Pinnacles

Reproductive success is the primary mechanism shaping life on earth for more than three billion years. Organisms that successfully reproduce the most offspring become most abundant within an ecosystem. Ultimately, what matters is total lifetime reproduction of the organism. Reproductive success has been a spectacularly successful pinnacle—an ultimate goal or final cause—leading to millions of distinct species, and billions of individual living organisms.

What does it take to succeed at reproduction? Bacteria only need nutrients, a non-lethal environment and a short time to grow until they divide asexually via binary fission. Bacterial populations can double as quickly as ten minutes. This is so successful that there may be billions of bacteria species. Insects reproduce sexually and the majority of insects hatch from eggs. This also seems to work well, resulting in about one million described insect species with estimates of perhaps five million species yet to be discovered and described. Increasingly complex organisms have evolved through speciation. Today there are nearly 65,000 described chordate species, including more than 5,000 described mammal species.

Animals, including humans, reproduce by surviving to sexual maturity and mating, followed by conception, gestation, and birth. This leads to the development of many of the most esteemed human traits. Survival requires successful strategies for obtaining food, shelter, and safety including protection from disease, injury, toxins, and predators.  Physical strength, mobility, hunting and gathering skills, appraisal of resources, and alertness to dangers, assessment of risks and benefits, planning, disease immunity, healing strategies, and endurance all develop as a result of the need to survive. But more is needed to mate successfully. Coercive approaches to mating rely on dominance—the threat of harm. Dominance is often obtained through a combination of physical size, physical strength, aggression, and fighting ability. The importance of dominance in mating leads to increases in these traits.

Rather than relying on coercion, modern humans increasingly attract mates through some combination of beauty, charm, wit, talent, and practical benefits such as being a good provider. Increases in intelligence, knowledge, humor, cleverness, boldness, charisma, resourcefulness, and other valued human traits are the result.

Mating only results in reproduction if both the male and female are fertile. Fertility requires good health, adequate nutrition, and other conditions. These favorable traits are also promoted to attain successful reproduction.

Placing reproductive success at the pinnacle of life has worked very well, steering human development in many beneficial ways. It has also brought us cockroaches, bacteria, mosquitos, overpopulation, and societal collapse. While reproductive success promotes flourishing as number of offspring, it ignores limits to growth, as it selects for mating success.

Mating also helped to popularize conquest as violent behavior could lead to reproductive benefits. As one famous example, consider Genghis Khan, who started the Mongol invasions that resulted in the conquest of most of Eurasia. These campaigns were often accompanied by wholesale massacres of the civilian populations. Genghis Khan was one of the most powerful warlords during his reign; as a result the harem that he kept was of enormous size.

Perhaps this orgy of fornicating and fighting, raping and pillaging, helped religion to elevate salvation to the pinnacle. The promise was simple and compelling. Follow the divine teachings of your chosen religion and you will enjoy eternal life in paradise. Anger a god or disobey a true prophet, and you will burn in hell.

This was certainly a profound advancement. Often beginning with beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, religions derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle. Religion provides a clear understanding of what is good, and can guide humanity toward that good. Religion also answers those nagging questions about life, death, and the origins of the universe.

With salvation at the pinnacle, magnificent places of worship were built, fabulous art work depicting significant people and events in the religious narrative were created, sacred music was written, performed and enjoyed. Study of sacred texts, notably the Gutenberg Bible, served to increase literacy throughout the populace. Codes of moral behavior such as the Ten Commandments, the Talmud, the Noble Eightfold Path, dharma, and sharia all guide the faithful in their daily lives. Flourishing took the form of the pious life.

But religious belief relies on faith, and the dogma preached by the various religions is inherently incompatible. Each distinct religion has its own origin myth, deities, sacred texts, prophets, leaders, beliefs, rules, and customs. Certain beliefs of one religion conflict with beliefs of other religions. This conflict often leads to discord, including religious violence.

Faith can become strained, especially when it is contradicted by empirical evidence. This famously happened when Galileo Galilei came into conflict with the Catholic Church over his support of Copernican astronomy. More recently, modern theories on the formation of the universe and the evolution of life challenge religious origin stories. As explorations continued and worldviews expanded toward a global perspective, the conflicts inherent in the various faiths became obvious.

