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14 Sept 2007

Too often key events that affect the future of humankind go unnoticed or even forgotten. The works of Mendel, who discovered the genetic code is one example coming to mind. Charles Darwin himself was not fully appreciated in his own time in spite of a high and controversial profile. Some of his deepest insights are just now coming into general acceptance. Giants who followed him would include not only Gregor Mendel, but James Watson and Francis Crick with vital help from Rosalind Franklin. Because of them, humanity now has a much better view of itself. They enabled a new beginning on the question of nature/nurture. Neither was very clear before Darwin. Darwin, Mendel, Watson, Crick, and Franklin comprise humanity's heroes in biology, the nature side of the coin.

On the nurture side, the soft side as some would have it, Freud had a great insight that, like those just mentioned, founded a new branch of scientific inquiry. Freud's discovery and description of the human psyche still stands and it bears directly on the question of peace. Basically Freud discovered that the human psyche consists of three parts:

The Ego constitutes our deliberate, conscious, and rational selves. Our thinking processes all lie in this sphere.

The Id collects our emotions, love, hate, anger, avarice, lust, ambition and so on. Id basically reflects our animal instincts.

The Superego, on the other hand, is our mediator, or conscience. Without the intervention of the Superego, humanity might never rise above savagery. This is what is missing in the sociopath.

One could argue that this construction is incomplete, or that another might well be better. But Fred's basic insight has stood the test of time. A better basic description has yet to appear.

Nevertheless, psychologists have augmented Freud's model. They have identified a number of distinct traits, more than a dozen, that define who we are. These traits such as activity, sociability, aggression, ascendance, and masculinity, tempered by the introvert and extrovert dimensions of personality, are fine adjunct descriptors to the psyche as Freud defined it,

Anna Freud added significantly to what her father did. She showed clearly that nurturing can dramatically alter a person's personality, for better or worse, almost always worse. She defined a number of defense mechanisms that people, mostly children, employ to protect their psyches, their very identity. For more on defensiveness, see Little Boy Saved. Many of them augment and help explain Milgram's finding that most of us are fully capable of blind obedience. In other words, on command of an authority figure, most of us will set aside our superegos and inflict astonishingly severe pain on a third party.

Those who came after Freud improved upon his insights. And thanks to an astute psychoanalyst by the name of Theodor Adorno, the connection between individual behavior and that of the society became less foggy. Adorno's cohort was the German population after WWII. These people, whether Nazis or not, had supported Hitler for more than a year after it became apparent that his quest to rule Europe had failed. Adorno studied hundreds of people and was able to identify a personality type in Hitler's supporters he called authoritarian. He described six traits as comprising authoritarian personalities.

After Adorno's ground breaking work, a brilliant psychologist, Stanley Milgram picked up the reins and showed that authoritarianism is not just limited to the Germans, but is equally prevalent in all cultures. In his studies of obedience to authority, Milgram controlled his scientific variables to prove his basic theses beyond any reasonable doubt. Others confirmed his findings. Milgram ascribed no less than eight characteristics to the Authoritarian personality. His other vital contribution was that some 65-85% of all of us are authoritarians.

It is the relatively extreme degree to which we will set aside our consciences in order to satisfy a mere figure of authority that is so distressing. We behave too much like a nation of sheep. In that particular aspect, Milgram's Americans behaved very much as did Hitler's Germans.

Phillip Zimbardo, a close friend of Milgram, provided the next step in the ladder of scientific information. He too used a tightly-controlled experiment and produced results of unquestioned validity. Zimbardo found that most typical college males in North America can have their basic morality corrupted in a matter of hours or days in a simulated-prison environment. Like Adorno and Milgram, Zimbardo connected the psychology of the individual with that of society. His most important finding was not realized until years later. That feature had to do with the system he himself had imposed on his experiment. In effect, Zimbardo's system took off with a mind of its own, carrying everyone along with it, himself included. He is that rare scientist who has the ability to analyze and report his own true role in shaping events, and becoming part of them.

Zimbardo's experiment was such an accurate descriptor that it predicted almost exactly what went wrong at Abu Ghraib and other military prisons. It was is if Abu Ghraib was a template.

There is more to the system story. Bob Altemeyer at the University of Manitoba studied the Authoritarian personality in North American colleges and in national politics. The first question we generally hear about Altemeyer's work is: "Which political party is most authoritarian? His answer is that while all parties have their authoritarians, the conservative parties usually have a marked preponderance. This is true in the U.S., Canada, and Russia. He too, connected individual psychology to national events. In fact, his work essentially predicted the Neocon movement--or perhaps they studied it in order to manipulate the rest of us.

