October 5, 2015

Killing as a Life Skill

Humans kill other humans for pleasure and profit and killing on a large scale represents the intelligent and systematic application of knowledge, skills and discipline. The art and technology of war has been practiced, recorded, and honored by every society that has flourished on planet earth. In the mind of a pragmatic warlord, victory goes to the side that kills the enemy swiftly and decisively. Hesitation is weakness and surrender is cowardice.

There is an innate basis to killing but that does not mean that we have instinct to kill. It does mean that there is a tendency to kill and that tendency must be understood, revealed and regulated with sustained and effective social action. There is tendency in nice society to explain killers as sociopaths or sick people, but most killers are not sick and their destructive acts are part of the normally abnormal fabric of human society. We have to acknowledge that humans have always killed animals and other humans. Indeed, given the right circumstances, at least some humans enjoy killing and seek opportunities to fight wherever killing is lucrative or rewarded in other ways.

Humans have choices. Killing is a complex of behaviors that can involve many layers of motivation and preparation and diverse goals and purposes. The innate tendencies to kill are rooted in hunting, stealing, competition for mates, defense of social status, and ownership of territory. The hunter is a predator who succeeds when he is not aggressive, waits patiently in the shadows and pounces strategically on unsuspecting prey. The predator does better when he chooses a victim who is less capable of defending himself or herself and who is less protected by a group. A young or sick ungulate who is not keeping up with the herd is easy prey for a predatory cat.

In polite society, you may avoid physical fights but you can attack another verbally and "kill' them metaphorically. An ancient political strategy is to discredit rivals and expel them from the group. The idea is that status is the result of competition and conflict and status represents the rights off access to the necessities of life - food, shelter and sex. While killings appear to be the acts of individuals, on closer inspection killing is a social act that only makes sense when you notice the social interactions that precede killing. Killing is routinely used to remove political opponents and to discourage fledgling opponents from challenging authority. The random killing of bad humans committing crimes is trivial when compared with the systematic, premeditated killings planned and implemented by governments. A dangerous combination is theocracy – religious leaders who control tyrannical governments and militants who will use any excuse to fight.

Killing a spouse is often blamed on jealousy and many would list "jealousy" as an "emotion." Jealousy is an emotive-cognitive complex, as are love and hate. Different emotions are involved in each complex. Jealousy is programmed into ancient modules in the brain that have essential roles to play in the survival of animals on planet earth. The following table suggests the innate programs that are commonly accepted motives for one human killing another human. Threats to the safety and status of individuals in a group are common causes of killing.

Description-Survival Issues 1.Jealousy - Sexual Privileges, Group Status 2.Insult - Group Status and Social Privileges 3.Hatred - Defending group values, dominating rival groups 4.Injustice - Group Status , privilege 5.Fear, Anger- Survival, Defense of Territory, Self and Kin 6.Ideology - Group status, territory

Human males are predators and naturally express the skills and interest in hunting and killing prey. Men in the United States commit 85.53 per cent of simple assaults, 87.31 percent of aggravated assaults and 88.5 percent of murders. Women may play a supportive role in by encouraging their men to hate and to kill. Women participate in the construction and maintenance of hatred and can play a decisive role in initiating and sustaining lethal conflicts among men.br Men compete over women and often kill each other to gain an advantage or to revenge sexual trespass. Men and women conspire together to attack and kill rivals to gain property, prestige and ostensibly to protect their lives and property. Anne Campbell observed: ”For males, status and toughness where this quality is a determinant of status is a route to desired resources, including females. Males seek public recognition of their status and Wilson and Daly have described how apparently trivial altercations can result in homicide when an opponent's acts are interpreted as a public challenge to a man's honor and when to back down is to accept that dishonor.”

Anthropologist, John Patton studied the Achuar, a tribe in the Equadorian Amazon who have a high murder rate. In the 90’s after the introduction of guns, killings increased; 50% of the males die from shotgun blasts.br The Achuar associate killing with prestige. They value the warrior who has strategy, skill, valor, willingness to fight and lack of hesitation in battle. There is a striking similarity between an Aschaur tribe in the Amazon and a street gang in Los Angeles or New York and an army platoon in any country you choose. Patton suggests that men have a keen sense of whom they can and cannot trust in the event of a conflict: "You want to be part of a group that is big enough to beat the other guys or at least be a threat to them, yet not so big that you can't keep everyone fed. Friendships are forged according to who can offer whom or what, as a sort of insurance policy.”

The right to employ and train killers is assumed by police, military and other government organizations. In the 20th century the scale of war escalated to involve most countries of the world and millions of combatants. The destructive scale of world war two has left surviving humans with a legacy of doubt and fear that will not be easily overcome. While in Canada we remember and thank soldiers who fought and died in World War 2 (WW2), there is a curious dissociation between the celebration of victory and the horrors of mass destruction and killing. Every country wants its citizens to view soldiers favorably in case they are needed to fight another war to defend their homes, but at the same time we celebrate peace and distain people who kill close to home. The aggressions of Germany and Japan in WW2 were so manifestly evil that other implicated nations were motivated to fight against them.

The USA is a country that entered WW2 reluctantly, but emerged with a long-term commitment to militarism. Since 1945 US governments champion killing as a life skill and employ killers in complex, multilayered organizations that are supposed to defend the country against attack, but generally fail in their mission. In the second half of the 20th century, a large group of smart, nice, middle-class Americans spent their working week preparing for the mass destruction of enemies such as Russians and Chinese. They designed and manufactured nuclear warheads, ballistic missiles and an extensive infrastructure that enabled the USA to deliver total destruction to any country on earth, any time, any day of the week. They continued to have backyard barbecues on the week end and sent their children to school to study history, literature and geography.

Americans liked to think of themselves as good people and proposed that planning genocide on a global scale with weapons of mass destruction was something that good people did as a matter of necessity. Others disagreed.

From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

September 29, 2015

Idealists and Pragmatists

Idealist are good at generating codes of conduct, rules of engagement and visions of the future when the good and true will prevail. The problem, of course, is that ideal human conduct is rare and when it does occur, it is temporary. Pragmatists focus on what actually happens and develop strategies to fix what is broken. World problems have proliferated at a feverish pitch. Everywhere you look, there are big problems that promise to get worse rather than better. A list of these problems discourage even the most optimistic of citizens.

If you take a God’s eye view of the planet, you have to notice one basic fact – that most humans generate problems on a daily basis and a smaller number try to catch up with solutions. You can supply AIDs drugs to the sick and poor in Africa, but the recovering patients suffer from malnutrition, water shortages and other diseases. Their social infrastructures are gone. If they survive their immediate adversities, warriors from neighboring tribes may arrive one day and kill them with machetes or automatic rifles, bought from US or Chinese weapon suppliers.

Even polite societies that have enjoyed periods of affluence and stability, a series of increasingly severe problems accumulate and undermine social order. In the US, a incompetent congress an ineffective administration, a failing economy, an aging infrastructure that needs reconstruction, destructive weather events and many layers of conflict within the society are serious problems with no obvious remedy. We have briefly considered the cumulative effects of resource depletion, habitat destruction, climate change and changing patterns of disease; these descriptions point to problems that do not have easy solutions.

A pragmatic approach to an overwhelming set of problems is to establish priorities and focus on achievable goals. Within every effective pragmatist is the hope that incremental problem solving will in the end produce a rational, enduring social order. There is also the hope that young, smart, well-informed people will join an enlarging group of problem solvers, hard at work every day in every country on the planet.

Smart people can break through old paradigms and recognize patterns in human nature. This is happening all the time. Good, new ideas always impress me and I always ask -why didn't I think of that? A new, good idea can spread from person to person and can make people smarter and more effective in the world. A good idea may seem obvious once you understand and accept it, but before someone comes up with the idea, you are ignorant. Humans who do not have access to new ideas and learn only a few of the old, worn-out and bad ideas are stuck with being ignorant; the natural and spontaneous level of human thought is crude and superstitious, often based on false beliefs and errors in judgment and attribution. Humans do well, even with marked cognitive limitations, because most transactions of life are carried out by innate, expert systems in their brain that do not require educated and rational thinking. Even though crude thinking dominates human society and will probably dominate for a long time to come, a small percentage of humans with especially clever minds will keep evolving toward some ultimate encounter with the really real. We can hope that smart and nice come together, since smart and evil is an undesirable combination. From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

September 8, 2015


Syrian refugees in 2015 are representative of refugee migrations occurring from many countries. An estimated 48 million refugees by 2014 were camped in squalid conditions without rights or privileges. Stewart summarized the appalling development in world affairs: "International organizations give every indication of being overwhelmed, and no wonder. Just compare this 48 million with one of the greatest humanitarian crises in history — when a shattered Europe at the end of the Second World War had to resettle a staggering 16 million displaced persons. A horrifying number certainly, but only a third as many as we have now. To make matters worse, the crisis is happening at a time when ever more countries are putting up new barriers and taking in fewer refugees. The result is that while over eight million newly displaced refugees are being added annually and barely one per cent of those seeking asylum are resettled in any given year. The average amount of time families live in refugee camps is a staggering 17 years." 

