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Aggression The Old Problem Is Still With Us

Aggression The Old Problem Is Still With Us

We live with our flaws and prejudices, and must live with the flaws and prejudices of our fellow humans. Long ago we gave up expecting that we could become completely reasonable and rational human beings. Yet, we continue to desire better conduct from our frail selves and hope that someday we will achieve a level of global harmony that will make wars and our numerous conflicts seem as antiquated as using candles to light out homes. Some optimistic people even philosophize that it might be possible that our collective consciousness could evolve toward a universal human connectedness in which we are free of fear, free of aggression toward each other, and free of the greed that drives the lust for power in too many of us.

Without fear and defensive behavior, perhaps our species would not have endured the millions of years it took for us to become human. Survival tactics such as learning to fight and be aggressive when threatened became an integral part of the genetic makeup that is still with us today. So far, none of our religions, philosophies, or political systems have been able to restrain this fundamental survival instinct that currently, in our well-armed, multicultural global society, is doing us far more harm than good.

We have gone from fighting animals that threatened us to fighting each other. Even when no threat exists, the most selfish and greedy of us make one up. Those of us who are predatorial find prey to attack. The idea that Vladimir Putin accused all Ukrainians of being Nazis is a good example. In this case, as in most, when one nation invades another, the aggression is harmful, unnecessary and accomplishes nothing except boosting the ego of a malevolent ruler with a following of mindless sycophants to carry out his or her demands. Or in the case of a shooting in a public place, it could be a mentally unstable person seeking some sort of perverse aggrandizement. In all of these situations the principles are the same: disturbed people craving attention.

We hear about these heartless behaviors on our newscasts which currently seem mostly about hate. Is our world really as bad off as the newscasts would lead us to believe? Or is it that good news is either rare or does not earn enough money for broadcasters. Conflict pays, whether in the news, in movies, or in books. Some of us spend lots of time and money in order to watch or read about people suffering. Do some of us find that watching people suffer to be cathartic by getting our mind off our own problems and challenges?

Fortunately, there are many thoughtful people who see beyond the news, violent movies, and murder mysteries and know that these do not tell the full story of our humanity. So, if we know we can do better than the picture of ourselves reflected by our daily dose of media unpleasantness, what is to stop us from taking the next step and allowing ourselves to evolve toward a global society in which we humans, every one of us, would be able to put our aggressive tendencies aside or at least see the futility of violence and get it under control. It is obvious that without our dangerous greed and aggression Earth would be a safer place to live.

But we cannot seem to rid ourselves of these traits that create conflicts and cause us harm. It is as if thinking through a situation and showing restraint and clear-headedness takes more mental effort than many of us are willing to exert. It should be as easy as just taking the time to have a kinder attitude toward our fellow humans, even individuals we do not particularly care for. But acting impulsively without having to think is so much easier.

Many people who have looked at our situation carefully agree with psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow who pointed out that, “The story of the human race is the story of men and women selling themselves short.” We are smarter than we often behave. One could go so far as to say that when it comes to human relations, we are lazy. We don’t think things through. We are not wolves, we are not sharks or crocodiles, yet we often act before we make an attempt to consider the repercussions of our actions. It took us millions of years of evolution to develop our prefrontal cortex that helps us control our response to stimuli. Let us not continue behaving as though the best we can do is come up with a reptilian response to things going on around us.

It is not as if we have not tried to do better. Throughout history many thoughtful people such as the Buddha, Confucius, Plato, Socrates, Jesus, Erasmus, Hume, Kant, Gandhi, Helen Keller, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, Linus Pauling, the Dalai Lama, Karen Armstrong and many others, both ancient and modern, known and unknown, have been concerned with the problem of human relations and have attempted to enlighten our thinking, to make us more mature, more thoughtful humans. Although these people represent a great diversity of cultures, one hope is common to all of them: to make us less fearful, less aggressive, and more cooperative in our relationships with each other.

But, unfortunately, these kinds of people have always been in the minority and grossly outnumbered by people who cannot get passed the idea that the aggressive and greedy side of human nature is embedded so deeply in us that we cannot change ourselves. It is unfortunate that so many people consider human greed and our propensity to engage in conflicts a natural and inevitable part of our existence. Some even use that negative point of view to justify their irrational behavior. Those who are prone to behave selfishly will tell you, “It is alright for me to be greedy and aggressive because all humans are that way.” Are greed and selfishness so strong in us that there is no hope that we can rid ourselves of them in our daily interactions with each other?

It is a matter of attitude. You either give in easily to your egocentric impulses or persevere toward what you know to be right and honest and not harmful to anyone. It is true that so far even the world’s great visionaries whose timeless messages of peace, love, and hope, who have been so passionate and persuasive in their attempts to encourage us to be more compassionate and caring toward each other, have been unable to change what millions of years of competition for survival has instilled in us.

