Tag Archives: genetics

The Wanderlust Gene: Why Some People Are Born to Travel

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If you look at history and the human tendency to travel to far-flung areas of the planet, you may begin to suspect there’s something in the human genome that causes this compulsive wandering behavior. You may become even more convinced of this genetic tendency if you have ever traveled to what you thought was a distant corner of the earth and met up with someone from your very own town or neighborhood. It appears that some humans are driven to explore and seek out new environments, a human habit which has caused some scientists to consider whether there is a “travel gene” that contributes to the behavior. Continue reading

Want to Lead a Happier Life? Talk to Your Genes

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By Deepak Chopra, MD, Rudolph E. Tanzi, PhD

Genetics may be on the verge of solving a very complex question in a revolutionary but quite simple way. The question is, What does it take to be happy? The question never goes away. It hangs over our heads every day. The possible answers are many, but they follow two general trends whose results, frankly, have been disappointing. One trend is psychological, holding that happiness is an emotional state. The other trend is philosophical, holding that happiness is a mental state. When someone is unhappy, psychologists aim to improve their mood, largely by addressing anxiety, depression, and various psychological wounds from the past. A philosopher, on the other hand, would examine the underlying idea of happiness itself and why it is or isn’t feasible. In the end, happiness is all about health and wellbeing.

Yet after thousands of years of deep thinking and a hundred years of psychotherapy, the condition that the vast majority of people find themselves in is marked by total confusion. We muddle through on a wobbly combination of wishful thinking, hope, bouts of high and low spirits, denial, family ties, love, distraction, and the constant pursuit of external pleasures, as if happiness can be cobbled together more or less randomly.

For all of our muddling, the key to happiness could be as simple as biology. To a biologist, the wellbeing of an organism consists of healthy cells functioning without falling into dysfunction. Dysfunction is a dry-sounding term, but once the life of the cell starts to go awry, it’s only a matter of time before the whole body is affected, resulting in pain, discomfort, illness, and a general decline from wellbeing. The brain operates through cells like any other organ, and neuroscience now has abundant evidence that psychological states like anxiety and depression have physical correlates in brain cells.  Continue reading

Deepak Chopra: Thinking Outside the (Skull) Box (Part 10)

Skeleton InvertedClick here to read Part 9!

By Deepak Chopra, M.D., Menas C. Kafatos, Ph.D., P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Neil Theise, MD

So your genome – the sum total of your genetic inheritance – is not sufficient to code for the entire structure of your digestive tract. You are alive because of your connection to the outside world; indeed, there is no boundary between you and the outside world’s abundance of life.

This realization changes the picture of genes, too. They code for your cells, tissues, and organs; moreover, genes code for the interactions between your cells and the neighboring bacteria, with biomolecules being passed back and forth. The biochemistry of digestion is a shared project between your body and bacteria, a basic fact acknowledged for decades, but by implication, without bacteria there can be no you.

This observation can be extended in every direction. Without trees breathing in carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen, you couldn’t breathe – the forests are part of your lungs. Without viruses constantly mutating, you would have many fewer antibodies – every virus is part of your immune system. The rivers that circulate fresh water are part of your bloodstream. These connections aren’t incidental. Your body is the world, and by extension, so is your brain, since you share with the world every molecule, chemical reaction, and electrical impulse that constitutes the brain.

It makes people woozy to accept that there is no boundary between “me” and the whole world. What about the skin? It is portrayed in high school biology class as an impermeable barrier protecting you from invaders assaulting the body from “out there.” But the metaphor of the skin as living armor isn’t viable. Pause and move your hand, observing how the wrist and finger joints move under the skin. Why doesn’t the skin break down with all this motion, the push and pull of your fingers closing and extending, your arm bending and stretching? Because the bacteria lining the creases in your skin digest the cell membranes of dying skin cells and produce lanolin, which lubricates the skin. How long would “you” and your genome last if your skin were cracking, open to infection just from typing on a laptop or waving goodbye to someone?

What is your body now? It’s no longer just a human body. It’s a community of single cell organisms that function harmoniously together (in times of good health) organizing themselves into tissues and organs. Such astonishingly complex cooperation implies a host of surprising things:

  • Your genes are siblings of bacterial genes.
  • The evolution of bacteria is actually human evolution at the same time.
  • One intelligence binds micro-organisms and “higher” life forms.
  • There is no sharp dividing line between “smart” creatures and the “dumb” micro-organisms that evolved alongside them.

