How Sex, Politics, Money and Religion are Killing Planet Earth

Friday, February 25, 2011

What do we know? Sentience and the Errors of the Human Ego

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth (Genesis 1:26).”

I arrived home late last night from my work and play in the Turks and Caicos Islands to an unpleasant surprise. During my absence, Loco Stinky Kitty had thoughtfully prepared a dead animal sacrament for me in the bathroom (I forgot to close the cat flap on my way out of town). Stinky was obviously quite pleased with her masterpiece and rushed to the bathroom to proudly show off her little project. While the massacre of little creatures, splattered across the bathroom is not the welcome home present I was looking for, Stinky obviously missed me, and that sentiment seemed to make up marginally for the unfortunate carnage.

One of Stinky’s victims was a small bird known as a tufted titmouse. Early this morning, I was awakened by a tapping at the window. A little bird was flying around the house from window to window, tapping frantically and peeping in distress – the victim’s mate. Tufted titmice pair for life. The little bird outside my window saw his friend go into the house. Not knowing what has become of her, he anxiously pleads for her return. We placed the mauled body outside, hoping the little bird will eventually come to grips with his loss.

In the islands, one of my work chores was to lay out a road through a pristine piece of land in such a fashion as to cause the least amount of vegetative casualty. The Turks and Caicos Islands are blanketed with a terrestrial habitat known as tropical dwarf dry forest. Rainfall is seasonal and limited, and soils are thin or non-existent. The resultant vegetation is dwarfed. Ancient trees often achieve statures of less than a few meters, but each twisted, gnarled, tenacious specimen growing out of practically solid rock is an individual of magnificence. Who will live and who will die for the sake of a road?

Most “scientists” would say that trees don’t really care if they are cut down or bulldozed. Since they do not have nervous systems, they do not feel pain. Without brains, they are incapable of fear and suffering, so the theory goes. But recent advancement in botanical science has revealed sophisticated chemical mechanisms in plants that are currently beyond our understanding. For example, if a tree is cut down on one side of a forest, stress hormones become elevated in the trees on the other side of the forest. Stress hormones in distant trees will also rise if the surviving trees encounter the person who decapitated their forest cousin. In other words, the trees have a mechanism to recognize individuals whom they have never encountered through some form of communication amongst themselves.

A cat misses her human companion and takes time to prepare a thoughtful welcome home gift. A tiny bird mourns the loss of his mate. A tree experiences fear and memory. Objectivists would say such musings are the fantasy of anthropomorphism, or the projection of human characteristics onto “lesser” organisms. Humans are the only species (as far as we know) that envision themselves as created in the image of divine perfection. As such, we rate our own biological attributes as the pinnacle of superiority. In particular, we believe the relatively high proportion of sloppy, gray material between our ears gives us an almost exclusive monopoly in the world of living organisms on thoughts, love and feelings.

Humans can certainly think. At any given hour of the day, a close scrutiny of one’s passing thoughts reveals a patchwork of ramblings ranging from the profound to the mundane flitting about inside the confines of a human skull. The thoughts may illicit powerful emotions like anger, love and fear. At other times, they are reassuring and soothing.

Buddhists, psychologists and philosophers across the ages have sought to understand the nature of the myriad voices in our heads, and have pronounced them collectively as ego. The ego is a filter to the world. Stimulus from outside the body is absorbed and interpreted. Similarly, information gathered from within also passes across the filter of the ego before being shared with the outside world. Humans often confuse the ramblings of the ego with selfhood, and this confusion is understandable. As the most vocal and insistent element of consciousness, the ego rarely allows anything else time to get recognized. But consciousness beyond the ego certainly does exist because we can observe the ego in action from another vantage point inside our heads, which begs the question: “what is the nature of the observer?”

Regardless of the answers to the above philosophical questions, which will likely be pondered for the remainder of human history on this planet, one must allow that the maintenance of the ego requires an enormous quantity of neurological space. Language, interpretation of stimulus, construction of ideas and the emotional connection to all of the above involve most of the brain’s regions. One could even speculate that most of the relative abundance of brain matter in Homo sapiens could be preoccupied exclusively with the maintenance of the human ego. The other living organisms we deem to be intellectually-inferior, may just be dwelling in the blissful and enlightened state of consciousness that exists beyond the ego. Who then should we say is inferior?