If faith is not the ultimate answer, then perhaps we need to look toward reason and place Truth at the pinnacle. The age of enlightenment challenged ideas grounded in tradition and faith and began to reform society using reason, and advance knowledge through the scientific method. It promoted scientific thought, skepticism, and intellectual interchange.

And there were always bills to be paid, so it was not long before Adam Smith began to think about economics. In 1776 he published his landmark book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Wealth became the pinnacle, as we learned how division of labor and free markets guided by the invisible hand formed the foundations of capitalism.

With Truth, science, and capitalism all unleashed, the industrial revolution was roaring ahead. This resulted in major technological developments in textile manufacture, metallurgy, mining, steam power, chemicals, machine tools, gas lighting, glass making, paper machine, and agriculture along with advances in transportation systems including, canals, roads, and railways. Material abundance was increasing almost as fast as knowledge. Flourishing took the shape of more. Prosperity was measured in material possessions and knowledge acquisition.

Driven by wealth at the pinnacle, technology advances continued through the second industrial revolution, the atomic age, the jet age, the space age, the digital revolution, and the information age. Progress has been astounding.  The measure of “Gross world product”—the combined gross national product of all the countries in the world—is one estimate of economic productivity. This has grown from approximately $128 billion in 1750—just prior to the industrial revolution—to approximately $71,830 billion in 2012. This represents an increase in production by a factor of more than 560 times over that time period.

Yet the world faces grand challenges, including inadequate access to safe drinking water, inadequate sanitation, and malnutrition for millions of people. Obesity, disease, substance abuse, poor physical fitness, and unreliable access to health care services affect billions of people. Many manifestations of poor mental health bring misery to so many people. Poverty, income inequality, homelessness, inadequate education, unemployment, oppression, and discrimination cause great suffering. Various forms of violence, including homicide, terrorism, child abuse, domestic violence, and sexual abuse cause billions of people to live in constant fear. Crimes including gang violence, gun violence, organized crime, human trafficking, hate crimes, and bullying disrupt our lives. Divorce, unintended pregnancies, incarceration, vandalism, and natural disasters upset many lives. Environmental degradation accelerates as we continue to ignore limits to growth. Global warming, destruction of natural habitats, depletion of natural resources, unusually intense natural disasters, accelerated extinction of species, and deforestation continue as we consume the very planet we live on.  Ineffective governments contribute to genocide, war, and other assaults on human rights.

Wealth at the pinnacle has exposed many economic faults that contribute to these problems. While so many of us are busy accumulating wealth and gaining knowledge, we seem to be lacking the wisdom we need to live better lives.

The pinnacle establishes a filter, drawing in resources that advance toward the pinnacle and screening out the rest. We were told that “the best things in life are free” but because economic models don’t assign value to so many valuable things, we are missing out on many of the best things in life. The pinnacle creates a sort of super organism that aligns the activities of isolated individuals in such a way that the pinnacle emerges almost unknowingly. Think of thousands of ants instinctively creating an ant hill, or busy bees unknowingly creating the bee hive. Wealth at the pinnacle has aligned us all in creating material wealth for those at the top, while it acts to suppress all else.  Knowledge is valued only to the extent it can help create wealth, while ignoring the wisdom that could help us all benefit from a deeper understanding.

We need a broader, more inclusive pinnacle that will help us focus on what matters and draw in clean fresh air, peace of mind, integrity, tranquility, quiet, clean water, the beauty of nature, a healthy environment to enjoy now and sustain for the future, awe, family, friendships, community, safety, stability, trust, leisure time, joyful play, meaningful work, authentic experiences, human virtue,  respect, good health, reduced stress, ongoing education, creativity, curiosity, exploration, discovery, deeper understanding and appreciation, enjoyment of the arts, transcendence, and making significant contributions that help others, while it filters out folly and misery. Can we place wisdom itself at the pinnacle?