A skeptic may protest that we’ve used physical evidence to support a theory of mind. But science does the same thing all the time. By equating mind and brain, neuroscience has backed itself into a corner, forced to explain thoughts by looking at the interaction of molecules. In the final post of this series, we’ll get out of that corner by putting mind first and brain second. That way, we solve the problem of how molecules of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon – the majority of “stuff” in the brain – learned to think. The obvious answer is that they didn’t. We think because we are expressions of the mind, not robots being operated by the brain.

(To be continued…)

* * *

Deepak Chopra, MD is the author of more than 75 books translated into over 35 languages with over twenty New York Times bestsellers. Chopra serves as Founder of The Chopra Foundation.

Menas Kafatos, Ph.D., Fletcher Jones Endowed Professor in Computational Physics, Director of the Center of Excellence at Chapman University, co-author with Deepak Chopra of the forthcoming book, Who Made God and Other Cosmic Riddles. (Harmony)

P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, Professor of Psychiatry, Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina and a leading physician scientist in the area of mental health, cognitive neuroscience and mind-body medicine.

Rudolph E. Tanzi, Ph.D., Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, and Director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), co-author with Deepak Chopra of Super Brain: Unleashing the Explosive Power of Your Mind to Maximize Health, Happiness, and Spiritual Well-being. (Harmony)

Neil Theise, MD, Professor, Pathology and Medicine, (Division of Digestive Diseases) and Director of the Liver and Stem Cell Research Laboratory, Beth Israel Medical Center – Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York. www.neiltheise.com

3 Ways to Overcome Anger’s Pervasive Nature

If you have a short fuse, there might be some scientific basis for it. Scientists have discovered a genetic variation in some people that makes them more prone to risk taking, aggression and violence. Dubbed “the warrior gene,” it makes some people more likely to be aggressive, angry and prone to violence.

This isn’t to say that people with this gene are going to turn green and grow 10 sizes bigger, but it’s proven to make them a little angrier than the rest of us.

Being angry because someone just cut you off on the freeway doesn’t suggest that you’re part of the one-third—it just means you’re human. Just because you get angry sometimes doesn’t mean you have “the mean gene.”shouting

That doesn’t mean, however, that we can leave this anger unchecked.

By submitting to these types of behaviors or feelings, we are disrupting the precarious balance within our relationships, and we’re also adversely impacting our bodies. Negative emotions, especially anger, disrupt our natural flow of energy, causing a physiological change that kicks us into “fight or flight.” These constant changes affect our heart, immune system, digestion and hormone production.

These stresses even damage our adrenal gland and immune system. For women, prolonged stress on the adrenal gland can even affect the reproductive organs (uterus, ovaries), potentially resulting in sterility. That’s why it is so important that we practice overall wellness.

Let’s talk about three ways we can interrupt negative behavioral patterns by staying positive.

  • Visualize what you want to gain from a situation and change your thoughts to match positive behaviors.
  • Alter the way you’re presenting yourself. If you’re angry, you’re not likely expressing yourself in a positive, well-formed way. Take a moment to reflect and “hear” what you are saying
  • Change your physical position. If you find yourself standing aggressively (too close, leaning forward, balled fists), your target audience has probably shut you out entirely. Take a seat and give them a sense of control — while you get time to gain composure.

So, while the “warrior gene” may sound cool, it’s one gene that we must rise against in order to protect the harmonious function of our bodies and minds, as well as keep healthy relationships with others.

No matter what our genes may tell us, they can’t choose how we act or who we want to become. If you’re a naturally angry person, like me, I challenge you to stop making excuses for negative behavior and start making the right choices for a positive life.

How do you make positive choices?

 

Photo courtesy of Krista Baltroka.

Genetic Testing: Should You Be Tested?

When I was 27 years old, five words changed my life: “Positive for a deleterious mutation.”

I hadn’t thought much about taking the “simple blood test” to find out if I carried mutations for the so-called breast cancer genes – BRCA1 and BRCA2. I was young, just back from a solo sojourn to India and Nepal, and more focused on how to pay my rent in New York City than my future health.

It wasn’t until the results of that test came back positive and I was staring in the face of my mother, a 20-year ovarian cancer survivor, that I knew my fears had crossed over from suspicion to reality.