Humanity looks out at the world through a subjective lens shaped by biological limitation and human egocentricity. Our perspective is woefully myopic. As we raze and plunder our way through the world, perhaps it is easier for us to justify our murderous behavior if we deny the reality of sentience to our fellow organisms.  In reality, our slavery to the ego and insistence on human supremacy denies us a conscious connection to our fellow organisms and the real wonders of the universe that most definitely exist outside the human mind. We are the stupid ones.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Super Bowl, Chicken Brains, Critical Thought and Natural Selection

Sweet Pea is an exceptional chicken. Half Brahma and half blue-laced Wyandotte, she is the product of two other outstanding chickens, Mr. Peepers and Ms. Penelope (Mr. Peepers is okay for a rooster anyway). While other chickens run away from the unknown and cower in the coop, Sweet Pea is primed for adventure. She follows me in the garden, realizing that the rake and spade are tools that unearth delicacies like a tasty worm or bug or two. Her audacious spirit and inquisitive nature pay off for her in this regard.
But Sweet Pea’s curiosity and critical thinking skills can also be detrimental. Like the infamous chicken of lore, she is very fond of crossing the road. Observing the cows that graze on the pasture across the street, she reasonably deduces that piles of manure ripe with bugs and parasites will be available on the other side for her culinary delight. Fortunately, the road is a rural country lane that rarely sees any traffic, so Sweet Pea remains both intact and fattened on maggots and the other specialties of cow dung. If the circumstances were such that the grazing cows were on the other side of a highway, it is almost certain that Sweet Pea would no longer be contributing to the chicken gene pool.

Sweet Pea is an anomaly. Generally, chickens are a fearful lot. Hybridized from a peculiar Indonesian jungle fowl through the centuries for man’s purposes, the domestic chicken has been simultaneously rendered practically incapable of self defense and delicious, an unfortunate predicament for any species. The fact that this organism, with such a duality of self-interest, has managed to become ubiquitous is a testament to the animal’s utility and adaptation. Fear of the unknown serves the chicken well in terms of self-preservation.

On the other hand, fear and the consequent unwillingness to explore outside the culturally-accepted box can also lead to the demise of population when food is scarce and individuals lack the bravery or creativity to move onto a new food source. In the infinite resourcefulness of nature, natural selection has balanced the equation by allowing for both types of individuals in the gene pool. Observation of backyard chicken populations indicates that both creative, outside the box thinking and unquestioning thinking that favors adherence to social norms are useful and necessary adaptations. Simple observation at the Wood farm puts the distribution of creatively-thinking chickens at around one or two out of ten (10-20%).

The 10-20% ratio for various specialized genetic traits is surprisingly common within the genomes of the animal kingdom. For example, male pattern baldness, color blindness and homosexuality are also found within this range of proportion in all human cultures and populations. The consistent appearance of such traits across time and culture indicates they serve an important role for the fitness of the species. These traits are generally not more prevalent because they carry a cost to the individual. While Sweet Pea is a great asset to the other chickens in locating novel food sources, she is also a chicken with a greater probability of meeting an early demise.

Other statistical characteristics of the human population also bear noting in this context. 10-20% of the global human population is agnostic or atheist, while 80-90% of the global population adheres to the particular prevalent dogma of their geographic location and upbringing. Noam Chomsky, noted American intellectual, draws a similar conclusion with regards to what he terms “manufactured consent.” He speculates that 80% or more of the population is artfully distracted by the media diversions of sports, reality television and other mindless pursuits, which keeps them preoccupied and therefore unavailable for meaningful criticism of the institutions of elite power.

Whether one is a critical thinker or a group adherent is neither positive nor negative when it comes to natural selection. Both characteristics are equally important for the perpetuation of a species. But the situation becomes disadvantageous when the non-critical thinking people are manipulated into destructive behaviors that benefit only a few privileged elite rather than the population as a whole.

Today hundreds of millions of people will gather around televisions across the country and across the globe to watch a handful of men, whom they do no personally know and probably never will, kick and throw a ball down a field. Every tackle, the fans will feel as their own defeat. Every field goal or touchdown will be registered in the heart of every spectator as if they had scored the points themselves. We are a communal species, and our cohesiveness and ability to indoctrinate into the group is one of the traits that has ensured our long term success. But there comes a time when the chicken crosses the road, the group follows and the other side is not reached. Use this information to draw your own conclusions if you are so inclined.