There are many definitions of wisdom we could choose. I suggest focusing on the simple and practical definition of wisdom as “pursuit of well-being” as a working definition that can have broad appeal. People can easily conceive of well-being as the statement: “all things considered, I am pleased with my life.”  Each of us, all of us, can then do whatever improves our own well-being, without jeopardizing the well-being of others. Whenever it becomes possible to improve the well-being of others, we take the opportunity to do so. First, do no harm; reduce the folly. This is essential wisdom.

Well-being is a broader concept than wealth or knowledge, or even happiness. Too little research on well-being has been completed, but some results are available.  The book Wellbeing—The Five Essential Elements, by Tom Rath and Jim Harter, identifies these five components of well-being:

  • Career or occupational Well-being: how people occupy their time during the day and whether it is fulfilling. Do you like what you do each day?
  • Social Well-being: the quality of relationships in people’s lives
  • Financial Well-being: the degree of financial security people have
  • Physical Well-being: the extent to which people can do what they want to free of pain
  • Community Well-being: the extent to which people feel safe and are involved in giving to their community

The concept of flourishing, as explored recently by positive psychology, is “to live within an optimal range of human functioning, one that connotes goodness, generativity, growth, and resilience.” With that definition flourishing now becomes the pursuit of well-being.

Each of us can achieve well-being by focusing on what matters and applying wisdom as we live each day. There are so many things each person can do to live more wisely.

Grand_Tetons_Pinnacles2FS

As history continues to unfold and our perspective broadens we can look back and see that each peak thought of at the time as an ultimate pinnacle is simply another foothill along the path to progress. Let’s work to make wisdom the next pinnacle. Imagine, describe, and help build the wise world we need and want. Pursue well-being. You can bring wisdom to life.

“The First Rule Is, You Don’t Talk About The Superorganism.”

The news that came in to me from the TV this morning presented what seemed a most ironic juxtaposition of stories. While I was making breakfast, the local ABC News affiliate reported that the LAX shooter, Paul Ciancia, was found to have been looking into “conspiracy theories” as a result of a data search into his electronic communication records, and that showing such an interest might become a red flag for governmental investigations into other “potential terrorists”–or so I remember the gist of the story (which, surprisingly, was not repeated in its entirety when the national ABC News came on about ten minutes later). Hm. This sounded to me like the other shoe dropping in a process initiated by an article aimed at academia, Cass Sunstein’s and Adrian Vermeule”s “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures,” in _The Journal of Political Philosophy_17.2 (2009): 202-227, proposing governmental infiltration and disruption of communication networks discussing “conspiracy theories relating to terrorism, especially theories that arise from and post-date the 9/11 attacks.” That article was apparently roundly criticized by certain academics and First Amendment supporters, and is considered at length by David Ray Griffin in _Cognitive Infilitration: An Obama Appointee’s Plan to Undermine the 9/11 Conspiracy Theory_ (2011); the book is reviewed by a brave soul, Kurtis Hagen, in the _Florida Philosophical Review_, 11.1 (Summer 2011): 66-68 (see http://www.philosophy.ucf.edu/fpr/issues-11_1.php). I think the implications of the article, coupled with Sunstein’s rise within governmental circles, are quite chilling, though of course the vast majority of academics studiously failed to take note of it publicly (while no doubt fencing off the topic with “no trespassing” signs in their private mental space). At any rate, the proposition that the government’s response should be “dual-pronged,” one addressing the potential threat from academia and another from the general public, made in the Sunstein and Vermeule paper, does appear to be coming to pass and is now being put out for general public acceptance by its incorporation into this news story.