The suspicion itself was hazy. We never said the “C word” in my family after my mother went into remission, and my favorite grandma used her soft arm as a chest block during cuddling sessions. It wasn’t until years later, while sitting in a sterile genetic counselor’s office, that I understood why: As I read the words “breast cancer” scribbled next to my grandma’s name, I gasped. She was hiding the hole where her breast used to be. And everyone in my family was hiding the history of cancer that now lay right in front of me. I felt like I was at the bottom of a funnel.

There was no malice to their omission. They were conditioned not to mention the word “cancer” in my mother’s house; yet she’s named after her grandmother and aunt, who both died from it.

What did it mean to know this, to find out I had the mutation? In medical terms, it meant that I have an estimated lifetime risk of up to 85% of getting breast cancer, and an estimated lifetime risk of up to 60% of developing ovarian cancer. In practical terms it meant that I would have to start watching myself carefully—breast MRIs and transvaginal ultrasounds every 6 months—and even consider removing my still-healthy breasts and reproductive organs altogether to avoid disease. That was a lot to swallow at 27!

So why would anyone want to find out such grim statistics? Admittedly, I asked the question after the fact. But the journalist/documentary filmmaker in me needed to go through the questioning process, albeit in reverse. It led to five years of researching and shooting and editing a documentary. (It’s a mega question!) That film turned out to be “In the Family,” which was broadcast on PBS on the “P.O.V.” series nationwide on October 1st.

In my film, Linda Pedraza, a brave BRCA-positive woman staring in the face of terminal cancer, says, “If I could have turned the clock back, I would have all of those surgeries. It may not be the ideal life, but it’s life and you don’t mess with it.” After five years of questioning, I’m left with Linda’s words and the painstaking realization that I’m glad I know I have this messed-up gene. Because knowing may be the key to evading suffering and to long-term survival. If I never took the test, I would still be walking around with a gnawing suspicion and no security blanket whatsoever.

To all of you out there who are considering genetic testing for BRCA, here are a few words of advice:

REMEMBER THAT GENETIC TESTING IS YOUR CHOICE. First of all, the decision whether or not to get genetic testing for BRCA is entirely individual. There is no right or wrong, only what is right for you.

TALK TO YOUR FAMILY. The best way to get accurate information about your family health history is from family members. Ask your relatives if there are any first- or second-degree relatives who had breast and ovarian cancer. It is important, if possible, to record the age of onset, the nature of the disease, and whether or not it was the cause of death.  Please note that men can carry BRCA mutations, develop other cancers as a result (e.g., prostate cancer), and pass them along to their children. Therefore, it is essential to also record health information in female relatives on the paternal side of the family, as well as the health history of men. Once you have recorded this information, you will have a more accurate picture of whether or not your family fits the BRCA profile. If you need assistance creating your family tree, the Centers for Disease Control has a great resource at https://familyhistory.hhs.gov/. Once your family history is recorded, talk to a certified genetic counselor for interpretation (more on that below).

SEE A GENETIC COUNSELOR. A genetic counselor can help interpret your family health history and let you know if BRCA testing is right for you. To find a genetic counselor, in your area, visit the National Society of Genetic Counselors (http://www.nsgc.org/resourcelink.cfm).

ARM YOURSELF WITH INFORMATION. You should do as much research as possible on the options available for BRCA-positive women ahead of time, in case you do test positive for the mutation(s).

ASK YOURSELF IF THIS IS THE RIGHT TIME. You already have all of your genes and the blood test will not change whether or not you have the BRCA mutation.  Therefore, you should decide if the time is right for you to find out. A few questions that may help in decision-making are: Will I do anything different if I get a positive test result at my age?; do I feel that this information would add too much pressure to my life?; do I have a support structure in place to help me deal with my results, positive or negative; is my family supportive of my decision to find out my status?

TALK TO YOUR FAMILY AGAIN. Testing for BRCA not only affects the individual taking the test, but the entire family. If you are the first to test without a known mutation in the family (this means that a positive test result for BRCA has already been identified in a blood relative), you could be the first to identify that other family members might be at risk. To prepare for this possibility, talk with your immediate family ahead of time as to what responsibility you have in notifying other family members should you discover a positive BRCA mutation. You may also want to check with your extended relatives ahead to inquire as to whether or not they want the results. These conversations will ensure that the process is as open and transparent as possible. 

 

Visit Breast Cancer: Healing the Whole Woman to read all of our breast cancer content.

 

Joanna Rudnick is the director and producer of IntheFamily,” a film about predicting breast and ovarian cancer, and the director of development at Kartemquin Films.  