Citizens of relatively affluent countries are likely to have some compassion for displaced humans and will want to help individuals that they can identify and know. There are important limitations that constrain compassion.  We have recognized that humans act from self interest and group interest. Helping others in need satisfies a deep instinct for group survival, for mutual protection, food sharing and child care. The desire to help is short-lived and will often end in confusion and despair as newcomers fail to adapt and integrate. Membership in a supportive group is a privilege to be earned and defended. Altruistic acts are conditional and limited in scope and duration.

We have recognized that humans require an external form of behavioral regulation that is ephemeral and must be renewed continuously. The invention and enforcement of rules occurs within hierarchical organizations. Subgroups are always competing for resources and control so that the freedom promised in an ideal democracy cannot be considered stable and enduring. Any large migration of strangers into a community is a threat to the existing order. The preservation of freedom in democracies depends on well educated and culturally compatible humans who can maintain a civil order. Immigrating strangers are not likely to have the prerequisites required by the civil order. Indeed, the most obvious feature of mass migrations is the disruption of civic order. The opportunities are limited for large groups of refugees to settle in a new country and become constructive, contributing citizens. Everything we have learned about human nature suggests that big long-term problems will emerge from mass migrations. These problems do not have obvious solutions.

The UN List reasons for the plight of refugees:

Conflicts are becoming more protracted, some dragging on for decades. There are currently 21 nations in ongoing conflicts with no clear end in sight. Think Syria, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Central Africa, the Sudan and Congo.

The UN refers to "the shrinking of humanitarian space" as more conflicts are being waged by non-state forces such as militias, insurgent groups, bands of religious fanatics and bandits who terrorize civilians and aid workers alike. As fewer rules are respected, even refugee camps are not safe from attack, and aid workers become prime targets. More terror means more refugees.

Asylum itself is eroding as more countries put up barriers to block the mass movement of desperate people, a list that includes economic migrants and refugees alike as they search for haven alongside each other. 14 EU nations have refused Syrian refugees, often citing pressure from their own ultra-nationalistic parties during hard economic times.

The deep problem is human reproductive success is. Too many humans means that increasingly large numbers will have to migrate to avoid hunger, dehydration, natural and man-made disasters.  The problem of overpopulation cannot be appreciated only in terms of numbers alone, or the geographic distribution of populations, or even resources available to keep humans alive; the real problem is the disputatious and destructive aspects of human behavior. Increased population density creates increased social and economic problems that resist solution. Children are at risk when parents do not have the motivation, intelligence and resources needed to support them. Only thoughtful, well-educated and affluent parents have the opportunity to understand their responsibilities, to plan and allocate resources for an unborn child. All problems would decrease by increasing the competence of parents, reducing population size and limiting growth longterm.

The European Union countries have become the most desirable destinations for Syrian refugees. Their large numbers have produced consternation in Europe, a model for the future? "In the first seven months of 2014, more than 87,000 people arrived in Italy by sea, mainly from Eritrea and the Syrian Arab Republic (Syria). In an effort to reduce the risks linked to such journeys, in October 2013 the Italian Government launched the Mare Nostrum operation, which has rescued more than 100,000 people at sea. Greece and Spain also recorded an increase in arrivals. The economic situation in the region has had an impact on the capacity and readiness of many countries to strengthen their protection systems. Austerity measures have also hit civil-society organizations that provide services to asylum-seekers and refugees. Xenophobia and intolerance have led to incidents of discrimination and violence. States have responded by concentrating on curbing irregular movements, including through tighter border controls and detention, or penalization for illegal entry.”

Over 150,000 people seeking to enter Europe have reached Hungary in 2015, most coming through the southern border with Serbia, and many apply for asylum but quickly try to leave for richer EU countries. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban built a barbed wire fence on the border with Serbia to stop the huge flow of migrants. Orban declared his determination to stop the refugees: "Today we are talking about tens of thousands but next year we will be talking about millions and this has no end. We have to make it clear that we can't allow everyone in, because if we allow everyone in, Europe is finished. If you are rich and attractive to others, you also have to be strong because if not, they will take away what you have worked for and you will be poor, too."

The burden of the invading refugees has been unevenly distributed, with Germany taking in the most migrants a, projected 800,000 while Hungary, Sweden and tiny Montenegro have accepted the most per capita.  Thomas de Maizière, Germany’s interior minister stated:” The refugees are synonymous with formidable change. We must get used to the thought that our country is changing.” The Social Ministry expects the German government to spend 1.8 billion to 3.3 billion euros, about $2 billion to $3.7 billion, in 2016 to cover the refugees’ basic needs, language lessons and job training. As those costs mount, so might resentment. Already Germany has experienced a backlash against the migrants — the worst in Europe. Neo-Nazi and right-wing groups have seized on the issue, organizing demonstrations outside homes for asylum seekers. In the first six months of this year, there were more than 200 arson and other attacks on facilities for migrants, and on migrants themselves. One fear is that an open-door policy will make Germany more vulnerable to Islamic extremism and terrorism.  Free movement of people and goods through borders in the European Union was a precept of its cohesion. Austria was the first country to reactivate its border crossing controls and other countries are likely to follow.

A basic tenant of world order is state sovereignty and the right of countries to control immigration. The refugees entering Europe have no respect for state sovereignty and believe they have rights that they did not earn. While a sympathetic view of desperate people may forgive this lawlessness in the beginning, the attitude does not suggest respect and lawful conduct in the future.

Climate change is an important cause of conflict, economic distress, and increasing scarcity of essential human resources – water, food and shelter. Infectious disease also increases the human burden. Human survival in the past 200,000 years has been challenged by natural disasters and climate changes. Survival required migration away from unforgiving environments toward new habitats with more resources. The near future will bring more severe climate changes that force more mass migrations. The problems cannot be solved easily.  The altruistic impulse in more secure regions will face the threat of increasing world disorder. Orban’s declaration that millions of refugees without qualifications will seek to share the riches of affluent countries: ”... you also have to be strong because if not, they will take away what you have worked for and you will be poor, too."

August 16, 2015

Fossil Fuels Require Intelligent Use

The sun's energy is free, but methods of converting this energy into human wealth requires technical ingenuity and cost money. Plants are the most generous energy converters and humans supply labor and skills to grow the most useful plants. Some of the sun's energy has been stored  in the earth's crust as fossil fuels -- coal, oil and natural gas. The carbon in these deposits was captured by plants and animals. To make a complex story simple you can argue that  much of the wealth generated in the 20th century was an expression of the relatively cheap and abundant energy supplied by carbon deposits. Diesel and gasoline fuelled engines, allowed the creation of machines that work for humans, permitted industrial-scale, mechanized agriculture and worldwide transportation system at sea, on land and in the air.

The planet  has carbon stores in many forms and places. In ecological terms, the carbon cycle must be understood and properly managed if long term human survival is desirable. If too much of this carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, climates change and human populations are at risk.  Fossil fuels represent a valuable and finite resource that should be used with restraint and sophisticated understanding. The opposite occurred in the 20th century with the exploitation of fossil fuel in a reckless manner. A major challenge for 21st century humans is to better understand the proper uses of fossil fuels, restrain their use, and control the release of carbon gases into the atmosphere. 

Major changes in the identification of new gas and  oil  fields and changes in methods of extraction have occurred, giving the USA and Canada domestic sources of fossil fuel that may provide current levels of energy for  many more years – longer if use decreases with sensible conservation policies and more efficient energy use. China has a vast resource of shale gas and oil that remains in the ground. The International Energy Agency reported  that to meet the world’s growing need for energy will require more than a $48 trillion in investment between now and 2035. Current spending is $1.6 trillion per year.   The WEA estimate ignores climate change and may be completely wrong. In 2014 the supply of oil exceeded demand and world prices dropped dramatically. The OPEC suppliers  refused to reduce production, so that low prices would force competing countries to reduce their capital expenditures on new and expensive oil well development. Low oil prices means the more fossil fuels can be burned with increased climate change calamities.