Yet, those of us who believe in the intelligence and possibilities of our species and have at least a modicum of faith in the innate morality of ourselves and our fellow humans, can take heart from this passage from Shakespeare’s play The Tempest where he writes: “And as the morning steals upon the night, melting the dark, so their rising senses began to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle their clearer vision.”

Do we dare feel the optimism that this passage implies? Do we dare believe that soon our current darkness, such as our conflicts and threats of nuclear destruction, will be followed by a rising of our senses? We must believe enough in ourselves as rational and reasonable human beings to know that as our human maturity rises, we can do away with our ‘ignorant fumes’ of greed and the lust for power that cause so much of our suffering and unhappiness. It is not something that we can pray about to our plethora of imagined gods or look to those men and women who consider themselves our leaders. It has to come from within, from the light of wisdom found deep in the consciousness of each of us.

Thoughtful people throughout the generations have proven that we have a light of understanding, a light of generosity, a light of cooperation, a light of benevolence and caring inside us. It is often hard to discern, especially for those who feel as if their own agenda, their own point of view is the only one that matters and everyone else should follow it. But those whose humanity has matured beyond greed and self-centeredness know to follow their inner light. They have open hearts and open minds and do their best to bring people together in cooperative, symbiotic groups rather than creating antagonistic, conflicting factions.

Most anthropologists and other scientists agree that we humans are still evolving. Getting through millions of years of natural selection was not easy, and we are still at it. In the early millennia of our evolution, we had to be aggressive. For years we were just another animal vying with other animals for limited food resources. Then as we moved on from our primate ancestors and our brains began to grow, we began adding hominin cunning to guide our aggressiveness. Since we had no claws or fangs to fight off predators physically, we had to learn to outsmart them. Combining the two powerful traits of aggressiveness and cunning, we Homo sapiens became a formidable species who in time have come to dominate all others on Earth.

So here we are today, the top predator, armed and dangerous. The problem is that we have lost all of our prey…accept each other. People we don’t like or wish to dominate are now the victims of the aggressiveness and cunning we learned while evolving from primates to modern human beings.

Throughout human history this situation has created serious problems. Fighting with rocks, spears, swords, and arrows is bad enough, but fighting with nuclear weapons could destroy us by the millions. It is obvious that we need to push our evolution beyond relying on aggressiveness and cunning in our relationships with each other. At this time there is too much aggressiveness, too much manipulative cunning, too much greed, hatred and distrust. We are backing ourselves into a corner and must stop this madness before we completely lose control of any sense of reason and rationality left in us.

Leaders who use aggressiveness as a political tool are a throwback to our early hominin roots and behave as if they are not fully developed as rational humans. It seems as if they rely more on their basal ganglia than prefrontal cortex when making decisions. For the sake of all of us, they must evolve. But genetic evolution is slow. Even epigenetic evolution takes a generation or two to bring about a change in behavior. But do we have that long?

The level of irrational religious fervor and political sword rattling in some nations have reached frightening levels. Some leaders and their sycophants are so afraid of losing their power it seems as if they are willing to commit communal suicide and take the rest of the world down with them rather than admit defeat or even agree to rational cooperation with other people. How do reasonable people, people who want to live and promote the well-being of all of us, cope with this kind of irrationality?

So far, all we have done is build bigger weapons and follow the ‘peace through power’ philosophy. But there is a limit to this. It is a dangerous game that seems to be on the brink of getting out of hand. All of us know that we cannot keep this up much longer.

We must be honest and truthful with each other and show willingness to solve the problem. Therefore, the next step in our evolution is up to us. We have reached a point in the evolution of our species where we can take control of our future. It is imperative that all of us, leaders, sycophants, and the rest of humanity, allow our hominin cunning to evolve beyond human intelligence and on to a level of wisdom that will enable even our most egocentric and power-hungry leaders to realize the futility of playing the same outmoded power game that vainglorious tyrants have been playing for thousands of years.

The stakes are high. Humanity has a lot of good things going for it. We are smarter and live much longer than our ancestors. We live on a beautiful planet with blue seas and high mountain peaks. And we must never forget that Earth is our only source of sustenance. When we take care of it, we take care of ourselves. And it is exciting to know that there is a whole universe beyond our atmosphere waiting to be explored.

There is so much research, building, and exploring to do that we do not have time for conflicts that waste lives and destroy what we have worked hard to build. Conflicts are steps backward in our evolution. We need to keep pushing forward toward a more harmonious, cooperative, symbiotic humanity. The future beckons, from microbes to stars, from subatomic particles to galaxies. They all await our probing minds.