Recommended Reading

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Oedipus, Gilgamesh, Hubris and the Contemporary Failures of Western Civilization

“Gilgamesh, wherefore do you wander?
The eternal life you are seeking you shall not find.
When the gods created mankind,
They established death for mankind,
And withheld eternal life for themselves.
As for you, Gilgamesh, let your stomach be full,
Always be happy, night and day,
Make every day a delight,
Night and day play and dance.
Your clothes should be clean,
Your head should be washed,
You should bathe in water,
Look proudly on the little one holding your hand,
Let your mate be always blissful in your loins,
This, then, is the work of mankind. (1)"

Since man first put pen to paper to craft the story of his own existence, he has sewn tales of the tragedy of pride. Across the centuries and millennia of human literary history, Gilgamesh, Oedipus, King Lear, Willie Lowman and other protagonists share a fate unaltered by the progress of civilization or the passing of time. The blindness of hubris spells one’s doom.

We are all Oedipus. Like the oracles from the very texts of literary heritage, we have prophesized the climactic fall of our own civilization, but like our memorialized heroes, we march blindly to our demise. Humanity has placed itself upon a pedestal above all life and nature itself. We have altered the landscapes upon which our very lives depend without consideration of consequences, proudly believing the very ideologies and technologies that have brought our species to the brink of catastrophe will be the source of our salvation. But as Einstein, the great genius of the modern world noted, to continue the same behavior and expect a different outcome defines insanity. Like our tragic heroes, the only possibility of salvation will come from humility. To do so, we will have to reject everything we accept as cultural gospel, but all is not lost.  We have not always succumbed to the folly of pride. We have an alternative past and future destiny.

For most of the hundreds of thousands of years that chart human history, people lived sustainably and peacefully on the Earth. Some still do. The myriad tribes of First People lived on the North American continent for tens of thousands of years without diminishing the resource base. The same can be said of Australia’s Aborigines and the Bushmen of Africa. In Eurasia, an extensive archaeological record dating to the dawn of agriculture and beyond finds no tools of warfare and details human cultures, living peacefully in small, egalitarian communities. Each of the sustainable, peaceful cultures shares a common thread of belief, worshipping Earth as the living embodiment of divine creation, the Great Mother (2).

Then, beginning approximately six-thousand years ago, a cultural shift swept across the Eurasian continent. Warriors on horseback, armed with military weapons of iron drove into Europe in waves from the Volga Steppe and Caucasus Mountains of modern day Russia. Over time, archaeological evidence records a violent cultural shift. Fortifications appear around settlements where none previously existed. Burial sites, once simple, respectful tributes to the deceased, are replaced with shrines to powerful men. Mass graves of murdered men, women and children convey a period of brutal warfare. Most telling is the replacement of once ubiquitous ceramic figurines depicting a voluptuous female form, tributes to the Great Mother, with ceramic images of male gods of war and domination (3). The peaceful, egalitarian people of Europe and their goddess Mother Earth had no defense against the armed horsemen from the East and their male gods of domination, and this is where the history of Western Civilization’s sustainable relationship with nature ends. Dating from approximately 3,000 B.C.E., a steady and constant deterioration of Earth’s natural infrastructures can be traced into the modern era.

Coincidentally, the earliest known work of literature, dates to roughly the same era as the neolithic cultural shift and puts to verse the saga of the overthrow of the Great Earth Mother’s reign. In the epic Sumerian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh, the world’s first literary hero, Gilgamesh, boldly dominates nature in both her physical and divine forms, laying to ruin primordial forests and openly defying fertility rites with the Earth goddess Ishtar. In spite of Gilgamesh’s successful dominance over nature, he cannot achieve his primary aim, immortality.

From the earliest sparks of our Western Civilization so eloquently depicted by the Sumerians, humankind has pursued the same epic, but futile quest. To justify our feelings of grandiosity, we have developed religious, political, economic and sexual credenda that reinforce our fatally-flawed hubris. In the ultimate argumentum ad hominem fallacy, we cite Christianity, democracy, capitalism, the suppression of feminine values and all the other dogmatic creations of western culture, as proof of the validity of our creed of male human dominance over all other living things, but for all our control over nature, even the most powerful among us is immune to her final judgment. We are destined rot in the bowels of the Earth and in doing so return back to the source that created us.

High on the power that dominion brings, we continue like our own tragic heroes engaging in and exalting the very behavior that precipitates our ultimate downfall.  How sad.  As the oracle suggests, our time would be far better spent letting our stomachs be full, gazing on the little ones who hold our hands and letting our mates be blissful in our loins.

1-  Foster. Benjamin, R. (editor), 2001. The Epic of Gilgamesh. W. W. Norton and Company, p. 100 (Tablet 10, lines 77-91).The Epic of Gilgamesh (Norton Critical Editions)
2-  See Gimbutas, Marija Alseikaite, 1991. The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe. Harper San Francisco, p. 222.The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe
3-  Ibid, p. 48.
4-  Ibid, pp. 364-399.
5-  See Foster, B., 229 pages.