“And you think it’s easier
To know your own tricks
Well, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do.”
On my drive into work this morning, I caught the latter half of an interview with Nicholas Winton, the “British Oskar Schindler,” who helped rescue over six hundred Jewish children from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia just before World War 2. Recognizing the impending danger, Winton helped coordinate a number of trains to get the children to Britain, where families had volunteered to take them in. He was later reunited with some of those children – since grown – in 1988, recorded by the BBC. It is a very moving scene, particularly considering that the last train carrying children did not make it, and all of its evacuees were believed to have died in concentration camps.
Winton is now 105 years old, and the interviewer asked him a range of questions about his role in the evacuations, his view of himself as a hero (he wanted no part of this), and his thoughts on the changes in the world that he had seen over his very long life. Overall, he said, he was pessimistic about the way the world has changed. We’ve grown more efficient at killing each other, and seem mired in conflict and unable to get out of our own way.
The key, or “the only way out,” as he put it, is finding commonality with each other through ‘ethics.’ As a child, he embraced his own Jewish heritage, but then converted to Christianity. Later, he grew disillusioned with religion altogether when he learned that religious figures on both sides of World War 2 were praying for their own countries to win. I wanted to quote his exact words, so I found this print version of the interview.
One of the better examples I’ve yet found that conveys the concept of evolution comes from the 2002 NOVA documentary “Search for the First Human.” The main focus of the video is the species Orrorin tugenensis and it’s possible place in our family tree six million years ago. However, two particular segments stand out to me, and I think do a pretty good job of conveying the idea of evolution to students.
Two people I really like go toe-to-toe.
She is wonderful, isn’t she?
From a David Barash piece in the New York Times (Are We Hard-Wired for War?):
“There is a story, believed to be of Cherokee origin, in which a girl is troubled by a recurring dream in which two wolves fight viciously. Seeking an explanation, she goes to her grandfather, highly regarded for his wisdom, who explains that there are two forces within each of us, struggling for supremacy, one embodying peace and the other, war. At this, the girl is even more distressed, and asks her grandfather who wins. His answer: “The one you feed.”
I like the story and the premise, that we may have multiple internal forces or ‘voices,’ but that there is also some executive decision maker within us that can choose which ones to nurture and cultivate. However, circumstances also play a large role — socialization, perceptions of injustice, fear of insecurity, relationships with our neighbors — in which voices we listen to. The rational executive is not always in complete control; instead, it’s a complex dialogue. As Jaak Panskepp once wrote:
Despite the appeal of (the) rational fallacy, our higher brain areas are not immune to the subcortical influences we share with other creatures. Of course, the interchange between cognitive and emotional processes is one of reciprocal control, but the flow of traffic remains balanced only in nonstressful circumstances. In emotional turmoil, the upward influences of subcortical emotional circuits on the higher reaches of the brain are stronger than top-down controls. Although humans can strengthen and empower the downward controls through emotional education and self-mastery, few can ride the whirlwind of unbridled emotions with great skill.” (Panksepp, 2004: 301)
Who’s in charge here?
Panksepp J. 2004. Affective Neuroscience: the Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. Oxford Univ Press.
Related: Tradeoffs, Happiness, & the Biology of Our Cacophonous Selves
I’ve been thinking about human behavioral complexity a bit more lately, and the persistent use of the term ‘human nature.’ That brought me to this passage from the biologist Paul R. Ehrlich in his book Human Natures (2000: 330).
“In my view, it is highly unlikely that human beings will ever create a utopia, but I think it a counsel of despair to assume that we can’t collectively do a lot better than we’re doing today. Cultural evolution led many past civilizations to extinction. Our global civilization had better move rapidly to modify its cultural evolution and deal with its deteriorating environmental circumstances before it runs out of time. Whether the natures of most of us can be changed to establish better connections among diverse groups and to take more systematic control of our cultural evolution remains to be seen. One good starting point would be to drop the term human nature in the singular form from most of our discourse and learn to think automatically of the built-in genetic and cultural plurality of human beings. Our challenge is to learn to deal sensibly with both nature and our natures — for all of us to learn to be both environmentalists and “people people.” Utopian? Perhaps. I tend to be optimistic in thinking that we can do it but pessimistic that we will do it.”
Anthropologists might cringe at the use of ‘cultural evolution,’ which has its baggage, but Ehrlich was not promoting the idea of linear progression. As is apparent in the quote, his concern was with people taking charge of some of our larger challenges, particularly overpopulation, war, and environmental degradation. As for the matter of being optimistic or pessimistic, I suppose that’s an open question.
(Related) I’d also recommend this essay by Jason Antrosio on human nature.