, the question Einstein posed was deceptively simple, “but it becomes the most profound of questions, for it has no meaning outside of human observation, of all that humans are, and all that we might become.”

The storm that brews on the horizon, the flag that whips in the breeze, the hand outstretched by a stranger, the gaze of a lover; whether we’ve projected our self into the skies or onto our nation, or through the pupils of a fellow human being, the same question brews for all of us: are you friendly or not? Storms occasionally destroy property, friends sometimes betray us, and government doesn’t always have our best interests at heart. But what if you add it all together and ask the universe as a whole? Perhaps the answer depends on the way you put the question.


Geoff Olson is a Vancouver writer and political cartoonist, you can visit his website here.

August 12th, 2013

I will be teaching this coming Saturday, August 17th, in Pacific Grove, CA, join me if you can. I will be discussing The 5th Force in Universe and Enlightened CommUnity. Here is a link to the announcement.


Enlightened CommUnity

Timothy Wilken, MD

As we enter the second year of the second decade of the twenty-first century, our human species is in crisis. Every human knows we are in crisis. The evidence is all around us and fills the stories of our daily lives. Descriptions of this crisis fill the front pages of our newspapers, dominate the television network’s nightly news broadcasts, are the obsession of cable network’s talking heads, and provide the focus for countless blogs on the web. Our current human behavior, and our current methods of organizing ourselves are helpless in solving our problems. Our old ways of behaving and our old ways of organizing our communities are proving to be obsolete. They cannot solve our problems; in fact, they are the very cause of most of our problems. If we are to surmount our human crisis, we will need to change our behavior, and change the way we organize our communities.

Today, our problems are so difficult that they are overwhelming our individual abilities to solve them. We are rapidly entering into a state of what I call individual overwhelm. It is becoming increasingly difficult for modern humans to solve their problems as separate individuals. But what is difficult for individuals working separately is often much easier for individuals working together. Instead of asking, “How can I meet my needs and solve my problems,” we must learn to ask, “How can we meet our needs and solve our problems?”

I am a synergic scientist. The word synergy derives from two Greek roots: erg meaning “to work,” and syn meaning “together;” hence, the term synergy simply means working together. Synergic science is simply the study of working together. It is a relatively new science, but it has produced a powerful new understanding of human behavior and of human organization. Synergic science reveals a relatively simple solution to our human crisis. That solution requires that we work together and act responsibly.

The human behavior that best supports acting responsibly is called Enlightenment. The natural attributes of enlightened humans — kindness, compassion, calmness, peace, tranquility, intelligence, genius, wisdom, and goodness — insure responsible action. Enlightenment changes individual human behavior.

The organizational pattern that best supports working together is called CommUnity. When individuals form a CommUnity, they discover that they can accomplish much more by working together than they can by working separately. CommUnity utilizes synergic union. Examples of synergic union include operating together as in co-operation, laboring together as in co-laboration, acting together as in co-action, creating together as in co-creation, and thinking together as in co-intelligence. These examples of synergic union require shared motivations, shared emotions, shared intelligence and shared knowing. CommUnity must be structured so that the process of working together fosters shared values, shared goals, shared dreams, shared hopes, shared responsibility, shared commitment, and of most importance, shared authority. CommUnity changes collective human behavior. To solve today’s problems and exit our current human crisis will require nothing less than the creation of Enlightened CommUnities.

Read a 70 page overview and summary of the concept of Enlightened CommUnity on PDF.

August 5th, 2013

This morning’s author is one of my favorite scientific philosophers. This article is re-posted from the Nov/Dec 2010 Issue of Tikkun.


Nature Has a Mind of Its Own

Christian de Quincey

The great American psychologist William James had just finished a lecture on the nature of reality when a little old lady approached him. “Excuse me, Professor,” she said, “but I’m afraid you’ve got it all wrong. The world is really supported on the back of a great big turtle.”

The venerable professor, being a gentleman, decided to humor the woman: “Tell me, then, what is holding the turtle up?”

Quick as a flash, the old lady snapped back: “Another turtle, of course.”

“And what’s supporting that turtle?” James asked, trying gently to get her to see her mistake. The conversation went on like this for another round or two until the little old lady interrupted with a noticeable tremor of exasperation:

“Save your breath, sonny. It’s turtles all the way down.”

Image "TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN" BY KENNETH ROUGEAU (KENNETHROUGEAU.COM).At least so the story goes (though some associate it with Bertrand Russell instead of William James). True or not, the “turtle” incident illustrates a fundamental intuition we all share about the nature of reality: Something can’t come from nothing. Something must “go all the way down” or all the way back. Even the Big Bang must have had some kind of “fuse.” (Religions, of course, say it was God.)