Oil pricing has become a frantic interaction of countries with fossil fuels to sell, speculators driven by greed, and consumers who continue to buy petroleum products regardless of price. The consumers exercise little control over the supply and cost of fossil fuels; however, consumers are the only group that could adopt a sensible policy of fossil fuel consumption. Despite many protest groups attacking the oil and gas industry,  little has been accomplished. Protesters usually attack the producers and never accept the blame that the consumers deserve. The final solution to the problems that fossil fuel extraction creates is for consumers to use less. Every responsible citizen needs to pledge a 30% reduction in fossil fuel use immediately and further reductions as alternative energy sources become available.

Canada is a country with large deposit is of fossil fuels and an economy that depends of gas and oil revenues. A healthy debate   slows industrial devolvement with its threat of land and water pollution. The debate is mostly between Canadians who want more oil revenues by building pipelines and coastal ports needed to export gas and oil and Canadians who are committed to protecting the natural environment. Governments, corporations and their investors who receive oil and gas revenues continue to push for more development.

Horodelski stated: "And another worrisome note, some traders are looking at the derivative books and seeing negative signs when it comes to the plummet in oil. You may wish to spend the weekend brushing up on CLOs (collateral loan obligations), CDSs (credit default swaps) and other derivative instruments. Unfortunately, when you try to get some decent research on the size and issues associated with this market you find yourself in the dark, deep web of conspiracy theorists and doom-day seers." 

Reduced oil and gas production and increased cost worldwide would be a long-term benefit for all humans. Reduced consumption reduces air water and land pollution and is a perquisite of controlling climate change. The industrial arguments for providing the energy needs of  increasing populations and promoting economic growth are persuasive and pervasive. The real solution has three components:

1.  Reduced populations

2.  Non fossil fuel energy sources

3.  Economies with no dependence on oil and gas revenues

A  study funded by the UK Energy Research Centre  concluded that the world should forego extracting a third of its oil and half of its gas reserves before 2050…  The majority of the huge coal reserves in China, Russia and the United States should remain unused along with over 260 thousand million barrels oil reserves in the Middle East, equivalent to all of the oil reserves held by Saudi Arabia. The Middle East should also leave over 60% of its gas reserves in the ground. The development of resources in the Arctic and any increase in unconventional oil – oil of a poor quality which is hard to extract – are also found to be inconsistent with efforts to limit climate change. 

The Economist argued that the fall in oil and gas prices is an opportunity for a new approach to fossil fuels:" Most of the time, economic policymaking is about tinkering at the edges. Politicians argue furiously about modest changes to taxes or spending. Once in a while, however, momentous shifts are possible. Bold politicians have seized propitious circumstances to push through reforms that transformed their countries. Such a once-in-a-generation opportunity exists today. The plunging price of oil, coupled with advances in clean energy and conservation, offers politicians around the world the chance to rationalize energy policy. They can get rid of billions of dollars of distorting subsidies, especially for dirty fuels, while shifting taxes towards carbon use. A cheaper, greener and more reliable energy future could be within reach… the reason for optimism is the plunge in energy costs. The price of cleaner forms of energy is also falling and new technology is allowing better management of the consumption of energy, especially electricity.  For decades the big question about energy was whether the world could produce enough of it, in any form and at any cost. Now, suddenly, the challenge should be one of managing abundance. Falling prices provide an opportunity for …cash-strapped developing countries such as India and Indonesia who have bravely begun to cut fuel subsidies, freeing up money to spend on hospitals and schools… That should be just the beginning. Politicians, for the most part, have refused to raise taxes on fossil fuels in recent years, on the grounds that making driving or heating homes more expensive would not only annoy voters but also hurt the economy. With petrol and natural gas getting cheaper by the day, that excuse has gone. Burning fossil fuels harms the health of both the planet and its inhabitants. Taxing carbon would nudge energy firms and consumers towards using cleaner fuels. As fuel prices fall, a carbon tax is becoming less politically daunting." 

From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

August 15, 2015

Life and Death

All living creatures die. The way of death is of great interest to humans and in part determines the way of life. Birth is not a choice but dying can be elected as a free and rational choice for a number of reasons. In general, a healthy, modern human will opt for life and will imagine death as an appropriate, peaceful outcome of aging sometime in the distant future. Nevertheless, death may come abruptly, prematurely, unfairly, violently and sometimes cruelly. 

Humans are preoccupied with constructions, beliefs and rituals designed to appease spirits associated with death and provide guidance to survivors. Funeral rituals can be elaborate and prolonged, often specifying the behaviors that are expected of survivors. Death is the acknowledgement among the living often with confusion, fear, screaming and weeping. The crisis of death is that one human has vanished from the group and will never return. If the dead human was loved and valued, then the loss is great and the grief is painful and prolonged.

 Death is the gathering of the kin to grieve, to celebrate, and to fight over inheritance rights and kin status. Beliefs in destinations after death are common and, in the best case, reassure survivors that their loss will be redeemed.

Grief, like love, is a complex of feelings, emotions, memories and thoughts.  Grief inspires the deepest inquiries into the nature and meaning of existence. Even the distress of talking about grief reminds us that this complex of feeling, memories and thought is an important regulator of human affairs. As soon as you care about someone else, you incur the risk of losing him or her. If you become complacent over time, watching the suffering of others who have lost a loved one is a powerful reminder to be more careful. The prospect of grief is so daunting that humans who care for one another are more concerned and cautious in their custodial role, protecting loved ones.  People who have experienced a loss or near-loss will often declare that they became more appreciative of those around them. Pure, pristine grief is our response to death. There is an initial emotional state with "outpouring of emotion". The expression is unmistakable in many cultures - crying, wailing, self-injury and self-neglect. The passionate stage of grief tends to last hours to days.  When a loved one dies, grief is inevitable but the onset may be delayed. A sudden death is especially confusing, hard to believe and impossible to accept. A state of suspended disbelief may last for days or weeks, but sooner or later, grief explodes as the terrible truth is realized with clarity. The emotional expression of grief may be ritualized and dramatized as part of funeral observances. Grief often emerges overtime with sustained dysphoric feelings.

Sadness is a subdued expression of grief that may last for years or even a lifetime.  Sadness is both a feeling of loss and withdrawal from life involvements. There is a gradation of sadness from mildly uncomfortable feelings expressed by poems and little tears to despair. The deep, impenetrable sadness of someone grieving the loss of a person truly loved is one of the hallmarks of sentient life on earth. Some humans do not survive their grief because the sadness is so profound.

There is a tendency for humans to want to live forever when things are going well. The idea of immortality appeals to the young and healthy. Most observers stipulate that they would only want to live on as a youthful, healthy person. The idea of reaching 90 years of age and then extending life for another 100 years is not so appealing. Thus, younger people tend be more interested in immortality than older people, although there are always exceptions. Older people want to be rejuvenated. The grand view of life on earth does not place individual values first but the places the continuation and evolution of life first. Individuals die so that younger individuals can replace them. Life goes on. Living creatures are programmed to die. Individual cells die both in a programmed mode and an incidental or accidental mode. Programmed cell death is essential for the survival of whole organisms. Cells that become immortal run amok, proliferate relentlessly and kill the host. Immortal cell growth is referred to as cancer.

The longest lifespan is determined in advance and the challenge of survival is to live through the maximum time permitted. The slow deterioration, aging, proceeds in gradual steps. Aging and disease merge inevitably as the deterioration of the body provides more opportunity for disease processes to flourish. Because aging is programmed, there is some interest among life scientists to discover how to prolong life. There are tantalizing clues to the mechanisms behind the aging processes, but attempts to alter this process may have adverse consequences. Cancer cells, for example, have escaped aging and are immortal. The reason that cancer cells kill you is that they keep reproducing when they should stop. Programmed cell death is one of the basic strategies of getting trillions of cells to live together in a cooperative enterprise. You can extend this insight to populations of animals of planet earth. If all the humans and all the animals became longer lived, then you all have to stop reproducing or all would perish in an unprecedented population explosion.

