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September 24, 2013

Our Brain's flaws & a Ray of Hope

We humans, (Homo sapiens), may have arrived at a critical moment in our existence as a species. Although many remain unconvinced, we are highly evolved mammals, one of the many concepts dependent on observations made by the youthful Charles Darwin during a brief stopover in the Galapagos Islands in the course of his now famous eighteenth Century voyage, but not published until formally until 1859.

During its early history, our species is thought to have survived several episodes of near extinction only to rebound. The most recent such event was caused by a series of epidemics thought to have reduced the population of Europe by half in the 14th Century, but soon balanced by the discovery of two previously unknown continents, each with their own indigenous populations who were mistakenly called "Indians" by Columbus, who had been searching for a western passage to Asia.

Ironically, Columbus had been correct in assuming that the Indies could reached by sailing West from Europe, but he hadn't known his way would be blocked by two continents, nor that the isthmus connecting them would be breached by a Canal four Centuries later.

Those indigenous populations, also unknown to Europeans, would today be called aborigines, but that very concept had not been considered until after the (disputed) discovery of Australia- yet another continent "discovered" (first reported to Europeans) in the early 17th Century.

Descendants of the misidentified Indians have continued to inhabit both "Americas," but have suffered considerably at the hands of Europeans who immediately claimed sovereignty over them based on their own Christian beliefs which led them to assume a cultural and religious superiority.

In other words, because the Europeans Columbus represented thought they were bringing the blessings of "Civilization" to the "savages" he had encountered on the "New World," they and their descendants assumed the right to enslave them in the name of a Christian deity; even as Europe itself was being torn by religious disagreements over how that deity should be worshiped.

That the last inhabited continent "discovered" by Europeans was not only the world's smallest, but also the home of aborigenes is also interesting because recent genomic studies have confirmed that they are probably the descendants of the first of many human diasporas from Africa.

The point of this rambling essay is that the biggest current threat to our survival seems to be our inability- as a species- to control our destructive behavior. Although 500 years may might not seem very long compared to the time required for Evolution to have produced the human brain; that organ- when augmented by the disciplines of Science- has greatly intensified our impact on both our species, and its planetary environment.

Unfortunately, that enhanced cognitive impact has been a mixed blessing; not only has it multiplied our numbers, it has intensified the number and intensity of the disputes we are so prone to engage in.

Although not everyone agrees, there is an abundance of evidence that global warming is a viable hypothesis; however, one can easily find many web sites deriding it as a scam or a liberal plot. If the hypothesis proves "true" (accurate) failure to act now will have huge consequences down the road- and in very little time.

Today's greatest irony may be that many conservatives see global warming as political- a liberal scam- almost certainly not true and one that must be opposed in any event.

Thus has our cognitive ability allowed our species to dominate its global environment, but our serious emotional flaws encourage us to compete for dominance, much the same as males in most mammalian species compete for reproductive dominance and leadership.

Recognition of that flaw should now be possible through the same cognitive processes that have produced quantum theory, space exploration, genetic engineering and organ transplantation, yet both the historical record and the events being reported in our daily media show us headed in the wrong direction: directly away from the critical understanding that any effective solution requires.

It would seem self-evident that in order to solve a problem, one must first understand it and to do that, one must be able to discuss it freely and honestly.

In that context, humanity's "drug problem," became a dominant issue right after Richard Nixon's Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1970, a law still enforced as federal US law and UN policy. Rather than a "solution" Nixon's "drug war" serves as excellent example of- and metaphor for- our cognitive frailty.

Our species doesn't yet seem capable of realizing that its long term survival now hangs in the balance; thus it will require some critical changes in both our thinking and our collective behavior to avert several looming catastrophes.

The hour is late; but there is a glimmer of hope. President Obama's speech to the UN this morning was the clearest articulation by a world leader of our need to get along and renounce violence that I've ever heard. He hit all he right notes and carefully avoided inflammatory rhetoric in making a plea for peace and rationality. That he was also a beneficiary of adolescent cannabis use, I see as both a blessing and a teaching opportunity.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at September 24, 2013 03:38 PM