Now, abstracting to the general case, when one considers what a “conspiracy” actually is–a group of people working together to bring about a particular end, i.e., a “superorganism” of the sort I was talking about yesterday, with secrecy and nefariousness of purpose generally attributed to the action but not necessarily entailed by the interconnectivity of individual agents–it makes me wonder if the newly roped-off territory and the atomistic individualism of our dominant paradigm might be, in important ways, mutually reinforcing. We are _not_ to envision the manner in which we highly social animals organize ourselves through role differentiation into large-scale groupings for accomplishing various tasks, because that would necessitate using our right hemisphere’s “holistic,” visuospatial insight, and then we might be able to grasp what sorts of large-scale aggressive acts are being accomplished in our names and (in fact) by our own hands. Better we should try to believe that what each of us does in our day-to-day lives is already entirely the result of individually “rational” judgment, not in any way influenced by deep emotional/social forces, and that the simple sum of all the millions of “rational” decisions about action produces a happy, healthy, and harmonious society (by our strictly linear logic, how could it do otherwise?). Because if we did start to perceive the “whole,” and the parts we play within that whole, we might begin to question its overall goal and achievements; and if we _then_ activated ourselves as individual moral agents we just might choose not to continue playing the given roles that make the superorganism what it is today. So the “conspiracy” of interconnected thought and action that is currently extant among us all, which serves to maintain our present social reality, must not be made visible, become discussable; the first rule for keeping an individual grinding away unconsciously in his or her role within a superorganism must be: “You don’t talk about the Superorganism.”

But to come back down from abstract speculation and get to the ironic part, this morning’s _Democracy Now!_–available on the satellite Free Speech and Link TV networks as well as the internet and the one “real news” program I watch faithfully–featured Amy Goodman’s hour-long interview with Oliver Stone, talking freely about another “conspiracy theory,” the one surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy 50 years ago this month, along with previewing some of the very important information (important for self-reflection by all the members who together compose the group that can be designated the US Superorganism) that Stone and historian Peter Kuznick present in their upcoming series, “The Untold History of the United States.” The first part of the interview can be viewed here:
http://www.democracynow.org/2013/1/5/oliver_stone_on_50th_anniversary_of . Goodman reports that a recent Associated Press survey “conducted in mid-April, said 59 percent of Americans think multiple people were involved in a conspiracy to kill the president, while 24 percent think Oswald acted alone, 16 percent are still unsure. A 2003 Gallup poll found 75 percent of Americans felt there was a conspiracy.” Hm again–the agents of external control are going to be pretty busy, infiltrating and straightening out all those “conspiracy theorists,” aren’t they? Oh, that’s right, they’ve already done the infiltration part–I’m sure it’s all stored somewhere in the NSA’s vast data files. Now, how can they all be re-educated?

But the really, really ironic part–and I apologize for going on at some length about this, but it just might be my “last chance” to get this out now (tongue in cheek–or not?), and I truly believe that academia’s failure to attend to this issue is a matter of serious epistemic concern–is the juxtaposition of Stone’s way of analyzing what happened to Kennedy with his own failure to delve more deeply, in his own 2006 movie and yet today, into what happened on 9/11. [A demonstration of his cognitive dissonance on the latter topic can be seen in his recent interview by Abby Martin: http://rt.com/shows/breaking-set-summary/jfk-anniversary-uncensors-history-068/ –“I can’t answer that question,” he says, when asked point-blank by Abby about whether he thinks the government could have been involved, though Kuznik brings up the Project for a New American Century’s hope for “a new Pearl harbor.”] With respect to the Kennedy assassination, Stone focuses on the “hard” evidence: “When you look once again at the basics of the film—the bullets, the autopsy, the forensics, the shooting path—and stay away from all the other stuff—Oswald’s background and Garrison, etc.—just follow the meat, the evidence, what you see with your own eyes in those six seconds, it’s an amazing—it’s all there. It doesn’t need to be elaborated upon. You can see it with your own eyes.” He draws upon his personal experience of combat in Vietnam in analyzing he video of the shooting: You see Kennedy “get a hit in the throat. Then you see Kennedy get a hit in the back. Then you see him essentially get a hit from the front. When he gets the hit from the front, which is the fourth or the fifth or the sixth shot, he goes back and to the left. That’s the basic evidence. You see a man fly back because he gets hit right here. Many witnesses at Parkland and at the autopsy in Bethesda saw a massive exit wound to the rear of his skull, to the right side,” including a young doctor at Parkland Hospital who reported seeing the rear part of his brain exposed. The subsequent official report, however, and later the Warren Commission, maintained that the shot that killed Kennedy came in from the back–“And they got away with it,” he says, “because [the public was presented with] a lot of mumbo-jumbo . . .”