James was teaching around the turn of the last century, but the little old lady’s point still carries force. In the modern-day version, turtles are replaced by consciousness. The question now is not what is holding the world up, but where did mind or consciousness come from? In a purely physical universe, the existence of mind is a profound puzzle. And if we are to believe the standard scientific view on this, then mind emerged from wholly mindless matter. But just how this occurred remains a complete mystery. In fact, in Radical Nature, I make the case that it couldn’t happen without a miracle. And miracles have no place in science. Instead, our best option is to revive the old lady’s insight and proclaim that “consciousness goes all the way down.” Mind has always existed in the universe. Cosmos — the world of nature — has a mind of its own.

Searching for the “Soul Line”

What’s the greatest mystery facing every person on the planet? Ultimately, it’s some version of the age-old “Where do I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going?” And these questions, which lie at the heart of all philosophy and religion, can be summed up as: “How do I fit in?” How do we humans (with our rich interior lives of emotions, feelings, imaginations, and ideas) fit into the world around us? According to science, the world is made up of mindless, soulless, purely physical atoms and energy. So far, no one has a satisfactory explanation for the existence of nonphysical minds in this otherwise physical universe.

We lack an explanation because our questions already assume something quite disturbing. We assume we are split from nature. We assume that humans are somehow special, that we have minds or souls while the rest of nature doesn’t. Some of us draw the “soul line” at higher animals and some of us draw it at living organisms; few of us draw no line at all. Ask yourself: Are rocks conscious? Do animals or plants have souls? Have you ever wondered whether worms or insects might feel pain or pleasure? Can trees feel anything at all? Your answers will reveal where you are likely to draw the line.

In philosophy, this is called the “consciousness cut.” Where, in the great unfolding of evolution, did consciousness first appear? In contemporary philosophy and science, the cut-off is usually made at brains — if not human brains, then the brains of higher mammals. Only creatures with highly developed brains or nervous systems possess consciousness, so the scientific story goes.

Because of our assumed “specialness,” because of the deep fissure between humans and the rest of nature, and because of the mind-body split, we need a new understanding of how we — ensouled, embodied humans — fit into the world of nature. Our current worldview, based on the materialist philosophy of modern science, presents us with a stark and alienating vision of a world that is intrinsically devoid of meaning, of purpose, of value — a world without a mind of its own, a world without soul. And this worldview has had dramatic and catastrophic consequences for our environment, for countless species of animals and plants, and for the ecosystems that sustain us all. To be more specific, here’s an outline of just some of those consequences.

Ecological crisis: Our environment is being rapidly destroyed. We are right now experiencing a widespread, global crisis of unprecedented proportions involving climate disruption, global warming, and the destruction of rain forests, along with their precious biodiversity. We are now in the midst of the sixth major species extinction since life began on our planet. According to some experts, 50 percent of species currently alive will have disappeared by the end of this century.

Technologies of mass destruction: Through science and engineering, our civilization has developed awesome technologies of destruction (some intentional, some not). Potent nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons threaten the survival of our species, and much of the rest of nature, and many “benign” technologies produce unexpected side effects that pollute and degrade our atmosphere and environment.

Deep alienation: People are alienated from nature. To grasp just how divorced we are from the natural world, imagine trying to find your way home from another town, or even just across town, using only natural landmarks (without following maps or street signs). How sensitive and attuned are you to the natural landscape in which you live? How much has been blocked out, even obliterated, by the constructed environment of tarmac, concrete and steel?

Such alienation leads to all kinds of personal and social problems — for example, people feeling split from their own bodies and from other people, often unable to integrate their emotions and feelings with their rational minds, often becoming (or at least believing themselves to be) some kind of social misfit. How many people feel at home in their own bodies or feel comfortable at work, with their families, and with strangers? Millions struggle to search for meaning in a meaningless universe.

Where Do We Turn for Answers — Science or Religion?

Unfortunately, modern science and philosophy are a major source of the problem: their basic story or worldview is “materialism” and they understand the world as made up of “dead atoms.” According to science, human consciousness “emerged” from dead, insentient matter. Nature itself is without any intrinsic meaning, value, or purpose because it has no consciousness. For science, there is no spirit in nature. Humans are at odds with the rest of the world — we are intelligent; nature is dumb. By an accident of nature, we are special.

However, science may be seriously mistaken when it asserts that consciousness is a product of complex brains, and that the rest of vital nature is a product of mindless, purposeless, unfeeling evolution. We may not be so special.

