Why is the smartest, most adaptable creature on the planet hardwired to stop talking, lose its sense of self, and feel at one with the world — in a profound state of listening?
The answer — from the deep roots of Earth religions — could not only save your life but our species. It always has...
In 1987 the U.S. State Department received formal notification that the government of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, had finally given its permission for plant specimens to be collected from one of the last stands of virgin jungle, one that had grown undisturbed by humans for millions of years. A grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) had been provided for the purpose of coordinating “the collection of selected plant specimens from the forests of tropical Asia in order to screen for tumor-arresting properties.” John Burley, a botanist from Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum, teamed up with Bernard Lee, a Forest Service officer from Sarawak, and they headed together deep into the forests of Borneo. Four hundred seventy-six duplicate samples were collected, including 67 obtained from a swamp forest near Lundu. Among these Lundu samples was one taken from a Calophyllum tree, a member of the mangosteen family. It was labeled Burley-Lee 351.
Burley-Lee 351 was tested at the NCI to determine if it had any inhibitory effect on tumor cell cultures. It showed none. As a matter of standard protocol, it was then passed along for testing for activity against the HIV virus that causes AIDS. Sample 351 — and only 351 — proved 100 percent effective at stopping the HIV-I virus from replicating in host cells. The sample, identified as Calophyllum lanigerum austrocoriaceum, was found to produce a new compound called (+)-calanolide, which inhibited an enzyme known as reverse transcriptase — a molecule that is essential for HIV viruses to replicate. No other single species or sample they had collected had this unique property. A team of pharmacists was dispatched back to Lundu to collect more specimens. When they arrived at the spot where Burley-Lee 351 had been obtained, they found the tree had been cut down for firewood.
In this instance, more than 20 years ago, a high-tech race to find a cure for AIDS ran smack into the more fundamental race of a growing human population scrounging for fuel — and all of humanity lost. Yet only now are we awakening to the true scope of the race we are running. On an individual level, human consumption has reached a novel and ironic tipping point in which the children of the developed world may live shorter and less healthy lives than our own. “Food deserts,” the urban spaces with no source of natural food, are spreading as fast the Sahara. On a planetary level the problems are worse. Over two-thirds of the primary jungles and forests on the planet have already been lost or modified, and primary forests are being cleared for agriculture or harvested for lumber at the rate of 23,000 square miles per year. As a result of these and other human behaviors, the current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has not been seen on Earth in more than 650,000 years. Oceans are rising nearly 1.6 times faster and the temperature climbing 1.3 times more quickly than a United Nations consortium of scientists had predicted as recently as 2007! And at the current rate of loss, half of all bird and mammal species will have disappeared by 2100 — the kind of mass extinction not seen since an asteroid ended the reign of dinosaurs about 65 million years ago.
Much like the asteroid impact, the 21st century may well be recorded in fossil records as the instant — because in geological time, it hardly qualifies as more than that — in hominid evolution when we lost the footrace between our capacity to restore our planet’s biological equilibrium and our primordial urge to consume. Of course, countless species before us have sown the seeds of their own destruction, but no other species has taken so many others down with it. And we are the first with the ability to comprehend what is happening and to change course. We are also the first to be able to tease apart our own history, to understand what makes us so powerful, and to understand how that history continues to act inside us. Taking the very long view may provide some surprising clues to pull us back from the brink. I would argue that what may save us is not science but a very simple understanding that is much more profound — an understanding that may be the root of all spiritual experiences and religions.
300 Million Years of Brains
Our twenty-first century climax begins more than 300 million years ago when the synapsid (or mammalian line) separated from the sauropsid (reptilian) lineage. The most ancient part of our brains — the brain stem and hindbrain — are still shared with reptiles and thus, we call this primeval foundation of our central nervous system the “reptilian” brain. It is where our most primary, reflexive drives come from: such things as hunger, jumping when startled, struggling for air, or drinking when we are thirsty. It is where our respiration, heart rate, and body temperature are regulated.
