Tuesday, August 16, 2005

The three million year old human

Imagine for a moment that the entire human race, from the time of our emergence to the present day, is one person, now 80 years old.

Now, imagine that you are that person.

For the vast majority of your life, up to about three days ago you have lived in the midst of nature, in the company of animals, trees, birds and vegetation.
You roamed with a close-knit band of maybe 20 or 40 others, being unused to seeing crowds of people in one place.
You hunted and searched for food, always walking, sometimes hundreds of miles. You slept in trees, caves, temporary shelters or under the stars.
Nearly every day of your long life you have heard the cries of birds and other animals, the rush of water, the wind in the leaves, and have known intimately what these signs mean.
Your fears have been of hunger, of being killed by beasts, and of the mysteries in the world around you.
Still, there have been important developments.
You have acquired speech, discovered fire, and developed increasingly more sophisticated tools.
You have explored the earth, learnt how to survive in many different environments, and stored your knowledge in memory and stories.

And so, just about four days ago you discovered how to grow your own food from seeds.
You settled down with a few other bands of fellow humans, grew many different crops, kept animals that were no longer wild, and built permanent structures. By the next day your settlement had expanded to several thousand people.
Some of these didn't work on the land; they began to make things, to rule, and to trade.
This morning, you invented writing and reading.
A few hours ago you developed powerful new tools with which you could make many more things. Your city grew to ten times its size.
You no longer saw woods and fields, only streets, chimneys belching smoke, and blackened walls.
Your children forgot how to live with nature.
In the last few minutes your city has become enormous and you have been bombarded with many more new technologies and unfamiliar effects of your actions - chemicals, pollution, noise.

You eat only highly processed food, scarcely knowing where it came from.
You do not know your neighbours.
You hardly walk any more, where you used to walk 10-20 miles a day.
You do not know wild places.
The only animals you see are pets, or in cages.
You have, often without realising it, destroyed countless species.
Machines support you, shield you from the world and surround or even occupy your body.

In fact, the human species is 3 million years old.
Life on earth took 4 billion years to evolve. Our own evolution is part of that long process.
And we carry within ourselves genetic and structural remnants of all stages of that development.
Our affinity with life on this planet has its basis in our very cells and building blocks, the stuff from which we are made.

The natural world is hard wired into us.

Surrounded by our built environments we tend to forget this. But our bodies and our unconscious minds cannot.
Biophilia, a theory propounded by Edward Wilson, gives scientific credence to what we all feel must be true - that we need nature for our physical and mental health.
Our very sinews and nerves demand it, and when denied it, suffer.
This is why human beings "have an innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes" as he says.
Study after study has confirmed this view. Some of the results of these are less surprising than others. For example:

* If patients in hospitals or prisoners in their cells are given a view through their window of nature, rather than a view of buildings, then they experience reduced medical problems.

* If people living in urban communities get together to create a garden or park space, they often discover that this process creates a social 'glue', binding them together. Coincidentally, crime and other social problems can be reduced.

* all other things being equal, houses situated close to a park have a higher resale value than those which are not.

* people who are about to sit an exam or perform a stressful task do it better if they have spent a few minutes in a calm, greenspace environment just beforehand.

* Tests on North American and European adults have shown that they prefer to look at natural landscape scenes rather than urban ones.

* Increasing access by members of minority non-indigenous individuals in the UK to nature reduces their feelings of alienation and can help them feel more connected, both to their country of origin and to their current country of habitation.

* victims of torture undergoing recovery programmes have been found to have a faster rehabilitation rate when they are allowed access to gardens, particularly if they can cultivate their own plots.

Research such as this serves to establish that there is a rational scientific basis for what is generally dismissed as emotionalism. This makes it more likely that natural elements can be included in planning initiatives, whether for a new hospital or an urban renewal programme.

But, given the kind of world we live in, it's even more likely that this will happen if it can be established that there is also an economic benefit. Usually this can be found in reduced crime and healthcare bills.

How to choose a religion

What makes a good religion?