And, as for religion, conventional doctrines promise a reward in some afterlife. They do not teach us to look for meaning in nature. God is supernatural, transcendent, above and beyond the world. Yet we are all conscious beings, aching for meaning. We want meaning in this life.

In times of crisis, such as the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe or the Gulf of Mexico fiasco, people are much more likely to wonder about God’s relevance and participation in natural events. The idea that nature has a mind of its own means that the natural intelligence of the world — unlike a remote God of the skies — is not preoccupied with exclusively human concerns. Larger forces are at work in the world, and it serves us to pay attention and recognize that we are integral parts of nature, that the divine is all around us, and that humans do not get any special treatment.

According to many forms of religion, we are special by divine fiat. God gave us souls, so that we may survive and transcend the inevitable corruption of the flesh. Human consciousness, spirit, or soul is separate from the physical body, and the path to meaning and salvation is through prayer to a remote, transcendent God. Attention is focused elsewhere, either toward the heavens or toward priests, rabbis, or mullahs.

But the path to the sacred may not be through clergy or churches. In my experience, the sacred is all around us in nature — I experience it while watching a sunset, playing with animals, walking through a forest or on a beach, swimming in the ocean, climbing a mountain, planting flowers or vegetables, filling my lungs with fresh air, smelling the mulch of rich nourishing soil, dancing through crackling autumn leaves, comforting an injured pet, embracing a loved one, or holding the hand of a dying parent.

The most direct way to God, I believe, is through touching and feeling the Earth and its inhabitants — being open to the expression of spirit in the most ordinary, as well as in the most awesome, events of daily life. The way to meaning in our lives is by reconnecting with the world of nature — through exuberant participation or through the stillness of meditation, just being present and listening. And when we do so, we hear, we feel, and we learn: we are not alone — we are not uniquely special.

For the most part, neither mainstream science nor conventional religion recognizes that humans are not essentially different from the rest of nature. Both regard matter and the world as “dumb.” Both assert that human beings are somehow special and stand apart because, they say, only human beings — or at least creatures with brains and nervous systems — have consciousness or souls. On the contrary, I say, consciousness goes all the way down.

Mind: The Big Mystery in Evolution

I first became fascinated with consciousness as a seven- or eight-year-old kid in Ireland. The trigger event was discovering an entry on “evolution” in my father’s tattered encyclopedia. An old line drawing of a dinosaur caught my attention: not only was I descended from my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on, but the entire human race evolved from some ape-like ancestors, who came from even more primitive mammals, who came from reptiles, who came from amphibians, who came from fishes, who came from jellyfishes, who came from clumps of cells, all the way down to bacteria-like single-celled “infusoria,” as they were called in the encyclopedia (which tells you how old it was). I was astounded to learn that my earliest relatives were bacteria!

I spoke the word aloud, enjoying the onomatopoeia — “e-v-o-l-u-t-i-o-n.” It sounded like a great unfolding, a rolling out of hidden forms, now mimicked in the way my tongue uncurled from the roof of my mouth.

Then something astounding grabbed me: not only was I mesmerized by images of descending species culminating in this young fella sitting there at that moment reading a big, dusty old book, but somehow that stupendous unfolding also managed to produce the ability to look back and contemplate the process of evolution itself. Somehow, somewhere along the line, evolution had become aware of itself.

At what stage did evolution produce consciousness? I had no answers. The encyclopedia gave no clues, and my parents and teachers, it seemed, could hardly understand my questions. They spoke to me of “souls” and “God’s mysterious ways,” and I was left wondering and unsatisfied because, as far as I could make out, they were telling me only humans had souls. But such religious “explanations” did not fit what I had learned from the encyclopedia, nor what I experienced for myself. No, whatever “consciousness” or “soul” was, it was not unique to humans — but how far back did it go?

I grew up puzzled. Not that such questions burned in my thoughts every day; but from time to time I would think back on those dinosaurs and infusoria and wonder about evolution, wonder about the feelings and thoughts pulsing through me and other creatures.

Radical Nature

In this article, and in my book Radical Nature, I call for a radically new understanding of nature. By “radical,” I mean a view of matter radically different from what we learn through science and philosophy. I mean intrinsically sentient matter. “Radical” comes from the Latin radix, meaning “root,” the foundation or source of something. Etymologically, “radical” is related to “radial,” which means branching out in all directions from a common center or root, and to “radiant,” which means, variously, filled with light, shining, sending out rays of light, emanating from a source, manifesting well-being, wholeness, pleasure, or love. “Radical Nature,” therefore, implies nature that is sentient to its roots, composed of matter that feels something of the nature of wholeness and love all the way down, and that radiates, or moves itself, from the depths of its own being.

French Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin suggested something similar in his concept of “radial energy,” which he proposed was the interior source of universal attraction and love between all elements of the cosmos, pulling them toward increased complexity (contrasted with “tangential energy,” the energy physicists work with, pulling in the direction of chaos and entropy).

The standard scientific view, by contrast, is that nature is composed of “dead matter” — so that even living systems consist, ultimately, of unfeeling, purposeless, meaningless atoms or quarks embedded in equally unfeeling, purposeless, and meaningless fields of force. I challenge this materialist view, and claim that not only is it incoherent but that it is also very dangerous.

The notion of human specialness lies at the core of our civilization’s dominant stories. In the grand narratives we tell ourselves — in our cosmologies, and scientific and religious worldviews that try to make sense of the fact that we are here at all — humans are typically the central characters.

But, as I argue in Radical Nature, humans (or even animals) are not the only creatures with minds. The entire world of nature tingles with consciousness. Nature literally has a mind of its own. It feels and responds to our presence.

Consciousness All the Way Down

Contrary to what is taught in science today, consciousness is not produced by brains. In fact you don’t even need a brain to have a mind. All animals, all plants, even bacteria have something we would call “mind.” I’m saying that all bodies of any kind — all matter — has consciousness “all the way down” to atoms and beyond to quarks, or quanta or whatever lies at the root of physical reality. In this view, all of nature, all bodies — from atoms to humans — tingle with the spark of spirit.

This is an uncommon view, called “panpsychism,” and it presents a radical and controversial account of the relationship between bodies and minds, between matter and soul. To be sure, the nature of mind remains a deep mystery for science and philosophy. But success at healing the mind-body split so characteristic of our age depends, I believe, more on a revised understanding of the nature of matter.

In the view I’m proposing, all matter feels, is sentient, and has experience. Matter is adventurous — as it probes and directs its way through the long, winding path of evolution. From its first appearance after the Big Bang — from the first atom, molecule, and cell — to the magnificence and glory of the human brain, the great unfolding of evolution is literally the story the universe is telling to itself. The cosmos is enacting the greatest epic drama imaginable. Truly, it is the greatest story ever told. And we are just one of the storytellers. In the evolution of the cosmos, matter itself is the prime storyteller.

A “New” and Ancient Philosophy

Panpsychism (or what I call “radical naturalism”) tells us that matter itself, from the very start (the Big Bang, perhaps) arrived on the scene already tingling with consciousness. Consciousness is not something separate from matter (as dualism tells us), nor is it produced by matter in the form of brains or nervous systems (as materialism insists). Instead, panpsychism tells us that matter — all matter — has its own interiority, an ability to feel, to have a point of view, and the ability to move itself from within. In everyday street-speak, we might say, “matter has a mind of its own.” In its most primitive form matter is (and always was) sentient, “alive.”

This, then, is the “new” story of the universe and the stuff it is made of. If we are to feel at home in the cosmos, if we are to be open to the full inflowing and outpouring of its profound creativity, and if we are not to feel isolated and alienated from the full symphony of cosmic matter — both as distant as the far horizon of time, and as near as the flesh of our own bodies — we need a new cosmology story. We need a new way to envision our relationship to the full panorama of the crawling, burrowing, swimming, gliding, flying, circulating, flowing, rooted, and embedded Earth. We need to be and to feel, as well as to think and believe, differently about nature.

Actually this is a very ancient idea — one of the oldest worldviews, predating Plato and the ancient Greeks. In my book, I trace the lineage of panpsychism back to before the birth of philosophy — to the ancient tradition of shamanism, in fact. And then I show how, throughout history to the present day, some great philosophers have also shared this view. The philosophy of materialism that dominates our world today is, by comparison, a late arrival — a kind of detour that has run its course.

Minds from Brains?

Modern science and philosophy are in the dark about consciousness. They cannot even begin to explain how consciousness could emerge from the brain. Materialists such as Berkeley philosopher John Searle simply claim it as a given, obvious “fact.” But it is not at all obvious. As it turns out, science is utterly at a loss to explain how this could happen. Indeed, getting spirit-like consciousness from the stuff of the physical brain would require a miracle. But miracles are exactly what scientific materialism denies are possible. In short, for materialism to be true, it would have to be false! Now that’s a real dilemma. As soon as science begins to pay attention to consciousness it runs into a dead end. It draws a blank.

