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Predatory Urges, Plastic Brains and Empowerment


A Media Lens reader wrote to us recently quoting historian Mark Curtis’s accurate observations that:

“Britain is a major, systematic contributor to much of the world’s suffering and horrors and this contribution arises from the basic economic and political priorities that governments pursue at home and abroad. These fundamental policy stances are the result of planning broadly determined by the domestic structures of society which define ‘national interests’.” (Curtis, The Ambiguities of Power, Zed Books, 1995, p. 4)

But, sadly, our reader suggested that such horrors were unsurprising, even inevitable. His reasoning ran as follows: “in our highly ‘civilized cultures’ our predatory nature manifests itself in theft, murder, manipulation, abuse, and other sociopathic behavior.” There is a strong innate tendency, ran his argument, for governments to prey on each other as well as individuals; a tendency that stems directly from the predatory instinct in humans. In short: “We are hopelessly enslaved to our DNA’s predatory urges.”

This is the classic depiction of our species as “killer ape”. Richard Davidson and Anne Harrington note that this has been “the dominant note of the biobehavioral sciences in the West”. It is a “tragic-machismo” approach that focuses on “our potential for violence, explor[ing] the genetic and biochemical bases of our capacity for selfishness, depression, and anxiety.” (‘Visions of Compassion. Western Scientists and Tibetan Buddhists Examine Human Nature’, edited by Richard J. Davidson and Anne Harrington, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002, page v)

But, as careful investigators have pointed out, we have to be cautious not to make categorical statements on human nature; particularly such a flawed and sweeping thesis of humans as predatory “killer apes”. The German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980) wrote:

“Human nature is not fixed, and culture thus is not to be explained as the result of fixed human instincts; nor is culture a fixed factor to which human nature adapts itself passively and completely.” (Fromm, ‘Man for Himself’, Routledge, 2003, p. 15)

It is dubious practice to identify attributes of society, such as rapacious capitalist behaviour, with supposed fixed characteristics of the human species, such as innate aggression. Fromm cautioned:

“Human nature can never be observed as such, but only in its specific manifestations in specific situations.” (Ibid., p. 17)

Human nature is dynamic, displaying considerable variations according to circumstances and context, rather than being fixed, predetermined or static. Our reader’s depiction of homo sapiens as “predatory” is therefore one-dimensional; or worse, plain wrong.

The Multidimensional Human Being

Predatory urges are part of humanity’s makeup; but so too are cooperation, empathy and love. Psychologist Steven Pinker, who emphasises the importance of our DNA in ‘explaining’ human nature, notes that there is “an evolutionary basis for altruism.” He observes, too, that “sociobiology shows that a sense of justice has a deep foundation in people’s minds.” (Pinker, ‘The Blank Slate’, Penguin, 2002, p. 111)

Pinker goes on: “evolution endowed us with a moral sense, and we have expanded its circle of application over the course of history through reason (grasping the logical interchangeability of our interests and others’);, knowledge (learning of the advantages of cooperation over the long term), and having sympathy (having experiences that allow us to feel other people’s pain).” (Ibid., p. 188)

In a similar vein, evolutionary expert Elliott Sober points out that: “biologists now universally acknowledge that altruism can evolve and actually has done so. The picture of nature as thoroughly red in tooth and claw is one-sided. It is no more adequate than the rosy picture that everything is sweetness and light. Kindness and cruelty both have their place in nature, and evolutionary biology helps explain why.” (Sober, in Davidson and Harrington, op. cit., p. 54)

Sober points out the evolutionary success of cooperation: “Groups of altruists do better than groups of selfish individuals, so altruism can evolve, even though selfish individuals do better than altruists in the same group.” (Ibid., p. 53)

This may have been the evolutionary seed for the development of compassion, even if altruistic behaviour was at first directed towards one’s offspring only. But how was compassion later extended to much wider circles in human society, even encompassing complete strangers? Sober puts the question thus: “it is not puzzling why some compassion should evolve and replace the trait of having no compassion at all; what is puzzling is how extended compassion could evolve and replace limited compassion.” (Ibid, p. 62)

He offers the possible explanation that the capacity to feel extended compassion is correlated with the capacity to feel compassion toward one’s offspring. There was an adaptive advantage in parents being moved by the cries of their children. A side effect of this “evolutionary event” is that the cries of any baby can move us.

To emphasise what Sober is saying: the development of extended compassion, which may confer no adaptive benefit of its own, is, nonetheless, consistent with the theory of evolution. If this still seems puzzling, consider an enlightening argument that Charles Darwin had with Alfred Russel Wallace, the scientist who independently proposed the mechanism of natural selection.

