The Human Theater of the Absurd –II
John Brand, D.Min., J.D.
The first section discussing the evolutionary development of the human brain dealt with two of the four behavior patterns, the territorial imperative and hierarchy, imprinted in the basal ganglia or the reptilian brain. This column discusses the remaining two patterns: ritual and deceit.
What has survival to do with ritual? Ritual in its most basic sense refers to a past successful practice providing safety and/or success. It thus becomes a standard for future conduct. Let me illustrate.
Old Dino, a brontosaurus, plods along Farm to Market Road 178 on the way to its watering hole. Suddenly, Dino sees a menacing tyrannosaurus rex. Dino makes a hasty retreat. But Dino still needs to get to the watering hole. What is an old reptile to do?
Well, it gets off FM 178 and finds an old narrow lane leading to its destination. The next day the same scenario repeats itself. Dino is on his way to the spa. T.R. roars and spits. Dino beats a retreat. Dino uses the old lane. On day 3, Dino doesn’t even bother to try FM 178. He plods safely and securely on his hidden path. A safe procedure is remembered. Bingo, a ritual has been established.
Reluctance to accept new ideas, to change customary ways, is based on behavior imprinted in our reptilian brains. Ritual makes use of past behavior that has proven safe. Even if the old way is not as effective as a new procedure, there is a tendency to reject the new. Resistance to change, once a safe routine is established, is embedded in human neural functions reaching back in time to our reptilian ancestors. It makes little difference whether we are considering new corporate policies or anything else calling for a change from established routines.
I want to iterate that the reptilian brain is essential to survival. We do need our own territory to survive. Hierarchy not only brings order but also allows us to organize work and play in an efficient manner. Ritual provides precedents permitting us to advance without having to reinvent the wheel every time we turn around.
It is the downside of our reptilian ancestry that can make life so very difficult. When rituals become ends in themselves, they tend to become counter-productive. At times we maintain precedents for no other reason than to obey the dictates of the R-complex. Precedents taking on authority for no other reason than their transmission from one generation to the next can enslave people to meaningless practices. Tradition for the sake of tradition puts blinders on creative thinking.
One excellent example of such a condition can be found in the American legal system. I am deeply appreciative of the rule of “stare decisis.” This is the legal procedure requiring judges to follow established laws and decisions. Without stare decisis the law would be even more of a jungle than present practices have made of it. But precedent for the sake of precedent can have a most unjust and socially destructive effect.
Take the case of Billy Ray McDaniels vs. The State of Texas, 642 SW 2nd, 785. There is no disagreement about the facts of the case. Billy Ray McDaniels raped a twenty-one year old newly married female college student. The attack took place in a back room of a store where both worked. Justice Truman Roberts said, “The appellant [the rapist] threatened to kill [her] before the sexual act occurred. He kept the knife in his hand at all times, except during the act of sexual intercourse. Even then, the knife was within easy reach.”
There was no question in the minds of any of the justices of the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals that the rape happened, that Billy Ray McDaniels was the rapist and that neither trial judge nor jury had committed any reversible errors. Yet a majority of the Honorable Court reversed the jury’s decision in the Lower Court. What happened? Justices Tom Davis and W.C. Davis (no relations) said, “We hold that the indictment in the present case is fundamentally defective for failure to acknowledge that the threatened harm was to be imminently inflicted.” (Italics mine.)
The Texas Penal Code, T.C.A. Penal Code, Sec. 2103 (a) (2), states that in order for an attacker to be found guilty of rape by threat of death, the act has to be imminently inflicted. The D.A. failed to put that one word into the indictment. I presume the legislators who wrote this law and the Justices who interpret it assume that a rapist might say, “I am holding this knife to your throat. I am going to rape you. Damn you, if you resist I am going to kill you. But don’t worry Sweetie; I ain’t going to do it imminently. I am going to rape you, but I won’t do it imminently. I am going to slap you around if you holler, but it won’t be done imminently.”
If such evidence were to be introduced at a trial, the accused could not be found guilty of rape. Threat and deed have to take place imminently. One does wonder at the mental faculties of those writing this law. If the rape does not occur imminently, it would not occur. Whenever it happens, it has to be, ipso facto, imminently.
Of course, there was no evidence in the McDaniels case that threat and deed did not take place imminently. However, a previous decision had overturned a conviction because another D.A. had left out “imminently” in the indictment in another rape case. So the Justices now felt that stare decisis must be honored. Because another Court could not see its way clear to deal with the issue in a rational manner, the Court in the MacDaniel case repeated the same idiocy. Surely, our system of laws can be upheld with the power of reason and a sense of justice. But that is not the case. What is involved here?
The overarching power of the R-complex makes us blind to innovations. We follow precedents even if it serves no real purpose in particular cases. In order to defend primordial drives we clothe our reptilian behavior with seemingly good reasons. But upon closer examination we find that our reptilian brains have duped us. What seem to be rational clarifications are nothing but sugar coatings of base instincts.
The following is a most important thought: the reptilian brain is incapable of speech. In order to justify its every action, it “orders” the neocortex to furnish plausible reasons for the unreasonable. The basal ganglia sets the agenda and the neocortex verbalizes our most heinous deeds. The neocortex does not subject the demands of the R-complex to a scrutiny based on reason. The 240,000,000 year-old reptile sets the agenda. The 3,000,000 year old neocortex, the “new kid on the block,” obeys the orders of its granddad.
So church fathers in the name of truth defended their demands forcing Galileo to recant. Powerful church leaders of the present defend the teaching of creationism as science. In God’s name they seek to prevent the teaching of birth control and protection against sexually transmitted diseases. Quoting the Bible, they become homophobic.
Orthodox leaders in Islamic countries want their women to be neither seen nor heard! Orthodox Christians want their wives to be subservient to their husbands. Blind obedience to ritualistic practices demands the neocortex to find “rational” precedents to defend the indefensible. And blindly we stumble along the road of ignorance. Reason, justice, and mercy are lost as the reptilian brain sets the agenda for senseless behavior.
Politicians instinctively know human dependence on ritual. The American flag flies at rallies when the substance of the meeting is to promote provincial agendas at the expense of justice and equity. Nationally known religious leaders are paraded before the crowds when we install a new president. They are there, for the most part, not to advance equitable causes but as window dressing to dupe the assembled crowd into making a subconscious connection between the “old-time religion” and the new President of the United States. The reptilian brain feels quite comfortable with such actions even though they are a charade and a farce.
Not knowing that our brains are three brains, we accord behavior generated in the R-complex the same authority as rational and empathetic conduct. And we repeat the same old mistakes, the same old hatreds. It is not only in the Balkans that ethnic groups are continuously at war; our own brains have Balkanized our behavior.
The final imprint in the reptilian brain is the deceit factor. What has deceit to do with survival? A stalking lioness does not roar as she approaches her prey in the Serengeti Plain. If she were to announce her intent, the fleet-footed gazelles would be long gone. There would be no supper for her or her pride that night. No, a lioness must, in order to eat and survive, cover up her intent. Deception is necessary for survival; without deceit, many species would starve to death.
The deceit factor is deeply imprinted in the basal ganglia of the human brain. That explains the mendacity permeating our culture. In The Day America Told the Truth, we are brought face to face with the extent of lying in our culture. The authors, James Patterson and Peter Kim, claim that 86 percent of us regularly lie to our parents. Seventy-five percent of us lie to our friends, and 69 percent lie to our lovers.
Twenty-five percent of us would abandon our families for $10,000,000 and 23 percent for that amount of money would become prostitutes for a week or more. These statistics, cited on pages 38 and 66, do not reflect the mores a people who claim to be cultured, civilized, and God-fearing. Explanation of the pervasiveness of our mendacity will be found, I believe, in the wiring of our reptilian brains. Our first instinctive commitment to ourselves is to survive. When conditions present themselves that may threaten our “territory,” an automatic system defuses that risk. We will lie to defend our space. Deceit is deeply etched in our reptilian brains.