In scientific terms he did something else of vital importance in our quest for a roadmap to peace. Instead of the 6 or 8 traits inherent in the Adorno and Milgram studies, Altemeyer was able to combine them all into three: Aggression, submissiveness, and conventionalism. That feat gives us a chance to relate the authoritarian personality to our genetic make-up. In animal behavior, animals vary widely in:
  • ferocity and dominance (aggression)
  • herding (conventionalism)
  • submissiveness (hierarchical submissiveness)

John Dean took yet another step. He clarified the connection between the authoritarian personality and the politics of our times. He describes how the authoritarian Neocons began infiltrating the US government in Nixon's time. That infiltration grew during the Reagan and Bush I years, culminating in the Bush II administration. The Neocon goal is no less than US supremacy over all other nations, and over any international organization such as the UN. The value of Dean's work is enhanced for he saw it from the inside. Dean was puzzled by the hard Republican lurch to the far right until he read Altemeyer's work. Then it all fell into place. And so it does with us. He rightly fears where authoritarianism ("neoconism") could ultimately lead.

There is one other aspect of of the terror story, the sociopathic personality. Martha Stout is the hero here. Undoubtedly there are others deserving recognition, but her work is timely and known to us. What Stout observed is that about 4% of all of us are sociopaths. That is, sociopaths have NO CONSCIENCE. Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Amin were all sociopathic in behavior. Bagasora of Rwandan genocide infamy also acted like a sociopath. It is the charismatic sociopaths that co-opt corporations, social movements, religions, and political parties, not to mention families, only to leave wreckage in their wakes.

Anthropologists, such as Richard Leakey, Margaret Mead and Jane Goodall have important things to say here. They left their marks by showing our behavioral commonalities with our Hominid brethren, the Gorillas, Chimpanzees and Bonobos. Not only do these animals form local societies and fight over turf just as humans do, they exhibit many other human-like behaviors reflecting wide ranges of emotion. The Bonobos in particular are markedly more peaceful than are Chimpanzees and humans. From this fact, the deduction follows that there must be genes for violence comprised perhaps of more fundamental genes for fierceness and aggression. That search has only begun. [There is a hero-in-waiting out there. Whomever identifies the gene or genes giving rise to violence deserves Nobel Prizes in both peace and medicine. We could say that person would be a potential "Peace Savior." The analytical, computer, and economic power are now sufficient to begin that quest. This issue should be one of America's national objectives.

That violence has a genetic basis should be no surprise, for our genome differs from those of our Hominid cousins by only about one part in 50 or so. We are mostly animal in basic nature. With the gift of intelligence, we have arrived as the ascendant animal of animals.

There is just one problem: In our brilliance, we have not learned to deal with and control our emotions and the governance systems we must have to survive. But that is not for lack of trying.

Where do we go from here? That question, too, has some answers: Jessica Stern in her revealing study of terrorists and Ashutosh Varshney in his controlled evaluation of ethnic conflicts in India.

Stern counsels us to understand the religious aspect of terrorism and strongly recommends that we cease humiliating and alienating others, peoples, or nations for these were a common thread in all terrorists interviewed whether foreign or domestic. Of course, the economic empire the US is imposing on the third world humiliates and alienates, our propaganda to the contrary.

Varshney, on the other hand, cites some success stories. Cities in India are relatively peaceful if they have achieved full integration in all sectors of society. To be effective, integration must be formal from top to bottom of the social, political and economic ladders. His result dovetails nicely with Stern's findings. Integration leads naturally to equality and the vast reduction of humiliation and alienation. This same formula appears to fit when we compare the violences levels in Washington DC, Baltimore, and Detroit with those of Honolulu or El Paso; all are similar in size, but not in level of integration.

Modern activists include Nelson Mandela and Jimmy Carter. Mandela refrained from vengeance when he finally toppled Apartheid. For that feat alone he may be unique in history. He broke the endless cycles of getting even. Carter is indefatigable in his efforts to secure fair elections. Each won a well-deserved Nobel Prize for their activism in politics.

The above is a groundwork, a basis, for starters. Without these giants of the present and earlier times, we would be at a loss where to start in assuring peaceful lives for all human beings.

Thoughts and procedures about how to do that appear elsewhere on this site. Our work is not finished; further scientific-caliber breakthroughs are needed. Meanwhile, we nominate the following individuals as heroes of humanity.

Biology Anthropology Socio-psychology Politics Action
Sigmund Freud
Anna Freud


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