How ironic that Stone has, as yet, not taken a good look at the “hard” evidence surrounding the 9/11 event, has apparently not spoken with anyone from Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth who could draw on their own personal experience, not of ballistics in a combat zone, but of structural support systems in tall buildings! Moreover, Stone goes on to call the Warren Commission report “the Rosetta Stone of this country,” in the way the focus was immediately placed on Lee Harvey Oswald: “They had the profile ready. This is a lone nut, Marxist sympathizer, who obviously was not only alienated, but disliked Kennedy—none of which is true, because he was none of these things.” What gets presented to the public is a shell game, it seems, everyone in the audience keeping their eyes on the moving walnut shell that covers the peanut while the magician’s accomplice picks their pockets; the attention of the press is diverted onto the actions of a single man in the Kennedy case, left to speculating about his particular movements and motivations, while being subtly shifted away from asking questions like, who (plural–what sort of grouping) might have benefited from Kennedy’s elimination, and how might they have pulled it off, and covered it up, given the “hard” evidence? The same sort of shell game was rolled out by a Commission forty years later, focusing our attention immediately and intently on the movements of nineteen individual men, handing these details down for media pundits to bloviate over endlessly while quietly letting the larger picture fade into the background. With respect to the Kennedy assassination, Stone continues, “what bothers me the most is that people who are intelligent, The New York Times, the Vanity Fair fellow, the guy in The New Yorker, they write these long pieces, and they just—and they say, essentially, in the article, “Well, we—history has sort of shown us that Oswald is the—the consensus is that Oswald did it alone.” Yes, “THE CONSENSUS IS”–here’s an example of “the coherence theory of truth” in action, a fine example to present to students in defining the term, should anybody dare (I also happen to recall that, when the _Chronicle of Higher Ed_ reported several years ago on a study claiming the show that the JFK killing had been a “conspiracy,” it was quickly countered by another article claiming the reverse). But Oliver, don’t you realize there are people now saying the same thing about you?

Looking back at American history as it has transpired over the last 50 years, Stone reflects, “with [Kennedy’s] murder, the torch was passed back to an old generation, the generation of Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Reagan, leaders who would systematically destroy the promise of Kennedy’s last year, as they returned the country to war and repression.” My feelings exactly–the torch was surely wrenched from my own generation’s hands with the polarity reversal that was nailed into place by 1980. In _The Untold History_, we may perhaps get a better glimpse of what the subgrouping, the plural “who” that has become the core directing the US Superorganism, is doing; as Stone explains their reasons for making the documentary, “after George Bush had been in office two terms in 2008, we said, “What is—is he an aberration, or is he a continuation of a pattern?” So we went back to our early lives in the 1940s and studied this whole pattern. And we see a pattern. If you look at all chapters together quickly, in 12 hours, you feel the dream, the fever dream, the aggression, the militarism, the racism towards the Third World—it doesn’t end—the exploitation.” A pattern indeed, to be grasped by the part of our brain that can connect dots into patterns. And as long as the rank-and-file members of the superorganism in question don’t wake up and ask themselves if they really choose to continue performing the roles that keep it in place, that pattern will continue to grow and extend itself. So that’s why the government must enforce the first rule: You don’t talk about the Superorganism. And why those of us who reject the current pattern _must_ talk about it.

Superorganisms

Recent discussions and recommended readings–including Iain McGilchrist’s 2009 tome on cerebral hemispheric asymmetry–have me convinced that we of western culture have a severe deficit in holistic thinking, an excessive left-hemisphere dominance that makes us conceptualize most things atomistically and conceive of their relationships in strictly linear terms, making us virtually unable to grasp the self-organizing wholes of living organisms, planetary systems, and–the primary theme of this post–our human subgroupings. In order for us to understand the way we humans create our social reality, constructing those “ontologically subjective” entities that have no independent existence other than in what Searle calls our “collective intentionality”–entities like money, debt, nation-states and the like–we have to be able to visualize ourselves as human primates organized in social groupings that collectively share strong beliefs in the existence of such “things” and who pattern our cooperative activities in the real world around these ontologically subjective imaginings. If we can come to “see” such groupings–subgroupings of our one human species–and the conscious and unconscious processes at work which maintain them as wholes, functioning as “superorganisms,” in the coinage of E. O. Wilson, we will be much closer to being able to conceptually transcend those national/cultural subgroup boundaries, enabling us to 1) put an end to the threat posed to planetary life by intergroup warfare and aggression and 2) revise our ontologically subjective constructions–economics and politics–so as to deal with the ontologically objective global changes we have set in motion that now threaten us, not as disparate subgroups, but as a most vulnerable species within the biosphere.