If Arthur Bremer had not stalked Governor George Wallace, the latter would probably not have been shot. The attainment of self-serving goals could probably not take place in many cases if the predator did not keep his intent secret. The reptilian brain knows no ethics. Regretfully, what nature intended as a survival mechanism, has taken on a self-defeating characteristic in humans. Deceit for our kind, unchecked by the prefrontal cortex, is most dangerous to humankind.
It is rather amazing the degree to which we accept lying in our culture. President Clinton certainly was not truthful about the Lewinsky affair. The C.E.O.’s of the tobacco companies surely lied before Congress when they said that tobacco was not addictive. Lt. Col. North admitted to lying before Congress. Yet, not a single one suffered a serious penalty for speaking untruths. Something deep in their reptilian brains instructed them to deny, deny, deny. “If you don’t deny,” says the R-complex, “your goose is cooked.” It then instructs the neocortex to come up with all sorts of excuses, hoping that survival will be insured. And sure enough, in these three cases, no fatal price was exacted by our system.
Of course, one can’t blame a reptile for protecting its own skin. But when the rest of us accept the lies and fail to hold liars accountable, then our claim to be the leading free nation in the world has a hollow ring. What nature intended as a physiological survival mechanism can have dire consequences in the human enterprise.
Who knew what before September 11? Someone in a high position must have known that bin Laden was up to something. Else we are sure wasting a lot of money on an ineffective intelligence apparatus. However, for whatever reason, the deceit factor made it easy for the information from being publicized.
Kenny Boy and his cohorts, including Arthur Anderson, knew a lot more than they were willing to admit. Mendacity is deeply etched in the human brain. It permeates our society. The reptilian brain is alive and well. Until we recognize and admit its power over human behavior we shall just muddle along and become victims to our own lies.
Genealogies are fascinating business but sometimes we find the unexpected in our family tree. There may be a horse thief or a hoodlum in our past, but then again, there might be a princess or a poetess gracing our line of descent.
Oh, I can hear some of the YellowTimes.org readers exclaiming, “For God’s sake John, we want hot stuff about the President of the United States (POTUS) and Israel; about Cheney’s et al involvement with Al Qaeda. We don’t want to hear about genealogies!” And right you are in your desire to learn the latest about the seamy side of life inside the Greenbelt, Anderson’s home office, and the secret meetings of our vice president with the oil and gas folks.
But my point is that we will never comprehend human behavior if we do not understand some basic functions of the human brain. We will never change the shameful events we call history unless we have some knowledge of the neural circuits responsible for our actions.
Tracing humankind’s origins we find animals called therapsids branching off from the dinosaurs. They eventually developed into mammal-like creatures and millions of years later split into the marsupials and placentals. What is so important to our self-understanding is that the brains of these creatures, containing entirely new neural strata totally unknown to reptiles, are also part of the human brain. There is agreement among brain physiology experts that this brain, the limbic system, contains the circuitry for moods and emotions. MacLean’s research further suggests that the capacity for infant nurture and play is also contained in the limbic system.
Therapsid origins began about 180,000,000 years. While much younger than its older neighbor, the basal ganglia, the limbic system is no newcomer to the world. One of the monumental behavioral differences between reptiles and mammals is the ability of the latter to not only bear young but to also nurture them.
Some year ago, it was my privilege to work on an Earthwatch research project with leatherback turtles. They were magnificent creatures weighing between 800 to 1,000 pounds. We watched them make their way laboriously from sea to land. There they dug nests, deposited between 60 to over 100 eggs, and then lumbered back to the Caribbean. None of these “mothers” would ever see a single one of her offspring. If they ever did, they would not recognize it and it certainly would not recognize them. One substantive difference between reptiles and the ancient mammals is the capacity of the latter to nurse and nurture their offspring. With the advent of therapsids, the family became a reality.
1. The Family
Compare the behavior of a leatherback with that of a field mouse. About three inches long, the latter weighs no more than a few ounces. Although the reptile is 26,000 times heavier, the mouse’s brain is far more complex than that of the turtle. The tiny mouse cleans its babies after birth and tends them. She returns to the nest periodically, lies on her side and presents her nipples to the squealing brood. She stays with her babies until they are self-sufficient.