When pressed, neuroscientists typically say: “We don’t have all the facts just yet. One day we will, and when that day arrives, then we can give you the full explanation.” In the meantime it’s “just obvious” that mind or consciousness arises from the immense complexity of the brain, or as Searle puts it, the brain squirts out consciousness like the liver secretes bile. But that’s not science, it’s “promissory materialism.” Materialists would like us to believe their promise that one day they will have “all the facts” to explain the mystery. But asking us to believe without any evidence is “faith,” not science.

And then they point out that science is always progressing, always gaining more knowledge. Isn’t it possible, then, that one day they will have “all the facts”? I don’t think so. And here’s why (I’ll try not to get too technical): According to scientific materialism all of reality is ultimately physical. Reality is objective — wholly and thoroughly. If so, the challenge facing science is to explain how it could be possible — even in principle — for one kind of reality (completely physical and objective) to suddenly (or even gradually) jump to an entirely different kind of reality (one that is subjective and nonphysical): consciousness. That’s where the miracle is required — an ontological jump from an utterly cold, lifeless, unfeeling, and unknown universe to one that now possesses creatures sparkling with life, with feeling, with consciousness. What could possibly account for that “reality jump”?

In philosophy, we call it the “ontological gap” between two radically different kinds of reality. No amount of complex feedback loops in the brain or nervous system can make that jump because all those loops in the brain are themselves still objective — they can be observed, they can be measured, they are physical. Consciousness is notoriously non-physical (you cannot observe or measure it). In short, you cannot get subjectivity (a state of reality with feeling and sentience) from a state of reality that didn’t have the slightest trace of consciousness to begin with. You can’t get something from nothing, as James’s little old lady was at pains to point out. If you begin with “dead” matter, it stays dead — no matter how complex and twisted it becomes.

Philosopher Colin McGinn put it this way: “Somehow, we feel, the water of the physical brain is turned into the wine of consciousness, but we draw a total blank on the nature of this conversion…. The mind-body problem is the problem of understanding how the miracle is wrought.”

The Most Terrifying Story Ever Told

So what? Why should anyone, other than philosophers, care about the mind-body problem? What difference does it make in real life? I think it makes a big difference. As novelist Daniel Quinn noted in Ishmael, we don’t just tell our stories, we enact them. In other words, we live our stories, and we change the world accordingly. In my book, I make the point that all our worldviews, philosophies, cosmologies, mythologies, and so on are ultimately nothing but stories (despite their fancy names). They are ways we have of telling ourselves who we are, how we came to be, and where we’re going. We tell ourselves these grand stories to make some sense of the fact that we are here at all. But we don’t just tell these stories. We live them, we enact them.

Today, we live in a world dominated by the story called scientific materialism, where nature is believed to be made up of “dead” stuff, of lifeless atoms and molecules. Nature has no consciousness, no feelings, no intrinsic value, meaning, or purpose. And so we relate to nature without sufficient respect for its inherent sacredness. We plunder and rape and exploit it, and the consequences are not at all pretty. We face looming crises in ecology, in social systems, and in our personal lives as we struggle to make sense and meaning out of a world made up of cold, mindless, meaningless stuff. In such a world, all life — including human life and consciousness — is just a fluke, an accident. This is an alarming story, and it has drastic consequences.

Bertrand Russell, one of the most respected and influential philosophers of the twentieth century, wrote:

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

This may be the most terrifying story ever told — nevertheless, it is the one we are born into. It expresses the terrible poetry of a meaningless universe, rolling along chaotic channels of chance, blind and without purpose, sometimes accidentally throwing up the magnificence and beauty of natural and human creations, but inevitably destined to pull all our glories asunder and leave no trace, no indication that we ever lived, that our lonely planet once bristled and buzzed with colorful life and reached out to the stars. It is all for nothing.

Such is the plot and substance of modern science boiled down to its bare essentials, a legacy from the founders of the modern worldview, such as Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Newton, and Darwin.

Even if we have faith in a deeper spiritual dimension, somewhere in our nested system of beliefs that story lurks, ready to rob our visions, dreams, loves, and passions of any meaning, of any validity beyond the scripted directions of a blind, unconscious, purposeless plot maker. If something in our experience stirs and reacts to this with disbelief, even with a question, it is surely worth paying attention to because the possibility that that story is wrong or incomplete makes a real difference.

What if that sweeping materialist vision leaves something out? What if there is something other than an “accidental collocation of atoms” at work in the universe? What if, for instance, the experience or consciousness that contemplated the world and discovered the atoms was itself real? What if the ability of “collocated atoms” to purposefully turn around and direct their gaze to reflect on themselves was more than “accidental”? What if consciousness participates in the way the world works? What if consciousness can dance with the atoms and give them form and direction? What if the atoms themselves choreograph their own dance? What then?