Deepak Chopra: The Higher Health — A New Map for Prevention

Wellness seems to have reached a plateau in America and other wealthy industrialized countries. The information about how to prevent many kinds of lifestyle disorders, including heart disease and type 2 diabetes, has been widely distributed. Longevity steadily increases. Advanced research on incurable diseases moves forward, if only by small increments.

You might think that the picture of health is clear. All we need is two things to achieve wellness for almost everyone: more compliance and a major leap in genetics.

The first is certainly true. America’s obesity epidemic isn’t improving because the information about how to reverse it didn’t lead to motivation. The same is true for the other standard points of prevention, such as a reduced fat diet, less red meat, more vegetables, lower salt and sugar, and more fiber. The government can jiggle the food pyramid, but that won’t matter as long as Americans haven’t stepped on to the pyramid in the first place. The same goes for exercise, since only a small minority of adults get even the minimum amount to promote good health.

But this post isn’t a scolding about compliance. It’s the second part of wellness – waiting for genetics to deliver amazing cures and new wonder drugs – that is not a promise likely to be kept. If we want to rise above the plateau where we find ourselves, we actually have to reverse the promise of genetics. Instead of waiting for science, each of us must learn to influence our genes in a new way.

Ten years ago, with the map of the human genome in hand, researchers ran eagerly after magic bullets, that is, simple treatments for fixing damaged genes or “bad” genes that were causing everything from cancer and type 1 diabetes to obesity and smoking, not to mention mental disorders like depression and free-floating anxiety, both of which are reaching epidemic proportions.

No one is talking about magic bullets anymore, for the genetic map, combined with imaging techniques like the MRI and CT scans, revealed the opposite of what everyone wanted to find. Instead of simple genetic connections, there are dozens and sometimes hundreds of genes involved in various disorders. Even to find fixed sets of these genes has proved elusive. Each individual seems to possess unique patterns of genetic influence.  Now medicine realizes that breast cancer, for example, isn’t one disease but dozens. Faced with such unforeseen complications, the hope for genetic cures, while still alive, has become ten times more complex.

Yet in a different way the human genome has opened the door for the higher health. We now realize that our genes are far more flexible, changeable, and easily influenced by lifestyle choices. This post is too short for me to detail how such a revolutionary change occurred in genetic thinking, so I will only point to the findings of Dr. Dean Ornish, the country’s most respected advocate for heart prevention, which indicate that improving your diet, exercise, and stress levels leads to improved genetic output from 400 to 500 genes.

This indicates that standard prevention has a real physiological basis, which is good news. Compliance is more than ever the wisest choice. But the new view of genetic flexibility points much further. You are in a constant conversation with every cell in your body, meaning that at the molecular level, every thoughts and action has consequences. It has become clear that genes are eavesdropping on every detail of life, including not just diet and exercise but your moods, beliefs, and every experience that registers in the mind.

In other words, you can be the controller of your body’s trillions of cells, and the control switch lies in consciousness. Higher health depends on taking advantage of this breakthrough idea.  Far beyond the placebo effect and psychosomatic illness, beyond faith healing and spontaneous remissions, the mind has unlimited potential for achieving a higher vision of wellness, as we’ll discuss in the next post

(To be cont.)

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Deepak Chopra: War of the Worldviews — A Statement On Science And Spirituality

by Deepak Chopra and Leonard Mlodinow 

As we travel around the country promoting our new book, War of the Worldviews: Science vs. Spirituality, people are asking about the major points of contention between science (the worldview represented by Leonard Mlodinow) and spirituality (the worldview represented by Deepak Chopra).  Do we always disagree or are there some points of agreement?  We thought it would be appropriate to summarize the major differences and agreements in a short note.

Our book has four major sections: Cosmos, Life, Mind and Brain, and God.

Cosmos:

Leonard describes Einstein’s theory of relativity, and quantum theory, and how they are combined to create a scientific theory of how the universe began, and evolved.  He describes the impressive agreement between the theoretical predictions based on this picture, and actual observations of the heavens made by astronomers.   Deepak proposes a creative first cause that preceded the infinitesimally brief Planck epoch (10-43 seconds) following the Big Bang.  He suggests that since the laws of nature and perhaps space and time emerged after the Planck epoch, any understanding of the pre-crated universe remains outside the scope of objective science.

Life

We describe the cutting-edge ideas of modern genetics. Leonard argues that physical evolution occurs through random mutations and natural selection.  Deepak argues that random mutations are not an adequate explanation for the variety and speed of viable adaptations.

