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One of the comforts of life, and at the same time one of its frustrations to some people, is that there is so much to learn about ourselves and our environment that we can spend a lifetime researching almost any subject and never learn it all. In spite of knowing that we as individuals can never know everything we feel we would like to about any particular subject, most of us love the never-ending quest for knowledge. Without our insatiable curiosity and our love of discovery we would not be human; it is what drives our progress and makes us special among animals.

Although some animals show a great deal of instinctual skill in such things as bird migration and nest building or animals innately knowing how to care for their offspring, our human reasoning and rationality have taken us far beyond animal instinct and far beyond what our hominin ancestors could have dreamed of thousands of years ago.

The great physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton expressed a basic truth about his never-ending need to keep learning: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Many great minds have taken us far in our knowledge of cosmology, medicine, biology and many other fields, but today, just as in Newton’s time, there continues be a profusion of knowledge yet to be discovered. Our curiosity constantly encourages us to delve deeper into that ‘great ocean of truth’ before us.

Writer, Thomas Wolfe, expressed a similar point of view to Newton’s in his book Of Time and the River when he wrote about seeing books in a library: “The thought of these vast stacks of books would drive him mad: the more he read, the less he seemed to know – the greater the number of books he read, the greater the immense uncountable number of those which he could never read would seem to be…the thought that other books were waiting for him tore at his heart forever.”

This might sound a bit extreme, but when Wolfe entered a library, he wanted to absorb all of the knowledge in all of the books. His frustration was knowing that his mind could never take it all in. Neither can any one of us. Humanity is an on-going collective adventure and each of us is called upon to make our contribution, large or small, to the growing archive of human knowledge. The human spirit has an insatiable desire to learn about ourselves and our environment and each of us must do our part to add to the vast store of wisdom so that others after us can build on what we have learned. To paraphrase another Newton quote, we stand on the shoulders of giants, and our descendants will stand own ours.

It is encouraging to know that each one of us can make a contribution to the vast store of human knowledge. You never know until you try just how important your ideas can be in promoting human cooperation or solving some of humanity’s many challenges. If you have a good idea, research it, write it, speak it, and share it with others.

It was not until about 300,000 years ago, a short time evolutionarily speaking, that Homo sapiens evolved from the myriad proto humans that led from primates to ourselves. Although we have accomplished a great deal in our time, we are still a very young species compared to many others, and we have a long evolution ahead of us. Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essay Politics understood just how young we are: “We think our civilization is near its meridian, but we are yet only at the cock-crowing and the morning star.” In many ways we are like young children learning to walk instead of crawl, learning to talk instead of babble, and learning to interpret our surroundings and determining how we fit into the great scheme of life.

One need only to look up at the night sky to realize how little of the universe we have explored; one need only to research how many of us die each year from disease to understand how little we know about such things as cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s; one need only to read about the number of crimes committed and the number of people who die in conflicts to know that we have a lot to learn about our attitudes and motivations. We have enough challenges to keep us busy for many years to come, and the journey is our fulfillment.

One example of our evolutionary youth is that we are barely getting started in space exploration. Humans have been to the moon and a trip to Mars is in the planning stages. But if we left tomorrow in a rocket ship traveling at the speed of light, it would take us about 25,000 years to reach the center of our Milky Way galaxy. That trip is many years into our future.

There is so much out there to explore. Our sun is only one of over 100 billion stars in our home galaxy, and the Milky Way is only one of perhaps 100 billion galaxies in the universe. We have a long way to go, but with our inquisitive and creative minds and our ability to cooperate and work together, we will get there. We will explore our surroundings, cure a good many of our diseases, and achieve the goal of living together in a harmonious, global community.

But like all adolescents we have a few challenges and ‘growing pains’ to work through if we are to succeed in space exploration, disease prevention, ending wars or any other large-scale endeavor. To begin with, it is imperative that each of us learn to cooperate with others of different cultures and different outlooks, and as best we can, avoid bullies who use fear and intimidation as weapons. Dictators and tyrants are set-backs in our evolutionary progression and are blatant reminders that we are not fully adult humans yet.

There is no doubt that most of us would agree that symbiotic cooperation is better than fear and aggression. Yet, the fact that our fearful nature still drives some individuals to carry a weapon or some nations to manufacture guns and bombs by the thousands does not bode well for our need to cooperate and form the global peaceful relationships we need to keep us happy and productive.