In Radical Nature, I explore an alternative story — one where the atoms do choreograph their own dance — a worldview that tells us consciousness matters and that matter is conscious.

Nature Is Sacred

The ancient Greek philosopher Thales said, “Nature is full of gods.” Today, we might say it is full of spirit, full of consciousness. Nature literally carries the wisdom of the world, a symphony of relationships among all its forms. Nature constantly “speaks” to us, and feels and responds to our stories. Simply breathing in rhythm with the world around us can be a potent form of prayer. We can open our hearts and pray to the “god of small things,” for God lives in pebbles and stones, in plants and insects, in the cells of our bodies, in molecules and in atoms. And by connecting with the God of small things, we can discover this is the same as “the god of all things,” great or small. Yes, God is in the heavens, but God is also in the finest grain of sand.

I don’t believe we need priests or churches, rabbis or synagogues, mullahs or mosques, to connect us with some transcendent, supernatural God. In the religion of nature — of a natural God — clergy become shamans, the whole Earth, and the vast cosmos itself, becomes our temple of worship. In nature spirituality, “priests” do not act as intermediaries between Heaven and Earth. Rather, like shamans, our leaders and elders become guides teaching us to listen to the sacred language of nature — helping us open our minds and bodies to the messages rippling through the world of plants and animals, rocks and wind, oceans and forests, mountains and deserts, backyards and front porches.

We need to develop a deep respect for nature because it is the source of everything we are. Like us, all of nature has a mind of its own. And this is because matter is not at all what we normally think it to be. Matter is not dead stuff. Matter feels. The very stuff of our bodies, the very stuff of the Earth tingles with its own sentience. It is time for us as a worldwide community to rediscover the soul of matter, to honor and respect the flesh of the Earth, to pay attention to the meaning, purpose, and value embedded in the world beneath our feet and above our heads. Maybe then, we will save ourselves from the otherwise inevitable ecological and civilizational collapse that faces us within our lifetime. I think we can do it, but first we have to learn to listen.


Christian de Quincey, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy and consciousness studies at John F. Kennedy University. He is the author of Consciousness from Zombies to Angels, Radical Nature, and many other books. He can be contacted via www.ChristiandeQuincey.com.

June 1st, 2013

This interview of educator John Hunter is re-posted from: the School Library Journal.


World Peace and Other Infinite Possibilities

Karyn M. Peterson

If (and when) future generations succeed in saving the world, we may all have John Hunter to thank. The veteran teacher, educational consultant, and author has been inspiring creative and critical thinking, compassion, confidence, and pragmatic problem solving in kids for 35 years through his innovative World Peace Game, his unyielding positivity and optimism, and his intuitive understanding of what kids’ need to succeed.

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At the start of a national tour to promote his new book about his experiences teaching the game, World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements (Houghton Harcourt, 2013), Hunter addressed the crowd at SLJ’s recent Public Library Leadership Think Tank, then sat down to speak to us about unlocking kids’ infinite potential, his faith in kids to improve our world, and how he daily inspires (and is inspired by) his students.

At our Think Tank, you spoke about the lasting impact of even the smallest gestures. Can you tell us more about this concept?

We are completely interdependent; this is what I’ve come to understand and see. Everything I do is important to someone in that room or someone connected to them. So I’m obligated to do the best that I possibly can every moment. I constantly have to work at that every day so that I can be less of a barrier or an obstacle to their learning. My students have come back over decades now to let me know the range and effect of gestures I’ve made, of words I’ve said, of things we’ve done. And I’m sure every teacher has instances like this. So this circle of influence that you might have can be so broad.

What is it like for you to teach at Agnor-Hurt Elementary, and in the Albemarle County (VA) school district? Can you tell us more about your experiences there?

[It’s] one of the best I’ve ever taught in. Pam Moran is the superintendent, and my immediate principal is Michele Del Gallo Castner. They are visionaries, and this is what makes [it] a cutting-edge district. It’s 650 children from all different socioeconomic levels. We’ve got 23 different ethnic groups and languages in that school. And it’s like walking into a river of love every day. You plug into this current of energy that’s so positive, and it’s primarily due to visionary, trusting leadership.

At Agnor-Hurt, we start on the relationship when they come into preschool. So there’s a culture of acceptance, of caring, of compassion, and kindness. When you have that kind of culture, you have kids coming in and, wherever they turn, they’re going to have this kind of support. No matter what situation they get into or what teacher they go to, there’s a unity in the response. Michele is a fierce protector of children. That combination of kindness with that huge protective power and fire for taking care of kids is just what makes the situation just fly. There’s nothing you can’t do as a teacher in that school.

Pam Moran herself walks around taking pictures of all kinds of teachers’ projects and she shares them with all the other teachers in the district…for a superintendent to be doing that [is] rare and unusual. Pam always talks about what she calls ‘caves, watering holes, and campfires’—the places we gather to exchange ideas, and she’s a living example of that herself. She is a great supporter and inspiration.

The center of our school is [the library and librarian] Jamie Chapman and, like you would imagine, everybody passes through [the library], everybody uses it, everybody’s connected to it. That’s a beautiful understanding about schools and the central position libraries hold in them still.

How did your relationship with libraries begin?

Right at the time of integration in our regional area of Chesterfield County (VA), I discovered the public library. The summer before I was to attend my first integrated school—at the age of 12—I had a real hunger for things beyond the norm, I guess in some ways, for a kid from my situation. And I devoured the library; I tried to read every book about Native Americans and science fiction and Eastern philosophy. The library became kind of a refuge, a resourcing place for this great unknown…. It made me feel more a part of what I was going to go into. [It was] a public library and that meant white and black signs were not in the way. I could simply go in and use [it].

Did you always want to be a teacher?

Really, in some ways I’m an introvert who just happens to appear to be an extrovert. There was a moment in Japan—I’m sitting in this 500-year-old cypress wood meditation hall on a bamboo-covered mountainside near the Sea of Japan—and I thought, ‘You know, this is where I should be. I really don’t need to go anywhere else.’ But I had obligations; I had things to do in the world. Had I not been a teacher, I was very inclined to find a place like that and simply go into meditation.

So how do you summon your inner extrovert? Or embrace it?

The foundation was of course, I had a very happy life. My parents were both very sweet and loving, so it was a very quiet family life. And that calm safety that we had in the home made a comfort in the world. And so going out into it, I didn’t feel defensive or afraid.

How that transformed to be more of a performance art, like teaching? Well, it was called for. In a classroom…[you] really bring every tool that you have to the situation. You adapt and become whatever creature you must. You’re an academic and social amphibian; you grow gills when you have to and you drop fins when you have to, to help children be what they need to be.  And playing in a band doesn’t hurt either! I had a studio practice for about 20 years, sound design, ambient music, Waveform Records. It’s still something I do in what little spare time I have.

Do you bring music into the classroom as well?

Absolutely! Some children like it to be quiet, so we’re quiet sometimes, but there may be some Miles Davis in the background, “Sketches of Spain,” something very open and spacious.

I take the children through different modalities of thinking using Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory, [with] eight different pieces of music, all within the space of an hour. It’s astounding what they do in that time [and] music is the springboard for that. I want them to have an expanded world, so I’m playing Indonesian gamelan or opera arias or glitchcore from Vladislav Delay, this Finnish DJ—something they’re not going to run into on the radio or around the house.

And the library was fundamental in that, too! In the Richmond Public Library when I was a young man, I would go and check out  records. I listened to Turkish music, to music from the bauls of India. That library was instrumental in my becoming who I was musically.

How has your teaching shaped your vision of the future?

I’m completely optimistic. There is no doubt in my mind that high school students can save this planet completely, in every way. No doubt. They’re relentlessly compassionate. The more we empower those young people to be in charge…the better off we’ll be.

Is compassion the most important legacy of your World Peace game?

How else can we be if we’re going to survive? It’s our fundamental as human beings…preemptively going at things with kindness gives a little bit of ease to every difficult situation we face.

What’s your philosophy of teaching, your approach?

I’ve learned from my teachers, my mentors, that example is better than precept. If I want them to do, believe, think, or be anything at all, I’ve got to do that myself first. They hear a lot of words from adults, but who lives that way? Who can they see that walks the walk, and not just talks?

The second step is [from] my mentor, Ethel J. Banks: think about the line of least resistance. Find out what they love, spend some time finding out who they really are, what they really care about, and then respect it, and build curriculum to and around it. Once the children believe that you believe in them and that you respect what they actually like and are interested in, that’s a huge step. And from that point on, you’re friends for life. They’ll go anywhere with you.

In my classroom…before we even touch [a] subject, they’re so heavily involved and invested thinking that it’s their unit, that they’re in power to control it, their learning…that they feel they can do anything and, with your help, they can do even more than that.

In such a rich learning environment, how do you deal with standardized testing?

Our school has strategies to work with that. I’ve heard [my principal] make a speech to an entire room crammed full of teachers, looking at scores on a big PowerPoint: ‘I picked each one of you. I know you. I trust you. You are professionals, you know what to do. Let’s do it.’  And every year, the scores go way up through the roof. It’s amazing. It’s not a direct correlation; you can’t quantify love and affection and caring. But [the] power of that, for me, is what the transformative effect is at our school.