For example, how can we understand what’s going on with the secrecy and spying apparently being conducted by the U.S. government? What’s it all about? This is a superorganismal grouping–or rather a much smaller, tighter group within the US Superorganism as a whole, playing the control role–devoted to policing its boundaries while penetrating the boundaries of other sorts of wholes, organismal (individual) and superorganismal (national, corporate, political) that might possibly threaten “its” continued existence. Wherefore cometh this intensely focused effort, if we humans are “nothing but” isolated individual organisms acting in our own “rational” self-interest, voting to participate in a democracy whose major concerns are simply how to weigh Haidt’s “six moral values” when it comes to taxation and governmental social programs? I would say it cometh from our deep primate emotional core, subject to millennia of group selection, which drives us to organize ourselves into superorganisms and act to preserve, and if possible to extend (usually through aggression), the bounded existence of those superorganisms even at great cost to our individual lives–we are NOTHING LIKE the disconnected “rational economic atoms” our left hemispheres would have us believe! The powers that are currently running the show within the US Superorganism are obsessed with maintaining a bubble-like boundary around the members of the subgroup (a subgrouping of our species, i.e., American citizens as a subgrouping within Homo sapiens), in the physical world erecting formidable border fences and tightening “security” at points of ingress and egress, in the conceptual world selectively presenting information to those “within” and to those “outside of” the wall of the bubble. “Terrorism” is continually dangled before us as a threat to the existence of the group, our superorganism, and it works because of our deep emotional wiring, making us fearful, compliant, and willing to obey the alpha-primates who promise to care for us by fighting off the “external” threat–even though our “rational” minds tell us that many more of us die every year from, e.g., auto accidents and dietary excess.

Moreover, Jeff has brought up, and soon, I hope, will post on a phenomenon he calls “screening out”–the way individuals caught up in their institutional roles within superorganisms of various sorts and scales actively work to keep out facts, ideas and insights that would lead people to question and consider changing the organizing paradigm that maintains the currently instantiated superorganismal structure. How does this work? Some of it, obviously, is quite conscious–terms that newscasters aren’t allowed to use, issues and events that they are discouraged or prohibited from reporting on–but I suspect quite a lot of the “screening out” behavior is operative below the level of full consciousness, where people instinctively just “know” that certain things are not to be spoken of or allowed to penetrate public awareness, because members of “the group” instinctively acted to maintain its integrity all the way back when we were nonlinguistic primates, and now instinctively know how to police its conceptual boundaries, protect the impenetrable shell of the belief bubble that walls it off from competing superorganisms. Such social/psychological forces are operative within other superorganisms besides nation-states, of course–in corporations, sports teams, religious groupings–but for now the nation-state subgrouping dominates the world scene, simply because of the firepower this entity can muster. Little wonder that “speaking truth to power” is hard to do.

If academia gets over its left-hemisphere exuberance in time to start seriously examining our predilection for organizing ourselves into superorganisms and the evolutionarily embedded forces at play in maintaining them, can we pull back enough, as individually conscious epistemic and moral agents, to choose to change the current structure of our human social reality? I don’t know, but I think it’s worth a try. How to get academia to do so? Well, us talking among ourselves about these issues is a good beginning; if what we say has some basis in fact, and we make some headway in putting the picture together, its own interestingness and potential fruitfulness (re Thomas Kuhn) should recruit some other academics. How to get the larger public to become aware of these processes and discover their own agency to choose to effect change? I think that could even take place rapidly, once those within the media, now with a global reach, begin to transmit a new message instead of “screening it out” in favor of endlessly repeating the old, subgroup-stabilizing, ultimately self-destructive ones.