Printer Friendly

Hope for humankind.

In response to the honor accorded Ashley Montagu as the 1995 Humanist of the Year, I bring on his behalf a message of hope. It is based not on wishes, magic, or the supernatural but primarily on his 90 years of sifting and interpreting the evidence. Many of the ideas and much of the language are his.

People everywhere recognize that our species is in danger. Since most threats to our survival are of human origin, they can be understood by human minds and overcome by human effort. By far the most ominous threat of all is not nuclear weapons, over population, or even poverty. At the risk of seeming romantic, I must tell you at the outset that the critical menace is deficient love.

What is love? Not the usual one lette of sentimentality, sensuality, and sexuality. Love is not a feeling but a deed. Love is the conferring, through demonstrative acts, of survival benefits upon another in a creatively enlarging manner. Survival benefits consist of all those encouragements, supports, and stimulations needed by the loved person to reach fulfillment.

Given what we now know of the psycho neurobiology of health, if we could, by some miracle, suddenly assure to every baby and child sufficient love, we could within one generation substantially turn present peril into potential paradise. But what determines whether or not we will understand the need and make the essential effort?

Character. Character is the pervasive set of reactions and responses to challenges and opportunities that is the most crucial distinction between people. Though biology also influences character, the major influence upon it is the outside world as mediated through parenting. Once formed, character is relatively stable and sometimes resistant, but it can be reshaped gradually to become more loving, even into advanced age.

What people do to surmount dangers (presuming equal resources) depends on the character their widely varying parents, cultures, and societies have inculcated in them. Predominant cultures and societies today shape character toward painful frustration by fostering inner and outer conflict. Predominant cultures and societies tomorrow--if any--will be those that instead shape character toward loving fulfillment by fostering inner and outer harmony.

Does a culture or a society's level of harmony depend mainly on its material wealth? No. Although extreme poverty is a major hazard to well being of any kind, the harmony of a culture or a society--and therefore its ability to foster love--is determined within a wide range of material sufficiencies by the degree to which it accords with or violates the structure of the innate values with which we are born. These values impel the new person to become loved and loving.

"Innate values" are neither airy abstractions nor rigid instincts but the fundamental behavioral propensities which evolution has refined in us for three million years. Since they are only capacities, however, they must be bans formed into actual abilities by the pedagogy of experience or learning.

A baby's first cry, after the painful journey of birth, is not, as often alleged, a scream of innate aggression; it is the ultimate plea for the succor of love. But because we humans have no rigid biological instincts directing a mother's response to the baby's rudimentary signal, she must learn how to under stand and respond lovingly. If her character is generally nurturant, and not too blinded by inhibiting learned conflicts, the baby will quickly teach her how to fulfill his or her needs. And at the same time, simultaneously and by the same act, the baby will fulfill hers.

From the moment of birth, love is thus a two way street. The baby is equipped not only to receive survival benefits but to confer them upon the mother. If put to the breast right after birth, the baby will receive the survival benefits of vital nourishment and, by its suckling, stimulate reflexes in the mother that confer upon her the survival benefits of helping to eject the placenta and constrict her uterus to stop bleeding. In this beautiful beginning is to be found a model of all later ex changes of survival benefits between lover and loved.

The new baby's built in potential in eludes capacities for many other sociable behaviors which will be expressed if learned. For example, all normal human babies have the capacity for speech but will never speak unless spoken to. The new baby also has innate potential to become both lover and killer; whether either of these is realized will depend upon the learning experiences that form his or her character--mainly the pervasive fulfillments or frustrations of daily life.

So if we, in turn, teach the new per son to expect love through the consistent, tender satisfaction of needs, he or she reciprocates with love. If we teach the new person to expect hate through consistent, hostile rejection of needs, he or she reciprocates with hate. Our mental hospitals and-prisons--and our world at large--are filled with tragic examples of inner and outer directed hate.

Culture and societies--like parent--are not all equal in their ability to provide and receive love. Those that are the most and least favorable for healthy, loving character development show several identifiable trends. One is the prevalence or absence of imposed inequalities, such as those which discriminate for the purpose of exploitation, those that maim children to make them beggars, those that mutilate girls' genitals to promote chastity.

Another is the degree to which, paralleling the mutuality of baby mother interaction, the individual can serve both his or her own needs and those of the group simultaneously and by the same act. As described by anthropologist Ruth Benedict, this factor differentiates cultures or societies which are "secure," nonaggressive, and friendly from others which are "insecure," aggressive, and hostile.

As illustration, Benedict cites two yam-growing societies. In the first, a "secure" society, yams are used only for food, so both the person who grows many yams and the community are benefited simultaneously by the same act. In the second, an "insecure" society, the yams are used not only for food but also by the community as currency to exchange with a neighboring tribe for axe-heads. In this society, the person who raises many yams is thrown into conflict because the acts that raise many yams for food also inflate the currency, raising the price of axe heads.

Benedict no doubt would have agreed--and modern clinical data substantiates--that the former kind of society is more likely than the latter to inculcate loving characters. Though she made these observations only on the small nonliterate groups she studied, more recent data show that Benedict's conclusion applies as strongly to the full range of cultures and societies over the last 3,000 years--from ancient Egypt to modern Italy.

For most of human evolution, communities consisted of small nomadic bands of 40 to 50 hunter gatherers who lived in relative material scarcity be cause they could not generate, preserve, or even carry extensive surpluses. So, in such a tribe, you shared meager re sources with neighbors who were your only social security. No more ethical than we, such people were just being practical. After all, a well-fed hyena was no asset, but a well fed friend might be in condition to return your favor another day. Such sharing satisfied both individual needs and those of the group simultaneously and, by the same act, built on the harmony generating situation of a baby suckling at the mother's breast.