What inspires you in your life, and in your teaching?

I read ancient texts, all kinds of esoteric stuff that helps me think of things more deeply. And of course, music has always been helpful in doing that. And there’s my teenage daughter, who is better than I will ever be at everything; she’s a huge inspiration.

[Teaching is] a profession and a calling, really. But I think, walking into the building…there’s a shift in consciousness, there is a breaking of state with the outside world. We are in this place of infinite possibility and potential, and infinite possibility for happiness. And so that’s inspirational.


John Hunter’s World Peace Game website.

April 29th, 2013

I am a big fan of Marc Gafni’s teaching. He presents a leading edge approach to human enlightening. He currently has a new 10-session tele-course underway, and after participating in the first session past Wednesday, I know it will be wonderful. The course meets online continuing Wednesdays at 6:00pm PST. Registration is still open, and you can download any sessions you that you miss. Here’s Marc:


Hi Friend,

I could not be more excited to invite you to join us for the Awakening Your Unique Self course. I want to take this opportunity to share with you —at least in part— why this course can change your life.

I want to link together two ideas: outrageous love and awakening to your unique self. We will go deeper into this in the course, but I want share this preview.

To awaken to your Unique Self is to be Lived by Love. It is the way to access all of the joy, depth, delight and profoundly powerful meaning and purpose that comes only from glimpsing Your Awakened Unique Self.

It is also the way to make yourself a beneficial presence on this planet right now which will change the very core of way you experience reality.

It is the way to make your life a gift to “all that is” and it is precisely what will naturally cause “all that is” to shower you with gifts of all kinds in return.

Let me try and go even deeper into this with you for a few minutes.

We live in a world of outrageous pain. Boston, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Congo, Kenya, Jerusalem, Manhattan, Bangladesh. Outrageous pain is everywhere.

The only response to outrageous pain is outrageous love.

There is an outrageous act of love that the worlds needs from You. No one else but You is capable of addressing that unique corner of Un-Love and healing it into Love.

The world is going to break your heart. The world is outrageously painful. There is outrageous betrayal. Outrageous heartbreak. Loneliness beyond imagination. 20 million children dying a year of hunger or hunger related diseases when there is enough food to feed every child four times over. There are seventeen million slaves in the world today. The world is outrageous.

The only way to respond to the outrageous pain is to commit acts of outrageous, audacious joy and love. Every time your hearts breaks it also opens more deeply. More pain can enter your heart and more outrageous love action can come from within your heart.

When your heart opens you are filled with the powerful energy of outrageous love that makes you more whole. When you let your heart break you do not become broken. You become more whole. There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.

To be outrageous doesn’t mean to break inappropriate boundaries. The outrageous lover keeps every sacred boundary that should be kept and breaks every boundary of smallness and contraction that desperately yearns to be broken.

To be an outrageous lover does not mean to be insane. The only insanity is the belief that you are separate from the whole – small and impotent. Outrageous love is the only possible path of sanity.

It is insane for children to die hungry when there is food for them to eat. It is insane for human beings to murder each other in order to cover up the fear of death. Awakening to outrageous love, to the knowing that you are part of the whole, that you are a unique expression of greatness, that you are powerful beyond measure, is the only sanity.

The path of outrageous love is the path of Your Unique Self.

To live Your Unique Self is to walk the path of the Outrageous Lover.

That is what it means to be a Unique Self.

You are a Unique Self! This is the simple and powerful truth of your life.

What does that mean?

To be a Unique Self is to realize that you are a unique expression of the LOVE INTELLIGENCE and LOVE BEAUTY that initiated and animates all that is.

You are Love’s Verb.

Your Unique Self is Love’s Verb.

You are an Outrageous Love Letter from infinity to our world with a Unique Love Language that can only be spoken by You.

Reality needs You to Commit Outrageous Acts of Love that no one but You is capable of doing.

God needs Your service. Your Deed is God’s Need. Reality’s Need.

God waits for You to partner with him/her in the way of outrageous love.

Reality itself is God’s outrageous love letter.

The unmanifest becomes manifest in order to love.

Your life is love in action.

To awaken into your Unique Self is to be LIVED BY LOVE.

It is for this reason that I know that there is nothing more important to do in this lifetime than to Awaken to Your Unique Self.

That is the purpose of our time together. I’m so excited. There is nothing I would rather be doing.

In Outrageous Love,

Dr. Marc Gafni


Registration is still open, and you can download any sessions you that you miss.