The Human Theater of the Absurd –IV
John Brand, D.Min., J.D.
This is the final in my series outlining the evolutionary development of the human brain. There will be few references to current political/economic/religious matters because the behavioral traits embedded in the prefrontal cortex are abysmally absent from our society.
The addition of the prefrontal cortex to the human brain allows our species to take the big step from merely being human to becoming humane. MacLean writes about this latest 100 cc addition to our brains, happening a mere 40,000 to 50,000 years ago, in A Mind of Three Minds, (pp.339-340):
ÖIn the progress from Neanderthal to Cro-Magnon man, one sees the human forehead develop from a low brow to a high brow. Underneath that heightened brow is the prefrontal cortex. There are clinical indications that the prefrontal cortex provides foresight in planning for ourselves and others, and also helps us gain insight into the feelings of others. The prefrontal cortex is the only neocortex that looks inward to the inside world. Ö In designing for the first time a creature that shows concern for suffering of other living things, nature seems to have attempted an 180-degree turnabout from what had been a reptile-eat-reptile and a dog-eat-dog world.
It is at this point that the case for the existence of a caring God makes its strongest case. A change from a dog-eat-dog world could only come about, it might be reasoned, through divine intervention. The seeming dissimilarity between all other creatures and humans is so vast that only an intervention contravening all past history could have brought about this radical change. I used to believe that at one time in my life. Later studies changed my mind.
I am indebted to Robert Wright’s book The Moral Animal for my change of assumptions about the prefrontal cortex. On page 54, he supports the idea that more recently developed brain functions simply enable lower brain centers to operate more efficiently.
The prefrontal cortex gave our sires a “leg up” to compete more successfully. For instance, this new cortex provided the ability for long-range planning. This is something far superior to a squirrel’s mere instinct to store up acorns for the winter months. The ability to plan permitted our forebears to make complicated plans for a hunt. In its process, evolution gave Cro-Magnons a better chance at survival.
Along with the capability for long-range planning, the prefrontal cortex endowed our species with the ability to empathize. Let me give you a possibly humorous scenario for the development of the ability to sense the feeling of others.
Cartoons depict an early Cro-Magnon dragging the object of his affections into his cave. The image shows a brute male, club in hand, dragging his lady fair by her hair. Once they were in the cave, one does not need much imagination to develop the next step of this scenario. Dragging a female into a cave seems to be a hard and laborious task. There must be a better way. There was. Empathy was the key.
One day our protagonist saw his lady fair stopping to smell a flower. His developing prefrontal cortex gave him the ability to realize that she enjoyed smelling the carnations. He identified with her. In the constant battle to mate with the most desirable female, a new little gene sneaked into the male’s DNA. It had the capacity to sense the feelings of another person. It gave him an advantage in the quest to have children by her. After all, what better genes could there be to ensure perpetuation of the species than those of the precursors of Troy Aikman, physical strength and intelligence, and those of Martha Stewart, the consummate homemaker?
“Ah,” he thought, “there is an easier way to get her into my cave than to club her and drag her by her hair.” He picked a bunch of Lilies of the Valley and presented them to her. The rest is history.
She was so impressed with this seeming act of kindness, that she gladly followed him wherever he would lead. However, she was mistaken. His reason for presenting the flowers had more to do with his desire to impregnate her than with an act of kindness. The ability to sense another’s feelings was used for the evolutionary requirement to bring together two strong gene pools.
It so happened that another member of the tribe saw this little scene. “Shucks,” he said to himself. “I can do better than that.” He got a bottle of Dom Perignon and the damsels flocked to his pad. Empathy, far from finding its genesis in some idealistic divine intervention, simply was another tool to achieve propagation of the species.
The chosen one really thought that he loved her when he invited her into his cave for a candle-lit supper. Why would he go to such troubles to play her favorite music, prepare the most delicious meal and present her with a bottle of such fine champagne? Why indeed? Little did she know!
I hope I am not giving away any male trade secrets when I say that little has changed in the intervening 40,000 or so years. Empathy enables us to sense what others like in order to gain influence over them. Of course, the female of the species has also learned this lesson well. Could it be that sweet, sweet women have also learned to use their ability to empathize in the pursuit of self-centered purposes? Of course not!
Richard Dawkins further explains the matter in “the selfish gene.” His book provides the evidence that altruism is a trait given to our species in order to assist the improvement and continuation of the gene pool. On page 62 he says, “But the obvious first priority of a survival machine, (i.e. the human body) and of the brain that takes the decisions for it, are individual survival and reproductions.” This does not mean that altruism must be limited to basically self-centered motives.
Recall that manual dexterity, joining thumb and forefinger, resulted in building the Temple at Luxor and the Cathedral at Chartres. A gene designed to hold tools eventually built Gothic spires and the Manhattan skyline.
I question whether this genetic capability foresaw the building of the Pyramids or the painting of the Mona Lisa. A simple genetic change, eons ago, eventually produced great works. There was no predetermined will that the joining of thumb and forefinger would produce Rodin’s Kiss. But a genetic change to give members of our species a leg up in the struggle for survival has resulted not only in the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World but in 70,000 Wonders of the World.