Mind and Brain

Leonard posits that the mind is created by the physical workings of the brain, and that our consciousness can be explained through the same laws of nature that govern the rest of the physical world. Deepak proposes that the brain is the physical instrument of the mind, just as a radio serves to turn invisible radio waves into music.

God

There is an important point of agreement here. Leonard maintains that “While science often casts doubt on spiritual beliefs and doctrines insofar as they make representations about the physical world, science does not – and cannot – conclude that God is an illusion.”  While not defending God in religious terms, Deepak holds that God is a way of understanding some extremely crucial things: the source of existence, the reality beyond spacetime, the underlying consciousness and creativity in the universe.

Overall

Leonard suggests that the universe operates according to laws of physics while acknowledging that science does not address why the laws exist or how they arise.  Deepak maintains that the laws of nature as well as mathematics share the same source as human consciousness.

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How Men Can Be Wise About Women

 As a sign, perhaps, that society does move forward, nobody uses the phrase "the war between the sexes" anymore. Instead, we are flooded with scientific data about why men and women think and behave differently. Much credibility is given to this kind of research. The results are couched in cool, objective language. Yet if you look beneath the surface, I’m afraid that sexual politics is undermining the cause of women. Much of this research is dubious at best, and its premise tends to reinforce two bogus notions:

1. The two sexes are naturally unequal.

2. The reason for inequality is rooted in biology and evolution.

I know this sound abstract, but there is a strong tendency to believe certain "facts" that are little more than scientific fads and superstitions. At a more basic, everyday level, popular culture depends on "guy things" and "girl things" that advertisers manipulate. The following are guy things: beer, binge drinking, a mania for professional sports, great abs, being controlled by your penis, competitiveness, aggression, physical prowess, and selfishness. The following are girl things: dieting, endless worry over body image, a great butt, a mania for cosmetics, the urge to nest, free-floating anxiety, acting on impulse, being childish or hysterical, giving in to emotions, and unpredictability. It doesn’t take a sleuth to see that a wedge is being driven between the two sexes at a time when what we desperately need is a path back to reconciliation between them. Men need to be wise about women, and vice versa.

The scientific support for gender differences should be examined with deep skepticism. For example, geneticists over the past decade have promoted the notion that specific genes promote specific behavior patterns and make men and women susceptible to disease in their own unique ways. These claims are part of the general belief that "your genes made you do it," with "it" being outlandishly open-ended. Your genes made you believe in God, choose who to be sexually attracted to, become depressed, act extroverted introverted. No such claims have borne fruit. Genes are not fixed switches that dictate behavior. Even the hope that a single gene or a fixed group of genes can explain behavior has turned out to be unfounded. So any notion that genes make women behave or feel a certain way must be greeted with extreme skepticism. There was a fad for linking genes with susceptibility to disease. Yet leaving aside those rare disorders like sickle-cell anemia for which there are specific genetic causes, the diseases that are most prevalent — heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s — have not been successfully mapped genetically and certainly not assigned to men and women.

Second, there is a fad for evolutionary psychology, which attempts to explain our behavior as the product of Darwinian forces gong back hundreds of thousands of years. An example I recently read attempted to say why women are more cautious than men about falling in love with "the right one." The evolutionary explanation centers on breeding advantages. Darwinism depends on inequality in mating, the central idea being that males who defeat their rivals, or females who choose stronger mates, pass on their genes and thus play a part in the evolution of a species. Extending this to behavior, evolutionary psychology suggests that prehistoric men could afford to fight it out for immediate access to a desirable mate, while prehistoric women, because they needed the long-term protection and hunting skills of men in order to survive, developed more hesitancy and caution about picking a mate.

The problem with this kind of explanation — and it’s a fatal one — is that modern humans beings are not subject to survival of the fittest. We cure disease, take care of the infirm, and make sure that the weak are tended to. All kinds of genes are passed along in situations where the male doesn’t have to fight, hunt, gather food, or build a shelter. Women choose men for reasons completely outside physical evolution, like their sense of humor or compassion. The truth is that human beings escaped Darwinian forces thousands of years ago, and any attempt to root modern behavior in prehistoric causes is highly suspect, if not absurd. Science depends on experiments that can be replicated, but we can’t run experiments on Paleolithic man; there are no control groups; results don’t even exist except as pet theories that are, in essence, unprovable.