Currently there are at least nine nations: USA, England, Russia, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel in possession of over 14,500 nuclear weapons. And along with these super killers, there are too many handguns, rifles and other forms of conventional weapons on Earth to count. We as a supposedly intelligent species should be ashamed of ourselves for allowing this to happen. This gross buildup of weapons is natural selection gone berserk. It is allowing fear to dominate our thinking.

It is inevitable that with all of these weapons in the possession of both individuals as well as a variety of national and religiously oriented armies, there is always a crime or bloody conflict going on somewhere on Earth causing useless sadness, useless killing, and creating homeless refugees. And there are too many neighborhoods in our cities where it is unsafe to visit because of the presence of armed people who shoot or stab before they think. Our dependence on weapons is one of the pressing challenges we need to work through to keep our species safe, productive and working toward a peaceful and harmonious future.

Although we have learned a great deal about how the physical brain controls the millions of functions throughout our body maintaining homeostasis, we are still challenged when it comes to understanding how we think and the reasons we have the thoughts that control our behavior. At times it seems that the workings of our mind are still as mysterious to us as the movements of the sun and moon across the sky were to Neanderthals thousands of years ago.

It is thought that the rudiments of consciousness began with primitive animals developing the mental skills they needed to find food and shelter. Since the evolution of sponges around 890 million ago, one of the earliest animal life forms, the animal brain has been learning how to understand its environment and determining what skills were needed to survive in it.

Consciousness continued to develop through natural selection as various animal species began to experience the urge to do what was needed to carry on their species. To do this, some types of animals such as mammals developed elementary levels of emotions such as compassion and empathy which greatly enhanced the caring and nurturing of their offspring. That nurturing behavior then carried over into primates and the hominin ancestors of proto humans.

Then as more neurons developed in our brains and as our social communities grew, we learned the need to be compassionate toward people other than our own offspring in order for the entire community to survive.

Interacting with other people led to our becoming more introspective about ourselves in relation to the various members of our community. We began to think about what skills we had or what contributions we could make

that would help the community survive. Thus, as we began to be conscious of our own needs and emotions as well as the needs and emotions of others, our brains developed the ability to process information beyond just controlling the physical body.

Today, our level of human consciousness, when it comes to our interactions with others, is constantly developing and producing in rational minds the desire to seek cooperation and harmony in the world rather than have the world be ruled by those who understand only control by brute force. But evolution moves slowly and is not linear. Many humans have achieved a level of consciousness that has taken them beyond the need for war, weapons, and conflict. Some, however, are still under the ancient influences of greed, egotism, and the lust for power.

It is obvious that we still have a good bit of evolving to do. Fortunately, most of us have evolved to the point where we respond positively to other people, even people of other cultural backgrounds. Moving beyond our innate fear of each other is hard, but at the very least it is important that we are honest with each other and learn to trust each other.

The 17th century English poet John Milton realized how the workings of the mind can influence our behavior and our attitudes about life when he wrote: “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, or a hell of heaven.” Each of us can see the world as a paradise or a prison, or see others as people to cooperate with or as nothing but pawns to be exploited. It all depends on an individual’s point of view whether friendly or fearful, trusting or antagonistic.

Two emotions have a lot to do with how we react to other people: fear and empathy. First came fear. For millions of years, carnivorous animals have survived by feeding on other animals. As we evolved from animals, this predatory behavior instilled in our hominin ancestors the idea of fight or flight, kill or be killed, and our fear of one another is now a common response that reflects our animal ancestry. It has instilled in us the idea that if someone is different from us, professes a different outlook, or possesses resources that we want, we sometimes react in the same impulsive way as our animal ancestors, which was often to attack and kill.

Yet, as modern humans, we should be able to rise above this old behavior as a stale relic of our past that is no longer relevant to modern human social interaction. From the time we began to come together in communities we had to learn to control our fears and adjust them to fit in a social context. We had to learn not to be fearful of each other.

But as members of a community, we learned new fears. We learned to fear that other communities could usurp our resources, or that another community could acquire more political power and prestige than our community. These types of fears were problems that we could not, and still have not, overcome.

Fortunately, as we began to evolve beyond the instinctual behavior of animals, another emotion that has a lot to do with how we react to other people began to be felt. It is empathy. Rational people have a level of care and concern for others they interact with that encourages productivity and harmony.

Empathy began early in our evolution and enabled us to achieve the level of cooperation that allowed us to build larger and larger communities. Working together in social groups enabled us to learn from each other which helped enlarge our brain capacity and make us smarter. Learning to work together regardless of cultural background is how we humans built our flourishing global civilization.

Empathy was important in our human evolution and today is of primary importance in keeping us as productive and cooperative as we are. Without empathy, without the ability to understand the feelings and emotions of others, people cannot work together successfully and we quickly degenerate into warring factions that not only accomplish very little but destroy what our hard work has accomplished.

Writer Percy Shelley in his essay Defense of Poetry said this about the idea of empathy and having feelings for others: “A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own.” Empathy requires imagination as far as putting yourself in the place of another to feel the ‘pains and pleasures of the species.’ Some of us find this hard to do. We feel as if we have enough pains of our own and do not want to be concerned about the pains, emotional or physical, of another person.

Empathy also requires an obvious level of rationality that prompts each of us to realize that we should not treat others badly simply because we do not want others to treat us badly. Nearly every philosophy and religion ever created to improve the lives of people stresses this basic truth. The wisdom of empathy, of caring for the well-being of others, is not bound to any one nation or culture but is universal to all people everywhere.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrass Tyson makes a good point about the importance of empathy: “Humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if education was ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, and empathy.’” Tyson’s statement emphasizes that a truly educated person is one who not only learns the facts and figures of the material world but develops a concern for the well-being of others beyond the confines of one’s home, one’s culture, or one’s nation.

But being empathetic and showing concern for others is often not easy. Our attitudes and motivations both inherited and learned make us a complicated species, and so far, we have achieved only a modicum of success in figuring ourselves out in terms of our motivations or our likes and dislikes. We are all different, and even though no one wants to be exactly like someone else, all of us realize that there are basic needs all of us have regardless of our culture, nationality, political affiliation, or religious beliefs.

When we fail to try to understand the feelings and needs of others or have no empathy for our fellow humans, especially those from different nations or cultures, quite often the result is that we fear each other. It follows then that one of the most important and universal human needs is freedom from fear. A few millennia ago, many people feared predation by carnivorous animals. Unfortunately, today too many of us fear predation by others of our own species. We are often our own worst enemy. Or as cartoonist Walt Kelly had his character Pogo say: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Although put in a humorous way, there is, unfortunately, a substantial amount of truth in Pogo’s statement. It points out how important it is that as we evolve to become more rational and reasonable humans, that we replace fear and aggression with cooperation, that we replace animosities with understanding and empathy, and that we replace religious and political dogma with dialogue on opening our minds and allowing a strong empathetic morality to develop in us. In order to stop being our own worst enemy, we need to develop a universal morality that opens us up to higher levels of global peaceful cooperation than we have ever experienced. That is the great goal of humanity today.

From hurricanes, to earthquakes, to disease, there are already many natural ways for people to die. We absolutely do not need crime and wars to augment our death toll. But too many times in our past we have been our own worst enemy by giving ourselves over to easy answers or sycophantic obsequiousness. We should not allow ourselves to be easily influenced by dogma or flowery rhetoric.

Sometimes as individuals or as members of large communities, we allow unscrupulous leaders to sway our thinking in unproductive ways. Putting our trust in power-hungry leaders has often led us into situations where we had to go along with the leader or be punished as traitors. But now in our electronically connected world, we have the ability to analyze an aspiring leader’s rhetoric in order to be able to understand how we should react to what is being promised or proposed. If the rhetoric is offensive to us or is full of too many eloquently worded promises, we will know to not support that person.

The need put the bad aspects of our past behind us and not continue making the same mistakes over and over again is crucial to our future. The hard part about moving beyond our past is that it will require a lot of us changing the way we think about ourselves and others. We have work to do. Many of us who have believed we are right about nearly everything and that everyone else is wrong will not give in easily. Old habits are hard to break, even bad ones. Evolving personally from a self-centered egotist to a reasonable and rational person requires a level of mental exertion some of us are not able or willing to accomplish.

In today’s politics, especially in the United States, there is the idea that a particular outlook be labeled liberal or conservative. Unfortunately, these terms have created a dichotomy in some societies that it is important to put behind us. Regardless of which political tune we whistle, one thing we should all realize is that all of us alive on our Earth belong to each other and we are each other’s keeper, regardless of nationally or cultural background. It is time to put aside our religious dogmas and differences, our politics of conquest and control, our fear and distrust of each other, and especially our killing weapons and seek the empathy, the compassion, the caring and the quest for knowledge that unites all of humanity everywhere and that will see us safely into our future.

From what we have observed so far, our human minds are the most complex things that we know of in our part of the universe. We can put them to good and productive use just as easily as we can use them to invent ways to destroy each other. It does not take a great deal of intelligence to know that using our minds to enhance productivity and the well-being of all of us is the best use we can make of our mental talents. Why, then, do some of us still so often act like playground bullies? Are we so insecure and fearful that we must resort to brute force rather than thoughtful interaction to successfully run our homes, or communities, or our nations?

No doubt our minds evolved with animal fears and impulsiveness. But after thousands of years of intellectual growth one would think that we should have evolved beyond the instincts that rule the lives of animals. It is time that we should begin taking over our own evolution. We have evolved long enough to learn what enhances the prosperity and well-being of our species as well as what sets us back by destroying what we have accomplished. Our minds, which in the last few thousand years, learned to wage war over political, territorial, and religious differences, are quite capable of reasoning their way through these types of immature behaviors as they arise.

Maintaining peace, like waging war, takes effort. The weapons are diplomacy, cooperation, and empathy instead of guns or unkind language. And all but the worst of us who are blinded by greed and an irrational lust for power realize that peace is infinitely more productive than war.

Our greatest mental ability over animal instinct is to work out compromises that avoid the need for war and bloodshed… it is our ability to think, to reason, to look at both sides of an issue before we kill or put ourselves in a position to be killed.

Currently there are almost 200 nations on Earth, each with its own political and economic system. There are many religions which profess to know the absolute truth about our origins and our future as revealed by a supernatural deity. There now over 8 billion of us humans each with his or her own set of moral and ethical values. Finding a common ground on which to build a global consensus has been difficult. The United Nations has been trying to do that for several decades, succeeding in some respects, still challenged in others. It has been said that humans are more like cats than dogs. Turn a score of dogs loose and they will generally follow a leader. A score of cats will go in a score of directions.

Are the traits that make us human such as reason, rationality, compassion, and empathy strong enough to overcome the traits that stifle our humanity such as fear, mistrust, hatred, and greed? Do we see true human strength as the ability to kill or the ability to use reason to prevent killing?

It would seem that being kind and compassionate to each other is a relatively recent development in our evolution. For millions of years natural selection taught us to be competitive and amass resources. It is only in the last few thousand years that we have become human enough to recognize the need for the behaviors that promote harmony in society and the symbiotic cooperation that we need to produce the food and tools for a prosperous community.

Thus, as our evolution continues to make us more human, we are beginning to be more aware that we will in time move away from the need to see beings of our own species as rivals to be dominated or killed. We have reached the point in our evolution that when we make up our minds to do so, we can guide our behavior into a more peaceful and cooperative world community.

Evolutionarily speaking, our new form of natural selection in today’s world is selecting peace over war, harmony over discord, cooperation and symbiosis over aggression and greed. This new natural selection is what will perpetuate our species.

The challenge is enormous; however, our greatest strength is that we humans have always been problem solvers. And by working together as thoughtful citizens of a global community, we will solve these old societal problems as well.

We must talk reasonably to each other, and we must listen to each other. Each of us has our own wisdom to contribute, and when we learn to focus our collective wisdom to bringing harmony instead of discord to our lives and to our global society, each one of the billions of us can allow ourselves to evolve into a rational, caring human being. Right now, more than ever, each one of us of us need each other’s wisdom.

Ted McCormack

One comment

  1. Ted, this is such a reasoned, sensible, yet also impassioned plea for humanity to shed its primitive past evolutionary proclivities, and march forward into the rest of this 21st
    Century.

    As you wisely, note we must learn to embrace all the benefits of empathy and cooperation, and do so with urgency so that we can, as you hopefully foresee, end once and for all the cycle of despair and destruction globally we humans have set this planet on, and solve our problems globally united

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