It's my personal soapbox, a place for me to express thoughts and feelings, musings and rants, reflections and recollections; to have fun with words -- about things spiritual, environmental, social, political, economic, and, from time to time, personal. And of course about peace. Soapboxes are in public places (as London's legendary Hyde Park) on purpose, and so I invite conversations with you, for it is through civil discourse that we can gain some perspective on the seeming chaos of these changing times and learn together how to shape a positive future for ourselves, our communities, and the generations to come.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

We Call Ourselves "Sapiens," Wise -- Are We?

I wrote this 12 years ago and am amazed at how current and relevant it still is...

We call ourselves Homo sapiens sapiens.  But, how wise are we, really?

I began this train of thought one day in mid April 1999.  I had come home from work and was going through the mail when I came across a newsletter reporting that three participants at the 1998 State of the World Forum had met a violent death on March 5. I remembered having read the news reports soon after it happened: three Americans kidnapped and murdered in the jungles of Venezuela, near the Colombian border.

But I must have merely scanned the article at the time. Didn’t even register the victims’ names. Probably just clucked my tongue, muttered something like, “Geez, not again. Will it ever end?” Then forgot about it and went on to other stories.

This time the names registered:  Terence Freitas, Ingrid Washinawatok, and Lahe’ena’e Gay.

The world went gray. Tears welled in my eyes.

Lahe’ena’e Gay (of Hawaiian, Mohawk, and Scottish descent) was leader of Pacific Cultural Conservancy International, whose mission is to preserve human cultures and communities, particularly indigenous ones, that are in danger of extinction. She and her companions were in Colombia on that very mission, ironically probably something the guerrillas would have sympathized with.

I had sat with Lahe’ena’e for lunch at the State of the World Forum in San Francisco the previous October. We were in the same discussion groups. She electrified nearly 200 people gathered from all over the world when, beginning with a chant, she shared simple Native American wisdom about how to bring diverse points of view together into an effective dialogue. We all listened to her passionate plea and took heed -- and thus she salvaged the meeting. At the close of the three-day gathering, her hair brushed my cheek as we hugged each other farewell.

I had never before known someone who'd met a violent end. Not even in Vietnam.

The inevitable questions: Why? Why her? Why anyone? Why the violence? Is this the only way to have grievances heard and redressed? Are these just “mistakes” or “collateral damage” of beings who call themselves “wise”?

The emotions and thoughts about this and subsequent events in the world have led me to see similar patterns in our response to seemingly unrelated issues – patterns that suggest the answers to these questions lie right before our eyes.  Or rather behind them, inside our heads.

The Emerging Brain

Deep within our brains resides one of its smallest and most primitive parts, one that saves our skins when we are threatened by sudden, violent attack from a lion, shark, mugger, or other natural or unnatural predator. The amygdala, as it is called because of its almond shape, evolved with the first mammals, about 200 million years ago, as part of the brain’s limbic system. It serves as a memory bank of emotions and responses to them -- reactive, reflexive emotions, from craving and lust to fear and anger.

Later, about 100 million years ago, the neocortex began to emerge. The neocortex gives us our ability to analyze, evaluate, innovate, and choose. These more advanced functions, however, take time, time we may not have when faced with imminent danger. Fortunately, the more primitive amygdala has the ability to short-circuit pathways through the neocortex and reflexively trigger evasive or combative responses.

When confronted by a charging bull or automobile, a split-second response can enhance the chances for survival. In the more subtly nuanced crises of our neocortex-created social systems, however, such gut responses may, and often do, cause us more harm than good.

Examples abound. Which brings us back to the aforementioned issues . . . and also the hope.

Terrorism.  Drugs.  Disease.  Pests.

These scourges and others great and small all have something in common: in every case, society’s response is overwhelmingly reactive rather than proactive, and weighted toward interdiction rather than prevention. It’s the primitive “fight or flight” response. Even our metaphors are militaristic and defensive. War on drugs! Combat terrorism! Fight disease! Exterminate pests!

Case 1:  Terrorism

The lion’s share, if not all, of our anti-terrorism resources goes to interdiction, a police or military response. It’s easy; it’s what we know how to do; it satisfies our primal survival instincts.

Consider security screening systems. Billions are spent developing and deploying “Star Wars” technologies and increasingly restricting the basic freedoms of all to stop the few from introducing weapons and explosives into airplanes, public buildings...even classrooms. Our airports, government offices, concert halls, and schools are becoming fortified bunkers – more and more even with their own police departments (yes, schools, too).

Where will it stop? When will we realize the futility of the primitive response? And how much it is costing us, not so much in dollars (which is not inconsiderable) but in the very liberties it is intended to protect. As well as it has worked for us in the wild, maybe it just doesn’t work in modern human systems.

In the short run, such measures are, of course, necessary and even to some extent effective. In the long run, however, they are doomed to failure. That is: “Where there is a will there is a way.” So trite because it is so true.  Will cannot be subdued by force and violence -- not for long, anyway. We have seen this time and time again. As long as there are people who want or need to carry out acts of terrorism, they will find a way to circumvent the systems we put in place to protect us. We will forever have to invest billions upon billions to stay one step ahead, or more likely behind, the terrorists. The only way to eradicate terrorism is not to stop terrorists but to stop people from wanting or needing to become terrorists. How much are we spending on that?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I do believe there is evil in the world, but not that evil is inevitable. That is, terrorists are born, but they are not born terrorists. Whether Beirut, Bali, Rwanda, New York City, Oklahoma City, the Balkans, or Littleton, babies do not come equipped with trench coats, ski masks, camouflage fatigues, exploding undergarments, swastikas, or semi-automatic weapons. Babies are not born disaffected, alienated, angry, desperate. What turns babies into terrorists? What gives them the strength of will to coldly lash out at their fellow human beings, whether for political ends or merely out of blind rage and frustration?

