“Can you answer this question I read in this book?”
It was biology class in 11th grade at Boise High School, and I had brought in the book “Darwin On Trial” from the church library to try and understand what I was learning in school. Evolution was scary to me, a feeling that was reinforced by the youth pastor, who directed me to the book.
I was shocked how my teacher responded, a statement that burned into my mind, and to this day speaks directly to a serious problem we have as humans.
“No, I can’t.” He blew me off. My teacher refused to help me understand what was being taught in school for one reason: it challenged belief.
It took me years of self-study, reading books on science, philosophy and everything between. I would come to understand that evolution was controversial in the US, and only in a religious sense. The reason it was being taught in schools was simple: it’s a solid, well-supported theory that has stood up to testing for more than 150 years. Evolution is fact.
Yet there is an implication to this idea that took even longer to process. I consider it a shocking secret, because it’s the real reason we resist the idea of Evolution.
The secret is this: you are an animal.
As animals, we have a heritage that connects us to all life. This is manifest in an inheritance of behaviors and emotions, crafted by evolutionary forces over billions of years for one singular reason: survival. We have inside us a powerful survival engine that kicks in when we feel threatened to keep us safe. It’s perfectly animal to be defensive.
An example of this “Survival Nature” is the role of aggression. While we prefer to be peaceful and social and happy, we will fight when we must. And when we feel threatened, we respond by defending ourselves and attacking the threat.
We see this behavior in all aspects of civilization. Business leaders fight each other for market share and profits. Politicians fight for power and reputation. Police fight for order and control. And we all fight to defend what we think is right and true and proper. Especially in America, we love to fight.
The problem with fighting is that it’s unproductive. Perhaps there was a time when dominating others through force brought peace to small communities, but today is different. We live in large populations, orchestrating a grand civilization that requires a level of cooperation that no life form has needed in the past. We’ve got to stop fighting.
There are many tools in our Survival Nature that are no longer necessary, causing problems for cooperation. We hoard resources when there is plenty to share. We mistrust strangers when the risk of harm is actually quite low. We are judgmental. And we sort people we know using “us versus them” terms. Unchecked, our Survival Nature will keep us fighting like dogs forever.
We may be animals, but we can also rise above our base nature and accomplish far more. We are also highly social and powerfully cooperative. When we work together, we can accomplish staggering feats. We have cut extreme poverty in half over the last two decades, thanks to massive global efforts. We have promoted human rights, and defended them to the point that slavery is nearly extinguished. We are making tremendous progress in achieving fairness and peace around the planet.
So why are we struggling so much in the United States? We have more people in prison than anywhere else on the planet. We have a highly divisive political environment. We have a class of super wealthy that fight hard to protect their fortunes. And we have a capitalist economy the prioritizes profits over people.
Our Believing Brain
The problem is belief. We believe that locking up criminals reduces crime. We believe that political factions promote better governance. We believe that rich people create wealth for the poor. We believe that competition results in lower prices. And worse of all, we believe that people who cause too much harm are less than human (evil). All of these beliefs are false, and the evidence is easy to find. Crime, corruption, poverty, profiteering, they are all rampant in the US, and less so in other countries. Yet the beliefs persist.
Why? Why are beliefs so difficult to challenge? Why do we avoid talking about evolution? Probably because we know that some beliefs are wrong. And most of us will resist being wrong… at all costs.
We defend our beliefs like we defend our lives. Our Survival Nature kicks in, and our brains do what they were engineered to do, protect us.
Michael Shermer is best know for his book entitled “Why people believe weird things“, where he made popular the concept that we are animals, and that knowledge is useful in understanding how we behave. As you learn more about how our brains work, you find that we tend to accept and remember information that backs up our beliefs, and dismiss or ignore information that contradicts it. It’s part of our Survival Nature to do so. It’s this animal-like behavior that entrenches us into ways of thinking that inhibit our ability to work together.
This leaves us with a critical question: can we do better than act like animals?
I think we can, and the proof is in our progress. It’s when we come together and share beliefs that we make progress. The shared belief that all humans have rights empowered the civil rights movement. The shared belief that all humans deserve food has driven the global anti-hunger movement. And it’s our shared belief that we can rise above fighting that is powering the global peace movement.
We’re going through a tremendous amount of change. Beliefs are being challenged as we discuss strategy to fight terrorism, reform our healthcare system, help the impoverished, and try to curb global warming. There are a great number of us who are unhappy with change because their beliefs are being challenged. And as most of us would do in such a situation, especially when we feel powerless, we fight.
So maybe we should take an informed approach to help those who are struggling with change. What if we interacted with others in a way that avoids provoking their Survival Natures? What would that look like?
Here are three ideas that can help us deal with change, and they are not new. They are just difficult.
Idea 1: Respect the Individual. We all have the same fundamental hardware. We all want the same basic things; to be safe, healthy, and happy; to have strong social connections; and to grasp as best we can some sense of truth and wisdom. Let’s see other people as versions of ourselves that grew up in a different family, in a different neighborhood, with different beliefs. We should respect the rights that others have to hold opinions and not be harmed, either physically or mentally, because we disagree.
Idea 2: Strengthen our Community. People are suffering because we are failing in our responsibilities to each other. When we make connections with others, we feel safer and happier. It’s when individuals have no place in their community, when they are outcast because of their beliefs that they turn to violence. We have a vibrant nonprofit community working hard to do this, and they need help. We have assets in our neighborhoods that will be uncovered as we forge more connections. It’s not about ideas or philosophies, it’s about people.
Idea 3: Seek Wisdom. We need to use standards to identify what’s true, rather than fight blindly like animals over ideas. Our core social problems are real: environmental damage, inequality, injustice, corruption, and violence. They can be studied and understood, and solutions can be employed. We know this because it’s been working for some time. We’re living in the most peaceful time in all of recorded history, and it’s because we learned through trial and error, the best ways to organize. Let’s seek truth. Let’s continue learning.
We are Animals
We need a major attitude shift in the United States, away from the ideology of fighting. We need to cooperate. We need to change our narrative away from “the world’s super-power”, “the greatest nation”, “the first world”, because those ideas are not helpful. It’s not the empire age anymore, it’s the information age. It’s time to work together.
It’s okay that we have conflict. It’s fine that we disagree. It’s also normal to allow our Survival Nature to take over, causing us to lash out in defense. These are all aspects of human life that will never go away. But if we really want to live in peace, it’s going to take a little effort. We may be animals, but unlike all other life, we can learn about ourselves, and use that knowledge, that Wisdom, to cooperate more effectively.
We are Humans
There’s a movement happening. Peace is slowly spreading around the planet. As Dr. Martin Luther King Junior famously said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it beds toward justice.” You can make a difference. You can help bend that arc.
Alive today are the most optimistic, aware, powerful, and progressive people that humanity has ever seen. You can bet that change will continue. Things won’t stop changing until we can be sure that every human on the planet can life a long happy life, and do so in a sustainable balance with our environment.
My biology teacher and my pastor did not help me. And they failed to see that the very issue that they disagreed on held the answers to our most pressing social problems. We are animals, and knowing that empowers us. We are also human, and knowing that inspires us. We may not need our Survival Nature anymore, but we have something even better: the capacity to understand ourselves, choose how to behave, and cooperate with others to improve ourselves and our communities.
At a time when divisiveness seems rampant, remember that not long ago politicians fought to the death in the streets, people were being kept as slaves, and open war meant raping, pillaging and destroying entire nations. We’re making progress, thanks to our respect for individuals, our strengthening of communities, and our search for wisdom.