The price of our freedom to decide our own behavior is
the loss of innate rules to limit our own aggression and greed.
– Elisabet Sahtouris
One early morning this past week I read an article in the latest issue of Spirituality & Health magazine that left me feeling depressed. At the outset, author Allan J. Hamilton, M.D., (2011) chronicles the personal and global crises we now face as an Earth community. It’s a very disturbing portrait to say the least.
Putting the article down, I moved into my morning exercises. While I went through my usual routine, I also tried to be with the depression, and see where it would lead. Eventually, my mind came around to the hope that lies in our own capacity as humans to grow beyond our limiting behaviors. That is the main lesson of this post, so if you are crunched for time right now, take that hope into your day and run with it.
However, at the risk of sending you into the same depression I experienced, I am going to keep writing because not only do I want to share some of what I read, but also the thoughts that moved me once again beyond depression to hope.
Here is an excerpt from article in which Hamilton describes our current human and planetary dilemma:
[O]nly now are we awakening to the true scope of the race we are running. On an individual level, human consumption has reached a novel and ironic tipping point in which the children of the developed world may live shorter and less healthy lives than our own. “Food deserts,” the urban spaces with no source of natural food, are spreading as fast as the Sahara. On a planetary level the problems are worse.
Hamilton goes on to note the devastating scale on which jungles and forests on the planet have already been lost or modified, and primary forests are being cleared for agriculture or harvested for lumber. The result, of course, is that the current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has not been seen on Earth in more than 650,000 years.
There’s more. It turns out United Nations scientists were wrong in 2007 when they first began to worry about how quickly the world’s oceans are rising – in 2011 it is nearly 1.6 times faster – and about how quickly the temperature of the atmosphere is climbing – 1.3 times more quickly
What is happening to those who co-inhabit this planet with us is equally devastating. “[A]t the current rate of loss, half of all bird and mammal species will have disappeared by 2100 – the kind of mass extinction not seen since an asteroid ended the reign of the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago.”
We, at least, have an advantage over the dinosaurs. They never saw the end coming. They had no hint that our planet was about to get hit by an asteroid. We know what is going on, and are getting a clearer picture of it every day. It is not, I’ll admit, the sort of future any of us imagined even 10 years ago, but it is becoming more and more real, and can hit you from the page of a magazine article when you are barely out of bed and sipping your first morning cup of tea.
Yet, after providing the above dismal summary of our current situation, Hamilton delves into his own reasons for hope. He finds them in the 300-million-year story of how our human brains evolved. Science has uncovered a lot about the workings of the human brain in recent decades. Coming to understand the human brain and how it functions is key, Hamilton suggests, to curbing our destructive behaviors.
Essentially, our human brain is an amalgamation of all evolutionary advances in brain formation that happened over the past 300 million years. First came the brains of reptiles, and a remnant of this brain type provides the foundation for our central nervous system and reflexes. “It is where our most primary, reflexive drives come from: such things as hunger, jumping when startled, struggling for air, or drinking when we are thirsty,” explains Hamilton. This area of our brain also regulates our respiration, heart rate, and body temperature. We are lucky – extremely so – that this part of our brain performs these life-giving functions pretty much without our having to think about it.
Hamilton goes on to explain that about 65 million years ago, we inherited a second brain that developed in mammals. This brain, known as the limbic lobe, gives us the capacity to experience emotions. As this brain continues to evolve, it “gives rise to mating rituals, to strong emotional ties, to parenting, and to social groups, wherein individuals developed a keen sense of identity and kinship.” So far, so good. Scientists suggest that this improvement to our brain had a lot to do with our surviving as a species.
Lastly, our ancient ancestors incorporated a third component into the human brain, known as the neocortex. This is the “thinking” part of our brain; the part capable of adapting to knew situations and overcoming obstacles by inventing tools – more behaviors important to survival. It is also the part of our brain that gives us the creative capacity to overcome our instincts and respond thoughtfully rather than simply react in challenging situations.
Now, however, we are becoming aware that these three brains function independently, and that the “thinking” brain is not the one in control. The reptilian brain appears to be the one in charge. Hamilton quotes French psychiatrist Clotaire Rapaille, who writes: “In a battle between logic, emotion, and instinct, the reptilian brain always wins.”
This means that the reptilian brain not only takes care of important things like regulating our heart beat, but it also influences our cognitive functions. As Hamilton suggests, it might just be our reptilian brain that is governing our taste in houses and cars. “When we picture a mansion or a powerful sports car that grabs everyone’s attention, that’s our reptilian part of our brain pulling our strings. We don’t think of how extravagant the purchase is, let alone its environmental cost, but rather how much we need and want it – because it appeals to urges and appetites that have been hardwired in us since the beginning of time.”
Our reptilian instincts have helped us as a species to survive and evolve over millions of years on our planet. But now those instincts appear to be the very thing driving us toward extinction, as our needs and wants overstep the boundaries of our planet’s resources.
The way out of this dilemma is suggested by evolutionary biologist Elisabeth Sahtouris. It was her writings that first offered me hope back in the early 1990’s as I began to think seriously about the ecological and social crises facing our planet. It was recalling her observations that again lifted me out of my depression after reading Hamilton’s assessment of the crises we continue to face today.
Sahtouris (1999) reminds us that we are a young species in terms of Earth’s history. We are, she suggests, experiencing on a species-wide basis what any adolescent experiences when faced with the need to “come of age.” She writes:
From [Earth’s] point of view, we humans are an experiment — a young trial species still at odds with ourselves and other species, still not having learned to balance our own dance within that of our whole planet. Unlike most other species, we are not biologically programmed to know what to do; rather, we are an experiment in free choice. This leaves us with enormous potential, powerful egotism, and tremendous anxiety – a syndrome that is recognizably adolescent.
What lifted me out of my depression was the knowledge that I, at least, can use my neocortex to choose not to give in to anxiety and egotism, but to fulfill my potential as a member of Earth’s community of Life. I do not fully know what that means as yet, but I am, each week, willing to learn.
Hamilton, A. (2011). The ultimate health practice. In Spirituality & Health Magazine. (January/February). pp 44-49
Sahtouris, E. (1999). Earthdance: Living systems in evolution. Retrieved from http://www.scribd.com/doc/17955120/Earthdance-by-Elisabet-Sahtouris. Accessed 1.26.11