So too, what began as a self-serving trait to sense the feelings of another for personal benefit can be nurtured into acts of altruism. The ability to sense the inner feelings of others provides the potential for genuine humane caring. Such concern, of course, can only result from the conscious and deliberate use of our prefrontal cortex. Just as intellect was used for purposes other than mere survival, (i.e. composing symphonies, painting, writing books) empathy can also be used for purposes other than enticing members of the fairer sex into our “caves.”
Through conscious effort we can care! Certainly, it is better to live in a world where people have some concerns for each other than to live in a “dog-eat-dog” world. The balance between the need for biological self-preservation and social concerns can only be achieved through a rational understanding of the dynamics of human existence. An overarching query presenting itself is whether our species deserves to survive should it fail to develop genuine empathy.
We take our cue from the imprints in our various brains. The essential characteristics of all brain functions enhance the chance for survival. Any other results that arise are a matter of happenstance.
We might like to think that a Guiding Hand from above determines our destiny, but all the evidence points to a contrary conclusion. Earthquakes happen in Turkey killing thousands. Tidal waves inundate Bangladesh killing hundreds upon hundreds and leaving tens of thousands homeless. Meteors or comets in the past have struck and, in the future, will strike our planet. Nature’s way leads to unexpected results. Some we deem “good” and others we deem “bad.” Although from nature’s point of view, moral judgments are non-existent. The energy driving our universe knows nothing of good and evil. Only human interpretation assigns such values to our experiences.
In an effort to explain the “bad” our sires invented the fable of Adam and Eve eating one lousy apple. To blame all the evil in the world on that act just won’t wash any more. It is intellectually far more honest to face the reality of the world. To introduce the God factor has not helped our species a great deal. Life is complicated and the unforeseen governs the cosmos.
On the most fundamental level, empathy is a survival function. Over the millennia, empathy became more refined. For us it is possible to respond to human needs with care and thoughtfulness. And I believe that by this slender threat hang all of our hopes to raise our species to a level of respectability and worthiness. When all of institutionalized religiosity will have had its day, its only enduring message echoing through the corridors of time will be its emphasis for humans to become humane.
The self-transcending traditions of the great religions are in accord on this point. It is, in my opinion, the only worthwhile gift presented to humankind by the religions of the world. At the heart of non-self-serving religions stands the admonition, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus had the consummate guts to look into the faces of the controlling alphas of his day and say, “I give you a new commandment that you love one another.” (John 13:34) He then had the courage to tell these self-appointed usurpers of authority that their neighbors included their enemies.
What brought about the crucifixion of Jesus were not his miracles, his parables, and his sermons; what nailed him to the cross was his audacity to tell the controlling power structure that the most despised and disenfranchised had a right to a decent place under the sun.
Few are the individuals who have been able to transcend themselves in the history of the world. But there have always been some! Hundreds of years before the Common Era, we find these sayings, “When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back Ö When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free Ö You shall not pervert the justice done to your poor in their lawsuits.” (Exodus 23:4,5,6)
Even long ago of earliest Old Testament times, the presence of the prefrontal cortex asserted itself. In the midst of a world much harsher than our own, the strains of humanity’s ultimate destiny became part of the ancient code. Like a silver cord, the challenge to be caring and mindful of others weaves itself throughout human history as the expression of its ultimate destiny.
Other religions add their voices exhorting their followers to behave in a caring manner. Hinduism’s Code of Manu reads, “Wound not others, do no one injury by thought or deed, utter no word to pain thy fellow creature.”
Lao Tzu in The Treasures taught, “I have Three Treasures. Guard them and keep the safe. The first is Love. The second is, never too much. The third is, never be first in the world.”
Buddah in The Sutta Nipata says, “As a mother, even at the risk of her own life, protects her son, her only son, so let him cultivate love without measure toward all beings. Let him cultivate towards the whole world – above, below, around – a heart of love unstinted, unmixed with a sense of differing or opposing interests.”
Not only from ancient sages comes the injunction to love. Contemporary psychiatrists add their voices to the wisdom of olden days. “Love is the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love,” is the definition given by Erich Fromm.
Henry Stack Sullivan says, “When the satisfaction or the security of another person becomes as significant to one as one’s own security or sense of satisfaction, then the state of love exists. So far I know, under no other circumstances is a state of love present, regardless of the popular usage of the word.”
Victor Frankl, the Viennese psychiatrist who survived several years of Nazi concentration camps, gives us these words, “A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: the salvation of man is through love and in love.”
Then why do we love so little? Why do we care so ineffectually? Is it not because we fail to tame the reptile within? But how can we tame the reptile if we are unaware of its presence? How can we become conquerors over self when we ascribe to devils the results of our misdeeds? How can we be victorious if we believe that in God lies our hope and salvation?
For thousands of years, the plaintive cries of innocent victims have pierced the skies. The only reply was a deafening silence. The slaughters continue to this day. The blood of the innocents deepens the Red River with every passing moment. And the heavens are silent. There is no balm in Gilead. The answers come from within us.
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.
Read more from The Yellow Times.
More on Paul D. MacLean’s The Triune Brain in Evolution.