 Death is understood as the cessation of breathing and of heart beating. Death is also understood as deep sleep, the lack of movement, the lack of response to words, gestures, and touches. Death is the distress that living people experience when they witness the cessation of living movements in another human and view the rigidity of a corpse. Death has become more abstract in hospitals where detailed measurements and monitoring of vital functions are available. Death can be anticipated by the measurement of body chemistry, by monitoring the function of vital organs and by applying statistics gathered about the natural course of diseases.  Information about disease processes is linked to individual and group concepts about the “quality of life.” The challenge is pursue treatments that promise improved quality and duration of life without accepting futile treatments that just prolong suffering.  Discussions about the inevitability of death are now more common and decisions about offering or withholding treatment are now linked to understanding disease processes and they way they cause death. Death can now be determined as brain damage with the permanent loss of consciousness. The rest of the body can be intact and functioning well. What every neurologist knows is that if a small lesion is made in the ascending reticular activating system of the medulla oblongata or midbrain, consciousness is lost and may never be regained.

This view is practical - consciousness can be destroyed by damage to specific and tiny areas of the old brain. The brain often swells in head-injured patients and compress its own blood supply. A patient may be an otherwise healthy, attractive teenager with a head injury who looks quite viable, but if perfusion scans of the brain show no blood supply to the cerebral hemispheres, the recovery of consciousness and sentient functions is unlikely and death is declared. The emergence of free, individualistic, affluent societies is associated with the disappearance of elaborate death rituals and well-specified roles for each community member to play. Funerals are often perfunctory or omitted and dead bodies pass through impersonal, professional hands leaving survivors with thoughts and feelings disconnected from any experience that might make the death of another more real and more acceptable.  Acceptance of death for what it is– the end of an individual life - is difficult to achieve but once there, we can more or less live peaceably with the idea. We have no obligation to like the truth. Acceptance is quite different from liking.

Since life involves suffering, there are times when death seems an attractive way out. The Japanese Samurai tradition advocated killing oneself in a deliberate ritualistic manner as an honorable and correct choice when adverse circumstances prevail.  Voluntary death becomes a noble act that requires courage and skill and a formal acknowledgement of the ephemeral essence of all life. In a less noble fashion, Japanese Kamikaze pilots during the Second World War volunteered for suicide missions just as suicide bombers today wear dynamite vests and kill others as they kill themselves.

In the romantic western tradition, killing oneself has sometimes been viewed as a legitimate lover's response to the loss of his or her beloved and an understandable response to a major loss of investment, power or prestige. Self-inflicted death is also acceptable to avoid capture, imprisonment or torture. Selecting the right time of death is also a freedom often denied to the terminally ill. A person with advanced cancer who suffers every day with no hope of recovery will decide that the experience is too unpleasant; it is time to leave. It is easy to argue that dying is a legitimate choice among choices for a free sentient being, but in many countries today, distant moral authorities and laws ban self-inflicted death under any circumstance. 

Acceptance, in part, comes from the full participation in the death of another, caring for the body, calling kin and friends together to share stories and ritual observances, crying, preparing the body for burial, and disposing of the body in a meaningful way. Anthropologists continue to discover evidence of hominin ritualistic burials thousands of years ago that show care and attention in placing the body, covering the body with flowers and leaving gifts and tools. The attention to burial is an expression of the survivors feeling of loss and their continuing need to care for themselves. Death in a group is a reminder to all that each person is vulnerable. Grieving, in the best case, enhances the survivor’s awareness of the value of others. In grief, there are intense moment of feeling the great paradox of being alone and yet, needing to be together.

From my selfish point of view, aging, sickness and death are bad ideas. If someone were responsible for these bad ideas, I would seek them out and complain.  I find it odd when people believe in an interactive God who kills a bunch of nice people in a plane crash and their relatives gather to address this "merciful god" and ask for his blessings. They sue the airline and praise God. If God had a known address, I think I would sue God as well.

Acceptance is realizing that there is no complaints department in the universe. I accept that death is the end of individual consciousness and the contents of one mind vanish. No personal biographical information is transmitted to another brain, young or old. No soul goes to heaven. There is no heaven. There is no hell. 

The person who dies lives on in the minds of the people who knew him or her. It is the survivors who create the stories that keep the deceased person alive. They archive letters, photos and other artifacts. Sometimes, the survivors say the person has been reborn and celebrate a child who will carry on in the mindset of the deceased. Sometimes, the survivors say that the person has gone for an extended vacation in an unknown location, all expenses paid by God, Jesus, Mohammed, Moses or some other philanthropist in the sky.

From Human Nature by Stephen Gislason MD

August 8, 2015

Misunderstanding Mind & Body

For forty years, I have been reading books and articles on how the “mind has limitless powers to heal.” Books, magazine articles and television reports recycle old material often presenting the same old stuff as new exciting discoveries. Forty years ago these ideas were more appealing to me and I pursued them in my professional and personal life. But they have become irrelevant fantasies and obstacles to understanding mind-body interactions. Ideas about the healing mind involve a set of misunderstandings, fantasy and human narcissism which leads people to claim more ability and more control than they actually have.

Life is difficult, and you can argue that a little fantasy and narcissism offers solace to people who might otherwise despair. I was browsing popular magazines in the local library and choose one example from a Canadian magazine directed to women. I am not citing the article because it is a generic repetition of similar articles published in many magazines. The article begins with a story of a woman who had a breast cancer removed and survived 20 years without a recurrence. Long term survivors of cancer are expected in the normal distribution of cancer outcomes. This survivor claims that positive thinking and meditation were responsible for her survival. This is a narcissistic claim that gives the survivor and her audience a feeling of security that cannot be substantiated. The article does not mention other women who practiced positive thinking and meditation who died of their cancers. They are more numerous than the survivors.

I advocate positive thinking and meditation but do not expect these strategies to cure diseases such as cancer. Cancers are abnormal growths of cells that have mutated genes and fail to respond to the usual controls over cell behavior and replication. Cell mutations are deeply imbedded in an ancient matrix of life determinants that cannot be easily altered. Some cancers do not progress because the mutated cells are not aggressive and may be destroyed by defenses that routinely destroy abnormal cells.

The survivors are lucky, not superior beings with superior mental abilities. The article talks about ‘using the mind to change body chemistry.” The problem with this talk is that there is no understanding of how body-mind works. You live inside your mind. It is incorrect to claim that you can use your mind as if you were outside of mind. It is more correct to state that your mind can use you. Since you are inside your mind, you experience a monitor image of your body that shrinks and expands in your consciousness, depending on what is going on inside. The connection between body and mind is the brain. The brain is the organ of the mind.

To be completely correct, we have to admit that brain is inside the mind. To speak pragmatically, we have to join bodybrainmind into the whole entity that it is. We can claim that body events are brain events are mind events.

The chemistry of bodybrainmind is implicit in mind. Every action, every reaction of bodybrainmind involves changes in the way the whole system works. Many of these changes can be understood in terms of physiology, chemistry and genetics. This is not news. Exercise, for example, changes bodybrainmind and some of these changes are beneficial. Women who exercise regularly have a lower incidence of breast cancer and depression; they tend to be both healthier and more successful in life endeavors. The human bodybrainmind evolved in natural environments where exercise was mandatory and physical fitness had survival value. In contrast, the modern woman who eats too much and exercises too little gains weight and may become anxious and depressed. She may develop many diseases, including breast cancer. She is not a survivor until she returns to the habits of her ancient ancestors. When she eats less food, changes food selection to fruits and vegetables and works physically everyday, she thinks, feels and acts better. At the same time, she decreases her risk of developing a fatal disease.

I have met people who practiced yoga and meditation and tried their best to think positively, but they ate too much food, exercised too little and developed food-related diseases. They failed to achieve the biological requirements for long-term health. While it may be true that meditation is a superb method of studying your own consciousness and can lower blood pressure, reduce heart rate and generate a feeling of well-being, all the benefits can be reversed quickly – just drink some coffee, eat the wrong food and drive home through traffic.

From The Human Brain in Health and Disease by Stephen Gislason MD

August 3, 2015

Social Intelligence

Social organization is basic to animal life. Insect societies are remarkably coherent and suggest human organization even more than many mammalian societies. Coherent social organization is achieved by a meta-brain. Many individual brains are coordinated in a network of interacting individuals. Human invention is incremental and innovations spread from human to human because the two central tendencies of humans are to copy and compete. One of the functions of social organization is the distribution of individuals in spacetime and the regulation of their interactions. Humans are used to social regulation through speech and rules and tend to overlook the more basic and pervasive social controllers that operate from innate properties in the brain.