My argument is heading in a positive direction, so allow me for a moment to point to other areas where attempts are being made to reduce men and women to pawns of biology. We live in an era where the brain and its "hard wiring" are used to explain behavior. Impressive brain scans reveal which areas light up whenever we have certain thoughts, emotions, and drives. Thus someone who is in love will exhibit some characteristic patterns of activity in the limbic region, the amygdala, and elsewhere, providing us with a "signature," so to speak, of what love looks like beneath the skull. This is very interesting, and it leads to many fascinating possibilities. But one of the possibilities that needs to be ruled out is the crude notion that "my brain made me do it," which is just as suspect as "my genes made me do it," and for the same reason. The brain is not a fixed dictator of behavior. We can go into philosophical reasons for why the mind is more important than the brain, but that tends to be dismissed as metaphysics; anyway, nobody wants to spoil the brain game, which is the big game in town so far as science is concerned right now.

What I object to is the underlying assumption that we are largely unconscious beings, directed by evolution, genes, or the brain to be who we are. Freud’s unconscious mind has suddenly found a mechanical representation that is given huge credit. On the surface we don’t know why we suddenly love someone else, so science runs in to say that our choice was based on pheromones (in one study, women liked the smell of men’s underarms better if they also had symmetrical faces), imprints of desirable facial structures, and other hidden factors beyond our conscious knowledge. Similarly, men are supposed to favor women with a certain ratio of waist to hip size.

I hope the reader can see that as intriguing as this may sound, it all tends to remove free will, choice, and the growth of individual consciousness. After all, if there is a vast area known as the unconscious where invisible forces inherited from our ancestors are plying us with genetic and brain signals, what’s the use of resisting? Again, this may sound abstract, but no subject is more vital than the relations between men and women. I’ll talk about a different way to view the sexes, a way that promotes love and wisdom, in the next two posts.

(To be continued)

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When Even Amazing Parenting Isn’t Enough: Are Some Kids Doomed To Be Jerks No Matter What?

Currently ranked as the most e-mailed article in New York Times at this moment, "Accepting That Good Parents May Plant Bad Seeds" made for a melancholy read this morning. Citing anecdotal examples of parents who have done everything they could to improve the behavior of insensitive, emotionally distant or socially withdrawn children, the author poses a charged question that most of us are afraid to ask: are some kids genetically hardwired to be insensitive jerks no matter how much the parents do to raise the child otherwise? 

There’s the story of the 40-year-old mother who is constantly anxious, depressed and angry about the insensitive and mean nature of her 17-year-old son who has gone through many therapy and counseling sessions, and is in sharp constrast to her other well-adjusted children. Or the father whose 35-year-old adult son refuses to answer phone calls and e-mails even when the son’s mother was gravelly ill.

I am sure all of us can also think of several personal examples where in spite of the emotionally stable, hard-working and loving parents’ best efforts, a child unfortunately grows up to be a not-so-nice human being. 

As author Dr. Richard A. Friedman goes on to say in his piece: 

We marvel at the resilient child who survives the most toxic parents and home environment and goes on to a life of success. Yet the converse — the notion that some children might be the bad seeds of more or less decent parents — is hard to take.

It goes against the grain not just because it seems like such a grim and pessimistic judgment, but because it violates a prevailing social belief that people have a nearly limitless potential for change and self-improvement. After all, we are the culture of Baby Einstein, the video product that promised — and spectacularly failed — to make geniuses of all our infants.

Not everyone is going to turn out to be brilliant — any more than everyone will turn out nice and loving. And that is not necessarily because of parental failure or an impoverished environment. It is because everyday character traits, like all human behavior, have hard-wired and genetic components that cannot be molded entirely by the best environment, let alone the best psychotherapists.

As a non-parent, I cannot even imagine the sheer mental and physical toil that goes into the lifelong commitment of parenting. The heartbreak of doing everything I possibly can to raise a child only to have him or her turn out to be a toxic person in adulthood–imcomprehensible.

To imply that the best parenting and counseling techniques sometimes aren’t enough to improve the moral character of a growing human being is tantamount to sacrilege for many people. But for some parents, accepting that fact is the only way they could achieve some peace of mind.

Parenting has its many myths, and I hope this article will ease the burden of many well-intending parents who have done everything in their power to improve the lives of their own children and are racked by guilt of what they have not done enough.

On another mundane note–more than ever, I am pretty stoked that I still have some awesome childless years ahead of me to enjoy before I have to start worrying about any of this.