As Sober explains, Wallace’s view was that “natural selection cannot explain mental abilities that provide no help in surviving and reproducing.” For example, keen eyesight is useful in hunting, but why should natural selection favour the ability to devise new scientific theories, write symphonies or paint masterpieces? Wallace argued that natural selection could explain practical skills, not “higher” abilities. But Darwin countered that the separation of “practical” and “higher” abilities is an illusion; the same mental abilities that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce now allow us to pursue intellectual activities that may have no practical benefit. (Sober, ibid., p. 64)

Extended compassion likely developed as such a “higher” ability. There is, however, a growing body of evidence that developing and practicing compassion also has practical benefits, both for others and for oneself. (See David Edwards, ‘Happiness is Dissent – The Truth About “Looking After Number 1″ ‘; www.medialens.org/articles/the_articles/articles_2001/de_number_one.ht ml.)

Escaping Our Hardwiring

The influential American black activist Malcolm X once observed that we can become locked into static patterns of thought and behaviour that cut off options for individual growth, renewal and empowerment:

“Children have a lesson adults should learn, to not be ashamed of failing, but to get up and try again. Most of us adults are so afraid, so cautious, so ‘safe’, and therefore so shrinking and rigid and afraid that it is why so many humans fail. Most middle-aged adults have resigned themselves to failure.” (‘The Autobiography of Malcolm X’, with Alex Haley, Penguin Books, London, 1965/2001, p. 37)

A major finding in neuroscience in recent years is the extent to which our brains display advanced levels of ‘neural plasticity’. We are not forever ‘hardwired’ for rigid modes of behaviour; we are not static ‘slaves’ to our DNA. There is a remarkable degree to which we can change ingrained patterns of thought, intention and practice.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman addresses this in an inspiring book, ‘Destructive Emotions’ (Bloomsbury, London, 2003). In the first chapter, Goleman presents remarkable results from experiments into the mental traits of a Buddhist monk who focused on generating a state of compassion during meditation. The monk’s brain patterns were monitored during this meditation. The research, conducted by Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, revealed high levels of activity in the monk’s left prefrontal cortex – the region of the brain associated with positive states of mind such as zeal, enthusiasm, joy, vigour and mental buoyancy. It appears that such enhanced levels of positive emotions can be attained by conscious effort and discipline over years of meditation practice. (See David Edwards, ‘Animal Rights: The Case for Kindness’, August 4, 2004; www.medialens.org/cogitations/040804_COG_Case_For_Kindness.php).

Thus, the notion that we are “hopelessly enslaved to our predatory urges” is unfounded.

As well as insights into human nature from evolutionary science, psychology and neurobiology, we can look at human history. There are, of course, plenty of examples of horror, cruelty and violence. But consider, too, the fundamental desires of people everywhere, throughout history and across all cultures, for peace and freedom. As Howard Zinn, author of ‘The People’s History of the United States’, puts it:

“People are not naturally violent or cruel or greedy, although they can be made so. Human beings everywhere want the same things: they are moved by the sight of abandoned children, homeless families, the casualties of war; they long for peace, for friendship and affection across lines of race and nationality.” (Zinn, ‘You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train’, Beacon Press, 2002, p. 208)

The reader who wrote to us about humanity’s “predatory urges” was right in one respect, however: that people can, and do, combine to create oppressive institutions and structures in society. The transnational corporation is one prominent example, as are the powerful governments who act as agents for corporate interests.

But there are people around the world who are resisting these organs of brutal, illegitimate power. Zinn, once again, offers wisdom and hope:

“Only the corrective of historical perspective can lighten our gloom. Note how often in this [20th] century we have been surprised. By the sudden emergence of a people’s movement, the sudden overthrow of a tyranny, the sudden coming to life of a flame we thought extinguished. We are surprised because we have not taken notice of the quiet simmerings of indignation, of the first faint sounds of protest, of the scattered signs of resistance that, in the midst of our despair, portend the excitement of change.” (Ibid., p. 10)

In short, there is an integral link between “lighten[ing] our gloom” and the potential for societal improvement. Just as we as individuals are not hardwired for selfishness and aggression, so are injustice and oppression not necessarily fixed features of human society.

David Cromwell is co-editor with David Edwards of Media Lens (www.medialens.org). Their book, ‘Guardians Of Power – The Myth Of The Liberal Media’, has just been published by Pluto Press, London (www.plutobooks.com).

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