Try these 10 tests to evaluate a belief system and see if it's worth believing in.

Test 1

Is it about maintaining a powerful elite or not?
Those which are include most cults and most organised religions.
These disempowering systems tend to take your money, or impose arbitrary rules for the sake of it.
Every now and then they may issue new dictats for the sake of maintaining 'virtue' or 'morality' or 'discipline'.
They will also usually diss other belief systems. Theirs is 'the one true way'.
Their main purpose is to perpetuate their own power base.
If you're the kind of person who seeks security for their prejudices, who is afraid of other belief systems, or who believes in the concept of 'sin', then this is for you.
You'll probably also like this type of religion if you want to place your faith in an authority figure who can tell you what is right and wrong so you won't have to think it out for yourself.
You probably also like to believe that, self-righteously, your system is right and everyone else has got it wrong, and so will go to hell, or be reincarnated as a maggot or something.

Test 2

Is there a leader or guru who can be trusted?
This test is not necessarily about power and its abuse, or an elite handing down tablets of authority that came in a vision or were given by God, but about whether the teacher has personal integrity.
This is more subtle. You have to look and see whether they practice what they preach.
Do they have humility or are they arrogant? Are they wise? Do they admit their ignorance? Or do they have an answer for everything?
Are they willing to learn?
Is it about what they think or are they really doing what they say - just passing on what they learnt.
Are they cynical and corrupt?
Beware of standing on rotten timbers.

Test 3

How old is it?
A system which has entranced millions for thousands of years isn't de facto better than one invented last week, but the chances are it will have been criticised enough to have stood the test of time.

Test 4

What kind of people follow it?
You can judge a religion by its followers.
Are they mature, rounded individuals? (And we don't necessarily mean upstanding members of the community.)
Do they possess emotional intelligence? Do they practice what they preach?

Are they wise? Are they fallible?
Or are they pretentious, overbearing or self-righteous? Or, worse, passive-aggressive?
Would you really like to be stranded on a desert island with them?
If you just stick with them because it passes for a social life and you'd be lonely otherwise - well, that's fine as long as you realise that's all it is.

Test 5

Can you take the piss out of it and get away with it?
Any system that doesn't let you do that is paranoid. Forget it.
If you like the fact that your belief system will punish those who mock it, then you are a fundamentalist nutcase who has sacrificed their individuality - and anyone else's - for arbitrary rules to make your ego feel stronger. But in reality your ego is very weak.

Test 6

Does its existence add to the sum of happiness and well-being in the world?
Or has it in fact led to lots of wars, or the destruction of species and parts of the natural world, or the enslavement or disempowerment of other individuals?
If so, into Room 101 with it - I don't care how many truths it peddles - take them elsewhere.

Test 7

If a system has got this far, it gets interesting.
Belief systems come in all shapes and sizes and some ask you to believe the most extraordinary things. So how about this:
Is it a science?
Religions tend to try and explain everything.
Science, at least according to Karl Popper and other philosophers of science, doesn't - because if it did there'd be no way of proving a theory wrong.
If you can prove it wrong it isn't a scientific fact.
But also if it tries to explain the unvierse and everything, then it's not scientific either.
So you have to believe in it as an act of deliberate faith.
(On a deeper level, science is an illusion too, but that's a different story).

Test 8

Does it have good stories, rituals or art?
This doesn't mean it's intrinsically more worthy of your belief and time, but it might be more fun and rewarding.
On the other hand, beware of the fact that some religions can entrance you with a good story, or overwhelm you with an awesome environment (lots of icons and incense) or a powerful ritual.
These can be good stuff, but again - so can theatre. It doesn't make it right. Just a good story, ritual or art.

Test 9

Now, a positive test: is it empowering?
Does it make you feel good, more complete AND self-sufficient. without disempowering anyone else?
Does it help you be yourself? Does it set you free?
But beware of thinking that it does, but in reality it is a crutch to help you limp through life's hell and such.
If you need your religion more than it needs you, watch out. If someone kicked the crutch away, what would happen?