Animal societies are organized around activities such as mating, rearing the young, foraging, hunting, resting and seeking protection. Mammalian social organization varies with the habitat, food supply, and habits of the animal. In primate groups, individual animals are locked into in complex sets of social and kinship networks. The kin group is the most prevalent basic unit of organization and has a genetic basis. Intelligence is organized around interactions with others. Modern humans belong to many groups of different size and importance and will create a hierarchy of allegiance characterized by shifting loyalties and even reversals of allegiance. Tracking allegiances is a major task for intelligence and some people are obviously more gifted than others. Humans evaluate and compete with each other in a continuous negotiation that involves strategy, criticism, conflict, and overt battles.

Visual information gathering is dominant in primates and specialized area of the cortex a devoted to evaluating what others are doing. Neurons in the inferotemporal cortex of macaques respond to faces and hand gestures and some neuronal groups are tuned to specific behaviors. The most basic intelligence modules identify individuals by appearance and behavior and evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of association with other individuals. Smart people are better leaders because they are better evaluators of the behavior and intentions of other members of their group and are more accurate in responding strategically to challenges from their subordinates.

The brain systems that evaluate others are not used in self-evaluation. It is easy to argue that humans, like other primates, are mostly interactive creatures, pre-occupied with what others are doing; humans have little or no cognitive ability for self-evaluation. One human relies on others to evaluate behavior and therefore, human society has built in multiple and complex evaluative procedures that operate daily as external controls.

The innate rules of association built into the brain pertain to small groups and tend to become dysfunctional when individuals try to relate as members of large and anonymous groups. Large groups are still controlled by individuals and small groups with limited ability. Enlarging organizations rely on repeating modular structures controlled from above. A large corporation has many repeating subunits linked and administered by a central office that is controlled by a small group of executive officers and directors. As the corporation grows, the executive officers do not become more intelligent, better informed and more expansive. Indeed executives in growing corporations usually become isolated in their immediate social groups and have difficulty grasping issues beyond their immediate local group and self-interest. "IQ" is a handy short form for overall intelligence and IQ scores could be considered as approximate measurements of a number of underlying abilities. Comprehensive IQ testing would go far beyond the relatively selective IQ tests in common use.

Comprehensive testing would evaluate at least eight critical domains of mental ability:

The ability to live in a group, to cooperate with others and, at the same time, to compete successfully for status, privileges, resources and mates.

The ability to recognize what is really going on out there in diverse situations and to act appropriately.

Information processing ability including the ability to find, evaluate and apply knowledge relevant to completing real world tasks.
The ability to navigate through different environments and to move skillfully with minimal risk of injury or death.

The ability to send and receive communications with language and other expressive modalities such as mime, singing, dancing, rhythm, drawing, sculpture, model-making, playing musical instruments.

The ability to design, make and use tools effectively.

The ability to set goals, sequence, plan and implement strategies

The ability to self-evaluate and correct behavior, ideas and strategies when they are not working.

From Intelligence and Learning by Stephen Gislason

July 18, 2015


What about honesty and lies? While there is high value placed on honesty, a realistic look at human behavior reveals that deception is normal and story telling always involves dishonesty. Children learn quickly that there are advantages to lying. They are aware that adults lie routinely. Creative children are creative story tellers who are entertained by fictional stories and employ fiction-writing techniques in reporting events to parents and other adults. As children acquire more language skills and are held more accountable for their actions, they become increasingly skillful in their story inventions.

Each human projects the image of the honest one and denies taking part in any deception whatsoever. The root lie is “I am an honest man or woman”. This fundamental self-deception is practiced by all and usually believed by all. Even a when a liar is caught fabricating his or her story, he or she will usually persist in the claim “I am telling the truth”. The idea is that individuals in all groups compete for position and prestige; the drive is to at least maintain your social position or improve it if you can. The risk of losing your social position is so threatening that all means of protecting yourself arise spontaneously. Since humans use language as an important social tool, any use of language that protects or enhances social position is acceptable. A close examination of human behavior gives us the following precepts: 1. There is no absolute truth. 2. Memories are not accurate and factual. 3. Story telling is a small part fact and large part fiction. Stories always promote self-interest. 4. "No" and 'don't" are the two most important instructions for humans, young and old 5. Human problems can by solved by not repeating harmful behaviors. 6. Humans have a strong tendency to repeat harmful behaviors.

We admire people who deceive us professionally – magicians, movie directors, actors, psychics, faith healers, politicians, ministers and priests. We tell our children blatant lies about tooth fairies, Easter bunnies, Santa Claus, angels, heaven and yes, even God. The benevolent deception is designed in part to entertain, reassure and alleviate suffering. “Little white lies” involve omitting unpleasant information and changing small details that the story will be more acceptable: “… it will only hurt a little bit, dear.” Telling "little white lies" is not considered a moral crisis. Story telling merges with other forms of persuasion and negotiation in strategies of business and social success. Humans tell stories and make deals, all out of self-interest. The stories and deals are always tilted in someone's favor.

If you censored television ads and scripts to rule out displays of lying and systematic deception, the entertainment industry would all but disappear. If you believe you have benevolent motives, you will also believe that deception is a valid strategy when you negotiate with someone else, because you have to overcome their resistance, their prejudices and their ignorance to achieve a result that you desire. If you believe that the right deception will achieve the best outcome, you will lie with more confidence and soon believe your lies. The end justifies the means. Despite obvious ethical flaws in the ends justify means argument; human conduct is almost always based on this implicit assumption. Network television sitcoms depend on plots involving deception, lying and the consequences of being found out. The series, "Seinfeld" was popular, featuring characters who were inveterate liars. Seinfeld plots depended on the characters' inadequacies; their inability to form meaningful relationships or to cope well with the simplest of life problems. The main coping strategies were manipulation and deception. Laws are meant to be circumvented. The issues were petty and trivial and the characters’ dependence on deception both entertained and reflected life as the audience lived it.

From the book Children and Family by Stephen Gislason MD

June 12, 2015

Moral Distress

I discovered the term Moral Distress in the nursing literature. Hospitals are hot spots for important issues and engage diverse vested interests in daily interactions. Issues of life and death play out, often with conflicts among stakeholders who have different views of what is the right thing to do. Hospitals exist to serve the needs of sick or injured patients. Problems arise when hospitals grow larger, involve increasingly complex technologies, and employ different groups to fulfill the many functions that keep a hospital running. The logistics of managing such a complex institution have routinely overwhelmed patient care. You have armies of people running in all directions, attending meetings, conferences, generating and receiving reports but if you look in patients’ rooms, they are often alone and neglected.

Nurses remain the hospital group most directly involved in patient care. Epstein and Delegado summarized the nurses’ point of view: ”Moral distress occurs when one knows the ethically correct action to take but feels powerless to take that action. Research on moral distress among nurses has identified that the sources of moral distress are many and varied and that the experience of moral distress leads some nurses to leave their jobs, or the profession altogether.“

They and others identified the cognitive dissonance involved generated from several different sources; for example: power imbalances between members of the patient care team, lack of communication among team members, administrative pressure to reduce costs, fear of legal action and hospital policies that conflict with patient needs. Even greater issues arise when medical attitudes and methods are examined and questions are raised about medical prejudices, excessive drug use, inattention to patients, neglect of duty, technical errors and incompetence.

I have no doubt about the distresses nurses’ experience, but the description moral distress is less than accurate. We have understood the humans are critically disputatious and hyper critical of others so that conflict among interacting individuals is common and inevitable. Ethical questions gravitate toward the interfaces between individual freedoms and group discipline. Hospitals are interaction dense, so that anyone working in these institutions will be distressed by the actions of others, at least, some of the time. Coping mechanisms must involve submission to group interests and willingness to compromise, even when I am right and they are wrong. We have also recognized that there is no consensus about the common good, so if you claim superiority by having an ethical position better than others, be prepared for a debate, if not a dangerous fight.

From The Good Person, Morality and Ethics by Stephen Gislason

May 22, 2015

Rational Humanism

One important dynamic of change during the 20th century was the decline of religious institutions and the rise of secular humanistic philosophy. Rational humanism is the proper basis of civil societies, but innate human tendencies prefer the dogmatic and irrational.