Opportunities for growth and learning abound on Earth and beyond. Science is a relatively young human endeavor, and we are still in the early stages of learning about ourselves and our universe. It was only about 500 years ago that Nicolaus Copernicus determined that our Earth was not the center of the universe. We have come a long way, but there is so much more to do. From preventing Alzheimer’s disease to determining the makeup of dark matter, there are enough challenges inside us and in the space around us to keep our inquisitive minds busy for many years to come. And learning about everything is our greatest pleasure.

We owe it not only to ourselves to avoid behavior that would destroy the civilization we have worked hard to build, but we owe it to our children and all of the future generations after us. They deserve their time to enjoy the Earth just as we are experiencing ours.

Human life is complicated, and the population of Earth is growing rapidly. A one size fits all solution is not going to solve our multitude of problems. We must be discerning. We have many religions and many political systems run by numerous leaders who claim they will guide us to a better life if we will bow down and follow them without asking too many questions. New facts and figures are coming at us constantly. It is not easy to know who to trust or what to believe.

Living with the challenges of nature has taught us to obey. It was Francis Bacon who said, “Nature is not governed except by obeying her.” Unfortunately, early in our evolution we applied that same attitude of obeyance, of bowing down to forces we felt we could not control, to those people who we felt were more powerful than us. In time we learned to obey, not only in the natural sense Bacon spoke of, but to obey others in our group who rose to leadership positions. No doubt in most cases, the leader was benevolent and respected and people were in agreement with his or her directives. But too often in our past, as is also the case today, self-centered leaders ruled by coercion and people were forced to obey commands they did not agree with.

The idea of obeying others evolved along with our other human traits. When we started organizing ourselves into hunter-gatherer groups, we began to develop behaviors that both aided and hindered our future development. On the positive side, we learned empathy and the importance of caring for each other, not only as parents care for their offspring, but caring for the old and injured as well. As we became more introspective, we came to appreciate and value human life, both our kin as well as those not in our family group.

As groups continued to grow in size, there naturally emerged those who helped decide such things as where and when to hunt or the best time to migrate to a new area. No doubt most of those who took on leadership roles were sincerely concerned about the welfare of the entire group. But, inevitably, there occasionally arose a leader who was more concerned about his or her prestige and being obeyed and feared by others rather than in the well-being of the group. These leaders considered themselves powerful and expected others to obey their commands or suffer consequences.

Obedience to authority became a human trait that is still practiced in our society today. It can be a help to us or cause a great deal of harm, depending on how the leader sees his or her obligation to the group.

Some see their role as bringing people together to discuss problems and come to decisions that members of the group agree on. This approach to governing, a form of majority rule, allows each member of a community, or at least his or her representative, to have a say in the rules that govern the group.

Some leaders, on the other hand, desire to have complete control without interference from those they consider beneath themselves. Often surrounded by a cadre of brutish sycophants, these authoritarian rulers make the rules and expect obedience from everyone.

These two systems, benevolent and coercive, have long been part of our evolution and the world is experiencing both of these approaches to government today. They vary in form and degree. Our history gives us examples of philosopher kings, benevolent dictators, thoughtful presidents, as well tyrannical war mongers, and officials who prove incompetent or allow a lust for power to cloud their ability to make rational decisions. History reminds us that although many of our leaders sincerely try to address the needs of the people, many of them keep making the same immature mistakes over and over again.

So, what have we learned in six million years of hominin evolution that will get us through the next few years of our introspective and nuclear-armed existence? Fortunately, the vast majority of us have learned to live together in peaceful and productive communities scattered around the world. Most of us just want to live in cooperative groups with our family, our friends, and neighbors as good citizens of the world. It is the way life ought to be.

But we have also learned the art of war and have come up with increasingly sophisticated ways of destroying each other and everything we have built. It is the great sad irony that joining together in groups to promote the general well-being of each person, also led to the rise of tyrants who were not concerned about the group but only their own well-being, their own prestige, and their own power.

Unfortunately, in this time of numerous conflicts, many of us around the world feel threatened by tyrannical rulers, either in our own country or neighboring countries with big armies. Imagine what we could accomplish if humans of all cultures could put aside their politics and their fears and superstitions and work peacefully as one humanity instead of numerous antagonistic factions.

The old problem is still with us: humans fighting humans. The times have changed and the names have changed, but the greed, the aggressiveness, the intolerance, and war mongering are the same as they always were. The amount of suffering we have endured has irrefutably shown us that it is going to take more than any religion, any philosophy, or any political system that we have come up with so far to enlighten our muddled consciousness and move us to becoming caring and harmonious people of Earth who appreciate each other and care for each other as fellow sojourners on our beautiful little blue and green orb as it floats through the utter vastness of space.

This planet is our home and the problems we humans have created on it from intolerance to environmental pollution are problems we must solve. We must get through this time of threats, lies, conflicts and nuclear weapons. Our children and grandchildren are depending on us. It would be cruel, crass, and extremely foolish of us to let them down.

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