About 65 million years ago, we inherited a second mammalian part of the brain that was essentially superimposed on the older reptilian underpinnings. This was the limbic lobe, or emotionally driven brain, that gives rise to mating rituals, to strong emotional ties, to parenting, and to social groups, wherein individuals developed a keen sense of identity and kinship.
Exactly when our modern neocortex was superimposed on the limbic brain is uncertain, but an important clue was discovered on November 24, 1974, when Donald Johanson, an American anthropologist, discovered the fossilized remains of a female hominid more than 3.2 million years old. Nicknamed Lucy, she began an unprecedented growth in intracranial capacity and represented a radical evolutionary strategy: rather than “fine-tuning” an organism to special niches in its environment, the new species was a generalist — not really physically outstanding in power, speed, claw, or tooth but able to adapt and improvise, to make tools, and, most dramatically, to alter its environment to meet its own needs. Approximately 400,000 years ago, the end result of that strategy emerged. Homo sapiens — our species — walked out of Africa and eventually inhabited every continent, except Antarctica, and everywhere adapting, altering — and now rapidly consuming — its environment.
Our History Inside Us
We must remind ourselves that, so far, our species is a brief evolutionary experiment. A series of mutations has allowed a highly intelligent, adaptive hominid to hold the fate of all other living creatures in its hands. Along the way, we came to believe that we are fundamentally different from any other creatures — the first to create gods in our own image. Yet after thousands of years of debate among philosophers and scientists, the inescapable conclusion is that we are not so different. Many other creatures share properties that were once considered uniquely human: they communicate using complex language, feel and express emotions, have mastered the use of tools, and are self-aware.
Two unique sets of abilities have put humanity in this singular position as a species: first, an enormously plastic, fluid brain. It is our best asset; our ability to adapt. The second is our species’ capacity to chronicle experience; namely, its gift to create culture and civilization. We are the only species that can encode, record, and transmit knowledge beyond our own generation or that of our offspring. For example, we have access to the knowledge from scores of earlier generations, be it through hieroglyphics, petroglyphs, manuscripts, or the Internet. The lessons, the technologies, and the experiences of earlier human beings are accessible to all of us in the present day.
We also now have a third unique human ability, which is a combination of the first two — and this ability may be critical to solving our current crisis. We are the only species with the ability to understand the ancestral layers of our own intelligence. We not only think complex thoughts, but we also can see the roots of love in our limbic brain, and we can understand why we so often behave like reptiles.
Three Layers of Thinking
To see how this layering of superimposed, evolution-related neural structures functions inside us, let’s imagine a young gambler watching a horse race. On the track he sees his horse moving into the lead, and his neocortex does its job of calculating how much profit he stands to make. Recognizing the profit sends signals to activate positive emotional output from the limbic lobe. The latter’s intimate connection to the nucleus accumbens produces a sense of pleasure and satisfaction. This is followed by a deep sigh of relief as the young man realizes that his credit card debt will be resolved.
Here we see how the neocortex activates the limbic lobe, and this activity gets relayed to the reptilian brain to yield the resultant sigh.
Critical to this triune concept is recognizing that these three systems function independently of each other. While they may furiously exchange messages back and forth, one system, however, can overrule the others. In his book The Cultural Code, French psychiatrist and marketing guru Clotaire Rapaille writes:
Because survival is more fundamental to our existence than “feeling good” [limbic lobe] or “making sense” [neocortex], the reptilian brain always rules the day. In a battle between logic, emotion, and instinct, the reptilian brain always wins.
Dr. Rapaille is telling us that fundamental instincts govern not only our bodily rhythms, like our heart rate, but our cognitive functions, like our taste in houses and cars. When we picture a mansion or a powerful sports car that grabs everyone’s attention, that’s the reptilian part of our brain pulling our strings. We don’t think of how extravagant the purchase is, let alone its environmental cost, but rather how much we need and want it — because it appeals to urges and appetites that have been hardwired in us since the beginning of time. To put this another way, in the competition between a possible cure for AIDS and firewood to cook dinner, dinner usually wins.