Joseph Campbell celebrated the rational humanism that emerged about 2500 years ago in three manifestations – the Buddha in India, Confucius in China, and the poets and philosophers who emerged in the Greek civilization that shaped the culture of Rome, then Europe, and then the colonies in the Americas. These three traditions “generally realized local myths for what they were --versions of universal imagery.

Campbell epitomized the three approaches to rational humanism : The realization that an adult human being is autonomous and capable of self-government. The proper aim of education is not the imposition of rules or dogma from without but the opening of each person to knowledge from within his own genius, whether as an independent mind (Prometheus), the expression of an inborn nature (Confucius), or as enlightenment (the Buddha.) With the ascent of China in the 20th century, Confucius has returned as an important architect of civil society. Confucius lived in China from 551 to 479 BC. He was a philosopher and a sociologist, a practical man who advocated a civil society based on the understanding and discipline of citizens who sought social harmony. Ideas associated with Confucius were written by disciplines and then scholars over many centuries, representing a Chinese view of proper human conduct (virtue). Mencius in the 4th century BC, for example suggested that innate goodness is a source of the ethical intuitions that lead humans to Yì (right conduct). Others insisted that morality required adherence to tradition, education and discipline.

Campbell regretted the “the emphasis on local forms over and against all others…the cardinal dogma of Judaism, Christianity and Islam… Such calcification of the local masking means that archetypes  become locked and elementary ideas become ethnic. All the passion that might become illumination is short-circuited into inflating programs for the world. There is no sense of humor with regard to one’s own myths. Mistaken for natural and historic facts, they are especially vulnerable to science and when the light of day has dissolved them like a dream, there is no supporting ground to one’s life. This is a pity because the time has come when everyone of the world’s ethnic systems is dissolving. There are no more locally fixed horizons within which ethnocentric bigotry can be maintained.”

Campbell may have been overly optimistic about the disappearance of the divisive aspects of old myths and ethnic dogma. Old myths do look obsolete, but old myths continue to function as story-boundaries that support the tendency to form exclusive groups with special privileges. New religious groups often co-opt old stories with little or no understanding of the origins and significance of the original stories. In the 20th century USA, for example, the Bible  was co-opted by hundreds of small groups that use old biblical stories to support divergent points of view – some fanatical and most at odds with the large religious institutions that once regarded themselves as owners of the Bible. At the same time, old myths from many cultures have been revised and promoted by groups with motives that range from personal interest and inspiration, to inventing new religions to commercial exploitation of the gullible.

The commerce in old religious myths is something like the weight loss industry; the same old stuff is packaged and repackaged, apparently with no end in sight. Myths are packaged with renewed enthusiasm for superstitions and rituals that should be recognized as obsolete, but instead, have renewed currency in the marketplace. Lester suggested: “The assumption is that advances in the rational understanding of the world will inevitably diminish the influence of that vexing sphere of irrationality in human culture: religion. Inconveniently, however, the world is today as awash in religious novelty, flux, and dynamism as it has ever been—and religious change is, if anything, likely to intensify in the coming decades. The spectacular emergence of militant Islamist movements during the twentieth century is surely only a first indication of how quickly, and with what profound implications, change can occur. It's tempting to conceive of the religious world—particularly when there is so much talk of clashing civilizations—as being made up primarily of a few well-delineated and static religious blocs: Christians, Jews, Muslims and so on. But that's dangerously simplistic. It assumes stability in the religious landscape that is completely at odds with reality.”

From Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

May 7, 2015

Problems Created by Religion

Any discussion of religion invites misunderstanding and conflict. No discussion of religion will make sense until the importance of group identity is understood. Humans may sometimes look like individuals, but the truth is that all humans are members of local groups that determine what they know, how they communicate and how they treat other humans. Each local group develops stories, beliefs and rules. Collections of local groups with special beliefs into larger organizations are often described as “religion.” Members of local groups are described as “religious” if they recite group slogans, attend meetings and celebrations.

"Religions" often claim special privileges for their members so that the term “religious” is used to claim advantages and superior moral authority where none actually exists. The idea of large multinational organizations called “religions” is misleading. At best, the idea of religion is a fuzzy category that implies more coherence than can be found in the real world. Religion is a convenient fiction.

There are several problems with strict religious orthodoxy. The first problem is that humans must learn to live in a complex world that includes people of diverse beliefs and different affiliations. The challenge is to become adapted to a larger society while maintaining loyalty to a local group. Often religious groups claim special privileges and moral superiority. While these claims are spurious, the idea that religious beliefs can be equated with superior morals is stubbornly held and must be refuted. Inside a religious container, you are consumed by the specific language and beliefs of the religion, its symbols, assumptions and claims.

There is a voluminous literature that describes, explains and advocates affiliation with one or other of the religions. In the worst case, if you live inside a theological construct you are committed to fixed beliefs that persist beyond any reasonable currency, resist revision and review. To others who live outside your container, your beliefs are false. Membership in a religious organization limits freedom and expression of thought and often disables friendly, intelligent interaction with other groups. Strict religious orthodoxies in many countries retain political control and leave little or no room for personal freedom, nor democracy. Orthodoxy also creates belligerence. The penalty for opposing strict religious authority is death.

For idealists who assumed that progress toward free, rational and secular societies would be a natural evolution, the re-emergence of belligerent Christianity in the US and belligerent Islam in many parts of the world has been alarming.

Lilla stated: “For more than two centuries, from the American and French Revolutions to the collapse of Soviet Communism, world politics revolved around eminently political problems. War and revolution, class and social justice, race and national identity — these were the questions that divided us. Today, we have progressed to the point where our problems again resemble those of the 16th century, as we find ourselves entangled in conflicts over competing revelations, dogmatic purity and divine duty. We are disturbed and confused. Though we have our own fundamentalists (in the USA), we find it incomprehensible that theological ideas still stir up messianic passions, leaving societies in ruin. We had assumed this was no longer possible, that human beings had learned to separate religious questions from political ones, that fanaticism was dead. We were wrong…Even the most stable and successful democracies, with the most high-minded and civilized believers, have proved vulnerable to political messianism and its theological justification. "

You may enjoy social benefits when the family belongs to a religious organization affiliation with other members, regular meetings, picnics, rituals and assistance coping with three key events of a human life- birth, marriage and death. Religious affiliation in many countries is essential to obtain social status and economic privileges. However, the social and political benefits of belonging to a religious organization override any inclination to self-determination and freedom.

From Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

(Lilla, M. The Politics of God. NYT August 19, 2007 (adapted from his book) The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West.)

April 30, 2015


The social sciences aspire to understand social phenomena with theories, case studies and statistical descriptions of populations, or they may explain individual experiences using general principles derived from other fields such as psychology, anthropology and economics. In this book, Human Nature, I aspire to review general principles and suggest 21st century revisions based on an understanding of human nature.

The term “society” tends to be a fuzzy word that refers to the inner workings of groups of different sizes. As an abstract term, society refers to ideas and beliefs about how groups work. Society is often treated as an agency that does things to people and causes humans to act one way or another. But there is no actual entity, society; just humans interacting with other humans.

The adjective “social “ refers to interpersonal dynamics and also to devices invented to regulate human behavior such as fences, gates, roads, stores, schools, churches and prisons. In this chapter, we view society as a product of human-primate behavior. Social devices grow in size and complexity as communities expand, but human nature does not change.

We recognize that humans are social animals and generally depend on each other to provide context and meaning. However, because of the construction of the human mind at birth, each human has difficulty reconciling self-identity and group membership. There are discrepancies between self-interest and group interest; between bonding, belonging and being a free independent soul. While there is a strong tendency to conformity in every group, selfish interests often motivate deviance. Token conformity or simulated conformity provides a good disguise for deviant individuals who seek to exploit others.

The word ”community” describes a group of people who live together. As groups enlarge, factual kinship is replaced by a sense of identity or similarity and cooperation to achieve some stability and security of the home. Communication is one of the tools of community. Communion is a ritual of the community.