If we can answer these questions (and it's not because they are envious of our wealth, that's for sure), maybe then we will learn a new response...and store that in our quick-reaction amygdala. And we can because we have. It’s called prevention. Children in school are learning and practicing emotional intelligence and conflict resolution. Informal personal dialogues are taking place between peoples of warring nations and tribes. We know from experience that prevention works and is even cost effective in the long run. And therein lies the hope.

Case 2:  Drugs

We can continue forever spending billions and billions to burn down the forests and farms of Colombia, send the Coast Guard and Navy out to patrol our coastal waters, and build more and more jails to house countless drug dealers and users. The problem will not go away. Not that way. Our national experiment with prohibition of alcohol didn't work. In fact, it did much to foster organized crime and violence in this country.

As long as someone wants drugs, there will be someone to supply them. Users and pushers will find a way to get together. No doubt about it. It's just business. Yet, if no one wanted drugs, suppliers would find another line of work. No doubt about it. Just a billion or two on counseling and drug treatment programs -- and, even moreso, on discovering and rectifying what it is about our socioeconomic system that creates the alienation, anomy, and despair that lead to drugs -- can go a long way to eliminating the demand. Look at Alcoholics Anonymous, Synanon, and the anti-tobacco label warnings and ad campaigns. We know from experience that they work and are even cost effective. And therein lies the hope.

Case 3:  Disease

Bacteria are part of our world, and our bodies have evolved mechanisms to live with them naturally in a win-win, symbiotic cohabitation. Actually, we are part of their world -- after all, they are much more numerous and were in fact the first life forms to emerge on Earth.

Know-it-all newcomers that we are, and not trusting our natural systems, we spend billions upon billions in our research labs and drug companies developing antibiotics to “protect” us. But the bacteria, time and time again, laugh at our hubris, mutate, and render our meager billions impotent.

What would happen if we spent a mere billion or two on wellness programs, on research into mind-body feedback loops, on holistic medicine, on enhancing the strength and vitality of the natural systems of our bodies? Indeed, there is strong statistical evidence that these approaches work and are cost effective, as health insurers are increasingly acknowledging. And therein lies the hope.

And So On

We try to exterminate agricultural “pests” (our name for them; they weren’t created thus) with toxins that end up poisoning our environment and us, while they merrily go about evolving resistances to the lashing out of our primitive amygdala. We already know in what direction the hope lies: organic farming, biointensive agriculture, and the like. Will we choose to go there?

We try to stop illegal immigration by putting up walls and other fortifications at our borders, chasing desperate people across the desert, and denying innocent children health care and education, thus setting them up for disaffection, alienation, anger, more despair. (See “terrorism,” above.)

The list goes on and on.

Terrorists, drug dealers, bacteria, pests, illegal immigrants. Killing them or putting up barriers cannot possibly succeed as the sole or even primary strategy – whether in an American high school, the California desert, a genetics research laboratory...or a South American jungle.

It’s not as if there were no successful models out there. I’ve cited a few here. And they don’t all require expensive government programs. In fact, the compassionate, more thoughtful approaches generally require less resources.

And it’s not a choice of either interdiction or prevention. Any real solution has to be both. So far, though, our response has been overwhelmingly the primitive, militaristic one. It’s time to use the rest of our brain. It’s time to live up to our name.


  1. All points well taken, except for one that I think needs to be reconsidered.
    It's not always the case that AA or Synanon are effective. Sometimes, failures in these programs cause more problems than they solve.

    This is important, because, when acknowledged, it could lead us to a search for alternative causes and alternative approaches to minimize, if not alleviate, the drug problems. Approaches might need to be "different courses for different horses", as the saying goes. Moreover, the problems need to be seen in the broadest international arena with many different approaches considered and created.

  2. Right you are, Bernice. I made no claim that any of it was always effective. Only more cost-effective than interdiction. Actually, the more important point was that most effective in the long run would be "discovering and rectifying what it is about our socioeconomic system that creates the alienation, anomy, and despair that lead to drugs".

  3. Friend Mike Marthaller (a 30-year Army and Air Force veteran) writes:

    I have known many who died violently. I have known many who died or ended careers, which is a form of death, believing they were making a difference.

    I have observed and been part of organizations that were formed by people who had been on the "Mean streets" and shared their own experiences and transitions with those who were still reaching out and up.

    Programs that actually worked. And then I saw those programs be taken over by licensed, degreed and career-orientated EXPERTS who talked and taught not from the heart but from the BOOK. People whose careers were so important to them that they became more concerned in preventing a lawsuit and receiving "Grants" so that the very people they were supposed to be helping began to think "Why risk changing; the experts are not willing to risk for us."

    I have been fortunate in that I have also seen people change because others were willing to risk life and career for them.

    We may never actually "SEE" the changes in those who killed your friend but rest assured that it was not in vain, there were those who on reflection realized what and who your friends were and did.

    In subtle and possibly not so subtle ways, they too will or have risked change.