Test 10

Can you admit it is nonsense and still believe in it?
If you study all the myriad of things human societies have placed their faith in over the world over thousands of years - lived and died for - you come to realise that it's not what you believe, it's that you believe, that seems to be helpful.
But why?
Just as our bodies have a physical immune system, which maintains physical health, so our minds have a psychological immune system, which does the same thing for our mental health.
Just as we can work with our physical immune system to enhance our bodies and make them strong enough to resist all diseases and extremes of heat and cold, so we can train our minds to attain phenomenal feats of wisdom, compassion, generosity, love, self-healing, tolerance and happiness by wokring with our natural psychological health-enhancing tendencies.
For instance, our minds have their own ways of healing the damage caused by traumatic experiences.
The best belief systems work in harmony with this natural process to reduce stress, and increase self-knowledge, for example.
And, just as we use tools to accomplish things in the physical world, such as levers which magnify our strength a thousand-fold, so we can use psychic or mental tools to accomplish comparably unusual things in the spiritual, emotional or mental worlds.
The things we use as tools to do this are beliefs. Believe in something strongly enough and you can use it as a lever to make your will achieve remarkable things.

No single religion has a monopoly on 'miracles' or the power of belief.
Whether the tools they employ are stories, gods, objects, rituals, 'energy flows', incantations, systems of correspondence, or visualisations, it doesn't matter, as long as they help you achieve your end.Except maybe nowadays we'd draw the line at sacrificing a goat, chicken, virgin or small child.
You can freely admit to disbelievers and sceptics that you know these tools aren't 'real', in the sense of being detectable by scientific instruments, or provable in the lab.
But neither is love, and we would row across the Atlantic Ocean for love if we had to.Well, some people would.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Twenty First Century Taoism

John Gray's book Straw Dogs is an attempt to cover the course of human history and modern global affairs from an evolutionary perspective.
Nothing new there. But as a writer he does three interesting things:
1. He writes very well; his sentences are short and he doesn't use five words where two will do; or jargon.
2. He writes from the point of view that humans are animals. How surprising that this should be unusual, since we obviously are.
3. And he quotes from the 6th century BC Chinese taoists. Taoists believe that everything follows its own nature, and the best of all possible worlds happens when we let them get on with it. Interference just makes things worse, even when done with the best of intentions, unless you are acting directly as a result of contemplation and your own nature (this is a Zen-type paradox, and must not be taken facetiously).
So, he believes, you have first to understand the "nature of things", including humans, with care. That's what this book does, and then it tries to apply that understanding to modern politics.
The result is a radical viewpoint that has offended and shocked many and earnt the admiration of many others - including Will Self, who made it his book of the year.
Read a review here.
This is a rather negative review and is based on a misunderstanding of Taoism and of Gray's attitude.
Yes, the book is pessimistic in the sense that it lays open reasons to fear the way the world is going. Can anyone be really optimistic about this?
But it posits a way out of our dilemmas. Far from being a recipe for totalitarianism, as the reviewer suggests, the maxim that real freedom lies in having no choice, is another Zen paradox. The modern mantra of freedom of choice is based on the doctrine of individualism that has its roots in marketing theory of the early twentieth century.
Contrast this idea of freedom with that of an animal or an aborigine, eking out their daily survival. Naturally you or I do not want to live like this. They may be free, but their options are limited since they can't watch a DVD or fly to Disneyland.
But, the aboriginal way of life is certainly the most sustainable, since modern aborigines can accurately interpret Stone Age cave drawings - which betrays a continuity of culture we find astonishing if we think about it.
Freedom of choice does not equate to happiness. Nor does totalitarianism.
But in a world where basic needs (as in Masnach's hierarchy) and human rights are met, the addition of further choices (eg between ten types of washing powder, or 1000 models of car), can create unacceptable stress, because the infrastructure to supply that choice necessitates a world which is based on the exploitation of the majority (the world's poor), and destruction of the world's resources, natural and mineral.
Unless you can suggest another way?