Sociology is typical of academic disciplines with different schools based on the writings of single individuals or small groups. The names for different point of view become academic commodities and membership in the right group will determine academic success or failure. Sociology has tended to be a cognitive box with a specialized literature. Insights that occurred to non-sociologists long before appeared in the discipline as new and sometimes controversial innovations. Poore suggested that different schools of sociology such as the Functionalists, Marxists and Symbolic Interactionists were divergent except that they all assumed that the social world is orderly, that patterns of behavior and interaction in society are regular and systematic rather than haphazard and chaotic. Poole described American sociologist, Harold Garfinkel, as an innovator who introduced and old-new perspective to sociology in his book "Studies in Ethnomethodology." Poole stated: “Functionalists regard society as the outcome of value consensus in society, which ensures that behavior conforms to generally accepted norms. Marxists see it as a result of the subordination of one class to another, it is precarious and prone to disruption by revolution but nevertheless it exists. Interactionists differ from these macro-perspectives by viewing social systems as something that is created in a multiplicity of interactions. It is order which results from the processes of definition, interpretation and negotiation. In contrast, Ethnomethodologists recognize that social order is illusory… in reality it is chaotic. For them social order is constructed in the minds of social actors.” Garfinkel suggested that individuals make sense of their social world by recognizing patterns that are used as frameworks for interpreting new experiences.

For example, Garfinkel asked a number of students to take part in an experiment, telling them that it involved a new form of psychotherapy. The students were invited to talk about their personal problems with an ‘advisor’ who was separated from them by a screen. They could not see the advisor and could only communicate with him via an intercom. They were to ask him a series of questions about their problems to which he would respond by answering either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. What the students didn’t know was that these responses were not authentic answers to the questions posed but a predetermined sequence of yes and no answers drawn from a table of random numbers. Although there was no consistency in the answers given to the questions, the students made sense of them by attempting to recognize an underlying pattern in the advice they were being given. Most found the advice reasonable and helpful. This was so even when, some of the advice was contradictory. Thus in one case a student asked: "so you think I should drop out of school then?" and received a ‘yes’ response. Surprised by this he asked, "You really think I should drop out of school?" only to be given a ‘no’ answer. Rather than dismissing the advice as nonsense, the student struggled to find its meaning, looking back for a pattern in the advisors' responses, referring back to previous answers, trying to make sense of the contradiction terms of the advisors’ knowledge of this problem. Never did it occur to the student to doubt the sincerity of the advisor. What the students were doing throughout these counseling sessions, Garfinkel argues, was constructing a social reality to make sense of an often-senseless interaction. They were able to bring order to what was in fact a chaotic situation.

Garfinkel recognized that people make sense of a remark or action by reference to the context in which it occurs; that is they index it to particular circumstances. The counseling experiment had sufficient prestige that led the students to accept the situation as authentic. The problems with pattern recognition involve bias, cognitive boxes and perseveration. Garfinkel recognized that pattern recognition can become so fixed that it is incapable of accommodating new experiences.

Erving Goffman is another innovator who extended sociology toward an empathetic view of the chaotic. Collins and Makowsky in their brief history of sociology described Goffman’s method: “to look at places where smooth-functioning public order breaks down in order to see what normally holds it together. The method has produced insights that have begun to restructure sociological theory; we have come to see how social reality is constructed out of tacit understandings among people meeting face to face… A person is not an isolated thing, but an image carved out of the whole life space of his or her interactions with others.”

Goffman compared normal interactions with presentations seen on the stage in theatres. His view is entirely consistent with the view of anthropologist who recognized the dramatic performances common in preindustrial human societies and by ethnologists who recognized the dramatic aspects of animal behaviors, especially territorial and courtship displays. Humans have not invented anything new. In his classic text, Asylum, Goffman, described his experience working in a mental hospital and criticized total institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and military boot camps. Collins and Makowsky suggested that:” the hospital is a place to keep patients away from normal society – the patient spends every hour of every day within the same walls, subject to the same monolithic controls and facing the abiding scrutiny of a regular staff that keeps permanent records. The social sources that reflect his or her self are degrading; they offer the patient no escape into privacy or to alternative audiences.”

There have been many observers and critics of prisons that come in different sizes, shapes and flavors, but all share the common feature of entrapment and control of inmates. Some prisons such as mental hospitals pretend to be serving the needs of mentally ill patients. Even general hospitals retain some of the features of prisons, leaving significant doubts that the best interests of patients and their families are being served. In an ideal world there would be no prisons in any disguise.

From Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

April 29, 2015

Nature and Wilderness

When I was a child, my family moved a new suburb on the edge of Toronto, a typical North American city, beginning its post-war growth spurt. My back yard was a forest that led down into a river valley - still natural and full of wonder. For a few years, I enjoyed this natural environment and made friends with trees, flowers, birds, raccoons and fish in the river. I discovered peace and joy in the natural environment.

The city grew, as I grew, and I watched the cherished natural environments of my childhood disappear -swallowed up and replaced by houses, roads, and shopping malls. I adapted to an increasingly urban existence and enjoyed parts of it, but for many years I dreamed of returning to a place of nature. Eventually, I found my way back to a more natural environment on the West Coast of Canada and restored there a sense of well being and kinship with the ocean, forest and mountains. I regretted the destruction of the natural world of my childhood and to this day have a deep, relentless sense of foreboding- little good can come out what we have done to our precious Mother Earth.

I see the health of individuals and populations all inextricably meshed with world ecology and I see our species in trouble. We are creatures with a tragically split personality. Part of us is destructive, selfish and confused. The other part of us is tender, affectionate and feels reverence and awe whenever we make ourselves available to perceive the natural world as the divine temple. Nature stands apart from whatever humans have made and Mother Nature is a term of reverence for the principles and energies that infuse the living world with structure and meaning. Most humans retain a sense of kinship with natural environments. Even urban dwellers will seek out little moments of nature and will feel deep satisfaction when they can sit for a moment in park, watch birds or find their way to a beach to hear and feel the reassuring action of waves. A sense of natural beauty is rooted in old primate preferences for food-rich, flowering plants and trees, for savannahs with abundant game and vistas that are simple and easy to understand.

One essence of being human is that you are an adaptable and nomadic creature. Your innate preferences are layered like layers in sedimentary rock that allows geologists to read the history of a place over millions of years. Your deepest feelings come from the oldest parts of your brain that still recognize features of an environment that appealed to early mammals and perhaps to more ancient creatures such as reptiles and dinosaurs. Hominids evolved in Africa and followed a lineage from tree-living primates who ate plants and insects to ground-dwelling creatures that wandered further and further as time went on, perfecting the attributes and skills of nomadic hunters and gatherers Humans in the past 200,000 years have wandered all over the planet and settled in every place that could sustain their life.

Our deepest recognitions come from contact with rocks, wood, fire, metal, bone and water. The history of the unique features of our mind is rooted in a very slow, gradual transformation from creatures who lived in nature to creatures who transformed the nature of rocks, bone and wood into tools, weapons, clothing and shelters. The finest of homes to this day display rock, wood and fire. Civilized humans still cook meat over fires in back yards and fires improvised on beaches, feeling more peaceful and authentic on a camping trip when they are closer to their inner and wilder nature.

The term “Umwelt” was introduced in 1930 by biologist, von Uexküll to describe the different "real worlds" that animals perceive with different sensory systems. He built mechanical devices to simulate their perceptual Weltanschauungen or worldview. The compound eye of insects saw the world in multiple images, for example. Snyder suggested that: “Wilderness is a place where the wild potential is fully expressed, a diversity of living and no-living beings flourishing according to their own sorts of order. When an ecosystem is fully functional, all members are present at the assembly. To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. Human beings came from that wholeness. Deep Ecology thinkers insist that the natural world has a value in its own right, that the health of natural systems should be our first concern, and that this best serves the interests of all humans as well...Environmental concerns and politics have spread worldwide. In some countries, the focus is almost entirely on human health and welfare issues. It is proper that the range of the movement should run from wildlife to urban health. But there can be no health for humans and cities that bypasses the rest of nature... A sophisticated postindustrial citizen will be asking: is there any way we can go with rather against nature?"

Umwelt can refer to the both the perception of the natural world and the deep sense of belonging that most humans feel in some natural places. You could argue that we like wide-open spaces because we can see what is going on and feel safer. You can see predators and enemies at a distance and take action before they are close enough to attack you. It is better to be high rather than low. Climb any tree, hill or mountain and you feel a sense of calm, power and liberation. Trees have a special significance since our distant primate ancestors all lived in, or at least, slept in trees. Children spontaneously climb trees and want to build tree houses. Adult humans seldom climb trees because they become too heavy and lack the upper body strength to climb easily. Our bodies have adapted to the ground. Our legs are heavier and stronger than our arms.

From Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

March 11, 2015

Information and Misinformation

I want to identify basic principles that govern the interaction of the media with vested interests with the viewer. We know that the media audience, the "public", is made up of different groups with vested interests that conflict. We are not indignant when we discover that one storyteller has distorted the truth. We know that everyone makes up stories that support their own point of view, that everyone lies, that everyone plans to persuade and deceive others and that there is no absolute truth. We know that a general audience contains individuals with different mental abilities and that most humans have distinct limitations on what they can and will understand.

We know that the root human struggle between self-interest and the interests of groups is ubiquitous, pervasive and is not going away. We know that each new human is born with an old brain and has to be brought up to date rather quickly and efficiently and must learn to override innate programs to develop skills of peaceful co-existence. We know that a small number of humans will be alpha animals and lead a much larger number of humans who are followers and will not have the inclination nor the ability to "think for themselves." We are not surprised. We are not indignant. We are concerned.

The best-motivated, fairest reporter or government spokesperson will face obstacles when presenting information and reasoning to a general audience. The best-motivated, brightest viewer will be overwhelmed by the mountain of daily information - mostly bad news - that he or she is asked to evaluate.

I see the human media world as competitive, noisy and confusing. Wrong ideas proliferate like weeds. This journalistic and promotional activity provides “pseudo-knowledge,” also known as "nonsense." I advise everyone to treat media hype as the major obstacle to understanding what is true and really real.

Obviously, we all like the idea of easy understanding and we like quick fixes to complicated problems. We are constantly tempted by promises that a quick fix is available; hawkers want to sell you something quick, cheap and easy to use -- you do not have to be responsible for yourself. All claims of quick fixes are false claims. This is a law of the universe. There is a vanishing middle ground that lies between orthodox authority and the wild chaos of commercial claims, hyperbole and the incessant chatter of popular media and the internet .There remains a need to locate the middle ground of reasonable policy, good science, respect for others and common sense.
">From Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

February 19, 2015

Religious Wars

I am grieving the loss of hope for any redemption of human nature. My main understating is that there is no news, the same ancient patterns of human conduct, mainly conflict, fighting and killing, recur relentlessly. It appear that even leaders of affluent countries with a semi-intelligent infrastructure to guide them can only respond to violence with more violence. Humans die in great numbers from bullets and bombs. Their homes, towns and cities are destroyed. The word "terrorist" has become meaningless, or it describes everyone who kills and destroys regardless of their motivation or justification. I wanted to share my attempt to epitomize the relationship of religion, beliefs and wars in my book Religion for the 21st Century.

Religious Wars

There is no place and time in human history that was free of wars. Human males enjoy fighting and when they do, they destroy property and kill other humans, often in a cruel, extravagant manner. Large fights with much property destruction and deaths of large numbers of combatants and civilians are described as wars. As populations increased, the magnitude of wars increased. Somehow, even in relatively civilized countries, war was and is still viewed as a normal expression of nations and war-making governments as valid expressions of the people. In an ideal future, war would not be considered a legitimate expression of governments. Instead humans who proposed war would be recognized as mentally ill and would be confined to special institutions for the politically insane.

History records wars that appeared to have a religious purpose or justification, although many group dynamics are usually at work, including the sheer delight one group enjoys when waging war against other groups. The delight is enhanced by winning a war and growing richer. The delight is diminished by losing a war and growing poorer. The convergence of three conflicting religions at the Sinai Peninsula, a tiny piece of land, continues to this day. This modern version of an ancient conflict promises to generate increasing human paranoia and militarism that will obstruct efforts to replace war with negotiation and compromise.  The adjacent regions, mostly Islamic  Arab countries are mired in perpetual conflicts, property destruction, death and fleeing refugees seeking to survive local insanity.

The Christian Crusades were a series of military campaigns the occurred in the 11th through 13th centuries. The goal was to send warriors from European countries to take Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslims. Noble knights leaving England might have shouted pro-Christian, anti-Muslim slogans, but, once on the road, they were easily distracted by other opportunities to pillage, plunder and rape. A 1250 French Bible illustration depicts Jews being massacred by Christian Crusaders. The Crusaders' atrocities against Jews in German and Hungarian towns, later in France, England left strong hostility on both sides. The security of the Jews in Western Europe was threatened; legal restrictions on Jews increased following the Crusades. Jews fought as allies of Muslim soldiers to defend Jerusalem against the Christians.   Once allies against Christians, Jews and Muslims are now enemies and some Christians, especially in the US, support the Jewish settlement of Israel with money, weapons and belligerent slogans directed against Islamic states.

The Crusades also involved battles among Christian groups in different countries. In 16th century France, wars between Roman Catholics and Protestants were popular. In the 17th century, German states, Scandinavia, and Poland hosted battles between Roman Catholicism and Calvinism. In Northern Ireland, bloody battles between Roman Catholic and Protestant groups continued through the 20th century.

Puritan families left England in opposition to some of the expressions of the Anglican Church. They established New England on the Atlantic coast of what would become the USA. The first great migration to the new world occurred between 1630 and 1640. The influence of protestant groups in Canada and the US continues to this day, although intergroup wars have been replaced by political battles and litigation.

I have mentioned the rise of the Muslim empires, first by the Arabs and later by the Turks. While the battles that continued for centuries can be viewed as Muslims against Christians, the quest for territorial domination and wealth superseded other motivations. In the early 20th century, the Turks brutally suppressed political opposition in Armenia in what is now known as the “Armenian genocide.” Talat Pasha, the Turkish interior minister at that time ordered the arrest of Armenian leaders in 1915 and initiated large scale deportations and massacres of the Armenians. The stated reasoning was political; Armenians were accused of collaborating with invading Russian forces. You could argue that, all political excuses aside, the policies of the Ottomans were Islamic and that the first priority of an Islamic state is to defend Muslim territory. The second priority is to extend Muslim territory. The laws of the state were Islamic laws. Islamic states often tolerated members of other religious groups who paid taxes and enjoyed inferior status; however opposition to the Islamic state was not tolerated.

If you advance to 21st century USA, you find growing numbers of militant Christian and Jewish fundamentalists ready to fight with Islamic fundamentalists. You time travel back to the 7th century. The documentary film, Obsession, was a brief course on radical Islam that increased concern among US viewers in 2007. The film featured clips from Arabic TV, interviews with former terrorists, videos of suicide bomber initiations, secret jihad meetings, indoctrination of young children, and private celebrations of 9/11. To US viewers, the most shocking revelations were the hatred of the US taught to children and the support for a global jihad (battle of God) with the goal of Islamic world domination.   On the other side, both radical and reasonable Muslims view footage from US television, news and movies. They see US extremists and their expressions of belligerence toward Islam. They recognize the belligerence of a US federal government with a policy of attacking any country that poses a threat to the US. The Muslims consider the US to be a country of greed, corruption and duplicity. The political equation is balanced with hatred growing on both sides.

In the middle east a confusion of conflicted groups has arisen with Arabs, Jews and Christians fighting with each. There are schisms in every group that lead to internal conflicts. The Islamic world is split with fighting between the Sunni majority and the minority Shia .  Israel with its population of immigrant Jews from many parts of the world has become a militant oppressor of the Palestinians, the former occupants of the land now claimed by Israel.

There will be no easy solution when angry, fanatical humans with religious disguises practice hate and threaten others. Fanatics will attack communities of nicer, more rational humans. The tendency is for nice, rational humans to become fanatical in response. The law of Karma is that conflict escalates and everyone loses. The law of revenge, Lex talionis, produces an endless cycle of property destruction and killing. You can argue that human nature can change and permit sustainable, free societies. Or you can argue that a number of social constructs can identify and constrain the bad guys, leaving the good guys time and space to enjoy peaceful lives. Or you can argue that human nature will not change and belligerent groups cannot be constrained by any combination of social constructs. A study of the chaotic, paranoid response in the US to the September 11 2001 attack on the twin towers in New York, USA does not support an optimistic view of social constructs. The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq produced devastation, death and global hatred directed at Americans. The US remains a paranoid nation searching the world for "terrorists" also known as Islamic militants.

History records an interminable series of wars of revenge. Wars are contagious. Social order and peaceful intentions fade as belligerence increases. The wealth of every great civilization has been squandered on war. The results are predictable – death, destruction, and sooner or later, the collapse of warring states. There are no winners. The main lesson from the US in the 21st century is that belligerence can prevail in “free” societies and assumes many forms. Countries with big investments in military equipment and armed personnel are primed to fight the enemy and will seek opportunities to go to war. 
Quote from Religion for the 21st Century by Stephen Gislason