The complexity of the neural capacity of a small field mouse exceeds the leatherback by an exponent of inexpressible magnitude. A hundred billion galaxies pale into insignificance when compared to the richness of life generated by the limbic system. To me, one of the wonders of life can be observed in a seal rookery. Thousands of cows and calves generate an unbearable cacophony of noise. Yet, each cow recognizes her own cub by a squeal unique to her offspring. This voice recognition is a significant factor for the basis of the foundation of the family. Among humans, the family is but a few hundred thousand years old. However, its institutional origin lies in neural fibers dating back about 180,000,000 years.
It is not my purpose to discuss the many problems associated with the family in our age. In mammalian species, existing without the complexity of the triune brain, infant nurture takes place instinctively. Only in higher primates do problems develop. We have no record of parental abuse or juvenile delinquency among mice. The question I raise is to what extent does our society take seriously the nurturing of the young? While mothers instinctively are aware of the need to nourish and foster their young, systemic problems centering on social, political, and religious dogmas, condemn millions of children to a less advantageous start in life. The complexity of our brains, while embracing neural capabilities for family nurture, also presents unique problems for our species.
When indiscriminate consumer spending fuels a society’s economy, the family takes a beating. When personal worth is based on amassing “things,” the family experiences tensions. When divorce between parents of small children is to be had for the asking, the family suffers. When politicians talk about “family values” but vote against “Time Off” for significant family needs and vote against childcare, it is the family that takes a beating. When religious fiats decry birth controls, unwanted, undernourished and neglected children become part of our culture’s human tragedy. When educational opportunities are based on the part of town where one’s parents happen to live, families suffer. Instead of nurturing all of our young, we nurture opportunistic competitive rivalries.
The fact is that our species attempts to override Nature’s imprint for proper infant and child nurture. All other mammals need only the instincts of the limbic system to nurture their offspring. Neither elands nor elephants need conscious guidelines to nurture their young. Maybe in more primitive days, long, long ago, humans could rear their children by merely following the dictates of their intuition. However, the complexity of our society demands more than mere instinctive ordering of nurture. Children killing children, children addicted to drugs, children disrespectful of teachers and parents, children committing suicide are ample evidence that something is amiss in our society when it comes to rearing our young. Passing school voucher legislation and permitting children to pray in school are hardly answers to the perplexing problems we face.
2. Play and games
Whence the human desire to play? Reptiles do not play; they lead solitary lives. Mammals live in social interaction. Puppies chase each other while young snakes do not. Kittens play while crocodiles do not. What we call play is but nature’s way of teaching the young the art of getting along within their own family. Playful activities serve the purpose of socializing mammals. There is no question that humans need to and like to play. The toy industry earns billions of dollars annually selling toys and games. America is awash in Little Leagues for all sorts of sports. Certainly such activities are needed and properly conducted contribute to the nurture and well being of the individual child. But leave it to our species to mess up a good thing. Consider the following two scenarios:
Scenario 1. On a Saturday morning, children and parents gather for a softball game on the local playground. The kids are dressed up in uniforms imitating Major League athletes. There are even little girls acting as cheerleaders. Coaches instruct the kids. Adults act as umpires. Grown-ups make all decisions. When the game ends, sundry adults congratulate the winners. The losers have disappointment written across their faces.
Scenario 2. On another Saturday more than 65 years ago, my friends and I scratched out bases and lines on a dirt lot. We had a couple of old beat-up softballs and three or four old bats. One of us acted as umpire and called balls and strikes. Things did not always go smoothly. Strong arguments ensued whether a certain pitch was called correctly. We argued about a close play at home plate. Our voices were raised and emotions became heated. Yet the disagreement was settled. Play continued. We learned the necessity of giving and taking! We were not Einsteins. However, we were smart enough to learn that lesson. There were no adults around to take charge of anything. When the game ended a good time was had by all.