PHOTO (cc): Flickr / virgomerry

 

Human Nature and Violence

Human Nature and Violence
                Many of the books that I read depress me. They tell me that human beings are violent by our very nature, that there is nothing we can do to avoid this tendency to kill our fellow men. When I read these books it causes an imbalance in my psyche. Am I wrong? Are they really right about man’s violent nature? Am I a fool to believe in humanity’s potential for enlightenment and bliss?
                It would be so much easier if they were right. Then I wouldn’t have to stay in this world of suffering  anymore and struggle to teach and persuade and bring love and light into the world from my soul to your soul. All of my personal experiences tell me that you can overcome being wounded. Yes our universal human experience of being vulnerable especially in our love lives, and in our infancy and our later years leads to the inevitability of being hurt and suffering a broken heart but that our ability to tap into divine and inexhaustible sources of creativity and nurturing and love is what constitutes our true nature. A broken heart is only a developmental stage that leads to a bigger heart capable of receiving infinite love. Your heart can transmit all the love it receives to many souls and all at once. If you are not connected to the divine source of love then you can only give what your heart received from those individuals who loved you, and then it does seem that the love you give to one is not available to give to another. This is the great paradox of love. An isolated human heart cannot give what it doesn’t have to give.
                I love when I read an author who thinks in evolutionary terms, and especially in the evolutionary timeline of humanity. Before The Dawn by Nicholas Wade is a very well written and well researched book that brings together archeology and genetics in a very informative way. One of the main points he stresses is one that I had not totally comprehended. I write about the great leap forward that occurred about 50,000 years ago, and in fact I say that this leap was directly due to the presence of crones, post menopausal women, and that this leap is the historical evidence for when menopause appeared in human history. What I didn’t realize specifically is that the Hunter Gathering society of humans did not exist before this time.
                I remember reading in many places that archeological sites of mankind prior to the great leap were identical to archeological sites of Homo, erectus.   But I never considered that these modern anatomic  humans as they are called, could not be called Hunter Gatherers. They ate food but they didn’t grow food.   They collected or gathered what was edible in nature. They had tools, and weapons and they did hunt. They did have fire.  What they didn’t have was the Hunter Gatherer culture that started fifty thousand years ago. This is a subtle but important distinction that really clarified and refined my thinking. They were biologically human or homo, sapiens sapiens but without human culture they were human animals not human beings.  It is not enough to be genetically homo sapiens sapiens, to be a human being you must have  human culture too. My unique thought is that the necessary and sufficient requirement to create this human culture of Hunter Gathering and make us into human beings from human animals is the presence of post menopausal women.
                Human animals prior to becoming Hunter Gatherers, lived from roughly 190,000 years ago to 50,000 years ago and Hunter Gatherers lived from 50,000 years ago to 10,000 years ago when agriculture was created by women. Some isolated groups of Hunter Gatherers such as those living in the South American rain forest or in New Guinea lived untouched by modern civilization until the early Twentieth Century. The main characteristics of Hunter Gatherers that differ from modern civilization is that they were egalitarian, primarily because there was no wealth, and that the sexes were roughly equal. Hunter Gatherers lived in balance with Nature, and worshipped Nature and lived in accordance with the Divine Feminine.  Life and the source of life was more precious than material things and women were venerated as being closer to the source of life. Many modern individuals, especially those who are disgusted by the misogynous, violent, and materialistic culture of patriarchy, yearn for those characteristics of Hunter Gatherer life, without desiring to give up science and the modern world.
                One of Wade’s main themes that he carries throughout his text is that Hunter Gatherers lived in a state of perpetual warfare. If he is correct then I am proved wrong. If Hunter Gatherers lived in perpetual warfare and morphed seamlessly into the world of professional armies of modern civilization as science and technology advanced and society became capable of having enough excess wealth to afford to go to war, then indeed I am wrong and would have to concede that human beings are innately violent and perhaps not worth saving.
                Those who know me best know what a stubborn stiff necked Jew I am, and I do not concede. Hunter Gatherers were amazing physical specimens of strength, virility, flexibility, and courage. They were the essential male heroes that all men aspire to be. Their heroism is inside of every man but their heroism was different in nature than the violence of patriarchal culture. Their heroism was placed in the context of nature, and in service to women and the Divine Feminine. Hunter Gatherers did not rape nature and they did not rape women within their own societies.