What Do We Do Now?
Evolution has endowed us with a fierce devotion to secure resources from the environment to give our offspring the greatest advantage — a reptilian instinct. Arguably, that fundamental instinct has driven everything we have today. But now we are being called upon to reverse our train of thought — to use insights from climatic and biological data to make real sacrifices in our daily lives for the children of children we will never know. We are asked to defend other life-forms for their own sake, to make their survival our own imperative. Given the design of our thought processes, this seems impossible.
But is it?
Consider this fact: not a single anthropological discovery of earlier human settlements and civilizations has unearthed any ancestors of our species who did not have spiritual or religious beliefs. None. In other words, no ancestors of our species seem to have survived into the archeological record unless they demonstrated religious urges.
Clearly, our predecessors who possessed religious instincts were better at getting their offspring to survive and pass on those spiritual inclinations to the next generation than those who did not. There is also increasing evidence that our brains may have developed so that specific cortical regions may be activated, while others shut down during prayerful meditation and religious ecstasy. In other words, we are hardwired for religion. A recent study in Minnesota of identical twins separated at birth demonstrated that religious activity as an adult appeared to be genetically rather than culturally determined. This means that how religiously active we are in our adulthood seems based more on our genetic endowment than how our parents brought us up.
But why should the smartest creature on the planet be hardwired to look to a higher power? Why might our survival depend on it? One hypothesis is that the possession of strong religious beliefs allowed individuals to better cope with their environment. So, instead of reacting to natural or environmental calamities as simply occurring at random, a religious individual and members of his tribe might interpret them as reflections of divine will or intervention. It might have therefore made life easier to understand and less stressful than for those who could only see it as happening without rhyme or reason. Our religious beliefs might also have permitted those forefathers with the trait to better protect their offspring, enhancing the ability of those genetic characteristics to be transmitted into the next generations. But there is another and much simpler explanation that once again is rooted in the structure of the brain.
The Real Secret of Our Survival
As well as the ancient layers of our intelligence system, we must also contend with a brain whose structure, design, and programming leads it to simultaneously synthesize two alternative, even contradictory, worldviews. The left hemisphere, one-half of our brain, is precise and calculating — literally, the center for our mathematical abilities. In 99 percent of us, our left hemisphere houses our speech center. It is the talker and the doer. Meanwhile, our right hemisphere is an ephemeral creature, armed with powerful and compelling gifts, both intuitive and artistic. For all of its holistic strength and passionate appeal, the right is silent, speaking in symbolic, non-verbal modalities. It remains mute or must appeal to its left-sided, loquacious counterpart to lend it a voice.
Our sense of the religious experience, of being transported beyond the boundaries of the physical world, of relishing our bond with nature, or of feeling at peace with our surroundings — all these spiritually-oriented emotions emanate from our right hemisphere. Meditation emphasizes focused breathing and mantra-like repetition of prayers. Both of these activities may be aimed at effectively silencing the verbal left hemisphere, freeing the right side from its sibling’s linguistic stranglehold. Prayer also seems to shut down the right hemisphere’s usually high level of activation in regions that are associated with spatial vigilance and awareness. This may explain the sense of bodily detachment that often accompanies heightened spiritual states of consciousness.
Here we look again at why the smartest, most adaptable creature on the planet would be hardwired to stop talking, lose one’s sense of self, and feel at one with the world in a profound state of listening. Would a faraway God design such a system for us to keep in touch? Perhaps. But evolution provides a much simpler answer. Our survival has always been linked to listening to a higher power, because at the very core of our being is the acknowledgement of a fundamental truth: Mother Nature is smarter than we are.
And she still is. We don’t need to pray for the earth. As the late comedian George Carlin pointed out, “The planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas.” Now, as always, we need to pray to the earth and ask her what to do.