In the Atlantic Monthly, March 1987, Bruno Bettelheim, M.D. former Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Education, Psychology and Psychiatry, University of Chicago draws a sharp distinction between these two scenarios. He called the activity controlled by adults a “game” and the other one a “play.” Play is the child’s way of working out problems through an inner-directed process. In play a child learns that innate self-centeredness must be reconciled with larger societal needs. It teaches the child how to cope, how to create, how to settle disputes, how to take success and failure. Play teaches children to adapt to the world in which they find themselves. The learning comes, so to speak, from the “inside out.”
Scenario 2 fulfills this purpose. In the sandlot baseball game, the purpose is not only to win but also to have a good time. That end can only be achieved as the players themselves resolve problem situations. If there is no solution, the game stops and no one wins. Bettelheim maintains that play teaches children to control their aggressiveness in order to attain their own goals. Bettelheim believes that qualities of perseverance, creativity, and the development of a rich inner life result from children’s playful activities.
Scenario 1 on the other hand presents us with a case of “Games.” Games are activities where outside authorities impose all the rules. There is no opportunity for children to learn the necessary skills for socialization. The emphasis is on conformity to externally imposed behavior. Controlling adults tell the child what to do and what not to do. Certainly, every human being must learn to live by the rules of the game; however, opportunity must be given through inner-directed play to develop the self-discipline needed for mature living. In the case of organized sports, the children are totally controlled by adults. They do not develop the ability to solve their own problems. The main purpose in the adult controlled situation is not to have a good time, but to win.
Bettelheim also stresses the fact that a democracy cannot survive if its citizens do not learn how to play properly. The professor, I believe, put his finger on the right spot when he claims that democracy needs mature individuals who respond to life in terms of disciplined, socialized insights. It is my conviction that our culture is presently failing in the task of developing a sufficient number of such individuals.
One obvious result of our failure to let children develop maturity through games can be seen in the political process. We find ourselves in the midst of serious problems and yet the administration plays games. By executive order, documents belonging in the public domain are whisked away from the scrutiny of independent scholars. Matters affecting the entire world are handled with disdain for other sovereign nations. The national debt is again taking on threatening proportions and anyone disagreeing with the administration is branded as unpatriotic. The mentality to exploit and to be exploited, to some significant degree, must surely be the result of participating in too many games and never learning the self-discipline that comes from playing.
POTUS, VIPOTUS, and sundry Kenny Boys strut around with the swagger of college fraternity presidents whose daddies just made large contributions to the Chapter. They have been involved in games all their lives. Never having had to integrate their activities into a larger social context, now that they are controlling alphas, they exert their positions in an autocratic, domineering manner. When someone else calls all the shots, the child cannot develop the ability to live as a responsible social being. Individuals from “excellent” backgrounds with degrees from “prestigious” institutions think nothing of insider trading, defrauding stockholders, abrogating Constitutional rights, and seeing the masses of the people as mere political/economic/religious increments. I suggest that these people have never learned to play and thus are asocial beings. Little foxes have a better chance of survival within their pack than do millions of people within the “Family of Humankind.”
Is it possible that Kenny Boy and POTUS, in their drive for more and more power, disregard the social consequences of their actions because in childhood they never played and failed to learn socializing skills? Surely, more is involved in the development of such self-aggrandizing personalities than the absence of play. And yet, I can’t help wondering if many of our society’s alphas were denied the benefit of play as children?
Nature has provided a technique teaching the young social behavior. It seems to be a method whereby some of the instincts of the R-complex are channeled into more co-operative behavior. The schizophysiology of our brains has developed behavior that is hell-bent on bypassing the needed inner-development achieved in play. When a generation comes along that has been deprived of play, you have a people whose leaders act in a totalitarian manner and whose masses are quite willing to be the proverbial sheep. It is a condition just begging for a dictator/savior to keep on calling all the shots in the game of life.
To Be Continued …
John Brand is a Purple Heart, Combat Infantry veteran of World War II. He received his Juris Doctor degree at Northwestern University and a Master of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry at Southern Methodist University. He served as a Methodist minister for 19 years, was Vice President, Birkman & Associates, Industrial Psychologists, and concluded his career as Director, Organizational and Human Resources, Warren-King Enterprises, an independent oil and gas company. He is the author of Shaking the Foundations. You are welcome to write John Brand.
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