                Hunter Gathering men were hunter killers, and prior to the great die off of most giant beasts 12,900 years ago, they hunted mastodons and mammoths, dire wolves, saber tooth cats, lions, giant sloths and cave bears all with sticks and stones. They hunted in a group of men from their tribe, they sacrificed their lives and their blood for their tribe and most essentially to get the red meat that the women of their tribe needed to make babies. Their bravery served the women of their tribe and the children they would produce.
                In the more recent past,  Hunter Gathering men hunted smaller game and spear throwers were replaced by arrows and especially as populations enlarged and resources became scarce,  they engaged in border skirmishes with other Hunter Gathering tribes. Wade makes a great deal of the life time mortality and morbidity from these skirmishes especially in New Zealand and states that Hunter Gatherers lived in a state of continuous warfare. It was not warfare. There is a difference between being a vigorous strong man who individually and tribally protects and provides for women and warfare. Warfare requires professional soldiers dedicated to killing other human beings. Warfare requires an ideology, a culture of death. Hunter Gatherers have a culture of life and dedication to life’s source, the Divine Feminine. That shift in culture is what patriarchy brought 7,000 years ago.
                Especially in the distant past when human populations were so small, a rare encounter with other Hunter Gatherers, especially in the vast areas of  North America so much larger than New Guinea, was an encounter that lead to trade and the sharing of human life affirming values. Most archeologists agree that warfare historically did not exist and cannot exist until human populations became fixed in location and lived in settled communities. 
                Therefore, war is a product of human culture and not human nature. What is human nature is to defend oneself and those you love. I like anecdotes. I remember when I was thirteen in ninth grade in 1969 and going with my friends on the bus and subway from Queens to Manhattan for an anti-war rally protesting against the Viet Nam War. I am generally speaking a pacifist, with the exceptions of the good war, World War II, fought against the Nazi’s and the wars that Israel is forced to fight against the political heirs of the Nazi’s who love to kill Jews and want to end the Jewish state. In other words I am against war and violence unless it is forced upon you in order to survive.
                I am a large man and a natural red head with a red headed personality so most people are surprised to find out that I have only been in one physical fight in my entire life, and that was indeed in ninth grade. Now in the sixties in New York City, there was a lot of tension between Jews and Blacks. It is actually quite sad that it existed because Jews and Blacks are natural allies. When the civil rights movement  began, 70% of all white freedom riders who risked their lives to end legal discrimination against Black people were Jews. Jews are a tiny minority of all Americans so to make up 70% of all White freedom riders is very impressive. Of the three men famously murdered in the South during  this time two were Jews and one was Black. If you look at many of the photos of Martin Luther King, marching alongside of him you will usually see Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of my heroes.
                Unfortunately the teacher’s strike in New York City in 1964 broke the political union of Blacks and Jews and Black anti-Semitism and Black radicalism was something I was afraid of in 1969. Here I was protesting the Vietnam War walking through Central Park when some Black teenagers tried to mug someone. My friends and I started to leave the area. One of the young toughs came up to me and punched me in the back of the head. It was a glancing blow, did not do anything other than to make me mad, and I yelled out very loudly and I guess instinctually "HEY!!". I turned around with a red angry face and perhaps smoke coming out of my ears and my would be mugger ran away. I did not run after him. My friends and I continued on our day and enjoyed being with the cool people who were war protesters.
                The point of the story is that human nature is to want to be safe and to understand that being strong  enough not to be a victim of violence is a very good thing. Being a pacifist and being against war does not make you a wimp. Sometimes you have to be even stronger to be against war. The important thing to know is that violence is not human nature. The need for safety is human nature and the ability to put yourself in someone else’s situation is human nature.
                I look at history and I see the natural progression from small tribal groups into nations and larger and larger groups of humanity seeing themselves as sharing more with one another rather than being different. When you see yourselves and your neighbors in this way there is no need for violence.
                The great thing about modern science, especially archeology and genetics is that it has essentially proved that all human beings, all of us homo, sapiens sapiens are the descendents of a small group of human beings that lived in Africa about 50,000 years ago and that the total number of human beings was about 160 individuals. We are all brothers and sisters. We are all the same family. Violence between humans is not only stupid, it is tragic. Imagine a family reunion with cousins, and uncles and aunts and grandparents and it is easy to have 160 people there. Now imagine into the far future that your descendents have been separated by geographic isolation and look different from   each other in relatively minor ways. How would you feel about your children’s children fighting each other?
                When we all realize that our human nature is to love one another because we are all family, and to make sure that all of our family is safe, then there will be no need for violence.
               
               
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