Twelve thousand years ago, probably in the Middle East, clever people invented agriculture husbandry--the technologies that have most portentously changed human life. Suddenly it became possible for the first time for a nomadic band to settle in a fixed village of maybe 600 or more people by generating, preserving, and storing surpluses. These accumulations of property could help you survive the inevitable catastrophes, such as fire, flood, and earthquake.

The crucial point is that now the hunger of a neighbor--or maybe a stranger from the other side of town--was no longer a liability but a valuable resource that could transform that per son into a commodity you very much needed: cheap labor. By not sharing, by letting that person go hungry, you could not only smoke, freeze, or dry and store the leftovers for your own later use but you could increase that person's willingness to work for you for low wages. You could thereby further enrich yourself and impoverish him or her. Moreover, very soon, you could also use that per son as a soldier to protect your surpluses from outside marauders. Here was the beginning of organized warfare.

In 12 millennia, such unloving circumstances have brought us to the present decline in human relationships in which it is less and less likely for the needs of the individual and the group to be satisfied simultaneously by the same act. Instead, we have come to accept as "normal" that we increasingly must take advantage of, rather than take care of, each other. It is these unloving--and decidedly abnormal--deeds which have brought about the poverty, pollution, and violence of our current world reality. And because 12,000 years seems to us like forever, most of us have no awareness that only 500 generations ago our human relationships were so much more loving.

Based on all this, if we are deter mined to cure our troubles, what must we do? First, we must relinquish our much,prized despair--the excuse for not risking the possible disappointment of trying and failing.

Second, we must give up the wholly erroneous (though comforting) rationalization for our brutality: that it is the legacy of our primate forebears. They were no doubt generally as egalitarian, peaceable, and loving toward one another as are present day apes--as was our own species until 12 millennia ago, when our mismanagement of agrarian surpluses set us on our present destructive course.

Third, if we want to know what we are born for, we must know what we are born as: the virtuoso nurturers of the planet who are fundamentally designed to live as though to live and love were one.

And finally, we must make the suitable adjustments in our society to satisfy for us all not only our basic biological needs but our underlying behavioral needs as well--our need for curiosity, experimentation, sound thought; for speech, song, dance; for the encouragements, stimulations, and sup ports of being, socially as well as individually, both loved one and lover.

What would that mean specifically?

It would mean putting each baby to the breast of his or her mother the moment of birth and doing everything else possible to strengthen the mother's and baby's joy in each other and, in that way, launching healthy character development that will continue throughout life.

It would mean teaching children around the world how to think soundly rather than what to think mechanically. It would mean teaching them to test for themselves the proposition that evolution has prepared us not for acquisitive violence but with the innate value to become warm, loving persons, and that, if we don't do that, nothing else matters.

It would mean putting into practice the wisdom that human survival re quires access by all people to such full and free realization of their wholesome potentialities. It would mean forthrightly facing the quandary of what to do with human life other than "make a livin". It would mean resolutely eliminating damaging commerce, such as the arms trade. It would mean a global pro gram to reduce population and shift our dependencies on nuclear and fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. It would mean instituting a continuous planetary audit, with appropriate protection of endangered species, elimination of pollution, and remedying toxic social conflicts.

It would mean applying the insight that most of the people in prisons--and many of those in mental hospitals--are there because of the unspeakable, unloving conditions of their early lives. It would mean putting to use the extensively documented evidence that punishment is the least effective way to change behavior and that soothing touch is one of the most effective.

It would mean acknowledging the proof that people can change profoundly all their lives and then doing all we know how to do to help them change healthfully. It would mean working consistently toward caring for other peoples and other species--as well as the in animate world--as family, recognizing the validity of the biblical injuction that we are all indeed each other's "keepers" It would mean dealing with everything on earth in cognizance that, as Lewis Thomas says, it is part of the life of a single cell. And it would mean living with delight and dedication to be contributing to the fulfillment of all.

But as we all know, nearly every where there is crushing poverty, religious and ethnic enmity, and exploitation of people, other species, and the earth. Sometimes it may even seem that we have passed the point of no return--that we cannot limit population, her monize differences, and decontaminate the planet in time.

But in a time of crisis, the only philosophically tenable position for a pessimist is optimism. So, all we need to do now is to learn to live again with the loving values of our prehistoric fore bears--but amidst the material sufficiency possible today.

Now, is that a problem?

Roderic Gorney, M.D., Ph.D., is a professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles and the director of its Program on Psychosocial Adaptation and the Future, as well as an instructor at the Southern California Psycho analytic Institute. His best-known work is The Human Agenda. This article is adapted from a speech, prepared with the help of Ashley Montagu, accepting in absentia Montagu's 1995 Humanist of the Year Award, presented by the American Humanist Association.
COPYRIGHT 1996 American Humanist Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:1995 Humanist of the Year Ashley Montagu and Roderic Gorney
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Transcript
Date:Jan 1, 1996
Words:2294
Previous Article:Love and the relatedness of things.
Next Article:Rediscovering "darkest" Africa.
Topics:


Related Articles
Humanism and the paradox of politics.
The Truth About Your Height: Exploring the Myths and Realities of Human Size and Its Effects on Performance, Health, Pollution, and Survival.
WORTH NOTING.
QUEEN OF THE MALL WALKER, 93, HONORED AT SENIOR DAY.
CARRYING ON THE TRADITION : MEMORY OF BROTHER IS INSPIRATION.
Essay Contest for Young Women and Men of North America.
Can a Humanist be a political conservative?

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters